The war in Lapland 1944 - 1945

 

German military cemetary, Norvajärvi
Memorial at the German military cemetary at Norvajärvi, north of Rovaniemi.


The Soviets agreed to the armistice of September 4/5, 1944 on the condition that the Finns request the Germans to leave by September 15 and start driving them out of Finland from then onwards. This request was also written in the interim peace agreement signed later in Moscow. In accordance with this the Finnish Foreign Minister Carl Enckell notified the German ambassador in Finland Wipert von Blücher on September 2 about the breaking off of relations between Finland and National Socialist Germany, and requested Germany to withdraw her troops from Finland by September 15. To do it in this time would obviously have been impossible.

 

In the German 20th Mountain Army the assumption now was that Finland’s departure from the war would bring Soviet troops to its south flank – or the Soviets would force Finland to take actions against the Germans.

 

The Finns feared that Soviet troops would enter the north of Finland following the retreating Germans, turning the area into a battle zone. Already on September 4 the Finnish High Command gave preliminary orders for the evacuation of civilians from Lapland. The evacuation started on September 7 and was for the most part successful. The German troops assisted in the evacuation where possible, despite the breaking off of relations that had already taken place. Around 127,000 people were evacuated from Lapland.

 

After the armistice the German troops started their withdrawal to the northern parts of Lapland. Their intention was to keep the Petsamo area. During the withdrawal the 20th Mountain Army was given permission to continue withdrawal to Norway. The Finns started to build defensive positions west of the new border, while most of the troops stayed at the front until the interim peace agreement had been signed. Some units were transferred up north. The units sent to Lapland just followed behind the retreating Germans at first, as the Finns and Germans agreed.  

 

In the south the Germans had some maintenance units, storages, small naval detachments and the 303rd Assault Gun Brigade that had taken part in the fighting on Karelian isthmus. These troops left Finland before September 15.

 

The first real battle between the brothers-in-arms took place on September 15 when the Germans tried to capture the island of Suursaari on the Gulf of Finland. They wanted the island, located in the middle of the Gulf, because they believed they could control the Gulf of Finland from there, maintaining the blockade of the Soviet Navy despite the Finns leaving the war. In February 1944 the Germans had made plans for taking the Åland Islands and Suursaari in the case that Finland leaves the war. The operations were called Tanne West for Åland and Tanne Ost for Suursaari. The first was never attempted but orders were given to start Tanne Ost. Suursaari was defended by the 16th Coastal Artillery Regiment. In the evening of September 14 the Finns were helping the last remaining Germans on the island to get away. Finnish ships were transporting the Germans leaving the island. Around midnight German mine-clearing ships arrived in the port of Suursaari. Surprisingly, for the Finns, the Germans demanded they give up the island. The Finns refused and the Germans came ashore. They were able to take a part of the northern tip of the island but the Finns would not give in. Throughout the day there was fighting that did not lead to a conclusion, and in the evening of September 15 the German troops decided to surrender.

 

During September 13 – 25 the Finns moved four divisions and two brigades to the north. The 15th Brigade, Panzer Division, and the 3rd and 11th Divisions were sent to the Oulu area. In the east, north of the Kajaani – Kuhmo level, were the 6th Division and the Border-Jaeger Brigade. After the interim peace agreement was signed on September 19 the troops remaining at the front started their march to the new frontier. This took ten days as was planned.


German 75mm anti-tank gun
German 75 mm anti-tank gun at the Sturmbock-Stellung, Järämä, near Lätäseno River.

 

To protect their withdrawal’s southern flank the Germans placed two combat units (“West” and “Ost”) along the border of the German and Finnish operational areas, north of Oulu and Kajaani. Behind these were a division group and one mountain division. The withdrawal was started by the 18th Mountain Army Corps from the direction of Uhtua and Kiestinki – the southernmost troops in the German area.

 

At first the Finns and the Germans fought a “phoney war”. They had negotiated in Rovaniemi and secretly agreed that the advance of the Finnish troops would be timed to match with the Germans’ withdrawal schedule. On September 19 the 6th Division was ordered to start moving. They did not engage in battle with the Germans. At Suomussalmi they met Soviet troops who had followed the Germans across the border. The Germans had destroyed bridges and set mines on the roads to “slow the Finns down”, as they had said they would in the negotiations in Rovaniemi. On September 21 the troops in the Oulu area were given orders to start advancing.

 

Marshal Mannerheim decided to combine the troops in Lapland under one command and formed the 3rd Army Corps. Lieutenant-General Siilasvuo was given command of the 3rd Army Corps and the whole operation in Lapland. His orders were to intern the German troops. Siilasvuo arrived in Oulu on September 26 and stopped communicating with the Staff of the 20th Mountain Army as the Finns had done until then. The next day Panzer Division troops engaged in battle with the Germans for the first time.

 

Lieutenant-General Siilasvuo ordered his staff to make plans for a landing from sea to Kemi and Tornio. There was a small Finnish unit in Kemi (Unit P had been moved there from Petsamo after the armistice) and information from them regarding German troops in Kemi made Siilasvuo to decide on Tornio as the place for the surprise landing behind the Germans’ backs. The landing in Tornio started the real Lapland War. The Finnish High Command did not like the whole idea and apparently knew nothing about it until the troops were being loaded on board the ships in Oulu.


