Author journeys in the path of World War II bravery
Tracing the footsteps of the Norwegian resistance
Don Pugnetti Jr
Gig Harbor, Wash.
A half-hour into sunrise, the lighthouse appeared in the distance. I stood near the bow of the Viking cruise ship, Neptune, with eyes fixed. The landmark’s white tower at the southern tip of Bressay Island grew larger. I became gripped with emotion. I imagined what this identical sighting had been like on Sept. 27, 1941.
On that day, my wife’s Uncle Magnus had spotted the same lighthouse near the end of a harrowing voyage across a stormy, turbulent North Sea to the Shetland chain of islands north of Scotland after fleeing Norway. At that time, Norway was a year and a half into Nazi Germany’s five-year oppressive occupation.
Wendy’s uncle left his homeland after fearing the Gestapo had learned of his resistance activities. The Nazis had prohibited fishing boats from going more than 50 miles off the coast and had rationed fuel to keep them close to their home ports. As a district sheriff, Magnus was responsible for issuing fuel-rationing cards. Working with the Kristian Stein resistance organization in Bergen, he provided additional rations enabling boats to make North Sea crossings to smuggle out people who needed to leave.
When the Gestapo had caught wind of the organization’s operation arranging transportation, Magnus had realized arrest was near certain. Forced to leave his wife and two young children, he and 19 others made the journey on a 62-foot fishing boat, Arnefjord 1, facing gale-force winds and battering seas.
The boat and its storm-weary passengers put in at the lighthouse on Bressay. Because Magnus spoke English, he went ashore to contact the lighthouse keeper, who called for a British military boat to escort the fishing boat to the capital of Lerwick.
Eight decades later, I was witnessing the same lighthouse, one that I had described in my book, A Coat Dyed Black: A Novel of the Norwegian Resistance, published in 2022. Wendy and I seized on a 15-day Viking cruise—with extended stays in London and Norway—that allowed us to revisit many of the places that I described in my historical novel as well as other World War II sites related to the war years in Norway.
There are many such places scattered throughout England, Scotland, and the Shetland Islands, in addition to Norway. Some are highly visible and well known. Others are obscure, off the beaten track, and difficult to find.
Several days before the ship left Greenwich in May this year, we began our World War II adventure in nearby London. We were fortunate to be there on Victory in Europe (VE) Day, May 8. Our day started by trekking to a nondescript memorial on the banks of the Thames across from the parliament complex. The monument commemorates a secret British organization, Special Operations Executive (SOE), which trained, equipped, and sent commandos and agents back to their Nazi-occupied countries to provide intelligence and to carry out acts of sabotage. Dubbed Churchill’s secret army, SOE sponsored a Norwegian special-forces unit known as Kompani Linge.
On one side of the stone memorial, which was unveiled in 2009, is a plaque that recognizes Kompani Linge commandoes who sabotaged the Nazi-operated heavy water plant in Telemark, thwarting Germany’s attempts to develop an atomic bomb. On VE Day, the Norwegian Embassy in London laid a wreath at the memorial’s base below the plaque.
Historic relics also popped up in the St. Ermin’s Hotel just around the corner from where we stayed near Buckingham Palace. Here, Churchill had met with military and other officials in 1940 to set up the SOE. The fourth floor held the original headquarters of the organization. Just off the hotel lobby, a glass case now displays artifacts from that heralded unit.
A stately Gothic-style structure in London’s borough of Wandsworth once housed girls orphaned by the Crimean War. But during World War II, the Royal Victoria Patriotic Building was used as a reception center to process refugees fleeing Nazi-occupied countries.
All Norwegians who escaped to England were interviewed there before receiving permission to stay and to contact Norway’s exiled government. The building now contains apartments, small businesses, and professional offices.
At Inverness in the eastern Scottish Highlands, we signed up for a cruise-ship excursion to Drumintoul Lodge on the Rothiemurchus estate within Cairngorms National Park. Kompani Linge special forces trained on this 18,000-acre estate before being clandestinely transported back to Norway to lead resistance activities against the Nazis.
