War on Cape Sterlegov. Nazis’ failed mission in Siberia – Society & Culture

MOSCOW, September 30. /TASS/. A mission in September 1944 in the Arctic’s Kara Sea remains among understudied events of World War II. Amphibious assault force landed from Nazi submarines to capture Cape Sterlegov’s meteorological station, which sent forecasts to vessels carrying military cargo along the Northern Sea Route. The attackers hoped the radio station’s personnel would […]

MOSCOW, September 30. /TASS/. A mission in September 1944 in the Arctic’s Kara Sea remains among understudied events of World War II. Amphibious assault force landed from Nazi submarines to capture Cape Sterlegov’s meteorological station, which sent forecasts to vessels carrying military cargo along the Northern Sea Route. The attackers hoped the radio station’s personnel would be taken aback and they would be able to disrupt Soviet Arctic transportation.

The polar station

Cape Sterlegov’s station went into operation in 1934. It was named after Russia’s participant in the 18th-century Great Northern Expedition, Dmitry Sterlegov.

The station is located in the area where the Lenivaya River flows into the Kara Sea forming a cape. It makes a very convenient place for polar explorers with its rocky shores and the surrounding tundra with small hills.

The area is hard-to-reach. The station sent clear radio signals from the cape, and observers could see approaching vessels an hour before they reached the shore.

“The station transmitted meteorological data to vessels passing along the Northern Sea Route. It’s covered area was a passage between Cape Chelyuskin in the east and Dikson in the west,” Pavel Kochkarev of the Russian Geographical Society’s Krasnoyarsk branch said.

During the war, the Northern Sea Route became a key route to deliver strategic military cargo from the US and the UK to the Soviet Union, Krasnoyarsk’s historian Alexei Yeliseyenko said.

Pilots dispatched to the frontline from Alaska across Siberia requested weather reports from the station, Pavel Kochkarev added. Before the war, the station issued weather reports four times a day, and during the war the forecasts would come out much more frequently.

During the war, security at all polar stations was tightened. The station had the so-called observation and communication teams. However, those, who served on Cape Sterlegov, must have believed the place was inaccessible and were rather negligent, Kochkarev said.

‘Wolfpack’

It was a dramatic mistake to think the Kara Sea is the safe rear. Back in 1942, the German Navy organized the Wunderland mission, plotting to disrupt Soviet navigation along the Northern Sea Route.

Hitler’s submarines, working in groupings, dubbed “Wolfpack,” attacked vessels and convoys. The U-251 submarine opened fire at the polar station on Cape Uedineniye, and the Admiral Scheer cruiser in August 1942 attacked the Dikson port (the Krasnoyarsk Region’s north).

Attacks continued in 1943. In 1944, when the Soviet Army was approaching Germany, the situation in the Kara Sea seemed to have calmed down. The illusion of being in the far rear that reigned on Cape Sterlegov turned into a disaster and almost a catastrophe in September.

At least three Nazi submarines entered the Kara Sea: Greif U-711, U-957 and U-739. On September 24 – some historians claim it was on the night to September 25 – the Nazi submarines’ amphibious assault force attacked the polar station.

“Interestingly, those submarines did not succeed much in sea missions. They planted mines and destroyed two mid-size vessels. The attack on the meteorological station leaves many questions: was it a desire of the Nazi officers to have at least any success?” Yeliseyenko continued. “We cannot rule out the task was to reconnoiter and then set up a base on Taimyr, the more so since the Northern Sea Route lies close to the shore near Cape Sterlegov, making vessels vulnerable for attacks from the shore.”

Radio game

In the 1990s, Doctor of Philosophy Lev Ventskovsky, who served as a radio operator at the station in 1944, wrote a letter to the station, where he described the past events.

“I turn off the radio and hear steps up the stairs outside the radio cabin. <…> I was about to reach for the door, when it swung open, and people in fur coats attacked me, threw me on the floor, then put me face to the wall and began asking something. Here I realized they were Germans,” he wrote in the letter.

