Operation Archery - Operation Anklet (26-27 December 1941) British Commandos and Royal Navy revisit Norwegian shores

On the 27th October, 1941, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Keyes was succeeded as Director of Combined Operations by Captain the Lord Louis Mountbatten, G.C.V.O., D.S.O., A.D.C., who was promoted Commodore First Class, and on the 18th March, 1942, Acting Vice-Admiral, when his title was changed to Chief of Combined Operations. At the same time he was granted honorary commissions in the Army as a Lieutenant-General and in the Royal Air Force as an Air Marshal. He at once set about planning a raid on a part of the occupied coast of Europe where, it was hoped, the enemy would least expect to be attacked. The country chosen was Norway, the place Vaagso, some hundreds of miles south of the Lofoten Islands so successfully visited in the previous March.

The object of the raid was, while harassing the German defences on the coast of South-West Norway, to attack and destroy a number of military and economic targets in the town of South Vaagso and on the nearby island of Maaloy, and to capture or sink any shipping found in Ulvesund. Ulvesund is the name borne by the strip of water on which the port of Vaagso lies and which divides the island of that name from the mainland. It forms part of the Indreled, that narrow passage which stretches along so much of the coast of Norway, and is in the nature of a more or less continuous channel bounded by a chain of islands on the one hand and the mainland of Norway on the other. Through the Indreled passes most of the coastwise traffic, for, by so doing, ships can use the protection afforded by the chain of islands. At certain points the Indreled is broken, and one of these is situated at the north end of Ulvesund at a point where it joins a wide bay. Ships sailing northward must cross this bay and double the peninsula of Stadtlandet, to the south of which lies the island of Vaagso. They tend, therefore, to congregate in Ulvesund, where they remain awaiting a suitable moment to pass into the open sea round the end of Stadtlandet, which is noted for its storms, and then northwards once more under the cover of the numerous islands. Running roughly at right angles to Ulvesund is Vaags Fjord; where the two stretches of water meet, there is a small island named Maaloy, opposite which is the town of South Vaagso.

The Germans had not forgotten to fortify the southern end of Ulvesund, and they had established coastal defences on the island of Maaloy itself, as well as in and near the town of South Vaagso opposite. On Maaloy, a battery of field guns had been mounted, and there were also anti-aircraft batteries and machine guns, while four miles to the southward was a battery of fairly heavy guns, possibly of French origin, situated on the island of Rugsundo; they were laid so as to fire westward down Vaags Fjord. Both Maaloy Island and South Vaagso were garrisoned by German troops, and it so happened that those in the town had been reinforced a few days before the attack by a detachment sent there to spend Christmas.

It was decided to approach the town and island up Vaagso Fjord, the entrance of which is marked by two lighthouses at Hovdenoes and Bergsholmene. On reaching the small bay behind Halnoevik Point, south of the little village of Hollevik, a short distance from South Vaagso, the landing craft from the assault ships were to be lowered and landings made first under cover of a naval bombardment and then of smoke laid by aircraft. Once ashore, the island of Maaloy and the town of South Vaagso were to be captured and anything of value to the enemy, such as fish-oil factories, destroyed.

After carrying out a number of rehearsals the force sailed on Christmas Eve, arriving at an anchorage on Christmas Day. Very heavy weather was met with. During the passage the secretary to the captain of one of the infantry landing ships invited his commanding officer to the cabin and showed him a table moving rhythmically up and down the wall, a distance of some six inches. It was eventually discovered that this levitation was due to the heavy seas, which were literally squeezing the sides of the ship. The infantry landing ships suffered some damage. This vas repaired; but since the weather did not immediately abate, it was decided to postpone the operation for 24 hours. The men were, therefore, able to eat their Christmas dinner in comfort.

The weather having improved, the force sailed at four p.m. on Boxing Day with the promise of still further improvement. Nor was the promise belied; the storm died down, and by the time the Norwegian coast was reached, weather conditions were perfect. The ships moving across the North Sea out of the sunset into the darkness of the long winter night were a fine sight.

