Friday, January 21, 2011

-- Donna Andrew,
Marine Liasion Officer,
Transport Canada.

Kapitan-Leutnant Peter Schrewe was only 23 years of age when ordered by the German navy to take command of his first U-boat. Mission: to establish, in the autumn of 1943, an unmanned automatic weather station in the northern Labrador Territory of Newfoundland. Purpose; to improve western Atlantic weather analysis for the German navy and air force (Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe).

Kapitan-Leutnant Peter Schrewe

I was personally involved in helping solve this little-known mystery, when I embarked in Canada's largest icebreaker, the Louis S. St. Laurent, a Canadian Coast Guard expedition steamed through the frigid waters along the Labrador coast. Off its northernmost point, at Cape Chidley, the expedition found signs of one of the few Nazi operations on North American soil during the Second World War.
The tip-off about the covert operation came from retired German engineer, Franz Selinger. Selinger, who joined J. Y. Clarke, Canadian Coast Guard's fleet director, and Dr. Alec Douglas, official historian for the Department of National Defence, on board the St. Laurent in Dartmouth, N.S., on 12 July 1981.
Herr Selinger brought with him powerful evidence, not then wholly conclusive, that the Germans had landed on what was then the British Crown colony of Labrador, which became the Canadian province of Newfoundland-Labrador in 1949. It was obvious that if Selinger's evidence could be verified, we had a national news story on our hands. So I signed up for the trip.
For Douglas, the story began two years previously, when he received a letter from the Austrian-born Selinger, who is preparing a book on Arctic weather reconnaissance. Selinger wrote to Douglas at the suggestion of Prof. Dr. Rowher, of Germany's Stuttgart library for contemporary history. Rowher and Douglas had met at a maritime conference in Germany some years earlier.
Selinger's 1979 letter asked Douglas for details of two weather installation activities during the war. "There were, as we know," wrote Selinger, "contemporary actions of Germans and Canadian Forces in the same region where weather reconnaissance activities were to be observed." The first was on the German-controlled Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, north of Norway, where a Canadian raiding-force had landed in 1941, destroyed the coal-mines and evacuated the inhabitants to Britain. After the Canadian force left, German troops re-landed and operated a manned weather observation post there between October 1941 and July 1942.
"Later in the war," continued Selinger, "German U-boats landed on the coast of Labrador and established an automatic weather station that was later captured by the forces of your country." In the same letter, Selinger said that he had seen a photograph of such a station and would be "obliged" if Douglas would give him further details of the automatic weather station installed in Labrador.

