Background – events prior to the Continuation War – Finland and Europe 1939-1941
At the remains of a Finnish Winter War bunker, Muolaa, Karelian isthmus.
The Winter War ended on March 13, 1940 in a peace that was very bitter for the Finns. The lost land and lives seemed too much and just too unfair for the people who had resisted their much stronger neighbor’s aggression so fiercely and with success – many of the soldiers returning from the front felt they were still an unbeaten army. The Soviet Union had shown everyone its tendencies. In August 1939 Molotov and Ribbentrop had signed a secret protocol attached to the nonaggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union that left Finland and the Baltic states in the Soviet sphere of interest. Poland they split in two. Although Stalin had to let the Winter War come to an end, in part because he feared the proposed intervention by France and Great Britain, the World War he had brought about with Hitler by attacking Poland in September, as the unseemly allies had agreed, continued elsewhere. The Finns started to prepare for the follow-up they felt was sure to come: the next Soviet onslaught. Stalin wasn’t done with the Finns yet.
On the left, areas ceded in the Winter War: Karelian isthmus between the Gulf of Finland and Lake Laatokka (Ladoga); Laatokka-Karelia, as the Finns call it, north of the lake; Salla near the narrowest point of the country, and the western tip of Kalastajasaarento.
On the right, fortified lines by the start of the Continuation War. Harparskog by the Hanko naval base; the continuous line between the Gulf of Finland and Saimaa, later (1944) called the Salpa Line (also improved); and not connected stretches to the north.
Fortification work was immediately started along the new eastern border, the war-time army was strengthened and modernization begun. By the beginning of the Continuation War an almost continuous fortified line existed between the Gulf of Finland and the Saimaa waters. A fortified line was also built across the base of the Hanko peninsula facing the new Soviet naval base there, leased in the peace treaty. In the north, fortifications existed only by the main roads coming from the east. After the Winter War the peace-time army was left almost entirely positioned along the eastern border. The number of divisions in the war-time army was increased from nine to sixteen – 48 Infantry Regiments.
Bunkers of the Salpa Line can still be found, intact and preserved.
Colonel Kustaa Tapola, Chief of Staff of the Army, drafted a “P.M. on the setting up of Finland’s defences” in July 1940. In it, the only perceived threat came from the east. The Soviet objective would be to isolate Finland from the West. The P.M. predicted they would try to achieve this by an offensive where Finland’s southern coastal area is captured and Finland cut in half at the level of the bottom (northern) end of the Gulf of Bothnia. In the north the P.M. estimated the Soviets would have two main offensive directions, aimed towards the Gulf of Bothnia through the ceded Salla area. In the south the objective would be to break through in the coastal area of the Gulf of Finland, first to reach Kymijoki River, from where onwards the terrain and roads would allow good use of mechanized troops. Also the Soviets were expected to use air forces and paratroops. The Soviet Navy would operate along the southern coastline. Depending on how capable the Soviets thought Finland would be to defend itself they would either try to take the Finns by surprise, or take their time for a well-prepared offensive. (see map on the left)
On April 9, 1940, less than a month after the Winter War ended, Germany started operations against Denmark and Norway, suddenly changing Finland’s strategic position. A month later, Germany started the attack in the west, and it didn’t take much more than a month until France capitulated on June 22. During the summer of 1940 Germany’s main effort went into the air war over Great Britain, while the Soviet Union continued its aggression against smaller neighbors by taking Bessarabia from Romania and completing the occupation of the Baltic states, forcefully annexing Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania into the Soviet family of nations. In September Germany, Italy and Japan signed the tripartite pact, joined by Hungary, Romania and Slovakia in November. While visiting Berlin in November 1940 Molotov told Hitler he wanted to conclude the Finnish problem. What more did they want in Finland? “A settlement on the same scale as in Bessarabia” – in other words, to annex it. But the necessities of war had obliged Germany to change their view on Finland, and Hitler could not permit a new war there right now.
Yugoslavia and Bulgaria signed the tripartite pact in March 1941, which didn’t save Yugoslavia from occupation by Germany in April, followed by the occupation of Greece, for the most part completed by mid-May 1941.
