THE SHETLAND ‘BUS’ – TRANSPORTING SECRET AGENTS ACROSS THE NORTH SEA

Reviewed by: REAR ADMIRAL (RETIRED) PETER SPARKES

In Scalloway, Shetland, there is a memorial on the waterfront to those who died during World War II ferrying military aid, allied combatants and Special Operations Executive (SOE) operatives to and from occupied Norway. This simple monument – a cairn made of stone taken from Scotland and Norway – depicts a Norwegian fishing vessel Andholmen riding the crest of a wave. Andholmen arrived in Scalloway in April 1940 and was one of the first Norwegian fishing vessels to make the perilous passage across the North Sea to safety, carrying refugees fleeing the German invasion. Andholmen was quickly pressed into a shuttle service between Shetland and the occupied Norwegian coast. The subsequent reliability, regularity and importance of the those daring voyages earned the ‘service’ a sobriquet – the ‘Shetland Bus’.

The rapid militarisation of the Shetlands followed Hitler’s invasion of Norway in Spring 1940 – the Islands’ remoteness and seemingly perpetually inclement weather now offered little defence against attack. By 1943, 20,000 British servicemen and women had been garrisoned in Lerwick, Scalloway, Sumburgh and Sullom Voe, greatly outnumbering the Islanders. Two airfields were hastily constructed to operate Spitfires and Hurricanes, and the harbours soon thronged with naval vessels from Coastal Forces. It became a restricted military area; nobody was allowed on or off the islands without a military pass.

The headquarters of the Shetland Bus’ was first established in Flemington House in Scalloway. Initial training and operational planning then moved to Lunna, a discrete harbour to the North-East of Shetland, but the modest, largely underpowered fishing vessels were deployed primarily from Lerwick and Scalloway. The first voyages were undertaken by Norwegian captains and sailors, desperate to recover family members, friends, refugees and the uncowed Norwegian servicemen who were determined to carry on fighting. The Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) and SOE quickly recognised the significant opportunity that the 14 boats of the ‘Shetland Bus’ afforded. The Bus’ subsequently became the principal conduit for transporting agents and materiel into Norway. Vulnerable to air attack by the Luftwaffe, interception by the Kriegsmarine and betrayal by Quislings’, these daring men repeatedly ran the gauntlet in the cause of their nation’s liberation. Many died at sea, some were executed by the Gestapo, others died in concentration camps. Most have no known grave. However, the success of the insurgency they fuelled helped to tie down ten Divisions of German troops, undeniably making a very significant contribution to victory in Europe.

Simon Wynn’s book credibly recounts the compelling story of the Shetland Bus’. Telling in detail the story of the men, their boats, and their daring operations to strike at German forces, their countrymen who collaborated and the industries which the Nazi war machine depended so heavily upon. The book is unusual in that reads more like a collection of appendices, but it has no references; the provenance of the material is not cited. Whilst I enjoyed the book and the fascinating stories it contained; I found the lack of a coherent narrative somewhat frustrating.  It didn’t really flow. That said, I will now be looking to buy David Howarth’s book, of the same title, which was first published in 1951. I sense it may have been a rich source of information for this book and would really like to better understand the heroic stories of the Shetland Bus’. We have, as a society largely forgotten the brutal lessons of total war in Europe, but for me the resonance with contemporary events in Eastern Europe was un-nerving.