Sweden in World War II - across borders

Norwegian ships in Sweden

During the Norwegian kings and governments flight from German troops, they took an important decision at a meeting. They decided that all larger Norwegian ships were under the control of the Norwegian government. That was more than 1000 ships, including many modern tankers, and 25 000 sailors. Of the oil that was transported to Britain in 1941-42, 40 % came in Norwegian ships. [s13]

There were some 1200 Norwegian merchant ships. [s01]

When Germany attacked Norway on 9 April 1940, some Norwegian ships were in Swedish ports. I have seen different details about these, and include same various fragments on this web page. (The first fragment is relatively large, since it has so many connections to Sweden, but the source contains much more about these operations.)

There were between 30 and 40 Norwegian ships in Swedish harbours when Germany attacked Denmark and Norway. Nine ships (fired with coal) were used by Sweden for coastal traffic. George Binney, who was in Sweden as a representative for the "British Iron and Steel Federation", managed to get the approval to use Norwegian ships as storage for products that should be sent to Britain. One reason was that, in case of a German attack on Sweden, it would be easy to sink the ships so that the Germans could not get hold of the cargo and the ships. [s48]

The situation for Sweden was not so easy. Germany wanted to block Swedish shipping, where one reason was to prevent Swedish export to Britain and their allies. Britain wanted to block Swedish shipping, especially the iron ore that was exported to Germany. Sweden needed import of essential goods. It was easy to transport goods from Sweden to Germany. It was, or seemed, impossible to transport goods to Britain, at least in safe ways. There were German mines, patrol ships and planes. And also information from Germans and collaborators in Sweden about port and shipping activities. The limited Swedish "lejdtrafiken" shipping was granted safety by Britain and Germany, but could be stopped by either of the countries.

But Britain did not want to treat Sweden in a way that 'pushed' Sweden into any kind of satellite to Germany, and they wanted the Swedish industry to be occupied with production for the British. The Germans were not so interested of a total blockade against Sweden either. [s48]

It was not so easy for the Norwegian officers and crews who were internees in Sweden either. The ship owners were often in Norway, while the government which had fled to Britian had taken control of all larger Norwegian ships that had not been captured by the Germans. In Norway the Norwegian nazi leader Vidkun Quisling acted to be the leader in Norway. There was also a view that Britain had provoked the German attack on Norway, sent troops to help defend Norway, but within a short period left Norway alone in the fight against the attacking Germany. [s48]

Anyway, George Binney had plans to get ships through the German blockade. This would mean to sail them through Skagerak, between Denmark and Norway that both were occupied by Germany. The ships he wanted to use should run on oil, to reduce the risk of Germans spotting ship movements. (Coal powered engines produced lots of smoke through the chimney.). He estimated that at least 50% of the cargo would get lost on the way. [s48]

I will not get into details about all the political discussions and activities, the German activities to prevent the ships from leaving Sweden by legal reasons (including fast Swedish decisions), internal British different points of view, the struggle to find suitable officers and crew, to keep things secret, to prepare the ships and crews for the dangerous journey, et cetera. One example: In August 1940 Germany wanted Norwegian ships that were in Sweden, but Sweden still accepted the Norwegian government and said no. If Sweden gave aid or the opposite to Britain or Germany, seem to depend largely on what Swedish persons they had contact with. That included persons in the Swedish navy, among others due to the British handling of the four Swedish destroyers on the way to Sweden in June 1940. [s48]

The captain of the Finnish steamer Lahti, with a speed of only 9-10 knots, was willing to make a test. In the middle of the summer, when the night darkness was short. On 5 July 1940 the ship left Gothenburg, and almost managed to reach through Skagerak. A German plane spotted her, and the captain decided to follow the orders to sail to Kristiansand in Norway. Binney saw this as a positive result. [s48]

At the end of 1940 the chosen Norwegian ships were sailed to a fjord north of Gothenburg, where they would assemble and await suitable weather. One time a German armed trawler were nearby when a Norwegian ship sailed in Swedish waters, but it disappeared when the Germans discovered that there was a Swedish navy escort. Before the first Norwegian ship arrived in the fjord, Swedish police had arrested known nazi agents in the area. One day a German plane passed, about 1500 metres above the ships. Unsuitable weather caused a new delay, with an almost 20 centimetres thick ice cover in the fjord. The last of the Norwegian ships arrived in the fjord on 8 January 1941. On 16 January a larger Swedish Navy ship anchored in the fjord. [s48]

Dicto was one of the Norwegian ships, and one of the two who remained in Sweden during the war. (I think that is the ship in this photo.)

