1941: Germany attacks, Finland follows


Tank Museum re-enactment
Re-enactment of a scene in the offensive period at the Tank Museum.

 

In Finland the attack to the Soviet Union was considered to be a direct consequence of the Winter War – a continuation of the war that the Soviet aggression had started in 1939. Now the Soviets had been betrayed by their ally and the Finns took advantage of that. They wanted to rectify the injustice done to them in the Moscow peace treaty of 1940 and take back what the Soviets had taken from them. The offensive period lasted a bit over five months from early July until December, when the front line for the war in the trenches that ensued was formed. By then the Finns had taken back the areas ceded in the Winter War, and a bit more: the front line was in many places beyond Finland’s pre-war borders. East Karelia, the age-old living area of Finno-Ugric people was taken. However in most parts the front line went where it was best from the military point of view – that is, easiest to defend. The Finns refused the Germans’ demands to continue the attack further towards Leningrad and from River Syväri (Svir) towards Tihvin. Neither would they take part in a main attack to cut the Murmansk railway. These five months of offensive war had cost the Finns 26,000 lives – about as many as had died in the 105 days of the Winter War.


Around mid-June German mine-layers, to be used for mining the Gulf of Finland as soon as the war started, arrived in Turku and Helsinki and were moved to safe anchorage in the archipelago and ordered to lower their flags and obey radio silence. Returning German planes used certain Finnish airfields for landing from the start of their offensive.


Turku Castle
Turku Castle after the Soviet bombing attack on June 25, 1941. Picture source: Korhonen, "Viisi sodan vuotta".


On June 25 Soviet bombers attacked Finnish cities, including Helsinki and Turku, seaports and airfields. The medieval castle in Turku was damaged. The Finns now had to acknowledge they were at war with the Soviet Union, and Prime Minister Rangell announced this to the Parliament. The next day President Ryti spoke to the people on the radio and noted that Finland was again at war with their old enemy.

 

Attack in the northThe attack from Finnish territory into the Soviet Union started in the north, in the German operational area, when units from AOK Norwegen crossed the border at the end of June. Those Finnish units subordinated to the Germans also attacked then. The German Mountain Army Corps Norwegen crossed the border between Norway and Finland into the Petsamo area on June 22.  Their objective was to advance from Petsamo towards Murmansk. The German 36th Army Corps attacked in the main offensive direction in the German operational area, from Salla towards Kantalahti. With them was the Finnish 6th Division. South of them operated the Finnish 3rd Army Corps, which was in practice just the 3rd Division (the 6th Division being with the German 36th Army Corps), attempting to advance towards Vienan Kemi and Louhi.

 

In the very north the Germans got stuck at River Litsa soon after crossing the Finnish-Soviet border, and were ordered to group for defense on July 17. The Mountain Army Corps Norwegen fighting here consisted of the 2nd and 3rd Mountain Divisions. It’s right flank was covered by the Finnish Detached Unit P, which was about the size of a battalion. In July the Finnish 14th Infantry Regiment, removed from the Aland Islands, was also subordinated to the Mountain Army Corps Norwegen. In the beginning of September a new offensive was started from River Litsa, but the troops ran out of steam in a few days. On September 21 they were ordered to halt the offensive.   

 

The 36th Army Corps fighting in the Kantalahti direction consisted of the 169th Division, Waffen-SS Division Nord, and the Finnish 6th Division. Advance in this direction was also very slow and cumbersome. It took a week to recapture Salla, ceded in the Winter War, and the offensive ground to a halt soon. Another attempt was made in the second half of August, not getting much further and stopping for good a month later.

 

The Finnish 3rd Army Corps had only one division to use in the beginning and its advance was also slow. It attacked in two groups; with one, Group J, towards Kiestinki and the other, Group F, towards Uhtua. Despite difficulties the attack towards Kiestinki was more successful than any other direction in the German operational area, and in July the majority of Waffen-SS Division Nord, who had failed in the Salla-Kantalahti direction, were moved here. After this the combined troops continued advancing as far as just east of Kiestinki, where the offensive stopped by the beginning of September. Group F’s advance stopped finally in August just short of Uhtua.

 

AOK Norwegen’s commander von Falkenhorst convinced the commander of the Finnish 3rd Army Corps Siilasvuo to make one more attempt at reaching the Murmansk railway at Louhi. The German High Command were apparently unaware of von Falkenhorst’s plans. Finnish 3rd Army Corps reinforced with Waffen-SS Division Nord started an attack from Kiestinki in the beginning of November. It did lead into some initial success but met increasing Soviet resistance. The United States left a note with the Finnish government regarding the attack and, behind the scenes, Marshal Mannerheim gave Major General Siilasvuo a verbal command to stop the offensive. The Finnish – U.S. relations were getting very strained. Mannerheim also got the German High Command to agree to stopping the operation, which they hadn’t planned in the first place.

