Here's What You Need to Remember: By mid-1944 even the Red Army was scraping the bottoms of the barrel to man the infantry divisions.
It has been 75 years since 1944 and memorial events for the various decisive battles are held across the world. One of the largest and most grueling battles was the Soviet summer offensive against Finland. Here is a short article about this less known campaign.
The World War two had raged on for four years and the most pivotal moments of it had gone. German army was falling back on all fronts, Allied forces had landed to the shores of Normandy and the Soviet forces had dealt decisive blows to the German war machine.
While all this information was available at the headquarters of the Finnish army in Mikkeli, the Finnish army had grown complacent after spending the past two years in a stagnated trench warfare in the southern part of the frontline. The northern part of the front-lines had remained active, but the guerrilla warfare fought in the endless forests of the far north was worlds apart from the reality the war had evolved in the European theater.
Patrols raiding the convoys and forward outposts in the largest wilderness left in Europe did very little to prepare the Finnish soldiers for the modern war that unfolded in the plains of Ukraine and Russia.
The trenches that ran across the Karelia were built mostly in 1942 and the following years had been spent building up cozy accommodations and pretty headquarters for the regiments and divisions. Training was somewhat neglected and large numbers of tractors and horses were sent back from the stagnant front-lines to help plow the fields and rebuild the lands re-taken in 1941.
The Finnish intelligence was sending warnings about a possible major Soviet offensive all along the spring. Both the SIGINT and the reconnaissance sources pointed that the Red Army was moving experienced and well-equipped formations to the Karelian Isthmus west of Leningrad. At the same time the Finnish soldiers received dire warnings from their German colleagues that the way the Red Army fought had evolved into a massed use of armor and artillery that was nearly an unstoppable force of nature.
Finnish headquarters at all levels disregarded the information presented to them as it contradicted the “status quo”. While some units raised their readiness, the front lines were manned to hold the first line and beyond the armored and cavalry brigades, no one was prepared to fight a mobile war.
Karelian isthmus 9.6.1944
At the first light on the morning of the 9th of July the frontline at Valkeasaari-sector exploded, literally.
The Soviet high command Stavka had amassed the following force to breach the Finnish defenses between Leningrad and Viipuri:
- 19 divisions
- 2 tank brigades
- 14 tank and assault gun regiments
- 3000 artillery pieces
- 1500 aircrafts
- Coastal batteries around Leningrad
- Naval artillery of the Baltic Fleet
These numbers meant that there were approximately 220 artillery pieces firing at every kilometer of the Finnish front line. On the first day the Finnish front-line was ground to dust with most of the trenches and bunkers destroyed by the over 80 000 artillery shells fired at them.
A village burning in the Karelian Isthmus
The first Russian assaults took the two of the most vulnerable positions and the Finnish 10th Division spent all its reserves in failed attempts to retake them. While the front-line held, troops were wavering under the immense pressure. The Finnish HQs failed to get a grip of the situation and administrative boundaries prevented the movement of reinforcements and ammunition stocks.
In the morning of the 10th of June the massive artillery barrage returned for two hours and after that three Soviet guards divisions supported by three tank regiments broke through the decimated Finnish 10th division. The resulting retreat border lined on panic and for example all of the divisions artillery pieces and anti-tank guns were lost, some without firing at all. While the front line broke and the lines of command collapsed, many Finnish units and individual soldiers fought valiantly, holding their positions till the bitter end.
Despite the shock and speed of the Soviet onslaught most civilians could be evacuated, but most had to leave with what they could carry.
The Finnish army managed to turn the flight into an organized delaying action and the Mikkeli HQ began to move all available forces to the Karelian isthmus. The armored division was one of the first units moved to stall the Soviet advance.
Despite named as the Armored Division, most of its infantry moved either on bicycles like these jaegers or on horseback as the Cavalry brigade with its dragoons and mounted jaegers was part of the division.
The Finnish army managed to man the secondary defense line, called the VT-line and the Russian offensive stalled. The Red Army managed to breach the VT-line too, but with the Finnish defenders, now fully reoriented to the new intensity of the war, managed to cause staggering casualties to the Soviet Guards Divisions at the spearhead of the assault. Stavka estimated that the Battle of Siiranmäki alone cost the Soviets over 20k men in casualties.
The battle raged on and Finnish army was forced to continue pulling back to a largely unprepared VKT-line. This meant that the Finnish forces had to abandon the nations third largest city Vyborg. While the loss Vyborg was rather minor in a military sense, it was a huge blow the public morale in Finland. It was also the only occasion that the Finnish BT-42 assault guns were used in combat. Fittingly the tank and the operation both were utter failures.
The Swedish speaking Finnish Infantry Regiment 61 was ordered to buy time for the defense and under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Alpo Marttinen, who later on became a Colonel in the US Army. The regiment had received the first of the new German panzerfausts and panzerschrecks.
With well the help of the German Gefechtsverband Kuhlmey, a mixed detachment of JU-87D5 dive bombers and FW-190 A-6 and F-3/8 fighters, the now well-prepared Finnish artillery and the new weapons the regiment beat back a massive Soviet armored thrust at Tienhaara. Besides the Detachment Kuhlmey, Germany also sent the 303rd Sturmgeschütz brigade to help Finland.
This defeat led the Stavka to direct its main forces towards the village of Tali. Unlike the eastern part of the Karelian isthmus the area around Tali and Ihantala was more rugged with only narrow corridors that the Soviet heavy armor could effectively use.
The Finnish army had amassed it’s hardest hitting parts there. The defense was fluid, with troops pulling back and counterattacking synchronized with the artillery batteries gathered to support them. The advanced artillery fire control methods allowed the defenders to pinpoint up to 21 artillery batteries on a single target grid if needed. It was also possible for any of the forward observers in the front line, to call fire missions from any of the batteries in range regardless of the formal organization, or even without the knowledge of the type or location of the guns in question.
For example on July 2 the Finns intercepted a radio message that the 63rd Guards Rifle Division and 30th Armored Brigade were about to launch an attack on July 3 at 0400 hours. The following morning, two minutes before the supposed attack, 40 Finnish and 40 German bombers bombed the Soviet troops, and 250 guns fired a total of 4,000 artillery shells into the area of the Soviets. The Soviet attack never managed to leave its staging area.
All along the battlefield the Finnish reconnaissance teams operated within the Soviet formations, relaying movements and calling air and artillery strikes on vulnerable targets. This was made possible with the development of patrol radios for the guerrilla warfare up north and pre-positioned supply caches hidden in the area of operations.
The battle raged on until the 9th of July, when the Stavka decided that breaching the Finnish defenses with the forces available was impossible. And diverting the fresh reinforcements heading towards the German front lines to take on what was perceived as a secondary enemy, was deemed to be too risky.
By mid-1944 even the Red Army was scraping the bottoms of the barrel to man the infantry divisions.
The Red Army did attempt to bypass the Finnish defenses by taking over the islands at the Vyborg bay and attempting to open a bridgehead behind the Finnish forces, but those attempts were bashed back repeatedly. The island warfare was brutal and I’ve heard harrowing tales from my grandfather about the soldier returning from Teikari-Island and the Cavalry-brigades defense of the shore (He was a dragoon supporting a mg-squadron).
There are a few lessons that should be learned from these battles:
-Any static defense is breachable when there is enough artillery that can move and fire unimpeded.