The Second World War was long over for the Germans, but at the end of the world a troop of the Wehrmacht persisted. The men had a mission important to the war effort.
In early September 1944, a German Navy submarine sped north through the Arctic Ocean. Its mission is top secret: it transports a team of marines to Nordostland, an island in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago. Eleven men belong to the troop code-named “Haudegen”. After arriving in a bay in the Rijpfjord, the hard work awaits.
The men unload “U-307” and the escort ship “Karl J. Busch” with great haste – because Allied units could attack the Germans at any time. Hundreds of packages are brought ashore while other men build a house on land. Because when the “U-307” and “Karl J. Busch” left after a while, they left almost a dozen on the desert island in the middle of nowhere. “This will be your second home,” said expedition leader Wilhelm Dege, as contemporary witness Siegfried Czapka would recall decades later in the “ARD” documentary “War in the Arctic”.
Mines against enemies
The mission “Haudegen” is of the utmost importance to the Wehrmacht. You don’t have to fight opponents, no, the men have to send weather reports to the south. Because for German warships, aircraft and ground troops it is of the utmost importance to be able to accurately estimate the coming weather conditions.
That is why the Germans have repeatedly installed stations in the far north – on Greenland, Bear Island, Svalbard and even on the Canadian coast. The Allies were well aware of what the uniformed opponents intended and repeatedly dug up such bases. Great caution is therefore required at the company “Haudegen”. After setting up the accommodation – eleven men on about 50 square meters – the Germans set up a mine lock against enemy attacks.
In any case, the real work should only begin long after arriving in northeastern land: in October, when massive ice masses make the bay impassable for ships and the polar night plunges the island into long darkness. Commander Wilhem Dege decides when to do this. He is not a professional soldier, but a civilian teacher and scientist who also has Arctic experience.
Accordingly, the man in his mid-thirties does not lead his men as a commissioner. As the troops in Tromsø, Norway, prepared to continue to the north-east of the country, they got the news of the sinking of the submarine “354”. That should actually have accompanied the mission. Dege then asked his men if they would continue to participate under these circumstances. Nobody refused.
Pressed wood against arctic cold
The troops were selected – Siegfried Czapka from Saxony, for example, had been a radio operator in occupied Paris when he learned that volunteers were needed for a special task in an unknown location. “We also weren’t allowed to tell our parents where we were going,” he later describes what happened for the “MDR” report “Back to the end of the world”. After training to survive and fight in icy conditions, for example in the Giant Mountains, Czapka traded a fairly comfortable life in the capital of France with the wasteland of the Arctic Circle.
Because shortly after the arrival of “Haudegen” the north-east was hit by severe storms, the Germans withdrew to their compressed wooden panel house. The weathermen have to go out even in bad weather. Because data has to be collected eight times a day, and for this purpose a balloon filled with hydrogen is always sent. The German base in the far north then sends the values to the south coded.
In addition, the hostile environment north of the Arctic Circle must provide for daily necessities. The snow piles up meters high, the temperatures drop well below freezing.
Nordostland: The German weather force lived in this small accommodation for a good year. (Source: Leibniz Institute of Regional Geography, Archives of Geography)
The mission is provided with sufficient supplies, not least alcoholic drinks, but firewood is still needed. As well as exercise. In order to stimulate the mind and understanding, Dege gives lessons in the evening, for example in literature, he has provided books. The men can relax in the sauna that they have set up for themselves.
Visit to polar bears
On the other hand, the threat posed by the local wildlife is not very relaxing. Polar bears soon noticed the presence of humans and the ‘battle horses’ soon left the house alone armed. They shot a bear once. And then take care of their young until they run away.
Thus the days of the crew of the weather station “Haudegen” pass. Despite the often monotonous service, the men are concerned because the war is bad. The soldiers are especially concerned about the families at home. Rightly so, in Siegfried Czapak’s native country of Saxony For example, Dresden was badly destroyed in Allied bombing in February 1945.
And dying is not that far from the basic “warrior”. At the end of 1944 she received an emergency call from her comrades from the station “Zugvogel”, another weather mission, simply on a ship in the Greenland Sea. “Migratory Bird” sent this one request for help, then silence fell on the airwaves. Never again was heard from the ship or crew.
Months later there was another downfall. Admittedly in a different way. On May 8, 1945, the Wehrmacht surrendered and the war for the Germans was over. Except for the small troop in the northeast of the country, which flooded the event with Steinhäger. “What will become of us?” Was the single most important question the men asked themselves, as Czapka reported in “War in the Arctic”. “We couldn’t leave alone.”
Forgotten at the end of the world
There is still some radio contact with Tromsø, then silence. The men’s concern for their relatives grows and grows, Dege opposes this. The island is explored on expeditions and democracy is talked about after the end of National Socialism. And of course “Haudegen” continues to forward the weather data it has collected. But now without coding.
Longing looks are cast to the sea – and disappointed time and time again. Has the “warrior” finally been forgotten? Then, on September 3, 1945, comes redemption. A Norwegian seal catcher runs into the fjord, Wilhelm Dege sets out to greet the captain. To everyone’s surprise, the German and the Norwegian hug each other. Both had met in the past.
“We then spent the last hours together with the Norwegians,” explains the then weather radio operator Heinz Schneider in “War in the Arctic”. Then there is a party, the Germans do not want to mess with their well-stocked provisions. It continues until the first hours of the next day. Then something important happens to the Norwegian captain: the Germans have yet to capitulate! This is what the victorious allied powers want it to be.
But how? Wilhem Dege puts down his pistol without question, and that’s the end. The last unit of the Wehrmacht in World War II thus laid down its weapons. Later that day the seal hunter “Blassel” leaves with the Germans. What remains are the remains of the weather station “Haudegen”. What wind and weather did not destroy is still there.