Greenland's War

By Seth Marshall

After the fall of Denmark in the spring of 1940, numerous countries sought to control the world’s largest sub-continental island. While sparsely populated, the island provided an ideal site to forecast weather that affected Europe and provided and place from which land-based aircraft could patrol the North Atlantic.

            Greenland is the world’s largest sub-continental island. Despite its size, the island has always had a very small population. Even today, the population numbers less than 70,000 people. First populated by Inuit peoples 4-5,000 years ago, Greenland was colonized by several waves of Inuits, the last of which arrived late in the 9th Century. Also arriving in the late 9th Century was Norse settlers led by Erik the Red. The settlers remained until the 1500s, when the Norse population disappeared for reasons not entirely known. In the 17th and 18th Centuries, other European explorers from England, Norway, and Denmark arrived. Eventually, the English and Norwegians left the Danes in charge of the island. However, on April 9, 1940, Germany invaded and occupied Denmark. Connections from Denmark and Greenland were severed and the island was left unprotected and exposed.[1]

            While Greenland had a low population and seemed a relatively unimportant piece of land in the North Atlantic, it was considered important for several reasons. First, one of the few exports of importance from the island was cryolite, an alloy used in the production of aluminum for aircraft. Additionally, the position of Greenland made it an ideal location to position airfields for both the transfer of aircraft across the Atlantic and for patrolling the ocean. Perhaps most importantly, the island was the origin point for much of the weather that affected Europe. This point in particular would prove to be of interest to Germany.

            In the summer of 1940, Germany established several expeditions to Greenland in the vicinity of Scoresby Sound. While these stations were operated by Scandanavians, they were controlled by the German military with the purpose of feeding meteorological information back to Europe. In the fall of 1940, the British countered the Germans by sending raiding parties to dismantle the radio stations, capturing some aviation fuel and several individuals. Later, the British seized a ship with some fifty Germans on board.[2]

            It was at this juncture that the United States became interested in Greenland. Secretary of State Cordell Hull became concerned with the amount of German activity in the region and discussed solutions with the US military and representatives of the Danish government in exile. The US decided that it would build several airfields on the island, officially began to formulate a plan to build sites. On February 6, 1941, President Roosevelt gave his approval to a plan to construct several new bases on Greenland. On April 9, 1941, the Hull-Kauffman agreement was formally signed.

“The Hull-Kauffman agreement gave the United States the right to construct, maintain, and operate in Greenland such airfields, seaplane facilities, and other defense facilities as were necessary to protect the sovereignty of Denmark and the territorial integrity of Greenland. The rights granted to the United States were extensive. They included, among others, the authority to deepen harbors and anchorages, to construct roads and fortifications, and, in general, “the right to do any and all things necessary to insure the efficient operation, maintenance and protection” of whatever defense facilities were established. It was agreed that areas necessary for these purposes would be leased to the United States.”[3]

One of the Greenland's USAAF bases not long after construction.

One of the Greenland's USAAF bases not long after construction.

On March 17th, the USCGC Cayuga was dispatched to Greenland to survey airfield sites. A small garrison was left in place, which was quickly increased in April from 100 to 480. By mid-1941, construction on two airfields was underway- one was known as BLUIE WEST I, in Narsarssuak,  and the other as BLUIE WEST 8.[4]

                Meanwhile, the Germans continued with their efforts to establish weather and radio stations along Greenland’s eastern coast. In late summer 1941, the Germans conducted Operation Bud, an effort to land more personnel on Greenland. Six Germans were stationed on the island until August 1942, when they were evacuated by U-boat.[5] In September, the Norwegian trawler Buskoe was captured attempting to establish a weather and radio station.[6]  In response to this, the Americans continued to expand their bases in Greenland. By June 30, 1942, BLUIE WEST I had 783 men, BLUIE WEST 8 had 379 officers and men, and there were 238 men at Ivigtut.[7] That fall, infantry and coastal artillery were brought in to provide additional defenses. The airbases were used by the USAAF for patrolling the Northern Atlantic searching for U-boats and escorting convoys making their way to England. The bases were also used as stopover points for aircraft that were being ferried to England and the Mediterranean theater.[8]

