The Shetland Bus

A tribute by Gillian Halcrow

This fascinating talk detailed the deeds of incredibly courageous and patriotic men.   The seas between Norway and Scotland are the stormiest in the world. No other series of journeys in such bad weather, in such small boats and in darkness to an unlit coast had been undertaken.

The trips involved carrying a cargo of explosives guns ammunition etc. and returning with desperate refugees. On the 10th November 1941 the Arthur set off from Norway in good weather but ran into a storm with winds of over 100 m.p.h.  A large wave wrecked the wheelhouse and flooded the engine room. One crew member was lost overboard. After four, days six crew and one refugee arrived back in Shetland.   The Blear, which left at the same time with a crew of seven and 38 passengers, was never seen again.   The Speaker covered many more stories of heroic deeds too numerous to cover in this piece.

An invitation to King Haakon and Crown Prince Olaf to set up a Government in exile was made in order to promote resistance under British control. The S.O.E. was set up under the command of Col. John Shiner to organise the large army left in Norway.   Norway’s terrain was not suitable for parachute landings.  However, Norwegian fishing boats were designed for local conditions.   Refugees acted as informants and the boats from Shetland could merge with the local fishing boats. The Shetland boats were armed with Colt machine guns disguised as harpoon guns, and oil drums were used to hide arms.  Rocket parachutes with trailing wires used to deter low level air attacks. Recruits from Norway were assessed in London and those suitable sent to Shetland, the rest to the Navy. The operation was under the control of Major Leslie Mitchel with Sub. Lt. Arthur Howarth and three British Officers.   There were 15 missions in 1941.

The original base was at Lunna Voe which was ideal for a secret operation, off the main road and away from the shipping routes.   However it had no repair facilities. After one season the Norwegians decided to move to Scalloway where a local firm had the necessary engineering skill.  Parts for the Norwegian fishing boats were ordered in Norway from German factories and ferried to Shetland.

Losses of men and boats were mounting.  Six boats and more than 30 men had been lost in bad weather or enemy action.   In view of this it was suggested the base should close.   The Americans stepped in and offered three Submarine Chasers.   A Special Norwegian Naval Unit was set up and made 116 trips with no losses.

On 8th.May 1945 the Germans capitulated and an army of 3000 armed Norwegians appeared in Oslo.

The impact of the operation resulted in 400 tons of arms and explosives being delivered, 450 refugees rescued and many agents being delivered and recovered.

There are many acts of outstanding courage and incredible bravery performed during the Shetland Bus operation.   To commemorate this, a wreath laying ceremony is held annually on 17th May in Shetland.  Norway still send Christmas trees to London and Edinburgh in gratitude for our assistance.


John Preston