Jan Baalsrud: The other Great Escape

EVEN during those long months when the sun peers over the horizon night and day, the Arctic wastelands in northern Norway remain among the darkest places on earth.

• Jan Baalsrud, a member of the Norwegian resistance in World War II. Picture: Complimentary

A vast expanse of inscrutable crags, battered by biting winds and white walls of snow, it is a place where life of any kind receives a less than warm welcome.

Yet in the spring of 1943, one man flirted with death there for more than two months, forced to contend not only with the elements, but an occupying Nazi force intent on killing him. On the run, Jan Baalsrud was dependent on the strangers prepared to help, even though they knew they would be killed should anyone find out. Blinded by the snow and severely crippled by frostbite, he was even forced to amputate all but one of his toes. But somehow he survived.

Now, the experiences of a young Norwegian resistance member during the Second World War is to be brought to a new generation, courtesy of two of Scotland's leading young traditional musicians. Written and performed by sisters Jenna and Bethany Reid, The Shetland Bus is a suite of original music commemorating the wartime mission of the same name.

Established in late 1940, the operation's aim was to maintain links between the exiled Norwegian government and a disorganised resistance movement. Mindful of the need for transport between Britain and Norway with which to ferry messengers, instructors, and radio operators, as well as weapons and saboteurs, officials settled upon the ideal cover – the small fishing boats which were a common sight on the perilous waters of the North Sea.

The geography of the Shetland Islands made it an ideal base, and before long, a steady fleet began to bus agents and munitions to the resistance, as well as bringing back refugees and fugitives. It is a story passed down the generations with pride in Shetland. On Scalloway harbour, a small but poignant memorial looks out to sea, bearing the names of the 44 Shetland Bus men who lost their lives.

However, Baalsrud's individual story of courage and fortitude has seldom received the audience it deserves. Given it is one of the most remarkable accounts of human survival, the Reid sisters are hoping to make amends. "Jan's escape is so incredible, you almost wouldn't believe it was possible for anyone to survive what he did," Jenna says. "Having the opportunity to tell the story has been a privilege."

A 26-YEAR-OLD apprentice instrument maker in peacetime, Baalsrud had been by the trained by the Special Operations Executive in the Scottish Highlands, learning the weaponry skills he hoped might, in some small way, help repatriate his homeland. On 24 March, 1943, he and 11 compatriots set sail from Scalloway aboard the Brattholm. The registration plates of the 75-foot fishing vessel were fake, and there were several machine guns scattered around the hold, the wheelhouse, and the galley.

Having traversed a turbulent ocean, the ship made landfall in a remote northern isle. They had been told of a merchant nearby whose allegiances lay with the resistance, and a delegation set off for his store to seek help. Their contact, however, had died. His replacement was a man with the same name, but not the same sympathies. He reported them to the Germans, who sent a gunship to ambush the Brattholm. In the ensuing firefight, Baalsrud escaped into the icy waters before making his way ashore. He saw a body fall next to him while another lay in the wash. Reaching the top of a gully, he was shot in the foot, but nonetheless managed to kill two Germans giving chase. He turned and ran. For days on end, the Norwegian marched through mile after mile of unbroken snow, inching his way towards neutral Sweden. At times he marched for as long as 28 hours without rest, glimpsing the torchlight of German search parties shimmering on distant fells and tundra. After nearly a week, sustained by food and shelter given by kindly farmers and housewives, Baalsrud's luck changed. En route to the Lyngen Alps, a fierce storm took hold, and an avalanche flung his body 300 feet down a sheer slope to a valley floor.

Concussed and snowblind, he paced on, miraculously stumbling into the hamlet of Furuflaten, where a local resistance group nursed him to strength. Having recovered as best he could, Baalsrud was hauled up the Revdal mountain by his rescuers, and eventually picked up on the summit by Lapps (the native tribe of the Scandinavian Arctic), who promised to take him to freedom in return for brandy, tobacco and coffee. And so, on the morning of 1 June, Baalsrud was spirited across the Swedish border by a herd of reindeer. It had been 64 days since he fled the Brattholm, and he weighed less than six stones. But he was alive.

