Top of the World
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
June 2021

At the northern edge of the Barents Sea, at the fringe of the Arctic Ocean's permanent pack ice, lies the rather large archipelago known as Svalbard. At over 61,000 square kilometers, its glacier-spotted land area is twice that of Belgium, and only slightly less than Latvia or Lithuania. But few probably give it much thought, and that's unlikely to change unless the melting of the Arctic ice cap causes a move of Santa's workshop.

Actually, while often cited as proof of global warming — the archipelago is warmer by about 4 degrees Celsius (7 degrees Fahrenheit) than it was a century ago — the warming took place during changes to the Gulf Stream between 1915 and 1922. It's stayed fairly stable since, cooling in the 1970s, warming in the 1980s, staying about the same in the 1990s and warming again since the turn of the century.

Svalbard and surrounding lands.

The islands played a very small historical role until the Second World War. They may have been visited by Norse Vikings or Russian fisherman, but only firmly enter the record with their discovery by the Dutch explorer Willem Barents in 1596. Barents named the largest island "Spitzbergen," and the whole group is often called by this name. European whalers harvested the nearby seas through the 1600's, taking seals and walruses as well as whales. Russian fishermen became predominant in the 1700s, but several years of bad weather greatly reduced their presence. The "Little Ice Age" of the early 19th century drove most activity off the archipelago.

Commercial coal mining began in 1899, and continues to the present. The islands have considerable deposits; coal mining led to permanent settlement on Spitzbergen in 1905 and remains the region's major industry — but despite a hundred years of effort Spitzbergen coal mining has yet to turn an actual profit. Much like game publishing, the mining continues regardless.

Norway's independence from Sweden in 1905 brought up the question of sovereignty over the islands. An international conference in 1909 went nowhere, and another convened in June 1914 made no progress before the First World War broke out later that summer. During the war, Allied transports brought huge amounts of supplies to Russia through the Arctic port of Murmansk, and when Russia made peace with Germany in March 1918 the Germans included Russian recognition of German sovereignty over the Svalbard archipelago as one of the conditions.

Longyearbyen, capital of Spitzbergen Island and the Svalbard Archipelago, as seen in 1935.

The Treaty of Versailles ended German pretensions, with Svalbard awarded to Norway in recognition of Norwegian merchant shipping losses. The treaty required Norway to grant some special rights to outsiders; citizens of all signatories to the Svalbard Treaty may exploit the islands' mineral resources and have "liberty of access." A handful of people have used this last provision to work around the European Union's more restrictive immigration policies. Otherwise, the islands are an integral part of the Kingdom of Norway.

Norway fell to the Germans in April 1940, but this had little impact on Spitzbergen — its weather station continued to transmit vital data in the clear. One year later, a German He111 weather plane landed near the tiny capital, Longyearbyen, and the crew chatted with the locals and left them a fire extinguisher as a present.

When Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Barents Sea again became a supply route to Murmansk. In the days before satellite data, weather information was more difficult to come by, and both the British and the German relied heavily on observations form the Arctic region to warn of upcoming weather fronts crossing Europe. The Germans repeatedly established meteorological stations among the islands, including some unmanned automatic posts. Sporadic Royal Navy patrols hunted them, with only marginal success.

The Royal Navy's Rear Admiral Philip Vian executed "Operation Gauntlet" in late August. Two cruisers and three destroyers escorted the liner Empress of Canada to Longyearbyen, where they embarked the entire population — 3,200 Norwegian and Soviet civilians from all of the islands' settlements. While the weather station broadcast false reports to keep the Germans from discovering the maneuver, one cruiser escorted the liner to Archangel while British sailors blocked mine entrances, set coal supplies on fire and finally blew up all weather stations. As the British left, three German colliers appeared from Norway and were promptly captured.

German Air Force meteorologists establish a weather station on Spitzbergen, July 1942.

When the Germans discovered what had happened, they landed a weather team and began building an airstrip on Spitzbergen. The Allies brought in a company of Norwegian ski troops to hunt them down, but German bombers appeared just as they landed, killing their commander and destroying their radio. The Norwegians could not find the weather stations, and eventually a full battalion and a coast-defense battery arrived to garrison Spitzbergen. But they could not stop German weather reporting, as submarines and aircraft continued to infiltrate men and equipment onto the islands.

At Hitler's personal request, the German Navy deployed its last two operational battleships to attack the Allied presence on Spitzbergen. "Operation Zitronella" (also called "Operation Sizilien") commenced on 7 September 1943, as the battleship Tirpitz, battle cruiser Scharnhorst and nine destroyers appeared off Longyearben at dawn and landed 608 men of the 349th Infantry Regiment directly onto the settlement's main pier. They drove off the Norwegian garrison and destroyed the battery of 3-inch guns, capturing the garrison commander and his official files intact.

Longyearben after the German attack, April 1944. The perpetually burning coal mine is at left.

This would be the only time Tirpitz fired her main battery at a surface target, and it did not bode well for the pride of the Kriegsmarine. Exactly why she opened fire — several hours after the landing — is not clear, as the Norwegians had already made for the hills. She managed to shell German troops, and also blasted several of Longyearbyen's wooden buildings into kindling. For four hours the Germans milled about, blowing up the rest of the buildings, destroying the local weather stations and setting fires — a coal mine fire started by naval gunfire (probably from Tirpitz) burned until 1952. Then they re-embarked and returned to Norway without loss, the final German amphibious operation outside the Baltic Sea.

Operation Sizilien accomplished very little, other than to alert the British to the potential threat of German battleships in Norway and cause them to redouble their efforts to destroy them. The German Air Force had more success, using the Navy's bumbling invasion as cover to insert more weather teams into the islands, some of which continued operating for over a year.

At the war's end, the last German troops to surrender were weather teams on Spitzbergen, who gave up in September 1945. The islands then faded back out of international affairs until 2007, when the Norwegian government began construction of a large, secure seed bank to house thousands of genetic samples to aid in research or re-population in case of dire climate or other catastrophe.

Spitzbergen and the rest of Svalbard appear on the northern edge of the map of our Second World War at Sea: Arctic Convoy game. There are no working airfields there in the scenarios, as neither side made use of the islands for that purpose, but certainly could have had they chosen to undertake the risk and effort to supply them. The Germans did build an airstrip and landed aircraft in several places in the islands throughout the war, but launched no attacks from there. A scenario for Operation Sizilien is included, so that the German player may also risk his navy's only two major surface units for little to no advantage — but it's an order from the Führer himself so the mission must go forward. Operation Gauntlet gets a scenario as well.

Svalbard plays a much greater role in Second Great War at Sea: The Cruel Sea, where in this alternative history Imperial Germany has taken possession and built up bases for surface ships and submarines. That will force Allied players into the frozen wastes at the top of the Arctic Convoy map, and add a new operational dimension to game play.

Visitors are welcome in Svalbard: there's a fiber-optic connection to Europe, immigration rules are highly tolerant and Longyearbyen now houses a small university. The next time Avalanche Press needs to relocate . . .

Take the Second World War at Sea to Svalbard today in Arctic Convoy!

Take the Second Great War at Sea to Svalbard in The Cruel Sea!

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published books, games and articles beyond counting on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his Iron Dog, Leopold.

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