Escape by Sea
Throughout the country, small groups of men who had fought against the German invaders gathered together to organise resistance. For those who chose to leave the country – for whatever reason, there were two alternatives: Eastwards to Sweden or westward to the British Isles. Those on the west coast looked across the sea to England and made secret radio contact. The British authorities encouraged them to escape and to bring with them men with military experience – and especially aircraft crews.
On May 17 1940, even before the Norwegian forces had laid down their arms, part of a Resistance group from Karmøy, led by Sigurd Jakobsen, set off in a fishing boat. Jakobsen promised those left behind that he would send them a message confirming their safe arrival. A week later, in a news broadcast from London the promised signal came through: “All is well, Per.” 1
Jakobsen and his men had been through a three-week training course designed to help them collect, analyze and send information about enemy military installations and troop movements. They returned on June 17th with two radio transmitters and after failing at first to raise London – by forgetting the time difference – they finally made contact.
The most important escape by sea was on June 7th when the King, the Crown Prince, most the cabinet and members of Parliament boarded the British cruiser “Devonshire” in Tromsø. Strong German naval forces had sailed from Kiel so the danger of attack was acute. On the morning of June 8 the German destroyer “Scharnhorst” sighted the British carrier “Glorious” and two destroyers. “Scharnhorst” opened fire from 25 kilometers and after a brief, one-sided battle, all three British ships were sunk. HMS Devonshire continued unmolested and arrived in the Clyde on the morning of June 10th. 2
As the summer progressed, a steady stream of vessels, from old rowing boats to brand-new ocean-going fishing craft, left Norway’s west coast for Scotland. So-called “export groups” led by fearless men arranged the departures and supplied the boats. 3 They assisted men and women from all walks of life: some who simply wanted to find freedom, others to escape from capture, and others, the majority perhaps, to join the Allied forces in the struggle against Nazi tyranny.
Amongst the earliest to escape by sea were a few Norwegian Jews who foresaw the coming terror. 4 Age was no barrier: 80 year old Ole Solberg from Ålesund, a trawler owner, sailed one of his own boats to the Faroes and then returned to bring over two other vessels. 5 The escapees were not only civilians – many of the top military leaders took the North Sea route and then organized the formation of Norwegian forces in England, Scotland, and Canada.
The Germans, however, were aware of these operations and uncovering them was one of their priorities. Their most effective weapon was the use of Norwegian informers. The men and women of the Resistance movement, in its early stages, were eager, but inexperienced. Their innocent unconcern for security, and underestimation of Gestapo effectiveness laid them wide open for infiltration. On at least one occasion the Germans dispatched a boat manned entirely by informers. On arrival in Torshavn the authorities, forewarned by the Resistance in Ålesund, arrested the men. 6
Another deterrent was the fear of reprisals against family members left behind. In Ålesund, 70 men were arrested as hostages for sons who had fled to England. There was a huge demonstration as the men were driven to the pier for embarkation to a destination and a fate unknown.
The flow of Norwegians became interesting for the newly formed Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) in London. SIS was particularly concerned with maintaining a network of radio stations along the Norway’s coastline and the main thrust of SOE was ferrying men to and from Norway for training and sabotage purposes. At first, the North Sea route was the only practical way of supplying men and materials for these activities.
British Authorities continued to organize the North Sea activities until the summer of 1942 when the Norwegian Naval Independent Unit took over. The Norwegian fishermen and sailors became popularly known as “The Shetland Gang” and the local population, first at Lunna and later at Scalloway, supported the operations with great enthusiasm.
By 1943, some of the 14 vessels that the Norwegian Unit had at their disposal had been in constant use since 1940. The need for replacements was acute even after normal wear and tear but in 1942/43 seven ships and 33 men were lost to German attacks. In 1943 the group received 3 powerful, (Twin 1200 hp engines) submarine chasers: Hessa, Hitra, and Vigra. There were no more losses either to weather or enemy action.
In winter, the seas between Norway and Scotland are amongst the most violent in the world, so it is not surprising that the exploits of the seamen who made the journeys became stuff of legends. Leif Larsen arrived in the Shetlands in 1941 and became a member of the “Shetland Gang” in the autumn of the same year. He made 52 trips across the North Sea, he was involved in an attempt to destroy the Tirpitz, and he commanded many vessels before becoming captain of the new Vigra. He was popularly called Shetlands Larsen.
Ragnar Ulstein’s 2 volume work Englandsfarten is a comprehensive review of the North Sea escape route. It contains a list of vessels, the date they left Norway, where and when they arrived in the UK, the names of the crew and the names of the passengers. It is a magnificent work.
On the internet, much of this information is repeated in English, at:
David Howarth, who was second-in-command at the Shetland base has written an excellent book: The Shetland Bus, first published in 1951.