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WHETHER or not the United Nations plan to strike this year at Hitler-occupied Europe -- and, if so, when and where -- is of course a closely guarded military secret. But there have been indications that possibly they plan to attack in the far north with a view to joining forces with Russia's Arctic defenders and so set the stage for a later thrust at what seems Germany's most vulnerable flank. Some have viewed the landing of American troops in Northern Ireland as one hint of such a move. Another hint, from the other side, might be the sudden appointment by the Nazis of Vidkun Quisling to the puppet-premiership of Norway. Again, the audacious dash of the German battleships from Brest to the North Sea suggests that Hitler required them for duty in Norwegian waters. Finally, the German press and radio, as spring approached, were giving wide publicity to alleged Allied plans to invade northern Norway. In any event, it is interesting to examine from the outside the problems which the United Nations would face in any such undertaking.
Norway is a weak spot in the iron ring which Hitler has forged around Europe. One need not be a military expert to understand how indefensible Norway is against sea-borne invasion. It is a country of less than three million souls. Yet if we count the shores of its innumerable fjords and islands we find that it has a coastline of some 12,000 miles -- almost as long as that of the continental United States. The recent raids of British and Free Norwegian commandos showed clearly that many spots can be found on this long stretch of coast where invaders can land.
In surveying the chances of a successful invasion of Norway, we have to distinguish between the trunk of the country and its "tail." The trunk, i.e., the southern and central regions up to the city of Trondheim, cannot easily be wrested from the Germans, who are entrenched in all the key places and who in consequence of their present mastery of the Skagerrak and Kattegat have no difficulty in bringing in necessary reinforcements and supplies. But Trondheim itself should figure strongly in any plan of invasion. The key strategic point in all Norway, it presents about equal difficulties for attacker and defender.
On the morning of April 9, 1940, the Germans forced the entrance to the harbor of Trondheim with comparatively weak naval forces and practically without losses. Of course, they were greatly aided by the Norwegian unpreparedness and by treachery within. Probably it was a blunder that the British, in turn, did not sacrifice a few ships and take Trondheim back. Instead they landed north and south of the city and tried to retake it through a two-pronged drive overland. The overwhelming German air power easily shattered the flimsy Allied footholds established at Andalsnes and Namsos, where big ships could not anchor and where anti-aircraft guns, tanks and other heavy equipment could not be brought into action.
Today the cost of taking Trondheim from the sea would be many times as heavy as it would have been two years ago. Not only have the Germans modernized and strengthened Fort Agdenes, at the narrow inlet to Trondheim Fjord, but they have turned the city itself into one of their principal naval bases. More than 4,000 workers, including between 2,000 and 3,000 Danes and several hundred Russian prisoners, have been busy there in recent months, building what is believed to be the greatest submarine shipyard and naval station in Northern Europe.
The nature and disposition of the defensive measures undertaken by the Nazis in Norway make clear that they regard the country as a composite, the upper part of which might have to be abandoned whereas the lower must be held at all costs. Across the country's wasp-like waist, somewhere between Trondheim and Namsos, they have built a strongly fortified defense line which is evidently designed to prevent an enemy force from pushing southward from Narvik or Bodö. It is called the "Falkenhorst Line." Concurrently with its completion last summer, the entire west coast of Norway from Trondheim southward was closed to tourists and non-residents. Since that time no one is permitted in the area without a special military pass and all radio sets there have been seized. In addition, new fortifications and bases, including a huge airfield at Lista, on the southern tip of Norway, have been built or are now under construction. It is also known that in recent months the Germans have installed a complex network of "warship alarm sirens" all along the coast. "Invasion rehearsals" are frequently held. Detailed instructions have been issued to local police chiefs and Quisling's "Hirdmen" as to what to do if an enemy force attempted to land.
If, at some future date, the United Nations felt able to undertake an invasion of Norway, we can visualize an operation that would give them military control of the "tail" and yet leave the trunk, for the time being at least, in German hands. Such an operation would more or less reëstablish the situation which existed in June 1940, just before the capitulation of North Norway. There are, however, at least three essential prerequisites for success:
(1) The landing, or landings, should be made under cover of sufficient air protection. The principal reason for the failure of the Allied expedition to Norway in 1940 was a decisive inferiority in air power. Today there is the advantage that the Luftwaffe has been decimated in Russia, and in addition it is spread out over a front many times wider than it had to cover in 1940.
(2) The expeditionary force must be accompanied by sufficient supplies. It must bring along, and continue to get from its home bases, practically everything it needs in the way of equipment, fuel, spare parts, repair facilities and food. Even in peacetimes the three provinces of northern Norway -- Nordland, Troms and Finmark -- were unable to live by their own resources. Little food is produced in these barren and rugged lands, and in the northernmost districts even drinking-water is at times scarce.
(3) Assurance would have to be obtained in advance that the Swedish Government will not again permit the Germans to bring troops and matériel into Norway through Swedish territory. Both Trondheim and Narvik are linked by rail with the Swedish trunk line Östersund-Gällivare. It is well known that in the last two years the Germans have made extensive use of these transit facilities for troop movements to and from Norway.
The success of an attempt by the United Nations to invade and hold north Norway will largely depend on their own ability to secure supplies and on their ability to prevent the enemy from securing them. Since the outbreak of the Russian war the Germans have progressively reduced their forces of occupation in Norway. A year ago they numbered some 350,000 men. There is reason to believe that at present no more than 100,000 Germans are left in the country, and the bulk of these are stationed south of the Falkenhorst Line.
