No. 2, 2004

Sergey Kovalev


Unknown Warld War II sea battles in the Soviet Arctic

The tragic events of World War II are receding ever deeper into the past. Many research papers, magazine articles, stories and novels have been written about them. Time and again, public archives of various countries publish newly-discovered documents revealing hitherto unknown episodes of the 20th-century's "battle of nations." Nevertheless, certain events still remain outside historians' field of vision owing, perhaps, to the fact that they occurred in the periphery of the global theater of operations – in the Arctic region – and went unreported in the Sovinformburo war communiqus.

The Graf Zeppelin over the Arctic

In pursuit of world domination, the Nazi leaders were in a hurry to seize the remote Arctic areas linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Those areas were meant as a constituent part ("the northern wing") of the Third Reich's chimerical long-range project.

In carrying out that project, an important role was assigned to Soviet-German military cooperation. Iosif Unshlikht, Deputy People's Commissar of the Navy, led a Soviet military delegation to Berlin in March 1926. As a result of negotiations, the German top brass sanctioned an exchange of military expert groups, allowed Soviet visitors to take a look at Reichsmarine warships and place the Red Navy's order for a modern submarine with the Dutch Ingenierskanstoor voor Scheepsbouw company (IvS for short). Why the IvS of all shipyards? Because it was a front for the German design bureau Deschimag. Incidentally, this company designed, in 1933, the E-2 midi-sub – the prototype of the Soviet S-series submarines. Several shipments of the Mann diesel engines were delivered to the Soviet Union, some of them installed on the first Soviet Dekabrist-, Shchuka- and Pravda-class submarines. Germany's Siemens & Schuckert corporation supplied a few sets of electrical steering engines; the Anschutz company, compasses; Telefunken, shipboard radio stations; and AFA, storage battery cells. Later, Russia received several specimens of mine-laying, torpedo-launching and sonar equipment and Standseherohr periscopes.

It was then that the German naval command focused their attention on the Soviet Arctic. In 1930, after Hugo Eckener, President of Luftschiefbau Zeppelin, had paid a visit to Moscow, the German Academy of Sciences kindly offered Moscow its services in surveying the poorly-explored north-western regions of the Soviet Arctic coast from the air using one of its largest airships – Graf Zeppelin. The program of the expedition provided for geographical and geophysical observations and aerial photography by means of a large-format Zeiss camera. Professor Rudolf Samoilovich, the well-known Soviet polar explorer, was put in charge of the research program, while the general direction of the expedition was assumed by none other than Dr. Hugo Eckener himself.

Among expedition participants there were not only prominent German and Soviet scientists and specialists – aerologists, meteorologists, geophysicists and aerogeodesists – but German naval intelligence officers as well. The latter did not disclose their real identity to the Soviet side, of course.

In four days of July 1931, the Graf Zeppelin flew along the Arkhangelsk – Novaya Zemlya – Franz Josef Land – Severnaya Zemlya – Taimyr – Novaya Zemlya – Arkhangelsk route and then returned to Germany. The Soviet press gave lavish and enthusiastic coverage to the expedition but did not say as much as a word about one unpleasant and most indicative incident. As soon as the expedition was over, the Germans informed Soviet scientists that, "most unfortunately," they had "nothing to show for it" because all the footage had been exposed to light and spoilt due to a "technician's negligence."

And here is another example. In June 1939, a group of "research associates of the Leningrad Arctic Institute" made its appearance on board the Soviet sealer Murmanets. Practically all of them spoke German only and were well familiar with the sealer's hunting grounds. Unlike most Soviet craft in its class, the Murmanets carried a then exotic sonic depth finder with its indicator installed in the "German compartment" only – which, surprisingly, was strictly off-limits to the Soviet crew.

More surprises followed. Several "field research teams" of the "German group" were landed on the Nordenscheld archipelago and on separate islands (Arktichesky Institut, Bely, Vilkitskogo, Gerkulesa, Sverdrupp and Sidorov islands) of the Kara Sea, i.e. precisely the islands the Graf Zeppelin had flown over. Noone had paid attention to that then.

The Soviet Union paid dearly for that "omission" a decade later. It was only after the war was over that the Northern Sea Route administration and the Northern Fleet command found out what mission had been assigned to those German "scientists" and what they did on the mentioned islands which bear traces of frequent German U-boats' wartime visits. As to the Graf Zeppelin "research expedition," its real purpose was to plot future secret Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe strong-point locations en route, which it did.

