Sweden in World War II - across borders

Swedish traffic

When World War II began, Swedish ships were painted with among others large Swedish flags and the text "Sverige". These signs to identify the ships as sailing for the neutral Sweden were not always respected. [s09].

Guarded convoys were arranged for ships that sailed in Swedish waters.

Convoy, Swedish east coast, 1940

Sweden had around 2,240 merchant ships, above 20 net register ton, when 1939 came to its end. About a third were motor-sailors, who could use the wind instead of oil in suitable weather conditions. [s65]

Astri, delivered in 1937

When Germany attacked Denmark and Norway, and blocked Skagerak (between these two countries), half of the Swedish merchant ship fleet was cut off from access to Sweden. [s63]

Outside the barrier Sweden had 850,000 deadweight ton, and 500,000 were lost during the war. Some 7,000 Swedish sailors were outside the barrier. [s65]

The Swedish merchant navy had 950,000 deadweight ton on the Swedish side. 230,000 were lost during the rest of the war. [s65]

1,400 Swedish sailors lost their lives on Swedish ships during the war years, and around 500-600 on other ships. Close to 270 Swedish ships were lost. [s65]

The Swedish ship s/s Plato was a typical cargo ship at the time, built in Newcastle in 1898. In 1939 she got a great improvement for some of her crew - her bridge got a roof. [s59]

In the early 1930s she freighted coal from Danzig and Gdynia to Denmark, Norway and Sweden. [s59]

Towards the end of the 1930s it was wood to Britain and coal back. This trade continued after the beginning of WWII, with British-escorted convoys between Norway and Britain. On 1 January 1940 Plato joined a convoy from Norway, but sailed alone back to Sweden and arrived in Gothenburg in late January. A cold winter, and the ship was caught in the ice in Gothenburg harbour until mid April. [s59]

After the German attack on Denmark and Norway, Swedish ships could sail to Swedish ports but westwards only to a few ports in Norway. There were also some freights to ports in the Baltic countries, and iron ore freights to Germany. [s59]

In the late afternoon on 21 June 1941 the Swedish ship Soya arrived in Riga in Latvia, and some hours later Plato arrived. During the night they were ordered back to Sweden at once, but the harbour authorities said no and the ships had to stay. In the morning they heard on Swedish radio that war had begun between Germany and the Soviet Union. [s59]

The Swedish sailors in Riga had to spend the most of the time on the ships, and they could watch the departure of the occupying Soviet Union troops and the arrival of the German occupying troops. The 22 crew members and the ships were unharmed. [s59]

An article in the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet on 23 July told their story, which was a relief for many Swedes who had heard nothing from the ships crews since the German attack on 22 June. Then they heard nothing more, until ... [s59]

After some months Plato was used by Germany to freight coal from Stettin to Gothenburg, and Plato came back to Sweden. The rest of the war was spent in Swedish waters and freights with iron ore to Germany. [s59]

The Swedish ship m/s Temnaren fetched cargo in Bergen in Norway, a number of cases that were stowed in the commanders cabin. In New York some 50 policemen guarded the unloading of the cases, that apparently contained gold. [s65]

Also the Swedish ship Hammaren transported cases of gold, some 50 cases, from Bergen to New York. This was in March 1940, and the gold belonged to the Bank of Sweden. [s65]

After the German attack on Norway, most of the telephone and telegraph communication passed Stockholm. Both between areas in Norway and between Norway and other countries. [s01]

At the end of April 1940 more than one third of the tonnage of Swedish ships inside the German Skagerak barrier were out of traffic, most of them due to oil shortage. [s64]

There were many dangers for Swedish ships too during World War II. Only in 1940, 510 people lost their lives and 65 Swedish ships were sunk. [s05]

A large part of the iron ore exported to Germany in 1941 was transported with Swedish ships, 47%. (33% with German ships, and 20% with Danish and Finnish ships.) [s63]

After the German Skagerak barrier was established after the German attack on Denmark and Norway, a number of Swedish ships who entered the zone were forced to German-controlled harbours. Mostly Swedish fishing boats were forced to such harbours. [s64]

The German occupation of Denmark and the attack on Norway 9 April 1940 caused trade problems for Sweden. The trade with Denmark and Norway stopped, and when the Germans laid minefields across Skagerak (between Denmark and Norway) Sweden was even more isolated. [s10]

View from Sweden towards northern Denmark and Skagerak

Negotiations between Sweden and Germany resulted in a change in September 1940. Germany granted in principle a safe conduct for Swedish merchant ships not only for trade with Denmark and Norway, but also Belgium and the Netherlands (who by the time also were occupied by Germany). [s10]

Later Germany also granted a safe conduct for Swedish merchant ships through the minefields in Skagerak. Sweden managed to reach an agreement with Britain too, to increase the safety for the traffic. Initially the shipping through the German minefields was sparse, but from March 1941 five ships passed every month. [s10]

