The Capture of the German Naval Auxiliary Externsteine by the Coast Guard Icebreakers Eastwind & Southwind in Greenland, 1944
By Scott T. Price
Left to right: BMC Burton Meyers, GMC Melvin C. Sasges, & CGM Harold W. Webster, crewmen of the USCGC Eastwind, display the battle ensign of the German Naval Auxiliary Externsteine, captured after a skirmish above the Arctic Circle.
Strangely enough, in the fall of 1944, the ability to predict the weather dictated Nazi Germany's capacity to strike at the Allied armies marching steadily toward Germany's borders. The Luftwaffe had been whittled down and Allied fighters and bombers now streaked through the skies at will, strafing and bombing German army units and their supply lines, limiting the ability of the Germans to launch any attacks. The German's one hope was inclement weather that would ground Allied aircraft, thereby permitting the relatively unobstructed movement of their armies. The problem was in predicting when such bad weather would occur. It was the Coast Guard that prevented their getting that information from where weather patterns for Europe were born--the island of Greenland.
The USS Northland, CG
The Germans had established weather stations on Greenland prior to 1944 but most had been discovered and destroyed by the Greenland Patrol, a Coast Guard commanded force which had sailed in and protected the waters and shores of Greenland since 1940. Indeed, USS Northland, CG had recently destroyed a German weather station at Cape Sussie, Greenland, in July 1944, and located the trawler Coburg, trapped in the ice and destroyed by fire, adding yet another victory to the record of this little known Allied fleet.
The German High Command sent three new expeditions to Greenland in a desperate effort to establish a presence in this icy wasteland. These three teams of scientists, soldiers, and their weather forecasting equipment would give the Germans vital information which might stave off the defeat of the Third Reich. Only the cutters of the Greenland Patrol stood in their way.
On 1 September 1944, off the coast of Greenland, the Northland located the first of the three new German expeditions. After a brief chase, the Germans scuttled their vessel and the Coast Guardsmen rescued all 28 who had been on board safely. As Northland battled the first German expedition, two brand new cutters, USS Eastwind, CG, and USS Southwind, CG, were making preparations to join the Greenland Patrol. They were two of a total of five large icebreaking vessels of the "Wind" class. These vessels had the distinction of being the first U.S. ships designed and built specifically as icebreakers. Coast Guard engineers worked with designers from the Gibbs & Cox Company to design these new cutters and the final products were unique in many respects.
Commissioning of the USCGC Southwind, 15 July 1944
Their wide 269-foot long hulls were constructed of high tensile steel with a labyrinth of heavy frames and stiffeners that served as the ship's skeleton, making them capable of standing up to tremendous pressure. Their powerful diesel-electric drive developed enough horsepower to push the vessel on top of an ice flow, where its 6,515 ton displacement would crush it. Each icebreaker sported a bow-mounted propeller to clear the smashed ice as the icebreaker moved forward. For movement through heavy ice each ship had heeling tanks on either side of the hull which could shift 150,000 gallons of ballast from one side of the ship to the other in only 90 seconds. This shifting of ballast would allow the ship to "rock" its way through almost any ice. They were also heavily armed with four 5-inch 38-caliber guns mounted in two twin turrets, anti-aircraft cannons and machine guns, depth charges, and a J2F amphibian aircraft. These cutters were unique and versatile additions to the Coast Guard fleet.
Differing views of the
Coast Guard icebreaker Eastwind, circa 1944.
After shakedown and training exercises Eastwind was sent north to join the Greenland Patrol, soon followed by Southwind. Their mission was simple: to deny the enemy access to Northeast Greenland. The Eastwind was under the command of an experienced Greenland Patrol officer, Captain Charles W. Thomas, and he knew the waters of Greenland well. Through his able leadership and the capabilities of the cutters, one of the most unique battles of World War II would soon be joined.
Thomas pondered where the Germans had placed their weather stations as Eastwind sailed north and crossed the Arctic Circle. Aircraft from Coast Guard Patrol Squadron VP-6 and the cutter's J2F scouted out ahead of Eastwind to locate the Germans.
(Left: Captain Charles W. Thomas, USCG)
Eastwind soon rendezvoused with the cutters Storis, Evergreen and Northland. Northland's rudder had been recently damaged in the ice and so Thomas, as the senior officer present, ordered the other two veteran cutters to escort the crippled Northland to Iceland for repairs. With Southwind on the way to join him, Thomas knew that the two icebreakers were quite capable of dealing with any German forces in the area.
On 2 October 1944, Eastwind's J2F, piloted by Ensign Joseph "Little Mac" McCormick, with Lieutenant Commander Harold Land acting as an observer, spotted an unidentified vessel that could have been a German trawler. They noted her location and continued on their patrol. They discovered what appeared to be an encampment on North Little Koldewey Island the next day. Eastwind changed course to investigate, battering her way through the thickening ice. As Thomas later recalled, it almost seemed effortless:
". . .the vessel leaped forward, crashing into the ice. Her stem reared. The pack yielded. Each floe groaned as it ground into its neighbor and threw up pressure ridges at the impact. Scooped-up water poured off up-ended cakes in roaring cataracts. This was the Eastwind's first real test in heavy, polar-packed floes. The speed with which she chewed her way through fascinated me."
