U-537’s Top Secret Incursion into Canadian Waters
May/June 2012 by Gerard Kenney
In 1969, I worked for Bell Telephone Company of Canada, today Bell Canada. As a telecommunication engineer, I was given the responsibility of overseeing the expansion and maintenance of a high frequency radiotelephone network. That network covered the Inuit Communities of the eastern half of Canada’s Arctic, including those in Labrador and Nouveau Québec.
The first Inuit community I visited in my new job was Port Burwell in the Northwest Territories, now Nunavut. My task was to fly from Quebec City to Port Burwell via Fort Chimo, today Kuujjuaq, to plan and design a high frequency radio system that would provide Port Burwell with radiotelephone communications with other northern communities, as well as the rest of Canada. Port Burwell — it no longer exists (In 1978, the village was abandoned and most residents were re-settled at Kangiqsualujjuaq in Nunavik, formerly known as George River.) — was located on Killiniq (Killinek) Island where Ungava Bay meets the Labrador Sea.
Times had already started to change at a rapid pace in the Arctic, but Port Burwell, being in a relatively isolated area of the North, had yet to feel much change. In the winter, the Inuit travelled by dog team. There were dogs everywhere. There were very few skidoos in town and government employees mainly used those. Seal meat and fish were the staple fare for both man and dogs. Walking through the village one morning, I crossed paths with an elderly Inuk who spoke a bit of English. Concerned with all the loose dogs running around, especially as I was limping along like a wounded animal from a badly sprained ankle, I asked him, “Do the dogs bite?” “No, no bite,” he reassured me with a big smile. Feeling better, I carried on our separate ways. But then, from a distance behind me, I heard him yell, “Only sometime!”
In 1969, the modern world had not quite reached Port Burwell. Yet, only some 50 kilometres to the southeast of the village, in small, well-protected Martin Bay, unknown to all of Canada,German agents had secretly installed a very advanced electronic weather station. Its ultimate role in the Second World War was to promote the destruction of the Allied forces.
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In 1943, the world was just entering the fifth year of the Second World War. Atlantic Ocean waters were crawling with German U-boats whose area of activity included the American and Canadian eastern seaboards. It even reached deeply into the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. U-boats penetrated more deeply into Canadian waters than most Canadians realized. The Ottawa Government spread a veil of secrecy over most of such information.
U-boats prowled the Atlantic, hunting down and attacking convoys of ships carrying food and war material essential for the Allied war effort in Europe. They succeeded in sending countless tons of essential supplies down to Davy Jones’ Locker, depriving the Allied war effort of them. However, on September 18, 1943, when U-537 quietly slipped her moorings in Kiel, Germany, and headed west across the Atlantic toward Canada, it was on a different kind of mission, a top-secret mission that did not directly involve torpedoing enemy ships. Twenty-three-year-old Kapitän- Leutnant Peter Schrewe (Captain Schrewe) was on his first wartime submarine sortie.
On his Atlantic crossing from Kiel, Captain Schrewe discovered that the open sea could be very rough at times for vessels as fragile as a submarine. U-537 was fitted with the usual anti-aircraft ack-ack deck gun, but before the U-boat reached the Canadian coast, a ferocious Atlantic storm had ripped it off the deck.
Once the ship had safely reached the Labrador coast, its next moves were, of necessity, very, very delicate. That part of the coast is littered with innumerable craggy rocks, small islands and dangerous shoals. Captain Schrewe carefully threaded his sub through the natural obstacles as if through a minefield to reach a safe harbour and complete his mission, protected fromthe turbulent open sea.On October 22, 1943, the captain guided his slim ship south into Ikkudliayuk Fiord between Home Island and Avayalik Islands, past Oo-Olilik Island and into a tiny cove named Martin Bay, which is completely protected from any storms that might rage out in the open sea. (Martin Bay was not officially part of Canada at that time because Labrador had not yet joined our country).
Once safely anchored in Martin Bay, Schrewe and his men executed their top-secret mission.Their first job was to muscle ashore the heavy components of an electronic, automatic, unmanned, weather reporting station. Inflatable rubber boats were used to float the heavy components of equipment to shore.Once the equipment was safely landed, the technicians assembled the parts into a working weather reporting station.
Siemens, the same German company that still supplies electronic equipment to the world, had designed and built 26 such weather stations, one of which was KURT, as the station in Labrador was named. KURT comprised a mast, an antenna, a radio transmitter, various meteorological measuring instruments, as well as ten 220 pound steel barrels that contained nickel-cadmium dry-cell batteries. It took the better part of two days for the sub’s technicians to assemble KURT and put it into service.
