23-25 January 1941 Operation Rubble - SOE (Special Operations Executive) breaks Nazi blockade from Sweden to UK and delivers vital war supplies to Allies

Operation Rubble (January 1941) was a British blockade running operation in which five Norwegian merchant ships escaped from Sweden to Britain. The ships involved were Norwegian steamships Elizabeth Bakke (5,450grt), John Bakke (4,718grt), Tai Shan (6,962grt), Taurus (4767grt) and Ranja (6,355grt). In addition to their cargoes also on board were many British and Norwegian sailors who had been in Sweden following the failure of the Allies’ Norwegian Campaign. The ships left Gothenburg Sweden on 23 January 1941 and ran the German blockade of the Skagerrak. They narrowly avoided being intercepted by the two German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau who were just starting [Operation Berlin in the Kattegat. The ships navigated the North Sea with various warships being dispatched from the UK to act as escorts. These escorts included cruisers HMS Naiad, HMS Aurora , HMS Edinburgh and HMS Birmingham and the destroyers HMS Escapade , HMS Echo, HMS Electra. John Bakke and Ranja were both under attack from the Luftwaffe when the cruisers found them but they were not damaged. Only one Luftwaffe aircraft was attacking but its bombing had been wildly inaccurate before driven off by RAF Coastal Command Fighters. All ships reached Kirkwall in Orkney on 25 January 1941.

The ships successfully delivered approximately 24,600 metric tons of materiel including ball bearings, machine tools, spare parts, iron, ingots, and steels of various qualities to UK. The ball bearings brought from Sweden was enough to last more than one year for British war industry. The operation was directed by George Binney who was a temporary attache to Stockholm representing the UK Ministry of Supply and SOE (Special Operations Executive) branch in Sweden. Binney was on steamer Tai Shan. This operation was the first of a series Allied blockade running operations from Scandanivia to Britain which also included Operation Performance , Operation Bridford and Operation Moonshine.


At 6.30 a.m. on 25 January 1941, George Binney , organiser of whole blockade runner operation , could look on the shores of Kirkwall, Orkney. His audacious voyage had surpassed all expectations and every ship had arrived in one piece with her precious cargo intact. As the Tai Shan moored in friendly waters she was joined by the Taurus. Two hours later the Elisabeth Bakke, the John Bakke and the forlorn Ranja appeared in Scottish waters. The Elisabeth Bakke had in fact made such good time that she had reached the Orkneys the previous evening and had waited off-shore throughout the night for the rest of the convoy. Binney was naturally elated. In the cargo holds of the ships were 24,800 tons of Swedish pig iron, special steels, ball bearings and machine tools – effectively a year’s worth of supplies from Sweden that were desperately needed for the war effort. The cargo was valued at £ 1 million and the worth of the ships that had been removed from the grasp of the Nazis was £ 2.5 million; 147 men (fifty-eight British, fifty-seven Norwegians, thirty-one Swedes and one Latvian) and one woman (the wife of the Chief Engineer of the John Bakke) had taken part in the mission. It was a huge coup for the British and particularly for the fledgling SOE (Special Operations Executive) that had helped to organise the mission.

The Germans were naturally furious about the escape. Their Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, was outraged. He confronted a member of the Swedish Government unfortunate enough to be in Germany at the time, conducting negotiations on behalf of his country. Lashed verbally by Ribbentrop at the laxity of Sweden at allowing five ships to escape their embargo and sail to Britain, the Swedish minister promised a full explanation once he was able to return home and talk to his colleagues. When, a short time later, Ribbentrop received the full report from the Swedes on the matter his fury was whipped to new peaks – the Swedes explained that the German Government had been fully aware of the British attempt and had told the Swedish Government about it. They added that though they had hoped the British would not succeed in setting sail, they had believed it was the German Navy’s responsibility to deal with them when they did. Therefore, concluded the Swedes, it was all the German Navy’s fault that Binney’s mission had succeeded. The enjoyment the British took at fuelling German tempers was almost as great as the elation of capturing such valuable supplies.