Despite the island’s remoteness and harsh climate, Greenland during World War II was of considerable significance. Greenland was a Danish colony, and after Denmark itself had been invaded in April 1940, the island was virtually abandoned by that country. The United States, despite its neutrality in 1940, objected to plans put forward by Canada and the United Kingdom to occupy Greenland. Eventually, U.S. forces were themselves based there.
The wartime government of Greenland
After the Nazi occupation of Denmark, the Germans allowed the Danish government to remain in power, albeit under heavy supervision from the invading power. Aksel Svane and Eske Brun, who acted as Greenland’s Governors, decided to implement a law of 1925 which set down how the island was to be administered. Given that Denmark itself was under German occupation, the Governors considered the Monroe Doctrine – under which the United States would not interfere in the affairs of European colonies. They therefore proclaimed that Greenland was to be considered a self-governing territory.
The government thereby installed made a number of attempts to obtain support from Britain, but its efforts proved to be in vain and they turned their attention to the United States instead. On April 9, 1941, Henrik Kauffmann, the Danish ambassador to the U.S., agreed with the American government that its troops would be permitted to be stationed on the island. This move was strenuously opposed by the Fanish government, but went ahead and had the effect of putting Greenland under the protection of the United States.
Life in Greenland during the War
Greenland was able to cope reasonably well with most aspects of wartime life, with proceeds from Ivittut’s cryolite mine making a significant contribution. Supplies were provided by the U.S., which also sent survey boats to the island’s east coast for patrolling purposes. These patrols were hampered by severe weather conditions, but rather than request a higher level of assistance, Brun decided that Greenland should have its own defensive force. The 15-man North-East Greenland Sledge Patrol was tasked with reporting any actual or potential landing of German troops.
The patrol also had a morale-boosting purpose, in that it demonstrated to the occupying Americans that Danish citizens were willing to fight against Nazi Germany. Nevertheless, the Germans did succeed in setting up some covert weather stations along Greenland’s east coast, and these were able to provide Nazi U-boats with information about weather conditions in parts of Europe. There was little actual contact between these Germans and the sledge patrol, but the limited skirmishing that did take place eventually caused the Axis troops to pull out of Greenland.
The End of German Presence in Greenland
During 1943 and 1944, there were reports that German forces were constructing a base on the island. These came to nothing, thanks to action by U.S. forces; similarly, a weather station on the northeast coast was bombed by U.S. Air Force planes based in Iceland. Data from several captured German weather stations was used by the Allies in the run-up to D-Day in June, 1944. The final Germans to be stationed in Greenland were technicians manning the weather station Edelweiss II. This base was captured on October 4, 1944, with all the staff being taken prisoner. Denmark itself was liberated in May 1945.