Join Date: Oct 2008
August 25, 1941 Invasion of Spitsbergen
This report deals with the combined operation successfully completed by a small task force of Canadian, British, and Norwegian troops in the islands of Norway's Spitsbergen Archipelago during August and September 1941. These islands had acquired additional strategic importance after Germany began war against Russia on June 22, 1941, because of their position on the Arctic Ocean route to Russia's northern ports. Before this date the islands, although not garrisoned by the enemy, served the Nazis as a shipping base, a source of coal, and a weather station.
The purpose of the expedition was to destroy coal mines and stocks of free coal, transit facilities between mines and harbor installations, and wireless and meteorological stations; to repatriate all Russians to Archangel; and to evacuate all Norwegians to the United Kingdom. A preliminary reconnaissance by a destroyer indicated that the landing would be unopposed. It was believed, however, that the enemy would be able to attack the task force with 60 to 100 bombers based on airfields 350 miles or more distant. The commander of the Canadian Corps in Great Britain said he believed the expedition would be worth while even if the only result should be to divert a sizable force of bombers from their regular missions, where they would do far greater harm.
The task force was mixed, consisting of 47 officers and 599 enlisted men of the Canadian, British, and Norwegian Armies under command of a Canadian brigadier. By nationalities, there were: Canadians, 29 officers and 498 enlisted men; British, 15 officers and 79 enlisted men; Norwegians, 3 officers and 22 enlisted men.
At 0100 on August 19 the force sailed for Spitsbergen on a transport that was escorted through the North Channel into the Atlantic Ocean by an aircraft carrier and three destroyers. The commander of the force outlined the mission to his senior officers on the first day out. On the evening of this same day the naval escort left the transport at a rendezvous with a squadron consisting of two cruisers and three destroyers, which was to accompany the transport to Spitsbergen.
On the morning of August 21 the expedition arrived at a port in northern waters where the military commander and the naval commander drew up detailed plans for the operation. The force sailed again at 2100 on August 21, after refueling. The commanding officer explained the purpose of the expedition to the whole force on the evening of August 22. It was on this date that the troops learned for the first time that they were going to Spitsbergen.
The squadron was to keep another rendezvous with four naval trawlers and an oiler. In an effort to establish contact without using radio, which might have betrayed the expedition, two planes were sent up from a cruiser on August 24. The aircraft spotted the additional ships and by evening of that day the two naval units joined. Then they steamed toward Spitsbergen to make a landing next morning.
Before the ships approached land, two Walrus planes of the Fleet Air Arm reconnoitered Ice Fiord (Isfjord), the great inlet on the island of West Spitsbergen on which the most important settlements of the archipelago are located. No enemy activity was observed and the ships moved in.
The first landing was made at 0430 on August 25 by five men of the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals and four Norwegians, who seized the wireless station at Kap Linne, on the south side of the mouth of Ice Fiord, with the cooperation of its Norwegian staff. About 0700 the large ships of the squadron steamed into Green Harbor and anchored near the Russian mining village of Barentsburg. A landing was made there at 1000, and it was obvious there would be no opposition, for the jetty was crowded with unarmed and curious civilians. The Russian community, in fact, had been apprised by radio from Leningrad of the purpose of the expedition and had completed plans for evacuation. Other detachments proceeded in small vessels to other Russian and Norwegian settlements on Ice Fiord, one party landing at Longyear City on Advent Bay, the chief Norwegian settlement. Here, too, the wireless station was seized. A small party of Royal Engineers and of the Canadian Regiment went to Grumantby, on the south shore of Ice Fiord, and another party to Pyramiden, near Mount Pyramid, at the head of Ice Fiord. The latter two places were Russian mining settlements. Demolitions of facilities and destruction of free coal was started immediately. From Grumantby 638 persons were evacuated and from Pyramiden 99 persons.
The next important mission was to take the Russian population of 1,969 persons, including 326 women and 72 children, to Archangel. The Canadians worked arduously on August 26 to unload the transport of military stores and to load the considerable personal baggage and communal property of the Russians. About midnight of August 26-27 the transport sailed for Archangel with an escort of one cruiser and three destroyers. A platoon of infantry, a group of machine gunners, and a medical detachment remained on the transport for protective duties.
With the Russians gone, demolitions in the Barentsburg area began on August 27. A disused wireless station at Finneshavn on the east side of Green Harbor was destroyed by engineers. Two other stations, having been active, were continued in operation throughout the 10 days of the occupation in order to avoid arousing suspicion. Fires were started in coal dumps at many places by the use of oil and gasoline and by incendiary bombs. A total of 370,000 tons was reported destroyed by these means. At Barentsburg a heavy crane, trestles, frogs and switches of the narrow-gauge railway, hoisting machinery at the New Mine, and four motor boats were demolished. Approximately 225,000 gallons of oil stocks were burned. Numerous stores and spare parts were removed.
At Longyear City the aerial tramways for transporting coal from the three mines were disabled, the rotors were removed from the turbines in the power plant, and the wireless station was destroyed. About 50,000 gallons of fuel oil and gasoline were poured into the sea.
Mine entrances and the surface plant and other installations at Grumantby and Pyramiden were destroyed by explosives. At Ny Alesund on Kings Bay the power plant of a mine was destroyed, wireless masts were felled, and a motorboat and a lighter were wrecked.
The concentration of the Norwegian population was going on meanwhile, and by the time the transport returned, at 2230 on September 1, a total of 799 persons had been assembled at Longyear City. The transport brought back from Archangel 192 Free French military personnel, including 14 officers, who had escaped from German prison camps. The transport and her escort began the homeward journey at 2300 on September 3, arriving in Great Britain on the night of September 7-8.
The two chief radio stations on the islands were at Kap Linne and Longyear City and both of them were in touch with the German-controlled station at Tromso, Norway. The Kap Linne station was put out of action at 1800 on September 3. With the loyal and efficient cooperation of the Norwegian operators, normal transmissions to Tromso were continued from Longyear City for the purpose of concealing the fact that any unusual event was taking place at Spitsbergen. The usual meteorological data were sent out until August 27, when the transport had left for the North Sea with the Russians. Then the meteorological readings were altered gradually to indicate bad flying conditions in order to discourage German air reconnaissance.
To keep up the deception until the last possible moment a party consisting of one officer and 11 enlisted men of the Royal Corps of Signals, a Norwegian operator, and a power-plant engineer was left behind after the withdrawal of the main body of troops at 2200 on September 2. This party sent its last weather report at 8 p.m. on September 3, dismantled the station and power house, and embarked on a destroyer at 2330. Apparently the deception was complete, for when the force was well out to sea Tromso was heard calling Spitsbergen strongly and inquiring what was wrong.