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Operation Archery Map

In the van was HMS Kenya, a six-inch cruiser, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral H. M. Burroughs, C.B., and in line astern behind him came , four Royal Navy escort destroyers then the infantry landing ships carrying 570 commandos. While it was still dark, landfall was made exactly at the estimated position and time. “We approached from the west into the promise of dawn,” says one who was on the bridge of the “Kenya.” “It was a very eerie sensation entering the fjord in absolute silence and very slowly. I wondered what was going to happen for it seemed that the ship had lost her proper element, that she was no longer a free ship at sea.

The naval bombardment opened at 8.48 a.m., the HMS Kenya firing a salvo of star shell which lit up the island of Maaloy, showing not only the target to the naval gunners, but also the place where they were to drop their smoke bombs to the crews of RAF Hampden bombers overhead. This salvo was followed by further salvos of six-inch shells. Two minutes later the destroyers joined in the bombardment which lasted nine and a quarter minutes. During that brief period between four and five hundred six-inch shells fell upon a space not more than 250 yards square.

The Germans on the island had been caught unprepared. They were following their usual routine: the gunners were being roused by a loud-voiced N.C.O., the officer commanding was shaving, his batman, whose turn it was that morning to man the telephone connecting headquarters with the look-out post, was cleaning his officer’s boots on the table beside the instrument. So busily engaged was he upon this task that he allowed the telephone bell to ring, and did not trouble to pick up the receiver. The German gunners thus received no warning. Outside the barracks on the island of Maaloy, there was a naval signalling station established on its highest point. The signaller on duty received a message flashed by lamp telling of the advent of our forces. He ran down to the small bay on the north side of the island, leapt into a boat and rowed as fast as he could to the headquarters of the German Naval Commandant on the main island of Vaagso. Here he delivered the warning, but when asked whether he had warned the army gunners on Maaloy he replied, “Oh, no, Sir; it is a military battery, and this is a naval signal.” The Germans are a methodical people. The landing craft carried troops belonging to No. 2 and No. 3 Commandos, a detachment of Royal Engineers from No. 6 Commando, and some men of the Royal Army Medical Corps from No. 4 Commando. With these British troops was a detachment of the Royal Norwegian Army. To this body of men, made up of 51 officers and 525 other ranks, five general tasks had been entrusted. For their fulfilment they were divided into five groups. Group 1 was to land near the village of Hollevik, on the southern shore of the island of Vaagso and a short distance from the town of South Vaagso. They were to clear the area and then move along the coast road and remain as a reserve to Group 2. Group 2 was to attack the town of South Vaagso itself and destroy a number of military and economic objectives, including the canning factory, the power station, the Firda fish-oil factory, and the herring-oil factory. Group 3 was to capture Maaloy Island. Group 4 remained in its landing craft as a floating reserve to be used by Brigadier (now Major-General) J. C. Haydon, D.S.O., O.B.E., Irish Guards, the Military Force Commander, when he thought fit. Group 5 was to be carried on board the destroyer HMS Oribi up Ulvesund and landed between the towns of South and North Vaagso to cut communications between them.

Saunders MC, Hilary St. George. Combined Operations;

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Group 1 soon accomplished its task. It cleared the area round Hollevik, captured the village of Halnoesvik, and was ordered to act as reserve to Colonel Durnford-Slater who, with No. 3 Commando, was attacking South Vaagso. On leaving the infantry landing ship, it moved forward in its landing craft with Group 3, which was to attack Maaloy Island, to starboard. It was now half light, and the shore was becoming visible. The roar of the bombardment was loud and continuous; buildings were soon in flames, and it looked to the oncoming Commandos as though the island had been reduced to a shambles. Only a hundred yards from the shore, the agreed signal, a shower of red Very lights, was sent up; the bombardment ceased immediately, and then the RAF Hampden bombers, which had been circling above, swooped down to 50 feet and dropped their smoke bombs along the edge of the island, rapidly shrouding it in a pall of white smoke, which covered the troops on the last few hundred yards of their journey. All went well save that one Hampden bomber was hit, probably at the moment when her bomb-aimer was about to drop a smoke bomb. The pilot could have turned away and might have been able to alight safely on the sea near the ships. He chose to carry on and fulfil his mission if he could; but the aircraft went out of control, and the bomb fell on an assault landing craft, wounding 20 men. The Hampden fell into the water, and only one of its crew was rescued.

