Jatkosota 1944: Finland at War (3)

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Jatkosota 1944:
Finland at War in 1944

Part Three: Lapin sota – the Campaign against Germany

By Scott Elaurant and Jyrki Saari

Part One... Part Two...

The terms of the armistice required Finland to expel or intern all troops of her former partner Germany in two weeks. This was difficult in the south, downright impossible in remote Lapland where the 200,000 men German 20th Mountain Army could not have left the country in two weeks if it had withdrawn at full speed, assuming the Germans had even wanted to do so. 

This situation led to the Lapin sota – the war in Lapland, against German troops remaining in Finland. Although much less than the Continuation War in intensity and number of troops involved, the Lapin sota still ran over seven months, included pitched battles, and cost the Finnish army 3940 casualties, of which 774 were KIA and 262 MIA by April 1945.

On 15 September, shortly before the deadline for German troops to leave Finland, German troops tried to invade Suursaari Island in the Gulf of Finland to secure their lines of retreat. The attempt failed with over 1000 German troops taken prisoner. It gave a perfect excuse to motivate Finnish troops to take arms against their former comrades in arms. 

At first Finnish troops were in no hurry to take up arms against their former “co-belligerent”. Much of the Finnish army was being moved behind the new border and it took time to pull even an adequate amount of troops out of the front line. In addition, the demobilisation of the army was supposed to start at the same time, as demanded by the Soviets. III Corps staff was sent north and the troops included the Panssari Division, 3rd Division, 6th Division, 11th Division, 15th Brigade and the Rajajääkäri Brigade. 6th Division and the Rajajääkäri Brigade were sent to Kajaani while the rest were sent to Oulu. The Finnish troops pursued at the same rate as the German 20th Mountain Army withdrew, avoiding combat. However, soon the Soviets were pressing Finland to take firmer military action and presented an ultimatum to the Finnish government on 30 September.

The commander of III Corps, General Siilasvuo carried out a daring plan. On 1 October the Finnish JR11 from 3rd Division was transported by ship to Tornio, a port town on the Finnish – Swedish border. They managed to surprise the Germans from Division Group Kräutler, captured a supply depot there, defeated the small garrison and cut the withdrawal route of German troops to Muonio. However, the attack stopped when Finnish troops found a considerable liquor store in the supply depot and started a victory celebration. The situation was rapidly brought under control, but the Germans still gained valuable time as the whole II Battalion and part of I Battalion was temporarily unfit for combat.

Lapin sota – the Campaign against Germany
Siilasvuo then shipped in the rest of 3rd Division infantry (JR53) and 1st Company of 1st Tank Battalion (T-26 tanks). Germans had also received reinforcements and counterattacked furiously with two Kampfgruppen, Kampfgruppe Steets (MG Ski Brigade Finland reinforced with Gebirgsjäger battalions) and Kampfgruppe Tornio (two battalions, one SS recon battalion and Pz.Abt 211). They took the initiative and pushed the Finns back a short distance along the roads to Muonio and Kemi. Only when 11th Division and the artillery of both divisions had been shipped in could the Finns regain initiative and press further, surrounding the MG Ski brigade. The battle of Tornio ended on 8 October when the surrounded German brigade broke off the encirclement with heavy losses. Kampfgruppe Tornio had already been ordered to withdraw on 7 October.
The Invasion of Tornio, Source: Sotatoimet p.290

Meanwhile 15th Brigade advancing from Oulu attacked Kemi. It tried to surround the two German battalions there but a German counterattack broke the encirclement and most escaped. Kemi was secured on 8 October. The Panssari Division and 6th Division had started to advance towards Rovaniemi on 1 October. To clear the command structure Siilasvuo combined the divisions of III Corps into two major groups, Group Lagus with Panssari Division and 6th Division and Group Pajari with 3rd and 11th Divisions.

In reprisal for the attacks, the German northern army adopted scorched earth tactics. Everything was booby-trapped, buildings were burned, roads were mined and destroyed and anything even resembling a bridge was blown up. With the arctic winter approaching and the need for shelter critical, this would prove a bitter blow to local civilians, who would suffer great hardship in the winter of 1944-45.

During the battles at Kemi and Tornio, Group Lagus, spearheaded by the Jääkäri Brigade, continued to advance towards Rovaniemi fighting German rearguards.

