Arctic Islands Part I

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Kriegsmarine U-boats at and around the Arctic Islands Part I

In World War II two essential operations were determining the war at sea. Firstly, safe Allied shipping across the North Atlantic Ocean between North America and Europe against the threat by the German Kriegsmarine, foremost its U-boats, and Luftwaffe, to providing for the UK and to resupply and reinforce the Allied Armed Forces fighting in Europe. Secondly, the support of the war Ally Soviet Union as provided by the US and the UK by means of their Arctic convoys, which had to be brought through against the threat by German Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine surface and U-boat forces.

The northernmost North Atlantic and the Polar Seas (from: Selinger: Arctic Meteorological Operations and Counter Operations during World War II, in Polar Record No .21, pg.560, London 1983)

As part of the geostrategic estimate of the situation the land masses of Greenland and Iceland as well as the various islands and group of islands gained some focus in military planning at both sides, the Allies and Germany. Kriegsmarine U-boats played a pivotal role in this scenario. The following essay is to present how Kriegsmarine U-boats not only made own use of the geography of this area but also attempted to challenge the use by the Allies. Not unexpectedly, sometimes even strange myths came into exist that derive from the operations to drop, support and evacuate military commandos in those usually very remote areas at the islands, most prominent those various groups of specialists operating isolated weather stations in support of the German conduct of the war at sea.

International Law with regard to the islands in the northern most North Atlantic Ocean

At the outbreak of World War II Greenland, Iceland and the islands in the arctic part of the North Atlantic Ocean belonged to the Scandinavian States Norway and Denmark. Since 1380 they were part of the Danish-Norwegian personal union, however, in the 1814 peace treaty of Kiel it was dissolved with the islands being split between both countries. Later development led to further changes. When the German Wehrmacht occupied both countries on 09th of April 1940, the legal situation on the island changed even further.

Meteorological ship Coburg caught in the ice pack off Greenland November 1943
Meteorological ship Coburg caught in the ice pack off Greenland November 1943

Greenland being the biggest island was part of Denmark since 1814, and came into a difficult situation with regard to International Law following the German occupation of Denmark. Only after an agreement of 09 April 1941 between the Danish Ambassador at Washington and the USA a solution was reached when the USA guaranteed the defence and independence of Greenland, while at the same time stationing considerable military personnel at the island and establishing military infrastructure, above all airfields.

Iceland as the most populated northern island had been Danish since 1814 as well, but tried to assume a status of neutrality after the motherland was occupied. As early as 10 May 1940 British and Canadian Forces occupied the island, in the end some 25,000 soldiers were stationed. On 07 July 1941 the USA took over the occupation of Iceland with own forces. In this context, interesting enough the declaration by the USA of 18 April 1941, i.e. six months before the entry of the US to WW II, to extent its “Zone of Neutrality” up to 25 degrees West, which included the east coast of Greenland and Iceland´s western coast. The occupation of Iceland also meant the military use of Iceland´s infrastructure to the end of the war, with Allied warships and aircraft operating from bases in Iceland benefitting from the short distances to the escort duties along the Allied sea lanes of communication against the German U-boat threat. Once being occupied by the Allies Iceland itself declared its independence from Denmark.

The disputed group of the Svalbord Islands had been eventually adjudged to Norway in 1920, however, the extraction of coal at the islands was authorized to other nations as well, which was exploited extensively by the Soviet Union. Following the German attack on the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 the workers at Svalbord were evacuated in August 1941, some 1,955 Russian miners were shipped to the Siberian city of Archangelsk and the 765 Norwegians to the UK. Canadian engineers destroyed much of the living facilities in the settlements of Barentsburg and Longyearbyen. In the Spring of 1942 British and Norwegian commandos established a military garrison. The Norwegians held their small outpost, in the end just 80 men, up to the end of the war, although some heavy attacks with much damage and many deaths and wounded occurred, carried out by the German Luftwaffe (14 May 1942), as well as attacks by commandos and a larger Naval Task Group (08th of September 1943: “Operation Sizilien”) led by the Battleship Tirpitz.

The Bear Island south of the Svalbord Islands was given to Norway in connection with the “Svalbord-Treaty” of 1920. Despite some phases in the past of industrial exploitation of coal the island was uninhabited at the outbreak of war. However, its relatively close distance to the shipping lanes of the arctic Murmansk convoys of the Allies gave the island an important strategic role. Nevertheless, there was never any attempt of an Allied occupation. Only the German Wehrmacht established an unmanned weather station at the island in 1941, which was enhanced to a manned station operated by 2 men.

The Hopen Island is situated rather close southeast of the Svalbord Islands, and has been under Norwegian administration since 1920 in compliance with the “Svalbord-Treaty”. At the outbreak of WW II the island was uninhabited. Except a German weather station in 1943 there has never been any attempt to establish military infrastructure at the island.

The island of Jan Mayen is halfway between Iceland and the Svalbord Islands. This uninhabited island was part of Norway as of 1930. During WW II, expect a short interruption in 1940/ 41, there was a weather station operated by a free-Norwegian command plus a radio and D/F station (“Atlantic City”) operated by the US Coast Guard as of 1943.

The group of islands of the Franz-Josef-Land was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1926 and permanently occupied by research stations. 1941 the islands were evacuated except one station remaining on Hook Island, the main island of Franz-Josef-Land.

Also the Faroe Islands were given to Denmark in 1814. Following the German occupation of Denmark the islands with some 30,000 inhabitants were occupied by British Forces on 13 April 1940. Up to 8,000 soldiers were stationed there and several military facilities were established at the islands, above all a large airfield. Even heavy German air raids did not manage to impair the survival of the islands, and until the end of WW II they provided for very useful support to the Allied Forces, in particular against German U-boats.

The impact on German U-boat operations

Dr. Wilhelm Dege, head of the Weather Commando "Haudegen" 1944
Dr. Wilhelm Dege, head of the Weather Commando “Haudegen” 1944

Most islands in the northern most North Atlantic Ocean were either occupied by the Allies or used by them militarily, some were freely accessible despite belonging to certain states. All had some essential geostrategic importance for the support of the German conduct of the war at sea. Therefore, the Kriegsmarine Operations Command (Seekriegsleitung) and the Commander-in-Chief Submarines (B.d.U.) put some focus on these islands through offensive actions by own forces against them, however, limiting operations to those that were still acceptable from a tactical-operational point of view, and which promised best possible effects. Thus, U-boats were employed mainly for covert reconnaissance, covert dropping of agents and commandos, as well as for the installation, supply and evacuation of weather station. Often, joint or cooperative operations were organized involving U-boats, meteorological vessels and special Luftwaffe aircraft, see below a picture from one of the weather observation vessels and another picture from the head of a manned weather station dropped at the Svalbord Islands by means of U-boats and a weather vessel. Key task for the conduct of operations by the Kriegsmarine and the Luftwaffe in the northernmost North Atlantic Ocean was the collection and permanent supply of current weather data.

Therefore, with the exemption of Greenland and Iceland, any occupation of the smaller and larger islands and group of island was deemed impossible militarily, but it was essential besides the launching of floating weather buoys to establish manned and unmanned weather stations on them, which had to be re-supplied or evacuated respectively replaced by new ones when the installed ones had reached the end of their lifetime. This was facilitated by small weather vessels, Luftwaffe aircraft and, above all, by U-boats.

Part 2 of our article will list and evaluate in detail when and where Kriegsmarine U-boats have been deployed near and at the islands in the northernmost North Atlantic Ocean and the Arctic.

Text: Peter Monte – Picture: Deutsches U-Boot-Museum