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Germany in the Artic: the little known story of Labrador's WWII weather stations.

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In 1976 I received a letter from Albert Speer. His first book, Spandau: The Secret Diaries had just been translated and published in English. I had been intrigued by a passage in his book which mentioned a plan for some of the beleaguered Nazi leadership in Berlin in 1945 to escape from Germany, fly out of Europe and hide at one of the German weather stations in Greenland until things had cooled down. In Greenland? As far as I knew at the time, Greenland was a de facto American territory throughout the war, its administration taken over from German-occupied Denmark, and an essential part of the air bridge between North America and Britain. How could there possibly be Germans operating on Greenland, with Allied forces in control and fleets of aircraft flying overhead almost daily?

So I wrote to Mr. Speer to ask if he could shed any more light on this apparent contradiction. His reply was short and disappointing. He knew nothing more than that there had been some stations and he suggested contacting the German Wetterdeinst, or weather service for more information. I remained intrigued. If you had spent time in the North and on Greenland, you were always aware of the American origin of many of the settlements and villages, so the idea of the Germans operating there at the same time posed some questions.

Early in the war both the Allies and the Germans realized the importance of accurate weather reporting. The weather systems that affect northern Europe are generated far to the west, high in the North Atlantic and the Arctic, so observation of conditions there is critical. The ability to forecast, based on those conditions was an essential element in the air war over Germany. For the Allies, weather determined if their bombers could operate and then find and bomb their targets. For the Germans, it meant knowing whether or not their night fighters would be flying against the bombers, and also for planning their own offensive air operations on the eastern front.

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Danish and Norwegian weather stations on Greenland and Spitsbergen had provided weather data until the British realized that this source of information needed to be denied to the Germans. The reaction was swift and innovative. Both the Luftwaffe and the German navy began training men, designing and establishing weather stations, both manned and automatic, in the North Atlantic, on the east coast of Greenland, Spitsbergen, Zemlya Frantsa Iosifa, Hopen and Bjornoya Islands and Labrador.

The late 1970s were pre-internet days, and the subject of German weather stations was obscure. There were only a couple of books and a handful of articles in specialist periodicals that dealt with the subject. They related mainly to Greenland, and were long out of print. With patience, information on the Greenland stations could be had from U.S. archives, the Military Historical Branch especially, which, by "snail mail," provided Xeroxed copies of photographs, intelligence and interrogation reports now downgraded from "secret" that detailed U.S. Coast Guard actions against the German stations.

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Three events changed this situation and moved the subject out of obscurity. The first was the pubfication by Alex Douglas of the discovery of the remains of an automatic weather station in Labrador in the December '81/January '82 issue of Canadian Geographic Magazine. Until then the existence of this station, even the idea that a U-boat had negotiated Canadian waters this far north (just past 60 degrees North), reconnoitered, landed and established an automatic weather station was a new concept. Its discovery almost 40 years after a U-boat crew had rowed it ashore, lugged the canisters which contained the recording apparatus, batteries and radio off the beach and up the hill to a little level plateau, was due to chance and then inspired hard work.

Wetterfunkgerat Land 26 (code name "Kurt") consisted often canisters, one for the recording instruments, another for the 10-metre antenna and the others for the world's first Ni-cad batteries. There was a second mast for an anemometer and wind vane. These automatic stations were designed to broadcast temperature, wind speed and direction, air pressure and humidity in coded 120-second broadcasts every three hours and were designed to operate for six months. The Germans had also developed automatic weather buoys which were normally submerged but surfaced to record and broadcast before re-submerging. They had a designed "life" of nine months, and some were still operating into 1946. "Kurt" however had a short life, falling silent after only a couple of broadcasts. The Germans were unable to return to repair it or to place a planned second station on Labrador.

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The station's existence might have remained unknown. However, the son of the meteorologist attached to the U-boat, while going through his lather's papers after his death, found photographs of a barren rock and snow covered coastline that he could not identify. He contacted Franz Selinger, a retired Siemens engineer who was writing a history of the company (Siemens had built the automatic stations). The photos were tentatively identified and on a Canadian Coast Guard patrol along the coast of Labrador they were used to match the present day shoreline, and the remains of the station were found. Today visitors to the Canadian War Museum can see "Kurt", apparently shunted off in a corner of the hall housing military vehicles and tanks. Sadly, it is almost completely uninterpreted, and inexcusably it has been "restored" with an attempt at camouflage paint, something even the Germans thought was unnecessary.

The second event in the story is that Franz Selinger continued work on the subject of German weather stations, published widely on the subject and is now the recognized expert in the field.

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It is through his work that we have available a detailed picture of the extraordinary efforts the Germans went through to establish manned stations in the most difficult of arctic conditions, while trying to remain hidden from the Allies. Even more extraordinary are the stories of what the members of these stations lived through while trying to do their jobs. Along the east coast of Greenland, the Germans repeatedly tried to establish manned stations only to have them discovered by the U.S. Coast Guard or the Greenland Sledge Patrol (Danes, Norwegians and Inuit on dog sleds patrolled a 500-mile perimeter of the Greenland coast). It is a story of small groups of men, Danes, Inuit and Germans tracking each other over the ice, sudden bursts of machine-gun fire, strafings from above, ships sinking and weather station huts burning.

