Military Wiki
History of Greenland during World War II
Part of World War II
Members of a German weather station surrender to US forces (October 1944)
Date9 April 1940 – 5 May 1945
Result Allied Victory
 United States
Commanders and leaders
Ib Poulsen Lieutenant Ritter
Wilhelm Dege
15 men 19 men
Casualties and losses
1 killed[1] N/A

Before the war, Greenland was a tightly controlled colony of Denmark, otherwise closed off to the world. After the Invasion of Denmark on 9 April 1940, Greenland was left on her own, because the Royal Navy seized any ships arriving from Axis-controlled Europe. Britain and Canada initially laid plans to occupy points of interest on the island, but the United States, still neutral, firmly rejected "third party" intervention there. The sheriffs ("landsfogeder") of South and North Greenland, Eske Brun and Aksel Svane, invoking the emergency clause of the 1925 law specifying how Greenland was ruled, declared Greenland a self-ruling territory, believing this to be in the best interests of the colony as Denmark was occupied by Germany. This step was taken in coordination with the Danish envoy to Washington D.C. and the U.S. State Department, and comported with the U.S. declaration of 1920 that no third nation would necessarily be accepted as a sovereign in Greenland. This diplomatic stance was seen as an extension of the Monroe Doctrine. Although the Danish government continued in power and still considered itself neutral, it was forced to obey German wishes in foreign policy matters. The Danish envoy in Washington, Henrik de Kauffmann, immediately recognized that his government was unable to exercise its full sovereignty, and therefore began to act in an independent capacity. On 13 April he took contact with the Greenland sheriffs, and after some controversy they agreed to recognize him as their representative in the United States. (The sheriffs were called governors by the Americans, although the real governor of Greenland was in Copenhagen.) Since the U.S. would not offer diplomatic recognition and aid to Greenland unless the local administration was independent, the sheriffs informed the local advisory parliament ("Landsraad") on 3 May that "there was no choice" but to act as a sovereign nation. In this decision they were influenced by their determination to avoid becoming subject to a Canadian occupation and thus being drawn into the war. Instead, they requested the protection of the United States, whose Treasury Department agreed to dispatch a U.S. Coast Guard cutter with supplies and a consular team to establish a provisional consulate at Godthaab. The Comanche arrived at Ivigtut on 20 May, and Godthaab on 22 May, thereby establishing direct diplomatic relations with Greenland. Canada sent a consul and vice-consul to Godthaab two weeks later.

In 1940, the chief concern of all interested parties was to secure the flow of cryolite from the mine at Ivigtut. For this purpose the sheriffs requested, and the U.S. Navy Department provided, a local defense of small arms and a three-inch gun. For various reasons this force, with a small detachment of former Coast Guard "policemen" hired by the mine, was not effective until late in 1940. In this way the United States maintained neutrality and still preempted British-Canadian plans for the island.

Germany made no attempts to reach Greenland in 1940. However, three Norwegian vessels reached Norwegian stations on the East Coast. Two were intercepted by the Royal Navy, one (which was left to go) by the U.S. Coast Guard. Britain violated Greenland neutrality by destroying the Norwegian stations, drawing a U.S. protest, and a German reconnaissance plane made a flight over the East Coast in November in order to check on a Norwegian station that had not been heard from.

In 1941, the situation shifted towards delivery of Lend-Lease aircraft to Britain via the North Atlantic island "stepping stones." Again, Britain and Canada pressed for an operation to establish an airfield near Cape Farewell. This forced the U.S. and the Greenland government to formalize a U.S. protectorate in order to preserve the island's neutrality. Following surveys in 1940 and 1941, two locations for air bases were located, and a naval base established close to Ivigtut. The U.S. bases and stations were codenamed under the Bluie West and Bluie East moniker. See individual entries for the history of these locations.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt took a strong personal interest in Greenland's fate. On 9 April 1941, the anniversary of the German occupation, the Danish envoy Kauffmann, against the instructions of his government, signed an executive agreement with Secretary of State Cordell Hull, allowing the presence of American troops and making Greenland a de facto US protectorate. The cryolite mine in Ivittuut was a unique asset that made it possible for Greenland to manage fairly well economically during the war. The United States supplied the island and sent patrol boats to survey the east coast of Greenland although this activity was limited by seasonal ice. The Coast Guard, in coordination with Eske Brun, created the Northeast Greenland Sledge Patrol, consisting of 15 men, many of them former hunters in the area. Their task was to patrol the coast to discover any German activity. However, in 1941 there was no such landing, although the Norwegian resupply trawler Buskoe was encountered in September. Among its otherwise innocuous crew and passengers was a civilian Norwegian who intended to provide weather reports for German contacts in Norway. This ship was seized and brought to Boston.

Universal Newsreel about the 1944 attack on a German weather station

In 1941, British ships continued to interfere with weather stations on the east coast. A couple of reconnaissance aircraft from Norway flew over Scoresbysund.

