Seventy-one years ago, on September 26, 1944, a Vickers Wellington Mk XIV bomber aircraft with a crew of six Canadian airmen took off from Scotland on a routine anti-submarine patrol along the German-occupied Norwegian coast.
Despite rough weather conditions, the operation was green-lighted and the aircraft reached the patrol area at 3:30 a.m. After a couple of hours on patrol, the starboard engine malfunctioned and caught fire. The crew decided to turn toward the Shetland Islands, the closest Allied land.
Before long, it became clear that the weather conditions would make it hard to traverse the North Sea on one engine. The crew desperately dumped equipment, ammunition and some fuel to decrease weight. This resulted in a malfunctioning valve and a permanently leaking fuel tank. Without fuel, the crew had no choice but to turn the plane toward hostile territory to make an emergency landing. Sometime around 6 a.m., the aircraft landed in rugged terrain in Os, Hordaland, Norway.
While the crew miraculously survived the landing without any injuries, other dangers were imminent. The German contingent in the region was stationed very close to the landing site, and was quickly alerted to the enemy aircraft’s landing. German soldiers – 4,000 of them – were dispatched to seal off the peninsula where the plane had landed.
The crew made their way to a cave in the surrounding hills, but soon realized they would need help from the local population to sneak past the tight German containment. The crew eventually came in contact with a woman indirectly connected to Milorg, the Norwegian resistance movement. Finding someone willing to help on their first try was truly a stroke of luck; it was common knowledge that the German punishment for assisting enemy activities was execution by firing squad.
Resistance fighters quietly escorted the Canadian crew from the hills down to the shore, where they had stationed two rowboats. Knowing that German motor boats were frantically patrolling the shoreline to prevent the Canadians’ escape, Milorg had muffled the oarlocks of the boats with rags in order to avoid detection.
Protected by a shroud of mist, the rowboats drifted past several German patrol boats and a German sentry who appeared to be reading a newspaper. Upon reaching a bridge guarded by a German soldier, one of the resistance fighters climbed out and engaged the soldier in conversation in order to allow the rowboats to glide by silently. After a while, the group arrived at its temporary hiding place, a boathouse that previously had been occupied by Germans. It was located on the island of Strøno, just 400 metres across the strait from the German garrison. The Milorg soldiers knew the Germans would never think to look for the Canadian airmen in their own vicinity.
Over the next couple of days, Milorg prepared a move to a more permanent hiding place. The destination was a small log cabin in the mountains, which meant undertaking a 30-kilometre boat trip up two fjords and past several German patrol boats and fortifications. Storing the airmen under a tarpaulin in a 6.4-metre motorboat’s fish container, Milorg transported the Canadians across the fjord to a place called Hattvik. Thankfully, the passing German patrol boats did not stop them for inspection.
Upon crossing the fjord, the crew temporarily took shelter in another boathouse, which a German officer had been using as a meeting place for himself and his Norwegian girlfriend. Luckily, this officer had been posted to other duties for a few weeks just a day before the crash landing. Milorg knew to take advantage of this opportunity, and had acquired the boathouse key for the occasion.
Escorted by Milorg leader and British intelligence officer Helen Mowinckel Nilsen, the crew travelled past Lonningdal to the log cabin the following day. After a long trek up a steep mountainside, they finally arrived at the cabin where they would spend the next week.
The land around the cabin was very reminiscent of the Muskoka region in Ontario. Knowing that the Norwegian Air Force in exile, training at Toronto Island airport in Ontario, had called their camp “Little Norway”, the crew decided to name the cabin “Little Canada”. To this day, the Canadian flag is on display in the window, and locals still refer to the cabin by that name.
With the Canadians in temporary safety, isolated from the rest of the world, Milorg worked behind the scenes to prepare the crew’s permanent evacuation. In coordination with the London intelligence unit, it was decided that the Norwegian segment of the BBC news would carry two coded messages to signal the beginning of the operation. The first, “Keep the meatballs warm”, would be broadcast 24 hours before the crew was to be at the rendezvous point. The second, “It rains in the mountains”, would be sent the night the rescue boat would arrive.
On the day of the evacuation, a week after arriving in “Little Canada”, the crew and a group of Milorg fighters descended the same mountainside they had climbed earlier. Their first planned stop was for a quick meal at a farmhouse used by Milorg. When the group was a few hundred metres from the farm, they saw that German soldiers were in the process of searching it. Watching from cover, the crew once again thanked their luck; they had evaded yet another patrol.
