Harsh Waters, Hard Sailors: The Story of the Shetland Bus

The North Sea is a tumultuous landscape. Filled with rolling waves, violent storms, and high winds that only the most experienced seamen can withstand. Those who work on the sea can recount the harsh conditions. Life in the North Sea was immeasurably worse during World War II as it became a no-man’s land of German U-boats and patrol planes. They waited patiently for enemy ships to enter their vector and launch their attack. For the duration of the war, the North Sea became a precious corridor, a lifeline to the people of Norway and Great Britain. A small cadre of Norwegians and British sailors ran a covert shipping operation delivering weapons, supplies, and saboteurs to aid the beleaguered Norwegians as they resisted German occupation. Refugees were spirited across the sea as well to protect them from Nazi atrocities. Throughout the operation, ships had to travel at night to avoid detection from spotter planes and U-boats, but the sea is harshest at night and some never made it to their destination. This is the story of the ‘Shetland Bus’.

Shetland bus sailors endured harsh conditions and risked their lives ferrying agents and materials to Norway and returning with high risk refugees (Image courtesy of Scalloway Museum)

Fans of the BBC crime drama Shetland would know a trivia night amount of the Shetland Bus. Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez researches its operational history searching for a link between a murder victim and a Norwegian sailor. He hears of the dangers they endured; fierce storms, aerial attacks, torpedoed by U-boats, and if discovered in Norway by the Germans, arrested and executed. This isn’t artistic license. The operators lived like this for over four years. To fully understand the bus’s criticality, we look back to Europe in 1941.

Heinrich Himmler visiting Norway in 1941. Seated (from left to right) are Vidkun Quisling, Himmler, Josef Terboven (Reichskommisar of occupied Norway) and General Nikolaus von Falkenhorst, the commander of the German forces in Norway (Image courtesy of the German Federal Archives)

Norway capitulated to Nazi Germany in June 1940 and a pro-German puppet government under Vidkun Quisling was established with the Reich Commissariat of Norway. The country remained under German control until the end of war. This presented a precarious, but unique situation to the British Navy. The North Sea would be an intense battle ground for supplying Allied forces and blockading Axis ports. Additionally, British and Norwegian agents could be ferried and supplied across the sea and help subvert the Nazis in Norway. In early 1940, the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6; yes, the James Bond MI6) and the Special Operations Executive (SOE) met with Norwegian special agents to formulate an espionage and supply operations between the two nations. A brief series of runs demonstrated the effectiveness and necessities of supplying agents in Norway and rescuing at-risk civilians. In late 1941, the SOE created the Norwegian Naval Independent Unit becoming informally known as the ‘Shetland Bus’ by its officers and sailors.

Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve Lieutenant David Howarth spotted a perfect location in Shetland at Lunna Ness. The small harbor and nearby houses would provide a fitting cover for clandestine operations. Many would not look twice at some fishing boats, thinking that they were ferrying saboteurs between nations. While central command was located at the Lunna House in 1941, boats would be brought in at any available harbor that had proper facilities for upkeep. Scalloway was used as the main port with its engineering capabilities and additional space for boats. The Shetland Bus operated from Lunna and Scalloway for the next four years. During its first winter, six boats and thirty sailors were lost at sea, either from harsh storms or enemy fire. In 1943, three sub-chasers from the U.S. Navy were transferred to the Norwegian navy who used it for the Shetland Bus. These were a godsend for the sailors and officers as it afforded them increased protection and faster speeds to outrun U-boats.

Sub-chaser VIGRA patrolling the North Sea corridor just outside of Scalloway. This ship, plus the HITRA and HESSA, were gifted from the U.S. Navy to help augment the Shetland Bus (Image courtesy of the Scalloway Museum)

Two critical exchanges on the Shetland bus were vital to Norway’s survival. The country had several resistance groups, but were disorganized and scattered throughout. Specially trained SOE agents were ordered to slip into Norway and lead sabotage operations to undermine the German war effort and the Quisling puppet government. They took radios, explosives, and other needed supplies with them to contact British handlers and Norse resistors. SOE operatives also required a reliable transport network to ferry them back to Shetland at any point. The SOe proved incredibly effective in helping the Norse resistance. One famous act of SOE clandestine work during WWII were the raids on heavy water production facilities supporting the German nuclear weapons program.

A SOE radio used by the Norwegian resistance. These were designed to be so compact and rudimentary that they could be disassembled and shipped without being intercepted by the enemy

The second exchange were spiriting away high risk Norse citizens considered enemies of the state. Nearly three thousands Jews lived in Norway in 1940 and approximately two-thirds escaped by fleeing to Sweden or taking passage on the Shetland Bus. Sailors routinely arranged with local Jewish and SOE leaders to make exchanges when making deliveries to transport Jewish families to Shetland. A handful of such exchanges were sometimes discovered by the local Gestapo, but they were never fully able to halt the Shetland Bus. The sheer length of the Norwegian coastline and number of fjords and harbors made it impossible for the Germans to police every incoming ship.

By late 1944 as the war turned against Germany and U-boat patrols in the North Sea diminished, the Shetland Bus lost less men, materials, and ships to the enemy. The addition of the three sub-chasers cut down on the loss of life and afforded them the ability to run shipments during the day rather than only at night. By the war’s end, the Bus completed 210 missions, carried over 400 tonnes of equipment, rescued over 300 refugees, and assisted with some clandestine operations that arguably held down thousands of German troops stationed in Norway that might otherwise have been deployed elsewhere. The last mission was completed on May 9, 1945, the day after V-E Day when the VIGRA entered free Norse waters.

Today a memorial cairn honors the memory and sacrifice of Norse and British sailors who worked tirelessly, risking their lives to keep hope alive during WWII. What many thought was a motley crew of hard scrabble seamen in fishing boats was in reality a life-line to the oppressed Norwegians resisting the German occupation. Had it not been for the brave men running the Shetland Bus, who knows what might have happened to Norway and possibly Western Europe during the early dark days of the Second World War.

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