It is little wonder the story, first documented by the historian and author, David Howarth, was adapted for cinema. Niv Liv' (Nine Lives), a 1957 Norwegian production, stunned audiences, and was Oscar nominated for best foreign language film. Indeed, some found it hard to believe Baalsrud's experiences had not come from the pen of a novelist. "When I first head Jan Baalsrud's story, I honestly thought it was incredible," said Ian Fraser, a retired headteacher from Scalloway considered the leading expert on the Shetland Bus. "It seemed like too much for one man to go through, especially having to amputate his own toes. Just the thought of it makes the blood curdle. But as well as the way Jan survived, what shines through is the tremendous help he was given from strangers. These were people with families in occupied Norway who knew they were putting their lives on the line."

FOR the Reids, adapting Baalsrud's story to a musical suite offered a unique challenge. The sisters grew up in the village of Quarff, five miles south of Lerwick. Deeply versed in the islands' rich fiddling tradition from a young age, they have enjoyed international success with the band, Filska, while Jenna has won critical acclaim for her solo work.

Tasked with doing justice to Baalsrud's experiences, however, The Shetland Bus demanded a different approach. "The project is something new for us as musicians," says Bethany. "In the past, we've composed many tunes, and arranged sets of music, but this requires us to honour Jan's story and tell it to an audience."

The project began to take shape when Bethany was approached by Mark Sheridan, senior music lecturer at Strathclyde University. Asked to create a suite of music inspired by legends and myths of the sea, her thoughts naturally centred on the place she grew up. "After some deliberating over sagas of Vikings and the Selkie Folk, I remembered a book about the Shetland Bus operation I'd read years ago had a lasting effect on me." Having further researched the tale, she became captivated by one man's "formidable mental endurance and strength".

With a show now a week away, the vision is complete. Complemented with a narrator outlining key moments in Baalsrud's escape from the Germans, the music soars and simmers. The aim, the sisters say, was to reflect the dramatic peaks and troughs of that journey, from Baalsrud's bewildering hallucinations of wolves and armies approaching through the white squall, through to the dark humour which even in the most desperate circumstances, never deserted him. "Although the story can be very dark at times, it was important for us not to write a whole suite of depressing music," said Jenna. "We wanted to celebrate Jan's life and successes he did have along the way."

BAALSRUD spent two months recuperating, before returning to Scotland to train other members of the resistance. Once recuperated, he learned the fate that met the rest of the Brattholm's crew: eight had been shot on the outskirts of Tromso, their bodies tossed into a common grave, while two had been tortured to death. The shopkeeper who betrayed them was sentenced to eight years' hard labour.

In peacetime, Baalsrud was made an MBE, and raised a family with his American wife, Evie, while working in his father's import business. He died in 1988, 12 days after celebrating his 70th birthday. Among those to send wreaths to his funeral was King Olav V. More than 60 years on, groups of Baalsrud's countrymen pay tribute by embarking on the Baalsrudmarsjen, a nine-day trek following his route.

In Scotland, too, his story and that of the Shetland Bus remains a source of great pride and poignancy. Every year, contingents of Norwegians arrive in Shetland, eager to trace the steps of their relatives aboard clandestine lifelines, and give thanks to the descendants of those who helped them. "The stories are a huge part of Shetland's heritage, and many Shetlanders have a very strong connection with Norway to this day," Jenna explains.

Peter Campbell, secretary of the Shetland Norway Friendship Society, points to personal experience of the bond across the ocean which reduced a stranger to tears. "My wife and I were in museum in Bergen, and the elderly guide asked us where we were from," he recalls. "As soon as I answered, her eyes welled up. Her brother had escaped to Shetland during the war. Whenever Shetland folk go to Norway, they're immediately made welcome, and vice versa."

Grahame Smith, programme convener of the Scottish Norwegian Society, agrees: "It was marvellous thing that took place, and it really helped to form a lasting bond between the two countries. There are quite a number of Norwegians in our society, some of whom have parents with connections to the Shetland Bus, and it means a great deal to them."

It is thought there are only two survivors from the Shetland Bus operation still alive, but even with the passing of those brave men who fought for freedom, their stories will remain. Some, according to Mr Fraser, have yet to be done justice. "Jan's story is outstanding, but I've steeped myself in the history of the Shetland Bus, and it is not the only one," he explains. "There are all kinds of remarkable tales, not all of which have been reported. There are still some real gems hidden."

&#149 The Shetland Bus takes place at the Strathclyde Suite of Glasgow Royal Concert Hall at 8pm on Thursday 21 January. Tickets, priced 12.50, are available from www.glasgowconcerthalls.com or 0141 353 8000.