Group 2 landed very close to the town and quickly silenced two light machine-gun posts. They then advanced into the town itself, where they met considerable opposition. The Germans were by this time fully on the alert, and defended themselves with great resolution in the various buildings in which they were established. (German opposition in the town was much stiffer than expected as, unknown to the British, a Gebirgsjäger (mountain troops) unit of experienced soldiers in company strength from the Eastern Front was there on leave. The defenders’ experience in sniping and street fighting caused the operation to develop into a bitter house-to-house battle. Their snipers were particularly effective; they had taken up a position on the hillside west of the town, where they lay protected by excellent natural cover, and caused a number of casualties. Several local Norwegian citizens assisted the commandos by acting as porters for ammunition, grenades and other explosives and in carrying away the wounded.

While part of Group 2 was thus hotly engaged, another detachment moved a short distance up Ulvesund, landed near the Herring Factory at Mortenes and destroyed it without opposition. In the meantime, No. 5 Group had been taken to their destination up Ulvesund in the destroyer HMS Oribi. They landed, and subsequently blew craters in the road between North and South Vaagso, and destroyed the telephone exchange at Rodberg. By ten o’clock the southern part of the town of South Vaagso was in British hands, but the position in its northern part was more difficult. British advanced troops were held up and had lost their two Troop commanders, Captain Giles and Captain Forester, killed, and three other officers wounded. It was time for reinforcements. They were called for.


While Group 2 was thus involved in heavy fighting, Group 3 had been more fortunate. To the sound of their Commanding Officer, Major Churchill’s, bagpipes playing the “March of the Cameron Men,” they had landed dry-shod on Maaloy Island. On the way thither, their craft looked to watchers from the air “like tadpoles with white tails moving in perfect formation for the beach.” There they found a low rocky cliff, on the top of which they formed up and advanced. The island was thick with the smoke of the shells and smoke bombs. The men advanced to the German barracks, where they killed four Germans and took 25 prisoners, one of whom was the German officer in command, a fat man, the owner of the boots. Of the German guns, all but one had been knocked out. The one gun still serviceable was turned on a German flak ship. During this action, the Norwegian Army Captain Martin Linge, at the head of his unit, made a very vigorous and brave assault on the German Headquarters, and died riddled with machine-gun bullets. He was soon avenged by his men, who threw hand grenades into the building and set it on fire. The island of Maaloy was entirely in our hands by 9.20. About an hour was spent searching it and removing the office files from the German barracks. Soon after 10.30 part of Group 3 were ordered to re-enter their craft and go to the help of their hard-pressed comrades of Group 2 in South Vaagso.

By then the situation there was that small parties, many of them under the command of junior non-commissioned officers, were making very slow progress against stiff German house-to-house opposition. Nor was time on their side; they had to accomplish their task by a fixed hour in order that the time-table for the withdrawal of the Force might not be upset. The reinforcements, however, which they needed had now arrived and the situation was about to change. Half an hour previously, Brigadier Haydon had thrown in the floating reserve, Group 4. They were moving on the north side of the town to the left flank. A few minutes after their arrival, Group 1, which had captured Hollevik without opposition, also arrived and began to drive through the centre of the town and along the waterfront. Not long afterwards part of Group 3 came in from Maaloy Island.

Thus by 15:00 o’clock four out of the five groups composing the attacking force were concentrated in South Vaagso, bent on the task of overcoming the enemy. Lieutenant-Colonel Durnford-Slater, having dispatched his reinforcements about their allotted task, came forward himself with No. 6 Troop of No. 3 Commando, which had just arrived from Maaloy, and took control of the situation. “His two orderlies,” runs the official report, “were both wounded, but with great coolness and complete disregard for personal safety, he reorganised his forces and directed a northward drive through the town until, when he judged the situation to be well in hand, he left Captain Young (in command of No. 6 Troop) in charge and returned to report progress to the flagship.” He received the D.S.O.