The first official passage of the German minefields in Skagerak

The so called "lejdtrafiken" (shipping with a granted safe conduct) was based on agreements with warfaring countries, foremost Britain and Germany. There were limitations for the number of ships and which routes they were allowed to use, and also trade and transit agreements were used to put pressure on Sweden to make concessions, but Swedish merchant ships could sail in transocean traffic and bring goods to Sweden. [s21]

It was not a really granted safe conduct, since both Britain and Germany called it a permission for the Swedish shipping. Neither warfaring part gave any guarantees. One example is m/s Stegeholm, that got German permission to pass through the Skagerak barrier in late February 1942. West of the barrier a German plane made three attacks at mid day, but all four bombs missed. The plane then came back and shot at lifeboats and rafts. [s64]

When Germany established the Skagerak barrier about half of the Swedish ship tonnage was outside the barrier. The basic rules for the exchange of ships were one tanker for another tanker, one other merchant ship for another merchant ship, and one ship from one shipping company for another ship from the same shipping company. The ships should stop at the German control station in Kristiansand in Norway and at the British control station on the Faroe Islands. [s64]

Drottningholm in 1940, back in Sweden after passage of the German minefields in Skagerak

The Swedish ships should be painted in light colors, with the ship name and the name "Sverige" in large letters on the sides and deck, several blue and yellow fields painted on the ship sides and deck (the colors of the Swedish flag), and when it was dark the ships and its flag should be well illuminated. Generally they should sail along specified routes, and the ships positions should be given to the warfaring parts every day. [s64]

A Swedish naval control officer wrote in his notes on 27 December 1943, on the way from Buenos Aires to Göteborg: 'A reconnaissance plane checked its position with the help of our ship Vingaren' (my translation). [s64]

In the middle of the "battle of the Atlantic" and other naval warfaring in the Atlantic ocean area, the Swedish ships sailed alone or together in pairs or groups of three. 76 Swedish ships were used, and they made 465 trips. Around 10 ships were sunk in this traffic. [s64]

The agreement was reached in December 1940. It was important for Sweden to be able to import among others oil and grain. However either Britain or Germany could stop the Swedish traffic if they thought Sweden acted in a way that favoured the opposing part in the war. [s48]

It would be a tricky balance for Sweden, where many activities in Sweden and by Swedes would be judged.

With this limited traffic Sweden could import important goods like oil and leather, and also merchandise like coffee. [s28]

Dagmar Salén in wintertime

On 14 November 1943 there were 12 Swedish ships anchored in Buenos Aires. [s64]

"Lejdtrafiken" continued until the German surrender in May 1945. The Germans had several destroyers and smaller warships stationed in Kristiansand. [s64]

From December 1940 to early 1945, with some breaks, there were 219 departures and 218 arrivals. [s21]

Totally 231 "lejdships" arrived to and 228 sailed from Sweden. 10 ships were lost. About one third of the ships were tankers, who brought oil foremost to the Swedish navy. [s71]

The Swedish company ABA's prewar traffic Stockholm - Copenhagen - Amsterdam - London could be maintained until the German attack on Denmark and Norway, on 9 april 1940. [s75]

The next flight took off on 16 February 1942, when Germany finally permitted this air traffic. The DC 3 "Gripen" was the first plane used for the line that now had Dyce in Scotland at the other end, and was also the first to be shot at by German planes on 22 June 1942. After some incidents during the period, on 28 August 1943 the DC 3 "Gladan" was shot down. Two bodies of the four in the crew and the three passengers were later found along the Swedish west coast. ABA stopped the traffic. [s75]

On 21 October 1943, after pressure from interested parties, "Gripen" took off for Dyce again. The Germans were informed of the flight plan, but it was shot down. Two persons survived, but three crew members and ten passengers (four children) were killed in the attempted crash landing. Shot down by mistake, was the German explanation. [s75]

For a period the courier traffic was maintained with BOAC:s Mosquito planes, with few exceptions. In March 1944 ABA took up the traffic again, and from October 1944 rebuilt Boeing B-17's were used (that could fly faster and higher). [s75]

The Swedish company ABA had regular traffic between Berlin and Stockholm, into May 1942. [s77]

From 20 May 1942 the traffic between Berlin and Stockholm was run by Lufthansa. One flight each day except Sundays, with Junkers Ju 52 or Douglas DC-3 planes. [s77]

On 2 May 1945 the last plane landed on Bromma. This time the return flight went to Warnemünde. The following day the plane from Copenhagen landed on Bulltofta in Malmö. The trip to Stockholm was cancelled, and instead the last civil Lufthansa flight during the war went to Flensburg. [s77]

From 30 October 1944 Deutsche Lufthansa switched to another plane for the traffic between Berlin and Stockholm, a 4-engine Focke Wulf Fw 200 Condor. It carried 5-14 passengers. [s77]

