Articles

The truth about our ARCTIC DEFENSE

WE HAVE NONE. In spite of all you’ve heard about all-weather jet interceptors and impenetrable radar screens, Ottawa believes the Arctic is its own best defense and has left it virtually naked to attack

BLAIR FRASER November 15 1954
Articles

The truth about our ARCTIC DEFENSE

WE HAVE NONE. In spite of all you’ve heard about all-weather jet interceptors and impenetrable radar screens, Ottawa believes the Arctic is its own best defense and has left it virtually naked to attack

BLAIR FRASER November 15 1954

FEW CANADIANS realize, because official statements never make it clear, that the Canadian Arctic has no defenses whatever.

This is not mere neglect. Canadian strategists believe that with the armament now available, the Arctic’s best defense is the vast empty Arctic itself. Privately they can make a very plausible case for this policy. Publicly they don’t need to, for the average Canadian doesn’t know the policy exists.

He may think, for example, that since the RCAF has a station at Resolute Bay on Cornwallis Island, therefore Canada’s defense system runs northward to a point halfway between the Arctic Circle and the North Pole. It doesn’t.

At Resolute, twenty-five officers and men of the RCAF maintain an airstrip and a small fuel dump. They have no aircraft, though a North Star comes up every fortnight with mail and supplies. They’re armed with .303 rifles to repel polar bears. (In 1947 a weatherman at Resolute was mauled almost to death by a polar bear; since then no one leaves camp without a companion and a rifle.)

Fort Churchill, about six hundred miles south of Resolute, is much bigger but expresses the same defense policy. Its 670 Canadian servicemen and its 100-odd U. S. Army men include no combat troops. About 150 Navy personnel run a radio station. About 400 from the Canadian Army are all instructors, engineers, mechanics, cooks and so on. Their job is to test equipment for Arctic warfare and, in brief winter exercises, to train visiting contingents.

Defense Research Board scientists at Churchill have been trying to persuade the army to send up a few operational troops, even one platoon, to serve as guinea pigs for experimental work. So far, the army has been unable to spare a platoon.

Of about a hundred RCAF personnel at Churchill, two are pilots. They take turns flying an Otter, a search-and-rescue plane somewhat larger than the familiar Beaver. The Otter is Fort Churchill’s only aircraft.

Canada has no early warning system in the far north, although recently both this country and the U. S. decided one is necessary and jointly told radar experts to go ahead with plans for it. Right now, however, the Canadian radar “network,” completed last summer, has its most northerly station well south of the Arctic. Radar stations on the coast of Labrador, and in the eastern Arctic islands as far north as Frobisher Bay, are staffed and commanded by the U. S. Air Force. Radar stations in the western Arctic are also wholly American, part of the defenses of Alaska. Canada has none in the sector that lies between.

With the McGill Fence, a cheap type of automatic radar which Canada hopes to string right across the north country for only $90 millions, our own warning system will be extended several hundred miles north of its present limits and will become continent-wide. It still won’t go even as far north as Churchill though.

Canadian defense planners leave the Arctic empty because, for one reason, they are convinced there will never be large-scale fighting in the far north. Occasional surprise raids, yes, but a northern “front,” no. Arctic fighting is too difficult, they say, to be worth an enemy’s while.

For an attacker, the mere problem of finding his way would be formidable enough. Arctic navigation is a science in itself.

One night last April I set off with an RCAF transport crew from the weather station at Isachsen, on Ellef Ringnes Island in the middle of the Arctic archipelago, to fly over to the big U. S. base at Thule, on Greenland—almost due east. The magnetic compass which hangs between pilot and copilot showed due west. We were about three hundred miles north of the magnetic pole, so that all directions were reversed.

Instead of a compass the pilot had to use a gyroscopic device set in a given direction before take-off.

It’s supposed to keep pointing in that direction no matter how the aircraft may twist and turn. In practice, though, it often doesn’t. We got to Thule without any trouble, but on that very evening the boys had difficulties flying up from Resolute Bay to Isachsen.

