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75 years ago, during the Second World War, Nazis crossed the Atlantic and landed in what would be the only armed German invasion on North American soil during that time.
Okay, invasion is a strong word. It would be a bit like saying that you once lived at a Holiday Inn Express when you only stayed overnight. However, during WWII, there were genuine “capital N” Nazis on what is now Canadian soil.
Nazis in Canada. Did they go to the capital, Ottawa? Did they go to Alberta for the oil, or to Toronto to attack the financial sector? No, they went to northern Newfoundland. And yes, Newfoundland wasn’t exactly part of Canada when this happened in 1943, but they are a province now, and we were all fighting on the side of the Allies in World War Two so Newfoundland still counts as “home turf”.
Why in the world would the Nazi’s cross the Atlantic Ocean in a submarine to get to northern Newfoundland? One word – weather.
During the war, a fundamental task of German U-boats was to intercept and sink enemy warships and supply ships in the Atlantic Ocean; especially those carrying goods from North America to Europe in support of the Allied war effort. The success of these maneuvers depended heavily on the weather at sea. Both the Allies and Germans attempted to harness weather data by creating weather ships and stations in secret locations all over the North Atlantic; establishing routes of convoys and interceptions respectively, based on the information collected.
In temperate climates, and the Northern Hemisphere in general, weather systems move chiefly from west to east. This meant that the Allied forces, controlling North America, Greenland, and Iceland, had an advantage when it came to understanding weather patterns and what was coming their way in Europe. This knowledge was a pivotal advantage over Nazi intelligence, and impacted military decisions. The conflict between the Allied forces and the Germans over accurate weather data was so intense, it has been called the North Atlantic Weather War.
Yes, on top of regular Nazis and grammar Nazis, we can now add a third category to our vocabulary – weather Nazis.
You might take your local 14 day forecast for granted unless you are planning a camping trip or a picnic, but weather has played a significant role in many of history’s greatest moments. While weather forecasters are often the butt of jokes for inaccurate predictions, they have had their shining moments. In what has been called “the most important weather forecast ever”, meteorologist predictions led to D-Day being postponed to June 6, 1944 from the original date of June 5 (waiting for weather calm enough to attack across the English Channel).
Germany experimented with weather planes and submarines, which did give them some information, but isolated aircraft, U-boats and weather ships (such as the Lauenburg and WBS 5 Adolf Vinnen) were often caught and destroyed by Allied patrols that were seeking to preserve their advantage in weather data. It was thought that these ships might also provide an advantage in breaking the Enigma code, which made their capture even more valuable (and made them even juicier targets). When the information transmitted from aircraft is often incomplete due to the nature of communicating within limited ranges, and regular reporting is made difficult if not prohibitive via ships trying to maintain radio silence (Ally radio triangulation was a key tool in locating enemy ships), the next best plan is to set up a weather station—and in this case, in enemy territory.
German scientists at the Siemens Company (now the largest industrial manufacturing company in Europe specializing in “electrification, automation and digitalization”) invented a series of weather stations. Although it sounds like an amazing name for a Euro-Dubstep band, the Wetter-Funkgerät Land (WFL) was the name of these automated stations.
The Barents Sea between Norway and Russia; Greenland; the Russian archipelago Of Franz Josef Land; along with Bear Island and Spitsbergen—islands in the Norwegian Svalbard archipelago—all played host to unmanned Nazi weather stations during the war. Many of these stations were found and dismantled or destroyed, spelling storm clouds of failure for the Germans in their weather war attempts at domination.
Two stations were planned for North America. The submarine U-867, captained by Kapitän zur See Arved von Mühlendahl—carrying one weather station—was sunk on 19 September 1944 by a RAF heavy bomber marine patrol aircraft. The other, nearly a year earlier, made it to shore—in Labrador; in what was then the Dominion of Newfoundland.
September 18, 1943—German submarine U-537 set sail from Kiel Germany with 23-year-old Kapitänleutnant Peter Schrewe at the helm. It was Captain Schrewe’s first wartime foray on the submarine, and U-537’s maiden combat assignment; a top-secret mission. Also on-board was a meteorologist by the name of Dr. Kurt Sommermeyer, his assistant, Walter Hildebrant, and some very important cargo: the WFL-26—Wetter-Funkgerät-Land automatic weather station—code-named “KURT”.
U-537 made a brief stop in Bergen, Norway, and then headed out to sea again, this time on a route to the East Coast of North America. There was to be no enemy ship interceptions, no torpedo runs—this was strictly a covert operation to install KURT on the barren shores of Labrador, and return to open waters.
