Operation Gauntlet

This was an Allied operation by Canadian infantry, British commandos and Norwegian servicemen on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen (19 August/10 September 1941).

Undertaken only about 600 miles (965 km) from the North Pole, the operation lasted for several weeks, and was schemed to ensure the destruction of the island’s coal mining facilities to prevent their use should the Germans land on the island from Norway.

The origins of the idea lay with the British desire to offer some form of visible support to the Soviets after the beginning of ‘Barbarossa’, and thought was in the short term given to the establishment of British naval and air forces at Murmansk. This northern port was too distant for reliable support from the UK, however, and it was suggested that British naval and air forces could operate from Spitsbergen. This proposal was rejected as impractical once the Germans had reinforced their forces in northern Norway, but two reconnaissances of the island by the light forces of Rear Admiral P. L. Vian’s Force ‘K’ bore fruit in the suggestion that the coal installations on the island could be destroyed.

Despite being on Norwegian territory, the mines were owned and operated by the Soviets, and both the Norwegian and Soviet governments agreed to the demolitions as well as the evacuation of their nationals.

Originally a ground force of two battalions was scheduled for the operation, but this was reduced to just one battalion after it had been confirmed that the Germans had not yet garrisoned the area. The ground force comprised mainly elements of Brigadier A. E. Potts’s Canadian 2nd Brigade, and totalled 46 officers and 599 other ranks, of which 29 officers and 498 other ranks were Canadian. The non-Canadian contribution was made by Norway (three officers and 22 other ranks under Captain Aubert) and the UK (93 men of Nos 2, 5, 9 and 12 Commandos, including 57 men of the Royal Engineers).

The transport of the land force to Spitsbergen was undertaken in the 21,517-ton Empress of Canada, a liner adapted for troop transport, and ‘Gauntlet’ began on 19 August as the transport departed under escort of Force ‘K’ comprising the light cruisers Aurora and Nigeria, and destroyers Anthony, Antelope, Eclipse, Icarus and Tartar. The force sailed first to the Hvalfjörður in south-western Iceland to refuel, and thence on 21 August for Spitsbergen.

After a rendezvous with the 6,894-ton fleet oiler Oligarch and the escorting trawlers Elm and Hazel on 24 August, the force approached Spitsbergen on the morning of 25 August. Aerial reconnaissance of the Ice Sound detected no German activity. A party of signallers landed at the wireless station at Kap Linne at 04.30 and were greeted warmly by the Norwegian staff, and by 08.00 the larger ships had entered Green Bay and anchored off Barentsburg, a Soviet mining village.

Some 1,800 Soviet miners were conveyed by Empress of Canada and other ships to a point off the Dvina light vessel, where the Soviet destroyer Groznyi was waiting, and the Soviet miners were transferred to two Soviet steamers, and meanwhile on Spitsbergen the demolition parties achieved all their tasks of destroying the Bergensburg mines, equipment not transported with the Soviets to the USSR, 450,000 tons of coal and 275,000 Imp gal (1.25 million litres) of fuel, oil, petrol and grease. Some 1,000 tons of coal were left for any Allied ships which might stop there in the future.

On 2 September the ships returned from the Dvina light ship rendezvous with almost 200 Free French soldiers who had escaped from German prison camps and made their way to the USSR, and the land force re-embarked, together with some 800 of the local population. The two radio stations, which had continued to broadcast normally so as not to alert the Germans and also sent some false fog reports to deter German aerial reconnaissance, were then destroyed.

The 'Drover' convoy and several Norwegian coastal vessels, including three colliers (3,089-ton Ingerto, 1,999-ton Nandi and 1,285-ton Munin escorted by the anti-submarine trawler Sealyham and, until the morning of 27 August, the cruiser Aurora), returned to the UK. As the merchant vessels headed straight home, Vian took his escort warships in toward the Norwegian coast, meeting a German troop convoy on the approaches to the Portangerfjord. Vian’s ships sank the training cruiser Bremse, one destroyer and two smaller warships, but the 3,101-ton Barcelona and 6,418-ton Trautenfels carrying some 1,500 men of Generalmajor Ferdinand Schörner’s 6th Gebirgsdivision, which the German naval units were escorting, managed to slip away into the fjord in conditions of poor visibility. Vian’s force returned to Scapa Flow on 10 September.