Half an hour out of Resolute the navigation officer found his gyro off by twenty degrees. From then on he had to take an observation of the sun every ten minutes, determine his position as fast as he could do the arithmetic, and then correct the gyro accordingly. The whole crew were vastly relieved when they picked up Isachsen’s feeble little radio beam, and could stop worrying about where they were.

A sudden change of weather in this situation would have been serious. If sudden cloud had obscured the sun, as it often does in the Arctic, the pilot’s only recourse would have been to keep his speed, altitude and direction as nearly constant as possible, and pray that his fuel would last until sun or stars became visible again.

Even on a clear day, celestial observations present special problems in the Arctic because an ordinary RCAF transport plane flies about as fast as the sun. At the equator the earth’s rotation speed is about 1,000 mph; at the North Pole it is zero. In the latitudes of the Arctic islands it’s about the speed of a four-motored propeller-driven plane.

Flying eastward, you find the sun hanging over the horizon in a seemingly fixed position, stopped as if for Joshua. Flying westward, on the other hand, you find its movement accelerated — it seems to plunge below the horizon, and sunrise follows sunset in a matter of minutes. Arctic flights provide a useful laboratory for studying some of the problems of supersonic navigation, anticipating the day when aircraft will fly as fast as the earth turns, even at the equator. Meanwhile though, this is just another headache for the Arctic navigator.

Aside from the vagaries of the magnetic pole, conventional directions mean less and less the closer you get to the North Pole itself. At the North Pole every direction is south, and “true north” is meaningless. Hence instead of conventional directions in the very high latitudes Arctic fliers use a grid system in which the meridian of Greenwich is arbitrarily taken as “true north” and all other directions related to it.

This grid system was devised by Wing Commander Keith Greenaway, the RCAF’s leading expert on Arctic navigation. Greenaway is a small dark rather shy and diffident fellow who had only a high-school education, but whose natural gift for mathematics enables him to fly rings around college-trained navigators. He knows more about how to find his way around the Arctic than does anyone else in the free world. Until he was posted to the United States in an officer exchange a few months ago he was engaged in writing books about Arctic navigation, and teaching other RCAF officejjg. The RCAF doubts that the Red Army has enough Keith Greenaways to make the Arctic an easy route of invasion.

Not that anyone argues it can’t be done. After all, it will soon be twenty years since a Red Army crew flew to the United States and Canada across the Arctic, stopping to take each other’s pictures at the North Pole. But there will always be other routes that present fewer problems.

A lot of special equipment is needed for Arctic flying. The Royal Air Force has specially adapted some of its Hastings transports for northern service-one of them bears the proud title “Arctic Queen” stenciled in red on her nose. Last spring, when the most severe Arctic weather had been over for some time, two RAF Hastings dropped in for overnight at Resolute Bay.

Hastings engines are not equipped with the pre-heaters that are now built into the RCAF’s northern planes. In the morning they had to be pre-heated with a current of hot air carried through a hose—an old-fashioned device which the RCAF has abandoned. It wasn’t good enough. The RAF crew started their motors before the frozen oil was adequately thawed. Two engines seized on one aircraft and one seized on the other. Both planes had to sit at Resolute Bay for a fortnight until new engines could be flown out from England. As an ironical postscript, one of the planes that brought the new engines had a narrow escape from a similar fate when it took off for England again.

During the past five or six years the RCAF has learned, the hard way, various tricks for avoiding such calamities. Special lubricants, dilution techniques and pre-heaters have been designed that are better than anything we had before. But it still takes a long time to get a cold aircraft off the ground, and in this climate an aircraft is cold within minutes after the engines are cut.

Jet fighters at Thule, the U. S. Greenland base, can take to the air in ninety-four seconds after an alert is sounded, but they are housed in enormous heated hangars. Both end walls of the hangar can be raised, the front to let out the aircraft and the rear to let out the gale of its exhaust. Though jets can thus take off from indoors and need no warming up, the cost of the installation is colossal.

