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Our Fishing Heritage
Chapter 11. Fishing Boats in Wartime

Part 3. Wartime, Spies, Gun runners, and Pirates

German submarines operated in the waters around the British Isles for much of the Second World War. They did not trouble our fishing boats much, probably saving their torpedoes and ammunition for important targets. During WW1 however, many fishing boats were fired upon and sunk, but even then the U-boat captains usually allowed the crews to leave in their small wooden life-boats before firing on the fishing vessel.

A U-boat surfaced close to my father’s boat, the Resplendent, when they were towing their gear in the Irish Sea. There was little my father could do so they fished on and had their lunch till the net was hauled, observed all the time by the captain and officers of the German submarine. Seemingly convinced that the Resplendent was no threat, the U-boat submerged and disappeared from view. Another vessel from our home port, the Briar, had a similar experience, but it was later sunk ironically, in a collision with a Royal Navy boat.

Scapa Flow, U-47, and the secret operations of Norwegian trawlers

The part of Scotland that saw most fishing vessel involvement in wartime was probably The northern isles of the Orkneys and the Shetlands. The sheltered waters within the Orkney islands was a haven to naval ships in both the world wars, and it was from Shetland that a brave little fleet of Norwegian and Scottish boats plied the dangerous route between the two countries during the second world war.

There are surely few more pleasant and peaceful harbour towns than that of Stromness in the Orkney Islands. It lies inside of Hoy Sound to the west, and north of Scapa Flow which can be entered from the west, south or east sounds. Our boats often fished from Stromness, using it more than Kirkwall, since it was closer to the fishing grounds of Sule Skerry, Stormy Bank, and the Noup Deep. We loved our evenings in Stromness harbour where the local people were so welcoming and would treat us to their wonderful range of home-baked breads and pancakes. We were occasionally weather-bound in the Orkneys when north-westerly gales created heavy seas from Cape Wrath to the Pentland Firth. Even then it was a pleasure to wander around the old town and visit sites like the stream and spring on the west side where Captain Cook obtained water for his ship when he was charting the sea bed around the islands.

During the war years, many of our boats were stationed there as tenders, servicing the naval fleet and ferrying men and supplies to and fro. The fishers made many friends there, and those friendships lasted long after the war years. I was to visit families like the Shearers who had entertained my uncles, and who extended similar kind hospitality to us. But in 1939, some 17 years before I first set foot there, the serene Orkney islands and their sheltered Flow were the scene of a terrible naval disaster, the first major one of the Second World War.

On Friday 13th October 1939, a German U-boat entered Scapa Flow from the east, through Holm Sound. The submarine was the U-47, and its Captain was Lieutenant-Commander Gunther Prien, who had been selected and briefed by Admiral Donitz himself. The secret assignment was code-named Operation Order North Sea No.16. Prien accepted the dangerous and challenging mission, and set sail from Kiel Germany on the 8th of October, entering the North Sea after passing through the 60 mile Kaiser Wilhelm canal. His route across the North Sea took him over part of the Dogger Bank where the main obstacle was the large fleet of fishing boats operating in that area. The U-47 continued north and west towards the Orkney Islands, often resting quietly on the sea-bed during daylight to avoid detection.

The plan was to reach the entrance to Scapa Flow when both periods of slack water would take place during the hours of darkness. The currents around the southern part of the Orkney Islands were greatly affected by the powerful tides of the Pentland Firth. Any miscalculation of the direction and force of the tide could result in a vessel being beached or wrecked. Some later commentators on the operation have speculated whether the U-boat got access to local information or even more active assistance. It is unlikely, but we will mention one possibility as a footnote.

A problem arose as the submarine approached Orkney. The lubricating oil was found to contain water and this brought fears of engine malfunction. The chief engineer and crew struggled all day to rectify the problem. Eventually they isolated the leak and cleaned the oil of water. When the engine was restarted, all went well. The ship was then prepared for battle and explosive charges set in case they have to scuttle it rather than be captured.

At 1915 hours on the evening of 13th October, the submarine which had been lying on the sea-bed most of the day, surfaced south of the Orkney Islands near to Holm Sound. As darkness fell the Captain and crew were astonished that night sky became lit up with a remarkable display of Aurora Borealis, - the Northern Lights. The celestial illumination from above the Arctic Circle shone on the land and the bay below, causing some concern for the men as their boat would be clearly visible on the surface inside Scapa Flow. However, it was agreed that the mission had to proceed. A substantial warm meal was prepared and enjoyed by all the crew, then Captain Prien steered the submarine towards Holm Sound. They entered the sound around midnight, with the tide in their favour, and proceeded speedily past the blockships, navigating carefully through the narrow strait in Kirk Sound. Just before one o’clock on the morning of the 14th, having ascertained the location and bearing of the main British naval ships, torpedoes were loaded at stem and stern and prepared for firing.

