Greenland in World War II

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
Denmark Greenland
Denmark Denmark[Note 1]
 United States
Slovakia Slovakia[Note 2]
1 transport ship captured
All weather stations withdrawn or destroyed

In 1940, Greenland was a Danish colony. The fall of Denmark to German invasion in April 1940 left Greenland an unoccupied territory of an occupied nation, but under threat of seizure by Britain or Canada. To forestall this, the United States acted to guarantee Greenland's position. However, with the entrance of the United States into the war in December 1941, Greenland became a combatant. 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 U.S. 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.


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 its 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 a 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.[Note 3] This step was taken in coordination with the Danish envoy to Washington D.C., Henrik de Kauffmann, 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.[5]

Although the Danish government continued in power and still considered itself neutral, it was forced to obey German wishes in foreign policy matters. 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 council with the Greenland sheriffs, and after some controversy they agreed to recognize him as their representative in the United States. 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. The Danish Government continued to send orders to the colony via radio and through Portugal, but these messages were ignored.[6] In this decision they were influenced by their determination to avoid becoming subject to a Canadian occupation and thus being drawn into the war.[5]

The Greenlanders were also aware of the heavy Norwegian presence in Canada. In the event that Canada attempted to occupy the colony, they were worried that Free Norwegian Forces would be stationed in the area. This was a cause for concern, as the Norwegians had been vying for control over part of the territory until the Permanent Court of International Justice settled the dispute in 1933.[7] Instead, they requested the protection of the United States, whose Treasury Department agreed to dispatch the U.S. Coast Guard vessels, USCGC Comanche and USCGC Campbell with supplies and a consular team to establish a provisional consulate at Godthaab. Accepting the protection of the Americans, a third party, was seen as less of a threat to Greenland's sovereignty.[8] Comanche arrived at Ivigtut on 20 May, and Godthaab on 22 May, thereby establishing direct diplomatic relations with Greenland.[5] Canada sent a consul and vice-consul to Godthaab two weeks later.

The cryolite mine Ivigtut, Greenland, summer 1940

In 1940, the chief concern of all interested parties was to secure the strategically important supply of cryolite from the mine at Ivigtut. Cryolite was a key component used in the production of aluminum. Due to diplomatic considerations, no U.S. soldiers could be used to protect the mines so the U.S. State Department recruited fifteen Coast Guardsmen who were voluntarily discharged and in turn hired by the mine as guards. Three-inch naval deck guns were supplied by Campbell and the recently arrived USCGC Northland along with eight machine guns, fifty rifles, and thousands of rounds of ammunition.[9] In this way the United States maintained neutrality and still preempted British-Canadian plans for the island.

Brun decided that Greenland should untertake its own measures to ensure its sovereignty. He made an appeal to the Greenland's guides and hunters to join an elite unit tasked with patrolling the most remote areas of the colony.[8] Using the rifles left by the Americans, he directed the creation of what became the Sirius Sledge Patrol. The 15 man volunteer team was made up of native Inuit, Danish colonists, and Norwegian expatriates.[3]

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.

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 U.S. protectorate. The cryolite mine in Ivigtut 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 Buskø 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, Massachusetts.

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

Greenland enters the war

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 saving 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 Greenland Patrol (now directly under the U.S. Navy) and the U.S. Army Air Force (USAAF) 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.

German weather stations

Universal Newsreel about the 1944 attack on a German weather station

Beginning in August 1942, the Germans established four clandestine 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.

In early 1943, Lieutenant Hermann Ritter, the officer acting as head of security for the chief German meteorologist, Dr. Gottfired Weiss, was taken prisoner by the Sledge Patrol and brought 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.[10] It was then seized by a Coast Guard landing party, but all German personnel save one person had already been evacuated by a Dornier Do 26.[11] Apart from fire exchanged between German aircraft and U.S. ships, this was the only offensive air attack on the Greenland mainland.

On 13 March 1943 the Germans retaliated by ambushing a three-man patrol near Sabine Island, killing the leader, Corporal Eli Knudsen. The rest of the team abandoned their equipment and retreated to the North-East Greenland Sledge Patrol station at Eskimonæs to warn Ib Poulsen, the overall commander of the entire Sledge Patrol. He radioed for automatic weapons and further orders. Governor Brun officially designated the patrol the "Army of Greenland" and named Pouslen its captain, effective 15 March. The Germans attacked on 23 March, before help could arrive, seizing and burning the station. Though unhurt, the team was forced to make a 400-mile trek to the station at Ella Island without sleds, food, or equipment.[8] An American air force formation attacked the station on 14 May to make sure it could be of no use to the Germans.[1]

Two more skirmishes occurred between the Sledge Patrol and the Germans, leaving the Greenland force with two more dead and four wounded by the end of conflict in 1944.[8]

Externsteine shortly after being captured by USCGC Eastwind

The last German weather station, Edelweiss II, was captured by U.S. 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 Eastwind, renamed Eastbreeze and commissioned in the United States Coast Guard.[12][13]

Greenland played a very important role in North Atlantic air traffic during the war, but the territories' envisaged role as a major base for anti-submarine warfare assets was hampered by adverse 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.


On 5 May 1945, Greenlanders celebrated the liberation of Denmark in Nuuk.[14] 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.[15] The successful experience of an independent Greenland led to a dramatic restructuring and modernization of Danish policy with respect to the colony.

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

The remains of the police station in Eskimonæs still persist to this day. The only fully remaining structure is the outhouse, because this wasn't burnt by the Germans.[16] The rest is well preserved in the arctic environment.[1]

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.

The novel Ice Brothers by former U.S Coast Guard officer Sloan Wilson tells of the experiences of the crew and the hardships they faced aboard a small Coast Guard cutter that was part of the Greenland Patrol.[17]


  1. Although the Danish government in Copenhagen was neutral, Danish military units were present in Greenland during the war and Danish colonists supported the Allies.
  2. Two Czechoslovakians participated in Germany's earliest weather expeditions.[1]</ref>Commanders and leaders Denmark Eske Brun
    Denmark Ib Poulsen
    United States Edward H. Smith[2] Nazi Germany Hermann Ritter (POW)
    Nazi Germany Gottfried Weiss
    Nazi Germany Wilhelm DegeStrength Greenland:
    15 men[3]
    1 patrol ship
    1 survey ship[4]
    United States:
    44+ ships UnknownCasualties and losses 3 killed
    4 wounded
    1 police station destroyed 1+ killed
    70+ captured<ref>Grant, p. 255
  3. The sheriffs were called governors by the Americans, although the real governor of Greenland was in Copenhagen.
  1. 1 2 3 Olsen, Bjørnar. Pétursdóttir, Þóra. Ruin Memories: Materialities, Aesthetics and the Archaeology of the Recent Past
  2. Grant, p. 246
  3. 1 2 Northeast Greenland Sledge Patrol
  4. The Big Scuttle - August 29, 1943
  5. 1 2 3 Walling (2004), p 6
  6. Howarth, p 8
  7. Legal Status of Eastern Greenland, PCIJ Series A/B No. 53 (1933)
  8. 1 2 3 4 Zabecki, p 628
  9. Walling (2004), p 8
  10. Howarth, pp 210213
  11. Dege & Barr (2004), p. xx
  12. Dege & Barr (2004), p. xxx
  13. Price; "Arctic Combat: ..."
  14. Ebdrup, Niels (25 September 2012). "Grønland ville selv afskaffe fanger-kulturen". Videnskab dk (in Danish). Valby: Retrieved 11 April 2016.
  15. Grant (2010) p. ?
  16. Howarth. p. 1
  17. Wilson; Ice Brothers
References used
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