War hero Bamse

The St. Bernard who become a symbol of courage in Norway and Scotland

war hero Bamse

Photo: Tove Andersson
The Honningsvåg statue of Bamse stares out at the harbor like a good boy.

Tove Andersson
Oslo, Norway

It has been 10 years since Bamse (teddy bear), ship’s dog and war hero, was honored with a statue in his hometown of Honningsvåg, Nordkapp municipality.

Bamse became an iconic dog during World War II, and on June 20, 2009, the local bookshop, G. Hagen (now closed), arranged a book signing with the authors of Sea Dog Bamse: World War II Canine Hero, Angus Whitson and Andrew Orr. They hoped they had written a bestseller, and their dreams became reality as the book was reprinted several times and the story of the Norwegian dog continues to sell.

The dog

war hero Bamse

Photo: Marinemuseet
Lt. Oscar Jensen with Bamse.

When King Haakon had to escape from Norway in 1940, the ship’s dog, Bamse, was on guard on the minesweeper HMS Thorodd, one of the 13 Norwegian naval vessels that escorted Norway’s king to years of exile.

This was the beginning of an extraordinary story that caught Orr’s interest. He teamed up with Whitson, a published author who grew up in Montrose, Scotland, where the minesweeper was based during the war.

“There were still a number of people alive in Montrose and Dundee who had clear childhood memories of Bamse from the war, and some who continued to look after and maintain his grave. Andrew was able to trace Vigdis Hafto, the daughter of Capt. Erling Hafto, commander of HMS Thorodd, and Dr. Willie Jan Nilsen, son of Olav August Johan Nilsen, who was second in command of Thorodd for a short time. They were both wonderful primary sources of information,” Whitson says.

Bamse grew up on the North Cape island of Magerøya, the northernmost tip of Europe, facing the North Pole. When World War II broke out, harbormaster Captain Hafto took the St. Bernard with him on the minesweeper HMS Thorodd—as a registered crewmember. Bamse was not merely a mascot for the Norwegian navy during the war. The crew was extremely attached to him, a dog with empathy and unusual skills.

“My father was Lt. Commander Olav August Johan Nilsen, who served with the Royal Norwegian Navy from 1940 until 1945,” tells Nilsen, who now is retired from his career as a psychiatrist in South-Troms, Norway. He has written the story in English at the Bamse Montrose site www.bamsemontrose.co.uk/harticle.php?id=5.

Bamse saved two men and was posthumously awarded the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor for animal bravery, in July 2006. He saved one of the men from a dockside stabbing by pushing the would-be assailant into the water. The other was saved from the water when, in 1942, Bamse was the only crew member to see a sailor go overboard. He barked to alert the other crew members, then jumped into the water and swam to the sailor, who survived despite being unable to swim by clinging to Bamse’s fur.

“In September 1940, Capt. Hafto was given a new command and Lt. Reidar Cook Thovsen took over command of Thorodd. I’ve always thought it was most generous of Captain Hafto to leave his family pet and longtime friend with Thorodd’s crew when he was posted to his new ship,” Whitson says. 

Surprisingly, the dog was prone to seasickness and he was known to creep into a cabin and seek comfort from the sailors to whom he normally provided comfort.

Montrose statue

war hero Bamse

Image courtesy of Alan Beattie Herriot
“Bamse Plays Football,” a drawing by Alan Beattie Herriot, the artist who sculpted the statue of Bamse.

The book came after the dedication of Bamse’s statue on Montrose harbor front. Orr headed up the committee that raised the funds, commissioned the statue, and arranged a royal unveiling with Vigdis Hafto, who still remembered the dog, present.

In Scotland, the first statue, sculpted by Alan Beattie Herriot, was raised in 2006 by the Montrose Heritage Trust. “Prince Andrew [asked] me if I had used a model to sculpt Bamse. I explained that Bamse was not as jolly as the St. Bernard of today and that particular look had been bred into them over the past 50 years,” Herriot says.

Herriot is based at Howgate, just outside Edinburgh, Scotland, and has been a professional artist since he graduated from Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in 1974.

Whitson recalls that children from the primary schools lined Wharf Street, backed by several hundred adults, with representatives of the Royal Norwegian Navy and British Navy present at the unveiling. Among the invited guests were Bjørn Eilertsen, Norwegian consul in Edinburgh and Commodore Charles Stevenson of the Royal Navy.

The story became a bestseller in Scotland.

“There is active interest in Bamse and his story. The statue and the story have become very much part of Montrose’s story and is visited throughout the year. And there is continuing interest from Norway too. A Norwegian Garden Tour is visiting Montrose in May, and the tour operator has requested a talk on Bamse and the full Bamse experience. A party of schoolchildren from Honningsvåg (Bamse’s home port) will also be visiting Montrose later in May, specifically to visit the statue and grave. There have been parties of Norwegian visitors over the years, the most memorable being a party of WWII veterans two years ago—the oldest being 99 years old, if I remember correctly,” says Whitson.

Honningsvåg statue

Almost 70 years after Bamse left to join the crew, a duplicate bronze statue of the mascot and freedom symbol was installed on the waterfront in Honningsvåg. The Royal Norwegian Navy cutter MV Leikvin transported the statue from the Port of Leith, Scotland, to Norway. Schoolchildren from both Honningsvåg and Montrose celebrated with music and speeches.

In Honningsvåg harbor, Mathias Brunner from Switzerland stops to look at the statue of the sea dog, surprised to notice a St. Bernard. He just got off the ship, Hurtigruten, and is amazed as he reads the story.

“It is actually in my hometown in Switzerland these dogs are bred,” he explains as he reads the short version about the dog.

The statue has a special place in the hearts of Honningsvåg inhabitants. During the war, the dog’s home town burned to the ground. Only the church was saved, and the few black and white photos in the book on Bamse reveals the horror.

The great St. Bernard died on July 24, 1944. Children still tend his grave today. It is even possible to walk in the dog’s pawsteps at www.bamsemontrose.co.uk/bamse-map.php.

This article originally appeared in the June 28, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.

Avatar photo

Tove Andersson

Tove Andersson is a freelance journalist who writes about travel and culture. She conducts interviews for the street magazine Oslo while writing poetry and fiction. Jeg heter Navnløs (My name is nameless) was published in 2020. Her website is www.frilanskatalogen.no/frilanstove, and she can be reached at tove.andersson@skrift.no.