Group Pajari sent 11th Division towards Muonio to the north while 3rd Division and 15th Brigade were directed to Rovaniemi. However, many difficulties would beset the pursuers. The roads were few and had many unbridged creek crossings, and in any case all of the bridges had usually been destroyed by Germans, so that the Sturmi assault guns and many other vehicles with low clearance had to be left behind. Mines were everywhere and continued to cause casualties. Finally the difficult nature of the northern terrain asserted itself, making movement difficult, while the rocky slopes of northern hills made ideal blocking positions. Plentiful swamps and water obstacles made outflanking and going around destroyed road sections difficult. 

The battles with the withdrawing Germans usually followed the same frustrating pattern throughout the Lapland War. The Germans would set up a blocking position with a mobile rearguard of a couple of motorised infantry battalions supported by strong artillery and pioneers. The position was flanked by a river (the roads in Lapland usually ran parallel to one of the plentiful rivers) on one side and was extended as far into the wilderness as possible on the other. Furthermore, as the pursuing Finns were on foot it was easy to calculate the place of the blocking position so that the pursuers reached it in the evening. On the destroyed roads most of the artillery was usually left far behind so there was no choice but to try and go around the position.  Terrain of Northern Finland
Terrain of Northern Finland When the flanking force got to a threatening position during the night the Germans simply boarded their trucks and left to establish another position where the same game started all over again. Destroyed bridges were kept under artillery and rocket fire for as long as possible so that repairs started late. Combined with the destroyed and mined roads this meant that heavy equipment and supply columns were left far behind of the advancing infantry while the broken roads took a heavy toll on the already worn trucks.

At Portimojärvi Group Lagus met German defensive position built for protecting Rovaniemi. It was defended by Gebirgsjäger Regiment 218 from 7th Gebirgsjägerdivision, charged with keeping the Finns on the south side of River Kemi until at least 14 October.

Jääkäri Battalions 2, 3 and 4 were sent to outflank the German position from the west while Jääkäri Battalion 5 would advance to contact the defensive position. The Jääkäri Battalions managed to cut the road to Rovaniemi, but soon started to run low on ammunition as supply had to be carried through rough wilderness terrain. The Germans broke out to the north on 9 October. Group Lagus then continued to advance fighting the rearguards until the Germans withdrew to Rovaniemi and destroyed the bridges of River Kemi behind them.

Finnish troops were ordered to surround Rovaniemi to cut off the German troops there. The vanguard of Group Lagus crossed River Kemi east of Rovaniemi and cut the railway to Kemijärvi. They could not cross River Ounas between them and Rovaniemi as the western bank was heavily defended. The vanguard of Group Pajari, battle group Halsti, was ordered to outflank Rovaniemi from the northwest and cut the road to Muonio.

Advance to Rovaniemi, Source: Sotatoimet p.292
The outflanking succeeded and the battlegroup attacked into a German column on the march and cut the road on two places. However, as the Germans brought reinforcements from Rovaniemi ammunition once again started to run low and the battle group had to withdraw. Rovaniemi had been thoroughly destroyed and mined by the Germans.
Meanwhile 11th Division was advancing towards Muonio in the Tornio River valley. If Muonio could be occupied an important withdrawal route of Germans from Rovaniemi would be cut. The Germans knew this well enough and offered tough resistance. The Finns managed to outflank and surround the German rearguard a few times but the Germans always had sufficient strength to break out as the outflanking troops lacked both ammunition and artillery support.

After the battles at Rovaniemi were over 3rd Division was ordered towards Muonio as it was planned to catch the Germans between 11th and 3rd Division. 3rd Division had to cross the River Ounas and that delay meant it could not effectively tie down the retreating Germans. 
Advance to Rovaniemi, Source: Sotatoimet p.294

Muonio was occupied by 6. SS-Gebirgsjägerdivision “Nord” protecting the evacuation of a local supply base. 11th Division couldn’t break the defences and outflanking attempts only managed to trap elements of 6. SS. The Germans managed to break through the encirclements with minor losses. Muonio was thoroughly destroyed by the Germans. 3rd Division only reached Muonio when the Battle was effectively over and the Germans had disengaged.

Meanwhile Group Lagus pressed after German troops retreating north-east on the Arctic Sea Road towards North Cape via Sodankylä and Ivalo. The Finnish high command planned to bring in more troops but the Soviets, in a typical fashion, refused to allow the demobilisation schedule to be slowed, instead demanding that the pursuing troops start demobilising as well. Thus, a few days later 6th Division was disbanded which left only the Panssari Division, itself weakened by the demobilisation, to continue. The Division, in practice the weakened Jääkäri Brigade as tanks had been left far behind on the mined and destroyed roads, pushed on slowed by weather, mines, German demolition works, and battles with the German rearguard. At Vuotso the Jääkäri Birgade ran into a temporary blocking position, which delayed the advance until the Germans disengaged in 25 October.

