Soviet attack, summer 1944

 

Portinhoikka, Soviet monument
Soviet war monument at the Portinhoikka crossing, between Tali and Ihantala where the front was at the end of the war.


In the defensive battles of summer 1944 the Finns managed to stop the massive Red Army attack. The Soviets had the initiative at first and forced the Finns to retreat, in haste in places, but were not able to crush the Finnish Army. Despite the early difficulties the Finns could for the most part maintain combat readiness and pull back to new defensive lines in the rear in an orderly fashion. The Red Army failed to fully achieve their objectives with Finland. By fighting successfully the Finns avoided occupation and maintained independence – Stalin had to drop his demand for unconditional surrender. Hence the Finns have called this a “defensive victory” (torjuntavoitto).


Towards the end of 1943 the Soviets planned their actions for 1944. The First Strategic Offensive would start in January and take place in the Leningrad area with troops from the Leningrad Front and Volkhov (Olhava) Front. The Second Strategic Offensive would take place in the West Ukraine with the 1st and 2nd Ukranian Fronts. In the Third Strategic Offensive the 3rd and 4th Ukranian Front troops would attack in the south. The target for the Fourth Strategic Offensive would be Finland.     

The Soviet objective in the massive summer offensive of 1944 was to destroy the Finnish Army, penetrate deep into Finnish territory, and force Finland into capitulation. Territory-wise the first target was to reach the Saimaa waters with the troops attacking on Karelian isthmus, and the Sortavala – Ilomantsi level north of Lake Laatokka i.e. roughly the 1940 Moscow treaty borders. Then the Leningrad Front troops would continue to River Kymijoki and eventually to Helsinki.


Soviet plan
The Soviet plan for the offensive on Finland. First the Leningrad Front troops would attack on Karelian
 ishtmus (1.).  After they take Viipuri, the Karelian Front attacks both from River Syväri and Maaselkä
isthmus (2.). Then the Leningrad Front troops advance to the Saimaa waters and River Kymijoki (3.).
When the Germans start sending help to the south, the attack begins in the north (4.). Then the Leningrad
 Front troops continue to Helsinki. Phases 3., 4. and 5.  were not started. Source: Alanen - Moisala,
 "Kun hyökkääjän tie suljettiin".

 
The majority of the 450,000 troops (41 divisions), 1,000 tanks, over 1,000 airplanes and 11,500 artillery pieces the Soviets allocated for the operation belonged to the Leningrad Front attacking on Karelian isthmus. Their first task was to penetrate the Finnish defenses, annihilate the Finnish troops on the isthmus, and capture Viipuri. Their objectives after this were already beyond the post-Winter War borders. The Karelian Front would operate north of Lake Laatokka and their attack was to begin around 10 days after the Leningrad Front had started, both from Aunus (River Syväri) and the Maaselkä isthmus. Their objective was to shatter the Finnish forces and advance in the first phase to the Sortavala – Ilomantsi level.

 

On Karelian isthmus the Finns had two Army Corps, the 3rd and the 4th, altogether about 90,000 men. The Aunus Group was at River Syväri (Svir) between the lakes Laatokka and Ääninen (Onega) and also had the strength of around 90,000 men. Between Lake Ääninen and Lake Seesjärvi, on the Maaselkä isthmus, the 2nd Army Corps had 45,000 troops. The 14th Division was alone at Rukajärvi and in the rear of the German operational area in the north the Finns had one unit, the 3rd Brigade.

 

Apparently the offensive was a surprise to the Finnish and German High Command. At least they did not expect it in June, although men at the front may have felt it was due. They had been seeing and hearing signs of it and had reported these but they were not listened to. 

Finnish defensive positions on Kar. isthmus
Finnish defensive positions on Karelian isthmus: the front line 1941-44 in blue, Vammelsuu-Taipale Line in red, and the
Viipuri - Kuparsaari - Taipale Line in green. The Mannerheim Line had been destroyed by the Soviets and not  repaired,
and did not form an obstacle in 1944.

