The weatherman goes to war.
Islands derelict and far.
Our last newsletter looked at the sea and air-based attempts to gather vital meteorological information in the North Atlantic. Today we are going to take a look at the history of small, often hidden, weather stations that peppered Arctic islands. During the war, numerous weather stations were built in these locations by both sides, often temporarily. The Germans often tried to establish a station late in the year, so that Arctic winter weather would prevent the Allies from launching an attack on it for several months. It would be past the scope of this article to list all of the ephemeral stations and small-scale raids, so what follows here is a selection of some notable ones associated with memorable events.
Fake reports of fog. The island of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago was the site of several Norwegian and Russian coal mines along with weather stations. The British decided to keep these from German hands. In August 1941, a British-Canadian force landed on Spitsbergen to evacuate the miners. 504,000 tons of coal, heaped in massive piles, was set on fire, fuel was burned or dumped into the sea and mining equipment was sabotaged. All along, the Allies kept the local Norwegian weather station going, broadcasting bogus reports of heavy fog to keep Luftwaffe recon flights in Norway on the ground and oblivious to what was going on. Once everything else was done, the wireless stations were also demolished.
Only attack of the Tirpitz. The Germans weren’t ready to give up on Spitsbergen and came back in force on September 8, 1943. A task force lead by the Tirpitz, the sister ship of the Bismarck, attacked the Free Norwegian garrison on the island. The Tirpitz was normally used as a “fleet in being” to threaten Allied convoys. This was the only time it fired its guns in an offensive action: lobbing shells at the Germans’ own troops due to poor fire coordination. The 8-hour raid saw the Norwegian defenders killed, captured or driven inland by the vastly superior German force, who then proceeded to destroy the Allied weather station there at the time.
The first U.S. naval capture. Greenland, the world’s largest island, was a Danish holding at the time. Once Denmark fell to the Nazi invasion, the local Danish governor, Eske Brun, turned to the United States for help and started running the island as a virtually independent nation. About 15 local hunters and trappers formed the North East Greenland Sledge Patrol and started guarding a 500-mile stretch of the coast. They received help from the U.S. Coast Guard and the cooperation bagged three Germans in September 1941. Once found in a shack, the men offered to brew some coffee for their captors, who quickly realized this was a ploy to burn their codebook. The Coast Guard cutter Northlandalso managed to capture the Norwegian fishing trawler Buskoe, the ship that brought the Germans. Even though this happened before America’s entry into the war, this incident is often cited as the first World War II-related ship capture by the U.S. Navy.
The world’s smallest army. Two years later, the Germans established another station on Greenland, which was promptly found by the Sledge Patrol. Brun realized that if the civilian patrolmen got into a firefight with the Germans and were captured, they might be executed as partisans. In order to give them legal combatant status, he turned the patrol into the official Greenland Army, the world’s smallest, led by a captain and counting about 15 men. The army even saw action: the German expedition attacked the patrol HQ and burned it to the ground, killing and capturing several patrolmen on the way back. One of them, however, got the drop on the German unit’s commander when he was alone, turning the tables and marching him 300 miles to captivity.
The only German ship captured at sea. In October 1944, the icebreaker cutter USCGC Eastwind captured the last German weather station on Greenland, followed shortly by the German trawler Externsteine, which was its supply ship. This was the only German surface ship that was captured by the U.S. Navy at sea.
The last to surrender. Half a dozen German soldiers and technicians were operating a weather station at Svalbard late into the war. They heard of the German surrender in May on the radio, and continued broadcasting weather data, but unencoded. In the chaos of Germany’s fall, the expedition was forgotten and they became the last German unit to surrender in September 1945, to a Norwegian seal hunter ship.
The “Canadian” station. Weather Station Kurt was a German automatic station comprising two masts with instruments and barrel-like canisters holding batteries. It was erected by a U-boat crew on Labrador in the Dominion of Newfoundland, today part of Canada, in October 1943. To prevent destruction by the Allies, it was marked as property of the nonexistent “Canadian Weather Service” and American cigarette packets were strewn around it. It was only discovered in 1977 by a geomorphologist who though it was a Canadian military installation.