Operation Silverfox: Hitler's Failed Attempt To Cut the Soviet Union's Last Northern Lifeline

 Abandoned Soviet equipment captured by the Finnish east of Kestenga (fin. Kiestinki). Photographed: Kiestini, Louhi 17 November 1941. Finnish Wartime Photograph Archive SA-Kuva.
May 14, 2020 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: Soviet UnionNazi GermanyWorld War IILeningradMurmansk

Operation Silverfox: Hitler's Failed Attempt To Cut the Soviet Union's Last Northern Lifeline

Adolf Hitler considered the far northern operation area little more than a sideshow. It would prove to be a considerable miscalculation.

As Adolf Hitler began to formulate his grandiose plans for the conquest of the Soviet Union, he considered the far northern operation area little more than a sideshow. Neither he nor his general staff realized the importance of the harsh, unforgiving tundra that contained a rail line connecting the port of Murmansk to the rest of Russia. It would prove to be a considerable miscalculation.

Ice-Free Northern Port

Located about 150 miles above the Arctic Circle, Murmansk was the only northern Soviet port that was ice-free year round. Thanks to the Gulf Stream, Kola Bay, the gateway to Murmansk, could handle shipping when the larger northern port of Archangel was frozen solid.

During World War I, Czar Nicholas II had a rail line built between Murmansk and St. Petersburg (Leningrad). About 70,000 German and Austrian prisoners of war labored for two years to construct the 850-mile track. When it was completed in 1917, more than 25,000 graves marked the route—the final resting places of prisoners struck down by typhoid during the brief, searing days of summer, and by malnutrition and the cold during the bitter eight-month Arctic winter. When the United States entered the war in 1917, the Murmansk rail line became a strategic supply route for American goods to reach the Russian heartland.

“Hero Of Narvik”

None of this mattered to Hitler in April 1941 as he met with General der Gebirgstruppe (General of Mountain Troops) Eduard Dietl to discuss the mission of Dietl’s Gebirgskorps “Norwegen.” The Führer was concerned about the safety of the nickel mines in Finland at Petsamo (now Pechenga) and with the vulnerability of the ore-rich area around Narvik, Norway, once the Reich and the Soviet Union were at war. To Hitler, the Murmansk rail line was only a means for Stalin to quickly move troops to the northern regions for an offensive against these vital areas.

The 50-year-old Dietl and some trusted staff members had been working on the planned Arctic attack for more than three months. Known as the “Hero of Narvik” for his daring seizure of the port during the 1940 invasion of Norway, the Bavarian general had already served Germany for more than 30 years. Joining the Army in 1909, Dietl saw some of the fiercest fighting of World War I, including several battles along the Somme, in Flanders, and at Arras. He had earned both classes of the Iron Cross and had the Wound Badge in silver before the war ended.

Unforgiving Terrain

Remaining in the Reichswehr (the 100,000-man postwar German Army), Dietl rose through the ranks and was given command of the 3rd Gebirgs (Mountain) Division in 1937. In 1940 his division helped overrun Norway, and by June of that year he had been given command of the newly formed Gebirgskorps Norwegen. Now, as he waited to meet the Führer, Dietl was prepared to brief Hitler about the tremendous obstacles that lay ahead for his men.

Soviet maps showed few roads in the desolate tundra, which was covered with snow and ice during the long winter. In the summer, the land became a gigantic swamp that was crisscrossed with untamed rivers, streams, and lakes. Some areas were also covered by dense forest. Moving men, supplies, and pack animals through such terrain would require superhuman effort.

As Hitler strode into the room, the general stood at attention. With a brief gesture toward a map table, the leader of Germany began to give his own assessment of the situation in the Murmansk sector. He pointed out that the airfields in and around the city of 100,000 posed a serious threat to German forces in the Far North, and that Luftwaffe aerial reconnaissance photos showed that Murmansk had a huge rail yard that could receive thousands of troops daily.

“We Must Eliminate This Danger At the Very Beginning”

Hitler also worried about the vulnerability of the ore-rich regions that could be lost if the Russians managed to launch an offensive strike in the area. “It could be disastrous,” he said. “We must eliminate this danger at the very beginning of our Eastern campaign. Not by waiting, but by attacking. You’ve got to manage those ridiculous 60 miles from Petsamo to Murmansk with your Gebirgsjäger, and thus put an end to the threat.”