 

The Leningrad Front started heavy artillery fire followed by the first, reconnaissance type attacks in the morning of June 9, 1944. Already then they were able to capture some bases from the Finns in the front line near the Gulf of Finland. The main offensive started next morning, on June 10, with an unforeseen artillery barrage and led into immediate success – the front line defenses were knocked out at Valkeasaari and the defending troops there left in chaos. The artillery barrage had lasted for over two hours and 3,000 guns and mortars taken part in it. In the pressure point, where the 30th Guards Army Corps was to lead the attack, the Soviets had more than 200 artillery pieces per front line kilometer. Four days later, June 14, the second Finnish defensive line, the VT Line (Vammelsuu – Taipale)  was penetrated at Kuuterselkä. The Finnish Jaeger Brigade attempted to recover the VT Line but it was not possible. Soviet troops got through the rupture to the rear of the Finnish Cavalry Regiment  fighting in the Vammelsuu - Ino area. The next day, June 15, Marshal Mannerheim decided on withdrawal to the third defensive line, the VKT Line (Viipuri – Kuparsaari – Taipale). On the VT Line to the east of Kuuterselkä, in Siiranmäki, 2nd Division troops fought against three Soviet divisions concentrated in a small area. The battles here started on June 13 and for four days the Finns kept their positions, until the events in Kuuterselkä and Mannerheim's decision forced them to leave the VT Line. The troops detached at night between June 16 - 17 and started withdrawal towards the VKT Line at Äyräpää - Vuosalmi. 


Bunker on the coast
The remains of a Finnish bunker from 1944 on the coast of the Gulf of Finland near Ino,
behind the VT Line.

 

Soon after the offensive had started, the Finns began to move troops from East Karelia to Karelian isthmus.  Four divisions (4th, 6th, 11th and 17th) and one brigade (20th) were transferred from Aunus, and the 3rd Brigade from the north, raising the amount of troops on Karelian isthmus from 90,000 to 155,000 by the end of June. When the VT Line broke the Finns decided to give up East Karelia. On June 16 Marshal Mannerheim ordered the 2nd Army Corps and Aunus Group to start withdrawal to Laatokka-Karelia, homeland Finland. Almost half the troops were eventually moved to Karelian isthmus.

 

The 14th Division stayed in the same positions at Rukajärvi until the end of the war. The Soviets did not start any major offensives against the German troops up in the north during the summer offensive against the Finns.

 

The battles in the third defensive line, VKT Line,  started badly for the Finns: Viipuri was lost on June 20 almost without battle. Part of the troops of the 20th Brigade, which had just arrived from East Karelia, panicked and fled from their positions. The defenses of the city collapsed. After the loss of Viipuri the Finnish government approached the Soviet Union to inquire about conditions for peace. At this point the Soviets were doing well militarily and the reply was that Moscow would be ready to receive Finland’s delegation for unconditional surrender. Stalin probably felt the Finns would soon be crushed by his troops. The Finns on the other hand knew what surrendering to the Soviets would mean. They could not accept the brutal occupation that would inevitably follow. If the requirement was unconditional surrender there was no basis for discussion. The Finns did not reply to what they saw as an ultimatum. They decided to continue fighting and instead asked Germany for help – they were going to fight for their survival and did not have many choices. Joachim von Ribbentrop arrived in Helsinki on June 23 to discuss their conditions for increased support. President Ryti agreed to send a personal letter to Hitler asserting that Finland would continue to fight against the Soviet Union and no government nominated by him would sue for peace. The Germans gave, or continued to give aid in the way of weapons and also brought the 122nd Division and a 303rd Assault Gun Brigade (Stu-40) from Estonia to fight on Karelian isthmus. Perhaps the most significant impact came from Air Unit Kuhlmey which practically doubled the Finnish air power and achieved good results with their Ju-87 Stukas.

 

For two weeks following the loss of Viipuri the Soviets tried to push trough the VKT Line. It bent but did not break. The Leningrad Front troops started to meet increasing resistance by the Finns and their losses started to mount. They never reached the 1940 Winter War border.

