The Norwegian wartime vessel Hitra arrived in Scalloway on Friday morning for the 75th anniversary of going into service as part of the Shetland Bus operation, writes Alex Garrick-Wright.
The recently restored ship was escorted to Shetland by the tall ship Statsraad Lehmkuhl, which was carrying 80 members of the veterans’ group Norges Veteranforbund for Internasjonale Operasjoner (Norwegian Veterans’ Association for International Operations).
Both ships arrived at the quay to waiting crowds and a cheerful atmosphere.
As well as veterans, there were various dignitaries in attendance, including the Mayor of Bergen Marte Persen and relatives of Norwegian men killed in the Shetland Bus operations.
After disembarking, all 140 visitors descended upon the Scalloway Museum for an informal reception hosted by the Shetland Bus Friendship Society, which was instrumental in organising the trip.
Many of the passengers were arriving in Shetland for the first time. A number of the veterans expressed their happiness at being able to see Shetland, and wanted to express their gratitude for the risky work of the Shetland Bus clandestine naval operations between Shetland and Norway to evacuate refugees, and bring over spies and aid to the resistance in Nazi-occupied Norway.
Halvdan Larsen, a former chairman of Norges Veteranforbund for Internasjonale Operasjoner and travel leader for the trip said the veterans had a “responsibility to guard the history and taking care of [it] for coming generations”.
“It’s very important for us new veterans to tell the history of the Shetland Bus, so it’s very important for us,” Larsen said.
The Hitra was donated by the US Navy to the Royal Norwegian Navy in 1943. Along with two other submarine chasers (Virga and Hessa), the Hitra protected the fishing boats that ran back and forth to Norway on secret missions.
While many lives had been lost since the operations began in 1941, there were no further fatalities after the three sub-chasers joined the Shetland Bus.
Mayor of Bergen Marte Persen said that the bond formed between Shetland and Norway during this time is still strong.
“The hospitality of the people here on Shetland means a lot. It was a very important route for refugees from Norway coming to Shetland during the World War,” she said.
“We have a lot of gratitude towards the people of Shetland, and I think it makes the connection between our two countries very strong.”
Following the reception, the veterans and visitors were given the chance to see some of the isles, with groups being taken to a number of locations in Shetland including Lunna and Kergord (where the Shetland Bus HQ was based) as well as tours of Scalloway.
Also on the itinerary was a concert in the Scalloway Hall on Friday night, where local musicians Jenna and Reid performed compositions based on the escapades of Jan Baalsrud, the Norwegian operative whose hair-raising adventures following a Shetland Bus mission gone wrong have become the stuff of folk legend in Norway.
Sunday will see a service and wreath-laying at the Shetland Bus memorial in the centre of Scalloway.
Author and historian Asgeir Ueland was also joining in the celebrations, giving talks in both Norwegian and English on Friday and Saturday on the Shetland Bus.
Ueland’s recent book, Shetlandsgjengen (The Shetland Gang), tells the story of the Shetland Bus in never-before seen detail, covering hitherto-unknown aspects and stories about the operation and the men involved.
“The importance of the legacy [of the Shetland Bus] is that we’re now heading into a new era,” Ueland said.
“There’s about one remaining man in Norway out of about 300 who served during the war. Now we’re seeing a new generation coming in; sons, daughters, neighbours, local historians… and there’s been a fantastic revival of the connection over the last decade or so, between Scalloway in particular and Norway.
“The interest is still very much alive, I think. And there has been a lack of knowledge over the last 30 years or so, because that was when the last book came out.
“People are hungry for more information, particularly because these men seldom told their stories to their children. I met a lot of children of Shetland Bus men who came and asked ‘What did my father do?’, ‘How many trips did he do?’ and all that kind of thing.”
The visit and anniversary events had been the results of two years’ hard work for the Shetland Bus Friendship Society, which also runs the Scalloway Museum.
Events coordinator Janne Glesnes Martin had been main organiser, with – she noted – a lot of help from various people both in Shetland and Norway.
The project has a very personal dimension for her, whose family history is inextricably linked to the Shetland Bus:
“My grandfather was in the Shetland Bus,” she explained. “He did something like 58 trips across the North Sea. My granny, she was a Scalloway girl, and they met in Scalloway in the war, and they married, and they did live a little bit in Shetland, but then settled in Norway.
“I came to Shetland on holiday for two weeks about 26/27 years ago. And I’m still here,” she laughed.
The atmosphere between the visitors and the hosts was buzzing with cheer and energy. An overwhelming sense of camaraderie and friendship was evident among the dozens of people involved in this very unique anniversary.
While Shetland likes to focus on the isles’ ancient Norse connections, for this weekend it will surely be a much more recent connection that takes priority.
“Everything has just gone so smoothly,” Martin said, “and everyone’s so happy, and so grateful… for the programme we have made for everybody for the weekend; it’s brilliant.”