For America, World War II started on December 7, 1941.  In Europe, however, the war started in September 1939 with Germany’s invasion of Poland. By April 1940, Norway fell to the Weimar Army and Luftwaffe forcing the Norwegian government into exile.

Russia, which joined the war on the side of the Allies on June 22, 1941, needed supplies. Germany sent 3,000,000 men and tanks across the Russian border and caught the Russians by surprise.  The United States, which had been supplying the U.K. with supplies under the “Lend Lease” program, extended a similar offer to Russia.

The convoy system that worked well in World War I was reinstituted.  Staging from east coast ports in the U.S. and Canada, the lifeline of democracy in Europe was stretched thin. Supplying U.K. and Russian ports, notably Liverpool and Glasgow, in the U.K. and Murmansk in Russia, it became increasingly difficult as German U-boats and aircraft sank ships as fast as they could be built or pressed into service.

Allied shipping losses grew astronomically.  Lloyd’s, the London based insurer, recorded the grim (and growing toll) beginning with the ATHENIA, sunk on the first day of the war with a loss of 93 passengers and 19 crew.  Here are the losses between 1939 and 1941:

51 ships lost in September 1939
45 lost in October 1939
53 lost in November 1939
73 in December 1939
222 sunk in 1939

69 in January 1940
53 in February 1940
38 in March 1940
44 in April 1940
113 in May 1940
167 in June 1940
114 in July 1940
109 in August 1940
94 in September 1940
118 in October 1940
126 in November 1940
83 in December 1940
1128 sunk in 1940

68 in January 1941
102 in February 1941
142 in March 1941
229 in April 1941
191 in May 1941
105 in June 1941
52 in July 1941
46 in August 1941
81 in September 1941
59 in October 1941
49 in November 1941
12 through 7 December – the U.S. entry into the war.
122 in all of December 1941
1246 sunk in 1941

Almost 2,500 ships before the U.S. joined the war.  The losses continued through 1942 and into 1943.  Berman submarines operated in the Greenland-Iceland gap and the Iceland-Faroe Island gap.  Closer to land, German aircraft harassed ships that were not designed, armored nor equipped to fight against the Luftwaffe.  These were rich hunting grounds as Allied convoys ran the gauntlet to get much needed war materials safely to their destination.  The outcome of the war depended on it!

Against this backdrop the following six part series of our U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard involvement with Jan Mayen begins.

Finding Jan Mayen Island on a map is hard.  The island is only 373 square miles – roughly twice the size of Washington D.C.  Its northern latitude: 71 degrees north puts it well above the Arctic Circle – northeast of Iceland, between Greenland and Norway.  You need to look at a more specialized map of the Arctic region to appreciate the strategic importance of Jan Mayen in protecting the convoys that were the lifeblood of the war effort.  U-boats hunted with near impunity in those frigid waters, and the allies needed a direction finding (DF) station for critical lines of bearings to triangulate the enemy.

Jan Mayen was a good location, but conditions were harsh!  It was not an easy sell to officials in Washington.  There were many issues to resolve and hardships to endure!