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The Norwegian Merchant Fleet in the Second World War

16 Jun 23

(Pen & Sword Maritime – £22.00)

ISBN 978 1 39904 3861

224 pages

It is one of the truisms of the histories of both World Wars that the role of merchant navies and their sailors was essentially overlooked in favour of our grey funnel lines. That merchant navies were largely unsung heroes of conflict has been recognised more recently, not least through the release in 2022 of the film War Sailor, which tells part of the story contained in this book. This volume about Norway’s merchant navy contribution (the Royal Norwegian Navy was small) to the war effort covers a broad canvas, from the invasion and fall of Norway in 1940, to the marshalling and organisation of her merchant fleet overseas and the contribution that Norwegian merchant ships made to the overall Allied war effort. It is not without pathos as the merchant sailors involved were not treated particularly well during the war, or afterwards by the re-established Norwegian government.

The author well establishes Norway’s history as a seafaring nation over centuries to the point of noting that her ships were late to give up sail as a means of propulsion; much of the fleet operated as tramp steamers. The tragedy of Norway’s fall in 1940 is fully covered. Unlike Denmark which capitulated immediately when the German Wehrmacht invaded, Norway refused, initially, to surrender – to the surprise of the Germans who had believed the traitor Quisling that the country would receive them happily to establish a fascist government. The story of how the government moved from Oslo with the King while trying to mobilise a rather small army to defend the country is compelling. It was the sinking of the German ship Blucher on her way up the fjord to Oslo that bought the government time as it delayed the landing of German troops. The withdrawal of those British and allied troops that had been sent to Narvik to support the Norwegians was a bitter blow which accelerated the King’s and the government’s exile to the United Kingdom for the duration of the war.

The organisation and management of the Norwegian merchant fleet during the war is a story of determination tempered by frustration. By royal decree, control of the merchant fleet was vested in the Norwegian Shipping and Trade Mission – Nortraship. The goal was to find and bring all Norwegian merchant shipping under government control. Originally established in London, Nortraship soon had a New York office with other branches. There was huge pressure by the British government to gain control of the ships, especially tankers, to replace the many merchant ships being lost around the empire. The movement of oil, especially, was vital. While a so-called Scheme Agreement between the two governments was established, it by no means accounted for all ships. Masters and owners in 1940 had commercial agreements that they did not want broken; some owners did not want the government to control their ships at all (such as the Fred Olsen Line). In the early days, masters were being enticed to neutral ports by both the German and Japanese governments. In the end no Norwegian ship voluntarily went to the Axis powers. But many were sunk or otherwise captured. Out of this too came the standards organisation Det Norske Veritas.

Personalities within Nortraship were not easy: conflicts of interest occurred between the director of Shipping Lorentzen, who also had a family firm, with other shipowners, and his officials. Under pressure, egos were intense. Wartime cargo rates varied on the routes; some were safer than others. Pay rates for seaman varied. There is some evidence that profiteering was involved. Tension with the UK government was large which demanded more and more Norwegian ships to come under the Scheme. Overall, during World War II, 33,000 sailors (not all Norwegians) sailed in Norwegian flagged ships: some 2,600 continuously. By the end of April 1940, 1,028 ships were under control; 242 tankers; and 646 dry cargo ships. While many were lost, new builds came and contributed hugely to the defence and supply of Britain.

There is not as much attention in the book given to the plight of Norwegian mariners. None could return to Norway during the war. Communications with families were difficult. Their work was hazardous and many were lost at sea, even after the refit of Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships (DEMS) with sailors trained to defend their ships. The arrangements for getting pay to families and providing insurance were sloppily managed at best. At the end of the war, sailors were returned home to little welcome, disrupted domestic situations and a government and Nortraship not well managed to pay back wages, pensions or insurances, despite various funds having been established to manage sailors pay. This continued for some years before the system improved, and that was only after various exposes and lobbying. This blighted Norway’s overall maritime contribution to the Allied war effort.

The author, a retired US Army logistics major general, has written previously on aspects of the Falklands War and has lectured at the Commando Training Centre, Lympstone. He enjoys Norwegian parentage and brings to this work passion about the topic. He writes clearly and in detail. The book has useful maps, interesting photos and a full set of endnotes, bibliography and index. Well recommended to all interested in Norway’s wartime government in exile and the management of her merchant fleet which made a huge contribution to the Allied shipping effort. A good and interesting read.