The final stages of the Continuation War
On the 9th of June 1944, the Soviet Union opened a major offensive against Finnish positions on the Karelian Isthmus and in the area of Lake Ladoga. On the 21.7 km (13.5 mi)-wide breakthrough segment the Red Army had concentrated 3,000 guns and mortars. In some places, the concentration of artillery pieces exceeded 200 guns for every kilometer of the front (one every 5 m (5.5 yd)). On that day, Soviet artillery fired over 80,000 rounds along the front on the Karelian Isthmus. On the second day of the offensive, the Soviet forces broke through the Finnish front lines. The Soviets penetrated the second line of defence by the sixth day. The Soviet pressure on the Karelian Isthmus forced the Finns to reinforce the area. This allowed the second Soviet offensive in Eastern Karelia to meet less resistance and to capture Petrozavodsk by 28 June 1944. According to Erickson (1991), James Gebhardt (1989), and Glantz (1998), the main objective of the Soviet offensives was to force Finland from the war.
German help for Finland
Finland especially lacked modern anti-tank weaponry which could stop Soviet heavy tanks, and German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop offered these in exchange for a guarantee that Finland would not seek a separate peace again. On the 26th of June, President Risto Ryti gave this guarantee as a personal undertaking, which he intended to last only for the remainder of his presidency. In addition to delivering thousands of hand-held Panzerfaust and Panzerschreck antitank weapons, Hitler sent the 122nd Infantry Division, the half-strength 303rd Assault Gun Brigade, and Luftwaffe Detachment Kuhlmey to provide temporary support in the most threatened defense sectors.
With new supplies from Germany, the Finnish army halted the Soviet advance in early July 1944. At this point, the Finnish forces had retreated about one hundred kilometres, which brought them to approximately the same line of defence they had held at the end of the Winter War. This line was known as the VKT-line (short for “Viipuri–Kuparsaari–Taipale“; it ran from Viborg to the River Vuoksi to Lake Ladoga at Taipale), where the Finnish Army stopped the Soviet offensive in the Battle of Tali-Ihantala in spite of Soviet numerical and materiel superiority. The front stabilized once again.
Finland’s exit from the war
A few battles were fought in the latter stages of the war. The last of them was the Battle of Ilomantsi, a Finnish victory, from 26 July to 13 August 1944. The struggle to contain the Soviet offensive was exhausting Finnish resources. The German support under the Ryti-Ribbentrop Agreement had prevented a disaster, but it was believed the country would not be able to hold another major attack. The Soviet advances against German Army Groups Center and North further complicated matters for Finland.
With the front being stable so far, it was a good time for Finland to seek a way out of the war. At the beginning of August President Ryti resigned to allow Finland to sue for peace again, which the new government did in late August. The Soviet peace terms were harsh, but the $600,000,000 reparations demanded in the spring were reduced to $300,000,000, most likely due to pressure from the United States and Britain. However, after the ceasefire the Soviets insisted that the payments should be based on 1938 prices, which doubled the amount. This sum constituted half of Finland’s annual gross domestic product in 1939.
The Moscow Armistice
The Moscow Armistice was signed between Finland on one side and the Soviet Union and United Kingdom on the other side on September the 19th, 1944, ending the Continuation War. The Armistice restored the Moscow Peace Treaty of 1940, with a number of modifications.
Conditions for peace
The conditions for peace were similar to what had been agreed in the Moscow Peace Treaty of 1940: Finland was obliged to cede parts of Karelia and Salla, as well as certain islands in the Gulf of Finland. The new armistice also handed all of Petsamo to the Soviet Union, and Finland was further compelled to lease Porkkala to the Soviet Union for a period of fifty years (the area was returned to Finnish control in 1956).
Harsher conditions included Finnish payment of $300,000,000 ($4 billion in today’s dollars) in the form of various commodities over six years to the Soviet Union as war reparations. Finland also agreed to legalise the Communist Party of Finland (after it had made some changes to the party rules) and ban the ones that the Soviet Union considered fascist. Further, the individuals that the Soviets considered responsible for the war had to be arrested and put on trial, the best-known case being that of Risto Ryti. The armistice compelled Finland to drive German troops from its territory, leading to the Lapland War 1944–45.
