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British Commandos
Military Intelligence Service, Special Series No. 1, August 9, 1942
[DISCLAIMER: The following text is taken from a WWII U.S. War Department Special Series publication. As with all wartime intelligence information, data may be incomplete or inaccurate. No attempt has been made to update or correct the text. Any views or opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of the website.]


Section II. British Task Force, Spitsbergen Operation1

28. Strategic Value.—This report deals with the combined operation successfully completed by a small task force of Canadian, British, and Norwegian troops in the islands of Norway's Spitsbergen Archipelago during August and September 1941. These islands had acquired additional strategic importance after Germany began war against Russia on June 22, 1941, because of their position on the Arctic Ocean route to Russia's northern ports (see Map No. 3). Before this date the islands, although not garrisoned by the enemy, served the Nazis as a shipping base, a source of coal, and a weather station.

The purpose of the expedition was to destroy coal mines and stocks of free coal, transit facilities between mines and harbor installations, and wireless and meteorological stations; to repatriate all Russians to Archangel; and to evacuate all Norwegians to the United Kingdom. A preliminary reconnaissance by a destroyer indicated that the landing would be unopposed. It was believed, however, that the enemy would be able to attack the task force with 60 to 100 bombers based on airfields 350 miles or more distant. The commander of the Canadian Corps in Great Britain said he believed the expedition would be worth while even if the only result should be to divert a sizable force of bombers from their regular missions, where they would do far greater harm.

Before actual training for the expedition was started, considerable preliminary planning and political conversations between British and Canadian civil and military authorities were necessary. This preliminary phase will not be discussed here, but it is mentioned in order to stress that a great deal of time is needed in order to lay the groundwork for an operation of this kind.

[Map No. 3: Spitsbergen Operation, August-September, 1941, British Task Force]

29. Special Training.—The task force was assembled in the Combined Training Center in Scotland on August 8, and it trained intensively and realistically for the mission. This training program stressed landings on a coastline controlled by the enemy. The troops were divided into two main groups which took turns on alternate days at practicing boat landings and unloadings, and going on stiff hikes through hilly terrain. They were also trained thoroughly in demolitions, map reading, and street fighting.

30. Composition of Force.—The task force was mixed, consisting of 47 officers and 599 enlisted men of the Canadian, British, and Norwegian Armies under command of a Canadian brigadier. By nationalities, there were: Canadians, 29 officers and 498 enlisted men; British, 15 officers and 79 enlisted men; Norwegians, 3 officers and 22 enlisted men. (See Appendix A, below, for detailed composition of the task force.) In addition there were 31 enlisted men of the 1st Maritime Antiaircraft Battery of the British Army who, because they manned the Bofors guns on the troop transport, were considered a part of the ship's crew and not of the task force.

31. Unity of Command.—Although the Canadian brigadier was in charge of all the troops and of land operations, the expedition as a whole was under the command of the rear admiral in charge of the expedition's naval units. The following excerpts from the directive for the expedition show why this responsibility was assigned to the naval commander:

"The enemy is not yet in occupation of the islands, which we hope will still be unoccupied by the enemy when you (the brigadier) arrive. In the event, however, of your finding enemy forces in occupation, you will report to the naval commander whether, in your opinion, you will be able to put your force ashore and carry out your task. It is fully realized that, if the enemy is established in the islands in any strength, your force is not suitably equipped to effect a landing in face of opposition.

"The final decision as to whether your force is to be landed will lie with the naval commander * * *.

"The conduct of the expedition will, while at sea, be the responsibility of the Royal Navy. Operations ashore will be under your command.

"Should, however, any question arise, while your force is ashore, which affects the security of the forces under your command or the execution of your task, your decision will be paramount; except that, should the naval commander consider it necessary to withdraw your force before its task is complete, you will comply * * *."

32. Voyage.—At 0100 on August 19 the force sailed for Spitsbergen on a transport that was escorted through the North Channel into the Atlantic Ocean by an aircraft carrier and three destroyers.2 The commander of the force outlined the mission to his senior officers on the first day out. On the evening of this same day the naval escort left the transport at a rendezvous with a squadron consisting of two cruisers and three destroyers, which was to accompany the transport to Spitsbergen.

