In an alternate timeline, the 1867 Alaska Purchase does not happen (the British do not fight in the Crimean War and instead aid Russia financially). Russia still controls Alaska in 1904 when war breaks out with Japan. Japan uses its superior navy to easily occupy sparsely-populated Alaska, and forces Russia to cede it in exchange for peace.

Fast-forward to December 1941. As tensions mount in the Pacific, Japan strikes Pearl Harbor in an attempt to intimidate America. Instead, the USA joins the Allies and declares war on Japan; crucially, this means that Japan is now at war with Canada, whom they border through Alaska.

Assuming that Japan's capabilities are the same as in our timeline (except for Alaskan resources that were available in 1941, so no oil), could they have moved a sufficient number of troops and equipment into Alaska, and invade North America through the Yukon? Or would they lack the manpower and resources to do this and fight in China and invade South-East Asia and repel the US Navy in the Pacific? They would have some ports in Alaska to stage a naval invasion from, if they could overpower the American navy and air force.

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    $\begingroup$ It's a loooooonnnnggg march from Alaska down to the US and it is rough and cold country. I think they'd find the logistics to be impossible. $\endgroup$ – zeta-band Feb 15 '18 at 20:10
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    $\begingroup$ @zeta-band The logistics would be aided by a sea borne lift if the over land route to the US through Canada were chose, but with their main strategic effort being China, this campaign would run out of resources unless they were able to recruit people from conquered territories to fight for them. SPavel, are you open to the Japanese conscripting soldiers form conquered territories? Viet Nam? China? Burma? $\endgroup$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 15 '18 at 20:21
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    $\begingroup$ There would be no Alaskan oil in the 1940s. Most Alaskan oil required long pipelines and wasn't found or exploited until the 1960's and 70's prior to that any small oil finds were only used locally. However, if Japan had Alaskan oil they wouldn't have needed to invade SE Asia to fuel their war in China and subsequently deal with the US in the Philippines, it would be a completely different geopolitical situation. $\endgroup$ – Josh King Feb 15 '18 at 20:31
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    $\begingroup$ I doubt Soviet Russia would cede anything to Japan, but would just finish the Germans off and then invade Japan (exactly like they were planning to in our past - research the Soviet-Japanese War which is not well known in the West). Cede to Japan while allied to the US and UK and Commonwealth ? And would Canadians have let the Japanese wander down casually through their country ? Like hades they would ! $\endgroup$ – StephenG Feb 16 '18 at 1:23
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    $\begingroup$ @StephenG There was no Soviet Russia in 1905. $\endgroup$ – SPavel Feb 16 '18 at 3:26

Frankly if the Japanese of this timeline tried to go overland they wouldn't even reach the US before being defeated.

During WW2 the Canadian army enlisted 730,000; the air force 260,000; and the navy 115,000 personnel. Over half of these people never left Canada and they varied wildly in quality and training, but Canada had the manpower to meet a Japanese offensive from Alaska. With a potentially hostile Japan on the border, this timelines Canada would likely see even more soldiers enlisted or conscripted and better training.

One critical disadvantage for Japan is that during WW2 Canada due to its size and location was a major training center for pilots.

Canada was the primary location of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, the largest air force training program in history. 131,553 air force personnel, including 49,808 pilots, were trained at airbases in Canada from October 1940 to March 1945. More than half of the BCAT graduates were Canadians who went on to serve with the RCAF and Royal Air Force (RAF). One out of the six RAF Bomber Command groups flying in Europe was Canadian.

Much of this training happened in the prairies.

Going through the Yukon and into the Prairies

Now as others have said, the terrain between Alaska and the populated part of Canada is hellish to put it nicely. Even more than Russia, Canada could afford to lose the land, drawing the Japanese further in and away from their supply lines. From Anchorage Alaska to Edmonton, Alberta (the northernmost city in Alberta and essential for a Japanese invasion that doesn't hug the coast), it is 1,911.6 miles using modern roads. That is 36 hours in good weather using cars of today. Back then 99% of the way is wet rocky tundra, thick forests, swamps and rivers. To get around that area people used rivers to get close to where they needed to go, and then built a short, light railway or more likely a small dirt road, or they flew in by bush plane.