The Lapland War (Finnish: Lapin sota; Swedish: Lapplandskriget; German: Lapplandkrieg) was fought between Finland and Nazi Germany from September 1944 to April 1945 in Finland’s northernmost Lapland Province. While the Finns saw this as a separate conflict much like the Continuation War, German forces considered their actions to be part of the Second World War. A peculiarity of the war was that the Finnish army was forced to demobilise their forces while at the same time fighting to force the German army to leave Finland. German forces retreated to Norway, and Finland managed to uphold its obligations under the Moscow Armistice, although it remained formally at war with the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the British Dominions until the formal conclusion of the Continuation War was ratified by the 1947 Paris peace treaty.
Germany and Finland had been at war with the Soviet Union since June 1941, co-operating closely in the Continuation War. However, as early as the summer of 1943, the German High Command began making plans for the eventuality that Finland might make a separate peace agreement with the Soviet Union. The Germans planned to withdraw their forces northward in order to shield the nickel mines near Petsamo.
During the winter of 1943–1944, the Germans improved the roads from northern Norway to northern Finland by extensive use of prisoner of war (POW) labour in certain areas. Casualties among these POWs were high, in part because many of them had been captured in southern Europe and were still in summer uniform. In addition, the Germans surveyed defensive positions and made plans to evacuate as much materiel as possible from the region and made meticulous preparations for withdrawing their forces. On 9 April 1944 the German withdrawal was named Operation Birke. While in June 1944 the Germans started actively constructing fortifications against an enemy advance from the south, the accidental death of Generaloberst Eduard Dietl on 23 June 1944 brought Generaloberst Lothar Rendulic to the command of the 20th Mountain Army.
Change of Finnish leadership led the Germans already in early August 1944 to believe that Finland would attempt to achieve a separate agreement with the Soviet Union. The Finnish announcement of the cease fire triggered frantic efforts in the German 20th Mountain Army which immediately started Operation Birke and other material evacuations from Finland. Large amounts of materiel were evacuated from southern Finland and harsh punishments were set for any hindering of the withdrawal. Finnish forces were moved to face the Germans, which included the 3rd, 6th, and 11th Divisions, the Armoured Division as well as the 15th and Border Jäger Brigades.
On 2 September 1944, after the Finns informed the Germans of the cease fire between Finland and the Soviet Union, the Germans started seizing Finnish shipping. However since this action resulted in a Finnish decision not to allow ships to sail from Finland to Germany and nearly doomed the material evacuations of Operation Birke it was rescinded. After the order was called off, the Finns in turn allowed Finnish shipping to be used to hasten the German evacuations. The first German naval mines were laid in Finnish seaways on 14 September 1944, allegedly against Soviet Naval Forces, though since Finland and Germany were not yet in open conflict at the time the Germans warned the Finns of their intent.
On 15 September 1944 the German navy attempted to seize the island of Hogland in Operation Tanne Ost. This immediately prompted the Finns to remove their shipping from the joint evacuation operation. The last German convoy departed from Kemi on 21 September 1944 and was covered with both submarines and later (south of Åland) by German cruisers. After the landing attempt, a Finnish coastal artillery fort prevented German netlayers from passing into the Baltic Sea at Utö on 15 September as they had been ordered to intern the German forces. However already on 16 September a German naval detachment consisting of the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen escorted by 5 destroyers arrived to Utö. The German cruiser stayed out of range of the Finnish 152 mm guns and threatened to open fire with its artillery that outdistanced the Finnish guns unless the Finns allowed the German netlayers to pass. The Finns permitted the netlayers to pass due to the threat posed by the heavy cruiser.
A Finnish landing operation started on 30 September 1944 when three transport ships (SS Norma, SS Fritz S and SS Hesperus) without any escorts departed from Oulu towards Tornio. They arrived on 1 October and managed to disembark their troops without any interference. Also a second wave of four ships on 2 October and a third wave – three ships strong – managed to disembark largely without trouble with only a single ship being lightly damaged by German dive bombers. On 4 October bad weather prevented Finnish air cover from reaching Tornio which left the fourth landing wave vulnerable to German Stuka dive bombers which scored several hits sinking SS Bore IX and SS Maininki alongside the pier. The fifth wave on 5 October suffered only light shrapnel damage despite being both shelled from shore and bombed. The first Finnish naval vessels Hämeenmaa, Uusimaa, VMV 15 and VMV 16 arrived with the sixth wave just in time to witness German Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor bombers attacking the shipping at Tornio with Henschel Hs 293 glide bombs without results. Arrival of naval assets made it possible for the Finns to safely disembark heavy equipment which played an important role during the Battle of Tornio.
