E-exhibition "Great escape over two seas"

Great escape 1943-1944

Although escaping from the war’s way and going into exile are not new phenomena, they did not become widespread until the 20th century, when warfare encompassed enormous territories at a time. Empires dissolved and fleeing from the onslaught of war as a result of World War I was only an introduction to what was yet to come during World War II and in its aftermath. Although the Commission for Refugees of the League of Nations was established in 1921 and it actively addressed the refugee issues (including the issue of temporary documents in replacement of passports or identity documents, i.e. the so-called Nansen passports, to stateless people or refugees in the receiving state and the official recognition of such documents among the member states of the League of Nations) and tried to solve the problem of prisoners of war after WWI, the uniform determination of the refugee and exile status was not guaranteed. The events that accompanied the end of WWII also brought along changes in the principles of international exile policy that were manifested in the form of the United Nations Convention of 1951 relating to the Status of Refugees. The circumstances of the people who fled Estonia in 1944 played an important role in the determination of these principles.

The beginning of 1944 turned Estonia into a battlefield again – the Red Army broke through the Siege of Leningrad and the front soon reached the Narva River. Lengthy and bloody battles began in the north-east of Estonia. In order to cripple resistance the Soviet air forces also bombed towns located farther away from the battlefront. The bombing of Tallinn on 9 March 1944 involved the greatest number of casualties.

Narva was conquered in the end of July. Unable to break through the Tannenberg Line, the Red Army now concentrated on the south-eastern direction and conquered Tartu in the end of August; however, the advancement of the front got stuck on the Emajõgi River for three weeks. On 22 September Tallinn was conquered by the Red Army and after fierce battles on the island of Saaremaa, especially on Sõrve peninsula, Estonia was again under the rule of the USSR by the end of November 1944.

The first Soviet occupation (1940–1941) had left a sore stamp on Estonians’ memories – in June 1941 almost 10,000 people were deported to Russia. An additional 7,000 were arrested based on political accusations. Almost 33,000 men were mobilised into the Red Army and a great majority of these men never saw their homeland again. About 25,000 people were evacuated from Estonia to the Soviet Union and in the spring of 1941 about 7,800 people were able to reach Germany as resettlers. These figures are all estimations, but all in all the human losses of the first year of occupation were very high in Estonia, exceeding 70 000 people. In addition to human losses the new authority also forced people to leave their homes if these happened to be on the sites of future Soviet military bases (for example in northern and western Estonia).

A turn in military activities in 1943 sent the first alarm bells ringing: approximately 2,800 people fled the country by boat mostly through Finland and Sweden. In the summer of 1944 by the permission of the German authorities 3,700 Estonian Swedes were evacuated by the Swedish authorities. The so far relatively small-scale fleeing and evacuation turned large-scale in the summer and autumn of 1944. All in all 80 000 people left Estonia (both as a result of the evacuation to Germany as well as escaping to Finland and Sweden).

No group of people can be highlighted among the refugees of 1944 based on more specific characteristics. All sorts of people escaped: young and old, men and women, blue-collar workers and intellectuals, farmers and townspeople. Fleeing was difficult both mentally as well as physically. On the one hand people had to leave their homes and face the unknown (there were many who could not, indeed, make the decision to leave home and stayed on in Estonia, in fact, being unable to decide), but on the other hand the frame of mind was not entirely gloomy.

People were convinced that the situation was only temporary; that the Western world would not leave Estonia in the power of the Soviet Union and that soon – perhaps even when the spring came again, if not earlier – they would return. Practical matters were agreed upon with the neighbours who stayed, property was left in their care and off they went. The decision to leave was often postponed until the last moment. The information about the escaping possibilities was passed from mouth-to-mouth; people often went to the shore to wait for a boat based on hearsay or simply to try their luck. This meant, in turn, that many who wanted to escape, did not succeed and had to return home.

It was considered important that the Prime Minister in the duties of President Jüri Uluots, and the members of the government of Otto Tief, be taken to Sweden. It was a common belief that there would certainly be a peace conference after the war and the participation of the higher members of authority would place weight on the legitimate power of the Republic of Estonia and would help to maintain continuity. The first of these attempts was successful, but the only minister in the government of Otto Tief who managed to escape was Secretary of State Helmut Maandi.

The ones who did manage to get on a boat, had to endure hours and hours of tossing. Summer had turned into autumn and the first autumn storms made their presence and could turn the trip into a 3-4-day voyage. The boats were generally made for coastal fishing and were not meant for considerably longer journeys with too big a crowd aboard.

