Bus route that provided a wartime lifeline

The Scalloway memorial commemorating the Shetland Bus
The Scalloway memorial commemorating the Shetland Bus

By Elizabeth McQuillan

Scotland has historically shared close links and a parallel heritage with its neighbour to the north-east, and never more so than during the Second World War. A clandestine operation involving a small fleet of overhauled old fishing boats, manned by Norwegian refugee seamen, maintained a supply route between Shetland and Nazi-occupied Norway. Its aim: landing agents, instructors, saboteurs, equipment and supplies to aid with the underground resistance movement in Norway, as well as laying mines and taking at-risk refugees back to Shetland.

The Norwegian people were aware of the comings and goings of the small vessels, and to escape to safety onboard these boats was known as”‘to take the Shetland bus”.

However, unlike catching a No 23 in Edinburgh, reaching a destination safely was not guaranteed. The boats had to sail the North Sea in the darkest days of winter to avoid detection, as the perpetual hours of summer daylight would put the boats at high risk of detection by German aircraft and boats patrolling the area. The conditions were sub-arctic, and there were often heavy storms. David Howarth, a junior naval officer who helped to set up and operate the base in Shetland, put the dangerous voyages in those 50ft-70ft boats into perspective in his book The Shetland Bus.

“The seas between Shetland and Norway in winter are among the stormiest in the world, and it is possible that in all the history of man’s seafaring no other series of journeys has been taken deliberately in such bad weather and in such small boats,” he wrote. “Certainly it is centuries since men sailed in such an empty ocean. In the last four winters of the war the boats on these journeys steamed for 90,000 miles, and in this vast distance only four strange ships were sighted. To bring such small boats through hurricanes, fogs, extreme cold and continuous darkness, to make landfall on a distant, unlit and guarded coast, sometimes put to severe tests our modern knowledge of the ancient crafts of seamanship. So the record of these voyages is a story of the sea rather than a story of the war.”

The base for this secret operation was first at Lunna in Shetland, away from the main shipping area, but the lack of engineering back-up for repairs meant that the base was soon moved to Scalloway. Here they built a slipway to repair and service their boats and, with the co-operation of an experienced local engineering firm and carpenters, they could be self-sufficient. The Norwegians and islanders worked together as a team, bound by a common desire to undermine the Germans and fight for the freedom of the Norwegian people.

At the start, the missions were all carried out on just 14 small fishing vessels. Many boats were captured or sunk by the Germans, or simply lost at sea. It was accepted that, given the absence of any other boats on the route, a boat sinking meant certain death for the crew and passengers. There could be nobody to come to give aid. More than 30 brave Norwegian sailors were lost.

With losses mounting, in 1943 the US Navy transferred three submarine chasers to the operation, the Hitra, Vigra and Hessa. These powerful boats and their Norwegian crew were involved with more than 100 further successful forays into occupied Norwegian territory, with no further loss of life.

It is reckoned that the Shetland Bus and their crews transported more than 300 tons of weapons and supplies to Norway, at the same time rescuing close to 400 refugees – and forging an unbreakable link with the people of Shetland.

  • Hugo

    What can one say? Either a torrent of appreciation or not much except to say ‘thank you’ to those sailors and perhaps when having a dram to raise a silent toast to our Norwegian allies.

    I suspect I have no real concept of what conditions were like.

  • Dorothy Parker

    What an interesting piece. I didn’t know about the Shetland Bus and found this illuminating!