The part played by the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force must now be considered. The Germans did not leave the bombardment of the island of Maaloy unanswered. The battery on Rugsundo was bombed by RAF Hampden bomber aircraft before the bombardment began. Though effective, the bombing did not destroy the battery, which opened fire on the HMS Kenya at 8.56 a.m. “While I was looking at the bombardment of Maaloy,” says Wing-Commander (now Group-Captain) A. H. Willetts, D.S.O., who led the Hampdens, “I saw what looked like red-hot meteors streaking out from the Rugsundo battery. I could watch the whole length of their flight from the mouth of the gun to the moment when they burst in the sea, when they gave off a cloud of purple smoke.” The battery was engaged by the HMS Kenya two minutes before 9 a.m. and was silenced two and a half minutes later. The smoke bombs dropped by the RAF Hampden bombers around the battery undoubtedly played a very effective part in masking it. The Rugsundo battery re-opened fire more than once during the day and hit the HMS Kenya twice, a shell holing her above the water-line abreast of the bridge at 1.17 p.m. After that the Rugsundo battery was finally silenced.

At 9.45, Royal Navy destroyers HMS Oribi and HMS Onslow passed through the narrow passage between Maaloy Island and South Vaagso and entered Ulvesund. Armed boarding parties from destroyers captured and sank four German merchant ships totalling 11.000 tons and plus an armed German trawler , all crews of German ships became POWs and brought to British ships. At inner harbour five more Germans merchant vessels scuttled themselves.

Meanwhile Close support, the bombing of the nearest German fighter airfield at Herdla, and a diversion off Stavanger. The part played by the RAF Hampden bombers has already been described; in addition, Blenheims and Beaufighters provided air cover. A Blenheim was lost shortly after ten in an engagement with two ME109 fighters. Ten minutes later two JU. 88’ s appeared but were driven off by RAF Beaufighters. Altogether RAF Fighter protection was provided from 9.28 in the morning until 4.15 in the evening by aircraft which had had to fly some 350 miles to reach the scene of fighting. The protection afforded was, on the whole, very successful. No bombs hit the ships.

In the air battles which took place, four German Heinkel 111’ s were destroyed with a loss of two Beaufighters and a Blenheim bomber. Another Blenheim reached base in safety, after hitting the sea and bending a propeller in a fight with an ME109 fighters; the observer and rear gunner were badly wounded. The assault on Luftwaffe airfield at Herdla was a most accurate piece of timing. Thirteen RAF Blenheims were ordered to bomb this base, at which German fighters and bombers could re-fuel and re-arm, precisely at noon. Herdla was provided with wooden runways and, if they could be destroyed, the German aircraft would be unable to take off or to land. The bombs struck the runways at one minute past noon precisely, blowing great holes in them into one of which an ME. 109 fell just as it was about to take off, presumably for Vaagso, with the rest of its squadron. A diversion was also arranged and took place off Stavanger, where a squadron of Blenheims attacked enemy shipping with the object, in which it fully succeeded, of occupying the considerable enemy air forces in the area.

By 12.30 p.m. opposition in South Vaagso had almost ceased. For an hour or more before that time, the fjord had been covered with landing craft plying to and fro engaged in the work of ferrying wounded, prisoners and loyal Norwegians to the infantry assault ships. Almost all the military and economic objectives had been destroyed, among them all German offices, the wireless station, , a telephone exchange , a German car and lorry park, four coast-defence guns, one anti-aircraft gun and a tank, an ammunition store , two fuel stores , a German barracks, a searchlight and all the huts and houses inhabited by German soldiers. Four German Heinkel bombers and one ME109 fighter was destroyed. Every other installation of value to the enemy— the lighthouse, the main canning factory in South Vaagso, the herring-oil factory at Mortenes— had been entirely destroyed, while the Firda factory and two other small factories were left blazing from end to end; at least 160 of the enemy had been killed, 98 German prisoners and four quislings had been taken , four German coastal gun batteries were put out of action ; the number of loyal Norwegians who had accepted a passage to England was 77; nine German ships of a total tonnage of nearly 16,000 tons were destroyed. A huge intelligence bonus was on one of the German merchant ships ,British Commandos captured a complate German Enigma wireless code book and harbour entrence short signal book and Axis ship recognation list in Western Europe shores. It was time to go.



