Writing History

Researching The Lifeline, Deborah Swift's new historical novel, set during WW2.
The Lifeline is the latest novel from Deborah Swift.
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Writing History

I’ve always been interested in untold stories of World War Two, especially stories from overlooked outposts, such as Jersey The Occupation and now Shetland The Lifeline. Although The Shetland Isles are a long way from the mainland it would be a mistake to think that the islanders of Shetland were little involved in the war effort against Germany. As one of the furthest flung points of the UK, Shetland was in an ideal position to act as a staging post between the mainland and Nazi-occupied Norway.

David Howarth’s excellent non-fiction book The Shetland Bus describes how small fishing boats acted as go-betweens for the Norwegian Resistance, supplying arms, personnel, and intelligence in their fight against their fascist invaders, and this was my starting point for the novel, which draws on various true-life incidents. This clandestine route across the sea was in operation between Scotland and German-occupied Norway from 1941 until the surrender of Nazi Germany on 8 May 1945, and it grew from being just 14 fishing boats to a much bigger operation once the US got involved in the war.

To reconstruct these journeys across the North Sea for The Lifeline, I drew on memoirs and real accounts from men who made the crossing. The Shetland Bus Memorial is located at Scalloway in Shetland, and the local museum has a permanent exhibition relating to the activities of the Shetland Bus and information about those who manned it.

Although the boats pretended to be regular Norwegian fishing boats, they were ingeniously equipped with machine guns and ammunition hidden in boxes of fish, or oil barrels, as the men often had to defend themselves from enemy fire.  Once the Nazis discovered this route was being used to support Resistance activities, they patrolled the coasts regularly with boats and reconnaissance planes, which would strafe the boats if they were spotted beyond Norwegian waters. If the men on board were captured by enemy patrols, they were tortured then executed.

Arguably worse than the threat of Nazi attack, was the other enemy – the winter weather. Sorties had to take place in winter when enemy patrols were less likely to spot them. The mountainous seas and wintry conditions of fog, ice and storms made the journeys perilous. My fictional narrative features Jørgen Nystrøm, a Norwegian wireless operator who retrains to crew on The Shetland Bus. My other main character is a female teacher, Astrid Dahl. Her story centres on the Norwegian Teachers’ Strike. When the Nazis try to force the teachers to join their Fascist teachers union, Astrid refuses and persuades others to join her in defying them. This rebellion leads her into danger, and eventually forces her to try to escape Norway, via her only lifeline – The Shetland Bus. The stories of the two main characters coincide, and I hope provide both an insight into Norway in the war, and a satisfying story.

One of the pleasures for me as a writer was to be able to describe the wind-blown Shetland Islands and the majestic mountains and fjords of Norway, so I do hope some of you will take the journey with me!

Deborah Swift is the author of The Lifeline which is available now.