70 years have passed since the Second World War and the Nazi invasion of North America. Wait. What?

Okay, invasion might be a bit strong of a word. It’s like saying that you once lived at a Holiday Inn Express, when you only stayed overnight. However, during WWII, there were genuine “capital N” Nazis on Canadian soil.

Soooo, Nazis in Canada. Did they go to the capital, Ottawa? Did they go to Alberta for the oil, or to Toronto to attack the financial sector? No, they went to northern Newfoundland. And yes, Newfoundland wasn’t exactly part of Canada when this happened in 1943, but they are a province now, so we were all fighting on the side of the Allies in World War Two.

Why in the world would the Nazi’s cross the Atlantic Ocean in a submarine to get to northern Newfoundland? One word – weather.

Bad Weather in the North Atlantic during WW2
Bad Weather in the North Atlantic during WW2

In the Northern Hemisphere, weather systems move from west to east, which meant that the Allied forces, controlling North America, Greenland, and Iceland, had an advantage when it came to understanding weather patterns and what was coming their way in Europe. This knowledge was a pivotal advantage and impacted military decisions. The conflict between the Allied forces and the Germans over accurate weather data was so intense, it has been called the North Atlantic Weather War.

Yes, on top of regular Nazis and grammar Nazis, we can now add a third category to our vocabulary – weather Nazis.

You might take your local 14 day forecast for granted unless you are planning a camping trip or a picnic, but weather has played a significant role in many of history’s greatest moments. While weather forecasters are often the butt of jokes for inaccurate predictions, they have had their shining moments. In what has been called “the most important weather forecast ever”, meteorologist predictions led to D-Day being postponed to June 6, 1944 from the original date of June 5 (waiting for weather calm enough to attack across the English Channel).

Germany experimented with weather planes and submarines, which did give them some information, but isolated planes and submarines were often caught (and destroyed) by Allied patrols that were seeking to preserve their advantage in weather data.

German scientists at the Siemens Company found a way around this problem by inventing the Wetter-Funkgerät Land (WFL). While this sounds like an amazing name for a Euro-Dubstep band, it’s also the name for an automated weather station.

The Kurt Weather Station today, Ottawa War Museum

The station had six-months of batteries and would automatically broadcast the information it collected for three minutes, every three hours. This interspersed broadcasting was aimed at preventing the weather station from being located by Allied forces. This is still impressively complex and advanced in an era when we all have cellular phones in our pockets.

Wartime photos of (L) Dr. Sommermeyer listening to transmissions from weather stations WFL26 while aboard the U-Boat off of the Labrador coast on Oct 1943; and (R) Captain Peter Schrewe, commander of the U-537. The photos are from Dr. Sommermeyer's son, and given to Canadian Geographic in 1980's.
Wartime photos of (L) Dr. Sommermeyer listening to transmissions from weather stations WFL26 while aboard the U-Boat off of the Labrador coast on Oct 1943; and (R) Captain Peter Schrewe, commander of the U-537. The photos are from Dr. Sommermeyer’s son, and given to Canadian Geographic in 1980’s.

On October 22, 1943, a German U-Boat (U-537 to be precise) snuck into a place named Martin Bay in   Northern Labrador, and set up a station (code named Weather Station Kurt). They even stopped to take some pictures of the U-Boat (what, no selfies?).

U-537 anchored in Martin Bay on Labrador Coast northern Canada
A view of U-537 anchored in Martin Bay on Labrador Coast northern Canada. Source: National WW2 Museum

They transferred everything from the U-boat by rubber dinghy, set up 10 canisters weighting approximately 100kg each, and mounted the 10-meter-tall antenna within 28 hours (which makes me even angrier about how long it takes for my cable to be set up). They quickly set sail again so they wouldn’t be caught in the bay where they were defenceless.

Inflatable rubber rafts on the after deck of U-537 in Martin Bay, Labrador, Newfoundland
Inflatable rubber rafts on the after deck of U-537 in Martin Bay, Labrador, Newfoundland (now Canada) on 22 Oct 1943. ww2db – Bundesarchiv

Logs from U-537 indicated that the station broadcast for two weeks, but then the frequency of the station was blocked by jamming. This means that the station had very little impact on the overall war effort.

What will blow your mind though, is when the station was discovered. Take a moment and guess when you think Kurt was found – was it 1943? 1945? 1950? Go on, take a guess –  I’ll wait.

The weather station was actually located in 1977.  There’s no military record of the station being located before then (and if anyone is a stickler for making reports, it’s the military). Why did it take so long? Was it well-hidden? No, not really. In an exemplary model of hidden in plain sight, the Germans disguised the station by stenciling “Canadian Meteor Service” on the side of one of the containers and scattering empty American cigarette packages around the installation. Talk about super spies.

The investigating team reassembled the components of the weather station, so they could see how it looked. It is now setup at the War Museum in Ottawa.

It sounds cheesy, but it worked. While the weather station as located in 1977, it wasn’t identified as a German weather station until 1981 when a retired Siemens engineer named Franz Selinger found information about the weather station while researching a book on Nazi weather stations. He reached out to the Canadian Armed Forces, speaking to Dr. Alec Douglas, the official military historian, and everyone started putting the pieces together.

Ready for one last surprise? Canadian officials concede that weather stations this sophisticated weren’t used in Canada until the early 1960s. If you feel like our weather predictions aren’t all that accurate in Canada, maybe we know why.


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