On the Greenland Patrol

September 10, 2010

A few posts back I blogged about a booklet that told the story of the U.S. Coast Guard beach patrol and corsair fleet during World War II. The Coast Guard and the Greenland Patrol, another booklet in the same series, recounts another forgotten episode that pitted the Coast Guard against the perils of the Arctic and marked the only U.S. capture of a German surface vessel during the war.

When the German Army occupied Denmark in 1940, the fate of Greenland, a Danish possession, loomed large in American strategy. Greenland was a major source of cryolite, a mineral used in the extraction of aluminum, its largely frozen land mass lay athwart a major air route used to ferry Lend-Lease aircraft to Great Britain, and was of great value in establishing weather stations. Two Coast Guard cutters equipped as icebreakers, the Northland and the Modoc, conducted a lengthy survey of Greenland’s coastal waters in early 1941, in the course of which the Modoc stumbled into a British air attack on the German battleship Bismarck!

Although the U.S. and Germany were not yet at war, tensions were high as America moved aggressively to defend the hemisphere. During June and July 1941, the Northland and the Modoc, joined by other Coast Guard and Navy vessels, were organized into the Greenland Patrol with the missions of supporting the Army in establishing bases in Greenland, defending Greenland from Germany, and preventing German operations in northeast Greenland.

The first mission involved escorting troop and supply ships, breaking the ice to get them to port, and, especially after the declaration of war against Germany, defending them against attacks by U-boats. The duty included “cold weather, ice, fog, snowstorms, and plenty of hard work…cooped up in that little tub month after month, in bad weather, wet to their skins…” It was tough and unglamorous, but vital in keeping the northern sea and air lanes open.

On several occasions, Coast Guard cutters captured German ground personnel and vessels intent on establishing clandestine radio stations in northeast Greenland. One German trawler scuttled itself after a lengthy pursuit, while another, the Externsteine (left), surrendered after the new Coast Guard icebreaker Eastwind fired three salvoes alongside its icebound hull – the only American capture of a German surface ship in the course of the war.

As you can tell, I’m totally taken with this fascinating story – Arctic gales, secret enemy weather stations, and “snow ice cream” (“Take two bowlfuls of snow, add sugar to taste, then throw in a dash of fruit juice or extract for flavor. The result isn’t bad.”). You can read all about it here or find it in a library here.

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