Previously on a couple of occasions in this blog, back in May, I have mentioned the Shetland Bus operation But I will make a quick recap and introduction for any new followers!
Shetland has always enjoyed strong links to Norway, most obviously and commonly recalled in Viking culture and the Up Helly Aa celebrations. The strength of the bond though is much more than a far off history. It surfaces throughout the years and manifests in language, culture and heritage. It wasn’t until 1468 that Shetland passed from Norway to Scotland. The Shetland flag is a Nordic cross in the colours of the Scottish Flag.
During the second world war it the strength of bond between Shetland and Norway surfaced through the Shetland bus operation. I can do no more than write the briefest of notes on this remarkable operation.
Initially Shetland was a place of refuge for those escaping the Nazi invasion of Norway; the sea crossing to Shetland being the shortest sea passage to safety. It was quickly realised that what started as an escape route could also serve as a supply and infiltration route. Many Shetlanders had vital roles within the operation but a specific policy decision restricted operatives to being Norwegian only. Nevertheless there developed and remains a very strong link between all members of the operation whatever their original role. Supported by the British with administration, training, weapons and other resources but manned exclusively by Norwegians, a small fleet of Norwegian fishing vessels was assembled and prepared for the hazards of weather and enemy action. Using stealth and disguise as their primary cover runs across the North Sea were established by
Initially the “Shetland Buses” were able to blend easily with Norwegian fishing boats but soon a shortage of diesel and other restrictions in Norway simply drew attention to these craft instead of blending in, they now stood out as unusual.
By 1943 a number of heavy loses from both enemy action and weather combined to force a rethink in the modus operandi. Help came from the US government which donated 3 submarine chasers. These sleek and distinctive warships from the same sort of stable as MTB’s combined speed with firepower replaced disguise as there primary defence. The runs were re-established.
The Hitra is one of these warships and thanks to an enthusiastic group of volunteers has been restored and preserved.
Although owned by a Trust she is officered by retired officers but crewed by Royal Norwegian Navy ratings. Don’t tell the MOD otherwise this might be a model and savings measure for the future of the Royal Navy.
By complete chance we were to meet Hydra at our next port of call and then a few days later transiting a fjord just north of Bergen. Hydra will be visiting Shetland next month and I hope we can meet up once again.
The ships might have changed but as ever, there was one constant and essential ingredient, the bravery of the operators. These men and women served in a variety of roles from “driving the buses” to those who landed and conducted clandestine operations ashore with The Resistance. Imagine then our delight and surprise in Florø to be greeted by an elderly Norwegian who recognising the Shetland flag made himself known to us a survivor of this wartime operation. Language was something of a challenge and he was pressed for time but it was a privilege and pleasure to host Jans Larsen. It was difficult to understand his precise role but from what we could gather he served on the “bus” with his brothers and made at least 2 runs. I’m not sure if these were on the “sub chasers” or on fishing boats. Presenting him with a Shetland flag seemed an appropriate gift and our own tribute to him and his comrades.
His fallen comrades are remembered in Scalloway. A poignant cairn containing a rock from the village or local area of each man commemorated is blended with local Shetland stone from key sites in Shetland associated with the operation and together support a model of one of the original buses.