|Part of World War II|
Location map of Spitsbergen and Bear Island
During World War II, Operation Gauntlet was a Combined Operations raid by Canadian troops, with British Army logistics support and Free Norwegian Forces servicemen on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, 600 miles south of the North Pole, from 25 August to 3 September 1941.
The objective was to destroy the rich coal mines there together with associated equipment and stores, which it was correctly assumed the Germans intended to make use of. These mines on Norwegian territory were owned and operated by Norway (at Longyearbyen) and by the Soviet Union (at Barentsburg) and both governments agreed to their destruction and the evacuation of their nationals.
German forces had completed their occupation of Norway in June 1940 and in June 1941, the Soviet Union (USSR) had been invaded in Operation Barbarossa. Immediately, the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, declared common cause with the USSR. The Soviets requested a British naval presence off northern Russia and Rear Admiral Philip Vian visited Murmansk to assess the local situation. Due to logistical and other circumstances the British presence was limited to submarines.
At the end of July 1941, Vian's Force visited Spitsbergen to ascertain the situation. It was not known whether or not a German garrison was in occupation. They were not and both the Norwegian and Soviet settlers were cooperative. A Norwegian officer, Lt. Ragnvald Tamber, was left at Longyearbyen to act as a representative and Force K returned to Britain with 70 volunteers for the Free Norwegian forces and a loaded collier. All this had been done without alerting the Germans and the Germans remained in ignorance of Allied activity.
Lt. Tamber maintained normal radio contacts with the mainland and encouraged the despatch of colliers to collect coal, but detained them with the expectation that they would, in fact, sail to Britain. Eventually three ships were held at Longyearbyen.
En route to Britain, the Force visited Bear Island, destroyed the weather station there and evacuated the Norwegian personnel on 1 August. This action finally alerted the Germans to the allied activity and, thereafter, Force K was shadowed by enemy aircraft.
Vian returned to London to discuss the possibilities with the Chiefs of Staff. His advice was that a military occupation would be possible but the location was unsuitable as a naval base, mainly due to seasonal ice. Winston Churchill applied pressure for a plan to be devised quickly. The plan, agreed with Churchill, the Soviet Ambassador and King Haakon, was for Force K to return to Spitsbergen, destroy the mining facilities and fuel stocks, repatriate the Russians, bring the Norwegians and any available ships to Britain.
Originally a ground force of two battalions had been allocated to the landings, but this was reduced to one on confirmation that the Germans had not yet garrisoned the area. The troops mainly comprised elements of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade, under Brigadier A. E. Potts, with 3 Field Company, RCE attached, a party of Norwegian servicemen based in the United Kingdom. There was demolition and logistic support from British Army units including a detachment from the Kent Fortress Royal Engineers, a unit with demolition experience. This was a total force of 645 All Ranks, including 527 Canadians.
The liner RMS Empress of Canada acted as the troopship, escorted by Force K: two Royal Navy cruisers, HMS Nigeria (flagship) and HMS Aurora and three destroyers: HMS Icarus, HMS Anthony and HMS Antelope; Philip Vian remained in command. The force sailed on August 19.
The troops landed on the 25 August and, as hoped, met no opposition throughout and were enthusiastically greeted by the islanders. When the demolitions at Barentsburg were complete, some 2,000 Soviet miners and their movable belongings and equipment were taken to Arkhangelsk, in Russia, on the RMS Empress of Canada, escorted by Nigeria, where a group of nearly 200 Free French were found waiting. These French had escaped from German prison camps and were duly taken on board for passage to the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, the rest of Force K and the demolition parties had moved on to Longyearbyen.
On 3 September the ships returned from Arkhangelsk and all forces ashore embarked together with some 800 locals and 15 sled dogs. Two radio stations were destroyed which, up to this point, had continued to broadcast normally and even falsely reported fog to deter any German observation planes.
The demolition teams completed all their tasks destroying the mines, equipment not taken away, and 450,000 tons of coal and 275,000 Imperial gallons of fuel, oil, petrol and grease. 1,000 tons of steam coal was left in case needed by Allied ships who may stop there in the future. The only "casualties" occurred when the rearguard at Barentsburg had accessed the vodka stores and had to be carried aboard.
The allied force sailed for the United Kingdom on 3 September, with the three captured colliers, an icebreaker, a whaler, a tug and two sealers. Vian was alerted to the presence of a German convoy. The destroyers continued to escort the convoy to Britain while the two cruisers intercepted the German ships at Hammerfjord on 7 September and engaged its escort, sinking the German gunnery training ship Bremse. During the action, Nigeria's bow was seriously damaged, reportedly by ramming the Bremse, although later analysis suggested that a mine was the cause.
The ships which made the excursion on to Russia had made a 7,000 mile round trip from the United Kingdom.
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