KURT was comprised of a telemetry system; 150-watt short-wave antenna; a 10-meter (33-foot) tall antenna mast complete with an anemometer and wind vane on its own separate shorter mast; a 150-watt Lorenz 150FK-type radio transmitter; various meteorological measuring instruments; and ten 100-kilogram (220-pound) steel barrels that contained nickel-cadmium and dry-cell high voltage batteries—each measuring 1 meter (3.3 feet) high by 47 centimeters (1.5 feet) in diameter.
The WFL-26 station had six-month’s worth of batteries and would collect and record atmospheric conditions—automatically broadcasting the information back to German receiving stations via radio signals. The transmissions were sent for no more than two minutes (one of these precious minutes being allotted for warming up the system) every three hours on a 3940-kHz band—in coded form no less!
The observed temperature, air pressure, wind speed, humidity, and wind direction values were transcribed into Morse symbols before being sent on their way across the ocean to Europe. This interspersed “weather-gram” broadcasting was aimed at preventing the weather station from being located by Allied forces; advanced technology for its day—the system is still considered an impressive display of complexity.
The Labrador coast is a rugged, craggy weather-beaten place—isolated, and perfect for stashing secret Nazi weather stations—except for the one small tactical issue of delivery.
U-537 managed to cross the Atlantic successfully, despite a large storm that damaged parts of the hull considerably. The U-boat was leaking, and its quadruple anti-aircraft cannon had been torn off at some point by a large wave, making it impossible for the submarine to dive. Regardless of these impairments, U-537 was able to make it to the north-eastern tip of the Labrador Peninsula, even though it was completely defenseless against Allied aircraft. Once at the coast, Captain Schrewe had to navigate the numerous tiny islands and shoals—submerged ridges and sandbars—that littered the shallower areas close to the shore.
Steering their way between the Avayalik Islands and Home Island, past Oo-Olilik Island and into the Ikkudliayuk Fiord, U-537 came to rest in the cove of Martin Bay on October 22, 1943. The ship was protected here from much of the dangers associated with the open sea, such as storms, but remained a target for enemy craft, and was still somewhat prone to natural obstacles. There may not have been an actual minefield waiting for them on the coast, but the task had hand was still a difficult one.
Anchoring in a shallow area protected from turbulent waters, a scouting party was sent to find a suitable location to position weather station KURT. Whether the exploration crew just wanted to get the heck out of there or not, it only took an hour to find a fitting location, and Dr. Sommermeyer and his assistant were accompanied by ten sailors to install the station.
Some of the remaining sailors remained on high ground as lookouts, keeping watch for anyone who might interfere, including local Inuit people, while other crew members buckled down to the arduous task of repairing the damaged submarine.
They transferred everything from the U-boat by rubber dinghy, to the shore, hauling up each of the heavy canisters, tripod and masts, and technicians set to work assembling the station they hoped would help the Germans win the weather war, if not the Second World War itself.
KURT was set up 365 meters (400 yards) inland on a 53-meter (170 feet) high hill.
The antenna was hoisted and set up within 28 hours (which makes me even angrier about how long it takes for my cable to be set up). The crew even stopped to take some pictures of the U-Boat, presumably from the vantage point of the new station, which had been cleverly disguised and camouflaged. In a strategic calculation best described as “hidden in plain sight”, the cylinders were marked with stencils stating, “Canadian Meteor Service”, and American cigarette packaged were strewn around the site and installation to throw off any suspecting passers-by and allied intelligence personnel. Talk about super-spies! It is important to note, that no such weather agency existed at the time, and if you recall, Newfoundland was not technically part of Canada yet; so, if the station was found, the cylinders being marked as property of a non-existent service outside their supposed jurisdiction might have raised some red flags of their own. But no such discovery was ever made during the war. In fact, no one knew of this super-secret spy weather station for a very, very long time.
Once KURT was tested and found to be operational, the crew declared the mission accomplished, weighed anchor and quickly set sail again so they wouldn’t be caught in the bay where they were defenseless. The next task at hand was an anti-shipping patrol off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. U-537 survived three attacks by Canadian aircraft, but was unable to sink any ships. After seventy days at sea—on December 8—they sailed into port at Lorient, France.
Logs from U-537 indicated that the station broadcast for two weeks, and by some accounts the station continued transmitting signals for up to two months. But at some point, the frequency the messages were being sent on was blocked by jamming—and by who, has been left to history. There does not seem to be any indication that KURT had much of an impact on the overall war effort, and there is no evidence to date that shows the Allies ever learned of KURT’s existence either while in operation, or directly following.
What will blow your mind though, is when the station was discovered. Take a moment and guess when you think Kurt was found – was it 1943? 1945? 1950?
Go on, take a guess – We’ll wait.
