Farm story 17: The blockade runners and other heroes.

Booklets from 1975 and 1977: Bohuslän in WW2

Unlike the UK, Swedish towns and cities have no war memorials to fallen servicemen . Sweden adopted a position of neutrality in 1815 at the end of the Napoleonic Wars and it is one to which it stuck, more or less, until the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022. The sensible, clear-eyed decision to remain neutral in the Second World War certainly saved thousands of Swedish lives, but it was scarcely heroic and Churchill’s opinion that Sweden, “ignored the greater moral issues of the war and played both sides for profit,” was one probably shared by most Allied leaders. However, I remember my father, a young man during the war, taking a more pragmatic view. He remembered how both Norway and Denmark had tried to remain neutral before they were invaded and were forced to capitulate by the Nazis n 1940. Their countries managed to hold out for two months and two hours respectively. He, and many like him, believed that it was a foregone conclusion that Sweden would have suffered the same fate if they had resisted the German advance. However, the country’s actions during the Second World War remain a contentions issue, although one not often discussed in Sweden.

At any rate, at the farm in Mölnebo the Second World War is not entirely forgotten. Upstairs, on one of the high bookshelves in the farmhouse there are two thin booklets in Swedish, describing the war years in the north-west area of the country. Bohuslän is the name of the coastal province in which the island of Tjörn lies, and it stretches south from the Norwegian border for about 230 kms, to about 20 km north of Gothenburg. Both booklets were written by a man called Terje Fredh, a local journalist based in the small fishing community of Lysekil , around 65 km north of Tjörn, and who had a burning interest in seafaring on the west coast of Sweden, and in the Second World War in particular.

The first of these modest booklets is called Kullagertrafiken 1943 - 1945, (The Blockade Runners) and is 40 pages long. The second is Sjöfolk och Kustbok 1939 -1948 (Stories of the Sea), which is 60 pages. Their covers are made of thin cardboard, one book in beige, the other pale green, and on the front of each of them is what looks like a pen and ink sketch of a ship. Inside, the pages are thick and shiny and they contain many black and white photos of people, ships and pieces of machinery. They are both 21 by 15 cm and were self-published. On the back of the beige booklet is the name of the printer in tiny print, the name of a town, Lysekil, where it was printed, and the year, 1975. The green one carries the same information but was printed in 1977.

I was a little surprised to find these booklets on our shelves. Olle was never a big reader, although he was an eager consumer of newspapers and watcher of documentaries, but this was a subject that interested him. He must have bought them when they were published in the 1970’s, long before I came to Sweden, but at a time when official records from the war years were at last available to the general public. He, born in the year the war started, like many of his countrymen was rather embarrassed by Sweden’s neutrality, and like others from Bohuslän, a part of Norway until 1658, was sympathetic to the Allied cause. Perhaps in these little booklets he was looking for information about what had really happened.

Fredh’s first booklet, Kullagertrafiken, literally translated has the yawn-making title, Traffic in ball bearings . However, it’s been given a more snappy English sub-title, The Blockade Runners , which gives a better indication of what it’s about. In a nutshell, both the Allies and Germany were in desperate need of steel ball bearings for their ships and planes, their artillery and tanks – even their bikes. They couldn’t produce enough of these essential components themselves partly because they didn’t have enough iron ore and steel, both of which the Swedes produced, and partly because Sweden had the technology to make ball bearings to particularly high specifications. As the war progressed Britain tried to increase its imports of Swedish ball bearings and by 1943 SKF, the ball-bearing manufacturer, was willing to cooperate. In that year a secret meeting took place between an SKF representative and the British legation in Gothenburg to discuss how to get them to England.