One also had to take into account that until the last moment it was “officially” only permitted to evacuate to Germany from the approaching Soviet forces and those fleeing to Sweden had to take a risk that they could be arrested by German navy officers when captured. It is not known how many perished during their flight. The evacuation officially organised by German authorities was not much safer – Soviet planes scuttled the hospital ship Moero in the morning of 22 September (although estimates about the number of people aboard are ambiguous, the Moero catastrophe made it to the list of the ten worst shipwrecks) and on October 6 a torpedo was sent out to scuttle the Nordstern.

The total estimated number of those who perished might be as high as 6–9% of the total number of refugees, although according to some estimations it was considerably less, as the information concerning the refugees is scarce.

“They longed the feel of solid ground under their feet; imagine that one could long for it so much! A tiny island was all they wanted... but maybe also to find shelter, maybe also to meet people, maybe even so unnaturally kind people that they would greet them, holding hot chocolate and warm pancakes in their hands,” wrote Astrid Lindgren in her book Seacrow Island, when describing the children’s experiences in a little boat on the sea captured by fog. The illustrator of Astrid Lindgren’s books, Ilon Wikland, was one of those who escaped to Sweden in a fishing boat and it may be suspected that the description above has been derived from Ilon Wikland’s experience.

A warm welcome, a set table and the relief of being safe were the little things that brought comfort and happiness to the refugees in their new place of residence. Turning to politics – the refugees did not know that during the Tehran Conference in 1943 the allies had acknowledged the borders of the Soviet Union as of 1941. Although Estonia’s occupation was not acknowledgedde jure, it nevertheless meant that Estonia was back under the power of the Soviet regime. Hence the initial hope for a quick return turned out to be false.

Even worse – the Soviet authorities started working actively in order to reclaim the Estonians located in Finland, Sweden, Germany and elsewhere from their countries of residence. On 25 September 1944 the Estonians who had escaped to Finland had to leave for Sweden as the Soviet Union demanded the extradition of all of its citizens from Finland based on the armistice agreement entered into between the two countries. From 1945 to 1946 Sweden extradited, alongside a couple of thousand Germans, 150 German soldiers coming to Sweden from the Baltic States wearing German uniforms, to the Soviet Union and the Swedish communist party called for the deportation of all civilian refugees from Sweden. This gave birth to the second wave of escaping or the so-called era of Viking ships. Those who had fled once now attempted to escape as far as humanly possible from the hands of the Soviet authority. Although most stayed in Sweden, about 6,500 people escaped from Sweden in the end of the 1940s, mostly to North America. And if there was no better solution, there was no other way than to cross the Atlantic Ocean on a sailing yacht.

The circumstances of the refugees who reached Germany were not much better either – they were also threatened by the risk of involuntary repatriation and the western allies had no clear opinion or understanding of what to do with the people from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and which attitude to adopt. This is how the historically quite unique DP camps – camps for displaced persons – came into being; these were camps meant for the people who had fled Eastern European countries to escape war or communist power. The biggest camps for Estonians were located in Geislingen, Augsburg and Lübeck and at the peaks the number of refugees at each of these reached several thousand. DP camps were closed down at the beginning of the 1950s when the refugees resettled in other countries or started integrating into the society of their state of residence.

An interesting fact: a separate unit – Estonian Guard Company 4221 – was formed under the US Military that consisted mainly of the refugees who reached the DP camps in Germany. Its duties included guarding the persons accused of war crimes during the Nuremberg war tribunal. Ironically 92% of the members of the Guard Company were former members of the Estonian Legion or assistant air force officials.

As a result of these flights considerable Estonian communities emerged in many countries (Sweden, Canada, the US, Australia, etc.) and these communities worked actively to promote the preservation of loyalty to Estonia outside Estonia and doing the “Estonian thing” in general. A tradition of ESTO days emerged in 1972. ESTO days were events organised every four years in which the participants reminded the whole world that Estonia had been illegally occupied with the help of peaceful demonstrations and cultural events. The exile ended with the restoration of Estonia’s independence after which many of the exiles and their descendants returned to Estonia, but most still stayed on in their new homelands.

Shetland bus 1941-1945

The small Shetland Islands (area 1427 km², population 23 200) lie mid-way between Norway and Scotland and they played a more important role during the Second World War than one could expect. This particular phenomenon is known as the “Shetland Bus”.