Nowhere in the far north, not even at Thule, is there an airport with fourdirectional runways. So far, apparently, it has been impossible to find enough reasonably flat and dry ground to build more than a single airstrip long enough for jets and four-engined bombers. This means that a crosswind of only 30 mph. is enough to ground all aircraft at any station in the Arctic islands. In an emergency no doubt this safety rule would be ignored and the fighters would try to take off in any weather. But at really high winds it might prove impossible to get them off the ground, and wind speeds at Thule have been recorded several times above 100 mph.

Wind is hard on human beings as well as on machinery. In extreme climates temperature alone means relatively little. The real measure of cold is “wind-chill.” Scientists at Fort Churchill have worked out a scale for wind-chill based on the rate of heat loss—so many calories of heat per square metre of surface per hour. Wind-chill is 100 on a calm summer day, with the thermometer at 75 degrees Fahrenheit and no wind.

When the weather is “very cold” in a forecaster’s terms, wind-chill is 1,100. That means 30 degrees below zero on a calm day, but in a 45-mile gale it’s “very cold” with the thermometer at 35 above. Exposed flesh freezes at a wind-chill of 1,500. That could be anywhere from 50 below on a calm day to 15 above in a gale. At wind-chill of 2,400 the weather is so cold that it used to be considered impossible to do anything at all out of doors.

Arctic exercises have since proved

this judgment to be defeatist. Men can live and do some work in any weather yet known. One day last winter during an Arctic exercise a soldier went to gather spruce boughs when the windchill was 2,460—it was about 60 below with a blinding gale blowing. He got lost. His unit sent out a search party which covered the district thoroughly for about two hours. It failed to find the missing man because he, too, had done the right thing—dug himself a snow cave and holed up until the storm moderated. But even the most ardent Arctic enthusiast will admit there isn’t

much a man can do outdoors when the wind-chill goes above 2,100. He can live, and with difficulty and discomfort he can move, but he can hardly fight effectively. No one has yet contrived a glove with which a soldier can pull a trigger at extreme temperatures for more than a few moments at a time.

Next winter the Defense Research Board plans experiments to prove that in weather conditions relatively commonplace at Churchill, it’s a waste of time to post a sentry. DRB scientists already know this to be a fact. From personal experience they can testify

that on a cold night with snow blowing, a sentry can neither see nor hear an intruder even a couple of feet awa Now they intend to determine i exactly what point of temperature aí wind velocity a human sentry bt comes useless.

If the experiments prove the ej pected conclusion they will do tw things—save individual soldiers a loto needless discomfort, and demonstrat the need for a mechanical sentry c some kind. It might be some ligh portable adaptation of radar, or a fiel burglar alarm, but in any case it wouli provide some method of standin¡ watch when human eyes and ears an powerless.

Indoors of course none of these hard ships exist. Indeed the casual visito: remembers the Arctic not as cold ant bracing but as hot and stuffy. Al Churchill the heating system is so relentlessly efficient that rooms are comfortable only when the outside temperature is 20 below or colder. In the married quarters some wives turn ofl radiators even in the depth of winter, and still find their rooms overheated by the steam pipes underneath.

But these comforts are costly, the costlier the farther north you go. Thule cost an estimated $350 millions to build—and even that figure may not include the full cost of transport. Thule lies within present bomber range of Moscow and most other Soviet industrial centres. As a deterrent, therefore, or as a springboard for “massive retaliation,” Thule is obviously an important part of North American defense. But to construct a fully interlocking system of radar-operated fighter stations we would need dozens of Thules, spotted all over the Canadian Arctic. The cost would be staggering.

