For today, a story of heroism during World War II: several local men were involved in Operation Gauntlet, a mission to the island of Spitsbergen in 1941. Four of those men were Alf. Tousignant of GP, Pte. Bill Purvis of Grande Prairie, C.S.M. Jim Stone of Blueberry Mountain, and Colin White of Spirit River.
Operation Gauntlet was the only major operation of Canadian Forces from the U.K. that year. It was bloodless and completely successful.
Spitsbergen, the largest of the islands in Norway’s Svalbard Archipelago, was rich in coal. As a free economic zone, the Arctic island was of interest to many countries sharing equal rights to run commercial activities there. Denmark, France, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, the UK and the Dominions, the US, the Soviet Union and Germany could all have opened mines but it was Norway and the Soviet Union that were most active, Norway holding governorship since 1925. At the time of the war, nearly 800 islanders were Norwegian; the other 2000 residents were Soviet, working for a coal company that had been excavating since 1931.
All was peaceful in the Spitsbergen demilitarized zone. The same could not be said for the rest of the world. Allied nations began to fear that Germany would take an active interest in Spitsbergen’s resources, in the weather and radio stations as well as in the coal, to fuel plans for war. Still, Norway governed the island and there was, as yet, no reason to interrupt Norwegian and Soviet mining.
By 1940, Germany was occupying Norway. A non-aggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union was still being honoured: that changed with the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. Things were definitely getting hot. There was no question that Norway and the Soviet Union should take the U.K. up on plans to destroy Spitsbergen’s stockpile of resources, as well as evacuate islanders who would be defenseless against invasion.
Plans for Operation Gauntlet had been underway for two years. It was to be a combined operations raid: Free Norwegian Forces servicemen, Canadian troops, and British army logistics working together to destroy coal mine infrastructure, equipment and stores as well as knocking out weather and radio stations on Spitsbergen, in the Arctic Circle, only 600 miles south of the North Pole.
According to The Loyal Edmonton Regiment Military Museum: Originally, the British had selected the 2nd Canadian. Infantry Brigade to take part in the operation, but, when the force set sail on 19 August 1941, the Canadian contingent only included one company and one platoon of The Loyal Edmonton Regiment, the 84-man detachment of machine gun crews of the Saskatoon Light Infantry (MG), and the 3rd Field Company of the Royal Canadian Engineers. The Edmonton Regiment claimed to be the most Northerly Infantry Regiment in the British Empire – is that why they were assigned the mission in the midnight sun?
The special composite force, commanded by Philip Vian, was dispatched on Aug. 19th, 1941. Carrying 645 troops of all ranks, troopship Empress of Australia, two Royal Navy Cruisers, HMS Nigeria, Auroraand three destroyers set sail. It was not clearly known whether German forces were monitoring the island or not; on August 1st the destruction of a weather station on Bear Island, also Norwegian, had been discovered and it was likely that the Germans would make a move to claim Spitsbergen. However, on August 25th the British, Canadian and Norwegian troops landed with no opposition. In fact they were heartily welcomed. Local colliers and volunteers helped to collect coal and destroy the
weather station. The island’s two radio stations broadcast normally, reporting heavy fog in order to deter German observation planes. Evacuation proceedings began: Soviet miners and their families were taken to Arkhangelsk, Russia on the RMS Empress of Canada without encountering trouble.
By the first of September, Operation Gauntlet was almost complete. Altogether 450,000 tons of coal and 275000 Imperial Gallons of fuel, oil, petrol and grease were destroyed. The final act before the remaining troops and volunteers (and dogsled teams) left was to destroy the radio stations, which was quickly carried out. The Germans noticed the break in transmissions and made several urgent attempts to find out what had happened. The island was deserted. All inhabitants of Spitsbergen, Norwegians from Longyearbyen and Soviets from Barentsburg, were safely relocated. Operation Gauntlet was a success.
Knocking out Arctic weather stations was a vital tactical move for the Allies. For example, in 1944, it was essential to know that there would be a brief break in June storms – long enough for amphibious and parachute landings at Normandy beach. There are pictures of WWII era weather stations here.
Some information is available about what parts our local men played in Operation Gauntlet. Pte. Bill Purvis of Grande Prairie stood in as butcher for residents and troops alike during the evacuation proceedings. C.S.M. Jim Stone of Blueberry Mountain became “commissioner” of Barentsburg, running regular community services. And Colin White of Spirit River was part of the Guard Brigadier.
Colin White of Spirit River made it into our history book. He came to Spirit River in 1933 on the wagon trail, then carved a life for himself farming, hauling logs, freighting grain and clearing roads until he joined the army along with his brother Ernie. After Spitsbergen he was with the 1st Canadian Division for the invasion of Sicily, and then on to Italy. White was in service until 1947, after which he homesteaded in the Bronco Creek area with his wife and son.
Unfortunately it is difficult to find information about the people from Spirit River who have gone to war. Verbal accounts are so easily lost and rarely accessible outside the circle of family and friends, yet these stories are so important to us all. If you have a story, Town Spirit would be honoured to help you share it with the Spirit River area and beyond. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org.