Somewhat taken aback by the phrase “ridiculous 60 miles,” Dietl began to detail the logistical problems that his divisions would face. He hoped to dissuade Hitler about directly attacking Murmansk, arguing that the severing of the port’s rail line would serve the same purpose and would have more chance of success. “If the rail line is interdicted,” he said, “the port and its defenses will eventually wither on the vine.”

A Typical Hitler Compromise

Hitler listened patiently, asking questions and studying the map that lay before him. When the general finished, Hitler told him to leave his plans for him to study, which Deitl took as a good sign. By the first week of May, Hitler had made his decision. The operational plan that he sent to GeneralOberst (Col. Gen.) Nikolaus von Falkenhorst, commander of Armee Norwegen and overall commander of the far northern sector, was a typical Hitler compromise.

Code-named Silberfuchs (Silver Fox), the final plan called for a three-pronged attack against Murmansk and its vital railway link. Dietl’s Gebirgskorps Norwegen was given a threefold mission—one defensive and two offensive. The defensive mission was to guard the Norwegian sector north of Narvik against a possible Soviet invasion. For this purpose, he had the 199th Infanterie Division (made up of older soldiers who were fit mostly for garrison duty); a police battalion and three machine-gun battalions; the 9th SS Infanterie Brigade; and a hodgepodge of naval and coastal artillery units.

A Two-Thrust Plan

The first of his offensive missions involved seizing the area around Petsamo and advancing to Polyarny and Port Vladimir, closing the Kola Bay north of Murmansk. His second objective was the city of Murmansk itself. For these tasks, Dietl had the 2nd and 3rd Gebirgs Divisions, a Bau (construction) battalion, a communications battalion, two batteries of 105mm guns, a Nebelwerfer (rocket launcher) battalion, and a reduced-strength antiaircraft gun battalion.

A second thrust would be made in the Salla area, about 190 miles south of Petsamo, by General der Infanterie Hans Feige’s XXXVI Armeekorps (redesignated a Gebirgskorps in October 1941). Feige’s Korps consisted of the 169th Infanterie Division, SS Division “Nord,” and the 6th Finnish Infantry Division. It also included two battalions each of tanks and motorized artillery, a heavy-weapons battalion, communication and bridge construction battalions, two antiaircraft and two Nebelwerfer battalions, and two Bau battalions.

Feige’s task was to smash the Soviet positions at Salla and then advance to the rail line north of the White Sea. When he reached the railroad town of Kandalaksha, he would then turn north to participate in the attack on Murmansk. Part of his force would also set up blocking positions along the rail line to prevent Soviet reinforcements from strengthening the Murmansk defenses.

Air Support Sorely Lacking

About 90 miles south of Salla, Maj. Gen. Hjalmar Siilasvuo’s III Finnish Corps (Group J and Group F—the equivalent of two brigades) was charged with taking the railhead at Kesten’ga. After Kesten’ga was secured, the Finns would then seize the towns of Loukhi and Kem, severing the Murmansk rail line in two more areas to make it even more difficult for any Soviet relief effort.

Unlike other areas at the beginning of the Russian campaign, the German forces of the Northern Theater could not count on much support from the Luftwaffe. GeneralOberst Hans-Jürgen Stumpff’s Luftflotte 5 was the poor relation of Reichsmarshal Hermann Göring’s air force. With little more than 250 aircraft to accomplish his primary mission of defending the skies over Norway, Stumpff could provide little in the way of air support for ground operations. For Silberfuchs, Luftflotte 5 could only contribute three long-range reconnaissance aircraft, a group of 30 bombers, and another squadron of 10 fighters. There were also seven short-range reconnaissance aircraft attached to Armeekorps Norwegen.

Finns Not All In

Hitler’s plans were based on Finnish cooperation, but the Finns were also considered the wild card of Silberfuchs because the Helsinki government was not yet fully committed to joining the German attack. As the date for the invasion, June 22, grew closer, German-Finnish negotiations were ongoing. Finland demanded and received assurances that all Finnish troops would be under the command of Field Marshal Gustaf Mannerheim, commander of the Finnish Army. This resulted in a dual-command system, which meant that there would be two independent commanders, von Falkenhorst and Mannerheim, in the same theater of operations—a certain recipe for confusion on the battlefield.

Operations in the far north were set to commence one week after the June 22 invasion. This gave von Falkenhorst more time to get his troops to their jump-off points, and it also gave the Germans a few more days to continue to negotiate with the Finns. As German artillery began blasting Soviet forward positions in the early hours of the 22nd, talks between Berlin and Helsinki were still in progress.