The Shetland Bus

Before I get into this week’s blog, I would like to thank everyone who has followed this blog and read it. This post will be my 25th! A wonderful achievement and I am thankful for all of those who have come along for the ride.

The first time I heard of the Shetland Bus, I was watching the British TV show Shetland on Netflix. The very first episode of season one mentions how the Shetland Bus went in and out of Lerwick (where the show is set) to Norway during the second world war. I have read a hundred books or more on the second world war and seen as many documentaries, films and TV shows that talk about the subject and this was the first time I had ever heard of the Shetland Bus, so of course, I had to dig deeper.


Where’s Shetland?

A good question and one I asked myself. Shetland is a subarctic chain of islands northeast of mainland Scotland. The islands sit where the Atlantic Ocean meets the North Sea and it is almost 229 miles from Shetland to Bergin, Norway.


What is a Shetland Bus?

When Germany invaded and took over Norway in 1940, many of its citizens, especially its fishermen and naval personnel escaped, via boat, to Shetland and Britain. British intelligence knew that there was a growing resistance movement in Norway, however it was very isolated. Norway’s borders into Sweden, Finland and Russia were controlled and monitored by German troops. So, the question came up, if they could not move equipment needed by the resistance via land, how else could they do it? Via boat!

Norwegian fishing boats could and can be found all around the country, it is mostly surrounded by oceans and seas. The idea came to use fishing boats to travel between the Shetland Islands and Norway transporting equipment and men for the resistance, the Norwegians would come to call it The Shetland Bus.


When did it start and what was it?

The official title given to this expedition was the Norwegian Naval Independent Unit. The crews of these boats, being mostly Norwegian in order to convincingly get past German patrols would sail to and from Shetland in boats measuring 50-75 feet in length. The idea was to land men and supplies into Norway, right under the Germans noses. The journeys would be done during the arctic winter when nights were much longer than the days, this was to protect the boats in the open water, making it harder for surveillance planes to distinguish if they were military or non-military boats. It also gave them to cover of fog and very rough stormy seas. Some of the journeys could take up to three weeks and cover almost two thousand miles.

Shetland Bus Memorial, photo from Wikimedia Commons

The two men charged with leading this particular group was Major L.H. Mitchell and Sub. Lt. David Howarth (I highly recommend his book The Shetland Bus for a first hand account of the story) who had a knowledge of the Norwegian language.

In July 1941, after several months of searching for the right place to base their operations Howarth and Mitchell settled on the cove at Lunna Voe. They needed someplace that was secluded (27 miles from Lerwick), so that cargoes that were loaded and unloaded could be done so in secrecy and with the least amount of gossip possible. They lived in Lunna House, a large 17th century estate house. This housed forty plus Norwegian sailors, plus shore staff of three British sergeants, one civilian typists/shorthand/cipher and one Norwegian cook. In nearby Flemington house was two local girls employed as cooks and cleaners, as off duty Norwegians were kept at Flemington house.

Luna House, photo Wikimedia Commons

The outer houses on the estate were transformed into workshops and storage sheds. Since the operations goal was to transport messengers, leaders, instructors, trained radio operators and saboteurs into Norway, along with weapons, radios, explosives, etc. the operation needed a lot of storage. Here is short list of what they needed:

Daily needs for the base and ships:

Peat, coal, food, paraffin, arms (weapons), navigational equipment and ships stores (everything needed for the ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean/North Sea)

Saboteur/resistance supplies to be shipped over to Norway:

Explosives, fuses, different kinds of firing devices, incendiary bombs, hand grenades, knuckle busters, Benzedrine tablets, compasses, torches (flashlights), maps and Norwegian clothes.

Everything, down to the last detail had to make the ships look as Norwegian as possible, including the crew. With information gained from those in resistance, ships would be given false papers and false id numbers that very closely resembled those of actual in use fishing vessels.


Who made the trips?

Even though the operation was in the command of British officers, it was Norwegian naval officers and Norwegian fisherman who sailed the vessels. Through out the war, over one hundred Norwegian sailors made the journey, not all of them survived. Some were lost to the sea and some were lost to the war itself. Let’s meet some of the brave Norwegian crew members:

Leif Larson had escaped Norway in 1941. Through his time with the Shetland Bus, he would make 52 trips to and from Norway. Before escaping Norway, Leif was a Sub Lieutenant in the Norwegian navy. He was captaining the ship, Bergholm, on a run into Traena, Norway. After they had dropped off their cargo and was returning to Shetland, the ship was attacked by two German planes. The attack killed six of the eight men aboard. Leif and the other survivor, Nils Vika, got into a life boat and began rowing for Aalesund. It would take four days to get there and Nils would not survive the life boat. Leif was the only survivor and was picked up by an MTB (motor torpedo boat) and taken back to Shetland.