The lack of success in Greenland led the Germans to concentrate on Spitsbergen, further north than their stations on Greenland and further from the American patrols. This is also the third part of the story, for the history of the most successful of the stations has now been published in English. Wilhelm Dege's Wettertrupp Haudegen: Eine deutsch Arktisexpedition 1944/45, originally published in 1954, has been translated and edited by William Barr as War North of 80: The Last German Weather Station of World War II.

Dege was already familiar with Spitsbergen after three pre-war expeditions to study the island's geomorphology and he was able to choose a site for his station "Haudegen," which provided isolation, good hunting and a plentiful supply of driftwood for heating. Dege was 34 when he and his 12-man team set up their pre-fabricated huts at the head of Rjipfjorden on Nordaustlandet on September 14, 1944. They had been transported from Norway in U-307 and the fishing trawler KJ Busch. They brought with them 80,000-kg of materials and supplies: food, fuel, radio and meteorological equipment, building materials, dogs, sledges, land mines and arms.

Dege was not a military man but a scientist and, in addition to carrying out his primary task of observing and broadcasting weather data, he continued his earlier work on the island, setting out on a number of expeditions to record land and ice forms, tracing the remains left by previous arctic explorers, giving place names, photographing and describing arctic flora, and, throughout, keeping an extensive diary describing the life of the station and its members. In addition he was a good photographer, using an excellent Leica camera and even colour film, so we have his visual record as well as a fine series of drawings done by one of the radio operators, Heinz Schneider.

Dege understood the importance of maintaining morale amongst a small group, in close and isolated quarters during an arctic winter. It appears that Haudegen was a happy and healthy place. There was a combination of routine, hard work, good food, lectures and musical entertainment, lots to drink, and when the weather allowed, long skiing and hunting expeditions for all the crew in turn.

As the end of the war approached it is fascinating to read their reactions to the small amount of news they received from Germany. They were aware that collapse was inevitable and worried about their families and their own futures, but they continued their observations and explorations right through the spring of 1945. There are pictures of the snow melting around the main hut with someone on the roof playing an accordion and others of the "North Pole Band" with Dege on guitar surrounded by four fellow musicians on two accordions, a mandolin and a violin.

The day after the surrender of Germany the station began to broadcast its weather data "in clear" and almost immediately the Allies gave the station a permanent place in the global weather network as Station XO2. They had to wait some months, until September 1945, before they were able to surrender to a Norwegian ship that returned them to Tromso, Norway as POWs for interrogation and eventual return to Germany.

But that is not the end of the story of Haudegen. Before leaving the station, Dege decided that it might be wise to leave many of his personal documents and duplicates of weather and scientific observations hidden near the station. He doubted that he would be able to retain any of this information after surrender. In 1985 Dege's son, Eckhart, accompanied the Norwegian Defence Museum's expedition to Svalbard, looking for remains of the wartime weather stations. Following the descriptions in his father's diary, Eckhart was able to recover a metal box wrapped in a tarpaulin and balloon rubber. It contained the station journal, 89 pages of meteorological observations, a report on health conditions, 62 pages of comments on expedition techniques and equipment, three notebooks of Dege's scientific notes, his personal diary, a notebook of microclimatological observations, 116 index cards with the results of radiosonde ascents and 70 cards recording high altitude wind recordings, all in perfect condition. This expedition also found large amounts of cached supplies and arms in emergency depots, which Dege had created; they also recovered another automatic station that had been set up by the Luftwaffe in July 1943.

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For 50 years the remains of Haudegen were preserved in the cold, dry conditions of the high Arctic. Over the years hunters and trappers found the machine guns and explosives left behind and fired them off, rummaged through the station, destroyed the library and scattered the remaining tins and boxes of supplies around the huts. But the station's buildings remain. Now they are under threat from tourism, as each year the area is targeted by cruise ships to the Arctic. In the summer of 2000 the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat was able to document the remains of three of the four German stations on Spitsbergen. As a result the recommendation was made to upgrade these sites from "historical" to "monitoring list" and to apply for funds for their conservation.

Then there's Albert Speer's comments. Someone close to the inner circle during the final days of the war must have begun making concrete plans to fly to Greenland for it to have been suggested to Speer. Perhaps he was wrong about Greenland as the destination. However, at the end of the war there remained only Haudegen on Spitsbergen, and on April 24, 1945 the group received a radio message asking about the possibility of an aircraft being able to land on the ice near the station. Dege and his men laid out a landing strip three kilometers long, but no plane ever arrived.

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Author:Sager, Murray
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Date:Sep 1, 2009
Words:2058
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