The Blockade Busters
The Blockade Busters is an adventure story with a special purpose. Author Ralph Barker is not only concerned that an important, but little known, episode relating to the British war effort against Nazi Germany be brought to light; he is equally determined that the organizing genius of that effort, Sir George Binney, be properly celebrated. That Binney has been neglected by historians of World War II seems evident. Volumes I and II of The War at Sea, 1939-1945, the official history of British naval operations during the war, fail even to mention him by name. Yet, Binney not only conceived the idea of running the German blockade of the Baltic Sea and masterminded its execution, he also shared the fate of his crews on four separate voyages between Sweden and England.
When war broke out in Europe in September, 1939, George Binney was employed as a steel executive. His career to that point was rich and varied. It included two Arctic expeditions while still a student, as well as a period of employment with Hudson’s Bay Company in London and Canada. The existence of a state of war, combined with Binney’s interests and experience—and, one should add, a high sense of adventure—soon drew him into the vortex of the life-and-death struggle between his country and the Axis powers. In December, 1939, Binney was sent to Stockholm in order to superintend British steel interests in Norway and Sweden.
From the very outset, Binney’s mission to Scandinavia transcended the private concerns of British steel. Officially he represented British Iron and Steel Control in Sweden and Norway, but unofficially he was also to report to Military Intelligence on matters of interest. Sweden was especially crucial to the British war effort because of its high-grade steel. Virtually all phases of essential war-related production were dependent upon Swedish-produced hollow tubes, steel strip, wire rods, special alloys, and bearings. By the terms of the Anglo-Swedish War Trade Agreement of October, 1939, Britain was entitled to the same share of Swedish exports that it had enjoyed in 1938. It was Binney’s responsibility to facilitate the export of these products to Britain.
During the first six months of the war, Swedish steel exports to Britain continued from the Arctic port of Narvik. In May, 1940, however, Germany occupied Norway and that vital lifeline was closed down. Sweden became an island of neutrality in a sea of German-controlled territory. Even though Britain enjoyed the legal right to a percentage of Swedish exports, it appeared increasingly doubtful that she would be able to act on that privilege. In time, Germany believed, the Anglo-Swedish War Trade Agreement would in effect be voided, with the result that increasingly larger percentages of Swedish production would be channeled to Germany. In order to deprive Germany of access to these goods, Binney requested and received permission from the Ministry of Supply to continue purchases of Swedish products for storage. Binney was already showing signs of the independence and resourcefulness that would become the hallmark of his wartime career.
Purchase and storage were, of course, only temporary expedients. Binney’s ultimate task was to facilitate the shipment of Swedish products to Britain. Aside from air transport, which was costly and inadequate in the best of circumstances, the only alternative was to challenge the German blockade of the Baltic. The ports on the west coast of Sweden were separated from the North Sea by the Skagerrak, a narrow channel between Norway and Denmark some one hundred and fifty miles long and sixty to ninety miles wide. The Skagerrak was not only heavily mined by both Britain and Germany, it was also intensively patroled by German planes and ships. Despite these hazards, Binney was confident that a breakout could be successful. Winter conditions of fog and snow were powerful allies in neutralizing the effect of German air and sea patrols.
The availability of merchant shipping was perhaps the most intriguing feature of Binney’s bold proposal. Just before going into exile in London, the Norwegian government had requisitioned all Norwegian ships outside of Norway whose owners were resident in Norway or German occupied territory. These ships were placed under the authority of Nortraship (Norwegian Trading and Shipping Mission), a newly created marine directorate that operated out of London. Since the Swedish government recognized the authority of...
(The entire section is 1835 words.)