Shetland bus

The Shetland Bus was the popular name for the clandestine naval operation in World War II between the Shetland Islands (Scotland) and Nazi-occupied Norway.

It was operated initially by a large number of small fishing boats and later by three U.S.-made submarine chasers: HNoMS Vigra, HNoMS [[Hitra and HNoMS Hessa. Hitra is still afloat as a museum ship at Haakonsvern in Bergen and in summertime cruises the Norwegian coast as a mobile exhibition. From the summer of 1942 the Shetland Bus was officially designated as Norwegian Independent Naval Unit or NOR.N.U.

The crossings were mostly made during the winter to ensure the Norwegian coast was reached under the cover of darkness. This meant that the crews and passengers had to endure very heavy North Sea conditions, with no lights, and constant risk of discovery by German planes or boats. There was also the possibility of being captured whilst carrying out the mission on the Norwegian coast. However, early on it was decided that camouflage was the best defence and the boats were disguised as working fishing boats, the crew as fishermen. The fishing boats were armed with light machine guns concealed inside barrels placed on deck, The operation was under constant threat from German forces, and several missions went awry, of which the Telavåg tragedy is the prime example.

Several fishing boats were lost during the initial operations, but after receiving the three fast and well armed submarine chasers no more losses occurred during the crossings.

Leif Andreas Larsen (popularly known as Shetland Larsen) was perhaps the most famous of the Shetland Bus men. In all he made 52 trips to Norway, and became the most highly decorated allied naval officer of the Second World War.


The Shetland Bus was the nickname of a special operations group that made a permanent link between Shetland and the occupied Norway from 1941 until the German occupation ended on 8 May 1945. The official name of the group was "Norwegian Naval Independent Unit" (NNIU).

The pre history of the group was that in early Fall 1940, both the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) and the Special Operations Executives (SOE) Norwegian Naval Independent Unit (not to be confused with another SOE Norwegian unit: the Norwegian Independent Coy. No.1, or Kompani Linge), established a base and an office in Lerwick. SIS later moved to Peterhead. They asked some of the skippers of the boats that were coming from Norway if they would return and bring agents into Norway, and bring others back to Shetland. This went on through the winter 1940-41. In spring it was decided to establish an independent group of crewmen and boats to assist the SIS and the SOE.

The men put in charge of organizing the group were a British Army officer, Major Leslie H. Mitchell and his assistant, Lieutenant David Howarth. Upon their arrival in Shetland they commandeered a house called 'Flemington House', (later named 'Kergord'), in Weisdale, for their headquarters, and they found a perfect location in Lunna Ness north of Lerwick, from which the boats could operate. Until this time, the boats had been moored in Cat Firth . The place had a sheltered harbour and a small population that were not too curious about what was going on. 'Lunna House' was used as accomondation for the boatcrews. Whilst Mitchell stayed in 'Flemington', Howarth set up quarters in 'Lunna House'. Their whole staff was three British sergeants; Almond, Sherwood and Olsen; a British stenographer, Norman Edwards; a Norwegian cook, Harald Albertsen at Lunna; and two maids in 'Flemington'.

The first winter 'Flemington' was not only used to train saboteurs and house agents, but also to house incoming Norwegian refugees. Later all refugees were received in a special refugee camp in James Sutherland Herring Factory in Browns Road, Lerwick. The camp was administered by James Adie and his Norwegian born wife.

The main purpose of the group, was to bring agents in and out of Norway, and bring them weapons, radios and other supplies. They would also bring out Norwegians who feared arrest by the Germans. But sometimes the group was involved in special operations, like the failed attack on the German battleship Tirpitz and the raids in Måløy and Lofoten.

All crewmen were civilians, and had a wage of £4 a week, free accommodations and a bonus of £10 for each tour to Norway.

At the start, they had 14 fishing boats of different sizes. The first Shetland Bus boat, the 'Aksel' skippered by August Nærøy, departed for Bergen, from Hamna Voe, on the west side of Lunna Ness, on 30 August 1941. The other crewmen on this first tour were: Mindor Berge, Ivar Brekke, Andreas Gjertsen and Bård Grotle.

