The Arctic during World War II: Three polar stations bring victory closer
By Marina Menshikova

The Soviet people waged a fierce battle against the Nazi invaders in the air, on land and at sea. Ordinary Soviet citizens working as meteorologists at polar stations performed daily feats of labor all four years of the Great Patriotic War

We talked to historian Yevgeny Yermolov, head of the Cultural and Historical Heritage Department at Russian Arctic National Park, and learned about the heroic feats of three polar stations, now located in the park, and their role during the Great Patriotic War.

Cape Zhelaniya on Novaya Zemlya
Soviet polar explorers repel Nazi naval attack

In 1941, Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union, and senior commanders of the Soviet Navy's Northern Fleet realized that it was important to safeguard the Northern Sea Route from enemy forces. Fortifications were built posthaste on Kanin Nos, Yugorsky Shar, Cape Zhelaniya and in other areas.

Throughout 1941, a Soviet meteorological station operated on Cape Zhelaniya, with an entire town for its specialists. In early spring, hydrologist Tatyana Pinchukova, 33, died after giving birth to a girl. The crew of the icebreaker Georgy Sedov later took the baby girl to the mainland. After the war began, the Sedov delivered equipment for the station, as well as a 45-mm cannon with ammunition. An experienced gunner also arrived, helped install the cannon, trained the station crew, and conducted target shooting practice. As the Soviet Union went to war with Germany, civilian scientists also started defending the Motherland.

Part of Cape Zhelaniya's defensive fortifications have survived to this day. They consist of large artillery ramparts. A cannon was placed in the rampart's central section and surrounded by ammunition stores. Camouflaged earth and timber fortifications, covered with stones, also remain intact

Cape Zhelaniya was a convenient location for observing enemy movements. Its 40-meter-high precipice served as a natural fortress and made it possible to watch incoming ships and to shoot at the enemy from earth and timber bunkers.

According to archive records, the station's crew sent a radio message on August 25, 1942, reporting a German U-boat attack that shelled the facility. "We are firing all our available weapons," the message read.

The only photo of polar explorers at the Tikhaya Bay station was taken in early January 1942
The only photo of polar explorers at the Tikhaya Bay station was taken in early January 1942 ©Courtesy of the Russian Arctic National Park archive

"It appears that the Germans felt like they could get away with it," Yermolov commented. "They believed that ordinary polar explorers alone were holed up inside their huts and could do nothing to repel an attack. The Germans expected them to fire a rifle, at best; but they were in for a rude surprise when the Soviets started firing naval guns from a considerable distance," he added.

The Germans found the going hard because they did not expect civilian meteorologists to strike back. Nevertheless, they managed to hit several station buildings, and a raging fire broke out. The pilots' house, a food warehouse and the meteorological base were destroyed. A building housing the radio transceiver and its equipment also went up in smoke. The main and reserve meteorological equipment, the library, archive records and observation data were also destroyed. But the polar explorers eventually managed to repel the heavily damaged U-boat, which took several direct hits and sailed away into the open sea.

The crew of the Blagopoluchiya Bay station had to be evacuated after suffering another U-boat attack, and this station never resumed work after the war. The Cape Zhelaniya polar station underwent repairs and continued to operate until 1996

None of its crew was killed, and the grave of Tatyana Pinchukova also remains intact. It is located inside a crevice, part of a steep slope, and faces the polar station. The headstone, an irregular triangle, bears the following inscription: "Hydrologist Tatyana Pinchukova, 1908–1941." According to archive records, she and her husband worked at the polar station and also spent the winter here. Her daughter, who was born in March 1941, survived and visited her mother's grave on Cape Zhelaniya in the 1980s.