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The withdrawal took place about 3 p.m. It was almost without incident save for an abortive bombing attack by Luftwaffe Heinkel bombers which was broken up by heavy anti-aircraft fire from Royal Navy ships, the bombs falling wide. For an hour our Force was escorted by RAF Beaufighters. During dusk and bright moonlight a single enemy aircraft attempted to attack the Force but without success. It sailed steadily on, while the prisoners were being interrogated below decks and the wounded, of whom there were 71, including prisoners and Norwegians, were being attended to in the sick bays of the various ships. British commandos and Royal Navy also lost 19 killed. RAF lost eight aircraft shot down while supporting the operation.

So ended the small but significant adventure of Vaagso. British forces engaged were not large, a cruiser and four destroyers of the Royal Navy, between five and six hundred officers and men of the Army and a few squadrons of Hampdens, Blenheims and Beaufighters of the Royal Air Force, but its success was complete. It proved that if adequate Naval and Air support were forthcoming, Special Service Troops could overcome strong opposition and complete their task. The spirits of all who took part in the action were high, and remained so as the day wore on and more and more of the ill-gotten gains of the Germans went up in flames.

The raid was enough to persuade Adolf Hitler to divert 30,000 troops to Norway and to build more coastal and inland defences along Norwegian coast plus diverting several German Naval assets including three capital ships (heavy cruiser Hipper , pocket battleship Admiral Scheer and new battleship Tirpitz , plus battleships Scharnhorts and Gneisenau and heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen which all three were heavily damaged and cripped during Channel Dash - Operation Cerberus in February 1942) and several U-Boats to Norwegian shores during first half of 1942. Hitler thought that the British might invade northern Norway to put pressure on Sweden and Finland.

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Operatio Anklet - Return to Lofoten Islands

Lofoten Islands

While the raid on South Vaagso was taking place, No. 12 Commando, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel S. S. Harrison, M.C., went to the Lofoten Islands, first visited by Special Service Troops on the 4th March previously. Their main object was temporarily to occupy the towns of Reine and Moskenes, and in this they were successful.

The naval force formed for Operation Anklet consisted of 22 ships from three navies. The Royal Navy provided the most ships which included the light cruiser HMS Arethusa; six destroyers (HMS Somali, Ashanti, Bedouin, Eskimo, Lamerton and Wheatland); three minesweepers (HMS Speedwell, Harrier and Halcyon); two Landing Ship Infantry (HMS Prins Albert and Prinses Josephine Charlotte); the submarines HMS Tigris, HMS Sealion; and the survey ship HMS Scott. The Royal Fleet Auxiliary provided two fleet tankers (RFA Grey Ranger and Black Ranger); the freighter Gudrun Maersk; and the Tugboat Jaunty.

The exiled Royal Norwegian Navy provided the corvettes HNoMS Andenes and Eglantine, while the Polish Navy provided the destroyers ORP Krakowiak and Kujawiak.

The landing force was supplied by 223 men of No. 12 Commando, supported by 77 men of the Norwegian Independent Company 1.

The infantry assault ship which carried them was camouflaged white, and the Commandos wore white overalls and hoods. When the task force arrived, the infantry landing ship HMS Prins Albert, escorted by destroyer HMS Lamerton and corvettes Eglantine and Acanthus, headed towards Moskenesøya to land the commandos. Some of the other ships conducted operations around the islands. The destroyer HMS Bedouin destroyed a radio station at Flakstadøya, while the cruiser Arethusa and destroyers HMS Somali, HMS Ashanti, and HMS Eskimo entered the Vestfjorden. Here they captured the Norwegian coastal steamers Kong Harald and Nordland and HMS Ashanti sank a German patrol boat.

The 300-man landing force landed at 06:00 on Boxing Day. At 6 a.m. on the 26th December, Reine was reached by Commandos, the tasks set were accomplished, and a few quislings and some German prisoners were taken. Some of the latter formed the staff of the wireless station at Glaapen. Entire German garrison was captured in the area and wireless station was destroyed by Commandos. They had not yet recovered from their Christmas festivities, which had included a meal of pork washed down with French wine. The large ration of French chocolate and the 50 cigarettes apiece they had also received had not been consumed, and formed a welcome addition to the meagre rations of the local inhabitants, to whom they were distributed. The Commandos was accompanied by some members of the Royal Norwegian Army who were of great assistance. The Force remained for two days ten sailed back to UK , being attacked on the 27th by a German seaplane which dropped a bomb very close to HMS Arethusa but without doing her damage.