The lack of a slipway and other repair facilities, the boats had to be repaired at Malakoff's in Lerwick, forced them later to move the boats and crewmen to Scalloway, where William Moore & Son had a mechanical workshop, and a slipway, (Prince Olav's Slipway) was built. Harald Angeltveit and Johan Haldorsen were head mecanics and Severin Roald became leader for the carpenters. All repairs on the ships were done there. But Lunna Voe was still in use for preparing special operations.
Jack Moore, the owner of the workshop received, when he was 90 years old, the highest Norwegian Order that can be given to a civilian; "Ridder av den Kongelige Norske St.Olavs Orden" (Knight of the Royal Norwegian St.Olav's Order), for his great help with the ships during the war. The Dinapore house was headquarters for the base in Scalloway. The Flemington house became quarters for the agents awaiting transport to Norway, or de-brief on return. A former net loft, owned by Nicolson & Co became accommodation for the ship crews , and was named 'Norway House'. Sevrin Roald's wife, Inga Roald, became housekeeper in 'Norway House'.

The Flemington house also became a place visited by high ranking officers like the Commander in Chief, Scottish Command, and the Admiral Commanding Orkney and Shetland. The most prominent guest was HKH Crown Prince Olav of Norway. He visited 'Flemington' in October 1942.

Mitchell left the base in Scalloway in December 1942, and Captain Arthur William Sclater, known as 'Rogers' became leader of the operations, and his Norwegian born wife, Alice became welfare officer for the crews.

The boats used to begin with were just fishing boats, but after great loss of men and boats , it was decided that they needed faster ships. On 26 October 1943 the US navy officially transferred three submarine chasers to the Shetland Bus operation. They were the 'Hitra', 'Vigra', and 'Hessa'. These craft were 110 feet long and powered by two 1,200 hp diesel engines. Capable of a top speed of 22 knots, with a normal cruising speed of 17 knots

When the submarine chasers arrived, the group became an official part of the Royal Norwegian Navy, and it was renamed: "Royal Norwegian Naval Special Unit" (RNNSU)

They did more than 100 tours to Norway, with no loss of men or ships.

The group made a total of 198 tours to Norway, with fishing boats and submarine chasers, one man, Leif Andreas Larsen from Bergen did 52 of them.
And on May 9 1945, 'Vigra', with Larsen in command , and 'Hitra' with Eidsheim , entered the harbour of Lyngøy near Bergen in a free Norway.

When the occupation ended, the Shetland Bus had transported 192 agents and 383 tons of weapon and supplies to Norway. And they had brought 73 agents and 373 refugees out of Norway. 44 members of the group had lost their lives.

The Crewmen

The crewmen were men from the coast, fishermen and sailors who knew every spot in their area. They knew who was to be trusted, an important knowledge when something went wrong. Most of them came over the first year after the occupation, some with their own vessels, others with vessels, 'stolen', with the owner's approval. They were young men, most of them in their twenties, some even younger. Many of them did several tours in the spring and summer 1940, evacuating British soldiers who had been left in Norway after the fights in April - May, and other British citizens living in Norway.

  • Leif Andreas Larsen (Jan 9 1906- Oct 12 1990), was born in Bergen. He joined the Norwegian volunteers in the Finnish Winter war. Soon after the war in Finland ended, they got the message that Norway was attacked. A Swedish officer, Benckert, set up a company of volunteers who made their way to Norway and fought in eastern Norway until June 8th, when the war in Norway officially was over.
    He arrived in Shetland with the boat M/B Motig I, February 11th 1941.After training with 'Company Linge' in England and Scotland, Larsen arrived in Lerwick again on the 'St Magnus' on August 19th 1941. He did his first Shetland Bus tour with M/B Siglaos, skippered by Petter Salen, Sept. 14th 1941.

After the loss of the minelayer Nordsjøen, where Larsen was next in command, he became skipper and could choose his own crew. His first crew was : Palmer Bjørnøy, Leif Kinn, Arne Kinn, Kåre Iversen, Karsten Sangolt, Nils Nipen and Otto Pletten. His first boat was M/K Arthur, the boat he 'requisitioned' and escaped from Norway with after the wrecking of 'Nordsjøen'. November 8th 1941, Larsen sailed out from Shetland on his first tour as skipper. On their return to Shetland, they came into a hurricane, and one man, Karsten Sangolt, was blown overboard and drowned.
He made several tours with the 'Arthur', but he also skippered other boats, like M/B Siglaos, and M/B Feie.

In October 1942, he had to scuttle the 'Arthur' in the Throndheimsfjord after a failed attempt to attack the German warship 'Tirpitz'. He and the crew escaped to Sweden, but a British agent, A.B. Evans, was arrested and later shot.

