Friday, 9 April 2010


Maybe it’s just because I’m a mind-blowingly dull person, but it’s impossible to live on this coast and not think about history. Today, as the gentle waves lapped around my wellies, the sun blinded me and the chill north wind ruined my expensive hairstyle, I couldn’t help wondering what it must have been like for those German soldiers sitting in a concrete shelter keeping watch for five whole years. And from these shores, not only did Vikings set sail, but the first immigrants to America left from here too. If only these rocks, which after all are a good 400 million years old, could speak they'd have many a tale to tell. One of the best involves Scotland...or more precisely, Shetland.

As Norwegians mark the 70th anniversary of the start of the German occupation, the history of the Norwegian Resistance in WWII is also brought to mind. It is a history full of incredible tales of extreme courage and great acts of humanity but there is one story that was said to have had a particularly significant psychological effect on the Norwegian population. The history of the ‘Shetland Bus’ stands out as a key factor in the fight against oppression. It was said that during the War every Norwegian throughout the country was well aware of the Shetland Bus as something that represented a means of escape, a tangible means of practical support and a vital sense of hope.

For most of the occupation, by some miracle, a group of small Norwegian boats managed to maintain a route between occupied Norway and Shetland. Crewed by Norwegian refugees, often with a fishing background, their mission was to land undercover agents, supply the resistance movement with weapons for sabotage actions, and to bring Norwegian refugees to Scotland. The boats were small, and the missions highly dangerous. In an effort to remain inconspicuous and avoid gunfire, it was necessary to set out under the cover of darkness, and often in difficult and unlikely conditions.

The North Sea in winter can be one of the most treacherous seas in the world. Unlike the Vikings, who had ploughed these waters 1000 years before, as these were secret missions the Shetland Bus had to wait for positively dreadful conditions before they could set sail. The journeys were a testament to the skills of the Norwegian seamen who operated these boats, risking hurricanes, fog and worse as they did so.

Right underneath many a German nose, these operations offered a means of freedom from occupied Norway, as well as proving that small resources could offer great benefits in the fight against oppression. The supplies brought into the fjords of Norway through these missions were essential to the resistance and an immense boost to morale.

While some Norwegians found a lasting sanctuary in Scotland, there were also many young Scottish women who married these visitors and still live in Norway to this day as a result. It was a time when the links between Scotland and Norway were at their most urgent, and many of those links are still in evidence today.

To relate the individual acts of bravery, of success and loss, and of the characters involved would take too long, and I cannot do justice to it all here. But for anyone seriously interested in this whole episode, I would urge you to find David Howarth’s book ‘The Shetland Bus’, where the details are fully explained in a careful and modest manner. Howarth was a British naval officer who had helped to set up and run the Shetland base for these operations. When he wrote a book on the subject, it was inevitably rejected by London publishers, but was finally published in 1951 and has gone on to several reprints since. A film of the story was made in 1991 which a Norwegian poll voted as ‘the best Norwegian film ever made’. While I’m sure there are many who would argue with that, the story remains as powerful as ever, and all the more so for being fact and not fiction.

Throughout the war Norway had been key to Germany’s military plans. Hitler was worried about an Allied invasion and so the defensive positions all along the coast were extremely strong....on a map nowadays, they look staggeringly impenetrable and one can only marvel at the might of the German war machine. At one point, there were over 430,000 German troops in Norway, some of whom launched attacks on the convoy routes in the North Atlantic.

Norwegians were not treated with the same degree of brutality as the people of some other occupied nations, but the long years of political repression and violence were unlike anything the country had seen before. By the end of the war, 2000 members of the resistance movement had lost their lives, while over 30,000 were imprisoned.

On a calm day nowadays, it all seems unbelievably remote. But the effect of occupation on a nation runs very deep. Anything that could help to boost morale as well as provide practical support was enormously significant, and this remains the case. The importance and success of the Shetland Bus was a factor in Norway becoming a founding member of NATO in 1949.


  1. Vikings, skis, fish and oil have all in their own way shaped our nation. However, I believe that more important for the building of our nation and the success of Norway's social democracy was the hardship our two previous generations endured during the Nazi occupation of Norway 1940-45. Thank you for writing these two pieces. I will make sure my teenage children read them, reflect on them and remember them. We must never forget....

  2. As always, very informative and well written. Thank you.....

    I too, will make sure that my children read this too and it also reminded me of a conversation I had on my last trip home. Unusual surroundings, but my hairdresser (a bloke BTW) and I had a discussion about a book that he had just read - 'The Real Heroes of Telemark' by Ray Mears. Although he is not everyone's cup of tea, my brood love him and I must remember to try and get this as well as 'The Shetland Bus'.

  3. Tor and Pamela...this is freaky..everyone is reading my mind. The next blog is about how skiing saved the world...I think you are ahead of me! Mears did a great job on that book, mainly because he (or was it his ghost)researched it using as many of the people involved as he could. It's some story!

  4. Yes, Mears' book is excellent. I am currently reading a Norwegian book about the heavy water sabotage that I, funnily enough, got as a birthday present from nine year old Andreas on, indeed, April 9th this year :-).

  5. I remember reading years ago (but I never checked elsewhere how correct it was) that the British launched a disinformation campaign during the war, leaking that D-Day would take place in Norway, in order to concentrate as many German troops along these shores as possible. I assume you have been to see Hitler's teeth in Brusand?