Leif Larsen, photo Wikimedia Commons

Kare Iverson was born October 10, 1918 in Flatanger, Norway to a sea pilot father. Kare learned to pilot the ships with his father and would spend two years fishing for salmon and halibut in the Atlantic Ocean and North Sea. In 1940 he joined the Norwegian underground to fight the Germans, but was discovered in August of 1941. He loaded his fathers 42-foot fishing boat, VILL 1 A, with enough fuel and food for Shetland, sailing with three other men, with no lights in the pitch dark of night. When he arrived in Shetland, he and 101 other Norwegians who had arrived in much the same way, were vetted in London and began working on the Shetland Bus. Iverson would work with Larson from 1941-1942. In 1943 he joined a sub chaser and spent the remaining years of the war on it.

Palmer Bjornoy we don’t know much about his life before the Shetland Bus. We do know that he was an engineer on the Nordsjoen ship, he would be on board during a mission that required them to lay mines in the fjords for the Germans, scuttle their boat and make their way out of Norway on foot. In his escape Palmer would lose several toes to frostbite.


The Tirpitz Attack

The Tirpitz was the last German battleship left after the allies sank the Bismarck on May 27, 1941. The Germans had kept it in a fjord in Norway, where it could pop out, do some damage to allied ships and pop back into the safety of the fjord. David Howarth worked to devise a plan where one of their ships could infiltrate the fjord, cruise past the Tirpitz, fire some torpedoes at it and sail past it (parallel) while it exploded. The idea being that no one would notice they were sailing the wrong way once the ship exploded. Larson was in immediately; no plan was to crazy for him. However, David’s plan was sent to headquarters and lost in the paper shuffle.

However, headquarters eventually came up with another plan. They wanted a crew to haul, secretly, two Chariot two-man torpedoes to the fjord and set them at the Tirpitz. The Chariot torpedo, had two men who sat on it in diving suits with a control panel for steering and navigating, along with a detachable war head. Each one was twenty feet long with an electric motor.

Each Chariot would need a thee man crew, two to drive the torpedo and one to help them dress into the dive suits. The ship that carried them would need no less than a four-man crew to pilot it. After discussions, it was decided that Larson would skipper the ship Arthur for the mission. Palmer would serve as engineer; Roald Strand would be the radio operator and Johann Kalve would serve as deck hand.

In order to carry the Chariots, Arthur would have to be refitted. It would need a gooseneck to load and unload the torpedoes, eyebolts were attached underneath so that the torpedoes could be towed into the fjord were the Tirpitz sat, a new bulk head was constructed with a secret door to hide the Chariot crews in case the Germans boarded the ship and the ship was loaded with extra peat to hide where the ships gas generator has been (as it would have to be thrown overboard before entering Norway, it was a tip off that they were not from Norway).

When they reached Smolen, they off loaded the Chariots and cabled them to the boat. The water was not deep enough for the Chariots to be low under the ship and in the clear water they were visible from the deck of the ship. The idea was to tow them in close to the Tirpitz, board them and fire them, and make their escape in the chaos afterwards.

However, when they left Smolen in the daylight they received their last message from Lunna. No one saw any more or less danger for the crew in leaving in daylight versus night. The weather had not been favorable during the voyage. They found some deep water and chucked the radio and its batteries overboard, again, incase they were boarded and questioned by the German patrols. As they neared the fjord where the Tirpitz was sitting, they hit rough seas. Seas so rough that the ship crested waves many times and during one crest when the bow fell, they felt a sharp tug throughout the ship and they knew they had lost the Chariots. They were within five miles of the Tirpitz.

They had to scuttle the Arthur and get out of the area quickly. They had already been stopped and questioned few times by some talkative Norwegians, and not knowing if they were friendly or not, they needed to leave. Since peat contains a lot of air, it can keep a boat from sinking quickly. So, they began to toss it all overboard and into the fjord. When they reached the spot, they planned to scuttle the boat, they drilled four or fives holes just above the water line and began to evacuate. All but one man, Robert Evans who was killed by the Germans, made it back safely to Shetland to get back to work on the Shetland Bus.


Shetland Bus, an Icon

By the time the war ended in 1945, the Shetland bus had transported many refugees from Norway into Britain. All the while landing valuable cargo to the resistance, including weapons and radios. By May 1945 there were over 60 illegal radio stations transmitting in Norway and many of those were thanks to the crews of the Shetland Bus. The Shetland Bus also played an important psychological role in the war, it gave the Norwegian population inspiration to resist the invaders, as well as an important connection to the outside world. The Shetland Bus truly is an Icon.

Leif Larson became the most highly decorated naval officer of the second world war with honors coming from Britain, Norway and several other countries.

Kare Iverson returned to Shetland in 1944 and on December 6, 1944 married local Shetland girl, Cissie Slater.


I hope that you have enjoyed learning about the Shetland Bus as much as I have enjoyed sharing its story with you. The men who sailed the vessels back and forth, through storms and winter seas were real life heroes, and their story needs to be told. It should be lost to history. I hope that you will share their story with your friends and family and that this encourages you to learn more about them and the Shetland Islands.

In life, one of the most courageous things we can do is the right thing. Like the young men in our story, who chose to do the right thing in helping their fellow countrymen, each of us must make that decision every day. Where ever we see injustice, we must be prepared to do the right thing.


I will be back in two weeks to share another story with you. I hope to see you all then. And again, thank you for reading, thank you for following, thank you for sharing this blog. See you again soon!

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