The cutters Eastwind (left) and Storis off the northeast coast of Greenland.
Eastwind carried a specially trained team of Coast Guardsmen that served as a landing force. That force was under the command of Lieutenant Junior Grade Alden Lewis. He and his men had undergone training in commando tactics and artic warfare, a specialized type of fighting that made these men unique in the annals of Coast Guard history and an important asset to the Greenland Patrol. The Eastwind neared the German camp first seen by the icebreaker's J2F on North Little Koldewey Island and Thomas ordered the landing force to launch their attack in the early morning hours of 4 October 1944.
The landing force shoved off on schedule with the thermometer reading zero degrees Fahrenheit. Despite the cold, Alden's team located the camp, surrounded it, and captured what turned out to be a 12-man German team with ease. The bag of prisoners included the commanding officer, Lieutenant ( and Ph.D.) Karl Schmid, a German Naval Artillery officer, without firing a shot. They also captured nearly 200 tons of supplies and equipment, including high-powered radios and meteorological instruments, weapons, secret documents that revealed details of the three expeditions, and a dog named Zipper.
(German POWs are permitted a smoke break by their Coast Guard captors)
The captured documents filled in many details. The three expeditions mounted by the Germans each had a code name. The first, captured by Northland, was led by a Lieutenant Weiss and was code named "Eidelweiss." The second, under Schmid, was code named "Goldschmied." The third, code named Haudegen" and commanded by a Lieutenant (and Ph.D.) Dege, was ordered to set up a base on Spitzbergen. Schmid had originally been ordered to establish a base on Nova Zembla but was ordered to Greenland after Northland's capture of the first German expedition. The documents also named the transport that deposited Schmid and his team, the German naval transport Externsteine. She was, according to the captured documents, escorted by a U-boat--making the situation even more dangerous for Eastwind.
As Thomas and his crew examined their catch, Eastwind's J2F searched for the trawler that had deposited the Germans. Hoping to obtain more information from Schmid about his orders and the vessel that had brought him to Greenland, Thomas invited him and his officers to dinner, and added captured German liquor to the menu in an effort to loosen the prisoners' tongues. Thomas did glean from the conversation where the third expedition might land. But of the location of the trawler that had landed Schmid and his men, Thomas learned nothing.
(More German POWs)
On 6 October 1944 Southwind, under the command of one of the world's foremost oceanographers, Commander Richard M. Hoyle, joined Eastwind. Thomas organized a search pattern for each cutter as they continued sailing north. The Storis later rendezvoused with the icebreakers to transport the prisoners and the booty back to Iceland. Schmid wrote Thomas a note before the prisoners departed Eastwind: "I am grateful to you for the kind treatment accorded my officers, my men, and myself by the personnel of the Eastwind. It is unfortunate we have been associated in difficult circumstances. To you and your fine Eastwind I wish good luck."
The icebreakers continued their search although a two day storm prevented air operations. But on 14 October the weather cleared and once again "Little Mac" and Land took to the air.
("Little Mac" and Land prepare to take off to search for the elusive German ship)
This time they sighted a ship, two hundred feet in length and painted white for camouflage, that was apparently trapped in the ice 10 miles east of Cape Borgen, Greenland. Eastwind and Southwind converged on the area and, although it was dark and the unidentified ship was camouflaged, Eastwind picked it up clearly on radar. Southwind pushed forward to join the action although she was somewhat behind as she had to traverse through some extremely heavy ice. Nevertheless, Thomas ordered general quarters on board Eastwind.
Thomas, while waiting to find the German ship, had developed a battle plan. He wanted to capture the ship intact and, as he noted, he "had no stomach for taking life." So, once Eastwind located Externsteine, they would approach under the cover of night and catch the Germans completely unaware. He instructed his gunnery officers to first fire an illumination shell over the target and then fire one live salvo short of the ship, one salvo over, and a final salvo near, but not on, Externsteine. Thomas hoped that when the Germans saw the hopelessness of their position they would then surrender. Nevertheless, if it came to open combat, he and his crew were ready to do whatever was necessary to eliminate this particular vessel of the German Navy!
The German Naval Auxiliary Externsteine, trapped in the ice off Greenland.
Around 2100 hours on 15 October Eastwind's radar picked up a target at seven miles. Thomas ordered: "Set condition Able," sending the icebreaker's crew to their battle stations. The Eastwind closed on the radar target, pounding and smashing its way through the thickening ice. Thomas decided that he would open fire at two miles distance and that meant that his ship would need to break through five miles of ice. Thomas noted:
"And those five miles were all ice miles--many times as arduous as sea miles, for the ice became heavier with each lunge. The vessel reared and slowed with the violent impact of each charge into the ice. At times I thought she must surely buckle some of the frames in her forepeak. But the forward damage-control party kept assuring me the hull was holding up under the terrific beating."