Sailors on Finnish ships in German-held ports, including Norway, were interned, and German submarines sank several Finnish civilian vessels. German submarines also had some success against Finnish military vessels, including the sinking of the minelayer Louhi. The most dire result of Finland concluding the Moscow Armistice with the Soviet Union was that now Soviet naval forces could circumvent the existing German naval mine barriers located on the Gulf of Finland by using the Finnish coastal seaways. This allowed Soviet submarines now based in the Finnish archipelago to gain early access to the German shipping in the southern Baltic Sea.
The cease fire agreement between Finland and the Soviet Union contained requirements that the Finns break diplomatic ties with Germany and publicly demand the withdrawal of all German troops from Finland by 15 September 1944. Any troops remaining after the deadline were to be disarmed and handed over to the Soviet Union. Even with the massive efforts of the Germans in Operation Birke this proved impossible, the Finns estimating it would take the Germans three months to fully evacuate. The task was further complicated by the Soviet demand that the major part of Finland’s armed forces be demobilized, even as they attempted to conduct a military campaign against the Germans. With the exception of the inhabitants of the Tornio area, most of the civilian population of Lapland (totaling 168,000 people) was evacuated to Sweden and Southern Finland. The evacuation was carried out as a cooperative effort between the German military and Finnish authorities prior to the start of hostilities.
Finnish Order of Battle:
75,000 Troops, comprising;
- 3rd Division
- 6th Division
- 11th Division
- 15th Brigade
- Border Jäger Brigade
- JR 50 Infantry Regiment
- JR 53 Infantry Regiment
- Most of the 75,000 Finns served until the end of October 1944, but the number dropped to 12,000 men in December 1944.
- The Finnish Jäger Brigade was formed during the Civil War in Finland (27th January to May 1918) the Jägers were engaged on the “White” (non-communist) side in the war and formed the nucleus of the new Finnish Army. In Finland, these 2,000 volunteers were simply called The Jägers (Finnish pl. Jääkärit).
Finnish Armoured Division
- HQ of the Armoured Division
- Armoured Brigade
- 1st Armoured Battalion (T-26, T-26E light-tanks), Armoured car company with FAIs and BA-10s
- 2nd Armoured Battalion (T-26, T-26E, a heavy tank company with KV-1s, T-28s and T-34 medium tanks)
- Armoured AA Battery (Landsverk Anti II)
- Assault Gun Battalion (StuG IIIG)
- Armoured Training Battalion (older types and a few T-26s)
- Jaeger Brigade
- 2nd Jaeger Battalion
- 3rd Jaeger Battalion
- 4th Jaeger Battalion
- 5th Jaeger Battalion
- Armoured Jaeger Battalion (towed 50 mm and 75 mm AT guns)
- 14th Heavy Artillery Battalion
- 6th Signals Battalion
- 2nd Pioneer Battalion
- Separate Armour Company (BT-42 assault-gun)
- Armoured Brigade
- Hävittäjälentolaivue 26 (HLeLv 26 – Flying Squadron 26) Brewster 239, 13 Aircraft.
- Lentolaivue 28 (LLv.28) and TleLv 13, Mörkö-Moranes took part in the Lapland War as reconnaissance and ground attack aircraft. 41 aircraft were converted from remaining stocks of M.S. 406 and 410 fighters. 13+ aircraft.
- Tiedustelulentolaivue 12 (TLe.Lv.12 -Reconnaissance Squadron 12) formed on the 14th of February 1944. The Squadron flew six V.L. Myrsky Fighters during the Lapland War. The Fighter-Reconnaissance Squadron 12 Myrsky aircraft detached to Fighter Squadron 26 and moved to Kemi on the 23rd of October 1944. Three days later a two-ship Myrsky section flew the first war mission for the aircraft type in the Lapland War when they flew a recce mission to the Muonio-Enontekiö area. The Myrskys flew a few missions in November, when one aircraft was lost in a forced landing after take-off. The Myrskys returned to their peace time base in early 1945.
- Lentoryhmä Sarko, Pommituslentolaivue 44 (PLe.Lv.44), Junkers Ju 88A-4/R, 10 Aircraft.
- LeR 4, Pommituslentolaivue 44, Dornier Do 17 Z-1, 2 and 3, 10 Aircraft.
- Finnish air assets were supported by 617 aircraft of the 7th Soviet Air Army.
- Finland’s 159 Messerschmitt Bf 109’s were not committed to the campaign due to concerns that confusion would ensue in aerial combat with Luftwaffe Messerschmitt Bf 109G-6 aircraft.