In the afternoon of 23 January 1941 five Norwegians ships left the fjord, with half an hour between them. As the last ship should leave, with Binney on board for the journey to Britain, a Swedish captain (merchant ships) who had helped Binney with various things, wanted to talk to Binney in secret before the Swede left the ship. He said that he had used his contacts to order radio silence about the Norwegians ships departure, and to cancel shore leave for the men on the Swedish navy ship. He also mentioned that the bad weather had caused problems, so all telephone communication in the Gothenburg area would be out of order until the next morning... [s48]

All the five ships made it to Britain, during the last leg of the journey with British navy and air excort. There had been German air raids during the journey. Of the 148 persons on the ships, 31 were Swedish officers and crew. The cargo made in Sweden, 25000 metric tonnes, was essential to the British war industry. The directors of the Swedish company SKF (producing ball bearings) had constructed a bombsafe warehouse for the products they had hoped to receive from Sweden. [s48]

Some days later Binney had an audience with the British King, and asked if he could give a pair of golden cufflinks with the kings insignia as a secret reward to the Swedish captain who had arranged the secrecy when the ships departed from Sweden. The king took off his own cufflinks with the words: If captain Blücker don't mind to wear a couple of slightly used ones, please give him these. [s48]

The warfaring nations view of Swedish shipping had resulted in an agreement in December 1940, that stated that Sweden was allowed a limited traffic with ships. [s48]. More about this "lejdtrafiken" on the page "Swedish traffic".

Germany was not satisfied with Sweden, and Hitler meant that the Norwegian ships could not have left Sweden for Britain without Swedens indulgence. Sweden decided not to allow the use of Swedish fjords and bays for new attempts to break the blockade. Germany warned Sweden not to support more blockade busters, and commandeered a large number of Danish trawlers to be used as patrol ships. [s48]

Before the Norwegian ships had left Gothenburg, Binney had arranged that oil not needed for the journey to Britain should be pumped from the ships to storage on land. Also other kinds of oil had been stored, for eventual use in the future. [s48]

George Binney came to Stockholm again in April 1941, on a plane. He had four objectives. To acquire substantial quantities of war material for the British war industry, to acquire tools for ball bearing production so that the British industry could expand, to transport products that the British Commonwealth and the Soviet Union had ordered in Sweden before the Skagerak blockade, and to get as much ship tonnage as possible sailed out of Sweden. [s48]

Binney found that the Swedish government still had the point of view, that a warfaring nation had the legal right both to buy Swedish goods in Sweden and to use ships in Swedish harbour for storage of the goods. At this time there were many Norwegian refugees in Sweden who were willing to work on ships if that could bring them to Britain and the Norwegian military training there. In Sweden were also around 500 British volunteers for Finlands defence against the Soviet Union attack in 1939. When Finland now fought with the Soviet Union again, together with Germany, these British came to Sweden. [s48]

It was forbidden according to Swedish law for foreign ships to carry weapons and explosives when they were in Sweden, but Binney did not want to sail with defenceless ships the next time. Machine guns and mines were smuggled into Sweden from Britain with the use of among others younger members of the British legation. [s48]

Again there were German pressure on Sweden, the Swedish government tried to find ways to postpone the British operation, et cetera. Binney visited Britain during the period of preparations, among others to select British captains for the journey in Swedish waters (Norwegian captains should sail the rest of the journey to Britain). Sweden only gave individual permission for the ten British captains to come to Sweden, instead of a group permission, which delayed their arrivals to Sweden. [s48]

