This is a ‘soap box’ posting. I’m just stepping up onto it now …
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Dark winters provided the perfect cover for missions to occupied Norway during the Second World War, and the closest base was from Britain’s most northerly group of islands, Shetland.
Most Norwegians knew about the “Shetland Bus”, which did not go overland, but across the North Sea, taking supplies and saboteurs into the fjords under the noses of the Germans, and taking refugees to safety on the return journey – journeys in small fishing boats which covered thousands of miles, testing the skills of the Norwegian seamen who risked their lives in hurricanes, fog and darkness to make the crossing.
David Howarth was a junior naval officer who helped set up and operate the base. After the war he wrote a book “The Shetland Bus”, a story of successes and failures, and the courage, skill and adventurous spirit of the men who risked their lives on the Shetland Bus.
If you’ve not heard of this episode in World War 2 then I can thoroughly recommend David Howarth’s book. I’m not a huge fan of wartime stories (fact or fiction) but this one is special and worth reading. It can be ordered online from Amazon at £7.59, or from your local bookshop (ISBN-10: 1898852421), or I’m sure you could order it from your local library (check the online catalogue on their website!).
I am fortunate to have in my possession a first edition (1951) copy of the book. I have read it many times since it first came to my consciousness in the 1970s. And last month I wasparticularly looking forward to revisiting some of the sites associated with the wartime operation during our visit to Shetland last month, in particular Lunna and Scalloway. I rather think Marion was a bit bored with my telling of the story before our visit, but I believe she now shares my own enthusiasm that the tale should be remembered appropriately.
We were rather shocked at what we found in the way of remembering this unique story on the British side of the North Sea, particularly after completing a tour of Lerwick’s splendid new museum and archives at Hay’s Dock which brought together a unique collection of memorabilia which tells the story of Shetland over the centuries, but completely omitted any mention of The Shetland Bus (even in the WW2 exhibit).
So shocked, in fact, that I resolved to contact Shetland Amenity Trust (the local body responsible for preserving and promoting Shetland’s culture and heritage) to lament the lack of an appropriate commemoration in Lerwick and also to highlight that the presentation of such exhibits as are available for public viewing at Scalloway Museum are in a parlous state and, I fear, in danger of being lost if prompt action is not taken to preserve them for posterity.
Twelve days ago I sent an email to the general manager of the amenity trust, copied to the two Shetland Island Council nominated trustees and the Norway’s Ambassador to the UK offering a visitor’s perspective on the apparent disinterest (in Lerwick) of something that I feel deserves to be given a much higher profile.
On 8 May 1995, the fiftieth anniversary of V E Day, a commemorative memorial naming the Shetland Bus men was unveiled in Ålesund, Norway, by HRH Crown Prince Haakon.
Shetland emulated Norway a full eight years later. In 2003 a local body called the Shetland Bus Friendly Society, acting under the auspices of Scalloway Community Council, unveiled Shetland’s not-easy-to-find – and rather more modest – memorial in the village. Someone called Barbara Melkevik officiated. I don’t think she had an HRH monicker
Well, hats off to Scalloway Community Council and hurrah for their memorialisation, but even so it does seem a bit half cock compared to how Norway commemorated the wartime heroism doesn’t it? I mean, why wasn’t this initiated by Shetland Islands Council? Perhaps the community council got nowhere with the council when urging them to do something?
I can’t help feeling that the official Shetland “remembrance” of the wartime mission isn’t regarded with quite the same priority or feeling of Anglo-Norwegian fraternity that still holds in Norway.
I do feel very passionate about this heroic tale; I’ve been thinking of blogging about it since I sent my email. Today I decided to publish the text of my email for posterity’s sake.
“I should like to offer you some feedback on a recent visit I made to Lerwick and Scalloway Museums, which I hope you will receive in the warm spirit with which it is given: constructive rather than critical.