- On the 3rd of October 1944 During the War in Lapland, HLeLv 26 Brewster’s covered the Finnish landings in Tornio and achieved the final aerial victories of the Brewster 239. Six Brewster 239s intercepted 12 Junkers Ju-87D’s shooting down two. The main role of Brewster’s during this war was reconnaissance, and no aerial opposition was met. Because of highly accurate radar-guided German FLAK heavy casualties were suffered. 4 Brewster’s were shot down by FLAK and 2 pilots were killed. Two aircraft were lost in accidents. In January 1945 the squadron was disbanded and all seven surviving Brewster’s were sent for refurbishment at the State Aircraft Factory – Valtion Lentokonehtedas (VL).
- Two Finnish Junkers Ju-88A-4/Rs were lost during the Lapland War. Wrk. No. 0883860, GL+QM, delivered to the Ilmavoimat on 20/08/43, was shot down by a German Fighter on 10/10/44. Unit: LeLv 44. The second, Wrk No. 0883863, KG+KE, delivered 11/04/43, was shot down by German AAA on 15/10/44. Unit: LeLv/PLeLv 44.
Wermacht Order of Battle:
20th Mountain Army: 214,000 Troops (including units stationed in Norway)
- XVIII Mountain Corps; SS Mountain Division North and the 7th Mountain Division
- XXXVI Mountain Corps; 169th Infantry Division and the 163rd Infantry Division
- XIX Mountain Corps; 2nd Mountain Division, 6th Mountain Division, 210th Infantry Division + 4 infantry regiments.
- Gebirgsjäger (German pronunciation: [ɡəˈbɪʁksˌjɛːɡɐ]) are the light infantry part of the alpine or mountain troops (Gebirgstruppe) of Germany and Austria. The word Jäger (meaning “hunter” or “huntsman”) is a characteristic term used for light-infantry or light-infantryman in German-speaking military context.
AOK Norwegen (Army Headquarter Norway)
(Reserves: 196 Infantry Division, 214 Infantry Division, 280 Infantry Division, Tank brigade Norway)
- LXXI Corps; 230th Infantry Division, 270th Infantry Division and the 199th Infantry Division
- XXXIII Corps; 14 Luftwaffe Field Division, 702nd Infantry Division and the 295th Infantry Division
- LXX Corps; 269th Infantry Division, 280th Infantry Division, 274th Fortress Division and the 710th Infantry Division
- Most of the 214,000 Germans served until the end of August 1944, but the number dropped quickly as the Germans withdrew or proceeded to Norway.
All Luftwaffe units had left Central and Southern Finland at the signing of the Armistice Agreement between Finland and the Soviet Union in Moscow on September the 19th 1944. Detachment Kuhlmey, based at immola airfield had left by the 23rd of July, Schlachtgeschwader 3s Junkers Ju-87Ds left Pori airfield the same day. I./JG 302 Messerschmitt Bf 109G6/R6 Nightfighters returned to defence of the Reich duties on May the 15th 1944. The remainder of Luftwaffe units based in Finland were either re-assigned to the Eastern Front to bolster German efforts to stop the Soviet advance; sent to France in order to fight Allied Forces in Normandy or re-located to Norway where German units continued to fight Soviet Air Regiments which were clearing the remainder of the German forces based in Finland from the Arctic. German units in Northern Norway undertook missions against the Soviet Air Force from 12 Air-bases, including; Bardufoss, Bodø and Kirkenes.
Luftlotte 5 (Air Fleet 5, North)
During 1944 Luftlotte 5 was reorganized; Nord Ost became, briefly Ff Eismeer before becoming Ff 3; Nord West became Ff 4; and Lofoten became Ff 5.
On the ground LgK Norwegen became Kommandierende General der Luftwaffe (K.G.) in Norwegen, covering ground and air formations in Norway, while LgK Finnland became K.G. Finnland, with a similar remit in Finland and, later, northern Norway.
As the Soviets advanced North and Westwards from 1944, these organizations became increasingly irrelevant as German forces were forced to retreat and their air strength diminished. By the end of World War II they existed largely on paper.
Jagdgeshwader 5 ‘Eismeer’ (No. 5 Squadron ‘Ice Sea’);
Approximately 27-36 Focke-Wulf 190A-8 and Messerschmitt Bf 109G-6 Aircraft.