Nothing Like a Dame

Almost equally staggering are the physical problems of keeping large numbers of men active and happy in Arctic conditions. Thule offers its 4,100 U. S. Air Force troops every conceivable amenity of the American way of life except, of all things, the flush toilet. Thule is equipped with navytype “heads” that have to be pumped instead of flushed; in the cold weather the pumps often fail to work. But this was no mere admiral’s whim. Thule’s toilet system is designed to economize on water. When the base was planned the U. S. Air Force decided it would have to distill fresh water from Baffin Bay. Three enormous distilleries were installed, any two of them big enough to supply the whole base. Then for some obscure official reason this decision was changed, and fresh water is brought in by truck from a lake several miles inland.

Because it’s so difficult to provide even such necessities as water, Thule is intended to have no superfluous personnel. Hence it is an all-male community with no married quarters. The effect of this on morale is best described in the song from South Pacific, There Is Nothing Like a Dame. In spite of all the efforts of the Ü. S. taxpayer to provide him with every luxury, the GI is unreconciled to the celibate life. To the casual glance it appears that Thule’s recreational facilities rather exasperate than relieve this particular hardship. In the officers’ club, a beautifully appointed building, the most prominent feature is a large empty dance floor at which a five-piece orchestra plays dance music each evening.

At Churchill, the only Canadian base remotely comparable to Thule in any respect, about two hundred married quarters have been built and about fifty civilian girls are employed as stenographers. One result is that in hill the Canadian Army has had M jild and staff schools, kindergar'JITO and playgrounds. The total resident population at Churchill is more than two thousand, almost equalling 'the number of Canadian soldiers who receive training at Churchill for brief periods each winter.

Defense spokesmen say all this is worth while—that you can’t keep men at remote stations away from their families long enough for them to learn their jobs properly. No doubt this is true, but the cost is substantial. The defense department doesn’t compute how much it takes to maintain each man each day at Churchill, but construction costs are just double those in the settled areas and it’s probable that other costs are proportionately high.

This in spite of the fact that Churchill is relatively accessible. It’s a seaport, open for several months every summer. It has rail service the year round. You can imagine what it would cost to put such an establishment as Churchill in a place where most or all supplies would have to go in by air. This is the case at Resolute Bay, where a ship calls once a year. At the satellite weather stations which are supplied from Resolute, ships may never get in at all.

Life at the satellite weather stations is real isolation. Eight men go into each for a one-year term. Except for the spring and fall air lifts, and in some cases the summer supply ship, they have no direct contact with the outside world for the whole year. An aircraft goes out from Resolute to drop Christmas mail by parachute, but that plane doesn’t land.

A few years ago one of the men at Eureka, on the west coast of Ellesmere Island, developed blood poisoning. A ski-equipped plane went up, carrying a doctor who was willing if necessary to parachute into Eureka, treat the patient and then stay there for the rest of the winter. As it turned out, the plane found a natural landing field on a lake about twenty miles away. It was then necessary to wrap up the patient, strap him to a sled and drag him to the plane with a “weasel,” the track-propelled snow vehicle that is the light work horse of the Arctic.

RCAF officers told me about another occasion when the RCAF got a distress call to send a helicopter to Resolution Island, in Hudson Strait, and take out a man who was paralyzed. Since the RCAF didn’t have a helicopter near enough to send, the U. S. Air Force took over the mercy flight. When the helicopter arrived the “paralytic” came running out to meet it, hopped in and cried, “Come on boys, let’s go.” There was nothing wrong with him except that he couldn’t bear to stay on Resolution Island another minute. So far as my informants knew, nothing ever happened to him except that he was fired.

But cases like this are rare. In the main, morale seems to be good—not that the boys enjoy their time on isolated stations, hut they put up with it cheerfully. Many of them are about to be married; a year in the Arctic is a good way to save the down payment on a house. Each Canadian gets an isolation allowance of $100 a month with food, quarters and Arctic clothing free. U. S. weathermen get slightly more.

