of the World
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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 . . .
the Second World War at Sea to Svalbard today
in Arctic Convoy!
Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.