The grave of a hydrologist who died in childbirth at the Cape Zhelaniya polar station in March 1941
The grave of a hydrologist who died in childbirth at the Cape Zhelaniya polar station in March 1941 ©Courtesy of the Russian Arctic National Park archive
Alexandra Land in the Franz Josef Land archipelago
Top-secret German operation runs aground in the Arctic

Most countries stopped exchanging meteorological data after World War II began in 1939. Earlier that year, Britain, Germany and the Soviet Union transmitted weather reports to Canada and other countries. The situation changed after September 1, 1939. Data concerning approaching cyclones, low-pressure and high-pressure systems, and wind and current speeds became a closely guarded state secret, since weather conditions can facilitate or hamper combat operations involving aircraft, warships and ground forces.

Unlike the USSR, Germany, a relatively small country, was unable to directly access Arctic islands and could not collect weather data in the region. Therefore it faced major problems. The Nazis hastily deployed a chain of polar stations on the Spitsbergen (Svalbard) Archipelago and also used weather reconnaissance aircraft. These planes operated in the Arctic behind enemy lines and dropped automatic probes into the sea for collecting essential data. These advanced technologies had a major drawback linked with difficult polar-night missions. In August 1943, a fishing trawler, escorted by a U-boat, entered Soviet territorial water and approached the Franz Josef Land archipelago. It was carrying 10 meteorologists to the uninhabited Alexandra Land, the archipelago's westernmost island where there were no Soviet military units.

The Soviet polar station, Tikhaya Bay, operated on Hooker Island only 150 kilometers from Alexandra Land, and no one knew about the German incursion in the west sector

Aerial photos of the Cape Zhelaniya polar station
Aerial photos of the Cape Zhelaniya polar station ©Courtesy of the Russian Arctic National Park archive

Eight scientists who had completed an Arctic survival course in the Alps and two officers sailed aboard rafts toward Severnaya Bay and landed there. The Germans used photos taken by the crews of the airship Graf Zeppelin in the 1930s. They chose the location of their secret meteorological station well in advance and hoped that no one would find this lonely hut at land's end.

Called the Treasure Hunter, the well-camouflaged German polar station was located in a low-lying section of Severnaya Bay and on the coast of the Barents Sea. It was impossible to see it from the island and the sea

Today, the Omega stationary all-season field base of Russian Arctic National Park is located just four kilometers from the former station. In 1943, the Germans had everything they needed to study the Arctic climate, including modern equipment, warm clothing, weapons and ammunition for repelling possible enemy attacks. They also had enough food rations to last them two years. The station's crew was supposed to conduct meteorological observations, for the most part. The pedantic Germans did this with the utmost precision, virtually every hour on the hour. Apart from their main duties, they had hobbies of their own. Today, the national park's museum contains evidence of their life on Franz Josef Land, including a book with short stories, sheet music with folk drinking-songs, such as "O du lieber Augustin" (Oh, you dear Augustin), clothing and other items highlighting their affluence and relative comfort. The Germans ate Portuguese sardines and canned beef made from young German calves and drank beer and wine. Archive photos show them skiing downhill from a local glacier. But hunting ringed seals and other seals and polar bears was their favorite pastime. One of the bears proved to be their undoing and ruined the entire secret German operation in the Arctic.

The Germans, known for their precision, worked hard in the Arctic
The Germans, known for their precision, worked hard in the Arctic ©Courtesy of the Russian Arctic National Park archive

In June 1944, an officer named Marcus in charge of the meteorological station radioed to Berlin that all 10 Alexandra Land residents had been suffering from certain symptoms for a long time. Instead of abating, these symptoms were growing worse with every passing day. According to Marcus, one team member was nearly comatose, and all the others were hardly feeling better.

The meteorologists had fevers of 40–41 degrees Celsius that persisted for over a week, which affected their central nervous system

Everyone also suffered from severe headaches, meningitis symptoms and increasingly acute muscle pains. Their faces, shoulders and legs became swollen. Additionally, their buttocks, abdominal and neck muscles, arms, necks and eyes also felt extremely sore. They also experienced skin problems similar to nettle rash, diarrhea and vomiting spells. Their bodies became dehydrated as a result. All these symptoms pointed to an acute form of trichinosis, a worm infection that can be contracted by humans and animals. In humans, this disease often leads to death. German specialists compared the facts and comprehended the gravity of the situation, deciding to send a doctor to the station. So, Dr. Went and a pilot named Stanke set off by plane to Franz Josef Land. But what could have happened to the Wehrmacht's service personnel in the Arctic?