“I was most disappointed to find that the Shetland Bus story does not merit any form of mention in the (Lerwick) museum display areas. I looked very carefully and found nothing. I even enquired of museum visitor services staff in case I’d missed something less obvious – but they confirmed that there are no ‘bus’ exhibits at Lerwick with the singular exception of a model of a Norwegian fishing boat (the ‘Arthur’) at the foot of the staircase in the shop area.
“[A representative] from Visitor Services explained to my companion and I that the Scalloway Museum holds the Shetland Bus collection since Scalloway was the base for the wartime operation. Notwithstanding this, I found it rather peculiar that the islands’ principal museum, a landmark development indeed, made no mention of the Shetland Bus, particular in those exhibits that related directly to the last world war. This seems rather disingenuous to the memory of those who participated in the operation at a local level plus of course the many Norwegians who would have had Shetland connections during, and after, the German occupation of Norway, not to mention the souls who lost their lives during the ‘bus’ operation.
“Earlier the same day we had visited the Scalloway Museum with the explicit intent of seeing the ‘bus’ exhibition. I’m afraid we were rather shocked at the poor presentation and condition of many of the exhibits available to view. There were plenty of original items on display, available to touch. Many precious documents than cannot be replaced were looking – frankly – a bit moth-eaten and frayed at the edges. Such exhibits deserve much better preservation and presentation for the benefit of future generations. The museum staff at Scalloway were most welcoming and very friendly, but we left with the impression that they and the museum itself was a bit of a time warp; left behind by the 21st century. I don’t mean that in any insulting way to the individuals concerned – they clearly have a passion for the artefacts in their care, but I do question whether they have the right resources and skills to both preserve and present the history of Scalloway and the Shetland Bus to best effect.
“Our later visit to Hay’s Dock in Lerwick only accentuated what we had perceived to be really quite significant shortcomings at the Scalloway Museum. A comparison between the two establishments would not be favourable. [We were informed at Lerwick Museum] that there are plans afoot to redevelop Scalloway Museum, and we were heartened to learn this, but I am greatly concerned that swift action is required now to preserve the Shetland Bus memorabilia before it is too late.
“There were quite a number of Norwegians in Shetland last month for Johnsmas Foy. We couldn’t help wondering what they thought of the lack of representation at Hay’s Dock for the Shetland Bus; I’m sure some of these visitors must have known about the Shetland wartime operation (particularly those who had sailed across from Bergen) and have taken an opportunity to visit both Scalloway and Lunna during their stay. I can’t help but believe they would have been disappointed to see the way in which this important element of Shetland’s maritime history seems to have been pushed to one side.
The North Sea Monument in Ålesund
“I should very much like to encourage you to find a way to present the Shetland Bus within the main museum in Lerwick in addition to the existing (or future) museum facility at Scalloway. It is such a wonderful story from the last war, very much a secret wartime operation (not unlike the Bletchley Park/Enigma story in many ways), and I believe that much could be done to improve the telling of the tale to future generations.
“But I believe the most pressing thing is to preserve the memorabilia on display at Scalloway to save it for posterity; it really is quite tragedy that’s unfolding there, and I’d like to ask you please to do something about it. I care for its well-being and I think that many Norwegians will do so too. In the darkest days of WW2, ordinary Norwegians knew that fishing boats were making dangerous journeys across the North Sea on their behalf. That kind of historical connection between Shetland and Norway is well worth celebrating and preserving properly.
“If you can find a way to marry the two museums together to present the ‘bus’ more appropriately I should certainly wish to return and see it for myself.
“Finally, the Shetland Bus memorial on the harbour-side in Scalloway is a lovely monument, but not very easy to locate if you don’t know where it is. I think Scalloway would benefit from a brown tourist sign pointing the way to the memorial!
“I hope you will find this feedback of some use in your exhibit and museum development planning.”
I’d be interested to know what you think of the above. Don’t hold back! If I’m wrong, then please tell me so.
I’m feeling a bit giddy now, so I’m stepping down off my soap box …