Horror of Karl Arp cargo ship journey for 1,800 refugees remembered as ‘Fire and Ice’ US tour winds up in Washington

The final stop in my ‘Fire and Ice’ tour of Norwegian America was just outside Washington DC, in the town of Fairfax, Virginia, where the local branch of the Sons of Norway group are based.

They have their headquarters in a lovely two-storey building on the edge of town and their President Burt Koske was kind enough to pick me and son Martins up from the subway.

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It was an excellent night and we really enjoyed the company and the hospitality. There was a lavish buffet laid out for everyone and we were invited to eat and drink until we’d had enough. When everyone had finished, we began the talk.

I began by outlining the area of Norway affected by the scorched earth burning and the systematic and very thorough destruction of the northern county of Finnmark by the Nazis.

During two months of October and November 1944, German fire patrols burned down or destroyed more than 11,000 houses, 6,000 farms, 4,700 barns, 27 churches and 140 houses owned by religious organisations; 53 hotels and inns, 420 shops, 21 hospitals and medical buildings, 306 fish factories, 106 schools and 60 local administration buildings. 230 buildings for craft and industry, 350 bridges, 350 motor boats and thousands of rowing boats, 180 lighthouses – and boats, telephone poles and harbours.(1)

Before dealing in detail with the evacuation of the civilian population, I told the story of finding the diary of the destruction of Hammerfest. Small sections of the town were destroyed in November 1944 until one night the wind picked up when part was being burned and fanned the flames until the fire spread and took the churches too, which apparently wasn’t supposed to happen: there were German dead in the graveyards. After the war the Catholic church in Hammerfest was rebuilt from contributions sent from Germany.

But what happened to the people who lived in the north? The statistics for the scorched earth clearance of people are staggering.

The operation to forcibly evacuate 75,000 civilians from Finnmark began on October 26 1944 through a ‘Hitler order’ which had to be obeyed.

It’s thought 25,000 fled the forced evacuation and hid in caves, in the mountains or on islands. 50,000 Norwegians were transported south out of Finnmark and the north, mostly to the south and the Lofoten Islands. 10,000 were left behind in Russian-liberated areas and 8,500 Sami were not evacuated.

Between 1 – 21 November 1944, 35,000 refugees passed through Tromsø, the main evacuation centre in an operation co-ordinated by Tromsø hotelier Ragnar Hansen. People coming off the boats were found somewhere to stay, fed and put up overnight before the second phase of relocating them began, usually to relatives living further south.

Many of those in Tromsø at the time of the clearance of the north would have seen the one-time pride of the German fleet – Tirpitz – upside down in the fjord alongside the town, having been caught in the open while in Tromsø by RAF precision bombing Lancasters.

But the story that drew most attention is that of the Norwegians who were loaded onto one of the transport ships that called at the main fjords on the way south west to Tromsø. There were more than 1,800 people crammed onto the boat Karl Arp, a cargo ship built 25 years earlier in Scotland which had been bombed and sunk at Dunkirk while serving for a French shipping line.

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The German cargo ship Karl Arp seen in 1972 in Turkey as ‘Karaman Dogan’. She was sold for scrap in 1975 after 55 years in service. Picture by Robert J Smith from http://www.shipspotting.com

Salvaged by the Germans and registered in Hamburg the boat’s name was changed from Cap Tafelneh to Karl Arp and she was sent north to help evacuate refugees from the far north of Finnmark. But the boat was a cargo ship, not a passenger ship and the evacuees had to go in the hold.

There were only two toilets and within hours people were becoming sick. Dysentery and typhoid broke out and lice spread like wildfire. By the time the boat reached Narvik it was like a floating hell, with dead, sick and injured everywhere. The final death toll from the Karl Arp was 29 dead, mostly the old and young, many of whom were buried in Narvik.

At the end of the war the Karl Arp was seized as a war prize and returned to its French owners where she resumed service under her former name of Cap Tafelneh. In 1950 the boat was sold to a Turkish shipping company and again in 1957 to a second Turkish owner and renamed Kahraman Dogan. The ship is pictured in Istanbul in 1972 towards the end of her life. She was scrapped in 1975.

It was only in 2012 that a memorial was placed in Narvik to the people who died on the Carl Arp, thanks to the efforts of a determined local man Olav Sørensen whose family were on board.

At the end of my talk we had a short question and answer session which covered some of the other ways the war affected Norwegian society – the vast outnumbering of the local population by the Nazi military machine, for example; the issue of the lebensborn, the children born of liaisons between Norwegian girls and German soldiers.

It can take a while to realise that these issues are all part of the same story, as is the trauma suffered by the children of Kirkenes that many are still living with, even a generation or two later.

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Signing books afterwards with Jinaan Larssen and Burt Koske, organiser of the night.

Martins and I said our goodbyes to Burt Koske and the Sons of Norway in Fairfax, having had a thoroughly enjoyable evening and cast an envious eye at their library, featuring some of the books that I used as source material for ‘Fire and Ice’ and had shipped over to the UK.

When I got back to the UK several days later, I received an email from Lars Nilssen, the co-chair of the Norwegian Immigration Association in Brooklyn (http://niahistory.org/) and a gentleman with roots on Vadsø who had been at my talk in Brooklyn at the start of my week.

He told me he’d been reading ‘Fire and Ice’ with great interest, particularly the chapter about the evacuation of civilians from the north on the Karl Arp.

His grandfather Nils Betten had been the deputy in Vadsø and had tried unsuccessfully to head for the forest and so dodge the round-up of civilians onto the Karl Arp. He sailed south to Trondheim where he’d stayed with his sons before they were sent on to Sweden for the duration of the war and returned to Vadsø just before the war ended.

So even 71 years later there are still stories being told about the Karl Arp and the evacuation of 50,000 Norwegians into an Arctic winter. Incredibly, the vast majority survived – and the stories I’ve collected in ‘Fire and Ice’ are helping people on the other side of the Atlantic find out more about their family history today.

Thanks to everyone involved in the American ‘Fire and Ice’ talks, especially Burt Koske in Washington DC, Victoria Hofmo in Brooklyn and Jorgen Flood and Frode Kjersem in Philadelphia, as well as Alisa Myles, Donna Gusty and Judy Musto at Newtown Library, PA. Special thanks to Martins Vitolins, photographer for the trip.

1. Figures from Norway at War: Liberation (Norge I Krig: Frigjoring)

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