Hitler's Antarctic Fortress Unmasked
Deconstructing a wild tale about a Nazi military base deep inside Antarctica.
by Brian Dunning
February 21, 2017
It's a story that reads like a Captain America comic book: American firepower going after the Nazi super-villain in a remote fortress. Despite World War II having ended, Third Reich scientists were still soldiering on at their hidden lair, planning the doom of civilization. New Berchtesgaden was said to be a Nazi base in Antarctica, established in 1939. Then during World War II, the British launched at least one assault against it. In 1946 the Americans tried the same thing. It wasn't until 1958 that three nuclear bombs finally destroyed New Berchtesgaden, putting a final end to the Nazi regime. It's a story so wild that you can scarcely believe you haven't heard of it before. But believe it you must; because as bizarre as it sounds, parts of this insane tale are actually true.
The story goes that in 1938, the Nazis sent a ship called the Schwabenland to Antarctica to set up a military base, on the orders of Admiral Dönitz. It landed at that sector of Antarctica called Queen Maud Land, and they named their area New Schwabia, after their ship. Deep in the interior of the continent, they established a permanent base and named it New Berchtesgaden, after the Bavarian town overlooked by the Kehlsteinhaus "Eagle's Nest" retreat.
Correction: An earlier version of this described the Kehlsteinhaus Eagle's Nest as "Hitler's retreat". There was more than one Nazi mountaintop getaway that English speakers call "Eagle's Nest", and Kehlsteinhaus is not the one Hitler is best known for visiting as his personal retreat. - BD
Nazi surveyors discovered a vast network of underground tunnels including a warm geothermal lake, and some say alien technology was found there. The Nazis used this resource to construct a large underground city, variously called New Berlin or Base 211.
Throughout World War II, the Nazis used Antarctica to develop their Wunderwaffen, wonder weapons, discussed in detail in a previous Skeptoid episode. These included their secret "flying saucer" aircraft called Die Glocke, which may have used the alleged alien technology.
The British discovered the Nazi base, and in 1943, mounted an attack. It was called Operation Tabarin, and began by trying to establish a military foothold in several Antarctic locations. But they were far outmanned by the deeply entrenched and well supplied Nazis, who attacked the British while they were still scrabbling for a foothold. The British outposts were besieged for months, even through the end of the war in May 1945.
When Germany surrendered in 1945, two submarines, the U-530 and U-977, sailed into port to surrender at Argentina, two and three months later than they were supposed to, respectively. The reason for the delay is that each had come not from patrol in the Atlantic, but from the Antarctic base.
Shortly thereafter, the struggling British bases in Antarctica were reinforced by British SAS troops. They rescued the Operation Tabarin survivors and even attempted an assault of their own against New Berchtesgaden. This was a dismal failure, and the British withdrew. It seemed the Nazi Antarctic Fortress would remain forever impregnable.
The war machine of the United States, weary from World War II, powered itself back up to take on this new threat. In 1946, US Admiral Chester Nimitz sent thirteen ships with 4,700 men, including a submarine and an aircraft carrier with 33 aircraft, to Antarctica to destroy the Nazi threat once and for all. It was called Operation Highjump. The aircraft penetrated deep into the continent and engaged the Nazi flying saucers, now known as the "Last Battalion". Several American planes were destroyed in the combat.
The American effort lasted only a few months. For the next 11 years, the Nazi fortress at New Berchtesgaden thrived unmolested. But then, under cover of the 1958 International Geophysical Year, the skies above New Berchtesgaden lit up with the fire of nuclear hell. The American Operation Argus detonated three W-25 warheads, and the Nazi Antarctic base was finally no more.
This story probably raises a few eyebrows. It seems far too incredible. And, to the experienced Skeptoid listener, it is probably less impressive for that very reason; who would expect such a wild tale to have even a grain of truth? But it turns out that grains of truth permeate every part of this story. Operation Argus was real. Operation Highjump was real, as was Operation Tabarin. U-530 and U-977 did arrive in Argentina on the dates claimed. The Schwabenland did sail to Queen Maud Land in 1938. Three nuclear weapons were detonated.
But the dots are not so easily connected as the story would have you believe. Indeed, these anchors of reality on which the story's tenuous threads are hung have all been grossly misrepresented. And far from being the concoction of modern Internet wags looking for clickbait, the tale of Hitler's Antarctic Fortress goes all the way back to 1947. A Hungarian writer who had exiled to Argentina during the war, Ladislas Szabo, wrote it up for the Argentinian newspaper La Critica. One week after U-530 caused a sensation by sailing into Argentina two months after the surrender, Szabo published an account of what he believed had taken place. Szabo claimed that Hitler survived the end of the war, and in an elaborate plan, escaped to the Nazi stronghold established by the Schwabenland. The article went viral and was republished in newspapers worldwide.
One month later, U-977 came into port, bolstering a growing popular belief that Szabo had indeed uncovered a Nazi submarine convoy that had been coming and going to Antarctica. As we discussed in episode 507, belief that Hitler may not have died in Berlin as reported had been a growing sentiment since the day it happened. Looting and bungling by the Russian soldiers in Berlin all but destroyed the proof of Hitler's death almost from the first hours, and conspiracy theorists worldwide were hungry for any alternate histories that confirmed their belief. Szabo's story hit at the right time, and the fortuitous late arrival of U-977 seemed to offer concrete proof. Szabo was quick to follow up his article with a full-length book titled Hitler Est Vivant (Hitler Is Alive) in which he added many of the details.
