January 15, 2018

From the Vaults: The Battle of Greenland part 1

  Let’s play World War II trivia:  Who was Eli Knudson?  If you rightly guessed from the title above that he had something to do with the Battle of Greenland, you are in the bonus round.  For a chance to choose  between curtain number one or the box of fabulous prizes . . . what would his claim to fame be?  Is there is a reason for anyone to remember him at all?   Tick, tick, tick . . . DING! Your time is up!  He was the only casualty of war from a small group of men who served as in a small, elite corps of  “soldiers” known as the Sledge Patrol.  “Soldiers” is in quotes here because, technically, Greenland had no armed forces and the Sledge Patrol was populated by Danes and Norwegians and not native Greenlanders.

    Before I try to explain this little mystery, let me point out that I am not a World War II scholar, but I am interested in history.  We live in an area that some feel is “the far north” of Michigan, but ‘far north’ is a relative term.   I have never been farther north than Hearst, Ontario some 100 miles north of Lake Superior, but that seems so much farther north than the U.P..  Lastly, I had no reason to know anything about this story until I spied David Howarth’s book The Sledge Patrol (The Lyons Press 1957) at our friendly neighborhood St. Vinnie’s.  I was all of four years old when this book was originally published. It concerns events that began with the building of a scientific research station 600 miles north of the Arctic Circle more than a decade before my birth.  With that said, this was a story that could not be put down once I started reading about the little known events surrounding The Battle of Greenland.  I am awe struck by what these men accomplished in a part of the world where simply surviving is a day to day, hour to hour struggle.

    At the beginning of World War II, Germany invaded Denmark on April 9th, 1940.  The King of Denmark, following the suggested course of action from the British government (who had already informed the Danish government that they would not be able to send them help), decreed that all Danes should submit to the German occupation.  The King did not mention the Danish colonies that included Greenland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands.  The British eventually did send troops to occupy Iceland and the Faroe Islands, but Greenland was deemed far too remote for the European countries engaged in the war to worry about.  

    The territorial governor, Eske Brun, could not legally defy his King, but being a shrewd man, he made some assumptions that set the wheels in motion to create The Sledge Patrol.  Brun reasoned that the King had made his proclamation of submission under duress and not of his free will.  Part of the rules of governance for Greenland stated that “no actions can be taken that would harm the rights of Greenlanders”.   He decided that he had two good reasons to ignore the King’s occupation decree.   He also rightly assumed that the United States would eventually enter the fray, and it would be to America’s strategic advantage to give Greenland support and protection from the Germans.

    The geography of Greenland’s east coast would seem to belie any German interest in its occupation.  There is a 1600 mile coast that comprises the eastern side of Greenland.  From Scoresby Sound,  the northernmost inhabited outpost,  there stretches another 700 miles of inhospitable coastline that is ice locked ten months of the year.  In 1940, the eastern side of Greenland was inhabited by 26 men and one woman in scattered hunting outposts.    Twelve of these men were Danes and Norwegians who lived alone in their huts at the center of their own sixty square mile hunting district.  Small hunting stations located at 12 to 15 mile intervals provided these rugged men of the north way stations where they could rest themselves and their dog sledge teams as they eked out a meager existence hunting polar bear and musk ox.  They rarely encountered the other hunters and usually communicated with the outside world once a year when the summer supply ship would visit the four weather stations located along the coast.  The staff of the three Danish (and one Norwegian) stations consisted of 3 or 4 observers and occasional guests who would sledge in from the hunting districts.  

    The governor thought it would be prudent to alert these far flung outposts about the onset of the hostilities, so he passed word though the weather stations that all of the hunters should come in to either one of these stations or Scoresby Sound.  They complied and were then asked to volunteer for what Eske Brun called the North-East Greenland Sledge Patrol.  The fifteen who were chosen were to be stationed at Scoresby Sound, a hundred and fifty miles north at Ella Island, and another 200 miles farther north at Eskimoness.  Both Ella Island and Eskimoness had wooden houses with weather stations and radio transmitters to broadcast weather reports every six hours.  

    At the start of the war, German U-Boats and British convoys were both using the broadcasts from these stations to track the unpredictable North Atlantic weather patterns.  Nobody had considered encoding the messages to thwart the German’s because in their remote location, no one told them to stop broadcasting uncoded weather reports.  Enter a former Danish bookseller named Poulson.  During a summer holiday, Poulson had taken a temporary job with another Dane, the explorer and geologist Dr. Lauge Koch in  Greenland.  Poulson fell in love with the arctic and never returned to selling books.  He had the misfortune of being in Denmark on vacation when the Germans invaded.   As soon as he could volunteer to return to Greenland, he headed back, but with a secret agenda from his government:  get word to the weather stations that they should stop broadcasting open signals and use coded weather broadcasts.  As soon as he had accomplished this mission, the Germans would turn their eyes to Greenland to establish their own meteorological station to replace the information that they were no longer getting from the Danes.

    Poulson was back in Greenland at the time Eske Brun asked for volunteers for the Sledge Patrol.  The members of the Sledge Patrol were asked to patrol their former hunting areas, man the weather stations and keep an eye out for any possible incursions into the area.  They knew that the chances of an actual invasion were remote, but as long as they were now being paid to continue living in the arctic environment they loved, they saw it as a win-win situation for them.  Kurt Olsen and Marius Jensen had accompanied Poulson from Denmark to Greenland, so they were natural additions to the Sledge Patrol.  The rest of the contingent at the Eskimoness station included fifty five year old arctic veteran Henri Rudi , Eli Knudson, and Peter Nielson.  On occasion, there were several Eskimo sledge drivers from Scoresby Sound who would assist on patrol, but Poulson was under strict orders to not involve them in any conflict.  After the supply ship left during the brief two month navigation season, they were isolated a 400 mile dog sledge journey north of Scoresby Sound.  Their closest outpost at Ella Island was a 150 mile trek to the south and their patrol area extended to 77 degrees north latitude – another 200 miles!  With seventy some sledge dogs to feed at the Eskimoness, they spent equal amounts of time hunting musk ox and polar bear, patrolling their routes, and broadcasting the weather conditions.  All things were running as planned until March 9, 1943 when Marius Jensen and two Eskimo sledge drivers stumbled upon a detachment of Germans encamped at Hansa Bay on Sabine Island, some 70 miles north of Eskinmoness.

    In the summer of 1942, the Germans dispatched the ship Sachsen on a secret mission to establish their own weather station in Greenland.  The Russians were now in the war and weather reports from the North Atlantic were more crucial than ever.  Under the command of Captain Ritter (an Austrian who was also a Lieutenant in the German Naval Reserve), they had explored the coast north of Eskimoness and allowed their ship to be iced in at Hansa Bay, where they set up their station.  With their ship camouflaged with white sheets and their station set in a remote bay on Sabine Island,  the Germans felt they were fairly safe from detection.  The ship’s crew included a doctor, two radio operators, a team of meteorologists and a small contingent of real soldiers armed with real weapons of war.  The Sledge Patrol “soldiers” were equipped with their dog sledges and their obligatory hunting rifles (one simply does not go anywhere in Greenland without a rifle).   The Sledge Patrol “soldiers” were soon to find out their rifles were no match for submachine guns and hand grenades.   

    In Part two, we will pick up the story with Marius Jensen and his two Eskimo sledge drivers discovering the German outpost on a routine inspection of Sabine Island.  Once Ritter and his band of soldiers realized they had been discovered, the Germans would  undertake a march on foot to Eskimoness to prevent the outside world from learning about their secret weather post.  The Battle of Greenland had now begun.


Top Piece Video – Edwin Starr says it all in his classic track War.