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Operation Fritham

Operation Fritham, a highly classified military endeavor, stands as a testament to covert prowess. Operation Fritham, conducted under a shroud of secrecy, was a strategic masterpiece.

James Foster
James Foster
Nov 13, 2023135 Shares33.8K Views
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  1. Understanding The Mission Of Operation Fritham
  2. What Is The Background Of Operation Fritham?
  3. The Beginning Of Operation Fritham
  4. Aftermath Of Operation Fritham
  5. Operation Fritham - FAQs
  6. Conclusion
Operation Fritham

Operation Fritham, which took place between April 30 and May 14, 1942, is remembered as a significant episode in World War II history. Tucked up in the icy depths of the Arctic, the primary goal of this Allied military operation was to secure the coal mines on Spitsbergen, the most oversized island in the Svalbard Archipelago.

At an astounding distance of 650 miles (1,050 kilometers) from the North Pole and, similarly, from Nazi-occupied Norway, Spitsbergen served as both a strategic outpost and a representation of the Allies' tenacity in the face of fascism's creeping gloom.

Operation Fritham's main goal was to prevent Nazi Germanyfrom gaining ground in this far-off arctic region and to impede their aspirations. Once the scene was set and the world was engulfed in fighting, the Allies set out on a risky mission to protect these priceless coal mines.

However, there were difficulties with this operation, and getting to Spitsbergen was a hazardous trip. In this article, we delve into the fascinating details of Operation Fritham – from its planning and execution to its enduring legacy in history.

Understanding The Mission Of Operation Fritham

Operation Fritham, which was carried out on April 30, 1942, is evidence of the 82 Norwegian Brigade members' steadfast tenacity in Scotland. Their task was to take the steamships Selis and Isbjørn from Greenock to the isolated Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. The operation was essential and was headed by Commander Einar Sverdrup, a former CEO of the Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani.

These courageous men set out to accomplish many goals on their treacherous trek to Svalbard. Their primary goal was to seize control of Svalbard's coal resources and prevent Nazi Germany from using them. Their objective also included the capture of any available ships and the evacuation of citizens from Russia and Norway.

Sadly, on May 14, 1942, their brave mission took a terrifying turn when long-range patrol bombers from Luftwaffe Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor attacked Selis and Isbjørn, destroying both ships. Fifteen people were injured, and twelve lives were lost in this sad tragedy.

Operation Fritham honors the courage of individuals who dared to cross the dangerous Arctic seas in search of freedom and justice, and it continues to be a memorable part of World War II history.

What Is The Background Of Operation Fritham?

Plane Taking Off
Plane Taking Off

Here are the details of the background of the operation fritham:

Svalbard Geography And History Of Operation Fritham

Situated in the Arctic Ocean, the Svalbard Archipelago lies 1,050 km (1,650 mi) away from the North Pole. The islands are rugged, with some glaciated peaks that are always covered in snow; parts of the coastal plains and steep valley bottoms have river terraces on occasion.

The bays ice over, and the islands are blanketed with snow throughout the winter. The west shore of Spitsbergen Island is home to numerous sizable fiords, with Isfjorden reaching a width of up to 10 miles (16 km).

During the summer, the sea is free of ice due to the warming effects of the Gulf Stream. Along the south shore of the Isfjorden, inlets at Longyearbyen and Barentsburg saw the establishment of settlements; farther north along the coast was Kings Bay (Quade Hock), and southward was Van Mijenfiord.

A 1920 treaty neutralized the islands and recognized the participating countries' rights to minerals and fishing, drawing colonists of many ethnicities to the colonies. Prior to 1939, the population was around 3,000, with the majority being Russian and Norwegian miners.

Overhead cable lines or rails connected drift mines to the coast, and a ship would retrieve winter-dumped coal during the summer thaw. Production, shared between Russia and Norway, reached over 500,000 long tons (510,000 t) annually by 1939.

Code - Breakers And Signal Intelligence During World War II

A tiny industry of code-breakers and traffic analyzers was headquartered at the British Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS), located at Bletchley Park. Surface ships and U-boats could decipher the German Enigma machine Home Waters (Heimish) settings easily by June 1941.

German ships and U-boats operating in Arctic seas continued to use the earlier Heimish devices (Hyrad to the British, Dolphin to the Germans) until 1 February 1942, when the Enigma machines used in U-boats operating in the Atlantic and Mediterranean were replaced. British Y-stations were able to read and receive Luftwaffe W/T broadcasts by the middle of 1941, allowing them to provide prior notice of Luftwaffe activities.