 

In the Finnish operational area the first to attack was the 14th Division, which operated directly under Finnish High Command. It crossed the border on July 4, first objective being Repola, taken on July 8. After this the division continued east on the only road towards Rukajärvi. After battles in Omelia and Ontrosenvaara the River Pismajoki was reached. This was the starting point for the attack on Rukajärvi on September 5. Rukajärvi village was taken on September 11. The offensive continued to Ontajoki, just east of the village, where it was stopped around mid-September. The troops dug in close to the road and to the south and north field guarding posts were set up, connected with patrols. The 14th Division stayed in these positions until the end of the war in 1944.


Road to Rukajärvi
The road to Rukajärvi at River Pismajoki.

Rukajärvi village
Rukajärvi village today.

 

The Germans had in the June deliberations asked that the Finns start their attack north-east of Lake Laatokka into Laatokka-Karelia no later than when their Army Group North, Heeresgruppe Nord, crosses River Daugava. The Finnish Karelian Army, consisting of the 6th and 7th Army Corps (altogether five divisions) and Group Oinonen that was about the strength of a division, started the attack into Laatokka-Karelia on July 10. Behind the Karelian Army as a reserve was the German 163rd Division, that had been brought to Finland through Sweden and subordinated to the Finnish High Command. A breakthrough was soon achieved by the 6th Army Corps in the main offensive direction but the left and right flanks met with strong resistance and were slowed down. The main attack continued well along the north-east shoreline of Lake Laatokka some distance beyond the 1939 border. Meanwhile in the flanks the troops continued towards Sortavala close to the northern tip of Lake Laatokka (7th Army Corps in the right/southern flank), and still had a lot of the ceded Laatokka-Karjala to free of the Soviet occupier in the left/northern flank (Group Oinonen) of the Karelian Army. The Karelian Army’s offensive was halted by Marshal Mannerheim on July 24. One reason for Mannerheim’s decision to pause the main attack was that the Germans were not advancing towards Leningrad as fast as expected in July 1941.


Karelian Army attacks
The Karelian Army attacks. 6th Army Corps at River Tuulosjoki when the attack was halted.

 

After pausing the attack of the Karelian Army Mannerheim ordered the 2nd Army Corps to start their attack towards Lake Laatokka, south of the Karelian Army. This started the offensive on the Karelian isthmus on July 31. The troops fighting in the Sortavala area were formed into a new 1st Army Corps and taken under the High Command. The remaining parts of the 7th Army Corps took over the area to the north-east of the 6th Army Corps around Hyrsylä. The old Finnish town of Sortavala was taken by the 1st Army Corps on August 15, 1941.


Sortavala - Kuhavuori
Sortavala, view from Kuhavuori.

 

Although the Karelian Army’s attack had been halted in the main offensive direction battles continued in the second half of August in its left/northern flank where the German 163rd Division with Group Oinonen took possession of the Suojärvi area.  After taking Suojärvi and Tsalkki the 163rd Division was again returned to be a reserve of the High Command.  Battles also continued in the Hyrsylä – north of Vieljärvi area.  

 

The last Finnish Army Corps yet to engage in battle, the 4th, started their attack towards Viipuri on the Karelian isthmus, by the Gulf of Finland on August 22. Viipuri was the second biggest city in Finland prior to the Winter War and had been ceded to the Soviets in the 1940 Moscow peace treaty.  The 8th Division crossed the Viipuri Bay and cut the road leading south of the city on the coast. The Soviet troops defending Viipuri left the town too late and were later surrounded in a large pocket south of the city. The Finns got a lot of booty and prisoners, including one division commander. The 4th Army Corps took the deserted Viipuri on August 29. This was a mental boost for all Finnish troops – the liberation of a major Finnish town. Word of the capture of Viipuri was quickly passed on to soldiers everywhere and civilians celebrated in Finland. The majority of the 1st Army Corps was moved to Karelian isthmus from Sortavala and the attack towards the 1939 border on the isthmus was continued with three Army Corps, the 1st on the eastern side of the isthmus by Lake Laatokka, 2nd in the middle and 4th in the west near the Gulf of Finland. These troops had altogether seven divisions. Parts of the 4th Army Corps continued chasing the Red Army towards Koivisto without stopping in Viipuri. The 1st Army Corps grouped north of Vuoksi and prepared to attack the enemy on the south bank of the river. Troops from the 12th Division (4th Army Corps) and the 18th Division (2nd Army Corps) reached the level of Vammelsuu – Kivennapa on August 30. By the first days of September the 1939 border was reached and crossed in the center to make a straighter line from the Gulf of Finland to Lake Laatokka. By September 9 the liberation of Karelian isthmus was over and the troops grouped for defense with the front line going from the mouth of River Rajajoki - Valkeasaari - Lempaala to Tappari by Lake Laatokka. The Finns had arrived in front of the Karelian Fortified Region and advance would have required significant artillery power and brought increasing casualties. The front line stayed here until June 1944. In September and October two divisions and some other troops were moved to East Karelia.


