Operation Gearbox

This was a British series of naval operations to reinforce, resupply and generally support the Allied forces occupying Spitsbergen island in the Svalbard islands group to the north of German-occupied Norway (25 June 1942/15 September 1944).

At the beginning of World War II, Spitsbergen had a population comprising, for the most part, Norwegian coal miners at Longyearbyen and Soviet coal miners slightly farther to the south-west at Barentsburg on the south coast of the Isfjorden, which is about 10 miles (16 km) wide, on the western side of this large island inland of Kapp Linné. Shafts had been driven into the sides of the fjords, and were producing some 500,000 tons of coal per year, with more than half going to Norway and the rest to the USSR. Because the sea ice prevented shipments in winter, as it was mined the coal was stockpiled until the ice melted and shipments could resume.

In May 1940, when they completed their ‘Weserübung' seizure of Norway, the Germans omitted Spitsbergen, remaining content to continue trading with it. But when Germany launched its ‘Barbarossa’ invasion of the USSR in June 1941, the whole strategic situation changed and the UK decided that something must now be done.

With the agreement of the USSR and Norwegian government-in-exile in London, ‘Gauntlet’ was evolved with the objects of evacuating from the island all personnel including the Soviets, destroying all the currently stockpiled coal, and rendering the mines inoperable, thus denying the Germans a valuable resource. A reconnaissance of Spitsbergen was made by Rear Admiral P. L. Vian with the cruisers and destroyers 1 of Force ‘K’ at the end of July to determine the extent of German military presence. A Norwegian, Lieutenant Tamber, was disembarked and remained as the Allied co-ordinator and the island’s military governor.

On 19 August 1941, Force ‘K’ departed Scapa Flow in the Orkney islands group to make rendezvous with the 20,022-ton liner Empress of Canada, now adapted as a troopship and carrying 650 troops, mainly Canadian but with some Norwegians and a few British sappers. The ships refuelled in Iceland on 21 August, and arrived off Spitsbergen on 24 August, rendezvousing with the oiler Oligarch and trawlers Elm, Hazel, Sealyham and Free Belgian Van Oost.

The landings took place on 25 August, and the landed troops immediately fired the coal stockpiles, destroyed the mining machinery and other equipment, and rendered inoperable the power stations, and prepared all radio equipment for destruction. On 26 August, the fully laden Norwegian colliers Ingerto, Munin and Nandi departed Spitsbergen for Iceland as a small convoy escorted by Aurora and Sealyham; Aurora turned back to Spitsbergen on the following day. The Norwegian tug/icebreaker Isbjørn, sealing vessels Polaric and Svalbard, and whaling vessel Agnes also departed for Iceland under escort of the trawler Elm.

Leaving Aurora at Spitsbergen to await her return, Empress of Canada embarked 2,175 Soviets and repatriated them to Arkhangyel’sk escorted by Nigeria and the three destroyers, arriving on 29 August. At Arkhangyel’sk, the British ships embarked 200 Free French soldiers who had escaped from German prison camps and made their way to the USSR, and then returned to Spitsbergen on 1 September, embarked the troops as well as the remaining Norwegian miners and settlers, and departed for Scapa Flow on 3 September. Throughout the whole of the ‘Gauntlet’ period, the radio stations in Spitsbergen continued to communicate as usual with German-controlled stations in Norway: some of the communications were false weather reports, in which heavy fog was reported in order to deter aerial reconnaissance flights which would have revealed the operation.

During the return, on 6 September, the cruisers Aurora and Nigeria left the convoy and headed south-east to intercept a German convoy, sinking the gunnery training ship Bremse but suffering damage to Nigeria’s bow, possibly by striking a mine.

It took some time for the Germans to realise what had happened on Spitsbergen. They were first alerted when expected colliers did not arrive, as well as the silence of the radio station, and therefore sent a reconnaissance aeroplane to investigate.