Germany’s military ambitions before and in the beginning of WW2 foresaw conquering Norway to ensure that the Allies would not be able to blockade Germany as they had done in WW1. It also needed to secure the port of Narvik and the supply of iron ore, vital for the German war effort. Germany attacked Norway on the 9th of April 1940. Although Britain had declared war on Germany on the 3rd of September 1939, Shetland had not been on the frontline.

The British responded to the German invasion and from April to June 1940 there were quite heavy battles in various parts of Norway between the Allied forces (together with Norwegian and British armies also Poles and Frenchman fought) and Germans. The losses on both sides were high. The British lost at least 4,500 men, 3 cruisers, 8 destroyers, an aircraft carrier HMS Glorious & 112 aircraft. The French and Poles lost 500 men each and the Norwegians lost 1,800 men. The Germans lost 5,000 men, 3 cruisers, 10 destroyers, 4 U-boats & 242 aircraft. Despite the efforts, on the 10th of June Norway capitulated.

The invasion and subsequent occupation of Norway led to an exodus of Norwegians. Some of them had fought against the German forces, but the majority of those who fled did not want to live under the Nazi yoke. They headed both to the east and to the west, i.e. more than 50,000 Norwegians fled across the Norway’s long land border with Sweden, but those who lived along the lengthy Norwegian coast often chose a different destination. They chose to head west in small boats to Britain, particularly to Scotland and especially to Shetland.

The flotilla of boats started to head west to Shetland as soon as the German invasion had taken place. All in all, during 1940, 56 boats fled Norway, of which 30 boats arrived in Shetland. They carried 200 refugees, plus 100 British servicemen, and Norwegian service personnel. In 1941 the numbers increased. Nearly four times as many boats left Norway (191 in all), of these 120 reached the capital of Shetland, Lerwick, carrying 1880 refugees, including 155 women and 24 children. To try and halt the exodus on 26th September 1941 the death penalty was extended to anyone attempting to leave Norway. This had an effect. In 1942 only 17 boats left Norway. .

Most of those who headed west were young, unmarried men, on average between the ages of 19 and 23. They left their homeland mainly with the aim of joining the Allies so they could fight the Germans. Some 10% were women. They came from the entire length of the Norwegian west coast. However, some communities were particularly notable for the number of people who decided to head for Britain. For example, from the small island of Vigra, which had a population of around 1200, between 70 and 80 headed west, and from the fishing village of Tælavåg near Bergen, witha population of about 400, some 50 young people followed suit.


Overall about 300 boats were involved and about 3,300 people managed to escape. 16 boats sank and 137 people died. 13 expeditions with 121 people were taken by the enemy, of these 51 were executed and 9 died in captivity. Many of those who assisted were sent into exile or executed; the total cost in human life was over 320 Norwegian dead.

After being registered, fed, watered and dried off they were quickly sent south to the Royal Victoria Patriotic School in Wandsworth, London, where they were interviewed and the ‘quislings’ weeded out. In London many Norwegians were persuaded to join the war effort. Some were recruited into the Norwegian Independent Company, formed in March 1941, which was a British Special Operations Executive (SOE) group, better known as the Kompanie Linge. Others joined the Shetland Bus. Others returned to Scotland to continue working as fishermen in towns like Buckie, where between 300 and 400 Norwegians lived during the war.

The British authorities were aware of the small boats arriving from Norway. They developed plans to use them in the war effort as effectively as possible. By November 1940 the newly established Special Operations Executive (SOE), had decided to establish ME 7 (Military Establishment 7), which would be based in Shetland. The Shetland Bus is the nickname for the operation that was established. Although Norway was already lost to the Germans Shetland Bus played its part in British military policy towards Norway. A policy which involved planning small and large scale operations against the Germans, which did its bit to convince Hitler that the British were going to return to the European mainland in force through Norway. Between the middle of 1941 and June 1944 there were between 9 and 12 German divisions in the country. By January 1945 there were 15 divisions in Norway. This was a huge number of troops, especially given the pressure on the German Army elsewhere. In addition to the 340,000 German troops, much of the Kriegsmarine, the German Navy was also tied up in Norway. These were forces that could have aided the German war effort if they had been deployed somewhere else. The Shetland Bus was immensely important for propaganda, bringing hope to occupied Norway. The total volume of operations carried out as part of the Shetland Bus and the number of persons involved compared to German troops in Norway we must admit that the plan was ingenious.

