Norwegian Fleet

NORTRASHIPS

The Norwegian Shipping and Trade Mission, operators of Norway's free shipping for the Royal Norwegian Government.

The Second World War began on 3 September 2023 and following the Germans' successes in France, Belgium and the Netherlands, they invaded Norway on 9 April 1940. The Royal Family, evacuated on 7 June, and the Norwegian Government henceforth operated from exile in London.

Nortraships was formed to operate those Norwegian vessels, some 806 in number, which had escaped the German invasion and, operating mainly out of London and New York but also from other centres, they worked with British and United States war shipping authorities in the world-wide crucially-important task of moving war supplies in support of the Allied cause. These 806 ships, totalling about four million gross tons, were manned by some 36,000 seamen, including many Australians. Additional to these were some 200 to 300 more specialised vessels such as whale chasers. 570 ships and over 3700 mariners were lost in the war years, the first ship casualty being Ronda, mined on 13 September 1939, the last Sneland 1, torpedoed 7 May 1945, the last day of the European part of the war.

Ten per cent of the Allied shipping lost during the war was Norwegian. At war's end, Nortraships was disbanded, and the surviving vessels were handed back to their various shipping company owners.

This narrative focusses on Nortraships' vessels' participation in the indispensable Merchant Navy support for the armed forces' efforts in the Asia/Pacific theatre of the Second World War. Utilising only a small portion of the massive Nortraships effort world-wide, it was nevertheless vital to Australia, whose Prime Minister Mr. Curtin announced in February 1942: "Just as Dunkirk began the 'Battle for Britain', so does Singapore open the Battle for Australia. It is now work or fight as we have never worked or fought before. On what we do now depends everything we hope to do when this bloody test has been survived", and who had caused, on 13 December 1941, a letter to be sent to the President of the United States which included the following:"...the changed naval situation has had such repercussions on our local defence position and co-operation in overseas theatres that our military resources are insuffficient to meet commitments for defence of Pacific Islands in which you and we are vitally interested...........it would be deeply appreciated if you and your Service authorities could consider what help you may be able to give in providing forces to deny these bases to the enemy."

A variety of Nortraship vessels, tankers, bulk- and general-cargo carriers, were tasked by the British Ministry of War Transport to provide logistic support in the Asia/Pacific theatre. Like all other merchantmen they had to contend with German and Japanese submarines and the heavily-armed German Surface Raiders, known as the "Marauders of the Sea", operating in both the Indian and Pacific Oceans. (Seven of these Raiders, plus two minelayers, are known to have captured or sunk in these two oceans 117 merchant vessels, as well as HMAS "Sydney".) They transported nitre, coke, coal, iron ore, limestone, phosphates, bulk agriculture products, munitions, aircraft, vehicles and stores of all types, as well as personnel, on the Australian coast and to and from the island areas.

Something is known of the service of the Norwegian ships in these areas, their stories typical of so many others:-

MS Vito: Serving under the command of the same Captain (William Terjesen) and Chief Officer for the whole war, Vito in 1940-41 transported phosphates to Australian ports and coal and iron ore between Port Kembla and Newcastle. The next four years saw her carrying military supplies and back-loading between Australia and the Middle East, as well as fighter aircraft from the United States to Australia and serving on the Australian coast, with some forty-five voyages in these roles. On one voyage from Australia, her naval gunners on board were able to claim downing an enemy aircraft which had been part of a one-hour bomber and torpedo attack on Vito's convoy.

MS Vinni: Early December 1940 found Vinni, on charter to the British Phosphate Commission and en route from New Zealand to Nauru to load bulk phosphate for Australia. About five miles south of Nauru (Lat 00 41S Long 16 51E) she was approached by the German Surface Raider Komet, disguised as the Japanese (then neutral) vessel Manyo Maru. She made an unsuccessful attempt to escape at full speed, the Germans placing a prize crew on board and ordering the thirty-two Norwegian crew from the ship, taking them captive aboard Komet, and sinking Vinni with explosives. Here the crew joined some 500 others from previous ship captures by the Komet and Orion, which included Rangitane, Komata, Triaster, Triadic, Triona, Holmwood, Turakina, Natou and Ringwood. Showing a commendable degree of compassion, and in the context of being unable to feed so large a number, the Germans put ashore the survivors of all but the last three vessels on Emirau Island, north of Kavieng, New Ireland. They were picked up by ships sent by the Australian Naval authorities, reaching Townsville on 1 January 1941.

MS Panama Express: Between 1940 and 1945 Panama Express carried 140,000 tons of cargo and 16,700 troops, sailing 327,000 miles during the Asia/Pacific campaign. Among the first ships to be attacked by the Japanese, she carried a wide variety of military supplies to the campaign's forward areas before being converted to a troop transport, of 800 capacity, plying between Australian East Coast ports and Papua and New Guinea. Later she participated in supporting the recapture of the Philippine Islands.

MS Skagerak: A large part of Skagerak's wartime career was spent on the Australian coast and in the South West Pacific area. In total between April 1940 and May 1945 she visited 173 ports, carried nearly 370,000 cargo tons, sailed 244,684 miles and spent 1,022 days at sea. From 1941 she was transporting nitre and iron ore between Southeastern Australia's ports, phosphates from Nauru and Ocean Island and general cargoes between eastern Australian and New Zealand ports. Skagerak, in company with Vito, helped evacuate the families of the British Phosphate Commission's employees in the knowledge of Japanese atrocities further north and their southward march.

MS British Columbia Express: Like the Skagerak, this ship saw service through the Pacific campaign, transporting both cargo and personnel. She was attacked by Japanese bombers during the Philippines operations, became for a time General Macarthur's personal headquarters and was the first non-American vessel to enter Bataan with the American forces.