III./JG 5 and IV./JG 5 were transferred to the Arctic Front from Southern Norway in August 1944. The Gruppe joined the first of several large air battles commencing on October 9, opposing the final Soviet offensive against Petsamo. When the day was over, III. and IV./JG 5 had claimed 85 Soviet aircraft shot down (among them the 3,000th victory for JG 5) against the loss of only one pilot killed.
Prior to the start of the Soviet Offensive, the defending Germans had been ordered to abandon Petsamo on 15 October and Kirkenes by the beginning of November.
In November 1944 IV./JG 5 returned to Southern Norway. Up to the end of the war this unit formed the air defence against the Allied raids on targets in Norway, principally the submarine bases at Trondheim and Bergen.
As the Finns wanted to avoid devastation to their country, and the Germans wished to avoid hostilities, both sides wanted the evacuation to be performed as smoothly as possible. By 15 September 1944 a secret agreement had been reached by which the Germans would make their withdrawal timetable known to the Finns, who would then allow the Germans to destroy roads, railroads and bridges. In practice, friction soon arose both from the destruction caused by the Germans and from the pressure exerted on the Finns by the Soviets, and there were several incidents between the armies. The Finns deployed their 3rd Division, 11th Division, and 15th Brigade to the coastal area, the 6th and the Armoured Division to Pudasjärvi, and the Border Jaeger Brigade to the eastern part of the country.
The first open violence between Finnish forces and the 20th Mountain Army took place 20 km southwest of Pudasjärvi, at around 08:00 on the 28th of September 1944, when Finnish advance units first issued a surrender demand then opened fire on a small German rearguard contingent. This took the Germans by surprise, as the Finns had previously agreed to warn them should they be forced to take hostile action against them. After the incident partial contact was re-established: the Germans told the Finns they had no interest in fighting them, but would not surrender. The next incident took place on 29 September at a bridge crossing the Olhava river between Kemi and Oulu. Finnish troops, who had been ordered to take the bridge intact, were attempting to disarm explosives rigged to the bridge when the Germans detonated them, demolishing the bridge and killing the Finns’ company commander, among others. On the 30th of September the Finns attempted to encircle the Germans at Pudasjärvi by way of flanking movements through the forests, and managed to cut the road leading to the north. By then, however, the bulk of the German force at Pudasjärvi had already left, leaving behind only a small detachment which, after warning the Finns, blew up a munitions dump.
Fighting intensified on 1 October 1944, when the Finns launched a risky seaborne invasion near Tornio, on the border with Sweden. The landing had originally been planned as a diversionary raid, with the main assault to take place at Kemi, where the Finnish battalion-sized Detachment Pennanen (fi. Osasto Pennanen) was already in control of important industrial facilities on the island of Ajos. Various considerations – including a far stronger German garrison at Kemi, already alerted by local attacks – made the Finns change the target to Röyttä (Tornio’s outer port). The Finns initially landed the 11th Infantry Regiment (JR 11), which, together with a Civic Guard-led uprising at Tornio, managed to secure both the port and most of the town, as well as the important bridges over the Torne River; however, the attack soon bogged down due to disorganization – some of it caused by alcohol looted from German supply depots – and stiffening resistance. During the ensuing Battle of Tornio the Germans fought hard to retake the town, as it formed an important transportation link between the two roads running parallel to the Kemijoki and Tornionjoki rivers, respectively. Their forces initially consisted of Division Kräutler (of roughly reinforced-regiment strength) and were later reinforced with an armored company (2nd company of Panzer Abteilung 211), two infantry battalions, and the Machine Gun Ski Brigade Finnland. The Finns reinforced their troops with two infantry regiments (JR 50 and JR 53) and managed to hold the area, beating back several German counterattacks. Heavy combat lasted for a week, until 8 October 1944, when the Germans were finally forced to withdraw.
Meanwhile Finnish troops were advancing overland from Oulu towards Kemi, the 15th Brigade making slow progress even in the face of meager German resistance. Their advance was hampered by the efficient destruction of roads and bridges by the withdrawing Germans, as well as a lack of fighting spirit in both Finnish troops and their leaders. The Finns attacked Kemi on 7 October 1944, attempting to encircle the Germans with a frontal attack by the 15th Brigade and an attack from the rear by Detachment Pennanen. Strong German resistance, civilians in the area, and ‘liberated’ alcohol prevented the Finns from fully succeeding in trapping all the Germans. Though Finnish forces took several hundred prisoners, they failed to prevent the Germans from demolishing the important bridges over the Kemijoki river once they began their withdrawal on 8 October.