The expedition was successful. The navy also captured an Enigma coding machine, with its associated wheels and settings, from the patrol ship they had sunk. They also returned with over 200 Norwegians who volunteered to serve in the Free Norwegian Forces. , with no casualties to the Allied force. The German sea communications in North Norway were interrupted, two wireless stations put out of action and a number of German vessels captured.

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Since the Allies at that stage had no intention of invading Norway it certainly achieved the strategic aim of moving troops from other areas to a quiet backwater. If Nygaardsvold was upset, the Germans and in particular Hitler were infuriated. Even before Operation Archery he was of the opinion that Norway was a likely candidate for an Allied invasion especially after the American entry to the war earlier in December 1941. As a result of his interest the High Command in Berlin had ordered a fresh appreciation of the troop levels in Norway. The commander in Norway, General von Falkenhorst, had already requested an additional 12,000 troops to bring the divisions he had up to their full fighting strength and an extra three complete divisions to increase his reserves and give more depth to his defensive plans. Following on close behind this request from General von Falkenhorst was the news that his very command had been raided not once but twice and that a ship carrying troops home on leave to Germany had been sunk by a mine, apparently British, off the Norwegian coast. Hitler lost no time in demanding a full report from his military chiefs. Foremost in his mind was that this was all a precursor to a larger British landing to disrupt the German war machine even more.
It is worth remembering that Norway was supplying quite a lot of vital raw materials to Germany at this time. Hitler commented before the end of 1941,

If the British go about things properly, they will attack northern Norway at several points. By means of an all-out attack by their fleet and ground troops, they will try to displace us there, take Narvik if possible, and thus exert pressure on Sweden and Finland.

This might be of decisive importance for the outcome of the war. The German fleet must therefore use all its forces for the defence of Norway. It would be expedient to transfer all battleships and pocket-battleships there for this purpose. There were such ships, the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, many hundreds of miles away in the French Atlantic port of Brest, and if the High Command hoped that Hitler would forget what he said, they were wrong. In mid-January 1942 Hitler sent for Admiral Raeder (head of the German Navy) and told him, “Norway is the zone of destiny in this war. I demand unconditional obedience to my commands and directives concerning the defence of this area”. This meant that the ships would have to go. The battleship Tirpitz sailed from its then base in the Baltic to Norway soon after this and then on 11th February 1942, Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen left Brest. Taking advantage of some horrible weather they made a dash up the English Channel. In the Straits of Dover Gneisenau was badly damaged and had to stop off in Kiel for repairs. She was later attacked by Bomber Command but again repaired and eventually joined the Scharnhorst in Norway. The Prinz Eugen reached Trondheim, but on the way she had also suffered damage from a torpedo attack, which took off one of her rudders and was compelled to return to Germany for repairs. Even though there was some flak directed towards the services in the papers about the so-called ‘Channel Dash’, the Admiralty was probably happier with these ships in Norway, as they were easier to monitor and keep out of the North Atlantic. Later on in March and April 1942 two other capital ships, the Admiral Hipper and Lützow joined them.

The German Army was not forgotten either and General von Falkenhorst got almost all he asked for. First, his 12,000 reinforcements arrived, closely followed by 18,000 men organised into fortress battalions. An armoured division was also formed to act as a mobile reserve. Additionally new equipment was sent to replace the captured weaponry mainly used, an example being the Belgian 75mm guns on Maaloy and Russian guns used at Rugsundo to fire at HMS Kenya. In February 1942 Generalfeldmarschall List, made an inspection tour of Norway as Hitler’s personal representative. As a result of his report three more divisional commands were established, more coastal artillery was deployed and more static defensive positions built. By the time of the Normandy invasion in June 1944 nearly 400,000 German troops were stationed in Norway, a response out of all proportion to the less than 1,000 commandos who raided the Lofotens and South Vaagso. Indeed Hitler still feared an invasion of Norway right up to the end and those 400,000 troops were still there in May 1945.

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