The Shetland Bus
ABOVE: The Shetland Islands are located north of mainland Scotland, as shown by the small red patch on the lower map inset.
Famous for the Shetland Pony, men from these islands played an important role in World War II.
by Alison MacRae
Celtic Guide Magazine
War can sometimes make strange bedfellows. In this instance, this actually was not the case.
The close relationship that Norway has with Scotland goes a long way back. Vikings had a big impact on the Scandinavian influences to be found in the "Celtic" nations of the world.
The Viking influence was mainly Norwegian.
King Haakon VII was born Christian Frederick Carl Georg Valdemar Axel, in Denmark, and was a Prince there. He was appointed as King of Norway from 1905 to 1957, (at his death).
He reigned during the two World Wars. He took the old Norse name and ascended to the throne becoming the first independent monarch since 1387.
Why all this?
Shetland became part of Scotland in the 15th Century. By the late 9th Century the Vikings came to Scotland to raid and settle. Scotland became part of the kingdom of Great Britain in 1707.
The Shetland Island are also closer to Norway than the capital, which is Edinburgh, on the mainland of Scotland.
Norway handed over Orkney and Shetland to Scotland in 1472, in lieu of a dowry payment for a Royal wedding.
Margaret of Denmark the daughter of King Christian of Norway and Sweden wed James III of Scotland.
When Germany invaded Norway during WW II, on 9th April, the British and French sent ships to Norway to help, but had to retreat.
Sweden, the nearest neighbour to Norway, threatened the King and his government that if they set foot across the border they would detain and incarcerate the King, and all who came with him.
King Haakon felt he had no choice.
The HMS Glasgow left with King Hakon VII, plus Crown Prince Olav and the rest of the Royal family, along with the Norwegian government and most of the gold from the Norwegian National Bank, on the 29 April. They sailed to London where the Royal family housed them in Buckingham Palace.
When Buckingham Palace was bombed by the Luftwaffe, in September 1940, its grounds suffered attacks on 16 occasions, 9 of which included direct hits on the Palace.
King Hakon and his family moved near Windsor and he sent a weekly broadcast to Norway for his people to hear from him. He did this through the resistance movement.
When the war was over, the king and his family and his government moved back to Norway.
That was the reason the clandestine special operations, which made a permanent link between Shetland and Germany-occupied Norway, were set up in the Shetland Isles to land agents and provide weapons, radios and supplies, and also to rescue refugees and fugitives.
This was set up by Winston Churchill and British Army officer, Major Leslie Mitchell and his assistant David Howarth. When David Howarth died in 1991, he had made a request that his ashes would be scattered over the waters of Lunna Voe, near Lerwick House, the first base of the Shetland "bus operations."
This mission from the war days must have made an impact on David, as he had this put in his will for his remains.
The operation that Winston Churchill started was called "The Shetland Bus".
The operation was first started in Lunna Ness, north of Lerwick. Later it was moved to Scalloway, mainly because the slip for the fishing vessels was better at the dock there and the village was more private and smaller for the Norwegians to blend in.
These buses were not what you would typically think a bus was. They were Norwegian fishing vessels that were brought over from Norway by volunteers.
Some used their own fishing boats and others boats were "stolen" with the consent of the owners.
The reason for using their own fishing vessels was that they blended in when making the sail into Norway.
The trips were mostly made in the wintertime under the cover of darkness, and the summer light made it a long time to wait for darkness to come.
The start of it all began on May 1940 when four Norwegian Navy officers and two other refugees aboard the Vita sailed to the Shetlands, which started as a "bus boat" before the "Shetland Bus" was officially established in 1941.
During the summer months, when there was too much daylight, it made it impossible to sail up the Norwegian coastline.
These fishermen had no military background experience as they were all volunteers. The journeys were made in the roughest and coldest times of the year and the North sea is dangerous.
The fishing vessels were not ordinary fishing boats, as they had special guns put in oil drum barrels on the deck so that if attacked they could be brought out and fired.
These barrels were nailed down so they did not move but were well covered inside so that the machine guns would never be found when the Germans came aboard to inspect the boats.
Above is a memorial built to commemorate the Shetland bus operation, which is located at Scalloway, Scotland, the largest settlement on the North Atlantic coast of Mainland, the largest island of the Shetland Islands.
The distance from Norway to Shetland is 539.13km which is 290.92 nautical miles. This journey was made by these fishing vessels from 1941 until the war ended.
During the 80 trips across the sea, German attacks and bad weather caused the loss of 10 boats, 44 crewmen, and 60 refugees.
Operations were becoming increasingly dangerous as the war progressed and the German forces improved their air and sea defences.
The Germans began to understand the role of the fishing boats operating far from the coast.
The U.S.Navy gave the Norwegian three Chaser submarines on October 26th, 1943. That was when the fishing boats got phased out and there were no more losses. It was indeed a wonderful gesture by the Americans to give them a gift of submarines.
The Shetland bus took 200 trips and the most famous of the captains was Leif Andreas Larsen, a highly decorated Norwegian sailor.
Larsen made 52 of these trips and was the most decorated and first non-British person to receive a Conspicuous Gallantry Medal. He was also known as Shetland Larsen
Above: Leif Andreas Larsen DSO, DSC, CGM, DSM and Bar, popularly known as "Shetlands Larsen", was a highly decorated Norwegian sailor. He was arguably the most famous of the men who operated the Shetland bus escape route during the war.
In the Fall of 1942, despite its failure, the Admiralty records the operation as the achievement of penetrating to within 10 miles of the berth occupied by the German battleship Tirpitz in the Trondheimsfjord.
This effort represents, on the part of the personnel, and particularly that of the Norwegians, a fine example of cold-blooded courage.
That was what earned Leif A.Larsen his C.G.Medal.
When the war was over the Shetland bus crew had kayaks which they had no more use for, so they gave them to the Shetland sea cadets.
Lerwick is a name with roots in Old Norse and local descendants. Norn which was spoken in Shetland until the 19th Century. It is also famous for the "Up Helley Aa" celebration.
It was first established in 1870. In wintertime, Lerwick gets only 5 hours and 45 minutes of daylight.
Norwegian Constitution Day celebration is celebrated in Shetland since 1814. This day is observed every year on 17 May to honour the signing of the country's constitution.
A lot of Norwegians come over to Shetland on that day. After the celebrations, a memorial service and wreath-laying are also done for the 44 who died in the Shetland bus run.
The first of the Shetland busmen to lose his life was Nils Nesse age 23. He was killed 28 October 1941 when German aircraft attacked the fishing vessel he was in.
Nesse was buried at Lunna Kirk churchyard with a Scottish ceremony. His body was moved to his home in Norway in 1948. A cross still marks where his gave was at Lunna.