Orphan Island

How Nazi plans for Greenland base were blocked by joint CanadianU. S. Action

COROLYN COX July 1 1941

Orphan Island

How Nazi plans for Greenland base were blocked by joint CanadianU. S. Action

COROLYN COX July 1 1941

Orphan Island

How Nazi plans for Greenland base were blocked by joint CanadianU. S. Action


STRANGE problem in the seething world conflict is Greenland, the Danish island colony that, following the Nazi occupation of Denmark, found itself an orphan on the doorstep of the Western Hemisphere. The island’s welfare has now become the joint concern of Canada and the United States, and U.S. naval craft patrol its waters. The reason for this is obvious. Greenland is of vital strategic importance to the defense of North America.

The island’s western coast is but 200 miles from Canada’s northerly territory. Northern Greenland is but a hop from Ellesmere Island. From the island’s eastern coast it is, roughly, only 200 air miles to Iceland, and another 300-odd to the Faroes, which are within easy reach of Britain.

Greenland is thus an aerial stepping-stone between Europe and America. Whoever controls Greenland is in a position to dominate the vital northern supply line from Canada to beleaguered Britain.

Greenland’s meteorological observations are also of immense value to Britain—as they would have been to Germany—for North Sea weather is born there.

The island also has the only known commercial supply of cryolite, important requisite in the production of aluminum.

Germany has long had an eye on Greenland. Around the time of the Nazi invasion of Denmark, a “Norwegian” ship landed supplies for a party of alleged Norwegian scientists. Actually they were Nazi radio experts, come to set up a radio station. They were interned, the ship seized. Prior to the war Nazi planes made aerial surveys of the island.

This year when German planes were again reported over the island, Washington and Ottawa acted promptly. Denmark’s colony became the ward of North America for the duration. With Iceland under protective British occupation and Greenland under the protection of the United States, the northern stepping-stones to North America would thus seem to be safe.

What manner of place is this Greenland?

Largest island in the world, it is about 1,600 miles long,

barely 600 miles across at its widest, and lies beneath a perpetual ice cap, except for a narrow stretch along the coast. Only one seventh of the surface of the island is free from ice and snow at any time of the year.

Grasses, heather, willow and birch-brush are about all that grows in the ice-free stretches, and only in a few fiords in the southernmost shores do birch and elder reach above a man’s head.

Denmark was justly proud, very proud of what she was doing with Greenland before this war. She had made this strange colony of hers a demonstration wood lot, as it were, showing how a civilized nation should set about dealing with a primitive people put into its care—as so many

Danes sincerely believed—by Providence, and so considered by them a solemn responsibility.


GREENLAND was originally inhabited by a race of Eskimos, a cheerful, simple, lovable tribe, of excellent physique. Danes settled on the island; some married Eskimos. In time there has developed a race of Greenlanders, in whom the mixture of Danish and Eskimo blood has proved a success, has bred a happy, thriving strain.

There are about 16,000 of these Greenlanders on the island. Denmark has made certain that contact with European civilization made through her shall not ruin them as it has done too many of the primitive peoples of the earth. Therefore no miscellaneous trading with this island has been permitted. Administration of Greenland’s affairs was centred in the Grönlands Sly reise in Copenhagen, under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Trade and Navigation. The Danish government purchased all the supplies to be sent to Greenland, thus protecting the people from being exploited by purveyors of liquor or subjected to the “rackets” of modern industrial life.

Every encouragement was given to these people to learn to manage their own affairs, and an embryonic legislative assembly had been developed, though the country was still governed and directed by radio from Copenhagen. Two governors, Lands/ogeder, were sent over from Denmark, one stationed at Godthaab and the other at Godhavn, each of these centres a settlement of a few hundred souls. But these governors had not nearly the authority their titles imply. Copenhagen governed.