At 0100 hours on Saturday the 14th of October, a torpedo from U-47 hit the starboard anchor chain of the battleship. Apparently several torpedoes had missed their target, - the precise number being uncertain. Then at 0116 hours, two torpedoes struck the hull of the Royal Oak. After several violent explosions, the huge ship lifted up and settled back down, fatally crippled and on fire. Thirteen minutes later the great vessel turned over and sank, taking 24 officers and 809 naval ratings with her. On the submarine they heard a loud explosion, a roar and a rumbling. They saw columns of water followed by columns of fire with splinters flying through the air. The whole bay came alive.

Its dreadful task completed, and its torpedo tubes empty with only 5 in reserve for the return trip, the U-boat made for the Sound to exit from the Flow through the same passage they had entered a couple of hours before. But now it was getting near low water, and the channel had become narrower and shallower. The tide had also turned against them and even at full speed they made slow headway. But before 0230 they had cleared out of Holm sound and set a SE course for home. Behind them a glow from Scapa Flow was visible for some time, testimony to the destruction effected.

U-47 arrived at Wilhelmshaven port, Germany, on the morning of 17 October. The Captain and crew were flown to Kiel and Berlin where they were congratulated by Admiral Donitz, and Adolf Hitler who had dinner with them and presented Prien with the Knight’s Cross.

One year and five months later, Captain Prien and his submarine vanished near Rockall. It is not known whether they struck a mine or were hit by depth charges from a British Naval ship. Gunther Prien had made 10 U-boat voyages and sunk 31 ships with a total tonnage of 194,000. His biography, Mein Weg Nach Scapa Flow, was published in Germany in 1940 and sold over 750,000 copies.

Postscript : An unconfirmed story claimed that Admiral Donitz received useful intelligence about Scapa Flow from a German spy called Albert Oertel. He was thought to have posed as a Swiss watchmaker in Kirkwall, the Orkney capital. British intelligence officers do believe that Donitz received at least one helpful message before the attack, but do not identify the source. Attempts to trace any records of Albert Oertel, in both Orkney and Germany have been fruitless, so he may have been an invention to hide the real identity of the messenger. One rumour had it that he boarded U-47 before it entered Scapa Flow, and returned to Germany on the submarine. As a former seaman myself, I find that suggestion implausible.

I have sailed past the wreck of HMS Royal Oak in Scapa Flow, more than once, - or past the spot under which its huge rusting hull remains. I have also visited Pearl Harbour and stood over the remains of another battleship, the USS Arizona which was destroyed with the loss of 1,300 men, 500 more than were lost on the Royal Oak. The Pearl Harbour attack took place on 7th December 1941, fourteen months after the attack on Scapa Flow. Pearl Harbour was struck by bombs from the air, and the Scapa fleet by torpedoes from below the sea. My conclusions from the remains of both these mighty ships are two : First the awesome bravery and sacrifice of the hundreds of young sailors who perished; and Second, the utter folly and madness of war as a means of resolving the differences between nations.

Brave little fishing boats of Norway and Shetland

Just to the north of Orkney lie the Shetland Isles with an ancient seafaring tradition that stretches back to medieval times, and has had strong links to Norway and other Scandinavian countries. Our boat never fished out of Shetland, though I worked briefly on Granton trawlers fishing off its coasts. But I was to visit these northern islands several times on different missions during the 1990’s. For some years before and after, I cooperated with Shetland’s Fish Producers Association, its much admired fish Quality Control Service, and its North Atlantic College, based at Scalloway on the west coast. A leading fisherman and fish farmer, Alastair Goodlad, served for a while in the UN FAO, and a relative of his, John Goodlad, represented the Fishermen’s Association for several years. Two of my friends from home, Jim Ralph, and Bill Simmonds, headed the RNMDSF mission in Lerwick at different times. Shetland is a fine example of a small island community that has managed its economy and its fisheries well, despite geographical and logistic handicaps. But it is the bravery and sacrifice of its people during the war, we will consider here.

Six months after the sinking of the Royal Oak, 34 small boats arrived in Lerwick, Shetland, from Norway. They were a motley collection of fishing boats and yachts, together with a small freighter and a steamer. But they carried a precious cargo of 200 refugees from Norway which had been invaded by Germany the previous month. This was a prelude to the secret ferrying of agents and undercover officers from Norway to Scotland that was to continue through much of the war. A few months after the arrival of the first party of Norwegian refugees, the SIS, Secret Intelligence Service, together with the SOE, Special Operations Executive, Norwegian Section, opened a temporary office in Lerwick. They engaged in prolonged discussions with some of the Norwegian skippers who had arrived in May, with a view to organization of successive voyages to carry special agents to and from Norway. The following year an independent operational group was formed to implement the plan.