                In order to combat the Germans continuing efforts to establish weather stations on the East Coast, Danes and native Greenlanders established the Sled Patrol, teams of sled-borne men who patrolled the vast coastlines of eastern Greenland. Additionally, several US Coast Guard ships patrolled the coastline and would periodically land American GIs to search for Germans. While most of the time the patrols did not discover anything of interest, occasionally the patrols would encounter the enemy. On one occasion, the Sled Patrol discovered a weather base on Sabine Island. The Germans then raided the patrol station at Eskimonaes and burned the station to the ground, killing one patrolling soldier and capturing another. The captured man, a Dane named Marius Jensen, later escaped and in turn captured the enemy leader and brought him back to the Allied camp.[9] Later, a flight of USAAF bombers from Col. Bernt Balchen took off from Iceland to destroy the German camp. Upon reaching the base, the bombers strafed several buildings and sank a small supply ship. Two ships were dispatched, the USCG Northland and USCG North Star, to investigate what was left of the site. A single German was captured, the rest were presumed to have been evacuated. Following this, operations in 1943 were suspended due to bad weather.[10]

Members of the Sled Patrol examine captured parachute equipment at the site of an abandoned German station. Source: US Coast Guard

Members of the Sled Patrol examine captured parachute equipment at the site of an abandoned German station. Source: US Coast Guard

                In spite of the destruction of this base, German weather station operations continued until 1944. Several expeditions, codenamed Operations Crusader, Viola, Treasurer, and Notch were undertaken between 1943-1944, but all came to a premature end. Operation Notch in particular ended in disaster as the trawler Sachsen was attacked by Allied aircraft and sunk. The crew split up, some making their escape via German aircraft and others were captured by the Americans.[11] In 1944, the Germans sent three additional expeditions to Greenland in 1944 to set up additional weather stations. In July, the Northland found one of the weather stations at Cape Sussie, along with the trawler Coburg which was trapped in ice and destroyed both. In September,  Northland discovered another German ship attempting to bring another of the expeditions. The Germans attempted to flee, but eventually scuttled their ship when they realized that they could not escape. All 28 members of the expedition and crew were captured.[12]

A US shore party prepares to search a section of coastline for German weather stations. Source: The National World War II Museum.

A US shore party prepares to search a section of coastline for German weather stations. Source: The National World War II Museum.

The USCGC Northland (WPG-49), an Arctic cutter originally designed as a cruising cutter, meaning that she was equipped with sails. Originally commissioned on May 7, 1927, she served in a variety of roles until she was decommissioned for the first time in 1938. Recommissioned the following year, she saw extensive service in the Arctic circle during World War II. During this time, she was armed with 2 x 3 in/50 guns, 4 x 20mm anti-aircraft guns, 2 x depth charge racks, and 2 x Y-guns. She was also equipped with a scout plane, a Grumman J2F-5. Her complement was 108 enlisted men and 18 officers. She was decommissioned from the Coast Guard in early 1946 and transferred to the Israeli Navy, where she served until 1946.

The USCGC Northland (WPG-49), an Arctic cutter originally designed as a cruising cutter, meaning that she was equipped with sails. Originally commissioned on May 7, 1927, she served in a variety of roles until she was decommissioned for the first time in 1938. Recommissioned the following year, she saw extensive service in the Arctic circle during World War II. During this time, she was armed with 2 x 3 in/50 guns, 4 x 20mm anti-aircraft guns, 2 x depth charge racks, and 2 x Y-guns. She was also equipped with a scout plane, a Grumman J2F-5. Her complement was 108 enlisted men and 18 officers. She was decommissioned from the Coast Guard in early 1946 and transferred to the Israeli Navy, where she served until 1946.

Another view of the USCGC Northland. Source: The National WWII Museum.

Another view of the USCGC Northland. Source: The National WWII Museum.

Coast Guard Grumman J2F scout planes search for German activity off the east coast of Greenland. Source: The National World War II Museum.