By August 1941 the Germans’ Arctic weather reporting stations on Spitsbergen, as well as those on Greenland, Jan Mayen island and Bjørnøya had been eliminated, as too had most of the German weather ships. After this, the Germans started to establish other manned and automatic weather stations in the Arctic. One of these was ‘Knospe’ on the northern part of Spitsbergen. On 25 September the German started to install another station, ‘Banso’, near the Isfjorden. These German activities were soon detected when their Enigma-enciphered signals were detected and decrypted. On 19 October, the minesweepers Britomart, Halcyon, Harrier and Salamander were diverted to investigate, but were spotted by a weather reconnaissance aeroplane, operating from a makeshift airstrip, as they approached Spitsbergen. The site was immediately evacuated by Junkers Ju 52/3m transport aircraft which had been delivering supplies, abandoning everything including codebooks which were recovered by the British landing parties. The Germans returned two days after the minesweepers had departed and continued their work, completing the station and continuing to operate it throughout the winter of 1941/42.

After representations to the Admiralty by the Norwegian government-in-exile, it was decided that Norwegian miners would reoccupy the settlements to prevent further deterioration of their mining facilities. The Norwegians believed that only a small force would be necessary and, in order to respect the terms of the Treaty of Paris signed in 1923 establishing the Svalbard archipelago as a demilitarised area under Norwegian sovereignty, these were described as a group of patriots returning to their homeland in their own vessels.

Aerial reconnaissance on 5 April, by a Consolidated Catalina flying boat of No. 210 Squadron, reported no German activity, but failed to spot the ‘Banso’ weather station encampment only 10 miles (16 km) distant from the proposed landing site.

On 30 April 1942, the Norwegian tug/icebreaker Isbjørn and sealer Selis departed the Clyde river carrying 82 men under the command of Lieutenant Commander Einar Sverdrup, previously an executive of a mining company operating on Spitsbergen. The men were mainly ex-miners from Spitsbergen who had undergone basic military training in the Norwegian Brigade in Scotland, but included some British army and naval officers. The ships refuelled and loaded more stores in Iceland, leaving on 8 May.

On 13 May another reconnaissance flight by a Catalina of No. 210 Squadron in the Isfjorden area, spotted tracks, radio masts and a Heinkel He 111 aeroplane by some huts of the ‘Banso’ station. The Catalina opened fire on the German aeroplane but caused no serious damage, so the latter was able to take off and return to Norway. A message warning the Norwegian ships of possible air attacks was sent, but it is doubtful if the message was received.

Isbjørn and Selis reached the entrance of the Isfjorden at 20.00 on 13 May, but found the way to their intended landing jetty blocked by ice. Against the advice of the British military officers, who wished to start unloading immediately by relays of sleds, Sverdrup ordered Isbjørn to break open a passage to the jetty, as it would be easier to unload there. At 05.00 on the following day, a Junkers Ju 88 was seen flying at low altitude along the Isfjorden, and the fears thus raised among the men of the landing party were confirmed at 20.30 when four Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor long-range reconnaissance bombers suddenly appeared over the confined fjord. The German warplanes made several bombing runs over the ships, sinking Isbjørn and starting a fire on Selis, which eventually sank. Thirteen men were killed, these including Sverdrup and a British officer, Lieutenant Colonel D. Godfrey. Nearly all the equipment, arms, ammunition, food, clothing, radio equipment and supplies were lost with the ships. Fortunately for the survivors, the somewhat hurried ‘Gauntlet’ evacuation of the previous year had left shelter, accommodation, food, fuel and clothing, and the survivors were therefore able to survive in relative comfort. After this, the Germans flew a daily reconnaissance mission over the area.

Nothing of what had happened to the expedition could be reported as all the radio equipment had been lost, so it was not until Enigma signals from the ‘Banso’ weather station were intercepted and decrypted that the loss of the two ships was discovered. Aerial reconnaissance was ordered, and on 25 May, No. 210 Squadron sent a Catalina to look for survivors, and this managed to make contact with the shore party by signal lamp, learning of the wounded. The same Catalina returned on 28 May at 04.30 packed with emergency supplies and comforts. As they were unable to land as the fjord was littered with floating drift ice, everything was dropped with long orange streamers attached for easy location in the snow. A further supply flight on 1 June had to be abandoned because of snow storms, but this mission was reflown on 6 June, the flying boat loaded mainly with weapons and ammunition. This time the fjord was sufficiently free of ice to allow an alighting, whereupon the cargo was unloaded and six wounded survivors taken on board. Another supply flight took place on 15 June, delivering Lieutenant Commander A. Glen and two Norwegians.

