The Northern Region theater of operations was the single strategic area where the Soviets were enjoying significant success thus far in the war. While Soviet forces and commanders on other fronts grappled with unforeseen challenges and obstacles to overcome, the Northwestern TVD had been largely spared. Air superiority was now firmly established over the northern portion of Norway, the Barents Sea, and northern areas of the Norwegian Sea. A small number of Norwegian airfields were under the control of Soviet airborne and airmobile forces. Norwegian land forces operating in the north were now exceedingly vulnerable to air attacks. The moment was nearing when the successes had to be exploited and expanded upon, and the initiative broadened. Before this could be made possible, though, Soviet air power committed to the Northern Region required a brief respite.
Air superiority over northern Norway had been won at a large cost in aircraft and pilots. Frontal aviation regiments and squadrons in the region needed a short period of time to consolidate and rest before the next phase of operations began. Northwestern TVD’s air commanders argued fiercely for a rest period, pointing to the obvious truth that success or failure in the theater rested largely on the shoulders of their pilots. The front commander saw the reasoning in their argument and gave permission for a six hour respite period, though he ordered his air commander to maintain a heavy combat air patrol over northern Norway during the respite. He did not want to give NATO airpower an opening to exploit.
AFNORTH was in no condition to exploit anything on the morning of 11 July. In accordance with CINC-NORTH’s orders, the buildup of alliance air and land forces in central Norway was underway. The Royal Norwegian Air Force was concentrated on maintaining control of the skies south of Narvik. After sufficient air reinforcements arrived, a major effort would be launched to regain control of the air in the north. USMC F/A-18 Hornets, and RAF Phantoms were beginning to arrive in moderate numbers. Behind them in the pipeline were USAF F-15s and F-16s. CINC-NORTH had hoped to have the capable US fighters in Norway earlier, but it was not to be. They would start arriving within the next twenty-four hours and significantly increase both the defensive, and offensive air options available to his air commanders.
The first twelve hours of 11 July were rather quiet. Soviet and NATO fighter patrols kept a respectable distance from each other. Neither side seemed eager to upset this set up for the time being. Around 0800, Soviet Tu-95 Bear-Ds started transiting northern Norway on their ways southwest into the Norwegian Sea and North Atlantic to begin searching for NATO convoys and surface groups. Their transits went unmolested, and only a handful of the lumbering bombers- turned-reconnaissance aircraft were detected by NATO radars, or ground observers. Along with the Bear-Ds, Il-38 Mays, as well as anti-submarine warfare variants of the Bear began ranging out deeper into the Barents and Norwegian Seas to hunt for NATO submarines.
The current location of the Soviet amphibious group in the Norwegian Sea was also of interest to AFNORTH. The group had been lost overnight and efforts to get a reconnaissance mission over the area it was thought to be in had amounted to nothing yet. Concern was growing that the Russians might try an amphibious assault against Andoya. Even though air attacks against that airbase had caused damage, the base remained operational. Losing control of it now could paralyze future NATO operations in the north.
(Authors note: Part II will be posted on Wednesday)