Preface: You may not know this, but I take a great interest in military history in addition to my interest in polar exploration and aviation. My particular sphere of amateur expertise is The Great War, also known as World War I, but I dabble in World War II as well. I was recently asked if there had been any action in Svalbard during either of those wars, and the answer turns out to be yes!
Svalbard’s location, though remote, has made it a strategically important bit of land to control over the years. Notably in World War II there was a fair bit of fighting over the archipelago, for it acted as a gateway to the arctic regions of Russia in addition to having some pretty excellent coal deposits and other natural resources.
In 1940 and 1941, Germany invaded Norway amongst many other sovereign nations in Europe. Concerned that the Germans would try to make use of the rich coal deposits in Svalbard, the British and Canadian forces raided the island of Spitsbergen with help from the Free Norwegian Forces with the aim of destroying as much of the coal as they could. Called Operation Gauntlet, the combined forces were able to set many mines to destroy the coal supply, after of course they packed away 450,000 tons of coal and 275,000 gallons of fuel and grease to take with them. They also took a few thousand Russian coal miners and a handful of French and Norwegians off the islands to unoccupied territory. As they left, the Allies also managed to blow up the few radio stations on the archipelago. This was in late August/early September 1941.
A radio station in Spitsbergen being destroyed
According to the memoirs of Phillip Vian, an Admiral in the British Royal Navy, the only casualties during this operation occurred when the rearguard at Barentsburg had accessed the vodka stores and had to be carried aboard.
During the war, an enormous amount of naval activity took place in the arctic, mostly in the form of convoys.This meant ships carrying troops and goods, more ships trying to sink those ships, submarines, mines, and airplanes and aircraft carriers, too. The conditions, even in the summer months, were pretty appalling.
With the coal mostly destroyed and the miners mostly gone, the Germans set up a weather station in Svalbard to help them with their navigation of the arctic naval situation. The Allies made a failed attempt to dislodge the Germans during Operation Fritham in April 1942, resulting in the loss of two ships and twelve men (thirteen if you count a wounded man who later died of his injuries). In September 1943, the Germans launched Operation Zitronella and were successful in destroying the last remaining Allied weather stations.
A crash wrecked German Junkers Ju 88, which landed in Svalbard in 1942 and has never left
The most famous moment of note in Svalbard during WWII is right at the very end of things. Actually, after the end of things! The last Germans to surrender, officially ever, was a group of Germans posted at the end of the earth, in Svalbard. Although Germany had officially surrendered as of May 1945, these last few germans didn’t formally surrender until September 1945! The story goes something like this:
“…apart from poor transmitting conditions in Svalbard- the entire communication apparatus of the German army was fast falling apart from the seams. On May 8 their superiors in Norway told them that the war was over, but that was the last mesage they ever received. Being stranded on the island with nothing but a rowing boat, they kept on broadcasting weather forecasts (albeit uncoded, presuming that a world at peace also needs to know from which way the wind blows) and eventually tried Allied distress channels. But no replies were forthcoming until finally, in September, a Norwegian seal-hunting vessel anchored at Svalbard. The captain invited the Germans over for a hearty meal (which they must surely have enjoyed after living on canned goods for over a year) but then “we had this situation where no one seemed too sure what to do”. Finally, the German commander said “I suppose we should surrender now”, took out his pistol and placed it on the table in front of the ship’s captain. The Norwegian stared at it and asked “can I keep this then?”. He could and this made the eleven soldiers of Operation ‘Haudegen’ the last German troops to surrender -in somewhat surreal circumstances- on September 4 1945, three months after the war ended in Europe.”
So there you have it, Svalbard in World War II. Four weeks until I set off for the archipelago myself, please feel free to let me know if there are any questions you have about Svalbard, Polar History or my residency (or the World Wars!!)