Coast Guard Grumman J2F scout planes search for German activity off the east coast of Greenland. Source: The National World War II Museum.

                In October, the Northland was replaced by the USCGC Eastwind, a newly launched armed icebreaker. For several days, the Eastwind’s scout plane, a Grumman J2F “Duck” biplane, searched for the remaining German weather stations and eventually located a German camp. Early on October 4th, an American team landed and captured the 12-man German weather team, commanded by LT Karl Schmidt, along with the German’s radios, meteorological equipment, and documents that gave details about the German operations in Greenland, including a third expedition which had not yet been captured. The Eastwind’s scout plane continued to search, and on October 14th located the trawler Externsteine, responsible for delivering the third German expedition to Greenland. The following day, the cutter steamed within range of the trawler and opened fire and demanded the Externsteine’s surrender. After several salvoes, the Germans surrendered. The commander of the Eastwind forced several German officers back aboard their ship in order to ensure that the scuttling charges in place were not detonated. As it transpired, the German ship was stuck in ice- when the shells had started to fall, they had believed that they were under attack by tanks, thinking it impossible for ships to navigate the pack ice. Much to their consternation, the Coast Guard personnel were able to free the ship with some well-placed explosives. The Externsteine was then rechristened the Eastbreeze. The capture of the Externsteine along with the third expedition ended German operations in Greenland during World War II.[13]

The Northland's replacement was the USCGC Eastwind (WAGB-279), a Wind-class icebreaker. Commissioned on July 15, 1944, she was much more formidable than Northland. She was armed with 4 x 5in guns in twin mounts, 3 x quad-mounted 40mm Bofors AA guns, 6 x 20mm Oerlikon AA autocannons, and 6 x K-guns and a Hedgehog projector for anti-submarine operations. She also carried her own scout plane. She remained in service after the war and was finally decommissioned in 1968 and scrapped in the 1970s.

The Northland's replacement was the USCGC Eastwind (WAGB-279), a Wind-class icebreaker. Commissioned on July 15, 1944, she was much more formidable than Northland. She was armed with 4 x 5in guns in twin mounts, 3 x quad-mounted 40mm Bofors AA guns, 6 x 20mm Oerlikon AA autocannons, and 6 x K-guns and a Hedgehog projector for anti-submarine operations. She also carried her own scout plane. She remained in service after the war and was finally decommissioned in 1968 and scrapped in the 1970s.

Another view of the USCGC Eastwind in her World War II configuration. Source: US Coast Guard.

Another view of the USCGC Eastwind in her World War II configuration. Source: US Coast Guard.

Members of the last German weather station surrender to US troops on October 4, 1944.

Members of the last German weather station surrender to US troops on October 4, 1944.

The trawler Externsteine, trapped in ice. After her capture, she was made a prize ship and rechristened USCGC Eastbreeze. She was turned over to the US Navy and renamed USS Callao (IX-205) in January 1945. She was decommissioned in 1950 and scrapped. 

The trawler Externsteine, trapped in ice. After her capture, she was made a prize ship and rechristened USCGC Eastbreeze. She was turned over to the US Navy and renamed USS Callao (IX-205) in January 1945. She was decommissioned in 1950 and scrapped. 

Members of the Coast Guard raise the US flag on the Externsteine on October 16, 1944. Source: US Coast Guard

Members of the Coast Guard raise the US flag on the Externsteine on October 16, 1944. Source: US Coast Guard

German prisoners being transported to a POW camp in the US. Source: US Coast Guard. 

German prisoners being transported to a POW camp in the US. Source: US Coast Guard. 

