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‘Shetland Bus’ Vessel Returns

by Alastair Hamilton -

When I first made the trip from Shetland to Norway, it was in order to help stage an arts and crafts exhibition in Lerwick’s twin town, Måløy; and the strongest impression that remains with me was of the extraordinary warmth of the welcome that was accorded to our little Shetland group. Some of that warmth stems, of course, from the shared understanding that our islands were once part of the Norse realm; and our hosts spoke of Shetland as their ‘western isles’.

But there’s a much more recent reinforcement for those feelings. During the Second World War, Shetland offered a lifeline in the form of what became known as ‘the Shetland Bus’. The crews of small Norwegian fishing boats braved the North Sea during the darker winter months in order to support the resistance against a brutal Nazi occupation. They took in agents and supplies – weapons, ammunition, radios – and brought out refugees and resistance workers whose cover was in danger of being broken.

It was a hazardous and sometimes fatal enterprise, partly because trips were frequently undertaken in very poor weather but mainly, of course, because the occupying forces kept the coastal area under close surveillance. The service began operating from Lunna, in Shetland’s north-east mainland.

Later, the base moved to Scalloway on the west coast, mainly because engineering and other backup facilities were available there. It was also hoped that a location on the west coast might be a little less obvious. A slipway was quickly constructed and it survives today; during the war, it was visited by Prince Olav, then in exile in Britain. Recently, new interpretive panels were provided so that visitors can learn about its history.

The operation of the Shetland Bus was a secret closely guarded by the people of Scalloway and Shetland during the war, but the remarkable story is nowadays movingly told in the excellent Scalloway Museum.

During April, it was also recalled with a visit to the village by two historic vessels, one of them a participant in the later phase of the Shetland Bus. In addition to the ships and their crew, almost 200 Norwegian visitors crossed the North Sea for a long weekend of commemoration and celebration.

One visitor was the tall ship Statsraad Lemkuhl, a magnificent sail training vessel that pays several visits to Shetland each year; she usually berths at Lerwick and this was her first appearance in Scalloway.

The other – no stranger to Scalloway – was the restored sub-chaser Hitra, which was one of three such ships – the others being the Hessa and the Vigra – that took over the operation from 1943, a year that was pivotal in the service. By then, the Shetland Bus was suffering increasing losses. One of the most notorious involved the Brattholm, which, on a voyage from Scalloway, was met by the Nazi military at her destination, north of Tromso. All but one of the crew and passengers were caught and killed. The survivor was Jan Baalsrud, whose astonishing and heroic escape from this ambush, and epic journey back to freedom against all odds, was later recorded in the book We Die Alone by David Howarth and, much more recently, commemorated in music by Jenna and Bethany Reid in their suite, Escape.

By then, the Shetland Bus was suffering increasing losses

This failed mission, and other losses, placed the whole operation in doubt and a beacon of hope for Norway came near to fading completely. Thankfully, a solution was found. The United States navy donated three sub-chaser fast attack craft; from that point, the Shetland Bus operation suffered no further losses, despite frequent missions to the coast of Norway. The Norwegian-crewed ships continued to rescue refugees and people at risk and to land supplies and commandos to support the resistance.

The events in April 2018 marked the 75th anniversary of that dramatic and welcome reversal in the course of Norway’s war. On board the Statsraad Lemkuhl were members of a Norwegian veteran’s group, many of whom have direct family links to the wartime connection to Shetland. They were accompanied to Scalloway by the Mayor of Bergen, commanding officers from the Haakonsvern Naval Base near Bergen and the Commandant of Bergenhaus Castle.

The Shetland Bus Friendship Society, the group based in Scalloway that owns and operates the Scalloway Museum, hosted the Norwegians throughout their visit. There were both public and private events. Among the open events, there were open days on both the historic vessels. Local guides led walks through the village and explained the historic locations. Norwegian historian Asgeir Ueland, author of a recent account of the operation, Shetlandsgjengen (The Shetland Gang), presented a talk on some previously unknown aspects of the Shetland Bus. A concert in the Scalloway public hall featured popular fiddle musician Maggie Adamson and friends, and Jenna and Bethany Reid performed their composition.

A wreath laying ceremony was held at the Shetland Bus war memorial on the village’s Main Street on the Sunday morning and there was a church service in honour of those who served.

If you're visiting Shetland, the Scalloway Museum should be on your itinerary. Originally housed in very cramped premises on Main Street, it has, since 2012, occupied what was once a knitwear factory next to Scalloway Castle. The new, spacious museum was opened on 17 May 2012, Norwegian National Day, by Jens Stoltenberg, then Norwegian Prime Minister and now Secretary-General of NATO.

However, several other buildings in Scalloway are associated with the wartime operation, including Norway House and Dinapore House (which are privately owned and not open to the public) as well as the Prince Olaf Slipway and Scalloway Castle, where ammuniton and explosives were stored.

Kergord House, in Weisdale, also played an important part, being used as a base for training or debriefing agents and testing equipment. It is also in private ownership and not open to the public.

Visitors to the Scalloway Museum are left in no doubt of the drama of those days; they understand, too, the strength of the bonds between the Norwegian and Shetland communities, and appreciate the reasons why folk from Shetland are so warmly welcomed up and down the coast of Norway.

There is much more information on the Shetland Bus website. The story of the operation is vividly told in David Howarth’s book, The Shetland Bus. In preparing this article, I've been very grateful for the photographs provided by Davy Cooper.

Visitors to the Scalloway Museum are left in no doubt of the drama of those days

Posted in: Heritage

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