Throughout the decades since World War II, many authors have eagerly followed this thread established by Szabo, and now the alternative literature offers a wealth of resources recounting the whole story, replete with all the minutiae that characterizes most conspiracy theories. Some of these details include a seaplane tender, the USS Pine Island (AV-12), later being mysteriously "struck from naval records", claims that some UFO abductees have seen Nazi swastikas aboard alien spaceships, stories of whaling ships bartering with German U-Boats in the southern ocean after the war's end, and my personal favorite: a claim that Luftwaffe pilot Hans-Ulrich Rudel, the most decorated German serviceman of WWII, is said to have been Hitler's personal choice for a successor and made mysterious personal trips to Tierra del Fuego, the nearest land mass to Antarctica.
Don't chase down the red herrings. Conspiracy theories are almost always decorated with more minute details than anyone could possibly verify. Look to the forest, not the trees. For the story of Hitler's Antarctic Base is thoroughly disproven and impossible on many fronts.
Let's work backwards on this one, starting with Operation Argus, the three nukes supposedly used to destroy the Nazi base in 1958. Much is known about these, because although the program was conducted in secret, it was described in detail in the New York Times within a year, and is now fully declassified. These were extreme high-altitude bursts, over the South Atlantic south of Cape Town, and nowhere near Queen Maud Land. Ice core data today proves that no nukes have ever exploded over Queen Maud Land. The nearest of Operation Argus' three was a full 2,400 km (1,500 miles) north of the Antarctic shore. Any Nazi bases there would have been quite safe.
Operation Highjump was also a real event, though it took place exactly at the opposite side of Antarctica. It was also covered in detail by 11 embedded journalists. It had nothing to do with attacking anybody; it was to establish the research base Little America IV on the Ross Ice Shelf. It had three objectives: a scientific mission, training for ice-based military operations, and consolidation of the American presence on Antarctica — thus the presence of the journalists, to make sure the world knew about it. One aircraft was lost in a crash, not four — and no Nazi flying saucers were reported.
The abilities of U-530 and U-977 to have visited Queen Maud Land before surrendering in Argentina has also been called into question. First, neither had time, though it's certainly possible their logs had been forged, so we can set that aside. What we can't set aside is the impossibility of them reaching the coast no matter how much time they had. Neither sub type had the capability of breaking through ice from below; indeed, they were always at great risk of damage from ice. These were air breathing; they needed to surface at least every two days to run their diesels to recharge their batteries and to collect air for the crew to breathe. Thick sea ice extended a minimum of 1000 km (600 miles) from Queen Maud Land at that time of year, making a round-trip to the coast a 2000 km journey. Traveling under ice on batteries, these subs could manage perhaps 9 kph, making it a 9 or 10 day trip. All this with no ability to navigate, charge batteries, allow the crew to breathe, or even get through the ice to the surface once they reached the shore. No, neither U-530 nor U-977 visited Queen Maud Land.
Britain's Operation Tabarin was also real, but unlikely to have proven much of a threat to anyone. It established scientific research camps at three locations: one on the Antarctic peninsula with 13 men, and two on nearby islands with 5 and 9 men respectively. They were about 2,500 km (1,500 miles) from Queen Maud Land. Later conspiracy theory authors have tried to magnify these into large operations, and invented fictional outposts on Queen Maud Land, but all the historical evidence is against them.
So if nobody was ever actually reaching New Berchtesgaden, what do we actually know of its origin? Well, nothing, because it never existed to begin with. The Nazi ship Schwabenland did indeed sail, with its two flying boats. It had been ordered there by Herrmann Goering (not Admiral Dönitz) as part of Germany's four year economic development plan. Germany had strong whaling interests in the South Atlantic. Schwabenland spent one month off the coast, launching its planes, which surveyed a newly discovered mountain range. Further expeditions had been planned, but were canceled with the outbreak of the war. With the exceptions of three brief landings, each lasting a few hours, not a single Nazi boot ever touched Antarctica.
Fine pulp fiction it was, but Hitler's Antarctic Fortress was never anything more than the imaginative hopes of Ladislas Szabo to promote his preferred belief that Hitler had survived the war. History proved he wasn't alone, and alternative narratives remain popular to this day. But even if the Fuhrer had survived, I've no doubt that Captain America and his Antarctic nukes would have saved the day.
By Brian Dunning
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Hitler's Antarctic Fortress Unmasked." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
21 Feb 2017. Web.
17 Mar 2018. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4559>
References & Further Reading
Haddelsey, S. Operation Tabarin: Britain's Secret Wartime Expedition to Antarctica 1944-46. London: Telegraph Books, 2014.
Sapienza, L. "George One/Operation Highjump Crew Recovery." Antarctic History. South-Pole.com, 5 Dec. 1998. Web. 11 Feb. 2017. <http://www.south-pole.com/p0000150.htm>
Soniak, M. "Hitler on Ice: Did the Nazis Have a Secret Antarctic Fortress?" Mental Floss. Felix Dennis, 19 Mar. 2012. Web. 9 Feb. 2017. <http://mentalfloss.com/article/30249/hitler-ice-did-nazis-have-secret-antarctic-fortress>
Summerhayes, C., Beeching, P. "Hitler's Antarctic Base: the Myth and the Reality." Polar Record. 1 Jan. 2007, Volume 43, Issue 1: 1-21.
Szabo, L. Hitler est Vivant. Paris: SFELT, 1947.
Wellerstein, A. "Declassifying ARGUS (1959)." Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog. Alex Wellerstein, 23 May 2012. Web. 11 Feb. 2017. <http://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/2012/05/23/weekly-document-declassifying-argus-1959/>
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