Map: Lapland War
The war in Lapland.

 

In the morning of October 1, 1944 ships carrying the 11th Infantry Regiment (3rd Division) landed at the port of Tornio without the Germans noticing. The troops moved from the seaport towards the town and got in battle. More troops landed in Tornio on October 2. The battle for Tornio raged until October 8, the Germans attempting to recapture the town. Meanwhile the 15th Brigade had been advancing towards Kemi from Oulu, capturing the town on October 8. The same day they made contact with Finnish troops moving towards Kemi from Tornio. During the battle of Tornio the 11th Division was also transferred there. Planes from the German Luftlotte 5 attacked the ships as they landed in Tornio, making it difficult for the 11th Division to get ashore. Two ships were sunk at the port.

 

The Finns took a bit more than a thousand prisoners in the battles of Tornio and Kemi. According to the interim peace agreement they had to be handed over to the Soviet Union.

 

The Germans saw the landing in Tornio as a betrayal by the Finns. Some days after the landing the commander of the 20th Mountain Army, General-Colonel Lothar Rendulic, ordered the destruction of Lapland. All buildings that the enemy could use for accommodating troops were to be destroyed. Earlier the troops had only been ordered to destroy bridges and mine roads and the Finns had been informed this would be done.

 

In the center Unit Lagus, consisting of the Panzer Division and the 6th Division, also started advance on October 1. They fought against the rear forces of the withdrawing 7th Mountain Division. The biggest battle in this direction was fought south of Rovaniemi during October 6 – 9 when the Finns tried to besiege one German regiment. The regiment made a counterattack and got away.

 

The Soviet Karelian Front troops following the Germans crossed the border at Kuusamo and Suomussalmi but did not continue deeper into Finland. The Border-Jaeger Brigade left parts of its troops to guard the border as it moved north.

 

On October 5 the 20th Mountain Army received orders to abandon the northern part of Norway as well and withdraw to defensive positions at Lyngenfjord. Before the 19th Mountain Army Corps could detach from Petsamo the Soviets started an offensive against it. The Germans now had to move troops to Petsamo and were facing a bigger threat up north than in the south.

 

After the battle of Tornio ended the 3rd Army Corps received orders to continue advancing in western Lapland. They were to cut the German escape route at Muonio and also to besiege the German troops in the Rovaniemi area. The High Command moved the 15th Division and the 19th Brigade up north. Despite every effort the Germans were always able to avoid being captured or destroyed, including the troops leaving Rovaniemi after destroying it thoroughly. This puzzled the Soviet Control Commission supervising the fulfillment of the conditions of the interim peace agreement. They demanded stronger measures against the Germans. On October 16 the Chairman of the Control Commission, Andrei Zdanov sent Mannerheim a strongly-worded letter insisting the Finns disarm and intern the Germans. Marshal Mannerheim had to reprimand Lieutenant-General Siilasvuo for not using strong enough forces to achieve objectives given to him.

 

On October 20 the Jaeger Brigade arrived in Sodankylä, which the Germans had also demolished. North of Sodankylä a battle ensued with the troops protecting the retreat of the 19th Mountain Army Corps through Ivalo. They had fought the Soviets in Petsamo, and were still being chased by them. The Germans were well dug in behind their Schutzwall line and detached on November 1 after their task of protecting the retreat had been accomplished, ending the battles in this direction. In the west the Finns arrived in Muonio on October 30 after the Germans had abandoned it.


Schutzwall
Remains of a German machine-gun nest at the Schutzwall line, Tankavaara.

 

As per the interim peace agreement the Finns were required to demobilize the war-time Army by December 5. They would be left with an Army the size of the peace-time Army from 1939, prior to the Winter War. The youngest were left to serve and the older men discharged. Not all of the peace-time Army was left in Lapland. The 3rd Army Corps was transformed into the peace-time 1st Division, and as such continued to follow the Germans up the north-west “arm” of Finland. They stopped at Lätäseno near Kaaressuvanto in front of the right flank of the Germans’ Lyngenfjord positions. The Jaeger Brigade, north of Ivalo at this point, was also reduced to the peace-time organization and advanced with the remaining three small battalions to Karigasniemi at the very northern tip of Finland. By the end of November the last Germans crossed into Norway in this direction. The Border-Jaeger Brigade had advanced up north without engaging in battle and were now also demobilized.


Sturmbock-Stellung
German observation post at the Sturmbock-Stellung, north of Lätäseno. 

 

During November the Soviet troops who had followed the Germans into Finland returned east of the border.

 

In the north-west arm the Germans stayed on Finnish soil until the end of April. On April 28, 1945, Lieutenant-General Siilasvuo informed Marshal Mannerheim that Finland was free of German troops.


Medals
Cross of Liberty 4th Class, Medal of Libery 1st Class and the Commemorative Medal of the Continuation War.

 

  

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