Like many other countries, Germany sent expeditions to the Antarctic region in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most of which were scientific. The late 19th century expeditions to the Southern Ocean, South Georgia, the Kerguelen Islands, and the Crozet Islands were astronomical, meteorological, and hydrological, mostly in close collaboration with scientific teams from other countries. As the 19th century ended Germany began to focus on Antarctica.
The first German expedition to Antarctica was the Gauss expedition from 1901 to 1903. Led by Arctic veteran and geology professor Erich von Drygalski, this was the first expedition to use a hot-air balloon in Antarctica. It also found and named Kaiser Wilhelm II Land. The second German Antarctic expedition (1911–1912) was led by Wilhelm Filchner with a goal of crossing Antarctica to learn if it was one piece of land. As happened with other such early attempts, the crossing failed before it even began. The expedition discovered and named the Luitpold Coast and the Filchner Ice Shelf. A German whaling fleet was put to sea in 1937 and, upon its successful return in early 1938, plans for a third German Antarctic expedition were drawn up.
The third German Antarctic Expedition (1938–1939) was led by Alfred Ritscher (1879–1963), a captain in the Kriegsmarine (German navy). The main purpose was to find an area in Antarctica for a German whaling station, as a way to increase Germany’s production of fat. Whale oil was then the most important raw material for the production of margarine and soap in Germany and the country was the second largest purchaser of Norwegian whale oil, importing some 200,000 metric tonnes annually. Besides the disadvantage of being dependent on imports, it was thought that Germany would soon likely be at war, which was considered to put too much strain on Germany’s foreign currency reserves. Another goal was to scout possible locations for a German naval base.
1938–1939 expedition logo
On 17 December 1938 the New Swabia Expedition left Hamburg for Antarctica aboard the MS Schwabenland (a freighter built in 1925 and renamed in 1934 after the Swabia region in southern Germany) which could also carry and catapult aircraft. The secret expedition had 33 members plus the Schwabenland's crew of 24. On 19 January 1939 the ship arrived at the Princess Martha Coast, in an area which had lately been claimed by Norway as Dronning Maud Land and began charting the region. Nazi German flags were placed on the sea ice along the coast. Naming the area Neu-Schwabenland after the ship, the expedition established a temporary base and in the following weeks teams walked along the coast recording claim reservations on hills and other significant landmarks. Seven photographic survey flights were made by the ship’s two Dornier Walseaplanes named Passat and Boreas. About a dozen 1.2 meter-long aluminum arrows, with 30 centimeter steel cones and three upper stabilizer wings embossed with swastikas, were air dropped onto the ice at turning points of the flight polygons (these arrows had been tested on the Pasterze glacier in Austria before the expedition). Eight more flights were made to areas of keen interest and on these trips some of the photos were taken with colour film. Altogether they flew over hundreds of thousands of square kilometres and took more than 16,000 aerial photographs, some of which were published after the war by Ritscher. The ice-free Schirmacher Oasis, which now hosts the Maitri and Novolazarevskaya research stations, was spotted from the air by Richardheinrich Schirmacher (who named it after himself) shortly before the Schwabenland left the Antarctic coast on 6 February 1939.
On its return trip to Germany the expedition made oceanographic studies near Bouvet Island and Fernando de Noronha, arriving back in Hamburg on 11 April 1939. Meanwhile the Norwegian government had learned about the expedition through reports from whalers along the coast of Queen Maud Land.
German map of Antarctica (1941) showing Neuschwabenland
Geographic features mapped by the expedition
Because the area was first explored by a German expedition, the name Neuschwabenland (or New Schwabenland or New Swabia) is still used for the region on some maps, as are many of the German names given to its geographic features. Some geographic features mapped by the expedition were not named until the Norwegian-British-Swedish Antarctic Expedition (NBSAE) (1949–1952), led by John Schjelderup Giæver. Others were not named until they were remapped from aerial photographs taken by the Norwegian Antarctic Expedition (1958–1959).