In 1940, there were maybe a hundred villages and towns in the Yukon, Northern British Columbia and Alberta, most of these were Indian reservations, work camps, and fishing villages, nothing that would support more than a few hundred people. The Canadian forces on the other hand would have a steady stream of supplies and soldiers coming by rail to Edmonton from across Canada and the US, then they'd be driven north before being put into boats to go up river. The Japanese would find every kilometer they took harder than the last.

Initially garrison forces that know the terrain could set up defense at the numerous rivers that cover the land. Trying to move across ice covered rivers while under fire and in bitterly cold weather, would be bad for the Japanese. December temperatures in the Yukon typically range from -10 to -21 Celsius.

Even once they get into Alberta it doesn't get better. Alberta has the same temperature range as the Yukon, few roads at that time especially up north, and the Japanese would be going through Boreal forests for about 300 or 400 miles before reaching the prairies and civilization. That's thick pine forests, swamps, bogs, and because its winter, ice, hip deep snow and no roads.

Like in the Yukon the defenders would be closer to their supply lines, many would have grown up in terrain like this, and they could retreat far more easily using small paths and roads known to the locals. They would also be close enough for the several thousand pilots training in Canada to attack while the Japanese have zero air force.

If the Japanese somehow reach the nearest major city of Edmonton, they will be fighting in either wet prairies if in the spring, or hot, dusty prairies if it's the summer with no supply lines. Whereas the Allied army would be well supplied by a highway and railway from the south, with another major rail line to the east and west. Having at least several months of knowing exactly where the Japanese are going to, the Canadian and US forces will have the chance to fortify the entire way.

The Yukon to Alberta to the US route would see the Japanese forces whittled away initially by light Canadian forces using dogsleds, cold, and treacherous terrain. After that while at their weakest they'd be hit with a sledgehammer of Canadian and American forces backed up by hundreds if not thousands of planes that control the entire sky.

Going Down the Coast

If the Japanese avoided that and tried to roll up the West Coast, it's still a death trap, but even worse.

The terrain is no better, the thick forests and rivers would slow them down, and instead of swamps they have to go through narrow strips of coastline between the Rockies and the Pacific. This leaves them wide open for the combined US and Canadian fleet (yes Canada at one point had a fleet, it was mostly destroyers and anti-sub ships but it was there and well trained) working out of Seattle and Vancouver to pummel them as they slowly made their way through these natural choke points.

Again there is the air force flying out of Vancouver and the aircraft carriers to dominate the sky. While the Japanese air force 'may' be able to support its own side from Alaska they would have farther to fly so would have less fuel and time to contest the sky.

During all of this, Canadian and American forces could be sent in by boat to fortify and defend the coastal villages, and behind the Japanese lines to cut off whatever supply train they developed. With the American/Canadian control of the sky and sea, the Japanese couldn't stop it. Any stragglers would be captured, attempts to reinforce the Japanese army would be met by aircraft and battleships supporting the Allied soldiers. While the Japanese bash their heads against the defenses in front of them they'd have to defend their rear, without any chance of resupply.

They wouldn't come within 500 kilometers of Vancouver.

Naval Invasion

A naval invasion into Vancouver or Seattle, would see the Japanese forces fighting the larger joint naval and air force of the Americans and Canadians. If they did manage to land, they are fighting in urban terrain against tens of thousands of Canadian and US forces.

The results would make the Dieppe Raid look like a well thought out plan.

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    $\begingroup$ "Canada could afford to lose the land" -- but what if Canada runs out of boreal forest?! Heh. (Canada's boreal forest is roughly the size of, well, Europe. Ok, only half of the entire land area of Europe.) $\endgroup$ – Yakk Feb 16 '18 at 14:43
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    $\begingroup$ @Yakk LOL. I live in the middle of it, we can lose several thousand square miles and we won't even notice. In fact we might even cheer at having less mosquitoes. $\endgroup$ – Dan Clarke Feb 16 '18 at 14:50
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    $\begingroup$ youtube.com/watch?v=kxTpIMK5NSo $\endgroup$ – Yakk Feb 16 '18 at 15:11
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    $\begingroup$ "Even more than Russia, Canada could afford to lose the land, drawing the Japanese further in and away from their supply lines." Yep. In 1941, from a warfighting strategic level, there simply wasn't anything, save one, worth defending. Alberta petroleum didn't start until 1947. The single thing of any value in that whole section of the continent was the uranium mine at Port Radium (closed 1940, reopened 1942 to supply the Manhattan Project). But, of course, that area is only accessible by aircraft even today. $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison Feb 16 '18 at 16:06
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    $\begingroup$ "while the Japanese have zero air force" - nice pun $\endgroup$ – SPavel Feb 16 '18 at 20:06


