The Role of Greenland in WW2 and The Cold War

Although Greenland has always been one of the more remote places of the world, its position leaves it with a potentially very significant role to play in any world-wide conflict. The Geographical location of Greenland is important for three reasons, the first being that it is part of the land that forms the ‘GIUK Gap’ which is an important naval choke point in the north Atlantic that is between the landmasses of Greenland, Iceland and the UK. Secondly Greenland is the perfect place for weather stations that are necessary for detecting conditions that may affect weather farther south and East. Finally radar stations are needed in Greenland in order to track aircraft due to it being on the shortest route between Europe and the United States.

Obviously the biggest examples that could include this region are World War Two and the Cold War. But before WW2 in 1934, the importance of the region was first discussed by the USA. In this year a mass flight of US bombers from Washington D.C to Alaska was undertaken in order to demonstrate the capabilities of the U.S. Army’s latest long-range bomber, the B-10, but it did something else: It demonstrated the importance of the Arctic to aviation. At this point the USA was most concerned about Japan and the potential for their attacks on Alaska as Anchorage, Alaska is almost exactly equidistant from Tokyo, New York City and London. That’s part of the reason it’s one of the world’s largest air cargo hubs today. Once WW2 was underway however, they soon saw a similar significance to Greenland as If you fly between the eastern United States and eastern Europe or Russia, or between the western United States and western Europe, you will need to pass over Greenland.

In April 1940, Nazi Germany occupied Denmark on its way to an invasion of Norway, and almost a year later, the United States signed the US-Danish Agreement on Greenland, which permitted the United States to establish military bases in Greenland. Despite its remoteness from densely populated areas, Greenland is considered part of North America and thus falls under the Monroe Doctrine, which states efforts by European nations to interfere with North American issues will be opposed by the full ability of the United States. In July 1940, the foreign ministers of the Americas declared that “any attempt on the part of a non-American state against the integrity or inviolability of the territory, the sovereignty, or the political independence of an American state should be considered an act of aggression.” This was aimed at Nazi Germany, which had by then occupied several European countries that had possessions in North America and the Caribbean. Nevertheless, the Germans were undeterred and  in the summer of 1940, German ships, apparently on scientific or commercial missions, landed people on the eastern shore of Greenland. German submarines secretly landed other parties. These were all attempts to establish weather stations on Greenland (similarly attempted in remote areas of Canada as well) in order to help forecast the weather for Germans submarines at sea and for continental Europe. In the autumn of 1940 and again in spring 1941, German long-range aircraft flew over Greenland. This led to the belief that the United States had the authority to act to establish bases in Greenland to provide for its defense. During the course of the war, thousands of American aircraft flew over Greenland on their way to Europe. American soldiers were stationed in the icy territory as a defense mechanism, and American civilians and soldiers manned weather stations to assist the war effort farther east.

Perhaps one of the least well-known campaigns of World War II was the hunt for these German weather stations. The United States began doing this in 1940 and the job fell mostly on the shoulders of the US Coast Guard who patrolled with ships and aircraft, looking for German weather ships, or supply boats attempting to reach weather stations the Germans had set up. They were also assisted at this point by native Greenlander trackers who assisted in spotting. On top of these efforts there was also the ‘Sledge Patrol’ which was a 15 man mixed force of Norwegians, Danes and Greenlanders supported by the US who spent much of the war patrolling the coast and hunting Germans as well. On dog sleds, 2 and 3 man patrols would head out for a few months and attempt to find German weather stations in a game of cat and mouse, with the Germans Generally the mice and having to pack up their station and flee if discovered. The Germans did strike back however, in an attack on the Sledge Patrol’s base camp, killing one member of the team, Eli Knudsen, the only loss they endured.

The last land based weather station of the Germans was knocked out in October of 1944. Spotted by the USS Eastwind during a patrol, a landing party of Coast Guard sailors (Who, as part of this role, underwent special training under the supervision of commandos), made a nighttime landing and caught the Germans by total surprise, and were able to capture most of their documents. No more German land based stations were attempted after that, although offshore trawlers were still utilized.

Even before the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb in 1949, some in the USA were looking ahead for what they saw as the next global conflict: The war between the United States and the Soviet Union. After WW2 the USA offered to purchase Greenland from Denmark for $100,000,000 but was rejected. For several years Denmark was under pressure from its citizens to get rid of the American military bases, while constantly in a back and forth with the USA who would not drop the issue. Events elsewhere in the world in 1948 and 1949 quickly overtook these events. The Berlin Blockade, Soviet pressure on Finland, the coup in Czechoslovakia, and the detonation of the Soviet atomic bomb in 1949 all pushed the Cold War into high gear. It became politically impossible for the Danes to evict the United States from Greenland altogether.

By 1950, the United States was putting nuclear capable bombers into its base at Thule in northwest Greenland. The following year in 1951, Denmark and the United States signed an agreement that overwrote the 1941 deal where Denmark would keep sovereignty over Greenland, but the United States would be allowed permanent military bases. In the years that followed, the American presence spread. From Thule and other air bases, the United States and Canada built radar stations as part of the Distant Early Warning Line designed to detect Soviet bombers. In 1960, the United States activated the world’s first Ballistic Missile Early Warning System radar in Thule. Greenland throughout the Cold War was used as a vital position from which to defend its North and Eastern borders from potential air, missile and submarine attacks.

The 1951 agreement lasted until 2004, when the United States and Denmark signed a new Greenland defense agreement.

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