Heading out to hunt for German weather stations set up on the coast of Greenland, a member of the ‘Sledge Patrol’ leaves base at Sandodden; ca. 1940’s.
The Weather War
By far one of the least heralded campaigns of World War II was the hunt for Axis weather stations set up in remote parts of Greenland. The United States actually began doing this in 1940 at the behest of the Danish Government following the German occupation of the country. The job fell principally on the shoulders of the Coast Guard at that point, who patrolled with ships and aircraft, looking for German weather ships, or supply boats attempting to reach weather stations the Germans had set up on land.
The reason Greenland was so important in this regard was that a weather station set up on Greenland’s eastern coast – which is immense and hard to patrol – offers an excellent window into the weather fronts as they move towards Northwest Europe. Obviously weather plays a huge part in military planning, and this being before satellites allowed such easy predictions to be made, the extra day of forewarning offered by a station in Greenland was of incredible value to military planners. So Germany wanted to set them up there, and it fell to the United States to protect Danish interests in not allowing this to happen. The first direct combat between Germans and Americans (and by direct I exclude convoy contact with U-Boats) occurred during one of these patrols when a Coast Guard cutter, the USS Northland, boarded and captured the Norwegian flagged ship Buskoe. A landing party went ashore and captured three German soldiers operating the weather station the ship had been resupplying. This all happening three months before America entered the war!
Aside from the Coasties though, the “Sledge Patrol” – a 15 man, mixed force of Norwegians, Danes and local Eskimos, all supported by the US – spent much of the war patrolling the coast hunting Germans as well. Only, doing it on land in subzero arctic weather instead of in a comparatively warm and cozy boat. On dog sleds, 2 and 3 man patrols would head out for a few months at a time and attempt to find German weather stations (As many as four teams were operating in Greenland at a time) in a cat and mouse game. Although the teams were to small to assault the German stations they could radio the positions to the Coast Guard who would send a landing party. Generally, the Germans were the mice and had to pack up their stuff and flee if discovered, but the Germans did strike back and attack the Sledge Patrol’s base-camp at Eskimonaes, killing one member of the team, Eli Knudsen (the only loss they endured).
The last land-based weather station of the Germans was knocked out in October of 1944. Based on Little Koldeway island, the German station was spotted by the USS Eastwind during a coastal patrol. A landing party of Coast Guardsman trained in special raiding tactics by commandos made a nighttime landing and caught the Germans by total surprise, and were able to get most of their documents intact even! No more land-based stations were attempted after that, although off-shore trawlers were still utilized (The USS Eastwind would take the Externsteine as a prize only a week after the raid on Koldeway).
All Photos from Time-Life
Here is a video of the shot. It was the fifth largest nuclear shot by the US ever, at 9.3 megatons. It really does look like a sunrise/set (only at 1000x speed).
(I recently read Command and Control, would recommend it, covers a lot of the insanity regarding nuclear weapons. Apparently, up until the 80’s they were surprisingly easy to to set off, none of the PAL stuff you see in movies these days. Right after World War Twi they were still trying to figure out how to work nuclear war into scenario planning, it leads to a lot of crazy phrases like “limited nuclear war” or “progressive escalation” in terms of how to use the weapons not just against the soviets but also against weaker world powers. I think the USA did get a bit of a God complex for a bit, but once the cold war started it balanced it out to a more muted insanity and paranoia as they realized that just about any major power could drop a nuke and it might just set off the rest of the world, intentional or not…)