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Greenland, Cryolite and Confrontation

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  • Greenland, Cryolite and Confrontation

    Roadkiller's "The war came once ..." post re: St. Pierre et Miquelon, 2 French Is. in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and mention of Greenland in a response reminded me of the following little known, but somewhat crucial episode of WWII:

    Canada' s aborted occupation,

    German propaganda leaflets were still fluttering in the air over Copenhagen when Canada's Foreign Ministry received a panicked telegram from the Aluminium Company of Canada on 9 April 1940. Alcan was accustomed to getting 3,500 tons of ore annually from the cryolite mine at Ivigtut, and if the mine was shut down or fell into enemy hands, not a pound of aluminium would be produced in North America.

    Canada immediately started planning for a modest invasion of Ivigtut and a few other points in Greenland. The icebreaker N. B. McLean was readied for the task, since ice conditions were still heavy; it was thought necessary to post a small contingent of RCMP (mounted police, though probably without their mounts) at the two capitals, Godhavn and Godthaab, and to post a larger security force of maybe forty men at the mine itself. The police intended to assist in public administration matters, but it is certain that they would not have received the cold shoulder on the island. Gradually, the planned force grew, until at one time Force X was contemplated to reach 250 men. A small artillery site was planned on an island in the middle of Arsuk Fjord, which leads to the cryolite mine, to close its entry to any German raiders.

    Waiting for the ice to melt, Canada and Britain decided to consult with the United States. The Pennsylvania Salt Manufacturing Company had the exclusive rights to import and sell the Danish cryolite in North America. PennSalt was also extremely interested in what became of Ivigtut, and the company's owners were just as busy consulting with the State Department and Mr. Kauffmann as Alcan was with Ottawa.

    Britain believed Canada, as an American nation now, should take the initiative on London's behalf. This would least upset the Americans and their imperious Monroe doctrine. Legal precedent being important in such matters, the governments fished out the guarantee London had sought from Denmark in 1920 to ensure that Britain was consulted about any third-party sovereignty for Greenland in the future. They also noted that since Denmark was occupied by Germany, Greenland was legally enemy territory, and therefore an Allied occupation could be considered legitimate; except perhaps by the Americans, who had, in 1916, guaranteed that they respected Danish sovereignty in Greenland and would resist the island's alienation.

    These arguments were also not missed in Washington. On 13 April, Secretary of State Cordell Hull was already warning the Canadians to cool their plans for Greenland. By this time, Prime Minister Mackenzie King was starting a lengthy and cordial summit with FDR. Apparently King was not as eager to invade as were his staff at the Department of National Defence; he was surprised by how far the plans had gotten, and instead agreed with FDR that the two nations should coordinate more modest plans for Greenland, including each sending a cutter to the island with humanitarian supplies. Later historians, eager to play up a split with the Americans, have suggested that King was browbeaten into accepting American overlordship in Greenland, but this is not true; the Canadians accepted the fact of American priority for practical reasons. King wrote that "clearly our people had been a little overzealous in preparing for a little war on Canada's own account." King went home and cancelled the operation.

    At this time, FDR was merely suggesting that:
    ...the United States might send a revenue cutter to Greenland - it might take up radio sets and binoculars so that the coast could be watched, and alarms given - fires might be started on hill tops, etc. He thought it would be well for the Canadian captain of the Nascopie and the U.S. Revenue Cutter captain to have a conference at Montreal or elsewhere before either started off.

    But this was not enough for either the worried Britons or for Alcan. London proposed that the Canadian operation go forward without informing the United States. This now seemed unrealistic enough for Ottawa to suggest that this advice must have come from "the same genius who planned the operation in Norway" [an ongoing debacle].

    The upshot was that in May 1940, three ships from three nations steamed toward Ivigtut. First, as we have seen, was the USCG cutter Comanche; second came the Canadian Arctic supply ship Nascopie; and last, the Danish cryolite ship Julius Thomsen. The latter had been brought up by the British in Kirkwall, where it was reflagged as a prize vessel, and finally released for Ivigtut with a three-man naval guard on board. This ship also carried the new Canadian consul for Greenland, Mr. Kirkwood.

