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Norway WW2: The Shetland Bus

by John Cobley

Friday Aug 19th, 2022



                  A SHETLAND BUS FISHIG BOAT    


During the German occupation during World War 2, Norway had a lifeline to the Allies across the North Sea. It was risky and very dangerous, but it provided secret agents, radios, information and weapons while also enabling some of its endangered citizens to escape. This lifeline was maintained initially by a few Norwegian fishing vessels and later by American submarine chasers based in the Shetland Islands. It became known as the Shetland Bus.


The Shetland Bus ran 210 missions from August 1941 to the end of the war. Fishing vessels were used until the spring of 1943. However, too many of the vulnerable vessels were being lost. So in the fall of 1943 three American sub chasers were brought in to replace them. These three military vessels completed 116 missions without any fatalities.


The idea of the Shetland bus originated when a marine base was being established in late 1940 at Lerwick. It was a project of both the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) and the Special Operations Executive  (SOE). These organizations initiated a project using Norwegian fishing boats that had escaped Norway: to take agents across the North Sea to Norway and bring agents and refugees back. After the initial success in the winter of 1940-1, the group was formally established.


The missions to Norway had to be carried out in darkness. This meant that for several months in the summer the bus was idle as there were only a few hours of darkness in this northern area. To escape the notice of German patrols, the Shetland-Bus boats had to look like fishing boats. The only change was the installation of guns concealed below deck. The crew was always composed of Norwegians, fishermen who had detailed knowledge of the Norwegian coastline. The boats were chosen to withstand the rough waters of the North Sea.


An organizational group was needed and Major Leslie Mitchell and his assistant David Howarth were appointed. Apart from co-ordinating with the British government, they had to establish a suitable harbor, train the crews, service and equip the boats and generally organize the whole team. Looking after 34 Norwegian crewmen was essential:

“[They] had to be fed, clothed, paid, housed, doctored, armed, transported and entertained.” (Howarth 87)


The first mission left for Bergen on August 30, 1941. The Aksel, a 65ft medium-sized cutter with 100pp engine, had a crew of five, skippered by August Naeroy. The main task was to drop off a messenger near Bergen and make contact with a newly formed underground force. Anxiety about the venture increased when the Aksel didn’t return on schedule. But it returned two days late, having been late for the initial rendezvous. 



The next mission was to pick up the messenger dropped off by the Aksel. This time the Igland was used. Here is some of the log from this trip: 


Sept. 5: 18:00 Sailed from Lunna. 

Sept. 6: 1600 We log 147 miles; 1650 We sight land. 

Sept. 7: 0100 We are entering Bremangerfjord. Moonlight. 0130 We hear a boat and alter course to avoid being seen. 1530 We find that messenger has gone to Vetvik. Weather is awful. Hear that three people have spotted us. They  promised not to talk about having seen us, but some people can never hold their tongues. 1700 We have arrived at Vetvik and have left the engine running. We have our guns at the ready. 1900 The messenger and my brother on board. We agree to wait till the evening before putting to sea. 19:30 We have found we are to have more passengers, four men and two girls. 2000 Set course for Shetland. 

Sept. 8: 0530 Log 70 miles. North-easter still blowing and rolling like hell. 1600 Land sighted. 2000 We are off Unst and following the coast southwards. 

Sept. 9:  Back at Lunna. (Howarth, 37-9)


With confidence boosted by the first two successful trips, eight more were made in September. Cargo was taken to Norway and there was a huge demand for Norwegians needing to escape. This demand was made clear in a letter of September 8, 1941, from Trondheim: “A number of people, airmen, officers, radio operators, etc. must go over [to Shetland]. They are already assembled and hidden in Trondelag. The police are searching for them. It is requested that the boat which brings you this letter should be put on a regular run to the same meeting place on Sept. 23, Oct. 4,15,26, Nov. 6,17,28, Dec. 9.” (Howarth, 47)


Experience from these two early successes helped lessen the risks for later trips. They learnt not to go too deep into the fiords and realised that pick-ups were particularly dangerous as the people being picked up were wanted by the police and thus could be captured, leaving the chance of an ambush awaiting the boat. Delivering cargo was much less risky.


Results from the first winter (1941-42) were impressive: 40 trips, 43 agents landed, nine agents picked up, 130 tons of arms and equipment landed, 46 refugees rescued.


But while the Shetland unit learned a lot from the 43 trips, the Germans also learned how to police the Norwegian coast more effectively. As well, the Norwegian fishermen, who were knowledgeable navigationally before the war, were unaware of policing changes established by the Germans.  As a result, in the second winter (1942-43) seven ships and 33 lives were lost to German attacks. These losses caused great concern. Was the Shetland Bus becoming too dangerous to be worthwhile? 


Howarth recalls a meeting at the end of the 1942-43 campaign: “We found that we had all independently come to the conclusion that the days of fishing boats were over. (247) The Shetland Bus activities had led the Germans to set up a complex system of controls that made it more difficult to access the Norwegian coast safely. As well, the Shetland boats were more conspicuous because fuel shortages were keeping the resident boats in dock.


But the Shetland Bus was so successful that it had to continue. It had done much to boost the morale of the Norwegian people by maintaining contact with the outside world. It had provided arms to the underground army, arms that enabled many sabotage acts. It had provided a regular supply of radios for communication within Norway. And above all it had helped keep the occupying German army busy to the extent that 284,000 troops were deemed necessary to control Norway.



A search was therefore made to find a suitable replacement for fishing boats. At the end of the summer the search was still continuing, but then help came from the Americans. Admira Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief of the American naval forces in Europe, heard about the situation and ordered three Submarine chasers based in Miami to be sent to Shetland. These were modern military boats and were four times fast than the fishing boats previously used.


Over the last two winters of the war, the submarine chasers did 34 and then 80 successful trips without one casualty. This success was due mainly to the speed of the chasers. But it was also du to the courage and knowledge of the Norwegian fishermen who had already navigated the Norwegian coast in their fishing boats. So much was achieved by so few.


Note:  Much of the information for this article came from David Howarth’s excellent book The Shetland Bus (1951).


David Kentin Friday 7th July 2023

Is it possible to know what type and make of engines were used in the Shetland bus boats please.

David Kentin Friday 7th July 2023

Further to my previous request, I am told they made a very distincive sound as if it was a long stroke single cylinder, possibly two stroke diesel.

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