Slowly Eastwind closed. At four thousand yards, Thomas began to issue his orders. "Unmask rear batteries." The Eastwind slowly swung around, permitting the aft turret to bear on the target. The turret's guns then fired illumination rounds into the air. "Unmask forward!" The two forward five-inch guns, directed by radar, fired live shells aimed to land near, but not on, the enemy vessel as per Thomas' battle plan. Southwind, creeping through the ice and approaching the area as well, was close enough to illuminate the target with one of her searchlights. Thomas watched as hits appeared in the ice all around the unidentified vessel. Her hull appeared to jump up out of the ice and then settle, scaring Thomas into thinking his crew had actually hit the ship.
German Naval Auxiliary Vessel Externsteine after her capture by a boarding party from USCGC Eastwind.
His plan worked. He later recounted that after nine minutes of firing: "Then a series of quick flashes stabbed toward us. These were followed by a well-transmitted blinker message in plain English: 'We give up.'" He then quickly wrote out a reply for transmittal and had a German speaking crewman translate before sending the message. It was simple: "Do not scuttle ship." He then ordered Eastwind closer and gave permission for the Southwind to also close with the Germans.
The Germans complied with his orders, assuming that their vessel was permanently stuck in the ice and that there was no way the Coast Guardsmen would be able to free her. The Eastwind continued to close, slowly breaking its way through and once close enough, Thomas ordered a landing party to accept the Germans' surrender.
The landing party approached the vessel and formally accepted the surrender of the twenty German crewmen. Although the German trawler, confirmed now to be Externsteine, was unscathed, both of the U.S. icebreakers had sustained damage to their propellers while maneuvering in the heavy ice. Nevertheless they were still capable of making way. The Germans had succeeded in destroying most of their confidential publications but her radio and weather equipment were in excellent condition. The ship was, however, mined.
Scuttling charges were found in place along the inside of her lower hull. To prevent any subterfuge, Thomas ordered most of the German crew back to Eastwind but made the three German officers stay on board their trawler as hostages--convinced that they did not want to die and would therefore not set off any explosives. Ensign John Gira ( right) of Eastwind, with the assistance of the German engineering officer, Helmot Marks, quickly removed the explosives from the trawler's hull.
The Externsteine's commanding officer, Leutenant Luther Rother, later told Thomas what happened on board his trawler during the short battle:
"We thought we were being attacked by huge tanks traveling over the ice. I had no idea any ship could ever break through. Your first two salvos straddled us. Your third one was so close that I thought the next would surely hit and perhaps kill some of my men. I did what any commander would have done when he found himself out-gunned by such odds: I surrendered!"
He added that "you will probably scuttle my ship, for you will never get her out of this ice." To his consternation, using the power of the Eastwind with a little help from well-placed explosives to dislodge the thickest ice, the Coast Guardsmen freed the trawler. Indeed, nothing was going to stand in their way. As Thomas later recounted, "Delivering to the United States a hard-earned prize of war would be a thrilling achievement." They christened their prize of war USS Eastbreeze and placed a prize crew on board. The prize crew was commanded by LT Curtiss Howard and consisted of 36 men, including some from Southwind.
(Right: GMC Webster christens the Eastbreeze)
It took most of the day to free Eastbreeze and the engineers had trouble with the steam plant that powered the German vessel. A number of the crew were old Coast Guard hands with experience with steam engines and they soon found their way into the engineering spaces of Eastbreeze. By nightfall, they had raised sufficient steam pressure to begin getting underway behind Eastwind. Eastwind cleared a channel towards the open sea, closely followed by the newest addition to the Greenland Patrol.
After steaming with the Greenland Patrol for three weeks, Eastbreeze sailed on to Boston where the Navy renamed it yet again as USS Callao. This bloodless campaign, that took place 50 years ago, made history. The Externsteine was the only enemy surface vessel captured at sea by U.S. naval forces during the war. The Eastwind and Southwind had gone farther north and returned under their own power than any vessel ever before. Finally, this naval battle had taken place farther north than any previous battle, laurels enough for the Greenland Patrol. As for the third German expedition, Thomas asked permission to sail to Spitzbergen but this was denied as it fell into waters under the control of the British. It did not matter as the Germans never launched the third expedition. The German high command would have to make do with periodic and makeshift weather reports from U-boats for the coming winter actions of 1944.
(German prisoners on their way to a POW camp in the U.S., enjoy a movie, courtesy of the USCG)
There was one final ceremony on board both icebreakers as they sailed south. As they had not celebrated the crossing of the Artic Circle on their way to battle the Germans, there were still a number of "ice worms" on board. These were the unfortunate individuals who had not been initiated into the realm of King Boreas, as all sailors who cross into his territory must be, and made into "Polar Bears," complete with a certificate. More than 300 Coast Guardsmen, who experienced battle in the icy north, put up with the tortures inflicted by the current members of the crew who were already Polar Bears, and they too joined the hallowed ranks of Arctic veterans.