When British naval intelligence received Glen’s report on ‘Fritham’, it was decided that the operation’s objectives could now be achieved by a reinforcement of the Norwegians in an operation to be designated ‘Gearbox’. For this operation, the land forces would again be Norwegian, but the transport and supply were to be organised and implemented on naval lines by the British. The light cruiser Manchester and destroyer Eclipse, under the command of Rear Admiral S. S. Bonham-Carter, were assigned for this, and their movements were to be disguised by the two warships’ departure with Rear Admiral L. H. K. Hamilton’s 1st Cruiser Squadron, which was providing the cruiser covering force for the PQ.17 outbound and QP.13 inbound convoys. The light cruiser and destroyer were to sail with the covering force from the Seyðisfjörður in eastern Iceland as far as Jan Mayen island then head to the north-west in order to approach Spitsbergen from the west.

A Catalina of No. 210 Squadron was again detailed to provide reconnaissance photographs of the area in and around the Isfjorden and report on the state of the sea ice in the fjord, and also to reconnoitre and find a location for the safe refuelling of the escorts of later PQ convoys. The flying boat was also to report on the position of the Arctic ice sheet to the north of Bjørnøya for PQ.17, and to deliver Glen and another British officer, Major A. Croft, to Spitsbergen.

Taking off from Akureyri in Iceland on 26 June, the Catalina completed all of its tasks, even destroying a Ju 88 on the ground on the way, before returned at 23.30 on the following day after more than 24 hours in the air. Bonham-Carter received the report and photographs only a few hours before he departed the Seydisfjördur with the ships of the 1st Cruiser Squadron.

The 110 troops (including 60 Norwegians), 116 tons of stores and some light anti-aircraft guns had been embarked in the light cruiser Manchester in the Clyde on 25 June, and after reaching Scapa Flow on the next day the cruiser sailed with the destroyer Eclipse to reach the Seyðisfjörður during the afternoon of 27 June. The two British warships departed the Seyðisfjörður on 30 June, and after an uneventful passage reached Barentsburg soon after 12.30 on 2 July. The men and supplies had then to be unloaded in small boats as the approaches to the jetty were silted: this demanded 120 trips in six hours during the afternoon, and the two ships then sailed without delay to join the main strength of Admiral Sir John Tovey’s Home Fleet to the north-west of Bjørnøya one day later and provide distant cover for the ill-fated PQ.17 convoy.

After the completion of ‘Gearbox’, there were several resupply operations which. When these resupply efforts were combined with another operation, such as a convoy support operation, the ‘Gearbox’ name was generally combined with that of the support operation, but sometimes they given a number such as ‘Gearbox II’ to distinguish their actions from the initial ‘Gearbox’ operation.

On 7 September 1942, the heavy cruiser Cumberland and light cruiser Sheffield, together with the destroyer Eclipse, arrived from Scapa Flow in the Clyde river, where the cruisers embarked the personnel, dogs and stores for delivery to Spitsbergen. The ships departed the Clyde river on the following day and reached the Hvalfjörður in Iceland two days later. Four days later the ships departed, once more, in the first instance as part of the ‘EV’ covering force. On 17 September Cumberland and Eclipse left ‘EV’ and headed for Barentsburg on Spitsbergen, where they arrived during the afternoon, the cruiser immediately disembarking her loads as the destroyer undertook an anti-submarine patrol. On the same day Sheffield left ‘EV’ and headed for Spitsbergen. As soon as she had completed unloading on 18 September,Cumberland departed to rejoin ‘EV’, and on the same day Sheffield reached Barentsburg and started to unload as Eclipse continued her anti-submarine patrol. The two ships later left Spitsbergen and rejoined ‘EV’ on 19 September.

On 19 October 1942, in the ‘EZ’ operation to recover RAF personnel and survivors of the PQ.18 convoy, another resupply run was made by the light anti-aircraft cruiser Argonaut and the destroyers Inglefield and Obdurate.

On 25 November 1942 there was a resupply run by the heavy cruisers London and Suffolk, and the destroyers Obdurate, Obedient and Orwell.

