The wartime clandestine ‘Shetland Bus’ to and from Norway, and the Telavåg tragedy

In the west of Norway, not far from Bergen, lies the fishermen’s village of Telavåg. The linear distance to the Shetland Islands is fairly short (about 185 nautical miles). Hence, during the Nazi occupation of Norway, fishing boats were used for what the British called “the Shetland Bus“: resistance men wanted by the Gestapo were smuggled out to the Shetland Islands, while SOE operatives traveled in the opposite direction. After some losses, three US Navy submarine chasers on loan to the British were disguised as fishing boats, manned by Norwegian seamen who’d made it to England.

HNoMS Hitra, one of the three former US sub chasers that plied the Shetland Bus
Kapt.Lt. Leif “Shetlands” Larsen, commander of HNoMS Vigra

Sadly, as I was told at the Telavåg Nordsjofartsmuseum, the men running the Telavåg “Bus station” were not big on operational security: all it took was for somebody to knock on their door saying they needed help getting to England. And thus, one day a Gestapo stool pigeon managed to penetrate the operation.

On April 26, 1942, the Gestapo came to carry out arrests, but a firefight broke out, in which two mid-level Gestapo officers were killed, Kriminalrat Gerhard Berns and Kriminalsekretär Henry Bertram.

The Nazi viceroy, Reichskommissar Josef Terboven[*], decreed retaliation. On April 30, the SS landed with boats, deported the entire population of the village, and razed it to the ground. Had this been Poland or Russia, the entire population would likely have been killed outright. But as Norwegians were considered Aryans and not so-called “Untermenschen”, the men (aged 18 to 60) were instead deported to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp (north of Berlin), while the women and children were imprisoned at a school. A local doctor who knew how to “fake” positive tests for infectious diseases managed to prevent their further deportation.

The fate of the Norwegian inmates at KL Sachsenhausen is discussed here, in German, on the blog of Prof. Günter Morsch (former longtime director of the Sachsenhausen memorial site and author of a monograph on the camp). The SS inspector-general for Norway, Hans Loritz, had previously been the camp commander until deposed for corruption. He may have favored sending such Norwegian political prisoners there as were not incarcerated locally. (Additionally, about 900 Jews who were unable to hide or escape to neutral Sweden were sent to the extermination camps, including even the tiny Jewish community of Tromsø above the polar circle! [**] )

About half of the deported men died in the camp or shortly afterwards, mostly from privations suffered there. (Notices that their widows got from the camp administration, listing the usual camouflaged causes of death such as “pneumonia” or “heart failure”, are on display at the museum.) As explained by Morsch, at the end of 1942 the Norwegian inmates were given permission to receive food parcels (particularly from the Red Cross), which greatly reduced mortality among the Norwegians. In March 1945, finally, the Swedish diplomat Count Folke Bernadotte brokered an agreemeent that permitted the repatriation of Danish and Norwegian prisoners via what came to be known as the “Bernadotte Buses”. Only a single, moribund Telavåg prisoner was left at the camp.

The returnees rebuilt Telavåg after the war. Their fellow Norwegian inmates had included a number of intellectuals (from the former Chancellor of Oslo University to the son of polar explorer and humanitarian Fridjof Nansen), and Morsch explains that Sachsenhausen survivors played a very prominent role in Norwegian postwar politics.

In 1998, a memorial museum was opened at Telavåg.

As for Josef Terboven, he committed suicide on VE-Day rather than face an assured death sentence and execution.

[*] Terboven was first and foremost a party boss, the erstwhile Gauleiter (regional leader) of the NSDAP for the Ruhr area.

[**] I will blog about their tragic fate, and Tromsø in WW II more generally, in the near future.