"The Shetland 'Bus' "

Transporting Secret Agents across the North Sea in WW2

The Shetland 'Bus': Transporting Secret Agents Across the North Sea in WW2 is a 2021 publication summarising the operations between the Shetland Islands and Norway during the war. It is a very different book from the similarly titled The Shetland Bus, the memoir written by David Howarth who was second in command of the Special Operation Executive (SOE) unit running the operation, first published in 1951, subsequently republished (several times) as The Shetland Bus: A WWII Epic Of Courage, Endurance, and Survival.

As a factual account of operations this new title tries to be as comprehensive as possible, listing all the operations, the ships and the Norwegian men involved so might be a good starting point for those wanting to learn more about this very distinct long term operation. However the author does not list his sources - useful to those wishing to explore more - although the details provided will be a sufficient starting point in most cases.


The German occupation of Norway had other numerous pronounced effects on the country. Prior to the occupation, Norway had a strong economy with numerous trading partners throughout Europe. Almost immediately after German troops set foot on Norwegian soil, all of that stopped. She lost all of her major trading partners. Her only trading partner after April 1940 was Nazi Germany. But it was not a profitable partnership for Norway, as all Germany did was take by way of confiscation.

What Norway had left she needed for her own people. Basic commodities, particularly food, quickly became scarce, and there was a real risk of a famine enveloping the country. To survive, the people had to grow their own crops such as potatoes, tomatoes and a varied range of vegetables, and keep their own animals such as rabbits, chickens and pigs. Fishing by both rod and boat increased dramatically, over and above the normal levels of this long-term seafaring nation.

It also proved a good cover for the Shetland Bus programme, as there were so many fishing vessels leaving towns and villages the length and breadth of the country, that it was impossible for the German authorities to monitor all of the comings and goings. It was this environment which allowed the SOE to be so successful in landing its agents, equipment and supplies at numerous locations up and down the coast of Norway, and safely extracting them, along with hundreds of refugees who were safely brought back to the UK.

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To begin with, the Shetland Bus operation consisted of fourteen Norwegian fishing boats of differing sizes. But the vessel which undertook the first Shetland Bus journey was the Aksel, whose captain was August Nanny. His crew on that inaugural journey which left for Bergen from Hamnavoe, on the west side of Lunna Ness, on 30 August 1941, were Mindor Berge, Ivar Brekke, Andreas Gjertsen, and Bard Grotle.

Flemington House [in Shetland], which was where ‘Captain’ and Mrs Rogers lived, was ostensibly used for the training of the group’s saboteurs, and was where agents waiting to be sent to Norway stayed, and where they were debriefed on their return. Initially it was also used to accommodate incoming refugees, but this practice was stopped as it was recognised that the group’s long term security, and the lives of its agents, could potentially be at risk by allowing civilians to be housed with them.

The group’s main purpose was to get agents who worked for the SOE into Norway so that they could make contact with the country’s resistance groups and supply them with radios, weapons, ammunition, explosives, money and other useful supplies. Once they had completed their mission, they would then be picked up by the Shetland Bus and returned to Shetland to be debriefed. Norwegians who feared they were about to be arrested by the Germans would also be brought out. Special Operations Executive agents also took part in some of the raids carried out by Norwegian resistance groups.

Throughout the course of the war there were a total of twelve raids carried out by British commandos and elements of the SOE along the coast of Norway, which collectively proved to be extremely effective. These raids helped increase the total number of German troops stationed in Norway to some 370,000 men, because of the belief that Britain might try to carry out a full-scale invasion of Norway.

Collectively, the group of men who were the Shetland Bus originally had the name of the Norwegian Naval Independent Unit, but in October 1943, when it officially became part of the Royal Norwegian Navy, it was renamed the Royal Norwegian Naval Special Unit.

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Ingvald Leroy and the M/K Blia - 14 November 1941

The M/K. Blia left Norway on 14 November 1941, en route to Shetland. Captain of the vessel was 21-year-old Ingvald Leroy, and along with his six crew members, he had on board thirty-five Norwegian refugees. On the night of the journey, the weather was particularly bad, with a strong possibility of storms forecast.

The Blia never made it to Shetland with her crew and thirty-five refugees; she was never seen or heard of again. It is a mark of how determined individuals were to escape from Norway that they would even make the journey in the first place, at night, in storm conditions during the middle of a harsh winter. It also shows how brave the crew of the Blia were that they were prepared to go to sea to try and help their fellow Norwegians to escape to freedom. Six of the crew were 25 years old or younger.

The M/K Blia lost between 11-14 November 1941 in a severe storm. Her five crew, captained by 21 year old Ingvald Karsten Lerøy, thirty five Norwegian refugees and two SIS agents - Billy Forthum and Bernhard Haavardsholm - were lost without trace en route to the Shetlands from Norway.

This excerpt from The Shetland 'Bus': Transporting Secret Agents Across the North Sea in WW2 appears by kind permission of the publisher, Pen & Sword Books Ltd, copyright remains with author. The above images do not feature in the book.


See also:

  • Iversen, Kaare 2000 Shetland Bus Man Pentland Press Ltd ISBN 978-1-85821-816-8

  • Sorvaag, Trygve 2005 Shetland Bus: Faces and Places 60 Years on Shetland Times Ltd ISBN 978-1-898852-88-9

  • Howarth, David 1950 The Shetland Bus: A WWII Epic of Escape, Survival, and Adventure Lyons Press ISBN 978-1-59921-321-7

  • Howarth, David 1998 The Shetland Bus Shetland Times Ltd ISBN 978-1-898852-42-1

  • Herrington, Ian. “The SIS and SOE in Norway 1940–1945: Conflict or Co-Operation?” War in History 9, no. 1 (2002): 82–110. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26014123.

  • https://www.bt.no/nyheter/lokalt/i/aQ4M2/mistet-fetteren-sin-i-blia-forliset

  • Ueland, Asgeir (2017). Shetlandsgjengen. Oslo: Kaage forlag. [ISBN]  [978-82-489-2063-2]