The estate’s stately stone manor served as the headquarters for the training, which also took place at neighboring Glenmore and Forest lodges. With a backdrop of plunging cliffs and jagged spires of the rugged Cairngorms mountain range, the estate blends a dense forest of Scots pine with rolling foothills. Four of the five highest peaks in the United Kingdom loom in the Cairngorms.
All this provided a formidable training ground for special forces. The lone remnant of Kompani Linge training at Drumintoul is a time-worn wooden barracks that housed trainees. Exiled Norwegian King Haakon VII visited here in 1944 to inspect the training.
That stop was followed by our Shetland visit and the earlier described passing of the Bressay Island lighthouse. We docked at Lerwick, the main city of the Shetland Islands with a population of 7,500.
Our walking tour through the quaint and cozy city ended at Hay’s Dock, a stone pier where my book’s main character arrived after fleeing Norway and subsequently departed for home as a highly trained commando. The Shetland Museum and Archives opened in 2007 at the pier, displaying a rich history of the islands and a smattering of World War II artifacts.
“As Shetlanders, we always feel close to Norway, as they are our neighbors across the sea,” said Anita Georgeson, owner of Shetland Guided Tours, who led us on a private adventure rich in history and meaning. “The links to that Norse past endure today, with the dialect and place names having their roots in the old Norn language.”
The Shetland Islands played a significant role during the war in support of Norway. It was the home base of the so-called Shetland Bus, an SOE-sponsored fleet of fishing boats that shuttled Norwegian special forces, supplies and weaponry to Norway’s west coast and returned with refugees.
We visited Lunna, a picturesque place 27 miles north of Lerwick where the operation established its original headquarters. It was housed in what is now a spacious manor house overlooking a small quiet bay and surrounded by sheep-grazing meadows of heather and wild grass. The first Shetland Bus trip to Bergen left from here in mid-August 1941.
In the spring of 1942, the fleet moved to the village of Scalloway to be near a shipyard that maintained and repaired the boats. Now the Shetland Bus Museum stands there to honor the operation with an extensive display of artifacts and detailed explanations of its contribution and sacrifices.
“During the war, the Norwegians who spent time here were very much part of the community,” said Georgeson, a native of the islands. “Some Shetland girls married Norwegians, and my Aunt Helen was one of them. Shetlanders feel proud of the part they played in the Shetland Bus operation and mark this with a poignant memorial on the Scalloway waterfront.”
Our cruise ship left Lerwick, crossing the North Sea to Bergen on the same path that so many of those fishing boats traveled throughout the war. Bergen, Norway’s second largest city, bustles with vibrancy, blending tourists with a younger generation of professionals and families.
In our search for legacies of World War II, we obtained the help of Inge Bjørnar Eriksen, coauthor of Sabotører i Vest (Saboteurs in the West), a substantive nonfiction book about resistance activities in and around Bergen.
“World War II history is present all over Bergen,” Eriksen said. “Some of it is very visible. Other parts of that history are not so obvious to discover, like areas with the buildings that were hit during bombing. Several documented incidents also took place on city streets and in buildings that are much the same today.”
The Gestapo Museum is one of those places hidden in plain sight. It was just a block away from our hotel in a nondescript four-story building that blends in with neighboring office buildings. A small, simple metal embossed sign, “Gestapomuseet,” hangs by the entrance to the upper floors, the only indication it’s there.
Opened in 2021 and located on the building’s third floor, it proved an emotionally moving place, where the prison cells are preserved. The Gestapo took over the building after Nazi Germany’s invasion and transformed it into a chamber of horrors. Suspected resistance fighters who were arrested underwent interrogation and torture there. Some were ultimately executed. Others went to prisons and concentration camps.
