Sunday, March 29, 2015

Guest Post from Chris Oakley: The Oslo-Edinburgh Highway Opens

September 22nd, 1999--Oslo-Edinburgh Highway Opens

A party of Norwegian construction engineers met up with a team of Scottish highway workers to lay the last square of pavement on the Oslo-Edinburgh Highway, the longest overland road built in western Europe up to that time. It marked the climax to a 25-year long program to modernize a travel route that had linked the British Isles and Norway for centuries; when the highway was officially opened for motor travel on September 23rd, former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher hailed the moment as “a notable step forward in the history of transportation and commerce”. And in fact it would prove to be a major boon not just for Great Britain and Norway but for the European Union as a whole-- in its first six weeks of operation, the Oslo-Edinburgh Highway would see two million tourists from all parts of Europe drive across its span to pump money into businesses at both ends of the highway as well as the shops lining the miles in between.

The establishment of the Oslo-Edinburgh Highway was the latest chapter in the history of a land bridge between the British Isles and Scandanavia whose existence dated back to 30,000 B.C., when geological forces began to push seabed material up at both ends of the North Sea to form the initial segments of the bridge. Over the ensuing centuries, these forces continued steadily thrusting bedrock up to the North Sea's surface; by the year 200 A.D., the land bridge would span the entire length of the North Sea between the Scottish and Norwegian coasts. As early as 245 A.D. it was already becoming a popular travel route for traders, merchants, and religious pilgrims seeking to make their way from Scandinavia to England or vice versa. The land bridge was also viewed as a convenient entry point into Scotland for invading armies, as countless Viking military expeditions across the bridge between 810 and 951 A.D. would later demonstrate.

As trade and commerce grew in Europe, so did the land bridge's importance in European affairs; at least two of the three Anglo-Dutch wars of the 17th century were fought in part because because of the Netherlands' desire to deprive Great Britain of the profits gained from tolls paid to the British government by travelers crossing the bridge. During the American Revolution Benjamin Franklin proposed sending a raiding party to the Scottish coast to attack and destroy the main British customs house at the Scottish end of the land bridge; though the idea was never implemented by the Americans, it put enough of a scare into King George III and his military advisors to induce them to station troops and ships within the custom house's vicinity, tying up military resources that might otherwise have been used against the colonists.

During the Napoleonic Wars, the Royal Navy would send ships to patrol the waters around the land bridge as a warning to the Swedish-Norwegian Union-- then allied with Napoleon --not to make any attempts to take over the bridge or send invasion troops into the British Isles. In the First World War, a number of Imperial German Navy U-boat captains would learn the hard way that Whitehall didn't take kindly to having the Kaiser's warships attack civilian villages near the Scottish end of the bridge, and neither did the civilians themselves; in one particularly severe case of vigilante justice, the three lone survivors of a sunken U-boat were seized by residents of the fishing town the U-boat had attacked just hours earlier and lynched.

The Nazi occupation of Norway in 1940 stoked fears in Winston Churchill's cabinet that Hitler might seek to use the land bridge as an entry point for sending German troops into Scotland as part of Operation Sealion. The attempt by a Waffen-SS probing squad to breach two Royal Army barricades at the bridge's midway point less than four weeks after the fall of France only served to heighten those anxieties further, and accordingly in August of 1940 the RAF started a round-the-clock bombing campaign against German military bases on the Norwegian end of the bridge; in May 1942 the U.S. Army Air Corps joined in the bombing campaign, and, by 1944, most of the German troops stationed along the land bridge had been forced to pull back to the Norwegian interior. By the time the Second World War ended in 1945, only two battalions were left of what at one point had been a 500,000-man Wehrmacht garrison on the land bridge.

As relations between the Western powers and the Soviet Union deteriorated in the early days of the Cold War, the British government considered a number of proposals for using the Scottish end of the land bridge as an emergency bunker site for the prime minister and his cabinet in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack on Great Britain; for various reasons this idea was quietly dropped by the mid-1960s.

In 1969 Great Britain and Norway signed a development pact under which the two countries would collaborate to build a modern highway spanning the length of the land bridge; Norway's neighbor Denmark would act as an informal third partner in the construction project, providing technical assistance to the main Norwegian engineering team. Construction work on the Oslo-Edinburgh Highway actually began in June of 1974, and although on a number of occasions political and financial difficulties threatened to stop the project in its tracks, the Norwegian and Scottish construction teams made substantial progress in their efforts; by 1982 the first lane of the three-lane highway was already 90 percent complete. During Margaret Thatcher's tenure as British prime minister, she often faced heavy criticism from her own Conservative Party and the left-leaning Labour Party for the high cost of the highway project, but Thatcher defended the Oslo-Edinburgh Highway program as a means of boosting commerce between Britain and her partners in the European Community. Thatcher's successors, John Major and Tony Blair, would oversee the final phases of the Scottish construction team's building efforts; it was Blair who would meet Norwegian prime minister Kjell Magne Bondevik in the center of the highway for the September 22nd, 1999, ceremony that would mark the completion of the project.

Since the Oslo-Edinburgh Highway was officially opened for business, it has been one of the most heavily used motorways in Europe; the walkways and bicycle paths running parallel to the highway are also very popular with travelers, while the ferry ports located at the Scottish and Norwegian ends of the highway operate year-round for the benefit of travelers journeying between Scandinavia and Britain by sea. And in a sign of the highway's growing importance to meeting European Union transporation needs, a Munich-based transport engineering firm has just won a multi-million euro contract to design and build a monorail tunnel adjacent to the southern side of the land bridge.


In reality, there is no land bridge connecting Scotland and Norway; if one ever did exist, it has probably long since crumbled into the North Sea. Up until the end of the First World War, the only way to reach the British Isles from Norway was by boat; with the advent of dirigibles and fixed-wing aircraft, however, it became possible to cross the North Sea by air, and today Oslo is home to the second-busiest airport in Scandinavia. The North Sea's primary importance to Europe's economy lies in the oil and natural gas deposits which supply much of the European Union's daily energy needs.

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