At the outbreak of the hostilities in Norway more than a thousand Norwegian ships and 27000 seamen were at sea or in ports around the world. On April 10th the King addressed these ships by radio and advised them not to listen to Quisling, who had ‘ordered’ them to join with the German forces, but to put into neutral ports. In May a further 100 smaller ships – mostly whalers – were added to the fleet. In a speech two years later King Haakon said that not one ship, not one crew had failed to follow this recommendation and: “..we had about 1000 of the world’s best ships with a total of 4 million tons…to continue the fight and to help the allies win the war.”
The British authorities suggested that Norwegian ships should sail under the British flag but Norway resisted. Instead, The Norwegian Shipping and Trade Mission (NORTRA), was established, first in London and later in New York to organize and control this far flung fleet – the largest in the world at that time. Most of the smaller ships were assigned to the Royal Norwegian Navy and served as escorts on the dangerous North Atlantic supply convoys.
By 1942 British sources claimed that 40 procent of the oil and 20 procent of food and other necessities were carried to England in Norwegian ships. But the cost was high: 200 ships had been sunk and 1300 men had lost their lives. Perhaps a typical example is the story of D/S Borgestad. In February 1941 the Borgestad was in an unescorted convoy of 19 ships sailing from the United States to Liverpool. Between the Azores and Madeira the German heavy cruiser ‘Admiral Hipper’ appeared and opened fire from 2500 meters. With her one, lonely canon M/S Borgestad returned the fire but it was an uneven battle.The Norwegian ship went down with its crew of 30 men and 1 woman. Partly due to the heroic effort of the Borgestad, 12 ships in the convoy were able to escape and reach their destination.
The Nortrahip organisation was plagued with internal strife and personal animosities but these weaknesses did not affect the war effort. The question of payment – to the crews and to the organisation – was also contentious: Why should Norway be paid for maritime services when she was fighting the same war as the British?” The answer was that Norway was occupied by the enemy and its only income outside the country was the merchant fleet. Without this income Norway would have been unable to finance its army, navy and Government in exile.1
When the war ended, Notraship had lost 500 ships with a total of 1,9 million tons – and 3000 of the original 30000 men and women on board.