Code-named Headaches, intercepting parties were deployed aboard warships in 1941, and starting in May 1942, computers traveled alongside cruiser admirals commanding convoy escorts to interpret Luftwaffe W/T signals that were beyond the reach of British shore stations. The computers received information from the Admiralty on Luftwaffe wireless frequencies, call signs, and daily local codes.

When combined with their understanding of Luftwaffe protocols, the computers were able to provide reasonably precise information on German reconnaissance flights. They occasionally forecast strikes up to twenty minutes ahead of radar detection.

Naval Cypher No. 3 was cracked in February 1942 and read by the German Beobachtungsdienst (B-Dienst, Observation Service) of the Kriegsmarine Marinenachrichtendienst (MND, Naval Intelligence Service) until January 1943.

During the invasion of Norway in 1940, the Germans abandoned the Svalbard islands to their own devices. Other than a few Norwegians who boarded Allied ships, little much changed; wireless stations on the islands carried on transmitting meteorological reports.

Admiral Hipper searched the region from Tromsø to Bear Island and Svalbard from July 25 to August 9, 1940, hoping to intercept British ships returning from Petsamo. However, all he discovered was a Finnish freighter.

Admiral John (Jack) Tovey, commander of the Home Fleet, objected to the Admiralty's order on July 12, 1941, to gather a force of ships to operate in the Arctic in cooperation with the USSR, arguing that there were more targets and more excellent air cover farther south.

Philip Vian, the rear admiral, and Geoffrey Miles took a plane to Polyarny, where Miles set up a British military outpost in Moscow. According to Vian, Murmansk was in close proximity to German-occupied territory, its air defenses were insufficient, and there was little chance of an attack against German ships.

The central island of the Svalbard Archipelago, Spitsbergen, lies 450 miles (720 km) from northern Norway and has a generally ice-free west coast. Vian was sent to investigate the possibilities of this island as a base.

On July 27, the cruisers HMS Nigeria, HMS Aurora, and two destroyers left Iceland, but Vian thought Spitsbergen's perceived advantages as a base were unfounded. Luftwaffe reconnaissance planes detected the forced closure on the Norwegian coast twice.

Operation Gauntlet - A Daring Arctic Expedition

During World War II, an audacious Allied endeavor known as Operation Gauntlet was carried out from August 19 to September 3, 1941. Force A, under the command of Rear Admiral Philip Vian, headed for Svalbard as Operation Dervish, the first Arctic convoy, was being assembled in Iceland. The main goals were to secure essential resources, damage the coal sector, and evacuate citizens from Russia and Norway.

Two cruisers, five destroyer escorts, an oiler, and the troop ship RMS Empress of Canada, which was mainly transporting Canadian infantry, were part of this operation. Despite difficulties during the operation's landing at Barentsburg, around 2,000 Russian people were evacuated, and essential assets were secured.

Following a detour to the Norwegian coast, the cruisers came into contact with a German convoy at Porshanger, close to the North Cape, which led to a naval battle. On September 10, in spite of difficulties and losses, the group ultimately made its way back to Scapa Flow, carrying seized spoils and Norwegian civilians.

Operation Bansö - German Occupation Of Svalbard

A growing number of people were worried that the Germans might use Svalbard as a base for attacks on Arctic convoys during World War II, especially after Operation Gauntlet in August 1941. Beyond military goals, though, the Germans were also interested in Svalbard because they needed meteorological data from the area for weather forecasting over Western Europe.

Allied forces had demolished German meteorological stations in many Arctic areas by August 1941. In response, the Germans collected meteorological data using trawlers, U-boats, reconnaissance planes, and other ships.

These techniques might, however, be attacked. Based in Banak in northern Norway, the Luftwaffe's Wekusta 5 developed a reputation for providing and transferring both automated and human-manned meteorological stations across the Arctic.

Advent Bay was a crucial location for the German mission headed by Dr. Erich Etienne, a former Polar explorer, to install a human-crewed meteorological station on Svalbard. With four minesweepers diverted to investigate, the British, keeping an eye on German activity via Ultra intelligence, managed to evacuate the German men quickly.

In an effort to stay in the area, the Germans dispatched more troops and supplies in May 1942, along with the "Kröte," an automated weather station. These Svalbard activities highlighted the Arctic region's strategic significance throughout the war and had a significant part in the larger context of World War II.

Book On Operation Fritham
Book On Operation Fritham

The Beginning Of Operation Fritham

In the initial stage of the operation Fritham, the Norwegian ships reached Svalbard on 13 May and entered Isfjorden at 8:00 p.m. without the Admiralty's German aircraft warning. A party landed at Cape Linné but found no humans, then the ships continued east along Isfiorden and found Advent Bay frozen. Ships landed at Finneset after turning south to Green Harbour.