The weather station was not located until 1977—over thirty years later! There is no military record of the station being located before then (and if anyone is a stickler for making reports, it’s the military). Why did it take so long? Was it well-hidden? No, not really. It sounds cheesy, but the German plan of camouflage by cigarette package and creative stenciling had worked. The station was originally only supposed to report back for three months after-all, so it seems they would not have had to keep the location secret for long—but they probably hadn’t expected their subterfuge to continue for decades after the war had ended.
It was a geomorphologist named Peter Johnson who found the weather station while working on a completely unrelated assignment, surveying the province for the two year-long Torngat Archaeological Project, which ran in 1977 and 1978. This combined endeavor joined Canadian and American institutions together under the management of Bryn Mawr College and the Smithsonian Institution; researchers collected geological and botanical samples, gathering data and cataloguing their findings from nearly 350 sites, from Nain to the Button Islands. This is how Johnson basically stumbled upon KURT—although he mistakenly suspected the canisters and antenna belonged to the Canadian military. He named it Martin Bay 7, and the remains of the weather station was issued Borden number JaDc-07. It would seem that at this point, Johnson and his colleagues went on their merry way, surveying and cataloguing, never knowing that they had actually discovered a remnant of the days when a Nazi submarine had graced the coast of Labrador, and its crew had stepped ashore.
While the weather station was not located until 1977, it wasn’t identified as a German weather station until 1981. This part of our story starts in 1979 with the retirement of a retired Siemens engineer in Germany, named Franz Selinger. He was writing a book on Arctic weather reconnaissance during the Second World War, along with Nazi weather stations, and found mention of WFL-26’s existence while researching Dr. Sommermeyer’s papers. Selinger then reached out to the Canadian Department of National Defence and official military historian, Dr. Alec Douglas. This is when the pieces started to really come together.
Selinger was attempting to find a veritable needle in a haystack—looking for information on two weather stations that had operated during the war—one of which turned out to be KURT. All he knew was that it was supposed to be on the coast of Labrador. There was nothing in the military files. No clues or trace to be seen in Canadian or American archival records. Certainly someone had found this German installation in the years after the war…
Selinger searched tirelessly over the next few years for any hint of KURT’s whereabouts, turning to German submarine logbooks for clues. Then, in Captain Peter Schrewe’s U-537 logbook, he found what he was looking for: detailed orders for the erection of a weather station—including its exact location.
Selinger called Dr. Douglas in Canada, and Douglas in turn contacted a friend in the Canadian Coast Guard, named James Clarke. The goal, as outlandish as it might have seemed, was to arrange for a ride out to Martin Bay in order to find the missing weather station. Surprisingly, the Canadian Coast Guard had a ship, the Louis S. St-Laurent icebreaker, who was scheduled to make its annual trip North along the Labrador coast, and it would only be travelling a few kilometers from where KURT was. The three men agreed that they should all be on that boat when it left, and organized to meet.
Because of Captain Schrewe’s detailed logbook, the three men knew exactly where to go, and along with a Transport Canada Marine Liaison Officer named Donna Andrew, they set forth on the icebreaker from Dartmouth Nova Scotia, travelling up to the area near Martin Bay. They then boarded the ship’s helicopter and flew directly to KURT, which was waiting for them, a little weather-beaten, and a bit worse for wear, but there. Despite its deterioration, and a few missing pieces, the installation had finally been officially located, its origins revealed, and recovery could begin.
WFL-26—Wetter-Funkgerät-Land automatic weather station—code-name: KURT, was removed from Labrador and taken to Ottawa, Canada’s capital city. The station underwent a face-lift of sorts, returning it to a more realistic state; reminiscent of a unit that would have been working all this time, and not just abandoned. If you would like to visit KURT, you can find the remaining pieces in the Canadian War museum in Ottawa.
Ready for one last surprise? Canadian officials concede that weather stations this sophisticated weren’t used in Canada until the early 1960s. So, if you feel like our weather predictions aren’t all that accurate in Canada, maybe we should dust old KURT off, and give it another go?
- Pat Brennan. “A piece of Second World War history is alive on Newfoundland and Labrador’s Bell Island“, Postmedia News. Accessed September 01, 2016.
- “Bell Island Mining History“, Bell Island Community Museum. Accessed September 01, 2016.
- “Iron Ore Mines of Bell Island“, Heritage Newfoundland & Labrador. Accessed September 01, 2016.
- “Battle Of Bell Islands“, Wikipedia. Accessed September 01, 2016.
- “Werner Von Janowski.” Wikipedia. Accessed September 01, 2016.
- “Mesmerizing Underwater Photos of WWII Shipwrecks That Sank in Canada.” Atlas Obscura. 2016. Accessed September 01, 2016.
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