Secret German World War II Base Rediscovered Near North Pole

german arctic base
The research team from the Russian Arctic National Park, based in Arkhangelsk, say they’re the first to fully explore and map the wartime site on the remote island. These canisters once contained food and other supplies that were regularly airdropped to the base by German aircraft. (Image credit: Evgeny Ermolov/Russian Arctic National Park)

The remains of a secret World War II German base have been rediscovered on an island near the North Pole by a team of Russian researchers.

The wartime "Schatzgrabber" ("Treasure Hunter" in German) weather station was built by the German military in 1943 on Alexandra Land, one of the isolated Franz Josef Land islands in the Barents Sea, located more than 680 miles (1,100 kilometers) north of the Russian city of Arkhangelsk.

The islands are snowy and ice-bound for much of the year and the site was last visited in the 1980s, the researchers said. But earlier this year, in August, a Russian archaeological team was able to explore and catalog the remains of the wartime weather station for the first time. [See Photos of the Secret World War II German Base]

"This summer in the Arctic was very warm, so the entire area of Schatzgrabber was completely free of snow and ice, which made it possible to explore the area fully," team leader Evgeny Ermolov, a senior researcher with the Russian Arctic National Park, which now administers the island, said in a statement.

Among the finds are the remains of several German army and naval uniforms, and fragments of weapons and ammunition — including rifle and machine-gun rounds, land mines and hand grenades — that were abandoned when the last of the base's occupants were evacuated by a German U-boat in 1944.

About 10 German meteorologists and laborers were stationed on the island from 1943, as part of a secret network of Arctic stations to give advanced warnings of weather conditions over the northern oceans and northern Europe, which the German military considered essential to their strategic operations.

Ermolov said the research team recovered more than 600 objects from the remains of the base station buildings, an emergency supply depot near the base station and an emergency aircraft landing strip. These artifacts have been sent to the Arctic National Park museum in Arkhangelsk for further study, the researchers said.

Ermolov said the very dry and almost microbe-free environment of Alexandra Land also helped to preserve many wood, leather and cloth objects at the sites, as well as many remains of books and documents, including German naval manuals, meteorology textbooks, astronomical tables, weather records, magazines and a copy of Mark Twain's classic novel "Tom Sawyer."

Potluck polar bear

The research team also found supplies of canned food at the base, including sardines from Portugal, curiously labeled in English that they were for sale in America. [Flying Saucers to Mind Control: 7 Declassified Military & CIA Secrets]

But sardines weren't the only thing on the wartime menu in Alexandra Land. The waters of the bay beside the weather station began to freeze as the winter approached, and several boats filled with supplies and equipment were crushed by ice, the researchers said.

"Some of the supplies and equipment sank, and so the diet for the weather over the winter was rather limited. It is no surprise that they wanted some fresh meat, and so they killed polar bears, because that's all there was," Ermolov said.

But he added that the weathermen failed to cook the bear meat properly, and almost everyone who ate it suffered a bout of trichinosis, a painful and unpleasant roundworm infection caused by eating contaminated meat.

In response to the medical emergency at Alexandra Land, a daring rescue flight set out from a German air base at Banak, in Norway, in July 1944, to carry a doctor to the island and to bring back the stricken weathermen, according to the German historian Franz Selinger.

But the large FW-200 "Condor" aircraft damaged a wheel when it landed and a second aircraft had to be sent from Banak to airdrop a replacement wheel so that the first aircraft could take off with the medical evacuees.

Ermolov said the researchers had to search a very large area, but they were fortunate to find traces of the emergency airfield, including the remains of fuel barrels, tents, batteries, crates, smoke bombs and signal flares made in 1941.

"Earlier it was only known from written sources, but now we have real proof," Ermolov said.

Last outpost

The German base on Alexandra Land was not lost completely to history: after the war, some of the structures were used by the Soviet military until Russia’s Nagurskoye air base was built on the island in the 1950s.

A team of German military specialists also visited the islands in the 1980s to remove the minefields that had been planted around the wartime base to protect it from an assault, Ermolov said.

But he added that this summer was the first time that the site has been comprehensively studied and recorded since it was abandoned.

"We've made a complete description of the station and all the remaining objects, including [the remains] of the bunkhouse, the weather station, a network of fortifications and the landing strip where the staff were evacuated in July 1944," he said.

The cryptic name of the weather station, from the German word for Treasure Hunter, has fueled speculation that the secret base on Alexandra Land was used for more than keeping a watch on the Arctic weather. Some theories suggest the base was occupied by a unit of Nazi SS troops and may have had a role in the development of secret weapons, or a search for a mythical "Nordic homeland" in the islands of the Arctic Circle.

But polar historian William Barr told Live Science that the base was strictly a scientific base, and one of about 10 German weather stations on the scattered Arctic islands north of Europe (albeit an ill-fated one).

"It was quite disastrous — the expedition leader went crazy, and when they were flown out he had to be strapped down to the floor of the aircraft, so he wouldn’t run riot," Barr said.

And the Russian researchers have found no evidence to back the speculative theories about the Schatzgrabber base: "We have prepared a complete diagram of the station, and geo-referenced all the facilities, including [machinery] that suggests a German origin dating from the time of the Great Patriotic War [World War II]," Ermolov said. "Based on these data, we can eliminate some of the myths that have formed around the station for many years."

Original article on Live Science.

Live Science Contributor

Tom Metcalfe is a freelance journalist and regular Live Science contributor who is based in London in the United Kingdom. Tom writes mainly about science, space, archaeology, the Earth and the oceans. He has also written for the BBC, NBC News, National Geographic, Scientific American, Air & Space, and many others.