The weather war

Shots fired for a better forecast

The crew of the Edelweiss II weather station in northeast Greenland being captured by U.S. soldiers (Photo: U.S. Coast Guard)

The weather helped or hindered every war since the dawn of history, and World War II was no different. For just two examples, Typhoon Cobra destroyed three destroyers and killed 790 men in in 1944, and the D-Day landings had to be delayed by a day (and almost cancelled) due to bad weather. An accurate forecast could be just as helpful to an operation, and its lack just as detrimental, as artillery support or a commando outfit. Today’s article is about the lengths both the Allies and Nazi Germany went to in order to have earlier and more accurate weather reports in the North Atlantic and the theater influenced by it.

Weather was both especially critical and unusual harsh in the North Atlantic and the Arctic Oceans. Almost 10,000 planes, mostly piloted by their combat crews, flew from America to Britain through the Arctic region with stops in Greenland and Iceland, and some sources claim close to 10% of them were lost, many due to storms and other bad weather. The North Atlantic maritime convoys that brought vital cargo to Britain and the Soviet Union were hampered not only by storms, but also German U-boat wolfpacks, bombers, and the ever-present threat of surface attacks by the battleship Tirpitz, which spent most of its career docked in occupied Norway exactly for this purpose. The weather could spell fortune or disaster for these operations, too: for could hide a convoy from the Luftwaffe, or a storm could hinder the navigation of German submarines. It is not surprising that neither side spared effort in getting reliable weather forecasts.

“Glacier Girl”, a P-38F Lightning that flew into bad weather on a North-Atlantic ferry flight and had to land on the Greenland ice cap with the rest of her squadron (Photo:

Weather patterns in the North Atlantic usually move from west to east, while much of the weather in Europe is a result of meteorological processes in the Arctic. This means that the further to the west and north you can establish weather stations, the sooner you’ll get measurements you can use to predict changes. One way of establishing stations in the right locations was to use weather ships.

The first attempt to use dedicated weather ships dates back to the 1860s, when Britain attempted to put ships out in the open Atlantic and connect them to land with underwater telegraph cables. The experiment was a failure, but further attempts followed in the 1920s. The U.S. Coast Guard and the Atlantic Weather Observation Service established ships for the purpose from 1939 and 1940 onwards, respectively, with the original goal of making transoceanic flights safer. The Coast Guard originally used small, quick cutters that spent three weeks at sea followed by 10 days in port. By 1942, however, these cutters were needed for the war effort and were replaced by six cargo ships equipped with weather balloons. These ships were valuable targets for German U-boats, which would try to sink them and deny the Allies accurate weather forecasts. The vessels were armed with two deck guns, anti-aircraft guns and depth charges, but lacked radar to notice incoming enemy planes, sonar to hear submarines, or high frequency (“huff-duff”) radio direction finders to intercept enemy messages. One weather ship, the USS Muskeget, was lost with all hands on deck after it was torpedoed by an U-boat on September 9, 1942; it’s been speculated that the presence of the right equipment might have allowed the ship to detect and evade its attacker. All of the military crewmen of the Muskeget were immediately awarded a posthumous Purple Heart, but the four civilian meteorologists onboard only got theirs in 2015.

USS Yag-9, later renamed Muskeget
(Photo: U.S. Navy)

The British and the Germans also used weather ships. Of the four German vessels originally used for the purpose, three were sunk by late 1940, prompting the Kriegsmarine to use converted fishing trawlers and sealer ships as disguise. These ships, however, were still considered important targets by the British not only to deny the Germans weather information, but also for what they carried onboard: Enigma machines and codebooks which they used to receive orders. The machine and the book could be quickly thrown overboard when attacked, but a British cryptologist correctly guessed that the ships also carried the next month’s codebook in a safe, which could be captured if the crew panicked during a raid and neglected to get and destroy it. Two task forces of cruisers and destroyers were dispatched to raid two of these “fishing ships,” and successfully netted several pieces of the Enigma machine and codebooks, greatly helping Bletchley Park in cracking the more secure naval version of the cypher.

