During the Second World War, the Svalbard archipelago was the scene of a number of military operations. In August 1941, British, Canadian and Free Norwegian Forces landed on Spitzbergen during Operation Gauntlet. The operation was to destroy the coal industry together with associated equipment and stores. No attempt was made to establish a garrison and the civilian population was evacuated.
In April 1942, a Norwegian force landed at Barentsburg in Operation Fritham, intended to establish a permanent presence in the islands. The operation met considerable difficulties but by the summer of 1943, the Norwegians were well established. Nazi Germany had set up a number of manned meteorological stations in the Arctic to improve weather forecasts, vital for the warfare against Allied convoys from the UK to the USSR. One of the first manned stations, "Knospe", was established in late 1941 in the inner part of Krossfjorden in the main island, commanded by H. R. Knoespel, following the evacuation of the Norwegian and Russian civilians that September.
The Kriegsmarine decided to evacuate the "Knospe" weather station during the summer of 1942, since the ice-free season made it vulnerable to Allied attack. The submarine U-435 (Kapitänleutnant Siegfried Strelow) was ordered to recover the six-man detachment, which it did on 23 August 1942 without Allied interference.
In September 1943, the German Naval Command decided to destroy the Allied weather stations in the islands. The task force included the battleships Tirpitz (in her only offensive action) and Scharnhorst, plus nine destroyers (the Narvik class destroyers: Z27, Z29, Z30, Z31, Z33, and the Erich Steinbrinck, Karl Galster, Theodor Riedel, Hans Lody).
On 8 September, the ships landed a battalion of troops, supported by the gunfire of the eight 15-inch guns of Tirpitz and the nine 11-inch guns of Scharnhorst, against two 3-inch guns of the defenders. Gunfire from Scharnhorst put the Norwegian guns out of action. The two 40 mm bofors guns fired about 150 rounds at the German destroyers. The Norwegian survivors fled into the hinterland, using a blazing coal dump for cover as the landing party seized the installations at Barentsburg. The German ships methodically bombarded the buildings on shore and after destroying coal depots and other facilities, the German landing party withdrew. Six Norwegians had been killed, Captain Morten Bredsdorff and 30 others were sent to Oflag XXI-C in Schildberg in the German-annexed Reichsgau Wartheland, joining 1,089 Norwegian officers interned there.
Under cover of the attack, the Luftwaffe installed a weather station on Hopen Island. Isolated for months by Nazi Germany's surrender in May 1945, the airmen on Hope Island gave themselves up in September 1945 to the captain of a Norwegian fishing boat. Operation Zitronella/Sizilien was only a qualified success. It brought no lasting benefit, since the Allies quickly returned to Spitzbergen and re-established the weather station. On 19 October, the cruiser USS Tuscaloosa arrived at Barentsburg with relief and reinforcements for the Norwegian garrison.
Samuel Eliot Morison described Operation Zitronella as a political move on the part of the Kriegsmarine, to show Hitler that the German surface fleet had some value. Morison evaluates the effort as disproportionate to the results, suggesting that the same ends could have been achieved more simply.
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