In ‘Gearbox III’, which was part of the ‘FH’ undertaking to escort the corvettes Camellia and Bluebell from the northern USSR, another relief of Spitsbergen was undertaken by the heavy cruiser Cumberland and light cruiser Bermuda, supported by the destroyers Eclipse and Canadian Athabaskan. The force reached the Clyde river to load on 28/29 May and then staged through Akureyri in Iceland to reach Spitsbergen on 10 June, and the two cruisers completed the delivery as the two destroyers undertook an anti-submarine sweep. The ships left Spitsbergen on 11 June and reached Scape Flow three days later.

On 18 October 1943, as part of ‘FQ’, the US heavy cruiser Tuscaloosa landed supplies and Norwegian reinforcements in an undertaking escorted by the destroyers Onslaught, Oribi, Orwell and US Fitch.

On 16 June 1944 another resupply effort saw deliveries by the light cruiser Jamaica and destroyer Whelp.

The last resupply mission in World War II took place on 15 September 1944, and involved the light cruiser Jamaica and the destroyers Obedient and Orwell.

It is worth noting that after the capture of their weather ships and the destruction of their land-based weather stations in 1941, the Germans started to replace them with new land-based stations, both manned and automatic. As usual within the fragmented and individual efforts of the German armed forces, the Kriegsmarine, the Luftwaffe and even the Abwehr had their own stations. These were situated all over the Arctic, with six on Spitsbergen island and others on other islands in the Svalbard archipelago. Those on Spitsbergen were periodically captured by the Norwegians and later replaced by others, so they were not all active at the same time. The stations became known by the name assigned to the operation to install them, and were ‘Knospe’ of 1941/42, ‘Banso’ of 1941/42, ‘Nussbaum’ of 1942/43, ‘Kreuzritter’ of 1943/44, ‘Haudegen’ of 1944/45 and ‘Landvik’ of 1944/45.

After the initial ‘Gearbox’, the Norwegians attacked the current German weather stations on Spitsbergen and forced their abandonment. The Germans almost certainly came to the conclusion that coal mining had resumed, so the German naval high command decided to attack and destroy the Allied facilities in ‘Sizilien’ (otherwise ‘Zitronella’). A naval task force was assembled with the battleship Tirpitz, battle-cruiser Scharnhorst and destroyers Z 27, Z 29, Z 30, Z 31, Z 33, Erich Steinbrinck, Karl Galster, Theodor Riedel and Hans Lody). These warships departed the Altafjord on 6 September 1943 and reached Spitsbergen two days later. As the Germans ships arrived in the Isfjorden, the garrison managed to send off a sighting report of three German cruisers and seven destroyers. Tirpitz and three of the destroyers made for the Grønnfjord and bombarded Barentsburg before landing about 200 men who destroyed what they could: this was the only occasion on which Tirpitz fired her main armament in anger. Meanwhile, Scharnhorst and three destroyers made for the Adventfjord and attacked Longyearbyen. The Germans destroyed the buildings and equipment, and fired the coal stocks, in both settlements before they withdrew, returning to the Altafjord at 14.00 on 9 September.

The surviving Norwegians withdrew inland, but had lost six men killed and 20 captured. An unknown number of Germans were killed, some being hit by the bombardment from their own ships.

Because no further signals were received from Spitsbergen, a reconnaissance flight was ordered which reported the settlements destroyed, burning and no sign of life, whereupon ‘Locomotive’ (ii) was launched. The submarine Seadog was despatched with doctors, medical supplies and five Norwegian officers, and in the following month ‘FQ’ provided the main relief, a new radio station and relief personnel; the wounded and some survivors were taken off and returned to the UK.

It is also worth noting that in the first days of September 1943, the Admiralty discovered from Enigma decrypts that an unusually high number of German weather reconnaissance flights were being flown in the Arctic. Other decrypts suggested an excursion by the heavy cruiser Lützow (ex-pocket battleship Deutschland) into the Kara Sea, where a number of U-boats were also heading. Regular reconnaissance flights were then flown over the Altafjord, and on 7 September such a reconnaissance reported the absence of Tirpitz and Scharnhorst from this northern base. The Admiralty did not receive this information until the following day, however, sop it was 8 September when the Home Fleet, centred on the battleships Duke of York and Anson, put to sea. Unknown to them, it was altogether too late as the German force had already arrived at Spitsbergen. When it became clear that there was no chance of intercepting the German ships, the Home Fleet returned on 9 September.

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light cruisers Aurora and Nigeria, and destroyers Antelope, Anthony and Icarus