War in the trenches 1941 - 1944

 

Mannerheim's office room
Mannerheim's office in the Headquarters building, Mikkeli.


For two and a half years following the offensive period, December 1941 until June 1944, the Continuation War was conducted as a stabilized war in the trenches. The Finns had assumed Germany’s success in their war plans. They expected a relatively easy advance following the retreating Soviet troops to Finland’s new frontier - where that was may not have been so clear in the beginning. The war that was supposed to be a short one continued and seemed to turn into something else as the winter came and the Germans were still far from their objectives. The Soviets had already achieved some local successes forcing the Germans to retreat in places. The Finns had already lost more lives than in the Winter War. By December fighting stabilized into trench warfare in all parts of the front line. Continuous field fortifications formed across the Karelian isthmus, by River Syväri between lakes Laatokka (Ladoga) and Ääninen (Onega), and the Maaselkä isthmus between Ääninen and Lake Seesjärvi. North of that continuous lines existed only by the main roads. Between these the front was just detached bases connected by regular patrols.


Headquarters Museum
The Headquarters bulding in Mikkeli. Nowadays a museum.

 

The home front required men for work and farming, and the Army made plans to discharge older generations. Around 100,000 men were released from service by the summer of 1942. However, military realities at the front imposed requirements that didn’t allow the Army to follow through with their plans for more extensive demobilization. The discharges were in the end not well planned and left the divisions incomplete. As a result the composition of a division after the reorganization was two infantry regiments and one detached battalion, which in practice often led to the divisions fighting without a proper reserve.   

 

The year 1942 was the most intensive during this period. The Soviets were active in the beginning and carried out offensive operations by River Syväri (Svir), on the Maaselkä isthmus and at Kiestinki. By Syväri the Soviet counteroffensive started already in the late fall of 1941 and continued until January 1942. In January – February 1942 the Soviets attempted to take back Karhumäki, attacking along the whole sector of the 2nd Army Corps. These attacks were all repelled by the Finns, reinforced where necessary, and the front line generally remained where it was. On the Karelian isthmus and at Rukajärvi activity on both sides consisted mainly of small, commando-type attacks where individual bases, hills etc. changed hands now and then. Perhaps the biggest battle on the Karelian isthmus was fought in July 1942 over the possession of a base the Finns called Sevastopol, a “thumb” sticking out of the line in the section of the 7th Infantry Regiment (2nd Division). Of course both sides conducted reconnaissance across the lines, catching individual enemy soldiers as prisoners to gather information, mapping out defensive positions, and destroying particularly annoying enemy positions.  In March the Finns took Suursaari island on the Gulf of Finland, by an over-the-ice operation conducted by the temporarily formed Combat Unit P, led by Major General Aaro Pajari and strong support from the Air Force.


Rukajärvi dugout
Remains of a Finnish dugout at Rukajärvi. 

 

A Military Administration was established for the areas taken in the offensive period, separately for the recaptured areas that were inside the 1939 border, and for East Karelia that was occupied. In East Karelia the Finns started extensive educational activities, with the objective of consolidating Finnish cultural presence among the Karelians, who were closely related to the Finns. The Finns wanted to have a pro-Finnish East Karelia that could form a protective buffer zone in the future. Schools and a health care system were established. The majority of the population of the occupied area had been removed by the Soviets prior to the Finns’ arrival. Out of nearly half a million living in the area prior to the war, the Finns counted around 80,000 civilians in the area they occupied. The non-Karelian, i.e. non-Finnish population was collected and placed in concentration camps in Petroskoi/Äänislinna. These were later renamed into transfer camps. In total nearly 24,000 people were placed in such camps. Almost 4,000 died in the camps, the vast majority in the famine of summer 1942. In the beginning of the war the conditions in these camps were poor but improved later. The Soviet Union later used these camps effectively in their anti-Finnish propaganda campaign, portraying the Finns as being guilty of similar atrocities as National Socialist Germany, linking the image of the camps with those of the German concentration camps.    

 

On Independence Day, December 6, 1941 the areas ceded in the Winter War, now retaken, were declared as rejoined into Finland. The population who had lost their homes and been evacuated in the Winter War started to flow back and rebuild their homes where the military situation permitted.