On the morning of August 21 the expedition arrived at a port in northern waters where the military commander and the naval commander drew up detailed plans for the operation. The force sailed again at 2100 on August 21, after refueling. The commanding officer explained the purpose of the expedition to the whole force on the evening of August 22. It was on this date that the troops learned for the first time that they were going to Spitsbergen.

The squadron was to keep another rendezvous with four naval trawlers and an oiler. In an effort to establish contact without using radio, which might have betrayed the expedition, two planes were sent up from a cruiser on August 24. The aircraft spotted the additional ships and by evening of that day the two naval units joined. Then they steamed toward Spitsbergen to make a landing next morning.

Before the ships approached land, two Walrus planes of the Fleet Air Arm reconnoitered Ice Fiord (Isfjord), the great inlet on the island of West Spitsbergen on which the most important settlements of the archipelago are located (see Map No. 4). No enemy activity was observed and the ships moved in.

33. Landing and Operations.—The first landing was made at 0430 on August 25 by five men of the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals and four Norwegians, who seized the wireless station at Kap Linne, on the south side of the mouth of Ice Fiord, with the cooperation of its Norwegian staff. About 0700 the large ships of the squadron steamed into Green Harbor and anchored near the Russian mining village of Barentsburg. A landing was made there at 1000, and it was obvious there would be no opposition, for the jetty was crowded with unarmed and curious civilians. The Russian community, in fact, had been apprised by radio from Leningrad of the purpose of the expedition and had completed plans for evacuation.

[Map No. 4: Spitsbergen Operation, August-September, 1941]

Other detachments proceeded in small vessels to other Russian and Norwegian settlements on Ice Fiord, one party landing at Longyear City on Advent Bay, the chief Norwegian settlement. Here, too, the wireless station was seized. A small party of Royal Engineers and of the Canadian * * * Regiment went to Grumantby, on the south shore of Ice Fiord, and another party to Pyramiden, near Mount Pyramid, at the head of Ice Fiord. The latter two places were Russian mining settlements. Demolitions of facilities and destruction of free coal was started immediately. From Grumantby 638 persons were evacuated and from Pyramiden 99 persons.

The next important mission was to take the Russian population of 1,969 persons, including 326 women and 72 children, to Archangel. The Canadians worked arduously on August 26 to unload the transport of military stores and to load the considerable personal baggage and communal property of the Russians. About midnight of August 26-27 the transport sailed for Archangel with an escort of one cruiser and three destroyers. A platoon of infantry, a group of machine gunners, and a medical detachment remained on the transport for protective duties.

34. Major Demolitions.—With the Russians gone, demolitions in the Barentsburg area began on August 27. A disused wireless station at Finneshavn on the east side of Green Harbor was destroyed by engineers. Two other stations, having been active, were continued in operation throughout the 10 days of the occupation in order to avoid arousing suspicion. Fires were started in coal dumps at many places by the the use of oil and gasoline and by incendiary bombs. A total of 370,000 tons was reported destroyed by these means. At Barentsburg a heavy crane, trestles, frogs and switches of the narrow-gauge railway, hoisting machinery at the New Mine, and four motor boats were demolished. Approximately 225,000 gallons of oil stocks were burned. Numerous stores and spare parts were removed.

At Longyear City the aerial tramways for transporting coal from the three mines were disabled, the motors were removed from the turbines in the power plant, and the wireless station was destroyed. About 50,000 gallons of fuel oil and gasoline were poured into the sea.

Mine entrances and the surface plant and other installations at Grumantby and Pyramiden were destroyed by explosives. At Ny Alesund on Kings Bay the power plant of a mine was destroyed, wireless masts were felled, and a motorboat and a lighter were wrecked.

35. Evacuation of Norwegian Settlements.—The concentration of the Norwegian population was going on meanwhile, and by the time the transport returned, at 2230 on September 1, a total of 799 persons had been assembled at Longyear City. The transport brought back from Archangel 192 Free French military personnel, including 14 officers, who had escaped from German prison camps. The transport and her escort began the homeward journey at 2300 on September 3, arriving in Great Britain on the night of September 7-8.

