IT sailed in some of the most daring and clandestine missions of the Second World War, carrying spies, refugees, weapons and explosives under cover of darkness.
Now, the largely unknown story of the “Shetland Bus” is to be told in spectacular fashion thanks to a group of naval enthusiasts who are planning to build a seafaring replica of one of the vessels used in the perilous journeys to and from Nazi-occupied Norway.
In what is being billed as a unique tourism venture, the project will painstakingly create an exact likeness of an Argyll-built motor torpedo boat (MTB) capable of ushering paying passengers between Scalloway and Norway along the same wartime routes.
Those behind the project hope it will reignite public interest in the daring Allied operation, set up by the Secret Intelligence Service and Special Operations Executive –which helped rescue 73 agents and 373 refugees between 1941 and 1945.
The team behind the scheme has already received private donations and income via a sponsorship initiative which allows interested parties to buy a plank of the replica MTB 718 Fairmile D.
Among its patrons is Guy Hamilton, the director of classic James Bond films such as Goldfinger and Diamonds Are Forever, who served as a former first lieutenant on the gunboat. The £3 million venture has also received the backing of people on the Shetland Islands, which to this day retains strong links forged by the wartime missions.
The idea is the brainchild of Malcolm Tattersall, a member of the Federation of Naval Associations, who believes the boat will be of historical significance, as well as a viable commercial enterprise.
“These boats took spies, guns, ammunition and explosives to Norway, and if they got caught, they were shot on sight,” he said.
“They made these journeys at night, and without radar, in sea conditions where force ten or force 11 storms were the norm.
“When MTB 718 came back from Norway after one run, she had five feet of water in her – how she still stayed afloat I don’t know, but that was the skill of the crew. The boat might have looked big, but in those conditions it was a matchbox, and if you fell overboard, your life expectancy was about two-and-a-half minutes.
“A lot of people don’t know about the Shetland Bus. It was so secret that it never became common knowledge, but once we have these crossings operating, we hope there will be a lot more publicity about the operations and the role the crews played in the war.
Built by Alexander Robertson & Sons in Sandbank, Argyll, the original 115ft-long boat boasted mounted machine gun turrets and played an active role in and around the north and west coasts of Brittany – helping to drop agents and ammunition, and collect shot down airmen and escapees. The late French president François Mitterand, then a resistance worker, was among those who travelled on her.
MTB 718 later ventured north to Shetland and carried out around six operations between Scotland’s northernmost community and Norway. After the war, the boat became a Sea Cadet Corps training vessel on the River Tyne, but its ultimate fate is unknown.
The new vessel – the plans for which have been approved by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency – will be classed as an operational replica, meaning that while it will be an accurate rendition of the original, it will feature modern adaptations so as to meet current health and safety regulations, as well as “creature comforts” such as a shower, toilet, and an on-board chef.
While the original MTB was painted in Mountbatten Pink camouflage – believed to be best for masking ships travelling at dusk or dawn – the replica will feature a less garish colour.
Using original MTB blueprints, it will be built with 36,000 linear feet of Scottish larch, with power coming from four diesel-powered engines supplied by the German firm, Man.
Tattersall, a 58-year-old former Royal Navy marine engineer, said there will be six full-time crew and space for 20 people aged 17 and over to take part in a “different sort of holiday that will change their lives forever”.
“If you look at the likes of HMS Victory, HMS Warrior, and [the Royal Yacht] Brittania in Edinburgh, they’re all very good exhibits. However, they’re all dressed up with nowhere to go,” he said. “Our boat will be out at sea. If you want to experience what it was like to live and work on one of these boats, you have to sail.
John Hunter, chairman of the Shetland Bus Friendship Society, which aims to educate the public about the historical relevance of the operation, said: “The Shetland Bus is part of our history, and there are still folk around who remember it, but it’s a dwindling band.
“This kind of thing helps to keep it alive.
“There are replica fishing boats from the Shetland Bus operation, but this would help keep the history of the missions in the public eye.
“Our group has an international membership, and it’s very prominent in Norway, so I think there would be as much traffic coming from Norway to Shetland on the boat as vice versa.”