The Shetland Bus
Special Operations Executive, fishing boats, and sub-chasers against the Nazis
“You are to set Europe ablaze!”
—British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to SOE founder Hugh Dalton
In order to rally the conquered peoples of occupied Europe in a guerrilla war against Nazi Germany until such time when Great Britain could return to the continent, on July 22, 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill authorized the Special Operations Executive under Minister of Economic Warfare Hugh Dalton.
One of SOE’s many clandestine organizations was the Norwegian Naval Independent Unit that, because it was based in Scotland’s Shetland Islands, became better known by its nickname: the Shetland Bus.
Using modified fishing trawlers and later submarine chasers, and manned by all-volunteer crews of Norwegian fishermen and sailors, the Shetland Bus was a joint effort of the SOE, the British Admiralty’s Naval Intelligence, and the Military Intelligence Service of Norway’s government in exile.
Its twofold purpose was the transport of Norwegian agents to and from Norway, and the rescue of individuals facing capture and arrest by the Nazis. Its most famous operator was Lt. Cmdr. Leif Andreas Larsen, nicknamed “Shetlands Larsen,” the most highly decorated Allied naval officer in the war.
While all SOE operations were high risk, missions conducted by Shetland Bus were particularly daunting. All were conducted above latitude 60 degrees North in the North Sea, probably the most dangerous waters in Europe. Adding to the risk was the fact that because of the high latitude, all missions had to be conducted in winter, the stormiest time of the year, in order to take advantage of the 18 hours of darkness that helped shield the ships from detection during transit. The first Shetland Bus mission, the round-trip transport of an agent to Bergen, was launched on Aug. 30, 1941. Its successful completion was followed by a rescue of Norwegian pilots and the delivery of two SOE agents. The Shetland Bus was now operational.
The Shetland Bus’s first commander was British Maj. Leslie H. Mitchell, a man praised for his “brilliant ideas, great charm, and irrepressible sense of humor.” He selected Flemington House (named “Kergord” after the war), an estate famous for its tree plantation and located near the sheltered harbor of Lunna Ness, as his headquarters. Flemington House’s main building was large enough to accommodate the comings and goings of an unusual assortment of individuals, including British army and navy officers and senior commanders, Norwegian naval personnel, the Norwegian crown prince,
strong-willed Norwegian fishermen, agents, saboteurs, and refugees.
From August 1941 until the end of the war in May 1945, the Shetland Bus conducted more than 150 missions, transporting to Norway 192 agents and 383 tons of weapons and supplies, and rescuing 373 Norwegians.
Shetlands Larsen led 52 of those missions. One of the most harrowing and ill fated was Operation Title, the failed attempt to cripple the German battleship Tirpitz. Launched at the end of October 1942, the plan called for the Shetland Bus boat Arthur to ferry two Chariots – human-guided torpedoes – into the fjord where the Tirpitz was moored. Once in range, commandos would then pilot the Chariots into position, set the timers, and all would then escape to safety in Sweden. But it seemed everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. First the Arthur’s engine malfunctioned. Then it was discovered that the generator designed to charge the Chariots’ batteries had been damaged during the rough voyage. Finally, with the Arthur near its objective, both Chariots broke their towlines and were lost. The Arthur was scuttled, and only with great difficulty and considerable luck were Larsen and the others able to reach Sweden. Larsen was awarded Britain’s second highest decoration for valor, the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal, for the raid, the first non-Briton so honored. Larsen’s other decorations included Norway’s highest medal for valor, the War Cross (three times), and Britain’s Distinguished Service Medal (twice), Distinguished Service Cross, and Distinguished Service Order.
But all was not death and destruction for the Shetland Bus. Flemington House has a distinction that, if not unique, certainly ranks as a rarity in the history of special operations. Capt. Arthur W. Sclater succeeded Mitchell in December 1942; Alice, his Norwegian-born wife, served as welfare officer for the crews. On March 26, 1945, in one of Flemington House’s bedrooms, she gave birth to their second son, Michael. A Royal Navy chaplain conducted the baptism using the ship’s bell of a submarine as a font.
[Editor's note: Veterans Radio host Dale Throneberry will interview Defense Media Network author Dwight Jon Zimmerman about his World War II 70th Anniversary Series article on the Shetland Bus – the crucial, but now all but forgotten story of the SOE/Norwegian special operations program. The program will air on Saturday morning Aug. 27, 2011 at 9:00 a.m. EDT and can be heard on the Internet at www.veteransradio.net. It can also be viewed on USTREAM at www.ustream.tv/channel/veterans-radio.]