U-boat crew emplacing Weather Station "Kurt"
on isolated coast of Labrador

Historian Douglas could tell Selinger much about Spitzbergen, but wrote back that he had no knowledge of any Labrador operation. "You get a little weary of unsubstantiated reports 40 years after the fact," explained Douglas. "All kinds of so-called sightings of Germans on Canadian shores during the war had been reported. To the last one, reports have been checked out but none of them has been conclusive: the evidence just never supports the rumor." Douglas suggested to Selinger that the automatic weather station to which he referred was "the one in Greenland, as Canada had certain interests there at the time."
Selinger was not deterred. The paper-chase was on. He wrote Douglas again. "You say there were no landings of German U-boats on the Labrador coast, but I wonder where the enclosed information comes from." In the course of his research, Selinger found and included in his letter to Douglas a photocopied reference to the WFL6 Weather Station Kurt (one of of a series of 21 wetterfunkgerat) established by a U-boat on the Labrador coast. Douglas conducted an exhaustive search. He inspected the files from the Royal Canadian Navy's Flag Officer Newfoundland. Nothing. He checked out resources of the commander in chief Canadian Northwest Atlantic; another dead end. The Eastern Air Command of the Royal Canadian Air Force had no positive authentic evidence. War diaries and military, federal, and archival records -- all were silent on the subject.
"It didn't help my search to discover that all headquarters operational records of naval intelligence had been destroyed in Ottawa five years after the war," said Douglas. "Some overzealous bureaucrat had tossed them -- all of them -- to the shredder."
Selinger, while investigating documents held by the son of a German meteorological scientist, Herr Sommermeyer, had stumbled on a series of photographs of which two in particular showed a German U-boat, and in the background, a different kind of terrain from all the others.
More importantly, there was something peculiar about the U-boat in the two pictures. The U-boat was a type IXC submarine, without the usual 20-mm. quadruple antiaircraft flak gun. [Unknown by Canadians at the time, the AA-guns had been torn off the U-boat by a fierce Atlantic storm during the voyage from Germany.]
These were important clues. First, the photos were definitely not Spitzbergen, Bear Island, or any other eastern Atlantic/Arctic site. Secondly, the type IXC boat suggested a distant operation. Such boats were selected for long-range missions. Thirdly, this boat should be easy to identify. Its armament was distinctive. Selinger thus had fresh evidence. In a search that took him through hundreds of U-boat logs, he found at last the log book of U-537 and the name of its young commander, Peter-Schrewe. There, unmistakably stated in Schrewe's meticulous recording of his 1943 mission was this entry from Kiel:
Sept. 18 1943 Leaving port for first operational cruise
09:00 h Orders are to erect an automatic weather station on Labrador Coast--Canada.
Selinger immediately phoned Douglas in Canada, who called an old friend, Jim Clarke. Captain Clarke, commanding officer of HMCS Athabaskan in the 1960s, knew Douglas as a young naval officer. Both hadd kept in touch over the years. Alec filled me in on the investigative events of the preceding two years. He told me about Franz Selinger, about Peter Schrewe's log book, about the photographs. And above all he told me about Canada's sheer ignorance in face of the facts He also knew that our Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers made routine summer Arctic deployments up the Labrador coast to Lancaster Sound. Would it be possible, he asked, for Selinger to board one of our - icebreakers to chase down this amazing piece of research?"
Clarke became convinced of the incontrovertible evidence held by the German. It was certainly possible for Selinger to take passage in a Coast Guard icebreaker up to Labrador. In addition, said Clarke, it is withinthe mandate of the Coast Guard to assist other government departments on research matters. He would arrange not only for Selinger, but for Douglas and himself, to take the trip into the Arctic. "I had intended to spend time aboard a ship of the fleet this summer," Clarke said. "That we might find a little piece of history on our way was a further incentive."
Clarke, Selinger, Douglas, and I left Dartmouth on July 16, 1983, aboard the Coastguard patrol vessel 'Louis S. St. Laurent', under the command of Captain M. S. Tanner and at 14,000 tonnes the largest icebreaker in the Coast Guard fleet. Destination: Martin Bay, 32 kilometers south of Cape Chidley, due south of Baffin Island on the northern tip of the Labrador coast. On July 21, early in the Arctic morning, the icebreaker dropped anchor16 nautical miles from the rock-bound coast.
With Selinger's wartime photos showing prominent land features, and Peter Schrewe's navigational records, we boarded the St.-Laurent's helicopter and flew towards the coast. Making just a single pass around the mountain, we traced what must have been U-537's path up through the channel between Home and Avayalook Islands,-thence over Martin Bay.
"There it is," cried the chopper's pilot Les Bennetts, "Down there, on-the left." As carefully as a baby put down to sleep, the Bell 206LI set us down on a rocky ledge. Twenty meters away lay the remains of the German weather station.

Cape Chidley, Martin Bay, Labrador.
The discovery has since been widely recorded in the national and international news media. Peter Schrewe had indeed successfully completed, through a navigational nightmare, his mission to erect a weather station in Martin Bay, Labrador.
KaLu Schrewe later died on another U-boat mission, when U-537 was sunk with all hands by torpedoes launched from the American submarine "USS Flounder" off Java in 1944. He could never know that 38 years later the drama and danger of his mission were uncovered by a fellow German. Nor would he ever know that his mission would create international headlines and make him a public name in his homeland.
We found the corroded remains of that station, intact except for the transmitter, parts of the encoding device, and one of the module cannisters. German manufacturers' labels were visible on batteries and assorted devices.
Someone had been there before us, though whoever it was had probably dismissed it as a Canadian relay station. For Peter Schrewe's crew had convincingly carved on one of the weather canister heads the falsified inscription "Canadian Weather Service."
Like the layer upon layer which form the spectacular pack-ice of the Canadian Arctic, this story contains others within it. There is the story that captured international headlines. How a Canadian Coast Guard team located the first known evidence that this Nazi installation had been established on North American shores, 38 years after the event.
There is the story -- a highly technical one -- of how in the early 1940s, Germany held the state-of-the-art technology in radio communications.
There is a jigsaw story to delight any armchair military buff's sense of battle and history. Just how did this automatic station, transmitting weather information for the Germans during the late 1943 and early 1944, affect the timing and events of a most crucial phase of the U-boat war in the Atlantic?
There is a story to authenticate. Who dismantled the station in Martin Bay and when? [Subsequent research established that the radio device had not been dismantled; it simply ceased to transmit weather information only a few months after it was set up.] Did the Germans come back? Was it a casual Inuit hunting party? Was it a Canadian search and destroy team? Why was the transmitter taken? And who left behind a single undated .303 rifle cartridge shell, with the inscription "British Dominion?"
But the real story belongs to Peter Schrewe and Franz Selinger. It is “KaLu” Peter Schrewe, young and green, who guided his large submarine across an enemy-infested ocean and snaked past rocks and shoals to the barren shores of Martin Bay. Unwittingly, he made history in 1943. And it was Selinger, in pursuit of the facts, like a terrier chasing a fox to earth, who brought Canadian history back to Canada.

German Weather Station "Kurt" is now on display
at the Canadian War Mudeum, Ottawa.

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