    Canada had advised of these plans by telegram to the Greenland governors on 15 May, and had received a polite but noncommittal response. Ottawa was also intercepting Kauffmann's telegraphy to Greenland and was thus informed about ongoing plans for the United States there. Nonetheless, the British and Canadian ships touched off a minor diplomatic incident when they showed up in Ivigtut in the beginning of June.

    The American Assistant Secretary of State, Mr. Adolf Berle, hauled the Canadian ambassador in for a chat and demanded to know why Canada and Britain were sending warships with invasion forces to Greenland. The fact that the two little ships carried only a few RCMP constables and a naval guard did not assuage him; he was also worried about the "artillery" carried, a couple of machine guns in storage on board Nascopie. Berle assured Canada, as he would on a couple of occasions, that FDR would be "very angry" if Canada proceeded with an occupation.

    It may have been the last time that an American diplomat would pontificate to the European imperialists that "the age of Cecil Rhodes is over." The age of the Dulles Brothers was just dawning.

    It turned out that it was the Danes in Greenland who had set Berle up to the confrontation. They were worried about going the way of Iceland, then being occupied by a belligerent, and when they saw the Empire ships, their paranoia took over and the Canadians were denied disembarkation. This was the situation when Comanche hurried down from Godthaab to foil the "invasion." In fact, the Nascopie could hardly be more innocent; it was a small freighter making its regular rounds of the Arctic, carrying as always some feeble paraphernalia of Canadian sovereignty.

    Mackenzie King was at least as worried about the Americans as he was about the Germans, and he soon ordered an increase in sovereignty patrols in the Arctic. As early as 20 April 1940, Captain Henry Larsen (an ex-Norwegian) of the Arctic cutter St. Roch, then in Vancouver, was approached about taking his ship through the Northwest Passage in order to be of assistance in Greenland waters. The ship left on 21 June, but spent two winters frozen in near the Magnetic Pole, and never did get to Greenland. Nascopie, however, did show up there.

    Recently, the National Film Board of Canada looked into this can of worms, and produced a little film which claims that the Americans and the Danes blocked the Nascopie at the mine - but that a generous gift of liquor from the Canadian crew persuaded the miners to load the ship with 1500 tones of cryolite. Actually, the Nascopie and its small official crew was a victim of a serious misunderstanding. The Danes refused the Canadians entry, and generally received both British and Canadian representatives with cold hostility. This did not abate until it dawned that Canada had no intention of invading Greenland, and fully respected the American protectorate. Whatever Canada's intentions, by the 1941 shipping season, Baffin Bay was an American Mare Nostrum, and the Dominion was anyway more than stretched trying to aid the Old Country in the North Atlantic.

    The Canadian side of this story is not often told. For balance, let us recount a Canadian reminiscence of this episode (from the obscure 1955 book Arctic Command, about the ship Nascopie and its captain).
    [Cpt. Smellie] was ordered to Nova Scotia to pick up an Army officer and four service men with "anti-aircraft armament," and found this to consist of ancient machine guns and half a dozen rifles and ammunition. "What good these would do I never discovered," he says....The ship then sailed to Greenland with relief supplies, with orders to return with cryolite for the Aluminum Company of Canada at Port Alfred, Quebec.

    Once again, like the recurrence of a bad dream, the Captain experienced the waste and frustration of war, especially as it strikes at a little ship with work to do. He arrived at Ivigtut to be faced by the Port Authorities' suspicion and distrust. What was the purpose of the visit? On whose orders? Why had there been no advance warning of the Nascopie's mission?
    The Captain explained that this was a goodwill mission from the Canadian Government, since it was thought that the Danes running the mines would be short of fresh provisions. Two armed U.S. Coast Guard vessels now anchored near the ship. It was obvious that someone had blundered by failing to make any arrangements between the Danish and Canadian governments.