German meteorologists at Treasure Hunter station
German meteorologists at Treasure Hunter station ©Courtesy of the Russian Arctic National Park archive

Modern biologists studying polar bear populations at Russian Arctic National Park estimate that 90 percent of these animals are infected with parasites. Although the status of this disease in the mid-20th century remains unclear, the personnel of all polar stations ate polar bear meat. Moreover, meteorologists working at the Tikhaya Bay station had an unwritten set of four rules, such as eating the meat of polar bears and drinking their blood every day. This was how they tried to prevent scurvy. But experienced Soviet explorers knew of the dangers of eating uncooked polar bear meat. It is necessary to cook such meat for at least three hours, so as to destroy all parasites and their maggots that cause trichinosis inside human bodies. Soviet polar explorers also knew that eating a polar bear's liver spelled certain death because it contains an excessive amount of vitamin A.

Did the Germans know these rules? They probably did because they had eaten quite a few polar bears. Quite possibly, someone stopped cooking the bear meat too soon. It is unlikely that we will ever know the truth.

But the fact is that the entire team of meteorologists fell sick after partaking of this meat in mid-1944, and they were all feeling miserable and waiting for help to arrive from Germany

According to plan, the German doctor was supposed to parachute to the island. But, for some unknown reason, the plane's other pilot named Schnitke decided to land. The landing was a fiasco: the plane got stuck in the sand and clay, and its landing gear was damaged. Now three more Germans joined their 10 sick comrades on the island.

The Germans recalled their native Alps while skiing downhill
The Germans recalled their native Alps while skiing downhill ©Courtesy of the Russian Arctic National Park archive

It may be strange, but this story had a happy ending. A flying boat arrived from Spitsbergen (Svalbard) and dropped a landing-gear component needed to repair the plane that had stuck fast. First, the Germans had to take it out and clean it. Just imagine: The sick meteorologists suffering from polar bear meat poisoning and critically high fevers walked toward the plane and built a ramp using driftwood. It took them 12 hours to extricate the plane. The pilot and the radio operator fixed the landing gear, and all 13 men then boarded the plane and quickly left the island, abandoning all their personal effects and equipment. By the way, all the sick Germans recovered, and the Third Reich sent another U-boat to the island for the purpose of installing modern automated meteorological equipment there. But the U-boat was unable to navigate the ice floes in the Barents Sea.

The war was already drawing to a close, and the Red Army seized Berlin two months after the final mission got underway. Therefore everyone forgot all about that secret base. Soviet pilots located the base two years later (in 1947), and Soviet meteorologists lived there in the 1950s

Another station was later built on Alexandra Land, and a bulldozer demolished the Treasure Hunter. The German team's belongings were also destroyed and burned. It may be surprising, but scientists continue to unearth various items, including warm felt jackets, meteorological observation instruments, books, wine crates and even empty flour and sugar bags, stamped with the Nazi eagle and swastika, from the secret German polar station that operated for less than one year.

As the Russian saying goes, what is good for a Russian spells death for a German. Our next story proves that it is quite correct.

Tikhaya Bay on Franz Josef Land
Polar bears save station crew from famine

As has already been noted, Tikhaya Bay, the first Soviet polar station that was established in 1929 on Hooker Island in the Franz Josef Land archipelago set out its own code of conduct that had to be observed by all explorers spending the winter season there, regardless of their rank and status. Apart from eating polar bear meat in order to prevent scurvy, there were three other rules:

Rule No.1: Do not go near your bed during the day. Rule No.2: Walk or ski around the station for two hours daily in any weather. Rule No.3: Stay inside your room if you are in a bad mood

Many of them broke the third rule after learning that the Germans had sunk a ship carrying a relief crew and food rations for the next year in Kandalaksha Gulf. Now that they had no choice but to spend another winter season at Tikhaya Bay, the members of the station's team decided to conduct an inventory of the remaining food supplies and fuel, and to see which facilities were best suited for life and work. Soon they found out that they were running out of coal for their stoves. They tried to collect driftwood from nearby islands and also decided to divide scarce food rations among all the explorers. And, finally, they eventually dismantled all the buildings and moved into just one building, both living and working there. This is how they obtained enough firewood to last them through the winter season.