Binney had made preparations against legal actions by Sweden, Germany and Norwegian collaborators to seize the ships, and despite the Swedish 'silent' approval of a second blockade break - they were against it, at least during the year of 1941. Maybe the situation would be better the following year, due to the situation for the Germans in the war with the Soviet Union - was one idea. In mid September, autumn in Scandinavia, Germany began with air reconnaissance over the Swedish west coast and increased number of ships in Skagerak. The German pressure on Sweden was also incresed, both with legal activities and threaths that if Sweden continued not to stop the Norwegian ships from leaving Sweden - German naval ships would sail into Gothenburg and take care of it themselves. [s48]

The British discussed if it was so important for the British war effort to sail the ships with cargo to Britain, that it would be worth the risk to draw Sweden into the war and lose Sweden as a neutral nation. The decision was to go on with the operation. [s48]

The German foreign minister stated that if only one single one of the Norwegian ships were permitted by Sweden to sail from Sweden, Germany would regard this as an enemy action by Sweden. [s48]

Towards the end of October Binney informed the Swedish authorities that one ship (the largest and one of the two fastest) was ready to sail. The rules for clearance meant that she could sail on the 29th at the earliest. On the 27th the Swedish government was presented with a proposal for a new law, and this law came into force on the 30 October. And the legal activities continued. Sweden had also told the British that if a ship left a Swedish port, it would not be permitted to anchor in Swedish waters - it would be escorted by the Swedish navy directly to international waters. [s48]

When Binney after the seven days for clearance went to the customs office, the officials who should give the permission to leave the port were not available. When he got in contact with them around 4 o'clock in the afternoon, they said that they could not give the permission until the Swedish Navy in Stockholm had considered the case. Their permission was given at twenty past six in the evening, but by then the customs office in Gothenburg had closed for the day. At 9 o'clock the following morning Binney was there again, but the customs officer said that they first needed permission from the Board of Customs, and they didn't open until 10 o'clock. At half past ten Binney were there again, only to be informed that the permission could not be given - the same morning the customs in Gothenburg had been informed that the ships had been taken into embargo that morning. The prime executor stated on 6 November that the Norwegian government had the legal right to the ships, but the following day his decision was appealed to the high court. Their decision the following day was that the embargo should be kept, and the Swedish navy was ordered to prevent the departure of the Norwegian ships. [s48].

(Yes, the activities continued. No, I will not tell you all about it.)

Sweden feared German actions, which could be for example a stop for the sparse granted "lejdtrafiken" traffic with Swedish ships through Skagerak to more serious actions. If Sweden was attacked by the Germans, they doubted that the British would give any support. There was also the question, if the ships and the goods were so vital to the British, why couldn't the British navy escort the ships through Skagerak? [s48]

The British prime minister Churchill declared on 24 January 1942 that Britain could not wait any longer - the ships should sail as soon as possible, embargo or not. On the 5 February the Norwegian ships were free to sail. But, then the temperature dropped. Gothenburg harbour froze, and so it was well into March. [s48]

On 17 March the high court took the decision to end the embargo (Again? My note.). The Germans too got this information, and new threats to Sweden but this time the expression was milder. Sweden would only be considered as unfriendly. [s48]

After the end of the embargo, the Norwegian ships had been permitted to move to the outer area of Gothenburg harbour. Then an armed German ship entered the harbour, and was permitted to berth near the Norwegian ships. Swedish investigation gave the picture that the German ship would follow the Norwegian ships, and report to other German ships outside the Swedish waters. This would be against the Swedish neutrality, and the German ship was ordered to leave. [s48]

Sweden had also decided to station Swedish navy sailors on all the Norwegian ships when they left, and stay on board for at least half an hour of the journey. So it would be on all German ships in Gothenburg too, to prevent the use of their radios. [s48]