Requiring a central command office, and a base for the vessels to work from, the unit, (officially NNIU, Norwegian Naval Independent Unit), which was led by a Major Leslie Mitchell, assisted by Lt. David Howarth, commandeered Flemington House in Lerwick, and Lunna House at the sound of the same name, to the north. The boat crews were accommodated at Lunna house, while Flemington House was used for training saboteurs and house agents. The Lunna sound base was later moved to Scalloway on the west side of Shetland as there were better maintenance and slipping facilities there for the boats. Lunna Voe continued to be used however, for preparing special operations like the attack on the battleship Tirpitz. In Scalloway, the crews were accommodated in a net loft owned by Nicolson and Company. Dinapore House was utilized as a base headquarters. The crewmen were all civilians who were hired for a wage of £4 per week.

Incoming refugees were allowed to use Flemingtom House at first, but later they were billeted at a camp in James Sutherland’s herring factory in Browns road. This camp was run by a Shetland man, James Adie and his Norwegian-born wife. Flemingtom House was also visited by HKH Crown Prince Olav of Norway in October 1942. In December of that year Major Mitchell left the Unit and Captain Arthur ‘Rogers’ Slater took over the leadership in Scalloway. His wife, Norwegian-born Alice, acted as Welfare Officer for the crews.

A fleet of 14 fishing boats was assembled. All were Norwegian vessels, to minimise suspicion when they passed through Norway’s waters and fjords. The boats were of two kinds, - Hardanger cutters from Bergen, and Moere cutters from around Alesund. The first had straight stems and long sterns. The second type were more rounded in shape and were considered better seaboats in bad weather. The vessels ranged from 50 to 70 feet in length, and had 30 to 60 hp single-cylinder semi-diesel engines favoured by Scandinavian boats of that time. The motors emitted a characteristic “tonk-tonk” sound.

The first voyage was made by the FV Aksel, skippered by August Naeroy. It sailed from Hamna Voe, west of Lunna Ness, on 30 August 1941. Four crewmen assisted Naeroy on the journey. Two months later, the Aksel was followed by the Siglaos, but it was attacked by German aircraft, causing the first casualty of the operation, 23 year old Nils Nesse from the island of Bomlo south of Bergen. Six of the little fleet of vessels were to be sunk by enemy action, or captured, or lost in bad weather. These were the Sjo, Aksel, Sandoy, Fejoy, Bergholm, and Bratholm. A total of 30 brave young men serving on the six boats, lost their lives. A particularly tragic loss was that of the Blia, a small boat of only 56 feet, which sank in very bad weather at the start of its voyage back to Shetland. It was carrying 36 passengers, all of them wanted by the Nazis. Years later a bottle was found at Hafrsfjord near Stavanger believed to be from the Blia, with the poignant message, “We are sinking. Tell my wife and child farewell – help them.”

Also heading for Shetland through the same storm, in November 1941, was the FV Arthur. The boat was attacked by German aircraft during the voyage, but managed to survive the onslaught. It then suffered an engine breakdown and drifted helplessly for five days. One of the crew was washed over the side just north of Unst when huge waves were breaking over the little boat. Amazingly the Arthur eventually made it safely to port in Shetland.

In addition to the dangerous ferry trips back and fore between Norway and Shetland, the NNI Unit planned some dangerous special operations and trained men to undertake them. Most of the operations ended in failure and much loss of life. The Brattholm, a large whaler, sailed from Scalloway on 24 March 1944, heading for Toftfjord, a small island north of Tromso. Aboard were 6 crewmen and 5 agents who were to organize and instruct local resistance groups. They were surprised by German patrols who opened fire on them. Only one of the eleven men, Jan Balsrud, escaped,

The fishing boats were easy prey to German aircraft and naval vessels, and it was decided in 1943 to strengthen the fleet with three larger, faster vessels. Accordingly, in October 1943, the Hitra, Virga, and Hessa, MTBs, motor torpedo boats, or submarine chasers of 110 feet, 1,200 hp, were transferred from the US Navy. They had a top speed of 22 knots, and a cruising speed of 17 knots, - twice that of the fishing boats. With the arrival of the MTBs, the group became a part of Norway’s navy, and was renamed “Royal Norwegian Naval Special Unit”, RNNSU. The MTBs suffered no casualties, and greatly improved the security of the “Shetland Bus” fleet.

By the end of the Nazi occupation of Norway, the little fleet of fishing boats and their brave crews had transported 192 agents to Norway, and brought 73 agents and 373 refugees to Shetland. Together with their motor torpedo boat consort vessels, they had also carried 383 tons of supplies and weapons to Norway. Over the four and a half years of the “Shetland bus” voyages, a total of 44 of the fishing boat crewmen lost their lives.

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