To prepare for the operation, Milorg had sabotaged German telephone communications and blocked one of their main roads with boulders. They had also stationed armed sentries in strategic places, who would alert the group about German patrols.
The group crossed the fjord and headed toward the outer coast in a fishing boat named “Snogg”, and passed several German submarines and naval vessels on the way – all in broad daylight. The group waved at the passing German sailors. Oblivious to their identity, the Germans waved back. The fact that the Germans never stopped the escapees for inspection on any of their boat rides is in itself an incredible fluke. Such inspections were very common at the time, and increased German presence made it even more likely they might be stopped for a search.
After a nerve-wracking boat ride, the crew landed on a small islet called Ospøy, where they waited for the boat that would take them to Britain. The vessel that picked them up was His Norwegian Majesty’s Ship Vigra, a submarine chaser captained by Leif Larsen, who would become the most famous captain in the Shetland Bus, a Norwegian fleet of small fishing boats that transported agents, weapons, radios, and other equipment between Shetland, in Scotland, and Norway.
On October 13, the Canadian crew arrived safety in Britain. Their strenuous journey was finally over.
The Canadian crew and the Milorg men met several times after the war to fondly reminisce about the successful rescue operation. In 1979, Harvey Firestone, the Wellington’s gunner, met a former German soldier who had been part of the search group. He told Mr. Firestone that he had spent four miserable days searching in vain for the Canadian crew in the rainy weather for which the Norwegian west coast is famous.
In May 2014, Heather Deeth, the granddaughter of Second Officer George Deeth, visited the crash site in Os. With the help of Bjarne Øvredal, grandson of Milorg member Haldor Øvredal, Ms Deeth retraced her grandfather’s footsteps and located “Little Canada”. The cabin is still there, but in deteriorating condition. Mr. Øvredal is now leading efforts to restore the cabin and preserve it as a historical landmark for future generations.
Article and some accompanying photographs adapted from/courtesy of the Deeth Family, at http://sixsacksofpotatos.deeth.ca/.
With files from Flight Sergeant (ret’d) Harvey Firestone, also a member of the crew of the Vickers Wellington Mk XIV bomber aircraft. Visit http://www3.telus.net/Norway-2004/ to join Flight Sergeant (ret’d) Firestone and members of his family as they visit Norway to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the events featured in this story.
The Shetland Bus was organized off the books in 1941. The undercover fleet of small fishing boats established a link between Shetland, in Scotland, and occupied Norway, ferrying agents, information, arms and refugees between the two. In 1942, as the fleet became established, it was renamed the Norwegian Naval Independent Unit – but still operated off the books. In autumn 1943, the unit’s intrepid sailors earned their stripes when the little fleet officially became the Royal Norwegian Naval Special Unit (RNNSU).
The boats made their crossings at night, more often in winter when the likelihood of encountering enemy ships and aircraft was greatly reduced. Although the captains and crews knew the waters and the weather intimately, crossing the North Sea in winter with no lights was fraught with the danger of discovery.
The boats were disguised as what they were – fishing boats with crews. Although they carried concealed machine guns, a few crossings ended badly and several boats were lost.
The RNNSU was finally equipped with three submarine chasers, His Norwegian Majesty’s Ships (HNoMS) Vigra, Hessa and Hitra. HNoMS Vigra, captained by Leif Andreas Larsen, made 52 trips into Norway without being detected by the enemy, and Captain Larsen became the most highly decorated naval officer of the Second World War.
In total, the Shetland Bus transported 192 agents and 383 tons of weapons into Norway, and 373 refugees out.
In Emergency Landing, Arnfinn Haga, a noted Norwegian lecturer primarily known for his books about Norwegian resistance during the German occupation from 1940 to 1945, tells the story of the six Canadian airmen in greater detail, with a focus on the people of the Milorg resistance organization who made the escape possible. In 2003, Mr. Haga was awarded the King’s Gold Medal of Merit for his writings about the Second World War. At the presentation of the medal, Svein Alsaker, County Governor of Hordaland, said, “With your books, you have created a monument to the altruistic and courageous work of many. You have also communicated proud chapters of our wartime history to future generations.”