Several hundred Danes from Copenhagen constituted the civil service administration of the country. They included educators, religious instructors, doctors, nurses, in addition to kolonibestyrer, as the local administrators are called. Most of the Greenlanders learn to talk Danish, all read and write, and speak an Eskimo dialect as well.

For centuries, fishing and trapping have kept this hardy race alive. They still fish and trap, but they also eat foods other than those their island life supplies, wear clothing not fashioned from the skins of animals they shoot or trap. From Denmark came the year’s supplies of everything from fish hooks to woollen and cotton goods, shoes, building materials, books, hospital supplies. Fishing vessels of a dozen nations called every year in the quiet harbors of Greenland. A motley host of them, caught when the Nazi blitz swept over Europe, never again returned to their native shores, are today plying their fishing trade between Greenland waters and this continent.

Providence blessed—or cursed—Greenland and its simple people with the gift of the only known commercial supply of cryolite in the world. Before the present war broke out, the famous cryolite mine was undoubtedly a blessing. Cryolite is essential for the reduction of aluminum out of bauxite, serving as a flux. The world’s consumption of aluminum has gone steadily upward, jumped to staggering proportions, of course, during the period of preparation lor this war. Greenland’s great cryolite mine was owned jointly by private capital and the Danish Government, control lying with the government. Proceeds from the annual sales have been used to return a fine profit on the private capital, and, on behalf of the people of Greenland, the Government’s profits have provided one of the finest public services in the world. Medical care, old age pensions—everybody had these advantages in Greenland !

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It is an arresting picture, Greenland before the war. There was no suggestion of charity about all this. The natural resources of the island were made to give the people who lived on it as their common right that modicum of social security for which the world clamors.

Now suddenly this gift of Providence, cryolite, catapults this island child into the thick of a desperate, warring world. Germany has no acute need of the cryolite —she had seen well to her huge supplies before opening the conflict. But she might well desire to keep Great Britain and the United States from getting their stocks of cryolite as their use of aluminum is forced skyward by the pressure of munitions and aircraft production.

Greenland Weather Research

ANOTHER “natural product” of

• Greenland, fostered by the Danish government, was weather forecasts. Weather moves in on the British Isles from the west, from the coast of Greenland. A famous Danish scientist, Dr. Porsild, years ago established on Greenland the first polar research station in the world, which attracted scientists from all parts of the world. A dozen radio stations were built to provide weather forecasts for the use of State navigation and fishery, as well as to foreign fishing vessels, and latterly, of course, to aircraft of the world.

During the summer of 1940, Greenland’s weather forecasts went off the air. Thus was added further hazard to Nazi bombing of the British Isles.

From the beginning of hostilities the interest of both Great Britain and the United States in the fate of Greenland was a vital one. Great Britain left the problem in the hands of the member of her Commonwealth most nearly concerned — Canada. The United States and Canada each decided to establish direct diplomatic relations with Greenland, and appointed consular representatives.

How sudden had been the blackout of free Denmark was explained to me recently when I found Henrik de Kauffman, Danish Minister to the United States, in his official residence on “Diplomatic Row” up Massachusetts Avenue beyond the Canadian Legation in Washington. There was no vestige of a quarrel between Germany and Denmark. By the Treaty of Versailles, Denmark, one of the few nations satisfied by that unhappy treaty, got back the section of Slesvig inhabited predominantly by Danes, which had been lost to Germany in 1864. Prewar relations with Germany had been satisfactory. Yet, without a word of warning to Denmark, a cloud of Nazi bombers darkened the sky over Copenhagen, and Nazi naval craft surrounded Danish shores. There was no time to plan a defense.

The handsome grey-haired Dane accredited by King Christian to Washington when the sovereign and government of Denmark were still free agents, occupies an extraordinarily anomalous position. Unlike the representatives of other German-conquered countries, he does not head a government in exile. Yet, in signing the treaty with the United States whereby Denmark agreed to U.S. guardianship of the colony, Henrik de Kauffman spoke alone for his country, acted solely according to the dictates of his conscience.