On 29 November it left Berlin for its 21st round trip, with among others a Japanese passenger and the Swedish vicar in Berlin Erik Perwe. Around 10:25 the watchman at Falsterbo lighthouse, looking for the plane, saw an explosion in the air in that direction. Two bodies and parts from the plane were salvaged the same day, at the edge of a German minefield. Since steel splinters in the seats had chemicals from tracer bullets, it is possible that the 4-engine plane that came out of the clouds near a German patrol boat was identified as an Allied bomb plane - and was shot down. [s77]

On 13 December Lufthansa informed among others the crews, about the importance - when flying over water in varying cloudiness - to shoot signal shots at regular intervals to avoid accidental fire from ships. [s77]

Consolidated C-87 plans were used for USA courier flights to and from Bromma airport in Stockholm, later replaced by Douglas C-54 Skymaster. [s49]

On 9 July 1941 the first agreement was made between Germany and Sweden, about German courier traffic by planes over Sweden. The civil unarmed planes (or Junkers Ju 52) should follow the three routes Oslo-Bromma-Björneborg (Finland), Germany-Bromma-Björneborg or Hamar (Norway)-Skellefteå-Rovaniemi. The agreement included terms like: passages over Sweden on highest possible altitude, and primarily without landings in Sweden. [s77]

Over time there were a number of occasions when the agreement wasn't followed, and there were changes in the agreement. The agreement for the German courier flights was cancelled on 5 May 1944. More than 3 100 German courier flights had been made over Sweden. [s77]

There was also an agreement about ambulance flights. These planes often landed at Frösön in Östersund for refueling and service. A short period an unusual ambulance plane was used between Hamburg and Kirkenes (Norway), with the last of seven flights on 19 August 1941 - the first prototype of the 6-engine flying boat Blohm & Voss BV 222 V1. This agreement was cancelled on 24 October 1944. [s77]

When Germany attacked the Soviet Union, they laid minefields in the Baltic Sea. Swedish ships could only sail 'safe' in Swedish waters, and in corridors between the mainland and the island Gotland. [s63]

Some 2,000 Swedish sailors preferred to enlist on ships from other nations, partly because of the arrangement of the Swedish war risk compensation. Sailors from other nations were paid the whole compensation monthly, while Swedish sailors on Swedish ships only got a smaller amount - and the rest was deposited in a bank account. Also, the compensation stopped when the ship was sunk - which meant that seamen on for example a drifting life raft had no risk compensation. Seamen should also pay tax for the compensation, which wasn't easy when they could not get to Sweden. When survivors from m/s Erik Frisell, sunk in May 1940, came home, sailors were given collect documents for unpaid taxes. One sailor also got an extra fee to pay, for the handling of this collect. [s65]

The tanker Pan Gothia sailed betwwen Australia, the Far East and the U.S.A. west coast during the war. After some time there were only two Swedes left in the crew. Some of the crew were fetched from various prisons. Also in Canada prisoners could choose to sign on ships instead. [s65]

When the Swedish m/s Mälaren arrived in New York seven Norwegians left to become gunners. There were no Swedish sailors available, and people in the U.S.A. were generally not interested to sign on for convoy traffic. The commander of the ship fetched four British, two Icelanders and one Norwegian from a prison. [s65]

There were other negative effects for Swedish sailors who returned to Sweden shortly after the war. One sailor signed on in 1935 and came back to Sweden in 1945, where the police met him on the quay. He was only allowed to collect his personal belongings before they drove him to a military camp where he should do his military service. He was not the only one who wasn't allowed some free time before they were drafted. [s65]
(And this was after the end of WWII... My note.)

Swedish sailors who stayed too long in foreign countries risked to be detained. [s65]

Some Swedish ships were used by the Allies during the war, among other cruise liners from the Swedish America Line. One example is "Kungsholm" that was requisitioned by the USA in mid December 1941, and served as a troop carrier named "John Ericsson". [s50]

Swedish road traffic was restricted during WWII. Wood gas (producer gas) was used as replacement for petrol.

Volvo PV52 1937 with woodgas equipment   Scania Vabis 335 1941 with woodgas equipment

Electric vehicles became more popular, foremost 3-wheelers.

GM ELC10 FL 1942, made in Sweden   NV M41-1-24 1941, made in Sweden

Trolley-bus, ASEA and Hägglunds & Sons, made in Sweden   SEA 1943, made in Sweden

German attempts to infiltrate and control Swedish companies were made, but they were met by efforts to maintain the independency of the Swedish industry and trade as much as possible. [s10]

The shipping of iron ore to Germany, and coal and coke from Germany, ended in the second half of 1944. The risks for Swedish crews and ships were too high, and the German ships had to be used in other areas. Despite Allied bombings of German ports and other infrastructure, there had been coal and coke to bring to Sweden all the time (as exchange for the iron ore). Most of the remaining Swedish ships that were used in the traffic, were taken out of service. Those ships who were in traffic got a coal reduction of 25%, which had to be substituted by wood. The unemployment among the Swedish sailors got even higher. [s63]

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