They wouldn't be able to do it today with more roads in far better shape than there were in 1941. A few minor air raids to take out some roads and bridges and cause the odd avalanche, and a modern army today would be stalled in Alaska and the Yukon.

In 1941? There wasn't a road. The Alaska Highway, which would connect Alaska to the rest of the continent, only began in 1942 and was only passable (barely) in 1943, and relied on pontoon and log bridges early on. A 100 mile stretch in 1943 became impassable due to permafrost melt and they had to put in a corduroy road (that section caused problem up until the 1990s). The Alaskan side was only paved in the 1960s, the Canadian side only finally paved in 1981.

Postwar, the only additional connection beside the Alcan is a road from Dawson that crosses the border at Little Gold and connects with the Alcan at Tetlin Junction. Drive a few miles west to Tok and you turn right to go to Fairbanks, left to Anchorage. And that's it.

Forget trying to figure out if they had enough troops to spare from other theaters to do it. You could put the entire Japanese army in Alaska and they couldn't do it. Canadian and US defenders wouldn't even have to fight; they could send up some observation aircraft and watch the idiots try to make their way east and south. It would be a disaster that would make Napoleon and Hitler's invasions of Russia look like feats of strategic genius. Send a few bombing raids up to make life difficult every few weeks, and the Allies would have months, more likely a year or more, to prepare a welcome for any survivors that stumbled out of the woods desperate for shelter and food. The biggest problem would be what to do with all the bodies.

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    $\begingroup$ "The biggest problem would be what to do with all the bodies." - Bears, wolverines, and wolves. $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Feb 15 '18 at 21:43
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    $\begingroup$ "Bears, wolverines, and wolves." Oh my! $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison Feb 15 '18 at 22:28
  • $\begingroup$ @Twelfth -- don't forget about P. concolor (aka mountain lions) $\endgroup$ – Shalvenay Feb 15 '18 at 23:32
  • $\begingroup$ And they'd have to get to the Alcan "Highway", which would be well nigh impossible. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Feb 16 '18 at 8:09
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    $\begingroup$ "Drive a few miles west to Tok and you turn right to go to Fairbanks, left to Anchorage." - better make that Delta Junction - the terminus of the Alcan - not Tok. At Tok, there is the Tok cutoff (perenially the roughest paved road I ever drive), which saves a few miles getting to the Glenallen highway down to Anchorage, but takes you the wrong way for Fairbanks. $\endgroup$ – Paul Sinclair Feb 16 '18 at 13:53

Could the IJA have moved a large land force to Alaska?

Sure. The Imperial Japanese Navy clearly had the transport capability. But they could not have done it in one lift (or two, or three). It would have taken months to build up forces...at the cost of fewer forces in China.

Would that land force have been powerful enough to seriously challenge the Canadian Army and Royal Canadian Air Force?

No. Not a chance.

There was no Alaska Highway then. IJA troops would have to march on foot through the trackless, cold, wet woods of northern British Columbia...with all their supplies and ammunition on their backs. Little artillery would come with them. The distances would make portable radio problematic for coordinating effective air support. When they emerged to fight (let's say at Prince Rupert, the best port for resupply), they would face Canadian troops with prepared defensive positions, tanks, plentiful artillery and air support, and secure supply lines.

Even if taken by surprise, the Canadians could reinforce and resupply by rail faster than the Japanese could by sea. It's likely that the Canadian and US navies could embargo Alaska completely (as they later did with IJA forces in China), cutting off the IJA Task Force from resupply. Within a few weeks, when their food and ammunition run out, the entire IJA force would be prisoners on trains heading east to build their own POW camps on the lonely prairie.