    "We have no shortage of provisions, " said the Port Authorities. "And nobody will be allowed ashore..." The next day, after being blown from the anchorage, a pilot came on board to escort the Nascopie to safe anchorage in a fjord twenty miles from Ivigtut. There the ship stayed for three weeks. "We twiddled our thumbs," says the Captain. "The soldiers amused themselves with shooting off their rifles and the rest of us cleaned the ship. We were at war again..."

    It took four weeks for the red tape to be unsnarled, after which the Danish Cryolite Company made amends by dining and wining the Nascopie officers and crew, and the ship was discharged of her supplies and loaded with cryolite. The Captain found maximum security in force at the mine. The ship was moored against a narrow neck of rock which formed a wall between the sea and the mine, and from the bridge he could look down into the depths, a hundred feet below. Buckets on a rail track, each carrying a ton, brought the cryolite into the holds. No Eskimo were allowed near the cryolite township, and all labour was brought from Denmark in a Danish Cryolite Company steamer.

    The Nascopie sailed back to Canada, bucking the ice. She had 3,500 tons of the precious basis of aluminium in her holds....

    [Later] There was another nightmare in Greenland, where the Nascopie was ordered again for a cargo of cryolite. The ship was held for ten days in a bay sixteen miles away from Ivigtut, until the Captain protested that water and provisions were getting low. When he did make port he asked for 200 tons of coal, and received twenty tons a day. "I was burning twenty a day, so this got me nowhere. They told me to try down the coast at Julianehaab, where the only coaling facilities were a couple of rowboats and some women loaders. We took in fifty tons and were advised to return to Ivigtut. We had burned sixty tons on the return trip, run into a hurricane, been without food for eighteen hours, and lost everything movable on deck. So the net result of our journey was a loss of ten tons. That's war."

    The cold welcome apparently took weeks to wear off, but eventually Canada's consul, Kirkwood, and his Danish-speaking deputy, Porsild, were accepted as representatives of the neighbouring country in Godthaab. Britain continued to nudge Canada to take defence initiatives in Greenland, both with regard to the security of the cryolite mine, and later in an attempt to find sites for airfields, weather stations, and radio ranges in the Julianehaab area. But Ottawa always ultimately deferred to Washington in these matters, and as it turned out, the Americans were starting to undertake the tasks London had urged Ottawa to pick up.

    The wary Danes thought the initial benevolent American presence more "altruistic and disinterested" - but when it became clear next year that the American protectorate had become overwhelming, at least some Danish officials regretted that the British or Canadian invasion had not come to pass. They thought it would have been easier to get the Empire troops to leave than the Americans, who had now obtained a treaty of questionable legality, containing no clear termination clause.

    All in all, despite the rifts and misunderstandings, Canadian cooperation with the United States proceeded on an ever closer basis, and when the American protectorate was formally established on 9 April 1941, it was with the full understanding that Canada (and by extension the British) would be allowed to make use of American facilities in Greenland. In fact, RAF planes were the first to make use of the new American bases. The two aluminium companies also worked out their differences in close consultation, PennSalt being given the right of operation in Ivigtut, and Alcan receiving its share of the supply.

    What EXACTLY is Cryolite you ask?