When the United States entered the war with Germany on 11 December, Greenland became a warring nation. Remaining contact with Copenhagen was broken off, rationing and daylight savings time was introduced, and local currency and stamps printed. In 1942, the U.S. Army took over protection of the Ivigtut mine, and combat patrols began to be flown from Bluie West One, which became the headquarters for both the Coast Guard's Greenland Patrol (now directly under the Navy) and the U.S. Army Air Corps's Greenland Base Command. A third air base was established at Bluie East Two during the summer. The Greenland population, which had been 18,000 natives and less than 500 Danes, was augmented by thousands of U.S. servicemen. Relations with the Americans were excellent, as they provided news, provisions, humanitarian aid, and entertainment in addition to greatly expanding the island's infrastructure. Greenland's commercial interests in North America were maintained by the Greenland Delegation with the aid of Kauffmann and Svane. Brun remained in Greenland as head of a unified administration.

Beginning in August 1942, the Germans established four weather stations on the east coast. The first expedition on Sabine Island was detected in the spring, but was withdrawn successfully before it was attacked. The fall 1943 expedition at Shannon Island also operated successfully over the winter and spring and was withdrawn by air. Two expeditions in October 1944 were seized by the Coast Guard before they could get established. A few skirmishes took place between the Sledge Patrol and the Germans during the war, causing one Danish and one German fatality. In 1943, a German officer was taken prisoner by the Sledge Patrol and taken to the Americans after a long journey over ice. After the patrol discovered and reported the German weather station Holzauge at Hansa Bay on the northeast coast of Sabine Island, it was bombed by USAAF bombers from Iceland. It was then seized by a Coast Guard landing party, but all German personnel save one person had already been evacuated. Apart from fire exchanged between German aircraft and U.S. ships, this was the only air combat action in Greenland proper. The last German weather station, Edelweiss II, was captured by US Army forces and its crew taken prisoner on 4 October 1944. The American troops landed from the icebreaker USCGC Eastwind, which later transferred the prisoners to USCGC Storis. The German transport ship Externsteine, which was resupplying the station, was seized by the Eastwind, renamed Eastbreeze and commissioned in the United States Coast Guard.[2]

The sledge patrol was retained after the end of the war as a permanent elite unit of the Danish Army, the still-active Slædepatruljen Sirius.

Greenland played a very important role in North Atlantic air traffic during the war, but the contemplated role in anti-submarine warfare was curtailed due to weather, winter darkness, and difficult logistics. For a long period a flight of six PBY Catalinas of VP-6(CG) was maintained at Bluie West One, carrying out a great variety of missions.

During 1941-45 the United States established numerous and extensive facilities for air and sea traffic in Greenland, as well as radio beacons, radio stations, weather stations, ports, depots, artillery posts, and search-and-rescue stations. The Coast Guard also provided a considerable portion of the civilian resupply task up and down both coasts. Economically, Greenland traded successfully with the United States, Canada, and Portugal, which, supplemented by the cryolite exports, caused a reanimation and permanent realignment of the island's economy. On 5 May 1945, hearing of the German surrender in Northern Europe, the Greenland Administration under Eske Brun surrendered its emergency powers and again came under direct control from Copenhagen. Kauffmann returned to Copenhagen, where treason charges against him were dropped, and the Danish parliament ratified his agreement with the United States. The United States presence continued in decreasing numbers until the Kauffmann-Hull agreement was replaced by a new base treaty in 1951. The successful experience of an independent Greenland led to a dramatic restructuring and modernization of Danish policy with respect to the colony.

In fiction

A scene in the thriller "The Manchurian Candidate" includes an American veteran of the struggle against the German weather stations in Greenland giving a rather fanciful account of his experiences, making this aspect of World War II more well-known to the general public.

See also

  • The most detailed account of U.S.-Greenland relations 1940-42 is in Finn Loekkegaard: Det Danske Gesandtskab i Washington 1940-42 (includes a summary in English). Copenhagen, 1968.
  • The most detailed accounts of wartime activities in Greenland are in unit records at the Air Force Historical Research Agency, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, and in Coast Guard archives at the National Archives and Records Administration, NARA 2, College Park, Maryland.
  • Diplomatic details of the period may be found in Foreign Relations of the United States, and the Canadian equivalent.
  • Finn Gad: Gronland under Krigen. Copenhagen, 1945.
  • Bernt Balchen: War Below Zero. 1944.
  • The Sledge Patrol - By David Howarth
  • History of Greenland from the point of view of the US Coast Guard[dead link]

The US Coast Guard Cutter "Northland" seized the Norwegian trawler Buskoe in September 1941. (In 1940, she had not interfered with the Norwegian resupply ship "Ringsel.") The legally ambiguous Buskoe event is often credited as the first U.S. naval seizure of the war. The captain was CMDR Edward H. Smith USCG, "Ice Berg Smith" a man in his forties and a well-known oceanographer. "Northland" also rescued many downed US Army Air Corps flyers from the ice cap (see P38 Glacier Girl). "Northland" was based out of Boston, MA. Prior to the outbreak of World War II, Northland was also powered by sail. An internet search will reveal photos of Northland under sail. The news article on the attack on the German radio station was first publiched in Post magazine titled: First Blow.

Extensive history related to the Northland and Captain Smith


  1. Sledge Members
  2. Dege, Wilhelm and Barr, William (2004). War north of 80: the last German Arctic weather station of World War II. University of Calgary Press, Introduccion, p. XXX. ISBN 1-55238-110-2

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