Convoy heroes win overdue acclaim

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Ships were decorated, canons boomed at noon, flags flew and memorials were planned all over the country when Norway celebrated both Liberation- and Veterans’ Day on Tuesday. Among those finally receiving more official attention were the thousands of Norwegian merchant seafarers who crewed the dangerous convoys that brought critical supplies to Great Britain, but who were denied the hero status, pay and even pensions they deserved for years afterwards.

This photo shows British sailors attempting to protect remaining vessels in one of the many convoys that made it across the North Atlantic during World War II, dodging torpedoes from enemy submarines and bringing needed supplies to Great Britain like oil and defense material. PHOTO: Wikipedia

They’re called krigsseilere in Norwegian, literally “wartime sailors” who were working on board Norwegian merchant ships sailing outside Norway when their homeland was invaded by Nazi Germany on April 9, 1940. The Germans ordered them to return to Norway or other German-controlled ports in Europe, but the vast majority stayed away, ultimately became part of the controversial “Nortraship” fleet formed by wealthy Norwegian shipowners, and served the allies and Norway’s own government in exile in London.

Nortraship became controversial because the seafarers themselves were paid poorly, worked under extremely difficult and dangerous conditions as they tried to dodge torpedoes from German submarines trying to halt the convoys, and then failed to receive the compensation they deserved when the war ended. While the shipowners profited from the allies’ wartime convoys that chartered their vessels, many of the traumatized seafarers who survived received little if any support or praise when they finally were able to return to Norway. And by then, all the jubilation of Liberation Day in 1945 had died down.

Five survivors of the convoy fleets, all aged 92 to 97 years, fought for years to finally win state support for the establishment of a register to preserve documentation of the seafarers’ contributions. They noted, in an an open plea to Norwegian politicians in newspaper Aftenposten in 2015, how more than 4,000 of their “comrades and colleagues” were killed at sea between 1939 and 1940, while serving on board Norway’s merchant fleet and in the portions of the Norwegian Navy that eluded German control. Many of the roughly 35,000 who survived returned to land with both physical and psychological scars from the horrors they experienced when vessels were blown up at sea and the convoy wasn’t allowed to stop and assist. Few received any medical or psychiatric help, and in many cases, their symptoms didn’t flare up until years later, in the form of post-traumatic disorders that weren’t recognized or acknowledged.

This map highlights some of the convoy routes during World War II that arguably helped win the war.  All the green dots show where merchant vessels were sunk, with thousands of seafarers killed and wounded just during the course of 1941. ILLUSTRATION: Wikipedia

“The five of us have different stories, but we all experienced the krigsseilernes’ everyday drama,” wrote Søren Brandsnes (95), Charles Remø (92), Ingvald Herleif Wahl (95), Fritjof Remøe (94) and Aksel Remøe (97). “We know how it feels to have to jump into an ice-cold North Atlantic because our ship was sinking under our feet. We have stood on board under bombings and in a hail of bullets. We have seen crewmates wounded and killed right next to us. We have been imprisoned and on the run.”

At the same time, they wrote, “we have felt the pride of knowing that what we did contributed to toppling the Nazi German regime, and give us a better world.”

They asked the Norwegian government and Parliament to make sure their stories and wartime contributions are not forgotten. Stiftelsen Arkivet, a foundation in Kristiansand devoted to wartime history and remembrance, had already taken on efforts to sort and preserve documentation that can still be found about those who served as merchant seafarers during the war. The five survivors hoped the foundation’s efforts could evolve into creation of a Norwegian center for the wartime seafarers’ history.

Much of the work so far, they noted, had been done on a voluntary basis, supported by seafaring associations like Lillesand Sjømannsforening and Oslo Sjømannsforening.  The merchant marine veterans succeeded, in 2016, with their request for two state-funded positions in Norway’s state budget to help complete the creation of a “krigsseilere register” that now forms a basis for a wartime seafarers’ center at Arkivet in Kristiansand.

The merchant marine veterans have since received other attention as well, not least through the wildly popular series of books by the late author Jon Michelet, En sjøens helt, which chronicles a fictional account of a Norwegian seafarer’s life through the war based on historical facts. Michelet managed to finish the last book in the series just before he died of cancer last month, and it’s due to be released this fall.

New royal and official recognition
On Tuesday, Crown Prince Haakon and Crown Princess Mette-Marit were visiting a wartime seafarers’ home that was set up in Risør 50 years ago. It aimed to help care for some of the troubled war heroes and its manager Else Heimstad, widow of a merchant marine veteran, was ready to welcome them. She was decorated along with her late husband by Crown Prince Haakon’s father, King Harald V, for their work for the krigsseilere. Called Konvoibyen, the residential complex was opened in 1968 by the late King Olav V who also apologized for the poor treatment experienced by the krigsseilere.

Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide, meanwhile, was due to speak at 2pm Tuesday at a monument to the krigsseilere that also was finally set up on Bygdøy in Oslo, close to the Norwegian Maritime Museum and other legacies from Norway’s proud shipping history. The wartime convoy heroes have thus slowly won the respect and support they were due when the war ended. Heimstad, now age 93 herself, has lived with their stories most of her life and is glad for the new rounds of attention, inspired not least by Michelet’s books.

“I think Michelet got folks to adopt a new view of the krigsseilere,” she told Aftenposten last week. They didn’t all become nervous wrecks, prone to drunkenness and homelessness, and there were many reasons why those who did suffer such fates became so troubled. Michelet “touched people’s hearts” with his books, said Heimstad. She can no longer read herself, she noted, “but I love hearing them” on audio versions. Berglund