Admiral Arseniy Golovko wrote in memoirs that those were twenty-five gunners from the German submarine, plus an assistant, a bosun, and a translator. The latter sailed on ships of the Soviet Northern Shipping Company before the war. According to German sources, the operation was organized personally by U-711 Commander Hans-Gunther Lange. The submarines took shelter at the bottom of Lozhnykh Ognei Bay.

The station’s personnel was seven people: the station’s head, radioman and mechanic Poblodzinsky; technician for the runway for hydroplanes Bukhtiyarov, radioman Ventskovsky, meteorologist Markov, and three Red Fleet officers engaged in the observation and communications.

Grigory Bukhtiyarov and Red Fleet officer Nogayev were in the tundra during the attack: they searched and defused the mines, which had got ashore. Bukhtiyarov, an experienced hunter, soon returned to the station and was taken prisoner.

The Germans made the personnel continue radio communication. The Nazis plotted a radio game to entrap Soviet vessels and find out information about convoys.

In those days, a convoy of four vessels was about to cross the Kara Sea. Admiral Yuri Panteleyev, the Commander of the White Sea Flotilla, which during the war provided security for sea communications in the Western part of the Arctic, later recalled numerous requests during one day regarding the convoy’s coordinates. This weird activity aroused suspicion among the command, and they decided to send a warship to Cape Sterlegov.

The polar station’s personnel were trying to signal the attack: they included an SOS signal “we are captured” in the messages, but inexperienced radiomen in Dikson failed to identify it. Meanwhile, events at the station made the Germans stop the radio game before they could learn information about the convoy’s sailing.

Escape

The Nazis were looting. According to Kochkarev, they were stealing anything they could grasp, including dishes and linen. They took the trophies to Lozhnykh Ognei Bay on Bukhtiyarov’s dog sleds – the only transport for miles around.

Bukhtiyarov was an experienced polar explorer. He had spent a few winters at the station and knew all the surroundings. He persuaded the Nazis that it would be much easier to take the cargo by a different road, along the Lenivaya River. The enemies did not suspect the trap.

“The very idea of an escape seemed unrealistic, as on the one side there was the river still without thick ice, and on the other side – the sea <…> Bukhtiyarov made it to a certain place, threw the cargo onto the ground and together with the dogs crossed the river. The thin ice was firm enough for the dogs, while the man had to crawl in a few places, holding onto the sled. When on the other side, he started running, holding the sled,” recollected Aref Minayev, the wartime Arctic Fleet’s Chief of Sea Operations in the Northern Sea Route’s Western Sector. He had read Bukhtiyarov’s report about the escape.

The guard, who remained on the other side of the river, kept shooting, with no result though. After the escape, the Nazis took the station’s five staff members to the submarines and destroyed the station’s facilities with artillery. After that they left the Kara Sea for good. A British destroyer is believed to have sunk one of the submarines near Norway.

“A Soviet pilot found Bukhtiyarov and Nogayev in the tundra. During questioning, the polar explorer had listened attentively to what the talkative Nazis would say. They were sure an escape across the Arctic desert is impossible, as the nearest settlements were hundreds of kilometers away. According to Admiral Golovko, Bukhtiyarov managed to learn the circumstances of the Nord vessel’s sinking, the location of the Nazi submarines in the Kara Sea and the route they took to get into the sea,” Alexei Yeliseyenko said.

The Nazis declared the submarine’s mission a success. They lauded it as an excellent and thought-out operation, according to a German archive. Hitler’s Navy explained the failure in hunting Soviet ships by another “General Frost,” meaning “freezing water temperatures, icing and magnetic disturbances,” the historian said.

The polar station’s personnel were taken to a concentration camp. In 1945, the Soviet Army liberated Ventskovsky, Poblodzinsky, Utkin and Kondrashov. After the war, Ventskovsky and Bukhtiyarov participated in reconstruction of the station on Cape Sterlegov.

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