Let's try a different method: Say the IJA cut an artillery road while they marched, and laid signal wire. Now they had artillery and some air support...but utterly sacrificed surprise and slowed themselves to a crawl. The IJA Task Force would be pounded by B-17s with short flight times and full bomb loads day and night for weeks before they reach open ground...where they would again encounter heavily-dug-in Canadian defenses (negating that artillery they worked so hard to bring).

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    $\begingroup$ In the Commonwealth construct, and indeed in the UK, there is no "Royal" army; the Army belongs to Parliament, not the monarch. Charles 1 lost his head over that argument. Now many units across the Commonwealth have a Royal Warrant, allowing them to have the Title "Royal" in their regimental name. Other units may have a relationship with the monarch, so they can be styled "The King's Own" or "The Queen's" own. But overall, the Army belongs to Parliament so they cannot be used by the King to opress the people or maintain a tyrannical rule. Minor nitpick ends. Otherwise very good answer. $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Feb 15 '18 at 21:18

I think there is some distance perception issues here...while in Vancouver I had an American tourist ask me how to day trip to Alaska. I was confused, so he showed me a map of the US that shows Canada as this thin little strip at the top end of the US with Alaska attached to it. In reality, the distance from Juneau to California is around the same as the distance from Hawaii to California...and if you tried to use a land route from Alaska, it's significantly further.

Alaska (and northern canada) is developed far more recently...in the 1940's, most oil infrastructure did not exist (only infrastructure that really existed was to support gold mining operations). The Japanese would be doing this exploration and drilling themselves.

Most of the Yukon, especially in WWII, was heavily isolated and lacked roads...and many of those roads are based on ice cycles and are only open a small segment of the year (Ice road information here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ice_road it's usable when frozen but when temperatures rise large trucks tend to break through. Ice Road Trucker tv show demonstrates this well). Northern BC and Alberta are dense boreal forest and nearly impassible to anyone but seasoned guides. There is no land route straight south along the coast and you must cross into the Rocky mountains before turning south. It's a pretty drive in the summer on today's highways at least...a pretty 44 hour @ 120km/hour drive.

Juneau actually has no road route to it and they would have to land elsewhere. The alaska highway https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alaska_Highway that would connect to northern canada was a constantly changing entity that was complete around 1946ish, but was largely gravel and in a state of flux (avalanches are a constant here). This march would have made the Germans struggles in Russia look like a beach party (Berlin to Moscow is 70% of the distance Juneau to Vancouver is via land routes, without taking into account the multiple summit crossings required to get through the Rocky mountains) .

Assuming that Japan's capabilities are the same as in our timeline (except for Alaskan resources that were available in 1941, so no oil), could they have moved a sufficient number of troops and equipment into Alaska, and invade North America through the Yukon?

No. It'd be difficult with today's infrastructure let alone 1940's. The Japanese would exhaust their resources long before getting to the US from that direction

Just an add-on...the Alaska Highway was an american funded project and would not have existed if America did not control Alaska. There would not have been any existing roadways for the Japanese to use here.

More added to this point:

could they have moved a sufficient number of troops and equipment into Alaska, and invade North America through the Yukon?

Vancouver had a decent amount of industry, however it should be pointed out that losing Vancouver and most of it's western territories was hardly a blow to Canadian industry, let alone America. Japan would be facing the full extent of the American military industrial complex on it's home soil. To cripple America, Japan would have to fight it's way across the continent to the Eastern industrial heartland before really impacting America's (and Canada's) ability to react.

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    $\begingroup$ "while in Vancouver I had an American tourist ask me how to day trip to Alaska" actually spat out my vodka $\endgroup$ – Lightness Races in Orbit Feb 15 '18 at 23:48
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    $\begingroup$ Here's a map of the U.S. with little distortion. This shows the distance between the main land U.S. and Alaska much better. $\endgroup$ – PyRulez Feb 16 '18 at 4:14
  • $\begingroup$ WRT the Alaska Highway, it was constructed as a wartime defense measure. (Completed 1942, opened to public use in 1948.) Without that, any invading Japanese force would either have to build the road itself while being attacked by defending US & Canadian forces, or learn to use dogsleds :-) $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Feb 16 '18 at 4:24

Unless obtaining Alaska was valuable enough for them to focus more on their army than their navy pre-WWII, probably not. Even if they did, since their naval buildup already wasn't enough to beat the American's navy, they likely would have have been cripplingly blockaded even sooner than if they didn't have Alaska.

