Operation Wunderland


'Wunderland' (i) was a German naval raid into the Kara Sea by a squadron centred on the heavy cruiser (ex-pocket battleship) Admiral Scheer (16/30 August 1942).

The raid’s object was to exploit the presence of ice-free water provided by the summer thaw to make attacks on Soviet shipping believed to be using the North-East Passage to ferry men, supplies, raw materials for the new factories established on the eastern side of the Ural mountains and, most importantly, US Lend-Lease equipment from ports in Siberia, as well as the Soviet naval vessels which were known to have taken refuge in the Kara Sea because of the protection that its ice pack provided during 10 months of the year.

The author of the basic plan was Generaladmiral Rolf Carls, the Oberbefehlshaber des Marinegruppenkommandos 'Nord', while the detailed planning was undertaken by Admiral Hubert Schmundt, the Admiral 'Nordmeer' responsible for naval warfare in Arctic waters. The planning was greatly aided by the availability of the records of the raider Komet, which had passaged through these waters to reach the Pacific Ocean, in the period before Germany invaded the USSR, with the aid of Soviet icebreakers. As the sea was free of ice for only about three months per year, it was relatively easy to determine the position of Soviet convoys, and on 26 July 1942 the Japanese passed on the information that a convoy of 19 Soviet merchant ships had passed through the Bering Strait at the eastern end of the North-East Passage. By mid-August, the German intelligence service had been able to confirm the departure of a large convoy from Arkhangyel’sk to the east. The bottleneck on the routes for both the east- and west-bound convoys was the Vilkitsky Strait between the Laptev and Kara Sea, which was kept open by the largest Soviet icebreakers during the summer months. It was known that there were no major Soviet warships in the Arctic Ocean.

On 16 August Kapitän Wilhelm Meendsen-Bohlken’s Admiral Scheer left Narvik and entered the Barents Sea. In company were Kapitänleutnant Peter-Ottmar Grau’s U-601 and Korvettenkapitän Heinrich Timm’s U-251, and the destroyers Friedrich Eckoldt, Erich Steinbrinck and Richard Beitzen. On 19 August the German force rounded Cape Zhelaniya and entered the Kara Sea, which is comparatively free of ice during the short summer.

On 20 August one of Admiral Scheer's two Arado Ar 196 reconnaissance floatplanes flew to Kravkova island in the Mona islands group and spotted three groups of Soviet ships, including the icebreakers Lenin and Krasin. Fog and ice floes prevented the German warships from making an immediate approach, however, and by the time they did reach the Mona islands group the Soviet ships had departed. Admiral Scheer then turned to the north-east and headed for the Nordenskiöld islands group.

Despite this initial setback, on 24 August U-601 sank the 2,332-ton Soviet freighter Kuybyshev. On 25 August Admiral Scheer passed to the north of Novaya Zemlya island, and in the process shelled the Soviet meteorological station at Cape Zhelaniya. On the same day Admiral Scheer attacked the Soviet icebreaker Aleksandr Sibiryakov off the north-west coast of Russky island at the northern end of the Nordenskiöld islands group. The Sibiryakov responded with her own gun, but it was a wholly unequal action and the 1,384-ton Soviet icebreaker was sunk; so too were two other icebreakers, Taimyr and Valerian Kuybyshev. But Admiral Scheer failed to find a convoy which was in the area.

Searching for Soviet convoys to destroy, Admiral Scheer now headed back to the Mona islands group and, not finding any ships there, sailed again to the Nordenskiöld islands group, trying to straddle the two convoy routes emerging from the Vilkitsky Strait. No more Soviet ships were found, so Admiral Scheer made off to the south-east in the direction of Dikson in order to attack the Soviet military installations at Novy Dikson. With her powerful guns the heavy cruiser caused heavy damage ashore at Novy Dikson, and also badly damaged the ships Dezhnev and Revolutsioner anchored in the harbour. A landing party was also despatched, but the small Soviet base had received a radioed warning from Aleksandr Sibiryakov early enough to prepare some defences, including some old guns which engaged Admiral Scheer and caused a little damage. Meendsen-Bohlken recalled the landing party and turned Admiral Scheer away for a return to Narvik, which was reached on 30 August.

On 8 September U-251 surfaced close to Uyedineniya island and destroyed a Soviet meteorological station with gunfire.

Among the other German vessels operating in the Barents Sea during this operation, Kapitänleutnant Heinrich Brodda’s U-209 on 17 August sank a transport convoy of the NKVD (Soviet internal security service) comprising the cargo ships Nord and Komsomolets and the light vessels Sh-III and P-IV to the west of the Yugorsky Strait. Apparently there were 328 political prisoners of the NKVD on board the ships, and of these some 305 were killed.

Meanwhile, on 20 August, Kapitänleutnant Max-Martin Teichert’s U-456 tried to sink the Soviet icebreaker Fyedor Litke off Belushya Guba with torpedoes but was unsuccessful.

U-255 and U-209 surfaced to shell Soviet targets in Mys Zhelaniya and Khodovarikha on 25 and 28 August respectively.

'Wunderland' (i) was therefore successful, although only to a limited degree. As a result of adverse weather and the major presence of ice floes, the vessels taking part in the operation could not pass beyond the Vilkitsky Strait, and were therefore limited to the Barents Sea and the Kara Sea. The operation could not, in any event, have been pursued past mid-September as the sea started to freeze into ever-thickening pack ice, especially in the Kara Sea, which freezes much earlier than the Barents Sea as it is not warmed by Atlantic currents.