His became the voice of Denmark, so constituted by President Roosevelt’s conception of the Monroe Doctrine and his decree that its principles applied to the island of Greenland. So to the protection of the U.S. and Canada went this convenient stepping-stone in two directions— either for Nazi bombers and submarines headed for North America, or U.S. bombers and other supplies being delivered to beleaguered Britain.

Relations with Copenhagen, Mr. de Kauffmann explained, remain perfectly normal in many ways. He writes letters— always unsealed—concerning routine matters such as deaths to be reported, estates to be investigated, lost relatives found, divorces, and receives replies from the Nazi controlled Danish Government.

“At the same time I am aware,” he added, “that in such matters as the agreement I have just signed with the United States I cannot consult Copenhagen in any way.

“I came to this country to represent my king and a free, independent people. That is what I still am here for. I will work for one thing alone, the re-establishment of a free and independent Denmark. Many will work with me, and I know we shall succeed. Sitting at their radios in the blackout that covers Denmark now, my countrymen will have heard the President’s statement, will have felt encouraged, grateful for President Roosevelt’s expression of hope for a speedy liberation of Denmark, and his assurance that Greenland will remain Danish.”

Wartime Trade

AFTER the blitz hit Denmark, the ■4X Greenland Assembly was called together by the two Danish Governors, Eske Brun and Aksel Svane, and gave them its unanimous support in taking over in person the administration of the island. Since then a Greenland delegation has come to New York, headed by Albrecht Fischer. It is authorized to buy and sell on behalf of Greenland and the Pennsylvania Salt Manufacturing Company has been made the U.S. agent for the product of the cryolite mine.

The Aluminum Company of Canada, Limited, Mr. Fischer has announced, will act as purchasing agents for the govern-

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ment of Greenland. This means that those supplies formerly sent over to Greenland from Denmark will now be purchased Canada. About a million dollars a year, realized from the sale of cryolite in the United States, will be used to pay for supplies bought in Canada on behalf Greenland, thus assisting Canada to welcome extent in finding U.S. dollars for her own wartime needs from the United States.

It is hard to predict what will be the future role of Greenland in the present war. U.S. survey parties are now there preparing to establish air fields on the forbidding, rough terrain of such strips of the island as are not glacier-bound. There are plenty of harbors in the innumerable fiords, which give shelter to hundreds small boats in the fishing fleets; but docking developments have yet been undertaken on a scale comparable to those of ports on our Atlantic coast.

Although cryolite will continue to come from Greenland for the use of both the United States and the British, the subject is one on which little will be said by either government. The Nazis may have sources of information about events Greenland—even if they have not succeeded in landing another party of radio experts on the island, which possibility was hinted at in Mr. Roosevelt’s recent speech. Nevertheless neither our government nor Washington will take any chances on presenting Berlin with any tidbits of information that might not have reached that far.

When we set up our consulate in Greenland, the first Canadian consulate to be set up anywhere, Kenneth Kirkwood Toronto, who, till war broke out had been second secretary to the Canadian Legation at the Hague, was sent directly to Greenland from London. To assist him as viceconsul, Ottawa found—working as botanist in the National Museum—Erling Porsild, Danish-born Canadian scientist, son of Dr. Porsild of Greenland, and for some years himself a resident on the island. Mr. Porsild was remarkably qualified to be assistance to his government at this time. He speaks both Danish and Eskimo fluently, already knows the country intimately and many of its inhabitants are his old friends.

A consulate building was erected last summer entirely from supplies brought from Canada, Mr. Porsild personally instructing the local carpenters in the construction, introducing the first central heat and water system on the island. The site was selected by the Canadians near the seat of government at Godthaab. and presented to Canada by Greenland.

Mr. Roosevelt has reiterated the intention of his government to protect the interests of the natives of Greenland. Canadians will join him in hoping that Greenland, with the world’s supply cryolite in her lap in the midst of the war’s fury, may not experience the devastation of war.

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