A boarding party from HMS Tartar (foreground) preparing to board the German weather ship Lauenburg (Photo: Imperial War Museums)
Another way of acquiring measurements was to cram an airplane full of instruments and fly it to the right spot at the right time – another method used by multiple belligerent nations. The Royal Air Force used B-17 Flying Fortresses, Handley Page Halifax heavy bombers and smaller craft. These planes took off from northern Scotland on sorties that could last up to 11 and a half hours. Their flight paths had to be complex and exacting to produce the needed data: sometimes they flew a mere 50 ft (15 m) above the water, at others they climbed to 18,000 ft (5,5 km). Flying so far from the shore and often in bad weather took its toll and 10 planes were lost just in 1944.
German meteorologist Helmut Rau taking weather readings in a Heinkel He 111 during the summer of 1941 as part of the German aerial weather service
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

The Luftwaffe took similar measures, but their job was even harder: they had to contend not only with dangerous weather and Arctic waters that could kill a man in minutes, but also the Royal Air Force. The “Grossraum Wettererkundungsstaffeln” (Greater Weather Reconnaissance Squadrons), often abbreviated to Wekusta or Westa, flew a motley assortment of converted military planes from bases along the German coast. Many meteorologists were conscripted into these squadrons, and over 200 of them were killed during the war.

A Heinkel He 111 medium bomber converted for meteorological duty with the Wekusta (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Flying northwest from Germany towards the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic, Wekusta planes had to fly past Fair Isle, located halfway between the Orkney and Shetland Isles north of Scotland, well inside British radar range. To avoid detection, they had to maintain an altitude of 30-50 ft (9-15 m) above the ocean for much of the 9-hour trip, then had to climb 22,000 ft (6,5 km) above the Faroes. The dangerous adventure was recorded in the insignia of the first Wekusta squadron, depicting a rainbow over Fair Isle: one of the few cases in history when a military unit’s insignia depicted enemy territory.

Reconstruction of the emblem of Wekusta 1, featuring Fair Isle

The British became aware of the clandestine flights by early 1941 and started actively hunting for the planes, causing mounting casualties to the weather squadrons. As the war progressed, the Wekusta took on new roles, such as Arctic meteorological flights after German-controlled weather stations were destroyed on the Svalbard Islands (read on for more information), as well as ice recon flights, supply runs to hidden weather stations, and, in 1945, evacuations of those stations. Throughout the war, their flights were characterized by constant losses, not so much to enemy fighters as the cruelty of the very weather they were trying to gauge even at the cost of their own lives.

Meteorological plane belonging to the Wekusta 5 squadron after crash landing on Spitsbergen, the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago
Beside sea- and air-based meteorological observation, there was also the most obvious option, ground-based weather stations. Numerous small, often hidden weather stations peppered Arctic islands during the war, built by both sides, often temporarily by design. The Germans often tried to establish a station late in the year, so that Arctic winter weather would prevent the Allies from launching an attack on it for several months. It would be past the scope of this article to list all of the ephemeral stations and the small-scale raids to erase them, so what follows here is a selection of some notable ones associated with memorable events.
A German meteorologist in front of his instrument at a hidden weather station in the Svalbard archipelago
(Photo: Eckbart Dege)
Spitsbergen is the largest and only permanently populated island in the Svalbard archipelago to the north of Norway, beyond the Arctic Circle. Governed by Norway, the archipelago was the site of several valuable coal mines and weather stations. The British decided to keep these away from German hands, and a British-Canadian force landed on Spitsbergen in August 1941 to evacuate the miners under the name Operation Gauntlet. 504,000 tons of coal, heaped in massive piles, was set on fire, fuel was burned or dumped into the sea and mining equipment was sabotaged to deny them from the Germans. All along, the Allies kept the local Norwegian weather station going, broadcasting bogus reports of heavy fog to keep Luftwaffe recon flights in Norway on the ground and oblivious to what was going on. Once everything else was done, the wireless stations were also demolished.
Demolition of the wireless station during Operation Gauntlet
(Photo: National Museum of the U.S. Navy)
The Allies expected Germany to establish a presence on the Svalbard archipelago and use it as a base from which to launch strikes at Arctic convoys. The Germans, however, were more interested in the region as a site for weather stations, and established a manned one in late October 1941 and an automated station the next year. A British-Free Norwegian mission attempted to build a base on Spitsbergen in May 1942, but failed when the two ships carrying the crew were sunk by German bombers. Two follow-up operations eventually managed to establish an Allied weather station on the island.
Canadian sappers burning a large mound of coal during Operation Gauntlet
(Photo: Library and Archives Canada)
Naturally, the Germans were not about to let that slide, and came back in force on September 8, 1943 as Operation Zitronella. A task force lead by the Tirpitz, the sister ship of the battleship Bismarck, attacked the Free Norwegian garrison on the island. The Tirpitz was normally used as a “fleet in being” to threaten Allied Arctic convoys, and this was the only time it fired its guns in an offensive action. It did not make a very good account of itself, as poor fire coordination caused the ship’s shell to hit German troops. Despite the blunder, the 8-hour raid saw the Free Norwegian garrison killed, captured or driven inland by the vastly superior German force, which then proceeded to destroy the Allied weather station there at the time. A new German weather station was simultaneously set up on a different island of the archipelago.
Bombardment of coastal targets during Operation Zitronella
The Svalbard archipelago also gained the distinction of being the site of the very last German surrender at the end of World War II. Unsurprisingly, it was by half a dozen German soldiers and technicians operating yet another weather station. Once they’ve heard of the German surrender on the radio in May 1945, they continued broadcasting weather date, but unencoded. The expedition was simply forgotten in the chaos of Germany’s fall, and they eventually surrendered to a passing Norwegian seal hunter ship in September, almost four months after the end of the war in Europe.
Remains of the station of the last Germans to surrender. The building to the left was a sauna.
(Photo: Scruffysnake / Wikipedia)
Another important Arctic location was Greenland, the world’s largest island. Greenland was under strict Danish control before the war, but its status became unclear and unstable once Nazi Germany overran Denmark in April 1940. The local Danish governor, Eske Brun, decided to turn to the United States for help, and started running the island as a virtually independent nation. About 15 local hunters and trappers, some Inuit, others Danish colonists or Norwegian expatriates, formed the North East Greenland Sledge Patrol and started guarding a 500-mile (800 km) stretch of the coast in northeast Greenland. To help the U.S. Coast Guard in keeping German forces (or weather stations) away from the island’s uncountable fjords and coastal islands. The American-Greenlandic cooperation managed to bag three Germans in September 1941. Once the Germans were found in a shack, they offered to brew some coffee for their captors, who quickly realized this was a ploy to burn their codebook. The Coast Guard cutter USCGC Northland also managed to capture the Norwegian fishing trawler Buskoe, the ship that brought the Germans to Greenland. Even though this happened before America’s entry into the war, this incident is often cited as the first World War II-related ship capture by the U.S. Navy.
USCGC Northland in Greenland
(Photo: U.S. Coast Guard)

