I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
In April 1940, German forces invaded Norway and completely overwhelmed the country’s defences. However, resistance fighters harassed the occupiers and a vital link was set up to supply them with arms and other equipment, and to evacuate refugees. Fishing boats and their captains based on the far northern Shetland Islands were enlisted. They operated what became known as the Shetland Bus.
Nazi Occupation of Norway
The Norwegian royal family was evacuated to London, and Vidkun Quisling was happy to run the country under Hitler’s guidance. Quisling had been a minister in Norway’s government but broke away from the ideals of democracy to form his own fascist party.
Norwegians were unimpressed with Quisling's philosophy and platform and only two percent of them voted for his National Unity Party in the 1933 election. He looked destined to become a footnote, and a very minor one, in history. Hitler’s invasion elevated him to a position beyond his wildest dream.
However, many Norwegians rejected Quisling as they had done in 1933 and joined a resistance against him and his German puppet masters. Thousands of Norwegians escaped, mostly in fishing boats, and their landfall was the Shetland Islands.
Norwegians Fight Back
There were plenty of people who wanted to fight back through underground operations but they lacked weapons, ammunition, and radios. Norwegian exiles and British secret service people devised a plan to get supplies to the resistance. Also, Special Operations Executive personnel were infiltrated to train partisans and provide liaison.
The Shetland Islands off the northern coast of Scotland form the nearest unoccupied land to Norway; the distance between them is 367 kilometres (228 miles). So, the Shetlands were the obvious place to set up operations. A secret base was established and, during the winter of 1941/42, the first supplies were ferried across to Norway. Agents and resistance fighters also went in and refugees were brought out.
A slipway was built at Scalloway so the fishing boats could be serviced and repaired in Scottish boat yards.
A Perilous Voyage
The boats employed were mostly the small fishing vessels that had been used to flee the invading Germans. They were crewed by Norwegian volunteers who had been fishermen or other seafarers before the war.
To avoid detection, they sailed at night without running lights. There was the danger of hitting German mines or being spotted by submarine or surface patrols.
They generally picked nights with rough seas because that gave them a better chance of slipping past defences. However, this would make life utterly miserable for the landlubbers who suffered from sea sickness.
Despite the stealth, several boats were sunk or captured and some lost in foul weather.
In November 1941, the fishing boat Bliawas on her way back to the Shetlands with 36 passengers on board, all of whom were wanted by the Nazis. They ran into a massive storm and sank. Some years later a bottle was found on the shore of Hafrsfjord, near Stavanger. Inside was a message “We are sinking. Tell my wife and child farewell―help them.”
The idea behind using fishing boats was that they looked innocent. However, fuel became so scarce in Norway that almost no local vessels were out fishing; this made the Shetland Bus ships more conspicuous.
Forty-four members of Shetlandsgjengen―the Shetland Gang―lost their lives during the crossings. The loss of life was so high that suggestions were made to end the Shetland Bus operation.
The Norwegians refused to give up and asked for better boats with which to carry on.
Sub-Chasers to the Rescue
In the fall of 1943, three American submarine chasers were brought into service. These were fast and heavily armed ships and were handed over to the Royal Norwegian Navy.
The Hitra, Hessa, and Mitra were capable of a top speed of 22 knots that was sufficient to get them out of trouble if it came their way. One of the ships, the Hitra, held the record of 25 hours for the round trip from the Shetlands to Norway and back.
The sub-chasers made 116 clandestine deliveries and pick-ups without further loss of life.
The Shetland Bus operated until the end of the war, making more than 200 crossings. The ships delivered almost 400 tonnes of arms and rescued 350 refugees.
According to the Scalloway Museum, the operation “played a vital part in tying down almost 300,000 German troops in Norway.”
- Norway was liberated in May 1945 and Vidkun Quisling, the Norwegian puppet leader was arrested. He was put on trial for treason, embezzlement, and murder, was convicted, and sentenced to death. On October 24, 1945 Quisling was executed by firing squad. His name has passed into the language to describe “a traitor who collaborates with an enemy force occupying their country” (Dictionary.com).
- In October 1941, the Shetland Bus boat the Nordsjoen ran into terrible weather and sank off the coast of Norway. The crew managed to get ashore and avoid capture by the Germans. They stole another fishing boat and made their way back to the Shetlands to a rapturous welcome because everybody thought they had been lost at sea.
- Leif Andreas Larsen, known as “Shetland Larsen,” was the most highly decorated naval officer of the Second World War. As a captain, he carried out 52 Shetland Bus missions. He died in 1990 at the age of 84.
- “Vidkun Quisling, the Norwegian Nazi.” History in an Hour, October 24, 2010.
- “Fact of the Week: The Shetland Bus.” The Scotsman, February 19, 2014.
- “An Introduction to the Shetland Bus Story.” Scalloway Museum, undated.
- The Shetland Bus. com
© 2018 Rupert Taylor
Mike Hardy from Caseville, Michigan on March 20, 2018:
I never knew. Great story. I wonder what loot and resources were plundered by the Nazi's in Norway.
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on March 16, 2018:
Thanks Glenis. These people were incredibly heroic. I recall reading about it many years ago in David Howarth's book The Shetland Bus. It's a good read.
Glen Rix from UK on March 16, 2018:
Fascinating article. Copying the link to my family in Scotland.