Marskinniemi
Finnish trenches at "Marskinniemi", Poventsa.  

 

In the summer of 1942 Germany restarted the offensive, gaining area in the south but leading in the end to a series of defeats, starting at Stalingrad. In the beginning of February 1943 their 6th Army surrendered there, and at the same time the siege of Leningrad was broken by the Soviets. The Finns found themselves in a changed situation, although their leadership may have started to doubt Germany’s chances very early on, probably already when the winter of 1941-42 settled in and the German offensive to Leningrad had failed. At this point the Finns started to increasingly play their own game without so much regard to the wishes of the Germans. In 1943 the Finnish front was relatively quiet, while the Soviets intensified their offensive against the Germans and continued to push them back in the south.


The attacks by Soviet partisans against unprotected and peaceful Finnish villages, especially in the border areas of northern Finland, caused a lot of grief to Finnish civilians. In these villages the partisans ruthlessly murdered about 150 civilians, mostly children, women and elderly people.  Their youngest victim was a two-month old baby and the oldest an 80-year old man. To their superiors the partisans reported destroyed garrisons and military units; in reality they only attacked civilian targets that were almost or completely without protection. Most of these Karelian partisans were rewarded with medals and commendations after the war.  The civilian villages they attacked included Kuorajärvi, Kontiovaara, Korpivaara, Kuumu, Viiksimo, Kurkivaara, Hirvivaara, Levävaara, Pirttivaara, Tuppuri, Hyry, Viianki, Malahvia, Kuoliovaara, Lämsänkylä, Murtovaara, Suorajärvi, Hautajärvi, Niemelä, Kuosku, Seitajärvi, Yliluiro, and Lokka. The partisans also killed groups of and individual civilians on the roads and paths of the north.


Mannerheim in Poventsa
Mannerheim visiting the front at Poventsa, "Marskinniemi", June 1942.  Picture source: Tuokko, "1.  Divisioona 1941-1944".

 

In the winter of 1944 the Germans started to retreat around Leningrad as well, and were by May at the Estonian border. The Karelian isthmus was now under increasing threat and the Finns in a much weaker position. In the beginning of June 1944 the Allied landed in Normandy, opening a third front against Germany.


Operative Department
Headquarters Museum, Mikkeli. Operative Department.

 

After the Teheran conference Stalin ordered ADD, the Soviet long-distance bomber force, to prepare for the wide-scale bombing of targets in Finland. This was to coincide with the offensive against the Germans on the Leningrad front in early 1944. Stalin’s objective was to make the Finnish people suffer like the Western Allies were making the German people suffer and pressure them to severe their ties with Germany and get out of the war. The orders were given in December 1943, the main bombings against Helsinki, selected as the key target, taking place in February 1944. The Finns had already been in discussions regarding peace with the Soviet Union, but Stalin’s conditions for peace were something the Finns could not accept; they knew what capitulation to the Soviets would mean. They would rather continue to fight against the odds. Perhaps Stalin also wanted to make the Finns “think again”. Helsinki was attacked in three waves with ten-day intervals: 728 planes attacked at night on February 6/7, 383 planes on February 16/17, and 896 planes on February 26/27. Other towns attacked were Kotka, Oulu, Turku. The Soviet equipment used consisted of Il-4, Li-2 and American B-25 Mitchell planes and some heavy Pe-8 bombers. Helsinki was damaged and lives lost, but considering the amount of planes participating in the attacks ADD’s performance must be considered poor. Helsinki’s anti-aircraft artillery cover was dense and operated well, also many Soviet planes dropped their load on the “fake Helsinki” set up east of the city where the coastline resembled that of downtown Helsinki. In the beginning of March ADD attacked Tallinn in Estonia with more destructive results.


Italians  Italian boat
Italians in Finland. In 1942 an Italian MAS torpedo boat unit operated on Lake Laatokka. The four boats made about
40 runs during which they sank two enemy vessels.  Their attack on Suho island in October was a failure. Picture
source: Helge Seppälä, "Suomi miehittäjänä".

        
During the two and a half years of stabilized war the Finns lost around 12,000 men, less than half of the losses in the offensive period. 


Front in May 1944
The front in May 1944.


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