Further action in The Lapland War
As Allied war efforts against Germany continued, the leadership of the 20th Mountain Army, as well as the OKW, came to believe it would be perilous to maintain positions in Lapland and in northern Norway east of Lyngen, and began preparations for withdrawal. After long delays, Hitler accepted the proposal on 4 October 1944, and it was codenamed Operation Nordlicht on 6 October 1944. Instead of a gradual withdrawal from southern Lapland into fortified positions further to the north while evacuating all material, as in Operation Birke, Operation Nordlicht called for a rapid and strictly organized withdrawal directly behind Lyngen fjord in Norway while under pressure from harassing enemy forces.
As the Germans withdrew, movement was mostly limited to the immediate vicinity of Lapland’s three main roads, which constricted military activities considerably. In general the actions followed a pattern in which advancing Finnish units would encounter German rearguards and attempt to flank them on foot, the destroyed road network preventing them from bringing up artillery or other heavy weapons. As Finnish riflemen slowly picked their way through the dense woods and marshland, the motorized German units would simply drive away and take up positions further down the road.
Finnish forces began pursuing the Germans. The Finnish 11th Division advanced north from Tornio on the road running along the Torne River while the 3rd Division marched from Kemi towards Rovaniemi. After the 6th and the Armoured Division linked up at Pudasjärvi they advanced northward, first towards Ranua and then to Rovaniemi. The Border Jaeger Brigade moved north along the eastern border, depositing border guards as it advanced. Due to the destruction of the road network the Finns were forced to use combat troops for repair work; at times, for example, the entire 15th Brigade was committed to road construction. Finnish forces advancing from Kemi towards Rovaniemi did not see any real action, as Finnish troops on foot were not able to keep up with withdrawing motorized German units; however, on the road leading from Ranua towards Rovaniemi there were several small battles, first at Ylimaa, then Kivitaival, then Rovaniemi. North of Rovaniemi the Finns encountered heavily fortified German Schutzwall positions at Tankavaara. On the road running along the Torne and Muonio rivers, the German withdrawal went so smoothly that there was no fighting until the Finnish 11th Division reached the village of Muonio.
At Ylimaa on 7 October the Finns captured documents detailing German positions, forcing them to fight a delaying action off their pre-set timetable; however, as the forces were roughly even numerically, the Finnish lack of heavy weapons, and exhaustion from long marches, prevented the Finnish Jaeger Brigade from trapping the defending German 218th Mountain Regiment before it received permission to withdraw on 9 October. At Kivitaival on 13 October the tables were turned and only a fortuitous withdrawal of the 218th Mountain Regiment saved the Finnish 33rd Infantry Regiment from being severely mauled. The German withdrawal allowed the Finns to surround one of the delaying battalions, but the German 218th Mountain Regiment returned and managed to rescue the stranded battalion. The first Finnish units reaching the vicinity of Rovaniemi were components of the Jaeger Brigade advancing from Ranua on 14 October. The Germans repelled Finnish attempts to capture the last intact bridge over Kemijoki river and then left the mostly demolished town to the Finns on 16 October 1944.
Finnish demobilization and difficult supply routes began to take their toll, and at Tankavaara barely four battalions of the Finnish Jaeger Brigade attempted, unsuccessfully, to dislodge the German 169th Infantry Division, 12 battalions strong, entrenched in prepared fortifications. Finnish forces first reached the area on 26 October but gained ground only on 1 November, when the Germans withdrew further to the north. At Muonio on 26 October the German Kampfgruppe Esch, 4 battalions, and the 6th SS Mountain Division “Nord” again had numerical and material superiority in the form of artillery and armor support, which prevented the Finns from gaining the upper hand, despite initially fairly successful flanking operations by the 8th and 50th Infantry Regiments. The Finnish plan had been to prevent the SS Mountain Division, marching from direction of Kittilä, from reaching Muonio, and thereby trap it; however, the delaying actions of Kampfgruppe Esch and the destruction of the road network made it impossible for the Finns to reach Muonio before the SS Mountain Division.
The Petsamo-Kirkenes Offensive
After the armistice between the Soviet Union and Finland on 4 September 1944, the Petsamo region (though still largely occupied by the Germans) again became part of Russia, and the Finnish government agreed to remove the remaining German forces from its territory by 15 September (leading to the Lapland War). During the retreat of the German 20th Mountain Army, called Operation Birke, the decision was made by the German Armed Forces Command to withdraw completely from northern Norway and Finland in Operation Nordlicht. During the preparations for this operation, the Russians went over to the offensive on the Karelian Front.
