Born: March 1, 1920;

Died: October 15, 2021.


JAKOB Strandheim, who has died aged 101, was the last surviving member of the celebrated Shetland Bus, a secret and highly dangerous seaborne operation to move supplies, soldiers and agents between Shetland and occupied Norway during the Second World War.

The conditions in which Strandheim and his comrades operated could not have been more treacherous. To avoid capture, the trips were made during the winter when it was darker, which meant less chance of being spotted by the Germans but also meant terrible conditions at sea. Several boats were lost.

The risk of being detected by the Germans remained, however, and the crews of the Shetland Bus boats attempted to avoid it by disguising their vessels as fishing boats. Their weapons were hidden in oil drums and could be swung into action if the Germans got too close. Several missions were ultimately unsuccessful and 44 men are known to have died.

Strandheim became a member of Shetland Bus, officially known as the Norwegian Naval Special Unit, shortly after the German occupation of his country in the spring of 1940. Just 20 at the time, he was at home in the coastal town of Torsvick and, like many other Norwegians, started making plans to escape to the UK.

The obvious plan was to get a boat across the North Sea to Shetland. Jakob’s father, Nils, a fisherman, owned two boats and Jakob had worked for him on one of them

after leaving school at 16. With his brother Mons, he took one of the vessels, Skjergar, and put his plan into operation.

Thousands of other Norwegians were doing something similar, escaping on small fishing boats. And, when Jakob arrived in Shetland, he was taken down to London to be questioned about what he knew about the occupation. Realising that he had useful skills, the authorities sent him to the Merchant Navy, where he worked for four months.

He was then assigned to the Shetland Bus and was trained in the use of handguns, hand-grenades and various other weapons for dangerous trips across the North Sea. In spring and summer it was too bright for the secret operations so the Shetland Bus ran from late September until March.

Strandheim experienced several close calls. On one occasion, an RAF plane shot at their boat after mistaking it for a submarine. On another, he was called out on a search mission for another vessel, Aksel. It was never found and the entire crew was lost. He had been due to be on the Aksel but his plans had changed when he fell ill.

After the tragedy, Strandheim continued as the skipper of another vessel, Andholmen, and they were lucky never to be attacked by German planes. David Howarth, a British naval officer who was second-in-command of the Shetland base, said the key to success in the initial phase was looking innocent to German eyes.

“We armed the ships as best we could,” said Howarth, “always bearing in mind that to appear as innocent fishing boats might often be their best chance of survival, so that the armament had to be invisible except at close quarters.”

The men of the Shetland Bus were also aware of the critical importance of the work they were doing. Not only were they helping the Norwegian resistance movement by getting supplies into the country, they were helping to get Allied agents out of the country in order to escape capture.

It is estimated that, by the end of the war, the operation had helped to deliver more than 400 tonnes of weaponry and more than 600 men and women, who were either intelligence agents, soldiers or refugees.

Men like Strandheim also knew the terrible risks they were running for anyone caught helping them. In April 1942, for example, two British agents were discovered hiding in the village of Telavag and the Nazi authorities inflicted a terrible punishment. Every building in the village was burned to the ground, the people’s livestock was confiscated and all the adult men were sent to concentration camps, where almost half of them died.

By 1943, after completing dozens of missions, the men of the Shetland Bus were complaining to London about the lack of protection they were being given during missions and the submarine chasers Vigra, Hessa and Hitra were sent to protect the operations, with Strandheim serving on Hitra for the rest of the war. After the change, not a single life was lost.

Working for the Shetland Bus meant that Strandheim – who completed 56 voyages for the operation in all – established strong and enduring links with Scotland. The operation was initially run from Lunna House on Lunna Ness before moving to Scalloway in 1942, where there is now a permanent memorial. Earlier this year Strandheim was also honoured with a memorial plaque at his home in Oygarden outside Bergen.

After the war, he returned to the fishing industry that he had grown up in and rekindled a relationship he had started before the war with an office worker called Mary Johansen. They married in 1950 and had three children – Truls, Aase, and Marit. Strandheim was awarded Norway’s St Olav’s Medal, which recognises Norwegians who have promoted strong relationships with other countries.

Following his death, Alistair Carmichael, the MP for Orkney and Shetland, lodged a parliamentary motion recognising Strandheim’s passing and his contribution to the Shetland Bus.

Mr Carmichael said: “It is right that we recognise the passing of this part of our history from living memory. We are proud in the isles of our historic links to Norway, and of the vital role these islands played in the course of the world wars.

“Jakob’s role – and that of the other crew members and local communities – is something that we must continue to commemorate and learn from even as the events themselves become more distant.”