    Chemistry: Na3AlF6, Sodium Aluminium Fluoride
    Class: Halides
    Uses: as a aid to aluminium processing and other industrial uses and as mineral specimens.
    Cryolite is an uncommon mineral of very limited natural distribution. Mostly considered a one locallity mineral, for although there are a few other minor locallities, it was only found in large quantities on the west coast of Greenland.
    It was used as a solvent of the aluminium rich ore, bauxite, which is a combination of aluminium oxides such as gibbsite, boehmite and diaspore. It is very difficult to remove atoms of aluminium from atoms of oxygen which is necessary in order to produce aluminium metal. Cryolite made an excellent flux to make the process less expensive. Now it is too rare to be used for this purpose and sodium aluminium fluoride is produced artificially to fill the void.
    A curious note about cryolite is the fact that it has a low index of refraction close to that of water. This means that if immersed in water, a perfectly clear colourless crystal of cryolite or powdered cryolite will essentially disappear. Even a specimen of cloudy cryolite will become more transparent and its edges will be less distinct, an effect similar to ice in water except that the ice floats.
    Colour is clear or white to yellowish, but can also be black or purple.
    Luster is vi****us.
    Transparency crystals are transparent to translucent.
    Crystal System is monoclinic; 2/m
    Crystal Habits are usually massive and as pseudo-cubic crystals, some with pseudo-octahedral truncations.
    Cleavage is absent, but three parting directions produce what looks like a pseudo-cubic cleavage.
    Fracture is uneven.
    Hardness is 2.5 - 3
    Specific Gravity is 2.95 (average)
    Streak is white.
    Other Characteristics: index of refraction is 1.338 which is close to the index of refraction of water. As a consequence, clear cryolite crystals or powdered cryolite will nearly disappear in water. Also there is no salty taste which is helpful in distinguishing cryolite from the mineral halite.
    Associated Minerals include siderite, quartz, topaz, fluorite, chalcopyrite, galena, cassiterite, molybdenite, columbite and wolframite.
    Notable Occurrences include Ivigtut area of Greenland and also at the foot of Pikes Peak at Creede, Colorado, USA, Mont Saint-Hilaire and Francon Quarry, Montreal, Quebec, Canada and at Miask, Russia.
    Best Field Indicators are lack of salty taste, density, index of refraction, locality and crystal habit.
    Last edited by Marmat; 01 Jan 13, 12:33.
    "I am Groot"
    - Groot

  • #2
    Originally posted by Marmat View Post
    ... The Canadian side of this story is not often told. ...
    No kidding! Someone a long time ago recounted to me a 'salty dip' (sailor story) about the St Roch attempting to push through the Northwest Passage on a secret mission to Greenland. Over the years I have made half hearted attempts to find out what (if anything) was going on.

    Thanks for sharing, mystery solved! What was your source for this? If it was a book it goes on my reading list.
    Amateurs study tactics, Professionals study logistics.


    • #3
      It's very old,

      Originally posted by Roadkiller View Post
      No kidding! Someone a long time ago recounted to me a 'salty dip' (sailor story) about the St Roch attempting to push through the Northwest Passage on a secret mission to Greenland. Over the years I have made half hearted attempts to find out what (if anything) was going on.

      Thanks for sharing, mystery solved! What was your source for this? If it was a book it goes on my reading list.

      I've posted this before, more than once. This is an edit from a much larger piece with several sources, which is why it reads a bit "choppy". I also have a pdf file titled "Why the St. Roch? Why the Northwest Passage? Why 1940?", which deals more with the St. Roch. It has a full set of references. I was going to ask you if you wanted it e-mailed to you but hey, I've been fortunate enough to find it again online at:

      "I am Groot"
      - Groot


      • #4
        Very interesting. Thanks for sharing.
        Will no one tell me what she sings?--
        Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
        For old, unhappy, far-off things,
        And battles long ago:
        -William Wordsworth, "The Solitary Reaper"


        • #5
          Originally posted by Marmat View Post
          ... I've been fortunate enough to find it again online at:

          Thanks Denis!

          (Rep in the mail, once I have spread some among the many great posters here on ACG )
          Amateurs study tactics, Professionals study logistics.


          • #6
            Wow, nice find.
            Scientists have announced they've discovered a cure for apathy. However no one has shown the slightest bit of interest !!


            • #7
              Geeze, we were just trying to be nice eh....Did not know of this. Thanks Marm.


              • #8
                I love mixing military history with geology, Good stuff!

                from Ivittuut (Ivigtut), Greenland
                One accurate measurement is worth a thousand expert opinions - Admiral Grace Hopper

                "The eunuch should not take pride in his chastity."
                Wu Cheng'en Monkey


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