This will be an occasional series on people I especially admire. Most have made sacrifices opposing tyranny or other forms of evil; some are undeservedly unsung.
Today’s entry is dedicated to all who fought fascism in the war that ended 60 years ago on this day. It is about a war hero from my hometown, Bergen on the west coast of Norway. He is Leif Larsen, the most legendary skipper of a ferry service out of the ordinary – the ‘Shetland Bus.’
In the summer of 1940, as conventional resistance to the German invasion beginning on April 9 had ceased and the King and government evacuated to Britain, there was a desperate need to maintain a link to the occupied homeland. To the task rose the Shetland Gang: a group of sturdy Norwegian sailors and fishermen recruited by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) to defy some of the roughest seas in the world, plus the German air force, navy, and police. During the first three years of what was known as the ‘Shetland Bus,’ these men used fishing boats to carry agents and equipment to the Norwegian coast, and refugees – many of them wanted by the Nazis – back to Shetland.
In August 1941 Leif Andreas Larsen, a sailor since the age of 16 and a volunteer in the Finnish Winter War, joined this maverick team. When the crewmen were allowed to elect their own skippers, Larsen was the first to receive the honor, of which he proved himself worthy by completing an incredible 52 crossings. So uncanny were his feats that the Brits referred to him as “the Larsen;” his men would have followed him over the edge of the world.
Several times his vessels foundered under dramatic circumstances. In October 1942 he led an effort to sink Tirpitz, the largest battleship of the German navy, in a fjord near Trondheim. The mission was aborted as the two-man submarines in tow were lost during a storm; abandoning ship, Larsen and his crew had to fight their way to Sweden over land. And in March 1943, on the way back after supplying the resistance in Northern Norway, his boat was sunk by enemy aircraft with six of the eight-men crew hit. After rowing for four days back to occupied territory and hiding out there, the survivors were at last picked up by an MTB sent from Shetland for them.
Such events made it clear that fishing boats no longer cut it, and in Autumn 1943 the Gang got two submarine chasers under the US Lend-Lease Agreement. In 1944 Larsen took command of a third chaser, the Vigra. Fast and armed to the teeth, carrying a crew of 26, these vessels evened the odds; German planes would tend to flee on sight. Whereas previously ten percent of those setting out had perished, the Shetland Gang was able to carry out 114 missions without fatalities during the last two years before liberation.
Indispensable as the ferry operation was, it exacted a high price both from the crew and their onshore aides. For instance, In April 1942 the Gestapo surprised two Norwegian agents just arrived with the Bus, the ensuing shoot-out claiming one of them and two Gestapo officers. In reprisal, the fishing village of Telavåg where the men had landed was burned to the ground. All females from 12 weeks to 94 were interned for the duration of the war; males between 16 and 60 were sent off to Sachsenhausen where 31 of them died. 18 young Shetland travelers and the surviving agent were shot. Such were the stakes for all involved.
For his role in the Shetland Gang, Leif Larsen became the highest decorated Allied navy officer of WWII, his distinctions including the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal, the Distinguished Service Medal and Bar, the Distinguished Service Cross, and the Distinguished Service Order, in addition to a host of Norwegian ones. Yet he remained an utterly modest man, relishing anonymity ever after. People in Bergen would meet him, discuss the war, and have no idea who they had talked to until told by others (“You have met Shetland Larsen!”).
Not all accomplished warriors share this trait. On one occasion Field Marshall Bernard Law Montgomery visited the city and so exasperated everybody with his pomposity that the mayor begged Larsen to attend a formal reception. To show off his medals, ‘Monty’ had insisted on gala, so Larsen arrived in his best wear – a blue office suit. The mayor achieved his purpose: The Viscount of Alamein was visibly stunned to find that the unknown Sub-Lieutenant had the higher distinctions.
There were many heroes like Larsen and his men in World War II: people most of us have never heard of and never will. Up against the ultimate organized evil, they put everything on the line in a fight they did not know would be victorious. We really do owe them everything. And today, even more than usual, is a time for remembrance.
This British website has more on the Shetland Bus, including two brief interviews with Larsen in English which feature his characteristic Bergen accent and total modesty.