The station would record atmospheric conditions and report them back to German receiving stations by radio signals. Being able to know the atmospheric conditions that prevail, or will prevail at any one time in sea and air battle areas, is obviously a crucial factor for the success of military operations. Once the weather station was in operation and tested, Schrewe and his men carefully turned their ship around, snaked out of the perilous position they were in, and disappeared over the horizon into the Atlantic — mission accomplished. The whole time U-537 spent in the shallow waters of Martin Bay, she had been in an extremely vulnerable position had she been discovered. She could not have dived,or otherwise navigated to escape the prison she had put herself into. In other words, she would have been a sitting duck in any attack.However, unknown to Canada,Germany had successfully built a weather station on the coast.
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When I travelled to Port Burwell in 1969, some 24 years after the Second World War had ended, Canada and Canadians still knew nothing about the wartime weather station that had operated from their shore.
In 1979, a retired Siemens engineer in Germany, Franz Selinger,was writing a book on Arctic weather reconnaissance during the Second World War.He contacted Dr. Alec Douglas, official historian for Canada’s Department of National Defence. Selinger was looking for details on two weather stations that had operated during the Second World War, one of which was supposed to have been on the coast of Labrador. For a long time, Dr. Douglas searched, but could find nothing in military files or archival records about such a Labrador operation. In Germany, Selinger doggedly persisted in his search over a period of several years. He paged through hundreds of German submarine logbooks for clues. Then, one day he came across the logbook of U-537, signed byCaptain Peter Schrewe,detailing his orders to proceed to the Labrador coast to erect an automatic weather station. The logbook, of course, held the key to the exact location of the German weather station!
On finding the logbook, Selinger was ecstatic. It was like discovering the mother lode. He lost no time in calling Douglas, in Canada, to tell him the good news. Douglas immediately called an old buddy of his in the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG), James (Jim) Clarke, to see if it would be possible for Selinger to hitch a ride on a CCG ship to Martin Bay to find the German installation. A CCG icebreaker on its yearly trip North along the Labrador coast passed just a few kilometres away from KURT.Not only was it possible, replied Clark, getting into the spirit of the hunt, but he suggested that all three of them, Selinger, Douglas and himself, board the Louis S. St-Laurent icebreaker together on her yearly trip.
On July 16, 1983, the three men and Donna Andrew, a Transport Canada Marine Liaison Officer left Dartmouth aboard the icebreaker and five days later dropped anchor just off the Labrador coast at approximately the latitude of Martin Bay. All four piled into the Louis S. St-Laurent’s helicopter. The pilot was able to fly them to the exact location of KURT in Martin Bay because of the precise nautical information in Schrewe’s log. The weather station was still there, but as expected, it had deteriorated quite a bit. It could still be recovered, though. The remains of KURT were brought back south to Ottawa where the weather station was restored to a condition, if not new, that reflected a more realistic amount of wear and tear of a working unit. The weather station is now on exhibit in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.
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Unanswered questions still remain about the KURT episode, questions that time may answer, and no doubt some that will never be answered.
- Numerous signs left behind over time that indicated the passage of visitors to the site after its installation. One was a live British 303 cartridge with British Dominion inscribed on it. There were signs of attempts made to destroy KURT.Who were the visitors? Did Inuit visit the site? Could they have come across KURT, and in their innate curiosity to understand, rendered the weather station inoperative? If so they may have unknowingly contributed to the Allied war effort.
- A geomorphologist and professor of geography at Carleton University, J. Peter Johnson, actually came across the remains of KURT while working in the area in 1977, but did not stop to examine them. He suggested that Inuit had frequently visited the site.
- A Labrador coastal pilot, Captain W. F. Shields, heard stories from the Labrador Inuit about the “umilakalu” that went under the water like a duck, suggesting that the Inuit spoke of the submarine. He also mentioned that there were many Inuit in the general area of Martin Bay.
- How long did KURT send weather information back to its German masters? KURT’s technical specifications indicated it was built to continue operating for only three months. U-537’s log indicated that meteorological data were transmitted for at least two weeks.
- After about two months of sending out radio signals, KURT’s radio frequency was jammed.Who did the jamming? There are no definitive answers found in the records.
- What was KURT’s contribution, if any, to the prosecution of the Second World War?
One question that did get answered, though, concerns the history of U-537 after her 1943mission to the Labrador coast. In November 1944, after being transferred to the Asian theatre, U-537 received detailed, encoded radio signals ordering her to patrol off the coast of Bali. Unfortunately forU-537, her detailed orders were also received by American code-breakers. The American military quickly mounted a three-submarine co-ordinated search and attack group under the USS Flounder to meet U-537. Flounder met her with torpedoes. U-537 sank with all hands on-board.
Kapitän-Leutnant Peter Schrewe was at the helm of U-537 when she was destroyed.