Operation Schatzgräber

treasure hunter

This was a German armed forces’ undertaking to establish and operate a meteorological station at Nagutskoye toward the north-western end of the Franz Josef Land archipelago to the east of the Svalbard islands in the Arctic Ocean off the USSR’s north coast (8 September 1943/11 July 1944).

Since the beginning of World War II the German navy had been largely responsible for the collection of meteorological data, largely through the use of weather observation vessels, most of them converted trawlers. in 1941 Professor Hans-Robert Knöspel suggested that the steady loss of these weather vessels could be offset by the establishment of meteorological stations in deserted land areas in the far north, and the first such station was established on Spitsbergen as ‘Knospe’ during October 1941. In preparation for the larger-scale deployment of such stations, Knöspel arranged for the establishment of the special Goldhöhe cold-weather training establishment high in the Krkonoše mountains in German-occupied Czechoslovakia to acclimatise meteorological personnel for survival in arctic conditions. Heinz Schmidt was selected as head of the planned weather personnel, but after he had suffered a major skiing accident he was replaced by Walter Drees, who had gained the required skills during the ‘Knospe’ expedition.

Contrary to the current practice, the new team was not named after its leader and, for security reasons, became ‘Schatzgräber’, a name that in fact reflected H. Schatz, who was to lead the ‘Bassgeiger’ team in north-eastern Greenland. Drees’s technical team comprised three meteorologists and a technician, and the whole team, which also included two radio operators and two non-commissioned officers, was led by Leutnant Makus.

Early in September 1943 the weather ship Kehdingen departed Kiel in northern Germany with the ‘Schatzgräber’ team and all its equipment. Voyaging via Tromsø and Narvik in German-occupied Norway, and escorted by Kapitänleutnant Rudolf Büchler’s U-387, the expedition reached Alexandra Land on 22 September. With the assistance of the U-boat’s crew, the expedition’s personnel and equipment were unloaded and the weather station established. The first weather data were transmitted on 17 November, and as the polar night ended the expedition started to add data about the wind speed and direction as various altitudes by launching and observing balloons.

The expedition was resupplied during this period by surface deliveries from U-387 or airdrops from a Focke-Wulf Fw 200 long-range reconnaissance aeroplane. On 30 May 1944 the meteorologist Gerhard Wallik and naval non-commissioned officer Werner Blankenburg, the expedition’s cook, killed a polar bear whose meat was minced and eaten raw. A few days later Blankenburg, who had eaten more of the meat than the others, fell ill, and within a month nine other members of the expedition had also succumbed, and were tended by the paramedic Gerhard Hoffmann, who was a vegetarian and had therefore not eaten any of the polar bear meat. Radio messages exchanged with a naval medical team in Oslo confirmed that the men were suffering from trichinosis, and it was decided that the station would be abandoned and the men collected by an Fw 200.

A Dr Wendt was allocated the naval hospital in Tromsø to supervise the medical aspects of the evacuation, and was to be parachuted to the expedition from an Fw 200 of Oberst Rupprecht Heyn’s Kampfgeschwader 40 that had already been used to airdrop supplies. The plan was adopted early in July in a truncated form in which the doctor was to be delivered but the team members were not, at Drees’s insistence, to be evacuated. The aeroplane departed on 7 July Wendt on board, but was damaged after the pilot, Oberleutnant Stahnke, decided to land on Alexandra Land. On the following day the the rescue team arrived at the weather station and, only after heated argument with Drees, persuaded the team that evacuation was necessary.

The parts required to make the Fw 200 airworthy once more were delivered by a Blohm und Voss Bv 222 long-range flying boat, which lifted off from from Biscarosse on the coast of the Bay of Biscay in the south-west of German-occupied France and arrived off Alexandra Land after staging through Bank in northern Norway. With the Fw 200 repaired, the Germans left the far north and reached Trondheim in Norway on 11 July.