My father-in-law, Magne, was one such resistance member who suffered the Nazi brutality but survived the war and immigrated to America to escape memories. His story of what he endured there is on display in the museum. My recorded interviews with him were critical resources for my novel.
“This is not a museum commemorating the Gestapo,” museum Board Chair Tor Jan Ropeid emphasized. “It is about the bravery of those brought here and about what some people are capable of doing.”
A monument outside the museum commemorates the resistance fighters who were subjected to Nazi terror inside. The museum depends entirely on volunteers and has no regular operating hours. Currently, visits may be made through appointments.
Two blocks away from the museum is the site of another significant war-related event. Unmarked and invisible to virtually every passerby, it’s the place where the resistance assassinated Norwegian Nazi state police officer Olaf Njøten on Nov. 3, 1944. Njøten had been effective rooting out resistance groups, leading to numerous arrests. He was gunned down on the sidewalk of a side street outside a building that had held state police headquarters. A fictionalized version of the assassination was told in A Coat Dyed Black.
On the outskirts of Bergen in the borough of Laksevåg, we stopped to pay homage to a memorial remembering 61 children and 193 civilians killed in October 1944 when an allied bomb had hit a school and neighborhood during a raid on a nearby German U-boat bunker. The bunker, now a Norwegian Navy submarine storage and repair facility, is off limits to the public.
We also jumped at a rare opportunity to visit Hernar Island on the outer edge of the North Sea. Hernar was the departure point for Uncle Magnus and the others in their harrowing voyage to the Shetland Islands.
Getting to Hernar island required more than an hour’s drive from the city over a series of bridges that connect the islands. A passenger-only ferry completed the last leg.
The carless island boasts a landscape of rugged beauty. Lush clumps of wild grass and patches of heather flourish among gray granite boulders. Waves crash against rock cliffs and low ledges.
“It’s an island that has been an important landmark since the Viking era,” said Eriksen, whose wife, Ingvild, grew up on the island where they share a vacation home with family. “The natural shielded harbor and close distance to the North Sea made Hernar an ideal drop and pick up point for the resistance during the war. Local fishermen were assisting both the refugees leaving and securing weapons and ammunition coming the other way.”
During the war years, between 100 and 150 people lived on the island. Today, there are 10 residents and 40 homes, mostly for vacation and weekend use.
Another war-related stop on the west coast took us high into the mountains roughly 50 miles north of Bergen to the Bjørn West Museum. Located in the Matrefjella mountains at the village of Matre, the museum tells the story about a guerilla force of Norwegian soldiers organized and trained largely to fight German troops near the end of the war should Nazis try to destroy infrastructure in their retreat.
Located in a house that had been taken over by the area’s commanding German officer, the museum has a healthy collection of weapons, military equipment, and artifacts.
Oslo, the final stop on our trip, offered more World War II-related sites. The stately Victoria Terrasse building complex in the city’s center housed German security forces, including the Gestapo. It used upper floors to interrogate and torture Norwegians suspected of participating in resistance activities. The large complex is now occupied by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
About a mile away was a notorious address, Møllergata 19. Here was an aging but imposing building that once held Oslo’s police and court system. During the war, the Nazis occupied this building, too.
Behind the building was a city jail, which gained the address its notoriety. German authorities converted it into a prison reserved mostly for Norwegians considered most dangerous to Nazi rule. Wendy’s father was imprisoned there for the last six months of the war. He was able to avoid execution and survive starvation and harsh conditions that had led to many deaths.
The Norges Hjemmefront Museum, located at Akershus Fortress, offers the country’s most comprehensive picture of the Nazi occupation and resistance activities. We were heartened that so many school children and kids came through while we visited to view the large collection of items and read about the history.
Throughout our trip, we found that objects and stories showing what courageous Norwegians did to overcome Nazi tyranny are preserved and valued.
Don Pugnetti Jr. may be contacted through his website, donpugnettijr.com.
All photos by Don Pugnetti Jr.
This article originally appeared in the August 2023 issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.