Attack on Karelian isthmus
Attack on Karelian isthmus with 4th, 2nd and 1st Army Corps. The front line stayed here until June 1944.

 

After having been halted for more than a month, at the end of August Marshal Mannerheim gave Karelian Army the order to continue its offensive north of Laatokka as soon as it was ready. The objective would be to reach River Syväri (Svir) between Lake Laatokka and Syvärin asema (near Podporoze) in the right flank, Prääsä in the center and the Munjärvi area in the left flank. The troops were positioned so that the 6th Army Corps was in the right flank by Laatokka, the 7th Army Corps in the center and Group Oinonen in the left flank east of Suojärvi. The 7th Army Corps started its advance towards Prääsä and Pyhäjärvi on September 1. The main offensive started in the area of the 6th Army Corps at River Tuulosjoki on September 4. The river was crossed and the spearhead, Unit Lagus, took Aunuksenkaupunki (Olonets) on September 5. North of them the 17th Division met strong resistance around Nurmoila. By September 8 Unit Lagus had reached River Syväri in three places. At the same time Nurmoila was taken. The 7th Army Corps took Pyhäjärvi on September 8. The 6th Army Corps troops continued north-east from Syvärin asema, crossed the river at Podporoze and took the Syväri power plant (voimalaitos) by mid-September.  Part of their troops were directed north towards Pyhäjärvi where the 7th Army Corps were fighting. After the battle for Pyhäjärvi, on September 11, the Karelian Army received orders to attack Petroskoi (Petrozavodsk), a big town on the shore of Lake Ääninen (Onega) and the capital of Soviet Karelia. Group Oinonen was still in the same place east of Suojärvi. The 6th Army Corps left two of its divisions at River Syväri. The German 163rd Division had also been brought to Syväri and positioned in the right flank sector closest to Lake Laatokka. With the rest of its troops the 6th Army Corps headed north towards Latva on September 18. The next day the 7th Army Corps started towards Petroskoi from Prääsä. The Finns approached Petroskoi from two directions: by September 24 the 11th Division (7th Army Corps, incidentally the division where Tuntematon sotilas fought, in the 8th Infantry Regiment) reached Polovina approaching the town from the west, and at the same time Unit Lagus (6th Army Corps) reached the shores of Lake Ääninen just south of Petroskoi. On October 1 Petroskoi was in the hands of the Finns. After capturing the town the Finns renamed it to Äänislinna. Around the same time Group Oinonen started their attack towards Munjärvi, and the 7th Division who had continued south from Latva reached Vosnesenja by Lake Ääninen, at the start (east end) of River  Syväri. In October they started to close the gap between Vosnesenja and Podporoze south of the river. By October 13, 1941 a relatively stable front line had formed end-to-end, Laatokka to Ääninen, at Syväri. North of Petroskoi Group Oinonen and the 7th Army Corps had already started the attack north towards Karhumäki (Medvezegorsk) on the west side of Lake Ääninen. Brigade K was near Porajärvi north of Group Oinonen.


Tuulosjoki
River Tuulosjoki, which the 6th Army Corps crossed on September 4.

Nurmoila
The Karelian village of Nurmoila looks the same today it did in 1941.

 

The Soviet High Command, Stavka, sent fresh troops to Syväri, and the Soviet 14th Division started a counterattack in the area of Lake Orenskoje already on October 14. Battles raged for ten days but the Soviets did not succeed in pushing the Finns back across the river.


Attack to Syväri and Petroskoi
The Karelian Army advances to River Syväri (Svir) and takes Petroskoi.