Today, researchers still have to unlock many secrets of Arctic exploration, especially from World War II. Many documents have to be found.

The personnel of the Tikhaya Bay station kept an improvised diary called the Blue Book. However, its wartime entries were destroyed for some reason

Researchers rule out any conspiracy theories; this is probably just a vexing coincidence that prevents us from learning more about those difficult and hungry years at the station. The station's crew expected another ship to arrive in 1942, but their hopes were dashed. Planes arrived at Tikhaya Bay two times, delivering the needed equipment, but no food was dropped. However, none of the polar explorers complained or expressed any discontent. Everyone realized that a war was raging and simply did their duty. In fact, their work was of great importance for the nation. The Tikhaya Bay polar station always served as a research outpost for conducting comprehensive hydrometeorological observations. The explorers, who were hard-pressed for food during those two years, communicated regularly with mainland USSR and reported their findings. Just like data from nearby Soviet polar stations, their observations went into an integral database and played a unique role.

The Quiet Cove (polar station) at the Hooker Island (Franz Josef Land)
The Quiet Cove (polar station) at the Hooker Island (Franz Josef Land) ©RIA Novosti.Abram Shterenberg

Arctic nature helped the station's experts survive. They hunted ringed seals and polar bears for food, not for sport, as their German counterparts who hid 150 kilometers west of Hooker Island did. No bear meat poisoning cases were recorded at Tikhaya Bay.

In 1943, the icebreaker Georgy Sedov tried to moor off Hooker Island but was deterred by dense fast shore ice. The ship's crew tossed canned food and coal dust onto an ice floe. These supplies were less than half of what the team needed. And polar explorers would not see any fresh fruit or vegetables until the end of their stint. They continued to dismantle local buildings for firewood and worked even harder.

The Sedov returned several specialists to the mainland, leaving some replacements behind. The icebreaker also brought meteorologists from Rudolf Island, where the fuel situation was even worse than Tikhaya Bay

It is cold and foggy in the Arctic each May, but there is also plenty of sunshine. The polar day began, a bird colony started bustling with activity on Rubini Rock, and the ice cover melted away, exposing green moss. A short Arctic summer would soon engulf Hooker Island, lasting just seven to 14 days. The sun filled the entire sky, and the land delighted polar explorers with polar poppies and purple rockfoils. On the morning of May 9, 1945, radio operator Sergei Safronov from Arkhangelsk woke up amid a chilly fog, shivering from the cold and experiencing that queasy feeling of hunger inside his stomach. He switched on the radio transceiver and transmitted a routine weather report to the mainland. It was then that he learned that the war was over, and that Nazi Germany had been defeated. How did he respond? Did he run out to wake up his comrades and to tell them that peace was here at last? Or did he simply sit and watch the far-away glaciers and icebergs without wiping the tears of joy from his face? How did polar explorers on Cape Zhelaniya, who had managed to fight off a German U-boat, react to the news of Victory Day? How did their colleagues at other Arctic stations rejoice? We will never know. But we do know that not a single Soviet citizen who worked at the Arctic home front during the war perished during these difficult years, and none of them complained about problems and cramped conditions. On the contrary, all polar explorers performed their duty before the Motherland with honor and bravery.

In June 1945, the icebreaker Josef Stalin dropped anchor at Tikhaya Bay, bringing replacements and taking away members of the war-time shift. This polar station operated until the 1960s, with its specialists passing on their knowledge and experience shift after shift