In the evening of 31 March 1942, at the end of the winter and with fewer hours of darkness during night, ten Norwegian ships left Gothenburg. The ships also brought 70 Norwegians as 'surplus crew' and 20 'authorized' passengers. There were some Swedes among the crew. British intelligency had estimated that around 40 German surface ships were waiting, with 60 planes and some submarines. The Germans had demanded that the Swedes should inform them when the ships departed, but the Swedes refused. [s48]

Very short about that night: Norwegian ships spread out along Swedish territorial border, German ships firing at Norwegian ships, several Swedish ships forced Norwegian ships out from Swedish waters - also with warning shots at some occasions (all this in contradiction to instructions from a Swedish admiral), Norwegian ship almost captured by Germans in Swedish waters but sunk by crew - while a large Swedish navy ship that had arrived backed off and let the German ship sail away with the prisoners, et cetera. [s48]

The result: 2 ships went back to Gothenburg, 2 ships (and 3 crews) arrived to Britain, 1 ship hit a mine, 4 ships sunk by crew (instead of capture by Germans), and 1 ship sunk by British, after hits by German bombs and torpedoes. 200 persons were imprisoned by the Germans, and 43 of the 150 Norwegians died while in prisons - the Germans ignored their legal rights as sailors, and they were senrtenced as Germans who had fled to Sweden. 34% of the total tonnage was lost, but 20% arrived to Britain and 45% were in Sweden. [s48]

Germany stopped the Swedish "lejdtrafiken" ships for 3 months. [s48]

There were many discussions afterwards. Also the British Foreign Office made an investigation. Among others the conclusions were that the importance of the cargo in the ships justified the effort to break the blockade that spring, that the Swedish government had deliberately delayed the operation, and that Gothenburgs harbour and customs office had caused problems. All accusations that had been made at George Binney were dropped. Binneys view was that the delaying activities by the Swedish government and the orders to the Swedish navy had spoilt the operation. Later he said that if the Swedes really had feared that a successful second blockade break by the British would have been a serious threat to Sweden, Sweden had the right to act as they did. He meant that the blunder was that the Swedish government had given export permissions when the initial preparations took place, and by that encouraged the operation. [s48]

The two Norwegian ships who had returned to Gothenburg remained there until the end of the war in Europe, but Britain still needed special tools and high-quality ball bearings. [s48]

See page "Swedish trade w GB/allies" about how that was handled.

From another source about those Norwegian ships:
Of these larger Norwegian ships, 30 were in Swedish harbours when Germany attacked Norway. They were trapped in Sweden, since Germany controlled the waters between Denmark and Norway. [s13]

Ten ships were held by Sweden in the port of Gothenburg. [s13]

In January 1941 five of the ships managed to get through to Britain, among others with Swedish-made ball bearings in the cargo. [s13]

Then Germany learnt about plans to escape with ten more ships, and demanded that Sweden should embargo the ships so that they were not permitted to leave Sweden. The following sessions in Swedish court did not improve the relations between Norwegians and Swedes. When the court decided in Norwegian favour, it was winter and too late to make an attempt. [s13]

Ten ships tried to get to Britain in the springtime of 1942, but only two made it. Two managed to return to Gothenburg, but six were sunk and totally 62 Norwegian sailors were killed (of them 43 in German concentration camps). [s13]

From a third source:
Some Norwegian ships were in Gothenburg, and Britain wanted them. The national Norwegian shipping company Nortraship rented them to Britain, who should try to sail them to Britain. They carried goods for the British war industry, and also some hundreds of Norwegians who wanted to join the Norwegian forces in Britain and Canada. [s36]

One night (23 January?) they sailed from Gothenburg, and were to be met by the British navy and aircrafts for escort to Britain. But, German spies in Gothenburg knew about their departure. Armed German trawlers waited outside the Swedish territorial water. Some ships were sunk by the Germans and others by the ships crews. Some went back to Sweden. [s36]

Three ships got away towards Britain, followed by German aircraft all the way to the British coast. There were no British navy vessel or aircraft in sight. After arrival one of the Norwegian captains started a hunger strike in protest due to the broken British promises of protection. [s36]

2019-04-07. www.granfoss.se. Text/pictures: Arne Granfoss