Did you know that knowledge of the weather was a secret during WWII?
It’s hard to imagine your day without a weather check. Every radio and television station, your computer, phone, ipod and newspaper, provide the most detailed weather forecast. They offer meteorological information on almost every location on the planet.
This was not always the case. Just 70 years ago knowledge of the weather constituted a very special and secret aspect of the Second World War. Added to the secrecy was the fact that there were not many meteorologists and equipment was primitive by modern standards.
The great struggle between the Allies and Nazi Germany was fought between armed forces and scientists and technologists. The field of meteorology was one such scientific area. In fact, that you can decide what to wear on any given day is due to the ‘battle of the meteorologists’ of WWII.
Weather patterns move from west to east it was vital that the Allies knew what patterns would be moving across the North Atlantic – route of the great convoys and the hunting ground of the German U-boat wolf packs. What was good for one was not good for the other. Knowledge of weather patterns could, therefore, play a critical role in determining the route of a convoy.
Allies and Germans established weather ships and stations in secret locations across the Atlantic. They became strategic targets by both sides.
The dominant weather patterns of the North Atlantic moved from the North American continent and so it was important that the German Kriegsmarine gain some information, right on site! If you consider the Atlantic coast of Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador, it is vast, indented with rias and fiords and is sparsely inhabited. This was ideal for a secret U-boat operation. Now read on!
A German Weather Station in Labrador
The U-537 made the only armed German landing on North American soil in WWII.
U-537 left Kiel, Germany on September 18, 1943. She made a brief stop in Bergen, Norway and headed out to sea again on 30 Sept. The boat went on patrol in the western North Atlantic under Kptlt. Peter Schrewe. Its task was to set up an automatic weather station on the coast of Labrador. U-537 carried a scientist, Dr. Kurt Sommermeyer, and Wetter-Funkgerät (WFL) number 26 (the sixth in a series of 21 such stations) manufactured by Siemens. It consisted of various measuring instruments, a 150-watt Lorenz 150 FK-type transmitter and ten canisters with nickel-cadmium and dry-cell high-voltage batteries.
On October 22 U-537 arrived at Martin Bay at the northern tip of Labrador. For the next 48 hours U-537 lay at anchor while the crew manhandled the 220-pound canisters, along with a tripod and mast, into rubber boats and then onshore. The weather station was set up 400 yards inland on a 170 feet high hill. At 5:40 P.M. on October 23, having ensured that the station was functioning properly, Schrewe weighed anchor and set off for an anti-shipping patrol off Newfoundland. His patrol was uneventful and on December 8 U-537 returned to Lorient, France.
Reports indicate that the weather station sent out normal transmissions for a few days, but then there was apparent jamming on that frequency (about which nothing is known; no evidence has yet turned up that the Allies learned about the equipment).
U-537 was transferred to the Far East and sunk with all hands on board in late 1944 - only Dr. Sommermeyer and crew member, who had left the boat prior to the its transfer to the Far East, survived the war.
Another Station Planned
In July 1944, the U-867 reportedly set out from Norway to erect a second weather station in Labrador but was sunk en route by RAF planes.
The station was a secret known only by a handful German seamen and scientists. The story became known in the late 1970s, when an engineer named Franz Selinger after his retirement from Siemens decided to write a history of the German weather service. Among Dr. Sommermeyer's papers he found photographs of one weather station and a U-boat that did not fit in with the eastern Arctic installations he had previously been able to identify (Greenland and Svalbard). He identified the Labrador coast, but neither Canadian nor American authorities could provide evidence. Via Jürgen Rohwer and the son of Dr. Sommermeyer he then identified the U-537 and located the logbook at the archives in Freiburg.
In 1980 he wrote to the official historian of the Canadian armed forces, the Canadian Coast Guards were able to go and look and actually found the remains of the weather station. Some parts were missing, but the canisters, tripod and mast, and some dry-cell batteries were left to identify.
The North Atlantic weather war occurred during World War II. The allies (Britain in particular) and Germany vied for access to reliable weather data in the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans and sought to deny the other weather information.
Meteorological data was important as it affected military planning and the routing of ships and convoys. In various circumstances, good visibility was necessary (photographic reconnaissance and bombing raids) and in others it wasn't (keeping ship movements secret or suppressing enemy air activity). D-day planning was greatly affected by weather forecasting; it was delayed by one day in the expectation that a storm would blow out and sea conditions would be acceptable.
British sources of data included ships at sea and the weather station at Valentia Observatory and Blacksod Point, in neutral Ireland. There were also attempts to set up land based weather stations in contested locations such as Spitsbergen. The Germans were obliged, by their continental location, to rely largely on long-range aircraft and weather ships, which were vulnerable to attack, and clandestine teams in exposed locations. The Allies had a distinct advantage in the contest, holding all of the major land areas (Newfoundland, Greenland, Iceland) of the North Atlantic. As weather patterns at that latitude generally travel west to east, the Allies could follow the progress of a front as it traveled across the Atlantic. The Germans, with their small number of (impermanent) observation stations, had to rely on a certain amount of luck to detect a weather front before it reached Europe.
German use of weather ships also exposed their secret Enigma codes. The Munchen and Lauenberg were boarded by the Royal Navy, who managed to gather valuable information in each case. The Wuppertal became trapped in ice and was lost without trace of ship or crew.
In August 1941, in the preparation for Operation Gauntlet, the Royal Navy destroyed the weather station on Bear Island and, later, the one on Spitsbergen (after it had transmitted false information to discourage air observation). Spitsbergen was an important location, however, as it enabled the Germans to monitor weather conditions on the convoy route to northern Russia. The Germans made several attempts to establish and maintain weather reports from the Svalbard archipelago including Spitsbergen and Hopen (Hope Island) and these were never successfully suppressed.
Other locations used were on Jan Mayen Island and Eastern Greenland with teams and automated stations.
For sample assignments, see the Science page.