36. Signal Operations.—The two chief radio stations on the islands were at Kap Linne and Longyear City and both of them were in touch with the German-controlled station at Tromso, Norway. The Kap Linne station was put out of action at 1800 on September 3. With the loyal and efficient cooperation of the Norwegian operators, normal transmissions to Tromso were continued from Longyear City for the purpose of concealing the fact that any unusual event was taking place at Spitsbergen. The usual meteorological data were sent out until August 27, when the transport had left for the North Sea with the Russians. Then the meteorological readings were altered gradually to indicate bad flying conditions in order to discourage German air reconnaissance.

To keep up the deception until the last possible moment a party consisting of one officer and 11 enlisted men of the Royal Corps of Signals, a Norwegian operator, and a power-plant engineer was left behind after the withdrawal of the main body of troops at 2200 on September 2. This party sent its last weather report at 8 p.m. on September 3, dismantled the station and power house, and embarked on a destroyer at 2330. Apparently the deception was complete, for when the force was well out to sea Tromso was heard calling Spitsbergen strongly and inquiring what was wrong.

37. Secrecy.—Every possible precaution was taken to keep the expedition secret, particularly its departure and objectives. In the early stages it was treated as an exercise, and only a very small group of officers at Canadian Military Headquarters had any knowledge of it. The operation was first offered to the Canadians on July 25, 1941, but the word "Spitsbergen" was not placed in the secret file of the expedition until August 16, 1941. After the force returned, a communique was issued to report the results obtained.

38. Appendix A.—Composition of Task Force:



Unit       Officers    Enlisted
     Headquarters, *** Canadian Infantry Brigade  _ _ _ _ _ _   512
     Signal Section, *** Canadian Infantry Brigade  _ _ _ _ _ _   232
     *** Field Company, Royal Canadian Engineers  _ _ _ _ _ _   5191
     *** Company, *** Regiment, plus one platoon from *** Company  _ _ _ _ _ _   6153
     *** Light Infantry (Machine Gun) (composite detachment)  _ _ _ _ _ _   480
     Detachment Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps (from *** Canadian Field Ambulance)  _ _ _ _ _ _   323
     Canadian Field Cash Office, Royal Canadian Army Pay Corps  _ _ _ _ _ _   12
     Assigned to Troop Transport (from *** Regiment)  _ _ _ _ _ _   25
     Captain ***, Royal Canadian Engineers  _ _ _ _ _ _   1--
     Detachment, *** Corps troops, Royal Engineers  _ _ _ _ _ _   431
     Detachment, *** Docks Operation Company, Royal Engineers  _ _ _ _ _ _   118
     Detachment, Section ***, Motor Boat Company, Royal Army Service Corps  _ _ _ _ _ _   119
     Detachment, Detail Issue Depot ***, Royal Army Service Corps  _ _ _ _ _ _   --6
     Field Cash Office ***, Royal Army Pay Corps  _ _ _ _ _ _   12
     Royal Engineers (Movement Control) attached to Brigade Headquarters  _ _ _ _ _ _   --3
     Intelligence Corps  _ _ _ _ _ _   3--
     Army Film Unit  _ _ _ _ _ _   1--
     Major ***, Liaison Officer  _ _ _ _ _ _   1--
     Major ***, Royal Engineers  _ _ _ _ _ _   1--
     Captain ***, Royal Engineers  _ _ _ _ _ _   1--
     Major ***, Royal Army Service Corps  _ _ _ _ _ _   1--
     Detachment, Norwegian Infantry  _ _ _ _ _ _   322
Total, Canadian, British, Norwegian    _ _ _ _ _ _   47599

Note.—31 enlisted men of * * * Maritime Antiaircraft Battery, Royal Army, manned the Bofors guns on the transport; they are not included here, as they were presumably regarded as a part of the crew of the ship.

39. Appendix B.—Diary of Newspaperman with Task Force:

Diary kept by Mr. Ross Munro, Canadian Press, of Operations of Spitsbergen Task Force


*   *   *   *   *   *   *
(The portions relating to events previous to actual departure for Spitsbergen are omitted.)
*   *   *   *   *   *   *

Tuesday, Aug. 19.

Sail in darkness, joined by 3 destroyers, * * * (aircraft carrier) with Hurricanes and some Canadian pilots. Coastal Command bombers patrol us as we move northwest.

