Thinking About the Unthinkable in Ukraine
What Happens If Putin Goes Nuclear?
TO MANY Americans, probably, the name Newfoundland has long stood for little except large black dogs and codfish. To strategists, however, the island's position at the crossroads of shipping in the North Atlantic has always given it special importance. And now the war, with the establishment of American bases on Newfoundland territory and the dramatic meeting between President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill in Newfoundland waters, has brought it prominently into the consciousness of the wider public.
Newfoundland is a large island, roughly triangular in shape; each side is about 300 miles long and the total area is about 42,000 square miles. Its geology is Appalachian: long, parallel ridges run from southwest to northeast, with broken and irregular valleys between them. It is much more rugged, however, than the characteristic Appalachian region of the mainland and its valleys are not fertile. The surface of the island is strewn with glacial débris, and much of it is covered with peat. In fact, peat bogs or barrens are almost the commonest type of terrain. Twenty feet of peat had to be removed before a good bottom could be found for the runways of some of the new American airbases. Pools and lakes are scattered everywhere among the peat and gravel.
The shoreline is rough and barren, bordered in places by flats, in others by high cliffs. Innumerable reefs and islands dot the coast, and there are many inlets as well as a number of large bays, such as Placentia and Trinity; but these are too exposed to serve as harbors. There are, in fact, few good harbors for large ships in Newfoundland. Mortier Bay, on the west side of Placentia Bay, is one of the best, but it has no connections by road or rail with the rest of the island. Argentia, the site of the principal American base, on the east side of Placentia Bay, is a good harbor. But its dangers were emphasized by the loss of the United States destroyer Truxtun and the supply ship Pollux last winter. These vessels, making up for Argentia, got 40 miles or so off their course in a fog and piled up on the other side of Placentia Bay.
The climate of Newfoundland has often been criticized. Fog and rain are frequent, although the fog is usually offshore rather than inland. The temperature, however, is more supportable than that of many regions on the continent. The winters at St. John's are little more extreme than at Halifax, which has about the same temperature as Boston. Perhaps the most serious climatic handicap is the backward spring, caused by the descent of ice from the north.
From early times the neighboring ocean rather than the island itself has attracted men. The Grand Banks, southeast of the island, were the original magnet which drew Europeans into the western ocean. They are still as rich in codfish as when they were first discovered, and they still nurture as hardy a race of sailors and fishermen. Ice in the water and fog in the air are the normal thing on the fishing grounds. Thick weather averages about 13 to 14 hours daily at Cape Race during July. The foggiest months are May to November, precisely the period when other climatic conditions are somewhat better.
Ice from the north accentuates the dangers from fog. It is usually carried into east coast harbors, which it often closes for long periods in the spring. Ice keeps the Straits of Belle Isle closed until late in June, and there are icebergs in the open Atlantic as far south as latitude 40 degrees N and as far east as longitude 40 degrees W (well below the Banks) until late in the summer. Ice is still a menace to shipping, despite the efforts of science to combat it, for example, through the invaluable ice patrols of the United States Government.
Newfoundland lacks internal resources and consequently is unable to sustain a large population. Only 300,000 people manage to find a living on the island -- and for most of them it is a rather precarious one. Historically they have lived from the sea; for the majority, life still depends upon the sea, plus what may be secured from a reluctant soil.
The area of Newfoundland under cultivation is only about 100,000 acres out of a total of something like 27,000,000. Nor does there seem to be much likelihood of this figure being greatly increased. There have been experiments with farm colonies as a means of relieving the situation caused by the collapse of the fishing industry during the depression,[i] but they have not been very successful. There may be some possibilities for settlement in the valleys of the west coast, but they are not promising. Not much can be grown on peat and gravel; the 100,000 acres under cultivation consist mostly of potato patches and garden plots. If the island community were cut off from the outside world it might well disappear or be reduced to small proportions through starvation. Its life depends on unbroken communications with the mainland. This dependence is a serious liability, especially when as at present submarines are making communications more and more precarious.
Within the present century forest and mineral resources have been added to the harvest of sea and soil. The forests of the island sustain two pulp and paper mills, one at Corner Brook on the west coast, the other at Grand Falls, near Botwood, on the east coast. There is a large lead-zinc mine, Buchan's, in the west center of the island and one important iron mine. Bell Island, in Conception Bay, just a few miles from St. John's, is said to have the largest deposit of high-grade iron ore (hematite, 52 percent metallic iron) in the British Empire. The iron and steel industry of Nova Scotia and of all Canada as far west as Montreal depends upon this mine. Germany, however, used to be the chief purchaser of ore in prewar years. German ship captains must be as familiar with these waters as are the local fishermen.
The people of Newfoundland are virtually all of English or Irish descent. Cheerful, adaptable, accustomed to privation, and among the best small-boat men in the world, they form a valuable asset to any maritime power. They are deeply traditional; they give their allegiance to Great Britain without question. But they are also attached to their own island and are extremely proud of being Newfoundlanders. They have no difficulty in reconciling loyalty to the distant metropolis with love for their own corner of the globe. Like other islanders, they possess "character." Whatever his social status, nearly every Newfoundlander is an individual, with something racy and original about him. He does not derive his personality from the spaciousness of his circumstances. It would be hard to imagine a country more niggardly in its gifts to its children.