This modest-looking little booklet describes in detail how British boats broke the German blockade and brought loads of Swedish ball bearings to England. As German surveillance of the port of Gothenburg was tight it was decided to use little Lysekil, 31 km north of Tjörn as the crow flies, as the point of departure. There was a German blockade of the whole coast, aimed at preventing any vessels leaving Sweden, intercepting them once they had reached international waters. As larger vessels were easily identified and stopped it was decided that small, fast British motor gun boats would be better suited to breaking the blockade The traffic was limited to the darker months, from October to February, and the boats would collect the cargo then wait for moonless or cloudy nights, fog or poor visibility, then make a dash back to England across the North Sea. They were manned by civilians – mostly merchant seaman officers and Hull trawlermen. The craft were specially adapted to their task, with no fewer than eight large guns and with shallow, mahogany hulls to ride above the many mines which littered the Skagerrak. The picture on the front of the thin beige booklet carries a picture of one of these boats- It’s obviously been built for speed and is barrelling though the waves , its prow high and spray flying. Crucially, they were also equipped with radar, without which it is unlikely they would have survived. There was minimal space for their twenty-man crew in order to leave maximum room for the precious cargo, so there wasn’t enough space to allow the men to lie down or even to sit, for the whole voyage.

The little booklet gives the words of the telegram the crews of the five boats heard before they embarked on the first trip. It was an inspiring address by Lord Leatherhead, and it doesn’t disguise the fact that the men were about to embark on an extremely dangerous enterprise:

“You have a difficult task which will bring honour both to you and the flag you sail under. …The British people are proud of you….. Your burden is great but success in this will be a prelude to victory…... I ask God to watch over you in your task. “

The first English boat to arrive in Lysekil came in October 1943. It was named The Gay Viking, a name which raises a titter these days, but even then must have seemed a misnomer to the men standing for hours in the freezing discomfort of its crowded deck or cramped hull. And their job was deadly dangerous. As part of its agreement with Sweden, German ships off the Bohuslän coast were supposed to remain in international waters but there were German spies in Lysekil passing on information about the traffic. On one dark night in 1944 a German ship used this information to rig up lighting on board to make it resemble a beacon, then as one of the English blockade runners stopped to allow the fake pilot on board, German soldiers managed to capture the vessel. They shot the captain dead and took the boat as a prize to Germany. Despite this loss, between 1943 and the end of the war the five boats made a total of 13 trips carrying 347.5 tons of ball bearings across the North Sea between Lysekil and Hull – a significant contribution to the war effort.

The second booklet, Sjöfolk och Kustbok 1939 to 1948 (Stories of the sea)has a wider focus and tells a range of stories centred on some of the men of the Bohuslän merchant fleet. From the start of the war Sweden’s trade routes to the west were cut off by the German blockade of the Skagerrak, which meant that around half of all Swedish merchant vessels found they couldn’t return home. Instead, they were rented out by the Swedish government to Great Britain and the US, and some of these Swedish vessels and seafarers travelled in the perilous Atlantic convoys to and from the US. The first story in the booklet is about a seaman from Grundsund on Tjörn, who found himself on a ship which had been badly damaged by a mine off Hong Kong in 1941. The next years he spent in the Far East, two in Hong Kong, where three of his Swedish shipmates were murdered, and a further four years in Japanese-controlled Shanghai. There another three shipmates died of starvation. He arrived back home in Sweden six years after he left.

He might be regarded as exceptionally unlucky but during the war 2,000 Swedish lives were lost in the merchant service and Fredh, the author of the booklet, clearly believed that courage did not begin and end on the battlefield, and that the merchant seamen and fishermen who kept Sweden fed and its basic services functioning deserved recognition. To this end he waged a one-man campaign for the Swedish government to acknowledge their sacrifice. Finally, due largely to him, a sculpture commemorating the deaths of Swedish merchant seamen killed in the war was commissioned by the government and in 1997 – not a minute too soon- it was unveiled. It stands today on the shore of the river Göta in Gothenburg.

©Gwyneth Olofsson, 2023 For more pictures of the farm on Tjörn go to Instagram account: gwyneths_swedish_farm

Sources: Terje Fredh, Kullagertrafiken, (The blockade runners) mellan Hull och Lysekil-Brofjorden-Hunnebostrand 1943 – 1945. (Lysekil, 1975)

Terje Fredh, Sjöfolk och Kustbok, Händelse från havet, 1939 -1948. (Lysekil, 1977)

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