On the 23 March 1943, on return from Træna, Nordland, with M/K Brattholm they were attacked by German planes. The boat was sunk, but Larsen and the crew, many of them wounded, rowed for several days until they reached the coast of Norway, near Ålesund. One man, Nils Vika, died of his wounds, the other crewmen on this tour were: Andreas Færøy, Johannes Kalvø, Finn Clausen, Gunnar Clausen, Odd Hansen, and William Enoksen. After hiding in different places, they were rescued by a MTB from Lerwick with Lieut. Broberg in command, April 14.

In October 1943, the new submarine chasers arrived and Larsen became commander on Vigra, with the title Sub Lieutenant.
In total he made 52 tours to Norway and back with fishing vessels and submarine chasers.
Leif Andreas Larsen, known as 'Shetlands Larsen', became the highest decorated Norwegian in WW II.

British orders: Conspicuous Gallantry Medal, Distinguished Service Medal and Bar, Distinguished Service Cross, Distinguished Service Order. Norwegian orders: Krigskors med sverd og stjerne, St. Olavsmedaljen med eikegren, Krigsmedaljen, Deltagermedaljen med rosett.

the son of a sea pilot and had joined his father on the pilot vessel. When the Germans attacked Norway he was a fisherman and soon joined the underground army. His activities were discovered by the Germans and he had to leave the Country. He and three other men escaped to Shetland in August 1941 with his father's boat, the 42 foot Villa II. From Shetland he was transferred to England were he joined and trained with the 'Company Linge' unit. He was among the men Larsen choose as crew on M/B Arthur and sailed several tours with Larsen. He was crewman on M/B Siglaos, M/B Feie, M/B Harald and M/B Heland. In December 1943, he joind the crew on the submarine chaser Hessa as engineer under command of Petter Salen.When 'Hessa' was under repair, Iversen served as engineer on 'Vigra', and one tour with one of the Norwegian Navy's MTBs. When 'Hessa' was back again he rejoined the crew , and stayed there until the war ended. Kåre Iversen did 57 tours as across the North Sea, most of them as engineer

On December 6 1944, he married the Scalloway girl Christine 'Cissie' Slater. They stayed in Scalloway after the war and had three daughters.

In 1996, Shetland times Ltd. published Iverson's memoirs, I was a Shetland Bus Man. It was reprinted in 2004, with a new introduction and the title "Shetland Bus Man".

Lost crewmen

Name Age Year Boat
Nils Nesse 23 1941 Siglaos
Karsten Sangolt 28 1941 Arthur
Ingvald Lerøy 21 1941 Blia
Arne Lerøy 24 1941 Blia
Even Fagerlid 27 1941 Blia
Olav Kvalheim 25 1941 Blia
Ole Økland 25 1941 Blia
Odd M. Svinøy 18 1941 Blia
Birger O. Bjørnsen 21 1941 Blia
Per Blystad 31 1942 Sjø
Mindor Berge 25 1942 Sjø
Bård Grotle 25 1942 Aksel
Schander Berg 26 1942 Aksel
Ivar L. Brekke 21 1942 Aksel
Tore Frøysa 26 1942 Aksel
John L. Odden 26 1942 Aksel
Ove Ålen 21 1942 Aksel
Harald Dyb 25 1942 Sandøy
Arthur Byrknes 25 1942 Sandøy
Nils Horgen 27 1942 Sandøy
Olav L. Kinn 27 1942 Sandøy
Olav Melkevik 28 1942 Sandøy
Ole Strandekleiv 19 1942 Sandøy
Kåre Støbakvik 21 1942 Sandøy
Ola Grotle 27 1943 Feiøy
Roald Strand 25 1943 Feiøy
Anders Geiterøy 23 1943 Feiøy
Ulf T. V. Johansen 25 1943 Feiøy
Johan Klungreset 27 1943 Feiøy
Harald Notøy 20 1943 Feiøy
Walter Olsen 23 1943 Feiøy
Hans H. Øvertveit 23 1943 Feiøy
Nils Vika 20 1943 Bergholm
Sverre Kverhellen 36 1943 Brattholm
Bjørn N. Bolstad 21 1943 Brattholm
Eric Reichelt 25 1943 Brattholm
Magnus Johan Kvalvik 29 1943 Brattholm
Harald Petter Ratvik 25 1943 Brattholm
Fritjof M. Skaugland 26 1943 Brattholm
Sjur Olai L. Trovaag 36 1943 Brattholm
Alfred A. Vik 23 1943 Brattholm
Olaf Skarpenes 49 1943 Bodø
Peder K. Nonås 18 1943 Boating accident
Ragnar E. Sandøy 32 1943 Boating accident