The aim of the Shetland Bus was besides constant “harassing” of Germans to help fugitives (including allied and Norwegian soldiers) to Scotland, taking agents to Norway and provide Norwegian resistance with military equipment. Lerwick itself, followed by the little fjord of Catfirth and Lunna village, with its little, sheltered harbour were used as bases.

By May 1941, 6 boats were available for action and they had carried out 13 trips to the Norwegian coast from Bømlo to Trondheim. These trips had taught them that the missions would have to be carried out during the winter months, in darkness, when the weather was at its worst. Also, that as the German aircraft made many patrols along the coast out to about 50 miles off shore, the boats had to reach the 50-mile distance as darkness fell, so that they could get into a believable fishing position before day-break, so as not to raise suspicion.

During 1942 the Shetland Bus operations were moved from Lunna to Scalloway. Lunna had proven to be just too isolated, too lacking in repair facilities and too boring for the young men. Scalloway was a better prospect for the staff of roughly 30 British and 70 Norwegians. The village had people to socialise with (girls), there was accommodation available in the old net store now called Norway House, there was somewhere to store the ammo (the Castle), and most importantly there was Jack Moore’s engineering workshop, which became entirely devoted to maintaining the Bus boats.. All Scalloway needed was a slipway for the boats. This was quickly built, and officially named the Prince Olaf slipway in October 1942. Today the slipway is commemorated with a plaque.

There were almost 100 missions in total from Shetland to Norway using small fishing vessels. Despite the early successes this was a very dangerous operation as they had to avoid being attacked by the Germans and they had the weather to contend with. There were losses. The first ship to be lost was the Vita in September 1941. In November 1941, the Blia disappeared in a ferocious storm, and the 42 on board were all lost, including the 6 crew members and 36 refugees. This was the biggest single loss of life suffered by the operation.The winter of 1942 / 43 was an increasingly tragic time for the Bus. The Aksel, which sank 200 miles north of Shetland, and the Sandøy and Feie were lost with all hands. The Brattholm had been lost with only one survivor, the incredible Jan Baalsrud, whose escape over the Norwegian mountains into Sweden and his endurance have entered legend. 10 boats and 44 men were lost to winter weather and German surveillance, or roughly over half of the fleet and crews.

Generally speaking, the losses for the Shetland Bus were getting too heavy to bear. German defences had improved and fuel oil was so scarce in Norway that the larger fishing boats had given up fishing, which meant that the larger Shetland Bus boats were too obvious. It was becoming increasingly clear that the operation could not continue for much longer if it remained reliant on the fishing boats.. In August 1943 Admiral Chester W. Nimitz Commander-in-Chief of the American naval forces in Europe, hearing of the Shetland Bus troubles, ordered 3 fast sub-chasers, powered by twin 1,200 hp engines, to be sent to Britain and allotted to the Shetland Bus. They were given Norwegian island names – Hessa, Hitra and Vigra. These proved to the highly successful. Compared to the fishing vessels they were much better armed, having cannons at both stern and bow and a Colt machine gun on each bridge wing, and they were much faster, the fishing boats might achieve 5 knots, whereas the sub-chasers could reach 16 knots. In the winter 1943 / 4 the sub-chasers made 34 trips, landed 41 agents, picked up 13 and rescued a number of refugees. In the winter 1944 / 45 they landed a further 94 agents, picked up 33, and rescued 225 refugees. After they came into service not a single man or vessel was lost during the remainder of the war.

One of the most daring episodes in the history of the Shetland Bus was the plan to launch an attack on the German battleship Tirpitz, weighing an intimidating 42,000 tons, which was anchored in Trondheimsfjord. It posed a great threat to Allied forces in the North Sea and was tying up the British Navy in Scapa Flow..

An ingenious plan to sink Tirpitz was devised. The Arthur, captained by Leif Larsen, sailed to Norway on the 26th of October with 2 mini-subs called Chariots and their British crews. The CHARIOT was about 6 meters long, driven by electric motors. Its crew sat astride it in diving suits, protected by a type of 'windscreen' behind which were luminous instrument panels and controls. On its nose was a very large detachable warhead. The crew were to steer it below their target, unscrew the warhead, set a time fuse, attach the warhead to the bottom of the target with magnets, and then make their escape with the body of the torpedo. After a voyage fraught with danger, and the ARTHUR only a few miles from the TIRPITZ, a severe storm blew up. Still undetected, the subs were lost to bad weather. They scuttled the Arthur and made it ashore and headed for Sweden.