Two years later, the Germans established another weather station on Greenland, which was promptly found by the Sledge Patrol. This presented a legal problem. The patrolmen were civilians, and Greenland was officially a part of German-occupied Denmark. If the patrol attacked the Germans and was captured, they could have been executed as partisans. In order to give them legal combatant status, Brun designated the patrol into the official Greenland Army, the world’s smallest, led by a captain and counting about 15 men. The army’s uniform was a single armband.

U.S. troops on the move to capture a hidden German weather station on Greenland after it was found by locals
(Photo: U.S. Army)
The Greenland Army even saw action: the German weather expedition attacked the patrol’s headquarters and burned it to the ground, killing and capturing several patrolmen on the way back. One of the captives, however, managed to turn the tables: when asked for directions towards another patrol station, he deliberately gave the troops the longest and hardest route. Once he was left alone with the German unit’s commander, he took the man’s gun (which was accidentally left on the prisoner’s sled), declared him a prisoner of war, and took a shorter but still 300-mile-long (480 km) route to march him into captivity.
1933 photo of Eskimonæs station, the headquarters of the Sled Patrol before it was burned down
(Photo: Danish Antarctic Institute)
The last German weather station on Greenland was taken by the icebreaker cutter USCGC Eastwind in October 1944; the station’s supply ship, the trawler Externsteine (also a German weather ship), was captured soon after when it got trapped in ice. The Externsteine was the only surface ship captured by U.S. naval (including Coast Guard) forces during World War II, and was put into American service under the name Eastbreeze.
The Externsteine after its capture
(Photo: U.S. Coast Guard)

German weather stations on Greenland might have gotten worryingly close to America, but it actually got even worse on one occasion. Weather Station Kurt was a German automatic station comprising two masts with instruments and barrel-like canisters holding the batteries. It was erected by a U-boat crew on Labrador in the Dominion of Newfoundland, today part of Canada, in October 1943. To prevent destruction by the Allies, it was marked as property of the nonexistent “Canadian Weather Service,” and American cigarette packets were strewn around it. The ruse worked, if a bit too late: the station was only discovered in 1977 by a geomorphologist who thought it was a Canadian military installation.

Weather station Kurt after its discovery
(Photo: Canada National Archives)

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WWII veterans celebrated in Normandy
(Photo: Author’s own)
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