The phantom cruiser Komet haunting the Arctic

The outbreak of World War II in September 1939 caught many German transport and passenger vessels far away from German ports. There were 36 German vessels riding on anchor off the Soviet harbor of Murmansk alone, and 35 in the roads of Southeast Asian ports, to mention but a few of those scattered all over the world. Within months of the war breaking out, after the polar night had set in, German ships safely left the Kola Bay and set course for their ports, but the "southeastern" group got stuck in the Pacific. Their retrieval called for a scout ship capable not only of sneaking into the Pacific waters fast but of making it back, too. A month or two later four more ocean-going men-of-war were to have been piloted along the ice-packed Northern Sea Route to the Pacific to join in the relentless naval warfare in progress there.

The cargo-passenger steamer Ems was the first ship to make the passage. Reequipped in a hurry at the Howaldtswerke Yards, Hamburg, it was put on the Kriegsmarine's "active list" as the Komet auxiliary cruiser. She carried six 150-mm cannon concealed by camouflage screens, several disguised torpedo tubes and nine anti-aircraft gun mounts. A large reserve of artillery shells, torpedoes and anchor mines was loaded on board. The cruiser had the endurance to reach the Pacific without refueling and was stocked well enough to operate in Arctic, Antarctic and tropical waters autonomously. As agreed with Ivan Papanin, the Head of Glavsevmorputi, the Soviet Arctic Agency, the cruiser was piloted through the ice by the Soviet icebreakers Lenin, Stalin and Kaganovich.

On July 9, 1940, the Komet disguised as the Soviet icebreaker Dezhnev, departed from Bergen and headed eastward. Outwardly, the "turnskin" raider did look like the new Soviet icebreaking ship Semen Dezhnev which was due in the Arctic Circle in the summer of 1940. Some differences in hull shape lines were concealed by means of canvas wind-screens and special masks.

A plausible legend was invented to justify the Komet's passage. Early in 1940, the Soviet Arktikugol trust planned chartering the genuine Dezhnev to deliver supplies to Soviet coal miners on Spitzbergen. However, the Northern Sea Route Administration intervened and arranged for the icebreaker to take supplies to polar explorers in the remote areas of the Kara and Laptev seas in August-September instead.

In the period of July 15-August 16, 1940, the Komet waited in the Pechora Bay for the EON-10 expedition – a group of Soviet icebreakers piloting the Shch-423 submarine to the Pacific – to pass. It was there, also, that she whiled away the time waiting for the genuine Semen Dezhnev to arrive in the Kara Sea.

The German crew spent a month doing hydrographic jobs and "gathering driftwood" off the Kolguyev island for the alleged purpose of reinforcing the holds and sides in case of an "ice squeeze." Actually, German seamen staged a few make-believe "landing operations" and, while at it, ascertained the gradient of a southern Novaya Zemlya island's edge slope. Besides, they reconnoitered huge pileups of driftwood washed ashore by the sea – it was a suitable material to line dugouts and secret base depots with. In the meantime, the raider's radiomen were busy intercepting and processing messages exchanged by the EON ships and icebreakers.

Finally, the Komet (alias the Dunay, the Donau, the Doon) weighed anchor, and took two weeks to reach the Pacific by way of the Northern Sea Route at the beginning of September. A month and a half later, she met with the Orion raider off the Lamotrek island (the Caroline Archipelago) whereupon she entered the Pacific waters as the Japanese steamer Tokyo-Maru.

The German raider's passage to the Far East was a carefully guided secret but in October 1940, Britain somehow all but ferreted it out. By then, the mock-Tokyo-Maru was already murderously active on the British Commonwealth's ocean routes. Upon making her sudden appearance in the Far East, the cruiser Komet, working hand in glove with the raider Orion, cut the British Commonwealth's overseas trade routes and butchered all the allies' merchantmen in sight.

The top secret base

By way of compensation for a go-ahead to set up the base, the Germans handed over to the Soviet Navy the heavy cruiser Lutzow, mine-laying craft, torpedo tubes, sonar and hydrographic equipment. Besides, Soviet shipyards received armor plate for the Sovetsky Soyuz-class battleships then on the stocks. Some of the 30 German Junkers, Henkel, Dornier and Messerschmidt planes handed over to the Soviet Union were probably to have landed on the base's airfield.

All ethnic Finns, fishermen of the Komintern artel and exiles residing there were evacuated from Bolshaya Zapadnaya Litsa and Bolshaya Litsa settlements in one of the nights of September 1939. Only Malaya Litsa, the third fishing settlement, remained at the entry to the inlet until July 1940, as a natural camouflage of the secret base.

