NEILSTON may seem a world away from the Arctic climate of Finnmark, the most northerly region of Norway.

From the language to the weather, the two places have little in common.

However, they share a fascinating history.

This year is the 75th anniversary of the arrival of more than 500 Norwegian refugees in the East Renfrewshire village from a tiny island inside the Arctic Circle.

Mostly children, women and the infirm, the refugees were forced to flee their war-ravaged homes on the island of Soroya, Finnmark, which was besieged by Nazi forces.

Barrhead News: Young Norwegians who survived the dangerous journey to ScotlandYoung Norwegians who survived the dangerous journey to Scotland

On Thursday, April 16, some of the relatives of those who took refuge in Neilston will return to the village to commemorate the incredible rescue effort.

“About 30 people will be coming over to visit and we’ll show them round the village, to the church, war memorial and then take them to the Kingston Camp,” said Matt Drennan, of the Neilston War Memorial Association (NWMA).

“It’s a hand of friendship. People have ancestors living in the village and they want to come back to see where they lived.

“It’s generated a lot of interest and pride in the village. It’s a story about compassion and humanity.

“We’re not known in Neilston for being extravagant, I think we just want to do enough to make sure there’s enough to go around. And, in this case, to make sure to repay the humanity that was taken away from the refugees in their homeland.”

Built on ground that is now the Kingston Estate, Nissan huts had been quickly assembled for the use of evacuees from Glasgow.

However, in 1946, the buildings became a safe haven for the refugees.

Former librarian Joyce Wallace, who spent years researching the camp’s history and speaking to former residents, said some Norwegians described the Kingston Camp as “a paradise” compared to their war-torn home country.

“They were only here for about six months but, to them, it was huge,” she told the Barrhead News.

Barrhead News: The Kingston Camp, in Neilston, was home to hundreds of NorwegiansThe Kingston Camp, in Neilston, was home to hundreds of Norwegians

Before arriving in Scotland in March 1945, the people of Soroya were hunted by German forces, who burned down their homes and bombed the island.

In hiding, the islanders spent three months living in freezing temperatures, surviving only on potatoes and salted fish during the bitterly cold Norwegian winter of 1944-45.

News of the islanders’ plight reached the Royal Navy by late January 1945 and this led to the launch of a rescue mission into German-occupied waters. When the Brits, along with a contingent of US and Canadian navy men, eventually reached the islanders, they were found living under upturned boats and in caves.

At least 500 Norwegians were transported in a convoy of 38 merchant ships, accompanied by the SS Henry Bacon. However, it was far from plain sailing.

Leaving Russian waters, the Henry Bacon suffered engine trouble and was subsequently attacked by 23 Luftwaffe bombers as it struggled to catch up with the rest of the convoy.

As a result, the boat was sunk and many of the crew sacrificed their lives to save the civilians, all of whom were rescued.

Not only did all the refugees make it to Greenock alive, their number grew along the way when one woman gave birth to a baby boy during the journey.

A clipping from the Barrhead News at the time reported that 501 Norwegians had arrived in the village and that every facility would be “made available to the peoples’ care and comfort.”

Barrhead News: Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden at the Neilston camp in 1945Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden at the Neilston camp in 1945

Although many of the memories of that time will have been lost or forgotten, Mr Drennan said the Norwegian guests left their mark on the village.

“The Norwegians made great friendships while in Neilston,” he added.

“It is said that some of the Norwegian fishermen helped make the goal nets for the Neilston Juniors football team, and many local kids were kitted out in highly decorative Norwegian-style jumpers during 1945.”

NWMA is building memorial benches to commemorate the anniversary and is publishing a handbook, translated into Norwegian – the first time the detailed story of the rescue convoy has been told in writing.

“We welcome everyone along in April,” said Mr Drennan. “This important local history should be marked for future generations, lest they forget the folly of war.”

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