The Shetland Bus

I re-read last week The Shetland Bus, a book by David Howarth, one of my favorite non- fiction writers.  He was British and predominantly a military historian.  He wrote an excellent history of Trafalgar, another of Waterloo and many others. During WWII Howarth was in the British navy and helped operate what was called “The Shetland Bus.” That was the name the Norwegians gave the small fleet of Norwegian fishing boats that the British operated from the Shetland Islands during WWII.  The boats carried spies, radios, munitions and supplies to the Norwegian Resistance and brought out refugees and Norwegians whom the Gestapo was after.  An excellent website commemorates their achievements and failures.

A Shetland Bus in the North SeaWhile the boats were actually in Norwegian coastal waters they were fairly safe because each looked just like the hundreds of other legitimate fishing boats.  But the run back and forth in North Atlantic in the winter killed lots of men.  (The Bus couldn’t operate in the summer because of the long days which allowed German aircraft to find and sink them. The Germans weren’t as effective against the boats during the long Arctic winter night.)  Nonetheless many were lost, some due to enemy action , many more due to the weather. It was about 200 miles from the Shetlands to the Norwegian coast, through the winter time North Sea.
Here is a map of the run across the North Sea.

Map of the Shetland Bus Routes

The book is a rollicking good adventure story, full of espionage, seamanship and individual and community acts of incredible bravery.  And death.  Here is what Howarth wrote:

. . . to ascribe glory to the violent death of any young man loving life is only to add further to the failure of human wisdom which is the cause of war.

. . . .[Our friends’ deaths] will always remain with us and haunt us, and remind us that though wars can still bring adventures which can stir the heart, their true nature is of innumerable personal tragedies, of grief, waste and sacrifice, wholly evil and not redeemed by glory.


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