 

The Soviets apparently thought that after Viipuri the Finns would retreat to the Salpa line and set their next offensive target there. The troops were to reach the Virojoki - Lappeenranta - Imatra level by June 26. The strong resistance immediately after Viipuri surprised them. Between June 20 – 24 all Soviet attacks were repelled at Tienhaara and in the area north-east of Viipuri. A second wave of attacks started on June 25 and the Leningrad Front troops achieved a breakthrough in Tali, but the Finnish 4th Army Corps caused them heavy casualties while retreating towards Ihantala. The Finns made numerous counterattacks and the battles raged continuously. By the time the front was in Ihantala the Soviets were exhausted and unable to start new major offensives, although intense fighting continued. At the beginning of July their advance had been stopped in the Ihantala area. The Soviets decided to try once more by attacking in the flanks. The 5th Army Corps reinforced with the German 122nd Division stopped their attempts to cross the Viipuri Bay on the west shore in early July, and at Vuosalmi the 2nd Division (now in the 3rd Army Corps) supported by Lagus and his tanks - the Panzer Division - had also stopped the enemy advance by mid-July. The troops dug in for defense everywhere on Karelian isthmus by mid-July. Soon after the Soviets started to move troops to the south, to fight the Germans in Estonia.


Ihantala area map
  Road from Tali to Portinhoikka 
Map of the Tali-Ihantala area. Tali in the lower right-hand corner, Ihantala up in the center. Portinhoikka road crossing to the left.
Viipuri is to the south-west. One  side of a square is about 2 km. 


The road from Tali towards the Portinhoikka road crossing, near Ihantala. From here the Soviets started their attack on June 25.

 

The day Viipuri was lost the 2nd Army Corps and Aunus Group troops started their retreat towards Laatokka-Karelia. On June 21 the Karelian Front troops started their attack both on Maaselkä isthmus and at River Syväri. The Aunus Group fought delaying until they reached the U Line around Loimola – Koirinoja in Laatokka-Karelia on July 10 and here they stopped. The battle for the U Line raged until the end of July but the Soviets could not achieve a breakthrough. The most intense fighting took place in the area around Lake Nietjärvi near Pitkäranta. The last battle of the Continuation War was fought around Ilomantsi, where the Finnish Group R (Raappana) isolated and surrounded two enemy divisions just east of the 1940 border. The divisions abandoned their heavy equipment and fled, after which the Finns dug in. The battle ended before mid-August.


U Line
Remains of the U Line at Nietjärvi, Laatokka-Karelia.

A new war in the trenches then ensued, lasting until the armistice in the beginning of September. President Ryti had resigned to make way for peace, Marshal Mannerheim was made the President on August 4 and discussions on peace were reopened. Stalin was now ready to talk without demanding capitulation. Now the 1940 borders and a breach with Germany would suffice as the basis for negotiation. Mannerheim suggested an armistice even before the negotiations and Stalin agreed. The Finns started the cease-fire on September 4, the Soviets a day later. The interim peace agreement was signed in Moscow on September 19. The war against the Finns had become too costly for Stalin who needed the men elsewhere, to fight the Germans. He could not fully achieve his objectives with the amount of troops he could afford to spend against the Finns and in the time he had to do it, so he had to drop the request for unconditional surrender. The Finnish Army moved behind the new borders intact. Finland saved  herself from occupation and the fate suffered by the countries overrun by the Red Army.


Bones  Church steps
Human bones and scrap metal found in Ihantala. All that's left of Ihantala Church - the steps.

 

As a condition for the armistice the Soviets demanded that Finland breaks her ties with Germany and requests the German troops to leave in a given time – or drives them away by force. For some of the Finnish troops there was a new war waiting – the war in Lapland against their ex-brothers-in-arms, the Germans.            

 

Ihantala monument
"1944 - Ihantala battles - honour to the heros"  in Finnish and Russian.

 

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