The Commander holds conference at which reveals we are going to a northern island under Norwegian sovereignty to incapacitate coal-mine operations until spring and to take off 1,800 Russians and 800 Norwegians. Russians to be taken to Archangel. Norwegian detachment and Norge Governor with us. Big job for sappers. Navy will join us later and plans drawn up in detail.

Gunnery practice—Bofors and machine gun.

In evening aircraft carrier and 3 destroyers leave us and we are joined by 3 destroyers and 2 cruisers.

Wednesday, Aug. 20.

Head steadily NW for a northern port where will refuel. Cruiser on ack ack practice in a.m. with "4" guns. Aircraft patrols overhead. We are going to Spitsbergen island and on to Russia.

Stand 4 hours watch on bridge during day.

Smoker in evening on suggestion of Commander.

Thursday, Aug. 21.

Arrive a northern port about 0900. Br. and American warships there. U.S. air patrol.

Friday, Aug. 22.

Leave a northern port in morning light. Sea smooth but patched with fog throughout the day.

Commander holds conf. for officers and then tells all plans to men before ship's concert at night.

Saturday, Aug. 23.

Continue to move ahead at 20 knots thru calm sea and fog. OC's conf. held and detailed plans discussed.

Plan to send—(individual's name) with Norwegians to Advent Bay. I will remain with Commander at Barentsburg until Russians aboard transport.

Sunday, Aug. 24.

Convoy circles north of Bear Island, seeking trawlers and oil tanker. Aircraft takes off to search sea. Early in the evening, other ships sighted and the whole convoy together. Stores ready and men armed, ready for landing. Final conferences wind up plans of operations.

Monday, Aug. 25.

Steam up Green Harbor at 0700 and by 1000 Commander lands, protected by detachment of infantry. Conference held with Russians who prepare to leave.

Spend day ashore and return to transport for supper and sleep.

Tuesday, Aug. 26.

Return to shore in launch. Evacuation continues all day long and is only completed (Russian) by evening. But this is record time.

Canadians take over town completely and plans laid for demolitions.

One of the most fantastic days I've ever been thru.

Transport, a cruiser, and five destroyers sail at midnight.

Wednesday, Aug. 27.

Demolitions start at Barentsburg. Sapper subsection goes by motor boat to radio station down Green Bay and with three charges, totalling 40 blocks of gun cotton, topples the radio towers, both 300 feet high.

Then demolitions carried out in a coal mine.

Major * * * goes to Longyear City to start demolitions and fires there.

Thursday, Aug. 28.

Demolitions and fires continued. 150,000 tons coal fired down Bay and 75,000 gallons fuel oil destroyed. Demolitions attempted in mine buildings and mine set ablaze. Brought under control by sappers but still smouldering.

Friday, Aug. 29.

Go from Barentsburg to Svalbard (Green Harbor) by motorboat in 3½ hours journey. Pass Grumantby, blazing and smoking like Chicago fire. Move into clean and neat Norwegian town.

Saturday, Aug. 30.

Spend all day looking over town, defense posts and learning of operations generally. Preparations made for fires and demolitions.

Sunday, Aug. 31.

Attend church service in a.m. Sailors, soldiers, (Canadian and Norwegian) and Marine band march from jetty to church, decorated with Union Jack, White Ensign and Norwegian Flag.

In p.m. fly in Walrus flying boat to Barentsburg.

Shoot roll of film and come back by air in an hour.

Monday, Sept. 1.

Turn out first copy of "Spitsbergen Arctic News." Hear that Barentsburg blazing. Expect transport tomorrow.

Tuesday, Sept. 2.

Transport at Barentsburg and loading starts. Norwegians all leave Svalbard and preparation made for fires and demolitions.

During night cover 150,000-ton coal fire and the big blasts. No get to bed till 0600.

Wednesday, Sept. 3.

2d anniversary of the war. Leave Svalbard aboard destroyer at 1100 and sail to Barentsburg to board the transport.

French troops aboard and 900 Norwegians.

Four weeks today expedition left camps.

Sail at midnight and pass blazing Barentsburg. Can see Grumantby burning down Isfjord.

