In April 1940, Norway fell to Nazi Germany. Thousands of Norwegians fled the country, many coming to Shetland. There was a real fear here in Britain that the Nazis would use Norway to try and get a foothold in Britain, and Shetland, being relatively close to Norway, was particularly vulnerable.
Colonel John Wilson in London was put in charge of the Norwegian Section of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). Wilson set up a secret organisation to provide a lifeline to the Norwegian resistance. This operation became known as 'The Shetland Bus'. Although organised by the British, missions were carried out by the Norwegians. Colonel Wilson appointed Major Leslie Mitchell to oversee operations in Shetland and Major Mitchell in turn appointed David Howarth as his second-in-command. Many who fled Norway had arrived in Shetland by fishing boat. Colonel Wilson recognised that fishing boats would make excellent vessels to carry out operations as they were easily disguised. And so, 'The Shetland Bus' became a regular means of transporting supplies, arms, saboteurs, agents and radio equipment to Norway. The boats were also used to bring fugitives and refugees back to Shetland.
Flemington House in Weisdale (now known as Kergord House) was requisitioned to be the executive headquarters of the operation, and remained so for the duration of the war. The first trips to Norway started from Lerwick but the required secrecy was hard to maintain and so the operational base was moved to Lunna. Repair facilities at Lunna were poor and boats were frequently towed to Lerwick for this purpose. So, in 1942, the base was transferred to Scalloway. The advantages of Scalloway were that it had excellent harbour facilities, there was ample accommodation for crewmen and it had a marine repair yard, owned by William Moore & Sons. It was also designated a restricted area throughout the war so that security and secrecy measures were in place, both critical to the success of 'The Shetland Bus'.
Scalloway Castle also found a renewed sense of purpose as munitions and explosives were stored in its dungeons. David Howarth requisitioned a house on the main street, known as Dinapore, for his operational headquarters.
Many of the Norwegian seamen slept in a building which is still in use today and is known as 'Norway House'.
These clandestine trips to and from Norway in fishing boats were extremely hazardous and could only be carried out in the dark and stormy days of winter. A boat could take up to five days to reach its destination. The biggest threat was from German aircraft. There was a heavy loss of life and boats. In 1943, the U.S. navy donated three fast-submarine chasers to replace the fishing boats and these operated to the end of the war with no further loss of life or vessel.
It is difficult, if not impossible, for us to imagine today what it must have been like for these men battling heavy seas with the constant threat of enemy action and fear of discovery either during their voyages or at the landing points on the Norwegian coast. Sad to say, many of these trips did end in tragedy.
The Scalloway Museum has an outstanding section dedicated to the story of 'The Shetland Bus' and is well worth a visit. A memorial was erected in the village in 2003 and serves to remind us of the courage and bravery of the many who risked, and gave, their lives for the liberation of Norway. It also marks a period of remarkable cooperation between Britain and Norway, and between the Shetland Islands and Norway in particular.