  • The first one of the Shetland Bus men who lost his life, was Nils Nesse, 23 years old, from Bremnes on the island Bømlo south of Bergen. He was shot on the 28th of October 1941 when German airplanes attacked the Siglaos on its way to Shetland from Norway. Nesse was buried at Lunna Kirk churchyard with a Scottish ceremony, because there was no Norwegian Parson to conduct the funeral. His body was moved to his homeplace in Norway in 1948, but there is still a cross marking his grave in Lunna.
    Nesse was the second Norwegian buried at Lunna Kirk. The first one was buried February 15th 1940. He was an unknown sailor, probably from the lost cargo ship Hop, that left Bergen February 2nd 1940, and was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine.
    The third was buried June 9th 1942. He was found drifting in the sea by a local crofter, John Johnson from Lunna.
    The "Shetland/Norwegian Friendship Society" has set up a plaque on the churchyard wall in rememerance to those two unknown.
  • Epilogue
    David Howarth (1912 - 1991),who loved the Shetland Islands dearly, died July 2nd 1991.One of his last wishes was that his ashes must be scattered over the water in Lunna Voe. A Memorial plaque is mounted on the churchyard wall at Lunna Kirk.

The Boats

Germany started their invasion of Norway on April 9 1940. British battleships with troops were sent to help the Norwegians. Several coast towns were bombed and destroyed by the Germans, and on the last days of April and the first days of May, the British battleships had to retreat from mid-Norway. On April 29, HMS Glasgow left a totally destroyed Molde with King Haakon VII, Crown Prince Olav, members of the Norwegian Government and most of the gold from the Norwegian National Bank. In North Norway, the battles lasted for one more month.

Only a few weeks after the occupation started, the first boats of an 'armada' of fishing vessels and other boats began to arrive in Shetland. Many of these early boats made several tours across the North Sea with different kind of refugees. There were 'Hardanger Cutters', with a straight bow and long stern from the Bergen area, and the more rounded 'Møre Cutters' from the area around Ålesund. It appeared that the 'Møre Cutter' was the strongest and best fitted for the heavy weathers in the North Sea. Most of their crossings were done in the dark winter months with storms and hurricanes.

The boats were of many kinds and shapes, but most of those later used as "Shetland Bus", were from 50 to 70 foot, with two masts and equipped with a 30 to 70 hp single cylinder semi diesel engine, which made the characteristic 'tonk-tonk' sound.

Further reading

  • Sigurd Evensmo : "Englandsfarere" (1945) - Engl. transl.:"A Boat for England" (1947) (Movie made 1946)
  • David Howarth : "The Shetland Bus" (1951) - Norw. transl. :"Nordsjøbussen" (Movie made 1954)
  • David Howarth : "We Die Alone" (1955) - Norw. transl. : "Ni liv" (Movie made 1957)
  • James W. Irvine : "The Waves are Free" (1988) - Norw.transl. : "Men bølgene er jo fri"
  • James W. Irvine : "The Giving Years" (1991)
  • James W. Irvine : "Final Curtain" (2004) -Sequel to "The Waves are Free"
  • Kaare Iversen : "I Was a Shetland Bus Man" (1996), reprint 2004 ;"Shetland Bus Man"
  • Erling Jensen & Ragnar Ulstein : "Company Linge" (1948)
  • John MacRae : "Kergord House" (1982)
  • James R. Nicolson : "Memories of The Shetland Bus" (1984)
  • James R. Nicolson : "The Shetland Bus" (1987)
  • L.K. Schei & G. Moberg : "The Shetland Story" (1988)
  • Willie Smith : "Willie's War and Other Stories". Shetland Times Ltd. (2003) ISBN 978-1898852971
  • Odd Strand : "Hitra" (1987)(Only in Norwegian )
  • Fritjof Sælen : "Shetlands Larsen" (1947) - Engl.transl. :"None But the Brave - The Story of 'Shetlands Larsen'" (1955)
  • Trygve Sørvaag : "Shetland Bus: Faces and Places 60 Years On" (2002)
  • Ragnar Ulstein : "Englandsfarten" (1965/67) - Engl.transl. : "The North Sea Traffic" (1992)


General References:Howarth, David. (1998). The Shetland Bus. 2nd edition, Lerwick: Shetland Times Ltd..

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