Thursday, Sept. 4.

Calm seas as flotilla speeds south. Learn we are going direct and some talk we'll put in to where I could get my story away to London.

Friday, Sept. 5.

Still heading S. and I estimate we're not far off Norwegian Coast. Some officers think we might be making another raid. It sounds ridiculous with all these civilians aboard.

Saturday, Sept. 6.

Cruisers leave us. Sunderland flying boat and a Beaufighter spot us. We begin to feel safe again.

The Faroe islands appear in mist off starboard bow.

During evening we are in British waters and can see green and brown hospitable shores of Scotland. Tremendous elation aboard.

Learn we are going direct to * * * (a Scottish port). Two destroyers replaced by two others. Destroyer * * * continues with us.

Sunday, Sept. 7.

Move down W. coast Scotland and go into * * * (a Scottish port) at night.

Anchor at 0200.

Monday, Sept. 8

Troops leave ship at 1400 and return to camps in S. England.

40. Lessons of the Spitsbergen Operation.—a. Value of the raid.—The strategic importance of the islands of the Spitsbergen Archipelago increased considerably after Germany began her war against the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on June 22, 1941. Consequently the primary value of the operation was that it destroyed the facilities of a potential air and naval base from which Germany could have attacked British and American shipping along the Arctic Ocean supply route to Russia's northern ports. The expedition also deprived the Germans of a source of coal and of a radio meteorological station which, through the Nazi-dominated radio station at Tromso, Norway, had furnished the German Air Force with valuable weather data for bombing raids against the British Isles.

b. Special Training.—Even though no opposition was expected, the members of the expedition were thoroughly trained and conditioned for an opposed landing. The intensive course they underwent at the Combined Training Center enabled the ground troops and naval units to work together with a maximum of efficiency. Each group rehearsed its role and learned exactly when close coordination was necessary. The physical hardening of the men enabled them to endure the extremely strenuous labor necessary in carrying out demolitions, and in loading and unloading ships.

c. Unity of Command.—Supreme command of the expedition was assigned to the naval commander because of the vulnerability of the naval units to air attack, but the brigadier was in command of all Operations ashore. This assignment of authority placed the greatest responsibility for the safety of the expedition and its ships on the individual—the naval commander—who alone controlled the means of evacuating the comparatively small force of soldiers.

d. Composition of Task Force.—The composition of the task force indicates that careful consideration was given to the problem of providing a carefully balanced group that could handle all phases of the mission. The largest element of the force, except for the infantry, consisted of engineers, who were charged with carrying out the main object of the task—demolitions. An adequate number of signal troops were also to seize, operate deceptively, and finally destroy the Spitsbergen radio stations.

The inclusion of free Norwegian troops was a factor that tended to give greater validity to the mission in the eyes of the Norwegian residents, who had to stand by and see their property destroyed at a time when it was not under control of the enemy nor facing direct threat of attack.

e. Security—Secrecy.—From beginning to end the greatest secrecy was observed in carrying out the mission. During the early stages the expedition was treated as a training exercise, and the troops did not learn where they were going until they were well out to sea, and then only on the evening before the landing. This circumspection precluded any possibility of a leakage by gossip that might have imperiled the whole task force.

f. Security at Sea.—During the most dangerous part of the voyage the troop transport was safeguarded by an aircraft carrier and land-based aircraft patrols, as well as by the three destroyers, so that it could have maximum protection against air attack. When distance had reduced the danger from German bombers, the aircraft carrier left the expedition and two cruisers joined the destroyer escort as replacements. The cruisers and the destroyers were the best type of vessels to deal with a possible opposed landing and to safeguard the transport in evacuating the Russians to Archangel.

g. Signal Operations.—Two phases of signal operations contributed a great deal to the security of the expedition: the maintenance of radio silence by the naval units during the voyage, and the transmission of deceptive weather reports from Spitsbergen as a means of discouraging aerial reconnaissance by German air units.

1 Although this raid was not carried out by commando troops proper, it is included in this bulletin because the mixed task force received typical commando training for a combined amphibious operation.
2 For notes on the expedition, see Appendix B, excerpts from the diary of a newspaperman, Mr. Ross Munro of the Canadian Press, who accompanied the force.

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