These stations serve both U. S. and Canadian weather bureaus and are jointly financed, but all are under Canadian command. As a gentle and almost facetious reminder that this is Canadian territory, each weather station has two signs outside the door of the main hut—“Canada Post Office” and “Canadian Customs and Immigration.” Should any immigrant happen

across the polar ice pack from Greenland or Siberia, the officer in charge at Alert is legally empowered to stamp his passport and examine his luggage.

Life on these stations is quiet but not wholly unattractive. In each main hut is a large bookcase full of books. Most stations have good phonographs and record libraries. Radio keeps them in touch with the outside world. But even for these little groups life has its rough moments. At Mould Bay on Prince Patrick Island they stack the drinking water outside the kitchen door—blocks of ice chopped out of a

nearby lake. At Isachsen the crew must melt sea ice for drinking water. They use old ice, identifiable because it’s blue, from which at least one spring thaw has leached some of the salt, but to the uninitiated it still tastes terrible, even in coffee.

These conditions can be shrugged off by a small group of volunteers, all busy every day at an interesting job. For a large garrison occupied only with the dreary routine of standing guard, they would create a forbidding threat to morale.

Because the RCAF carries supplies to

weather stations, many people think their work has some connection with defense. It hasn’t. Weather information is useful to the Air Force, of course, but weather information is also the only thing that we still exchange freely with the Russians. Russian data on Arctic weather have been more extensive than ours, but they give us all they have. Now they too will get the benefit of improved weather reporting in northern North America.

At Churchill only the thinnest pretense is made that the “airborne enemy landing,” on which each winter exercise is theoretically based, is really apprehended by anyone. Staff officers will tell you officially that “the possibility of an enemy landing has not been ruled out.” They will add, unofficially, the personal opinion that the chances of such an attack are about one in a million.

This doesn’t mean that the training and test ing that go on at Churchill are worthless. On the contrary, they’re regarded as valuable both by Ottawa and Washington. Land fighting may never occur in the Canadian Arctic, hut lessons learned there could he useful in many other parts of the world northern Norway or Sweden, for example, or Manchuria, or Siberia, or the wintry plains east of Moscow. If Allied armies should ever he frost-bound as Hitler was frost-bound beyond Smolensk in the winter of 1941, they would expect Canadians to know how to carry on under those conditions.

Most Canadians don’t, of course. That’s what the annual exercises at Churchill are for—to teach some of our soldiers how to cope with a climate that foreigners suppose to he normal in this country.

Altogether about 2,500 men take winter exercises at Churchill each year. They spend days on the trail with the thermometer at maybe 50 below and the wind-chill anywhere up to 2,500. Each man carries a total of about 70 pounds—21 pounds of clothing, a 35pound rucksack containing bedroll and rations, an eight-pound rifle and five or six rounds of ammunition. He also takes his turn, two men at a time, pulling a supply sled that weighs 110 pounds for a five-man and 165 pounds for a ten-man tent.

How a Man Gets Tired

He learns that it’s possible not only to stay alive under these conditions but to be fairly comfortable. He learns that a tent is kept warm by small stoves burning two gallons of naphtha a day (a test team last winter cut that ration to three pints without discomfort). He tries out better and better types of Arctic equipment and clothing. The white man has not yet devised anything as good as the Eskimo costume of caribou hide, but he can’t count on clothing a whole army with Canada’s 650,000 caribou.

Aside from what the soldier learns, there’s a lot the defense department hopes to learn from him. Researchers are trying, for example, to find a way of measuring fatigue some index to help a commanding officer decide when his unit has reached the point at which further effort is likely to do more harm than good. They have invented a curious device that looks something like an oversized telegraph key. You’re told to put your right hand on a long flat blade and wiggle it up and down as fast as you can for one minute; the machine records the number of strokes. The first 45 seconds are child’s play, hut in the last fifteen your forearm begins to feel it.

So far, they’re quite hopeful that a man’s speed with this little machine will prove an accurate measurement of his fatigue. It correlates well with such rule-of-thumb tests as whether or not a man looks tired, and with elaborate physiological tests too complicated for use in the field.

