At the outbreak of the war in September 1939, Odfjell managed a fleet of seven ships plus two tankers under construction. During the five years of German occupation of Norway there would be no contact with Odfjell ships outside German-controlled areas.
Odfjell and our sailors contributed to keeping supply lines open for the Norwegian population under the German occupation and made crucial political and economic contributions through the firm decisions of Fredrik Odfjell. The impact of these contributions lasted long after the war ended.
When the Germans invaded Norway in April 1940, the Odfjell-fleet split: three ships in home waters were ordered to serve the German occupants, whilst the five ships on the high seas escaped direct German control.
The ships that escaped German control eventually joined the fleet controlled by the Norwegian government in exile, and helped the Allied Forces to bring in food and other supplies for occupied Europe.
By serving the Nazis, those in the German-controlled home fleet kept the population of occupied Norway away from brutal reprisals.
Fredrik Odfjell takes the stand
By the time the war broke out, Fredrik Odfjell was a prominent leader in the industry and a significant voice in Norwegian politics. In the 1920s, he had served in the local council and as mayor of the Fana municipality for five years. He had headed up the Bergen Shipowners’ Association for two years, and he served as President of the Norwegian Shipowners’ Association from 1933 to 1936.
In 1935, knowing that shipowners stood to lose huge amounts, Fredrik Odfjell helped establish the Norwegian Mutual War Risk Association, offering cover to the Norwegian merchant fleet in times of war and warlike crisis.
The Norwegian fleet was the country’s most important source of income and had far greater capacity than Norway’s own demand for tonnage. Consequently, the largest proportion of the tonnage was chartered by other nations.
At the very onset of the war, the British pushed for an Anglo-Norwegian Tonnage Agreement. As part of the Norwegian negotiating panel, Fredrik Odfjell shrewdly bargained for time, knowing that shipowners would earn more later in a steadily rising freight market.
The panel had to give in to British pressure when Britain refused to supply Norwegian ships with bunker coal and hinted that it would curtail British exports to Norway. The final Anglo-Norwegian Shipping Agreement allowed Britain to charter almost half of the Norwegian tonnage – up to 150 large and modern ships.
On April 9th 1940, Germany invaded Norway and the Norwegian government fled after a 62-day resistance. More than 1,000 Norwegian merchant ships, 80% of the merchant fleet, headed for Allied ports. The Germans quickly requisitioned the fleet that remained in Norwegian waters to serve the German war effort.
With Fredrik Odfjell as one of its leaders, the Norwegian shipping community worked with the exiled Norwegian government to set up the Norwegian Shipping and Trade Mission (Nortraship) to control this giant fleet of some 1,000 vessels.
The Norwegian government-in-exile had lacked other sources to contribute to the Allied fight against the Axis powers, so by granting it economic independence, Nortraship was essentially the force behind Norway’s continued resistance from abroad. They also contributed directly to the Norwegian resistance, keeping Norway’s morale and fighting spirit up during the war.
Nortraship carried out its duties not only in the best interests of the Norwegian shipping industry, but in the best interests of Norway. The earnings of this fleet financed the Norwegian war effort and provided the country with a foreign currency surplus for some years after the war.
The Nortraship fleet was comprised of more than 1,000 ships at the outset, manned by some 30,000 mariners. Under the Allies, it took part in every war operation in Europe throughout the war, from the evacuation of Dunkirk to the Normandie landings.
Fredrik Odfjell made his mark during these challenging years for the company and for the country. He valiantly resisted German efforts to control the rest of the Norwegian fleet that had been able to escape Norway during the invasion, and he made personal contributions to the resistance efforts.
Throughout the German occupation of Norway, the Nazis consistently pressured Norwegian shipowners for control of the Norwegian ships.
Fredrik Odfjell and the other shipowners resisted the pressure even if the threat of imprisonment was obvious. In 1941, the Norwegian Shipowners Association’s president, Arne Bjorn Hansen, and its director, Wilhelm Klaveness, were arrested and sent to concentration camps, where they would stay for a year.
Shortly after, the Germans installed ship-owner and Nazi-sympathiser Johann Stenersen as chairman of the Shipowners’ Association and declared that anyone engaged in ship owning was automatically a member of the association. Shipowners protested this ruling. The duly elected board, including Fredrik Odfjell, started operating underground, and became a vital part of the resistance movement.
After Norway was liberated in May 1945, Nortraship redelivered the ships to their rightful owners, but its vital role did not end. With the war over, the home fleet was also incorporated into Nortraship and made subject to insurance settlements from the Norwegian Government. The organization went on to help rebuild the country.
Rehabilitating the shipping industry
In the fall of 1943, as it became clearer that the Allies were close to victory, the Norwegian government-in-exile sought the help of Norwegian shipowners. It wanted to draw up a compensation plan that would review the technicalities and legalities surrounding the requisition of ships and subsequent financial settlements.
A committee of three past presidents of the Norwegian Shipowner’s Association, including Fredrik Odfjell, conducted the review and made the draft. A proposed settlement was ready for review and approval by August 1943.
In the spring of 1945, Fredrik Odfjell made a daring escape from occupied Norway. He was brought to London and Washington where he served as one of the country’s representatives to the United Maritime Authority (UMA), the body that controlled post-war shipping of the Allies. For six months after the war, the UMA decided freight rates and allocated tonnage. By representing Norway in UMA, Fredrik Odfjell safeguarded the rehabilitation of Norway’s shipping industry.