Isbjørn steadily broke through the 4 ft (1.2 m) thick ice covering the bay. Sverdrup ordered a rest break before Godfrey unloaded the ships and sledded the food ashore since the men were exhausted. Ice breaking was postponed until after midnight on 14 May while parties scouted Barentsburg and Finneset.

At 5:00 a.m., a Ju 88 flew 600 feet along Isfiorden from Cape Linné to Advent Bay. The jet kept on course, but ships were visible. After carving a long tunnel in the ice, Isbjørn was still distant from Finneset when the scouting team returned at 5:00 p.m.

Sverdrup demanded Barentsburg landing to unload quicker. Four FW 200 Condor long-range reconnaissance bombers arrived at 8:30 p.m. after 15 hours of ice-breaking.

The bombers approached without warning and narrowly missed the ships on the first and second bombing passes, bouncing on the ice before exploding due to the high valley walls.

Oerlikon cannons played little role. After the third bomber hit, Isbjørn sank, and Selis caught fire, leading party members to be thrown into the air or onto the ice during gunfire exchanges.

After 30 minutes, the Condors flew away as infantry scattered to evade bomber strafing passes. Isbjørn was reduced to a hole in the ice, while Selis burnt, and thirteen men, including Sverdrup and Godfrey, perished. Nine people were injured (two died later), while sixty were unharmed.

The cargo at Isbjørn, including weapons, ammunition, food, clothes, and radio, was lost. Barentsburg was only a few hundred yards across the ice, and Operation Gauntlet eight months earlier had spared the homes. Svalbardians store up before winter, building a pantry of wheat, butter, coffee, tea, sugar, and mushrooms.

The Gauntlet swineherd was killed, but the arctic cold preserved the meat, and wild duck eggs were gathered. A dressings-stocked infirmary was found for the injured. The Fritham party sheltered in mine shafts when Luftwaffe Ju 88 and He 111 arrived on 15 May.

Operation Fritham Improvement From 16 To 31 May

Most days, a German plane flew east to Advent Bay or north to Kings Bay. The duration of the return trip confirmed that these aircraft had landed, firmly implying German capture of Advent Bay and Kings Bay. A damaged Heinkel aircraft returned to Banak on May 13, leaving twelve crew. Luftwaffe weather reconnaissance planes were diverted to Isfiorden to provide food and communications to the trapped crew.

One aircraft over the region mistaken the two Fritham ships for Soviet Special Forces, prompting a Condor strike. Later flights on May 15 showed that the second ship was still burning and that the Germans at Bansö had plotted a runway on Advent Bay's ice. The bomber landed and lifted off, starting supply missions needed to operate the Kröte weather station.

The Heinkel pilot cruised the west coast to evaluate Barentsburg despite difficulties. The second ship had sunk, and Longyearbyen had no tracks, allowing a landing. The ice proved unstable when the plane landed, so a tractor was used to deliver supplies. After activation, the Kröte station worked, and the Heinkel returned to Banak.

Puddles become holes on future flights. After landing, a Heinkel aircraft broke its propeller, stranding it on May 18. Flights were canceled until the Bansö airfield was snow-free and dry. Norwegian command fell to Lieutenant Ove Roll Lund, who planned a trip to Sveagruva. The 36-hour trek was challenging, and one man plunged into a crevasse.

The survivors treated the injured, avoided the Luftwaffe's presence, and planned aggressive moves. Small reconnaissance groups hid their ski footprints and watched the German party at Advent Bay without injury. By late May, both sides had built bases in fjords south of Isfjorden, separated by a difficult land path. The Germans, closer to their base, kept in touch by wireless and waited for help draining their landing strip while the Norwegians were a thousand kilometers away.

Catalina Reconnaissance Flight

Essential advancements in the Fritham mission occurred on May 25. The Admiralty chose to send a Catalina aircraft on a reconnaissance mission over Spitsbergen without knowing of the events that had occurred recently through Ultra intercepts. Isfjorden, Cape Linné, Barentsburg, Advent Bay, and Kings Fjord were all covered in the crew's brief.

The plane took off at 11:38 a.m. and passed beneath the base of the clouds, arriving at the South Cape of Spitsbergen around 11:10 p.m. They made their way through the rugged terrain using Admiralty maps.

They ran into ice at Isfjorden during their flight, which prevented them from landing. They spotted the damaged He 111 aircraft from May 18 and saw the aftermath of the demolitions caused by Operation Gauntlet as they passed over Longyearbyen. The pilot of the Catalina then proceeded down the Isfjorden and noticed smoke coming from coal dumps.