Leif Larsen (1906-1990) is the most famous of the Shetland Bus men, also known as “Shetland Larsen”. His previous participation as a volunteer in the Winter War on the Finnish side makes his war efforts even more close to Estonian hearts. Larsen, the most highly decorated allied naval officer of World War II made in all 52 trips to Norway. Perhaps the most dramatic of these, and the one which best shows his will and determination, was his mission to Traena in Nordland in March, 1943. A resistance group was based in Traena and Larsen's task as skipper of the Bergholm was to land three agents and four tons of arms and equipment. On the way back to Shetland, Larsen's boat was attacked by two German planes and left in a sinking condition. Although five of the eight-man crew aboard were hit, they got into a small, clumsy rowing boat. They were 75 miles from the nearest point of the Norwegian coast and 350 miles from Shetland. Larsen decided that as they had friends in the Ålesund area 150 miles away, they would row, even though only three of them were fit. Two men rowed at one time, while the third looked after the wounded. After rowing for four days they reached the Ålesund area and sometime later they were picked up and saved by a Motor Torpedo Boat sent over from Lerwick in Shetland to find them.

The Shetland Bus operations would not have been the success they were unless of the strong support shown by local inhabitants in Norway. In parallel with Shetland Bus clandestine groups appeared in a number of Norwegian areas to organise help for the refugees, finding boats and provisions. It was a very dangerous activity to be involved in, and as Germany intelligence improved during 1942 most of the so-called Export Groups were eliminated. One of the best-known organisations was the Stein-organisasjonen, led by Kristian Elias Stein. It had around 1500 members based in and around Bergen. Unfortunately, it was infiltrated by a Gestapo agent in 1942 and 200 men were arrested and taken to Bergen prison. After being imprisoned also in Oslo and Kiel they were taken to Rendsburg in the autumn of 1943 to be tried. About 20 were executed and the others were sentenced to 3 to 8 years hard labour in a ‘special’ camps.In all 51 out of the 200 died in addition to those shot. The exposure of the Stein Gang led to an increase in the demand for places on boats escaping to Shetland.


It was not only dangerous for the Shetland Bus boat crews. Any association with the Shetland Bus operation could end in tragedy, such as the events that happened at the small fishing settlement of Tælavåg. On the 26thApril 1942the Gestapo arrived to arrest two men who had arrived on a boat from Shetland. Shots were exchanged, and two Gestapo officers were shot dead. Reichskommissar Josef Terboven, who controlled the Nazi regime in Norway, oversaw the reprisal, which was quick and brutal. On the 30th April, all the buildings were destroyed, all boats were sunk or confiscated, and all livestock taken away. 72 men were deported to Sachsenhausen and 31 died in captivity, 268 women and children were imprisoned for two years and 18 Norwegian prisoners held at the Trandum internment camp were executed as a reprisal

There can be no doubt that the operation was a success in fighting the Germans in Norway and on the North Sea. In all 198 trips were made to Norway and over 383 tons of military equipment were transported. In addition,192 agents were landed, 73 agents were returned and 373 refugees were brought to safety. Approximately 3300 refugess escaped on 300 ships. Of these 16 vessels sunk and 137 persons died. 13 groups of refugees (121 persons) were caught by the Germans and 51 of them were executed while 9 died in captivity. Several of those who assisted the operations were also deported or executed. All in all, more than 320 Norwegians died in connexion with the operations. Also 44 crew men lost their lives. They are commemorated twice a year in Scalloway on May 17th (Norway’s Constitution Day) and on Armistice Sunday.

This heroic era in Norwegian and Shetland history is remembered in both Norway and Shetland to this day. It is memorialised in Bergen, with a sculpture of Leif Larsen, and in Ålesund there is a memorial to the Englandsfarere who took their fragile boats to seek freedom and safety. In Shetland in Scalloway there is the Shetland Bus Memorial, which has seen its share of important visitors, including Queen Sonia of Norway who visited in 2007. There are also two excellent museums that each in their own way tell the story of this extraordinary period. In the rebuilt village of Tælavåg, there is Nordsjøfartmuseet (The North Sea Maritime Museum), which opened on the 26th of April 1998, 50 years after the shootout.In Shetland there is the Scalloway Museum that has an excellent exhibition dedicated to the Shetland Bus.

What of the boats themselves? The fishing boat MK Andholmen which braved gales and German attacks while crossing eight times to Norway, still survives, as does the sub-chaser KNM Hitra, which successfully carried out 43 missions.