Several points in the 1940 Moscow peace treaty between Finland and the Soviet Union were open for interpretation, causing contention between the countries. Finland saw that Moscow had forbidden the Scandinavian defensive alliance. During the summer the Soviet Union demanded that the defensive fortifications on Aland Islands must be dismantled and the Finnish troops stationed there removed from the islands, despite the ongoing World War. The Soviet Union also requested further rights to the nickel in Petsamo. According to the peace treaty the Soviet Union and its citizens had free passage through the Petsamo area to Norway and back, based on the agreement in the earlier peace treaty of Tarto, 1920, and all such goods and traffic flowing through the area were free of any inspections and supervision.
The German army in Norway, AOK Norwegen, was given an order in the summer of 1940 to prepare to take possession of the Petsamo area in case the Soviet Union should attack Finland again. This would be called operation Renntier.
In July 1940 Germany and Sweden signed an agreement that allowed the transportation of German troops to Norway through Swedish territory. In August Germany approached Finland with the same request: to allow the passage through Finland of German soldiers going to Kirkkoniemi in northern Norway. In connection with this, Germany would agree to sell the Finns weapons. Finland granted that permission and the first German ships made port in Vaasa on September 21, 1940. The ships brought troops on the way to Norway but also military supplies and equipment sold to Finland. In September Finland also had to submit to a request by the Soviet Union to allow passage of troops by rail to the leased naval base in Hanko. This request had been made with a reference to the peace treaty and traffic started on September 25.
Passage of German (blue) and Soviet (red) troops through Finland and Sweden in 1940.
The directive by Adolf Hitler dated December 18, 1940 defined the outline for the plan to attack the Soviet Union. In the directive Finland was mentioned as a likely ally. Military discussions between Germany and Finland around a possible conflict between Germany and the Soviet Union probably started in January 1941, when the Finnish Chief of General Staff, Eric Heinrichs visited Germany to present Finland’s experiences from the Winter War. AOK Norwegen’s Chief of Staff Buschenhagen visited Finland around a month later and discussed cooperation in case of a possible attack by the Soviet Union, but their actual plans - operation Barbarossa - were not revealed to the Finns. In the early spring the Finns allowed volunteers to join Waffen-SS, an initiative put forward by the Germans. The official deliberations on military cooperation in the offensive did not take place until the end of May, in Germany, continuing in Finland in the beginning of June. At this point the Germans only disclosed those parts of their plans that concerned the offensive towards Leningrad. Questions on timing of events were discussed and agreed on, e.g. when the Finns should mobilize, also agreed was that the Germans would have a presence in the north part of Finland. The area north of Oulu – Lake Oulujärvi – Lentiira – Sorokka would be German (AOK Norwegen) operational area. The Finns would subordinate from June 15 to the Germans the 3rd Army Corps, consisting of the 3rd and the 6th Divisions, to operate in the German area. The Germans wished that the Finns’ main thrust would be directed north of Lake Laatokka (Ladoga).
The German Luftwaffe would be allowed to use Finnish airfields offensively from June 25 onwards; however returning planes could land starting June 22.
No written agreement was made of anything discussed.
Finland’s political and military leaders were in general not opposed to being the active party in a war against the Soviet Union. The feeling of grave injustice from the Winter War was prevalent among the nation, not just the leadership. There was no real political alignment with National Socialist Germany, as the Finns always considered themselves deeply integrated with the democratic values of the West (their true sympathies were more with Great Britain and the United States), and even less common ground there was on the ideological front. There was basically only one, but very strong common objective: the defeat of the Soviet Union. Many Finns probably hoped, at least at some point in time, that Germany would defeat the Soviet Union, and be then itself defeated by the Western Allies, who would of course understand Finland’s separate and self-defensive reasons for being a cobelligerent. However it would not be simple for the Finns to be seen as the party starting an aggression, no matter how well justified they felt they were.
The Barbarossa plan in December, 1940. Blue arrows are the expected Finnish