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Nortraship (Norway)

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Keywords: norway | nortraship | world war ii | cross: scandinavian | anchor |
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[Nortaship flag] by Zeljko Heimer


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About Nortraship and its Flag

I read an interesting story about Norwegian flag during WWII used by merchant fleet that remained loyal to the king in exile in London. An accompanying photo show the flag – unusual for Norway – a swallow tailed (but without the tongue!) Norwegian flag with a golden anchor in canton. (The anchor is different in some minor details, and the top part of it is not visible on photo)

I give some extracts from the text, issued in article "Last of a Valiant Breed" in "Norway Now" Nytt fra Norge's fortnightly review no. 10 - Ultimo May 1999, Oslo, page 12.

When the Germans invaded Norway in 1940, Norwegian authorities in exile in London established Nortraship (The Norwegian Shipping and Trade Mission) in order to control the 806 Norwegian vessels which at the time of the German invasion were outside Norwegian waters. This fleet totalled 4 million gross tonnes: 36,000 Norwegian seamen manned the vessels, running the gauntlet of German warships and submarines and constantly risking their lives to bring vital supplies from the USA to free Europe and the former USSR. Nortraship operated mainly out of London and New York. At the end of the war, it was disbanded and the vessels returned to their owners: the undertaking had made a handsome profit of 110 million pounds sterling.

Not until 1969 did they [the veteran seamen] establish their first local association and the umbrella organization, the Norwegian War Veterans' Merchant Navy [Norges Krigsseilerforbund], followed in 1970. [The association shall be disbanded in year 2000.]

Linn Ryne

The caption of the photo says:

On the wall behind them is the split flag of the Nortraship fleet.

I hope this is of interest – if finally anwsers the question posed several times here – how was the Norwegian flag used by "royalists" (if I may call them that) different from the one used by the Quisling fleet. I guess the Norwegian merchant fleet (Quisling) used the "normal" Norwegian merchant flag (rectangual 8:11), while London operated fleet used the swallow-tailed flag with anchor. I would appreciate some kind of confirmation of this story.

Zeljko Heimer, 4 June 1999


The article raises several interesting points and I will try to comment on some of them, though provisionally.

One first point concerns the question of which flags were used by the rival Norwegian governments during World War II, the government in exile in London and the quisling government in occupied Norway. I have previously maintained that both governments used the long established Norwegian flags even at sea. I still think this was the case and there are several reasons for this.

First of all, I have been unable to locate any official document from either side that specifies changes to the flags of Norway. A change of flags on either side would have required some official action. As far as I can see, no such action can be documented.

Further, it would not seem natural for the government in exile to institute changes to the flags of Norway. The government in exile represented continuity from pre-war Norway and argued that it was the constitutional and legitimate government of Norway – which it indeed was. To institute changes to the flag would have left the Quislings back home with the unaltered flags, giving them an easy symbolic victory over the government in exile.

Finally, photographs from the time show the government in exile using the swallow-tailed and tongued flag, this includes the armed forces in allied countries. As far as I can see, the photographs all show Norwegian civilian ships flying the plain rectangular civil ensign. In Norway itself, the use of the rectangular flag certainly continued on land, and as far as I can see from the photographs, also at sea. We should also here remember that some larger vessels that were in Norwegian waters at the time of the occupation, were transferred to German control and probably also re-flagged to German ensign.

Then to the second main point: The status of the flag Zeljko described. Could the swallow-tailed (two tongued) ensign with the anchor in the canton not have been the state ensign used by the ships operated by the government in exile? As is clear from what I wrote above, I do not think so.

There is, as far as I know, no document establishing such an ensign. Such official documentation is to be expected, because Norwegian vessels were required by law to fly the civil ensign of Norway. If the government in exile decided they had to fly a different ensign, they had to legally establish it. This would also have had to be communicated to foreign authorities, in particular to the allies, so that the new ensign would be recognized. I cannot find that the government in exile did this. Naturally, I am grateful for any documentation to the contrary.

Further, if we – for the sake of the argument – assume that the government in exile did institute a new ensign for Nortraship vessels, why would it totally disregard the established Norwegian flag tradition by inventing a completely new pattern with only the swallow-tail and not the tongue? This is also a factor that makes me inclined to believe that the ensign with the swallow-tail and anchor was not an officially established national ensign.

So, what was the status of the swallow-tail flag with the anchor? I can see two possibilities: Either that it was the Nortraship house flag or that the flag in the photo Zeljko referred to was a privately made flag erroneously attributed to the Nortraship fleet in the newspaper articled in question. At the moment, I find the first possibility most likely.

