Operation Zitronella

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This was a German naval raid and landing on Spitsbergen island to the north of German-occupied Norway (6/9 September 1943).

Early on 25 August 1941 there had appeared off the western coast of Spitsbergen a group of British warships (light cruisers Aurora and Nigeria, and destroyers Antelope, Anthony, Eclipse, Icarus and Tartar) of Rear Admiral P. L. Vian’s Force 'K' together with the liner Empress of Canada (in service since the early days of the war as a troopship) and oiler Oligarch.

This force had departed Scapa Flow in the Orkney islands group on 19 August for 'Gauntlet' and now, contrary to their expectations, the British found the island devoid of any German occupation forces, and the British then informed the local population of 2,000 Soviet coal mine workers that they would be evacuated within nine hours. During this time military engineers completely wrecked Spitsbergen’s economic infrastructure by the destruction of all mining equipment and other machinery, setting fire to the great coal dumps awaiting export, tearing up the tracks of the light railway used to move coal from the mines to the decks, blowing up the power station and cutting down all telephone poles.

As part of this ‘Gauntlet’, moreover, British, Canadian and Free Norwegian troops then maintained an occupation of Spitsbergen to deny the Germans use of the islands and their rich coal deposits, and to set up weather stations.

After this the Germans decided to build and operate their own meteorological stations in the Arctic, and as early as 25 September 1941 the Luftwaffe flew a party of 10 meteorologists to establish a weather station near Longyearbyen. The party was supplied by air, and recovered during June 1942 by air.

The Germans responded to the Allied occupation of Spitsbergen only in the autumn of 1943. Otherwise known as ‘Eisfjord’ and ‘Sizilien’, the ‘Zitronella’ raid was undertaken, under Vizeadmiral Oskar Kummetz, commanding the Kampfgruppe ‘Nordmeer’, by 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 of Kapitän Rolf Johannesson’s 4th Zerstörer-Flottille, Kapitän Max-Eckart Wolff’s 5th Zerstörer-Flottille and Kapitän Friedrich Kothe’s 6th Zerstörer-Flottille.

This force steamed out of the Altafjord in northern Norway on 6 September to attack Allied bases on Spitsbergen. The destroyers carried one battalion of the 349th Grenadierregiment as a landing force.

At 03.00 on 8 September Kummetz detached Scharnhorst and the 5th and 6th Zerstörer-Flottillen, which then landed their troops in the Gronfjord and Advent Bay for a two-day land operation. Meanwhile, Tirpitz proceeded with the 4th Zerstörer-Flottille to undertake a gunfire bombardment of Barentsburg. Coastal batteries were destroyed and coal and supply dumps, as well as water and electricity facilities, were blown up.

The German ships then returned to the Altafjord by 9 September. Out of a strength of two capital ships and nine destroyers, as well as 600 infantry, the Germans had suffered minor damage to three destroyers, and their casualties were nine men killed and 49 wounded; from a strength of 152 soldiers, the Norwegians had lost 11 men killed and 74 taken prisoner.

Under cover of ‘Zitronella’, the Luftwaffe installed a weather station on Hope island, and this survived and reported during the following winter before improving weather conditions allowed an Allied reaction.

It is worth noting that the British had received a radio report from Spitsbergen about ‘Zitronella’ on 8 September, the report saying that the Allied garrison was under attack by three cruisers and seven destroyers in the area of the Isfjorden. In the absence of any further communication, the British assumed that the Germans had made a seaborne landing and destroyed the garrison, after which the naval force would return as quickly as possible to the Altafjord.

Photo-reconnaissance of the Altafjord on 7 September had revealed only the heavy cruiser (ex-pocke battleship) Lützow and two destroyers, suggesting that the battleship Tirpitz and battle-cruiser Scharnhorst were the core of the reported attacking force. In response Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser, commanding the Home Fleet, ordered the despatch of a major force (battleships Duke of York and Anson, US light fleet carrier Ranger, heavy cruisers London and US Augusta and Tuscaloosa, and destroyers Mahratta, Onslow, Orkan, Rocket, Canadian Huron and Iroquois, and US Bell, Corry, Forrest, Hobson and Isherwood) from Scapa Flow during the afternoon of 8 September, and the cruiser Belfast and destroyer Impulsive to depart the Hvalfjörður in south-western Iceland at the same time to effect a rendezvous to the north-east of the island before proceeding to an attempted interception of the German force.

On 10 September, however, further photo-reconnaissance revealed that all the German ships had returned to the Altafjord, and the Home Fleet’s ships were ordered back to base. Subsequent reconnaissance of the Isfjorden showed that the settlements at Barentsburg, Longyearbyen, and Sassenfjord had been completely destroyed.

At the end of the month the submarine Seadog delivered a small relief expedition of five Norwegian officers and medical stores to Spitsbergen, and also managed to establish contact with the garrison’s survivors, who reported that five Norwegians had been killed and 20 taken prisoner, leaving about 60 escaped into the country. Replacement radio equipment, supplies and personnel were ferried to Spitsbergen towards the end of the month, and an Allied base was thus re-established.