Another experiment is designed to find a way of measuring morale. In this case the instrument is a pack of 180 cards. Each card contains a statement one sentence long. The statements are made in rough soldier’s language (there was some trouble persuading the ladylike stenographers to take them all down, when the list was being compiled) but each is very carefully com-

posed, and each is graded as an expression of morale.

Here’s one, for example:

The bastards in charge of this exercise don't know any more about it than we do.

This indicates morale at a rock-bottom low —total loss of confidence in the leadership, under conditions that might lead to panic.

At the other end of the scale are expressions of high morale such as these:

This exercise isn't as tough as I thought it would be.

You can get by all right in the Arctic if you use your head.

For form’s sake the pack includes a few outbursts of ardent enthusiasm — the “having wonderful time, wish you were here” sort of thing—but no one really expects any soldier to echo these. In practice, either of the statements just above would indicate that morale is first class.

The test itself must he given by a man working with the troops and sharing their living conditions. He takes into each tent a pack of cards for each man, including one for himself. He asks the men to read the statements printed on the cards, and to throw into a blanket in the centre of the tent whatever statements they agree with. Statements with which they don’t agree are to be kept in the pack, and finally put back in an elastic band and turned in that way. The blanket, gathered up at the end of the test, contains a consensus of the men’s views—but nobody could ever prove who put in which statement.

Generally speaking, and without benefit of figures, so far, the morale on these winter exercises is pretty good. At the outset the average man is afraid of the Arctic. Once there, he finds to his astonishment that he can get on in relative comfort, and he reacts by feeling wonderful. In fact, instructors have to be alert lest overconfidence lead to neglect of necessary routines and precautions.

Not long ago a group of southerners came up from the United States for a test exercise in cold weather. The objective was to find out how men would behave who had never seen snow before, much less slept out at fifty below. On the morning they were supposed to go out on the trail ninety percent of the group reported sick. But when the exercise was over —and it lasted only a week or so—the southern hoys were just as competent as Canadian trainees.

No one proposes that an entire Canadian army, or even a whole Canadian division, should be made up of men who have all taken courses in Arctic warfare. But it is planned quite seriously to have enough officers, NCOs and seasoned men to stiffen, reassure and instruct any Canadian unit that might ever have to wage war in hard winter conditions anywhere. That, is the whole purpose of Fort Churchill, and the basic principle of northern defense policy in Canada. The RCAF is flying up there simply to learn how. And the soldiers are learning to live there, both indoors and out.

Some critics think this isn’t enough. They don’t accept the calm belief that the Russians won’t open a major front in the Arctic. They recall the artillery of Singapore, which could be fired only seaward because everybody knew it was impossible to move, let alone fight, in the jungles on the landward side.

Perhaps it was this awareness that the unexpected can happen that led Canadian and U. S. governments recently to order plans for an early warning system across the far north. It’s bound to be expensive, and the two countries will pay for it together. Such a system would complete a three-alarm warning network reaching out from likely target areas on this continent. The first alarm, now almost completed, is the radar system in the continental U. S. and populated areas of Canada; the second is the McGill Fence, and the third will be the far-north line. The U. S. also intends to extend parts of this whole system seaward on both flanks of the continent to form a warn-☺

ing umbrella against an enemy attack.

Canadian planners don’t deny that an attack across the Arctic Ocean-# possible, though they think there ari easier and more probable invasiot routes. But, they argue, we can’t achieve a hundred-percent security anyway. The cost of maintaining a full-scale defense or even an eaiTy warning system in the far north would b* astronomical. It takes thirty round trips of a North Star or a C-119 each year to maintain each weather station in the Arctic archipelago. The spring air lift alone moves 350 tons of supplies from Resolute Bay to the four satelliti stations, all to maintain 32 men.

Weighing risk against capability, Canadian strategists have decided that we should take a chance and leave the Arctic empty, -^r