The Stavka decided to move against the German forces in the Arctic in late 1944. The operation was to be undertaken jointly by the Karelian Front under the command of General Kirill Meretskov and the Northern Fleet under Admiral Arseniy Golovko. The main operations were to be conducted by 14th Army, which had been in the Arctic since the beginning of the war. Meretskov was provided with several units specially configured to meet the requirements for operations in the far north. The 126th and 127th Rifle Corps consisted of light infantry with a number of ski troops and naval infantry. The Soviets also had 30 engineer battalions, numerous horse- and reindeer-equipped transportation companies, and two battalions equipped with U.S.-supplied amphibious vehicles for river crossings. In addition, the Soviets massed thousands of mortars and artillery pieces, 750 aircraft, and 110 tanks (while the Germans lacked any armour), making Soviet forces far superior to the Germans.
Soviet preparations, which had lasted for two months, had not gone unnoticed by the Germans. The highly capable General Lothar Rendulic, who served as both head of the 20th Mountain Army and overall theater commander, was well aware of the threat posed by the upcoming offensive. Prior to the start of the Soviet drive, the defending Germans had been ordered to abandon Petsamo on 15 October, and Kirkenes by the beginning of November.
The offensive can be divided into three phases: the breakthrough of the German position, the pursuit to Kirkenes, and the battle for Kirkenes, including the southward pursuit that followed it. During the offensive several amphibious landings were conducted by naval infantry and army units. Initially, the Germans’ intended withdrawal was hampered by Hitler’s strict orders to Rendulic to evacuate all supplies from the Petsamo region before abandoning it.
Despite intensive planning before the offensive, the initial attack on 7 October immediately met with problems. Poor visibility made it difficult to co-ordinate artillery and fire support, slowing the assault; nevertheless, after some fierce fighting the Soviets broke through the German lines on the Titovka River. Blowing up the bridges behind them, the Germans retreated. The Soviets pursued, and over the following days conducted several amphibious landings to cut off the German forces. On 10 October the Germans shifted the 163rd Division, which was already withdrawing from Finland to Norway, to the Petsamo region to bolster their defenses. On 13 October the Soviets were poised to attack German forces around the town of Petsamo, and units of the 126th light Rifle Corps were able to establish a roadblock on the only escape route; however, troops of the German 2nd Mountain Division was able to clear the roadblock on 14 October, securing the retreat of Rendulic’s forces. The Soviets captured Petsamo on 15 October, but due to supply problems, then had to halt the offensive for three days.
For the rest of the campaign the Soviets advanced after the withdrawing Germans along the coast of Norway, with the Soviets trying to block and cut off German units on their retreat. But because of constant supply shortcomings and German delaying efforts, which forced sizable forces to be detached to road reconstruction, the Soviets were not able to achieve success and the Germans escaped with the bulk of their forces intact. The Germans abandoned Kirkenes on 25 October and finally on 29 October Meretskov halted all operations except reconnaissance.
The Soviet offensive ended with a victory for the Red Army, however the Wehrmacht 20th Mountain Army successfully performed an orderly retreat with the bulk of its forces intact just like it did against Finnish forces during their retreat through Lapland carried out at the same time. Soviet failure to inflict clear defeat on the withdrawing Germans was largely due to the supply issues caused by efficient German destruction of road connections in the area. With often the only road available being out of service due damage and mines both supplies and heavy equipment, like artillery, could not be transported to front lines in sufficient quantities while lighter equipped forces were at disadvantage against heavily armed German forces.
The Soviet commander Meretskov was promoted to the rank of Marshal of the Soviet Union, and was given a prominent command during the Red Army’s attack on Japanese-heldManchukuo, in August 1945. The Petsamo–Kirkenes Operation is notable in that it was the last major offensive in an Arctic environment. It had been studied intensively in the Soviet Army for this reason.
14th Army, total; 133,500 men
- 31st Rifle Corps
- 99th Rifle Corps
- 131st Rifle Corps
- Corps Pigarech
- 126th (light) Rifle Corps
- 127th (light) Rifle Corps
7th Air Army
- 318 Fighters: LaGG 5, Yak 3, Yak 9, P-40, P-39
- 193 Ground Attack Aircraft: Ilyushin Il-2
- 136 Bombers: Ilyushin Il-4, Petlyakov Pe-2
In the same area the Northern Fleet operated an air arm with a total of 275 aircraft, but these were not called upon to support the offensive of the ground forces, but rather used to target the German shipping along the coast of Norway.