If the Allies succeeded in establishing a beachhead somewhere on the thousand-miles-long "tail" of Norway they would enjoy certain topographic advantages. The salient feature of this whole territory is its lack of any but seaborne communications. There are no railroads except the iron ore line from Narvik into Sweden. Only a short bit of it lies in Norwegian territory. As regards roads, the position is very curious. There are a number of local networks, for example one in the extreme north around the Varanger Fjord, but they are not connected with one another. Some of the northernmost provinces have no road communications whatever either with the neighboring provinces of their own country or eastward with Sweden. A through road designed to connect all the principal coastal towns with the rest of the country has been under construction for several years. Last year, the Germans were frantically pushing it towards completion, but some vitally important sections, for instance that from Bodö north to Tromsö, are still unfinished.
Given Allied superiority in the air, or even equality, it should be possible to chop off the "tail" of Norway at a given point north of Namsos. The first task then would be, while maintaining a defensive position towards the south, to mop up the small German garrisons at Bodö, Narvik, Tromsö, Harstad, Vardö, Vadsö and Kirkenes. To ensure final success, however, Sweden either would have to defend its neutrality against German encroachment, or else the Allied forces would have to be strong enough to conduct a continuing offensive into and through Sweden and Finland.
If the operation were successful it would bring the United Nations enormous advantages. It would give them mastery of the Arctic Ocean, ridding the supply lines to Murmansk and Archangel from the present harassing attacks by German submarines and other craft operating from Varanger Fjord; and it would help the Russians to knock out Finland, unless the latter withdrew in time from the fray.
For more than eight months, now, a German-Finnish force, until recently under the command of Colonel-General Nikolaus von Falkenhorst, has been attempting in vain to capture Russia's great Arctic stronghold of Murmansk. After some initial successes last July, which carried General Eduard Dietl's veterans of the Narvik fighting perilously close to the great Soviet base, fighting bogged down on the barren tundra. Since December the Russians have been on the offensive in this as in other sectors of the eastern front; and on January 17 the Soviet paper Izvestia reported a "collapse" of the enemy front from Leningrad to the Arctic coast. "The approaches of Murmansk and Kandalaksha," it wrote, according to a United Press dispatch from London, "have become a gigantic graveyard for the German pirates and their Finn subordinates." The claim was made that the Finns alone had lost one-third of their army. Earlier reports from Moscow had put the number of Nazi planes shot down around Murmansk, since the beginning of the Arctic drive in July, at more than 200.
The Red Fleet of the Arctic, too, gave a very good account of itself. By the end of last year the Russians claimed to have sunk in the Arctic Ocean a total of 200,000 tons of German and Finnish shipping, including two destroyers, four submarines and 42 transports. The Arctic Fleet is the smallest of the four Soviet fleets. No major units are with it, but when the war broke out it included some 20 submarines and between 25 and 30 torpedo boats and destroyers. Its chief base is the strongly fortified harbor of Polyarnoe (formerly Aleksandrovsk) at the entrance of Kola Bay. Since August of last year various light British naval forces have been supporting the Red Fleet's operations in the Arctic. These units were credited, in a British Admiralty communiqué of last September 9, with having sunk the German cruiser Bremse, a destroyer and two other German vessels. These achievements, which have passed somewhat unnoticed among developments on other fronts, show that Allied sea operations in the Arctic can be carried on successfully.
To free Murmansk and the vital 900-miles-long railroad which connects it with Leningrad would be a real achievement. German and Finnish troops cut the railway at an early stage in the war and their grip has not yet been removed at all points. If this were done, Murmansk would again become, as it was during the First World War, a principal port of entry for Allied aid to Russia. But whereas it was hardly more than a fishing village a generation ago, Murmansk today is a large industrial and commercial center, with a population of nearly 200,000, and with greatly enlarged dock facilities. Another important new development since the last war is that in summer Murmansk now is also the terminus of the famous North-East Passage, or Great Northern Sea Route as the Russians call it, leading across the "top of the world" from the Bering Straits to the Barents Sea. For the past six or seven years, Russian ships -- both merchantmen and warships -- have plied fairly regularly along this all-Russian waterway where no enemy submarine would dare venture. The navigable season, of course, is short -- July, August and September only. In certain years it may be extended, with icebreaker assistance, until mid-October. During these months, American freighters, laden with war materials, might edge their way from Alaska towards Archangel and Murmansk along the perilous seaway which Professor Otto Schmidt and his Chelyuskin pioneers made famous.
Another logical move would be a combined land, air and sea assault on Petsamo, Finland's ice-free harbor in the Arctic, now the chief Axis base of operations in that area. Even at the height of the German-Finnish drive towards Murmansk, the Russians remained firmly entrenched on the Rybachi Peninsula, which almost overlooks the approaches to the harbor of Petsamo. According to latest reports, the Soviet armies have made further progress toward the Finnish base, which, incidentally, they captured two years ago, but returned to Finland under the terms of the Moscow Peace Treaty.
In the fall of 1940 Nazi troops occupied northern Finland. On August 1, in the following summer, British air forces made a twin raid on Kirkenes and Petsamo. The Petsamo docks, which already had suffered enormous damage during the Finnish-Soviet war, were severely battered. But the British evidently had underestimated the strength of the defenses, which had been built up in the meantime by German engineers. They lost 16 airplanes. However, it is doubtful whether Petsamo could long withstand a persistent assault by both land and sea. Capture of this strategic port would open the road to the United Nations for a decisive thrust at Germany's northern flank.