 

Group Oinonen took Munjärvi on October 7. The 1st Division (7th Army Corps) moved towards Kontupohja along the western shores of Lake Ääninen. Brigade K captured Porajärvi on October 12. The 8th Division was transferred from the Karelian isthmus during October to the area north-east of Suojärvi between Group Oinonen and Brigade K. After Porajärvi Brigade K advanced towards Juustjärvi from the west. The 4th Division started an attack towards Juustjärvi from the south through the area occupied by Group Oinonen. This division had also been transferred from the Karelian isthmus, where fighting had stabilized along the fixed front line in the beginning of September. Around mid-October these troops, the 4th and 8th Divisions, Group Oinonen and Brigade K were formed into the (new) 2nd Army Corps, to fight in the left flank of the Karelian Army. The 4th Division reached Juustjärvi on October 20 and made contact with the men from Brigade K. The 4th Division continued east towards Karhumäki. The 8th Division had earlier been ordered to take Paatene, by Lake Seesjärvi, where it got by the same October 20. On October 24 Group Oinonen was subordinated to the 7th Army Corps and together with it attacked the area of Kontupohja. The enemy abandoned Kontupohja on November 2. On November 6 the 2nd Army Corps received the order to prepare for an attack for reaching the line of Maaselän asema (Maselgskaja) and Karhumäki (Medvezegorsk) on the isthmus between Lakes Ääninen and Seesjärvi. The 7th Army Corps should be prepared to join in the attack. The offensive on Karhumäki started on November 7, in multiple steps. Approaching the town from the south, Group Oinonen reached Perälahti (Perguba) just south of Karhumäki on November 22 – their advance had not been particularly rapid. The next day the 7th Army Corps ordered the 1st Division to take charge of the attack in this direction. In the 2nd Army Corps area the 8th Division attacked along the southern shore of Lake Seesjärvi, reaching the target area also on November 22, but not being able to capture the train station at Maselgskaja – Maaselän asema. At the end of November the 8th Division grouped for defense at the level it had reached. Enemy counterattacks stopped the 4th Division from advancing altogether. The Soviet troops had managed to repel attacks against Karhumäki from all directions until November 29, when the Finns reinforced their troops.  To spearhead the renewed attack the Finns brought the 1st Jaeger Brigade with a Tank Battalion from Petroskoi/Äänislinna. The 1st Jaeger Brigade penetrated the Soviet defenses into Karhumäki on December 5 and continued directly to Poventsa reaching Stalin’s Canal (connecting White Sea to Ääninen) the next day. The 1st Division came to Karhumäki behind the 1st Jaeger Brigade. The 4th Division attacked north of Karhumäki on December 8. The Maaselkä isthmus between Ääninen and Seesjärvi now became the front line where the 2nd Army Corps dug in for defense. These operations on the Maaselkä isthmus were the last ones of the attack period. Now started the long war in the trenches that lasted until the summer of 1944.


Attack to Karhumäki
Attack to Karhumäki. The red lines show the front line at the end of the offensive period.

 

Great Britain declared war on Finland on December 6, 1941 – Finland’s Independence Day. This was a disappointment for the Finns who had hoped the western powers would understand the separate nature of Finland’s war against the totalitarian terrorism of Stalin, threatening her very existence. The Finns were defending the same western culture these countries represented against expansionist bolshevism. The United States never declared war on Finland. The Soviet Union pressured the hesitant Winston Churchill, who had so admired Finland less than two years ago when Finland had fought essentially the same war against the same aggressor. “Finland alone - in danger of death, superb, sublime Finland – has shown us what free men can do" he had said then.


Syväri
River Syväri (Svir) at Lotinanpelto (Lodejnoe Pole). South bank of the river on the right.

Stalin's canal
Stalin's canal at Poventsa. Last lock before Lake Ääninen (Onega).

 

In the naval front, German and Finnish navies closed the Gulf of Finland limiting the Soviet navy’s operational freedom to the eastern end of the Gulf. The Soviets’ Baltic Fleet spent most of the war at Kronstadt. The Hanko naval base was kept isolated until the Soviets had evacuated it by early December. The Finns did not try to attack the peninsula but the convoys of ships leaving Hanko were attacked. However the Soviets were largely successful in emptying the base. There were battles for control of some islands in the Hanko waters. The troops guarding the peninsula in the end were Swedish volunteers, the Svenska Frivilligbataljonen, who were the first to walk into the empty town on December 4, 1941.


Hanko
Monument to commemorate the place where Mannerheim received the march-past
of the Hanko front troops on December 15, 1941. Harparskog, Hanko peninsula.


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