XIX Mountain Corps, total; 45,000 men
- 19th Mountain jäger Corps
- 2nd Mountain Division
- 6th Mountain Division
- Grenadier Regiment 388 attached
- 210th Infantry Division (a fortress division)
- Division Group van der Hoop (regiment strength)
- Bicycle Brigade Norway (regiment strength)
German air assets in theatre had been estimated at a total of 160-180 aircraft, of which half were fighters. These included Bf-109 and FW-190 fighters, Arado-66 night bombers and Ju-87 Stukas. The Soviets thus on paper enjoyed a 6-to-1 superiority in air strength.
German retreat to Norway
For most practical purposes the war in Lapland ended in early November 1944. In north-eastern Lapland after holding the Finns off at Tankavaara the Germans withdrew swiftly from Finland at Karigasniemi on 25th of November 1944. The Finnish Jaeger Brigade pursuing them had by then been depleted in manpower due to demobilization. In northwest Lapland there were on 4th of November only 4 battalions of Finnish troops left and by February 1945 a mere 600 men. The Germans continued their withdrawal but stayed in fortified positions first at Palojoensuu (village ~50 km north of Muonio along the Torne river) in early November 1944 from where they moved further to positions along the Lätäseno river (Sturmbock-Stellung) on the 26th of November. The German 7th Mountain Division held these positions until the 10th of January 1945 when northern Norway had been emptied and positions at Lyngen fjord were manned. Some German positions defending Lyngen extended over the Finnish side of the border, however no real activity took place before the Germans withdrew from Finland on 25th of April 1945.
From the start of the war the Germans had been systematically destroying and mining the roads and bridges as they withdrew. However after the first real fighting took place the German commander, General Lothar Rendulic, issued several orders with regards to destroying Finnish property in Lapland. On the 6th of October a strict order was issued which named only military or militarily important sites as targets. On the 8th of October after the result of the fighting in Tornio and Kemi region became obvious the Germans made several bombing raids, targeting factory areas of Kemi and inflicting heavy damage on them. However on the 9th of October the demolition order was extended to include all governmental buildings with the exception of hospitals. On the 13th of October all habitable structures, including barns, though making an exception for hospitals and churches, were ordered to be destroyed north of the line running from Ylitornio via Sinettä (small village ~20 km NWN of Rovaniemi) to Sodankylä (including the listed settlements) in northern Finland. Though it made sense from the German perspective to do this to deny pursuing forces from getting any shelter it had a very limited effect on the Finns who unlike the Germans always carried tents with them and did not require any shelter.
At Rovaniemi the Germans initially concentrated mainly on destroying governmental buildings but once fire got loose several more were destroyed. German attempts to fight the fire however failed and a train loaded with ammunition caught fire at Rovaniemi railroad station on the 14th of October, resulting in a massive explosion which caused further destruction as well as spreading the fire throughout the primarily wooden buildings of the town. German attempts to fight the fire had failed by the time, on the 16th of October, they abandoned the now ruined town to the advancing Finns.
In their retreat the German forces under General Lothar Rendulic devastated large areas of northern Finland with scorched earth tactics. As a result, some 40–47% of the dwellings in the area were destroyed, and the provincial capital of Rovaniemi was burned to the ground, as were the villages of Savukoski and Enontekiö. Two-thirds of the buildings in the main villages of Sodankylä, Muonio, Kolari, Salla and Pello were demolished, 675 bridges were blown up, all main roads were mined, and 3,700 km of telephone lines were destroyed.
In addition to the property losses, estimated as equivalent to about US $300 million in 1945 dollars (US$ 3.93 billion in 2014), about 100,000 inhabitants became refugees, a situation that added to the problems of postwar reconstruction. After the war the Allies convicted Rendulic of war crimes, and he was sentenced to 20 years in prison, although charges concerning the devastation of Lapland were dropped. He was released after six years.
The military casualties of the conflict were relatively limited: 774 killed in action (KIA), 262 missing in action and about 3,000 wounded in action (WIA) for the Finnish troops, and 1,200 KIA and about 2,000 WIA for the Germans. 1,300 German soldiers became prisoners of war, and were handed over to the Soviet Union according to the terms of the armistice with the Soviets. The extensive German land mines caused civilian casualties for decades after the war, and almost 100 personnel were killed during demining operations. Hundreds of Finnish women who had been engaged to German soldiers or working for the German military left with the German troops, meeting diverse fates.
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