Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Spitsbergen

Of tactical and strategic importance, the Norwegian islands of Spitsbergen are located in the Arctic Sea north of the mainland. Extending over some 23,658 square miles, the islands comprise the major share of the larger Svalbard group. During the war, Allied convoys regularly passed through this territory carrying Lend-Lease supplies to the Soviet Union. In 1943, U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall noted in a public speech that while World War I for him had exemplified the importance of roads, railroads, and rivers, World War II demonstrated dramatically the importance of oceans. His comment bears directly on the role of Spitsbergen.

Ocean currents and climate gave Spitsbergen strategic importance. The North Atlantic drift, an extension of the Gulf stream, brings abnormally warm water north of the Arctic Circle directly past the islands, continuing to the ice-free Russian port of Murmansk and dissipating in the vicinity of Novaya Zemla. Germany conquered Norway in 1940. During the war, both sides established weather stations and port and loading facilities in the islands, and they also mined coal there.

In August 1941, a Canadian raiding party centered on the 49th Battalion of the Edmunton Regiment attacked and destroyed a German meteorological station in the islands, wrecked asbestos and gypsum mines, and destroyed about 450,000 tons of mined coal and 275,000 gallons of oil. The raiders then evacuated the Norwegian population to England; about 2,000 Russian miners were transported to a northern Soviet port. The Allies also established a base there. Germany carried out a major raid on Spitsbergen on 8 September 1943. Operation sizilien included two battleships, the Tirpitz and Scharnhorst, five destroyers, and four other vessels. The raiders departed Altafjord on 6 September. On 9 September, they destroyed by gunfire Allied coal and port facilities and weather stations. By that date, however, the Allies were firmly in control of the islands.

Arthur I. Cyr


Further Reading
Morison, Samuel Eliot. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Vol. 5, The Struggle for Guadalcanal, August 1942–February 1943. Boston: Little, Brown, 1949.; Murray, Williamson, and Allan R. Millett. A War to Be Won: Fighting the Second World War. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2000.
 

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