German archives put the Basis Nord's bearings at 69025' Lat N and 32026' Long E. At various times the base hosted supply vessels – the Jan Wellem, the Venezia and the Iller, the Viking-5 and the Kedingen weather ships and the Sachsenwald whaler. Managing the base was made a duty of the Kriegsmarine's logistic service, with Captain Nieschlag, transferred to the Arctic from Istanbul, appointed its commander. The Nord base was to provide for the German raiders active in the Northern Atlantic. Besides, it was to serve as a connecting link between the Reich and German logistic units outside Vladivostok and in Indonesia and also as the Kriegsmarine's reserve outlet to the Norway, Barents and Baltic seas.

The Nord base's largest transport, the Jan Wellem (displacement: 11,766 tons) sailed out to the Atlantic on January 20, 1940, carrying a three-months' subsistence stock for the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper on a reconnaissance mission off Spitzbergen and a four-months' subsistence stock for the German submarines active in the area. Later, in April 1940, the Jan Willem supplied fuel to the destroyers that had landed German troops in Narvik. The Jan Willem was the only supply ship to make it to the German ships grounded in Ufut Fjord. Two other tankers, the Kattegat and the Skagerrak, which had come in all the way from Germany via the Northern passage, were attacked by British ships and destroyed. The Jan Willem herself did not escape that fate, either. Upon refueling the destroyers she was attacked by British warships and run ashore. What remained of it lay at the entry to Ufut Fjord until the fifties.

Another ship – the steam-driven fishing trawler Sachsen – conducted weather observations off West Greenland's coast for weeks in the fall of 1940. In the spring of 1941, as part of preparations for the Bismarck battleship's raid to the Atlantic, she went on ice patrol in the Denmark Strait and transmitted weather reports from the area around Jan-Mayen island. Another steam-driven fishing trawler, the Kedingen, became known after the "closure" of the base. In 1943, she landed a German meteorological expedition in the western part of the Novaya Zemlya archipelago. A year later, on her way to East Greenland with a meteorological expedition on board, she was intercepted and sunk by the U.S. icebreaker Northland.

Judging by official reports, the Basis Nord ceased to exist in the fall of 1940. On July 2, 1941, however, after General Edward Dietel's mountain riflemen reached the Bolshaya Zapadnaya Litsa river, two German battalions crossed over to the eastern bank on the run and secured a small foothold there – exactly on the site of the former "colony" outside Bolshaya Litsa settlement. After the Germans had been hurled back into the river by a Soviet landing party, the two Soviet divisions defending the Bolshaya Zapadnaya Litsa banks used canned victuals from the Bolshaya Litsa stores until mid-October 1941. That may give one an idea of the amount of provisions the Basis Nord was stocked with.

The base had ample reserves of diesel and aviation fuel. Until as late as the mid-1990s, there was a gravity spring of pure aviation fuel in a sub-cliff structure on the grounds of a modern submarine base where a so-called "seaplane factory" was located before the war. Two fuel tanks once brimful with diesel fuel are still to be seen in the Liinahamari naval base not far from Pechenga (Petsamo of old). The tanks were put up there by German military engineers (or Canadians, as other sources say) near the fuel loading terminal of what was a Finnish port then. Incredibly, just two tankloads of German diesel oil lasted the North Sea Fleet's submarines until the end of the 1980s. It remains anybody's guess where that diesel oil kept flowing in from and what the sub-cliff galleries and stores of the Liinahamari base conceal in their bowels.

Who built up such an enormous stock of diesel fuel there, and what for? After all, in 1940, German tankers were no longer free to cross the Atlantic to Mexico that Germany mostly depended on for oil supply. Romania alone remained the "secret heart" that kept pumping "black blood" to the Third Reich. But then, the Lower Danube valley and the Dobruja Plateau are rather far away from the Liinahamari cliffs.

Could that stock have been built up by the Nord base's tankers? Or by the tankers of the American Varied Tanker Company which used to call at Liinahamari before January 1941? Or by the Eurotank company's tankers? These questions remain unanswered so far.

It is a well-known fact that until the end of 1940 Britain's Shell and America's Esso kept Finland supplied with gasoline. At the same time, Shell, jointly with the Standard Oil of New Jersey company and the Anglo-Iranian Company used to be the Third Reich's main oil suppliers for some time. Could that provide the answers to the "fuel questions"?

It was precisely on the territory of Northern Norway that Nazi strategists planned building up the logistics to back up the Reich's combat action against Britain. Those plans never materialized. Why? Due to an error of timing? Or may be for some other reasons we are still to learn about?

Today, little remains of the Basis Nord installations in the Bolshaya Zapadnaya Litsa inlet. Nevertheless, fishermen and hunters occasionally happen on some crumbling surface traces of its existence. It looks as if the mystery of that Arctic bastion is still waiting to be unraveled.

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Oil of Russia, No. 2, 2004
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