                When Germany surrendered in 1945, Greenland was returned to Danish rule. A number of the American bases were closed, but BLUIE WEST 6 remained opened and is today operated by the US Air Force as Thule Air Base. It is difficult to say how successful the German weather stations were. They were certainly able to transmit a fair amount of information. Before the Holzauge weather station was discovered by the USCG, it was able to transmit over 1500 reports back to Germany.[14] Additionally, the Germans were able to tie up a not-unsubstantial amount of Allied resources by forcing them to counter the German weather stations. As a result, Greenland forces lost two killed and four wounded by direct action.[15] Further losses were incurred from accidents, such as the loss of the USCG Natsek, a converted fishing trawler, on December 17, 1942, when it sank in a snowstorm will all hands (23 men and 1 officer) in the Belle Isle Strait[16]. However, the Germans lost numerous personnel and ships in the process as well. In the any case, the war in Greenland remains one of the lesser known aspects of the war in Europe and in the Atlantic.  

















Sources

1.       "The History of Greenland – From Dog Sled to Snowmobile." The History of Greenland – From Dog Sled to Snowmobile. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Feb. 2016.

2.       Zabecki, David T. World War II in Europe: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Pub., 1999. 628. Print.

3.       Evans, Mark Llewellyn. Great World War II Battles in the Arctic. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1999. 60-62. Print.

4.       Conn, Stetson. Guarding the United States and Its Outposts. Washington: Office of the Chief of Military History, Dept. of the Army, 1964. 442-58. Print.

5.       Price, Scott T. "Arctic Combat: The Capture of the Nazi Trawler Externsteine by Scott T. Price." Arctic Combat: The Capture of the Nazi Trawler Externsteine by Scott T. Price. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Feb. 2016.


[1] The History of Greenland – From Dog Sled to Snowmobile." The History of Greenland – From Dog Sled to Snowmobile. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Feb. 2016

[2]P. 449, Conn, Stetson. Guarding the United States and Its Outposts. Washington: Office of the Chief of Military History, Dept. of the Army, 1964. 442-58. Print.

[3]P. 445,  Conn, Stetson. Guarding the United States and Its Outposts. Washington: Office of the Chief of Military History, Dept. of the Army, 1964. 442-58. Print.

[4] Conn, Stetson. Guarding the United States and Its Outposts. Washington: Office of the Chief of Military History, Dept. of the Army, 1964. 442-58. Print.

[5] P.61, Evans, Mark Llewellyn. Great World War II Battles in the Arctic. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1999. 60-62. Print.

[6] P. 453, Conn, Stetson. Guarding the United States and Its Outposts. Washington: Office of the Chief of Military History, Dept. of the Army, 1964. 442-58. Print.

[7] P. 454, Conn, Stetson. Guarding the United States and Its Outposts. Washington: Office of the Chief of Military History, Dept. of the Army, 1964. 442-58. Print.

[8] P. 456, Conn, Stetson. Guarding the United States and Its Outposts. Washington: Office of the Chief of Military History, Dept. of the Army, 1964. 442-58. Print.

[9]Price, Scott T. "Arctic Combat: The Capture of the Nazi Trawler Externsteine by Scott T. Price." Arctic Combat: The Capture of the Nazi Trawler Externsteine by Scott T. Price. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Feb. 2016.

[10] P. 458, Conn, Stetson. Guarding the United States and Its Outposts. Washington: Office of the Chief of Military History, Dept. of the Army, 1964. 442-58. Print.

[11] P.61, Evans, Mark Llewellyn. Great World War II Battles in the Arctic. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1999. 60-62. Print.

[12] Price, Scott T. "Arctic Combat: The Capture of the Nazi Trawler Externsteine by Scott T. Price." Arctic Combat: The Capture of the Nazi Trawler Externsteine by Scott T. Price. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Feb. 2016.

[13] Price, Scott T. "Arctic Combat: The Capture of the Nazi Trawler Externsteine by Scott T. Price." Arctic Combat: The Capture of the Nazi Trawler Externsteine by Scott T. Price. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Feb. 2016.

[14] P.61, Evans, Mark Llewellyn. Great World War II Battles in the Arctic. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1999. 60-62. Print.

[15] P.628, Zabecki, David T. World War II in Europe: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Pub., 1999. 628. Print.

[16] P. 5, The Coast Guard at War. N.p.: Public Information Division, USCG Headquarters, 1947. Print. Chapter VIII.