Apart from the considerable sums derived from the production of paper and minerals, which affect a relatively small proportion of the people, most of the island's income depends on cod. A few people, mainly the dealers on the international fish market, get a good share of this income and are in consequence wealthy; they constitute a kind of upper class. The middle class, the typical social group of the mainland, is conspicuously weak both in economic status and in numbers. The majority of the people are fisherfolk. A limited number of them may actually have prospered; a few more manage to win a tolerable existence. But the majority have a standard of living far below that of the average American, and undernourishment and the deficiency diseases that go with it are common.
This island is normally far removed from the main currents of North American life, but today it is becoming known at first hand to thousands of people from the mainland. Tourists and businessmen are supplementing the numbers of men in the fighting services of Canada and the United States who have been stationed in Newfoundland. The population of St. John's has grown overnight from about 35,000 to more than 60,000. This influx has placed a strain on island life. The Newfoundlanders have taken rather well the shock of the two more sophisticated civilizations, Canadian and American, and the most pressing problems of social adjustment seem to have been solved more or less satisfactorily. The strain on physical resources and accommodation has not been met so well. St. John's, for example, is extremely overcrowded, and there seems little likelihood of relief. This is producing the usual temporary prosperity for certain groups.
Stress is even more manifest in travel facilities. Except for the few to whom air services are available, the only ways of getting to Newfoundland are by sea from New York and Halifax to St. John's, or across from North Sydney, Cape Breton, to Port-aux-Basques, in the southwest corner of the island, and thence to other points by the Newfoundland Railway. The latter is the usual route. A ship crosses overnight three times a week.
Apart from the narrow-gauge railway, now crowded to capacity, the local means of communication are few. There are some paved roads in the Avalon peninsula, radiating from St. John's, and there are also two branch railroad lines there. The ordinary means of getting about, in a country where the majority of the people live within a stone's throw of the seashore, is by boat. Most people have their own small boats, and many have schooners; and the longer services, such as the one from St. John's up the east coast and thence to Labrador, are performed by government coastal steamers. In other countries the state builds and maintains the roads; in Newfoundland the state maintains a network of coastal steamer services.
The lack of internal road and rail communication would be a serious handicap if the island had to be defended against attack. Distances are not inconsiderable. It is, for example, 200 miles from St. John's to the Newfoundland Air Port on Gander Lake. This great base, built originally for civilian purposes, was until recently the central point in the whole Newfoundland defense system. Although it is now only one of many, it is still of great tactical value. But it is connected with Corner Brook (192 miles away) and St. John's only by the limited facilities of the island railroad. Positions in the Avalon peninsula are a little better off, for they are connected by a useable road and rail system.
Internal communications must be considered in relation to external ones. The New York-Halifax-St. John's route is now highly dangerous and the ships which have hitherto been used on it are too valuable to risk. A direct service between Sydney and St. John's has been maintained by the Newfoundland Government's coastal steamships; it is less exposed than the Halifax route but more so than the passage across the Cabot Straits to Port-aux-Basques. The steamer route from Montreal to Corner Brook is still less exposed. This route has the disadvantage of being closed in winter, but it has also the great advantages of being within the relatively safe waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and of landing cargoes 142 miles nearer St. John's, thus relieving the railroad of considerable strain. This is the route from the continent that it would seem wise to expand.
From Montreal to St. John's by the St. Lawrence is about 1,050 miles; from New York to St. John's by the Atlantic is about the same. The two routes and their lengths emphasize Newfoundland's strategic position: it lies across the entrance to the St. Lawrence, it flanks northern oceanic routes from the United States, and it advances the outposts of North America 1,000 miles eastward. At present this is clear gain. American bombers, flying the Atlantic, can refuel en route in Newfoundland. Bases on the island make it possible to protect convoys for almost a third of their journey to England and for one-half of that to Iceland.
Newfoundland thus provides all the advantages of a secure advanced base. But the island would be just as useful to the enemy if ever he should be able to capture it. He then could close the St. Lawrence completely. His planes could harass the shipping leaving every Atlantic port as far west as New York. His submarines, based in Newfoundland, could threaten the whole Atlantic coast.
This rocky northern island, then, which lies across the seaways to North America like a great ship moored in a strategic waterway, must be held safe at all costs. As long as the ship is staunch and the crew alert no strange craft can pass it by. If it were captured, those who did so could blockade Canada and a large part of one coast of the United States. The island therefore should be prepared for defense as a ship is prepared, with adequate internal communications, provisions for a long voyage, and one captain. Newfoundland and its defenses must be stripped for action, ready to hit back hard if attacked.
[i] This was the fundamental economic calamity which led to the surrender of self-government in 1933.