South of Ivalo German forces had prepared strong defensive line with fortified positions, the so-called Schutzwall, defended by the German 169. Infanteriedivision. The positions were almost impossible to outflank in the terrain and the nearly full-strength and well-supplied division was more than a match for the tired and badly understrength Jääkäri Brigade, where each battalion was about company sized due to casualties and forced demobilisation.

Several attempts to outflank the position failed and frontal assault without adequate artillery support was out of the question. 169. Infanteriedivision disengaged on 31 October. The Brigade soldiered on, battling German rearguards, and arrived to Ivalo on 13 November as Germans were withdrawing. The last rearguard of Grenadier Regiment 379 left Finland in 18 November.

After the Muonio battle 3rd Division was ordered to form a new infantry regiment, JR 1, around the cadre of JR 11. The division was then disbanded as demanded by the demobilisation.

Finnish T-26 tank

11th Division similarly formed JR 3 around the cadre of JR 8. The new regiments only had two battalions each. In addition, the battalions had fewer men than a wartime battalion. These meagre troops were combined with artillery and support troops to form a new 1st Division, which then continued after the Germans. The Germans had several well fortified blocking positions and withdrew systematically through Kaaresuvanto and Kilpisjärvi until on 25 April, 1945, they left Finland, leaving their minefields as a going away present. Ten days later Germany surrendered to the Allies. 

Glossary of Finnisn terms for the Maps

A = Armeija = Army
AK = Armeijakunta = Corps
AKE = Armeijakunnan Esikunta = Corps HQ
Aun.R. = Aunuksen Ryhmä = Group of Aunus
Er.P. = Erillinen Pataljoona = Separate Battalion
ISuom.RPr. = Itä-Suomenlahden Rannikkoprikaati = Coastal (defense) Brigade of Eastern Finland
JR = Jalkaväkirykmentti = Infantry Regiment
Ka.AK = Kaartinarmeijakunta = Guards Corps
KaJoKE = Kannaksen Joukkojen Komentajan Esikunta = HQ of the commander in chief of Isthmus troops
Kan.R. = Kannaksen Ryhmä = Group of (Karelian) Isthmus
Karjalan Rintama = Karelian Front
Laatokka = Lake Ladoga
Laat.RPr. = Laatokan Rannikkoprikaati = Coastal (defense) Brigade of Lake Ladoga
Leningradin Rintama = Leningrad Front
Merijv.Pr = Merijalkaväkiprikaati = Marine Brigade
Olhavan Rintama = Olkhov Front
Os. = Osasto = Detachment
Osia = Elements (for example, osia 4.D = elements, 4th Division)
Pohjoinen Armeijaryhmä = Army Group North
Peipsjärvi = Lake Peipus
Pr. = Prikaati = Brigade
Ps.D. = Panssaridivisioona = Armoured Division
Ps.Pr. = Panssariprikaati = Armored Brigade
PSS asema = PSS Line
Pääasema = Frontline (lit. main position)
Päämaja = Supreme HQ
RajaJPr. = Rajajääkäriprikaati = Frontier/Border Jäger Brigade
RTR = Rannikkotykistörykmentti = Coastal Artillery Regiment
Rv.Pr = Ratsuväkiprikaati = Cavalry Brigade
Ryhmä = Group
Salpa-Asema = Salpa Line
Suomenlahti = Gulf of Finland
U-Asema = U Line
Viipurinlahti = Bay of Viipuri
VKT-Asema = VKT Line
VT-Asema = VT Line
Vuor.A = Vuoristoarmeija = Mountain Army
Vuor.AK = Vuoristoarmeijakunta = Mountain Corps
Vuor.D. = Vuoristodivisioona = Mountain Division
Ääninen = Lake Onega
Äänislinna = Petrozavodsk
Ään.RPr. = Äänisen Rannikkoprikaati = Coastal (defense) Brigade of Lake Onega

Lapin Sota Finns

Lapin Sota Finns In Flames Of War Digital

Three Digital Exclusive briefings let you field the Finns in the final fighting from September 1944 to April 1945, as they were forced to take up arms against their former allies.

  • Jalkaväkikomppania
  • Jääkärikomppania
  • Pioneerikomppania

Last Updated On Wednesday, March 2, 2016 by James at Battlefront