There was a light signal near the huts, and they communicated until 1:45 a.m., when they had to head back through the cold fog. In addition to surveying the ice edge from Bear Island to Spitsbergen Island and continuing for 150 miles east of Jan Mayen, the survey provided vital information for the mission that is still underway. It also disclosed the state of the Fritham Force.

Airdropping Supplies

In order to provide supplies to the trapped Fritham group, a new plan of action was required, as the possibility of landing in a fjord was delayed until the ice thawed. On May 28, a Catalina plane, designated P-Peter, took off with mail, food, medical supplies, and 24 Ross rifles, together with 3,000 rounds of ammo.

By avoiding German radar by flying low, they arrived at the island around 5:01 p.m. The crew dropped kit and parachute bags containing necessary supplies into snowdrifts while making slow, low passes around the hills close to the fjord. These bags were made to endure rigorous handling and came with long orange streamers.

The crew kept an eye out for German planes as the supplies fell. The Fritham group was on the ground, and the Catalina crew tried to signal them, not realizing that their hesitation was because of a German aircraft hovering over the clouds.

It took the crew twenty-four hours and forty-eight minutes to safely deliver the supplies. Catalina's return to Sullom Voe afterward bears evidence of their perseverance and the significance of resupplying the trapped team.

Reinforcing Spitsbergen

With a crucial load, Catalina P-Peter set out for Spitsbergen on June 6. 24 Ross rifles, 3,000 rounds of ammunition, food, medical supplies, and letters were all carried on this journey. The Catalina took off at 7:21 a.m., flying low to avoid German radar.

Even with difficult circumstances and a breeze, the team arrived on the island around 5:01 p.m. Packed into bags; the cargo was unloaded close to some cabins at the foot of a valley hill. Throughout the airdrop, the crew kept an eye out for German planes.

They also ensured the safety of six injured Norwegians by ferrying them to safety by boat. On June 7, at 7:17 a.m., the Catalina touched down in Sullom Voe, and the injured were flown to the Norwegian hospital located in Edinburgh.

With this expedition, Spitsbergen was significantly reinforced, which helped with the attempts to sustain the stranded Fritham group and preserve the presence of the Allies on the island.

Operation Fritham
Operation Fritham

Aftermath Of Operation Fritham

With the help of Operation Gearbox, the remaining forces of Fritham Force at Barentsburg were concentrated, a meteorological station was established, and radio communication with the Admiralty was restored.

Ullring reported the error with the Colt machine guns, coordinated the Catalina supply runs, supplied weather and sighting reports, guarded Wharman and his ionosphere research equipment, and got ready to strike any German meteorological stations that he might locate.

With the arrival of Gearbox people and their exceptional local knowledge, the survivors of Operation Fritham were able to do more than survive and evade German aircraft strikes. On July 13, Catalina N-Nuts took out for Spitsbergen carrying the Colt parts and more supplies.

From there, she flew another 100 nautical miles (190 km; 120 mi) to Hope Island (Hopen) and traced as much of the polar ice's edge as she could before heading to Grasnaya on the Kola Inlet or Lake Lakhta close to Archangelsk in northern Russia.

After taking a break, the crew's mission was to resume flying the aircraft to a position that was midway between Franz Joseph Land and Novaya Zemlya (78° north) and then return via Cape Nassau on Novaya Zemlya in order to look for PQ 17 survivors.

Thanks to RAF surveillance flights, Operation Fritham, and its follow-ons, the shorter-range destroyer escorts during PQ 18 were able to refuel from the oilers in Lowe Sound.

Operation Fritham - FAQs

What Was The Objective Of Operation Fritham During World War Ii?

During World War II, Operation Fritham sought to protect Svalbard's coal mines and keep Nazi Germany from using them.

Who Oversaw Operation Fritham As Its Commander?

During World War II, Operation Fritham, an expedition to Svalbard, was led by Einar Sverdrup.

When Did The Norwegian Ships Reach Svalbard During Operation Fritham?

On May 13, 1942, the Norwegian ships arrived at Svalbard as part of Operation Fritham.


Operation Fritham serves as a reminder of the Allied soldiers' tenacity and willpower during World War II. The mission to protect Svalbard's coal mines and deny them to Nazi Germany persisted in the face of extreme obstacles, such as German aircraft strikes and the hostile Arctic climate.

The bravery and selflessness of all those involved, Commander Einar Sverdrup, who sadly lost his life, emphasized the mission's unshakable dedication to success. The history of Operation Fritham serves as a poignant reminder of the enormous costs paid for independence and the unwavering determination of those who battled to save essential resources in the far North of the Arctic.

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