Seaborne Blockade Running
Ball bearing market
Ball bearings were important to the war effort in Germany and Britain. The only quality source was neutral Sweden and the trade embraced ball bearings, roller bearings, production machines and special steel.
Both Britain and Germany had some leverage so it would have been difficult for the Swedish industry to withhold all supplies of ball bearings to either belligerent.
There was a curious anomaly in that the Swedish parent company SKF had ‘branches’ in both countries – the German VKF in Schweinfurt,and the British Skefko in Luton. However, the local manufacture was still dependent on Swedish steel and spares for the production machines.
George Binney, flotilla leader. Photo credit Barker.
A central figure in the blockade running was George Binney who graduated from Merton College in 1922; he joined the Hudson Bay Company and then United Steel. At the outbreak of war, he was posted to the legation in Stockholm and tasked with maximising Britain’s trade in steel and frustrating that of the Germans.
In 1941 Binney masterminded Operation Rubble which was the breakout of five Norwegian merchant ships interned in Sweden and loaded with 25,000 tons of steel supplies. However, two ships loaded with steel remained marooned in Lysekil Fjord on the west coast of Sweden. Binney proposed using converted Motor Gun Boats (MGB) to bring this cargo home because they would be faster and more difficult to intercept than merchant ships.
Sweden’s neutral role was complex. In WW1 Sweden had been largely pro German but when WW2 started probably 90% sympathised with Britain. One exception was the Swedish Board of Admirals which favoured Germany – this view was inherited from the belief that Sweden’s safety required a strong Germany to counter balance the hereditary enemy Russia.
Above: MGB 502 with slim line superstructure; photo credit IWM. Below: Gay Viking with deck mounted superstructure; photo credit ships.nostalgia.
The gunboat to freighter conversion was achieved thanks to the Turkish Navy. Eight Camper & Nicholson 117ft MGBs under were being constructed for Turkey but were commandeered by the Royal Navy at the outbreak of war. Five were converted to freighters by turning the accommodation below into forward and aft holds. A lightweight deckhouse with open bridge was constructed on the deck. The boats had three diesel engines and would cruise at 20 knots with a cargo capacity of 40 tons. The boats were armed with Oerlikons fore and aft, twin Vickers .303in machine guns on either side of the bridge and a quadruple Vickers abaft the bridge.
The entire operation had to be a merchant navy affair. The natural source for recruiting crews was the Ellerman Shipping Company because their Wilson Line was based at Hull and familiar with North Sea conditions.
Each boat was commanded by a First Mate holding a Master’s ticket and each carried a ‘Chief Officer’ who was an SOE liaison officer. Crew volunteers were sought for “a service entailing special risks”. Most of those selected came from Hull and many were not more than twenty years old. They were picked for their adaptability as much as their professional skill; the deckhouse would be very cramped for 20 men so best suited to the young and fit.
The opposition was daunting. Outside Swedish waters the boats would run the gauntlet of standing patrols in the Skagerrak, radar stations on both sides of the gap, minefields, destroyers based in Denmark and Norway and hostile command of the air to mid North Sea. There would also be large fishing fleets to avoid. In Sweden the boats would be watched by German agents and diplomats.
Against this the freighters would be wood which gave a low radar return, shallow draft which allowed them to cross some mine fields and fast. The boats planned to pass through the Skagerrak both ways at night but these conditions would only be met during the longer winter nights.
Track between Hull and Lysekil.
The boats were ready in autumn 1943; the aim was to bring back 400 tons of steel over the winter. Binney planned to lead his flotilla as a convoy of 5 boats but from the beginning the boats suffered from engine and gearbox failures. On 23 Dec Binney could only muster 2 boats. Hopewell and Gay Viking, commanded by George Binney and Harry Whitfield. They sailed into a NW 4-5 and crossed the North Sea at 15kt. Then on Hopewell the central engine broke down, the starboard engine became temporarily out of action with air locks in the fuel line and soon after that the steering gear failed.
The wind was now F6 from NW and discouraged a return. However with the starboard engine working again and the steering repaired Hopewell declared she could manage 15k on the two wing engines. Gay Viking tucked in behind Hopewell and they carried on through the Skagerrak, staying 25 miles off the Danish coast.
Opposite Kristiansand they took evasive action for two substantial unlit echoes off the starboard bow. Later they learnt that these had been a destroyer accompanied by a torpedo boat and a minelayer. Later they avoided two more unlit radar echoes, They entered Swedish waters at 05.30 and berthed at Lysekil 07.39 despite Hopewell having trouble with its starboard gearbox.
When the boats tied up they were to find themselves harassed by the Swedish navy. A Swedish naval control party boarded to seal all guns, ammunition, radio and radar equipment while in port. 2hr later a Swedish naval officer returned to Hopewell with instructions to remove the radar display tube. The officer took this to a corvette also lying alongside the pier. Binney demanded the return and protested to the local magistrate, 40min later the tube was returned. 2hr later a more senior Swedish officer demanded the radar tubes from both boats but Binney refused.
The mayor asked to see round Hopewell –during his visit he said he regretted the naval incident and told Binney that the British boats had the goodwill of the authorities and of the local inhabitants.
When Gay Viking needed authorisation to move berth the same Swedish naval officer asked, and was granted, permission to come aboard for the move and to bring two Post Office engineers to agree the location of the seals. One engineer was later identified not as a Post Office engineer but as the head of SATT which was a German controlled subsidiary of the German electrical firm AEG.
At 1730 on 16 Jan Gay Viking sailed, leaving Hopewell waiting for spares. It is now known that the Germans had already moved three more destroyers to Kristiansand to be kept at 2hr notice to sail. Two days later at 0745 Gay Viking passed through the Humber boom.
By PK Hope-Lang
Acknowledgements for this three-part series:
Ralph Barker, 1976. ‘The Blockade Busters’. Chatto & Windus, London.
Norman Malayney, who had served in Vietnam with the 12th Tactical Fighter Wing, had a great interest in the BOAC Mosquitos and had interviewed all the crew that he could find.
Alan S Milward, “Could Sweden have stopped the Second World War?,” The Scandinavian Economic History Review, vol. XV, 1967, 127‐138.
Ernest Schofield and Roy Conyers Nesbitt, 1987. ‘Arctic Airmen’. History Press, Stroud.
Jeff White of The Old Tautonians Association