MS Hermion: Of 5202 gross tons and two years old at the outbreak of war, Hermion operated from June 1941 to September 1946 under the control of the Australian Government's Shipping Control Board. In company with two other Norwegian ships the Herstein and the Pan Europe, she was involved in the search for survivors from the cruiser HMAS "Sydney" which was lost with all hands off the Australian coast on 19 November 1941. Participating in Convoy JS-1 withdrawing Australian troops from the Middle East to the Asian theatre in early 1942, she was subject to a timely diversion from Singapore to Sumatra, ahead of the Japanese movement south, allowing the personnel on board to "fight another day".

MS Lidvard: April 1940 found Lidvard and Burns Philp's Neptuna in Saigon (now Ho Chi Min City) loading rice respectively for Dakar and New Guinea. On arrival Dakar the former ship was interned by the city's occupiers, the Vichy French, collaborating with the Axis powers. She escaped on 27 July 1941, to then carry an iron ore cargo from Freetown to the United States and proceed to Australia to come under the control of the Australian Government. The years 1942 to 1944 saw Lidvard make numerous voyages between Australian, Asian, American and Middle Eastern ports with both general and bulk cargoes supporting the Allied war effort, and at VE (Victory Europe) Day she was back in Australia. The remaining months of the war, and beyond, she served in support of the Pacific forces, concluding in 1946 for return home to her owners.

MS Prominent: A direct result of the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbour, Malaya, Singapore and other Asia/Pacific locations during December 1941 was the need to withdraw Australian troops from their involvement in the Middle East campaigns and bring them back to defend their homeland, a task made more urgent by the Japanese sinkings of HMS "Repulse" and HMS "Prince of Wales", part of the naval cornerstone of Australia forward defences. As with Hermion and Pan Europe, Prominent was one of the vessels in the 1942 Convoy JS-1, undertaking the important troop- and equipment-carrying effort. First directed to Singapore, but later known to be arriving too late, they were diverted to Sumatra and Java to land their crucial cargoes. The very significant following chapter in Australia's military history records that part of the force they had carried was captured, part escaped to continue the fight.

MS General Fleischer: By 1943 the United States programme of building large numbers of economical, standard and austere "Liberty Ships" was under way, and the General Fleischer was one of them. Mainly engaged with American, Australian and New Zealand forces through the Pacific campaigns, she was later in convoy with HMAS "Australia and United States forces during the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Philippines. There she was subjected to numerous Kamikaze ("Divine Wind") suicide aircraft attacks. She survived 203 air raids, saw 48 enemy planes shot down and fired, from her 3-inch gun 151 rounds and from her Oerlikons 5,500 rounds.

DS Fingal:One of the many allied ships serving on the Australian coast, Fingal , carrying general cargo and ammunition, was en route from Sydney to Darwin on 5 May 1943, and off Coffs Harbour (Lat 30 35S Long 153 29E) when she was struck by two torpedoes fired by the Japanese submarine I-180 (Kusaka). One hit the port side, the other the engine room. The explosions killed seven crew and several were blown overboard. Fingal sank within minutes with the total crew loss of twelve, including Captain Jan Richardsen. The remaining nineteen were rescued by the Destroyer USS "Paterson" and landed at Newcastle.

MT India: The fate of the tanker India and her multi-national crew, including Australians (as was the case with many Norwegian vessels) was typical of so many ships: largely unknown. Having left Peru for Australia under the command of Captain Poulson with a full cargo of oil, and crewed by 28 Norwegians and 13 of other nationalities, on 3 September 1943, she was never heard of again. It appears the German Surface Raider Michel, having previously been operating in the Indian Ocean, stalked India in the vicinity of Easter Island for some time before shelling her on 11 September, then decided to withdraw quickly due to concern that the resultant oil fire would attract attention. Whether they stayed long enough to search for survivors has remained in dispute, the fate of the ship itself not being known until after war's end. As with other Australian merchant seamen serving with allied fleets, London's Tower Hill Memorial to Merchant Seamen carries the names of the three Australians, R.W.Somerville, J.Whittle and G.Cochrane, involved in this loss.

MS Acadia: Acadia's extensive support for Australia's part in countering the Axis threat covered the period from mid-1940 to war's end. After time in Japan and Norway late 1939 to April 1940, she was, like some other Norwegian vessels, suspect (in Allied eyes) for a time. This resulted in her detainment for a time in Fremantle during July 1940. However, her support for the allies was well-proved, initially by her several voyages Australia-Middle East early in the war with re-supply for the Australian forces. Phosphate-carrying between Pacific Islands and New Zealand then dominated her activities, and included some thirty-eight voyages to Makatea, north of Tahiti. She was reported to have set records of 235000 tons carried and about 161000 miles travelled and her three deck officers served together on the ship throughout the war.

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Nortraships' presence on the Indian Ocean portion of the sea battlefield was demonstrated through such vessels as the Hoegh Silverdawn and the Ferncastle, both sunk by the German Raider Michel (mentioned in the India narrative above) and others named Hindanger, Hellas, Herborg, Eidsvold, Erling Brovig, Seirstad, Tunni, Bordvik and Proteus (and no doubt there are many more), as well as those mentioned in the earlier accounts about the return of Australian forces from the Middle East to the defence of Australia.

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In summary, no story of the Merchant Navy service of Australia's allies would be complete without some detailing of that of the Norwegians. Their home country occupied by an aggressor, they understood intimately the threat to Australia, how Australians felt and the dangers all faced.

Our site is appreciative of being able to use material from The Norwegian Fleets 1939-1945 website http://www.warsailors.com/freefleet , and is grateful to Ms Siri Lawson, that site's designer, for permission to do so.

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