Nortraship was established by government initiative on the basis of a Royal Resolution of 22 April 1940 in which the government in exile asserted the right of disposal to the Norwegian merchant fleet. The original owners retained ownership rights, and it was ship owners that organized Nortraship and were in charge of managing the company. In light of the semi-official nature of the company, and the national importance of its business, it would not seem un-natural for the company to fly a house flag resembling the Norwegian state and war ensign but not identical to it.

So, for the time being, I believe that the Nortraship flag Zeljko described was most likely a house flag and not a national ensign.

Jan Oskar Engene, 6 June 1999


I spoke with the Bergen Maritime Museum and was told the swallowtailed Norwegian flag with the gold anchor in canton was indeed the house flag of the Nortraship company.

It seems this flag flew mainly from the offices on land (headquarters were in London and New York, but I also found a photo from Bombay showing the flag). As sign of nationality, Nortraship vessels flew the Norwegian civil ensign.

Jan Oskar Engene, 15 August 1999


I work at the Norwegian Seamen's Union administration in Oslo. At work I came across an imprint of the flag. It was used together with the Norwegian flag (poles crossing 90 deg. with Nortaship to the left and Norwegian flag to the right) on the small "torpedoed" certificates given out by Nortaship to survivors form torpedoed Nortraship-owned ships. (Given out together with torpedoshaped pins in Norwegian colours saying either torpedoed once, twice or thrice.) So I asked one of the retired union officers about the flag.

It is quite clear that the ships in Nortraship used the ordinary Norwegian civil ensign during the WWII in what degree there actually was used nationality marks on these ships during the war. One should of course not reveal the nationality to possible spies, even when in friendly or allied harbour. For the same reason no shipowner's house flag was used either, ruling out any possible active use of the Nortraship flag as ensign or house flag aboard the ship.

But according to what I was told the flag was however used officially at the Nortraship offices both in London and New York both instead of the Norwegian flag and together with it depending on the occation. (And it was probably used at all Nortraship offices around the world.) There seems to have been no official or formal Norwegian exile-governmental decision to back the use of the flag. But as Øyvind Lorentzen, the General Director of the Norwegian Maritime Directorate and second only to the Minister of Trade in the Norwegian maritime administration, was the head of the Nortraship from the beginning, there is no more reason to view it as not official than reason to view it as official.

The flags are now rarely to be found. One of the originals are to be found at the Norwegian Maritime Museum [http://www.norsk-sjofartsmuseum.no/] among the exhibition articles from the war, another at the Oslo branch of the Norwegian War Veterans' Merchant Navy [Norges Krigsseilerforbund] and one at the Oslo Sjømannsforening (a misleading name translatable to Oslo Seamen's Associasion, while it is a club for all kinds of maritime trade, preferably people of high social status such as shipowners and maritime officers). I am also told there may be an original in the collections of the Norway's Resistance Museum [http://www.nhm.mil.no/museet_eng.html].

Morten Øen, 20 July 2000


The specimen of this flag at the Norwegian Maritime Museum was donated by the Oslo branch of the Norwegian War Veterans' Merchant Navy (Norges Krigsseilerforbund) being the same specimen. But I was informed by one of my colleagues in the Norwegian Maritime Officers's Associasion (Norsk Sjøoffisersforbund) that they have recently found one specimen stored among their historical trade union heirlooms. The last one is still at the Oslo Sjømannsforening (Oslo Seamen's Associasion).

The Nortraship name is still used in Norwegian Military Preparedness Plans as an official name for a war mobilized merchant fleet. The Nortraship fleet of WWII was disbanded 30th September 1945.

Morten Øen, 20 December 2001


The flag was the house flag for Norwegian ships under Nortraship command.

It was suggested by the Nortraship London Office for and approved by H.M. King Haakon VII and the Norwegian Government in exile to be used either alone or together with the house flag of the original shipping company. If used together, the Nortraship flag should be hoisted above the "old" house flag. Ships of the norwegian merchant navy (Nortraship) flew as usual the Norwegian civil ensign as Jan Oskar Engene quite correct points out.

The flag was made in two sizes; length and height in the ratio 4:3. The largest flag was 75 by 54 inches, the smaller version 64 by 48 inches – size to be chosen according to the size of the vessel.

Information published in the periodical "Meddelelser fra Skipsfartsdirektøren" (Messages from the Director of Shipping, Øivind Lorentzen, Director of Shipping and Curator, The Norwegian Shipping and Trade Mission. established by authorithy of the Royal Norwegian Government, volume no. 1, issue no. 16, dated March 13th, 1941, page 18. The approval of the Nortaship must thas have been given in early 1941 – my guess would be February, but to find the exact date one would have to access the proceedings or minutes of the Royal Norwegian Government in exile. This periodical was sent all ships under NORTRASHIP command as the official information from Nortraship.

Kaare Seeberg Sidselrud, 22 February 2002


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