For the mission Ritscher was given the ‘Schwabenland’ a German aircraft carrier that had been used for transatlantic mail
deliveries by special flightboats, the famous 10 ton Dornier Super ‘Wals’ since
These ‘Wals’ were launched by catapult from the
Schwabenland and had to be accelerated to 93mph before they could become
airborne. At the end of each flight a crane on the ship lifted the aircraft back
on board after they landed in the sea.
The ship was refitted for the expedition in the shipyards of
Hamburg, and around one million Reichmark – nearly a third of the entire
expedition budget - was spent on this refit alone. The crew was prepared for the mission by the German Society of
Polar Research and as these preparations neared completion, the organisation
invited Admiral Byrd to address them, which he did.
The Schwabenland left the port of Hamburg on 17th
December 1938 and followed a precisely planned and determined route towards the
southern continent. In little over a month the ship arrived at the ice covered
Antarctica, dropping anchor at 4° 30¢ W and 69° 14¢ S on January 20th 1939 (8).
The expedition then spent three weeks off Princess Astrid
Coast and Princess Martha Coast off Queen Maud Land (9). During these weeks, the
two Schwabenland aircraft, the ‘Passat’ and ‘Boreas’, flew 15
missions across some 600,000 square kilometres of Antarctica, taking more than
11,000 pictures of the area with their specially designed ‘Zeiss
Reihenmess-bildkameras RMK 38’. (One of these photographs, below left.)
These pictures showed that some of the older Norwegian maps
of the area from 1931 were not only inaccurate, but occasionally fabricated, as
the original ‘maps’ bore no resemblance to the photographic images now obtained.
(In fact the Norwegian expeditions that had prepared these earlier maps had
never actually gone as far inland as some of the areas detailed on their
Nearly one fifth of Antarctica was reconnoitred in this way
and, for the first time, ice-free areas with lakes and signs of vegetation were
discovered. This area was then declared to be under the control of the
German expedition, renamed ‘Neu-Schwabenland’ and hundreds of small
stakes, carrying the swastika, were dumped on the snow-covered ground from the
‘Wals’ to signal the new ownership. Ritscher and the Schwabenland left their newly claimed
territory in the middle of February 1939 and returned to Hamburg two months
later, complete with photographs and maps of the new German acquisition.
The true purpose of this expedition has never been satisfactorily
explained; we are merely left with a series of puzzles, related reports and
snippets of information that are no longer open to verification.
What is not
open to doubt however, is that in the decade preceding the Second World War, the
Germans did almost nothing that did not put the entire structure of the
country on a war footing.
affected all aspects of German life; military, civilian, economic, social and
foreign policies, engineering, industry etc. Given that the
seizing of NeuSchwabenland occurred on the very eve of the war, it can only be
concluded that that the polar expedition was of major importance and
significance to the goals and development of the planned 1000-year Third Reich.
And this ‘invasion’ was certainly not the end to German
activity in the area; rather the prelude, providing support for the idea that
Germany might have established a base on the apparently frozen wasteland.
That German activity continued around Antarctica through the
war years is a matter of historical record. In 1939, the ship
‘Schleswig-Holstein’ is reported to have inspected Iles Kerguelen, Ile
Saint-Paul, Ile Amsterdam, Iles Crozet, Prince Edward Islands, and Gough Island
and later visited Cape Town (10).