Prior to WWII, there were two conflicting doctrines within Japanese expansion plans: Hokushin-ron, or northern expansion, and Nanshin-ron, southern expansion. The army favored northern expansion into Russia and Mongolia, since armies are like cats in that they dislike oceans. The navy favored southern expansion, since boats generally don't perform well on land. The capability of the army's plan was tested during several border skirmishes against the Soviets near the river Khalkhin Gol in Manchuria, which resulted in defeats for the Japanese army. In case you were wondering: yes, these battles included camels.

Because of the defeats against the more numerous but (presumably)inferior Soviet troops, faith in the army wavered and southern expansion and a focus on the navy became the dominate Japanese military policy leading up to WWII. If the Japanese army wasn't expected to be able to expand from their controlled area just a couple hundred miles from the mainland, I doubt they would have expected to be able to expand in an area several thousand miles across the American-filled ocean, and then further down a thousand miles of tree-filled coast to reach anything worth occupying.

Furthermore, even if they had been willing to start marching their army from Alaska, they'd need to feed and supply them. Even when focusing on naval expansion, their ability to even supply their home islands was crippled by the American navy.


Remember the Butterfly Effect

It is difficult to image an alternate history where the Alaska Purchase did not take place and nothing else changes ...

  • Would Russia have built an add-on project to the Trans-Siberian Railway which connects their Bering Sea ports to the border?
  • Japan would have been in control of Alaska for 37 years. Would they have built a railway? How would forces and investments be split between Manchuria and Alaska?
  • Once upon a time, the US seriously worried about war with the UK. Remember, the Brits did burn Washington, not the Japanese. What if the US had allied themselves with the Japanese around the 1910 timeframe to "neutralize Canada as a royalist base?"
  • Even without a railway, with a hostile Japan on a wilderness land border, Canadian forces would look different.

Would places like Juneau be established bases to rival Rabaul in the original timeline?

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    $\begingroup$ It's worth noting that the US war plan that ended up serving as the basis of US planning in WWII, War Plan Red-Orange was a plan for fighting the British and Japanese at the same time, because of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. I think the US would have found Japanese control of Alaska very threatening. $\endgroup$ – Deolater Feb 16 '18 at 14:11

Other than logistical impossibilities and huge disparities in available manpower, your campaign also seems to have little realistic military value to the Japanese.

Assuming minimal butterflying, Japan in 1941 has much of its troops spread out thin over many Asian countries and territories in the Pacific ocean. The Chinese aren't giving up and the Sino-Japanese war basically will slowly turn into a WW1-ish stalemate. The Australians and the US Pacific fleet are still in play. The main plan of the Japanese, convincing the US that a war would be excessively costly, fails and the Americans are out for blood. With bases in Alaska and given 100% priority, Japanese forces would probably be able to control the sea off the American West coast and establish local naval superiority, sure, but why? Even if they manage to somehow eliminate a good chunk of 1941 US airpower and naval power, they'd still have to contend with a growing industrial power that will pump out massive numbers of war materiel in a few years. And US naval command will likely transfer the US Atlantic fleet to the Pacific if their homeland was perceived to be in danger, further compromising the Japanese position. It's also obviously impossible for Japan to conquer the West coast with land forces. The Americans have the advantage of fighting on their own soil & could easily muster an army to repel any hopeful Japanese invasion land force - if they even let them build up forces. They cannot maintain their position forever and their other fronts (territories actually worth fighting over) will be considerably weakened for no purpose.

Japan could never 'defeat' the US in the conventional sense (this is obvious if you simply look at the figures - manpower, industry etc.). The Japanese knew very well they couldn't win a protracted war with the US and trying to control the West coast runs completely contrary to the only way of winning the war - a quick and violent sucker punch on American forces far away from the mainland aimed at demoralising the US and discouraging them from taking up arms in the first place.


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