A Brief History of Finland in WWII

Finnish coat-of-arms

A Brief History of Finland in WWII

Winter War

The Finnish Army first came to world attention in 1939 in the famous Winter War or Talvisota, when it faced an invasion by a Soviet Army of nearly one million men. The invasion had followed failed peace talks in 1939 when Stalin had demanded Finland cede key territory, bases and mines. Facing a massive Soviet army, the Finnish defender’s fought a heroic David vs. Goliath struggle for four months. 

White Death

During one of the harshest winter’s seen in the Arctic Circle for a hundred years, the brave and stoic defenders used the –30oC to –40oC temperatures to advantage as they first stopped and then destroyed attacking Soviet columns.

They skilfully used the lakes and heavily forested terrain of their homeland to channel their attackers vastly superior numbers. The Finns earned a reputation as fearless and skilled fighters. But promised Allied aid did not arrive in time to prevent defeat.   

A second Soviet offensive finally forced Finland to sue for peace. Still, as one Soviet general is reported to have said ‘we won nearly enough land to bury our dead’. 

Finns on Ski patrol
Finnish heavy machine-gun team

Uneasy Peace

Finland had defended courageously and inflicted losses of over 250,000 on the Soviet Army. Yet many Finns felt aggrieved by the outcome of the Winter War and the harsh treaty conditions imposed on them by the Soviets. The loss of Viipuri and Finnish territory in Karelia saw about 400,000 Finns displaced from their homes.

Continued Soviet meddling in Finnish affairs indicated Stalin still had a desire to subjugate Finland and the Western Allies were increasingly siding with the Soviet Union against Germany, many considered a renewed invasion by the Russians to be inevitable. For the whole of 1940 and 1941, the fully-mobilised Finnish Army remained on duty and prepared for a second invasion. 

Against this backdrop Germany began to court the Finnish Government, offering modern arms in return for transition rights for Wehrmacht troops through Finland to reinforce its army in Norway. 

Feeling alone and vulnerable, Finland grasped this offered straw, hoping that the presence of German troops would dissuade the Russians from any hasty actions.

Continuation War

On 22 June 1941 Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. This included attacks by Germany made from Finnish territory in a drive to capture the vital Soviet seaport of Murmansk. Finland was aware of these attacks and sanctioned the use of their territory but did not actually declare war on the Soviets themselves.

Finns pose for a photo

This state of semi-peace was short lived, shattered by the drone of Soviet bombers as they sought retribution on the cities in northern Finland. 

On 25 June 1941 Finnish President Risto Ryti informed his people in a speech from parliament that a state of war existed between Finland and the Soviet Union although Finland did not sign a formal alliance with Germany. For the Finns this struggle became known as the Continuation War or Jatkosota, reflecting their view that it was part of a continuing struggle for national survival. Britain declared war on Finland whilst America did not but neither country took part in hostilities against Finland.

Mannerheim (left) and Hitler (right)

Operation Silver Fox (Silberfuchs)

The first fighting was Operation Silberfuchs in the far north involving the German Mountain Corps (2nd and 3rd Mountain Divisions). It made a successful attack to recapture the Petsamo nickel mines. Pushing towards Murmansk it was stopped on the Litsa River by Soviet defence and a long supply line.

Further south at Salla the German 36th Corps, consisting of SS-Nord Division, 69th Division, Panzer Battalion 40 and 211, and the Finnish 6th Division, tried to cut the railway line to Murmansk but the attempt soon stalled.

Finnish troops remained under Finnish command and cooperation between the two forces was poor. The Finnish 3rd Division then attacked and reached Kestenga but then it to was stopped.

Not wishing to force the hand of the Western Allies, the Finnish High Command issued secret orders to halt the offensive. By September 1941 it had been abandoned.

Karelian Isthmus Offensive

On 30 June 1941 the veteran Finnish forces moved onto the offensive in the south, advancing to sweep their old enemy from the Karelian Isthmus. This narrow strip of land between Leningrad and Finland, a key defensive position, had been Finnish territory before the Winter War.

The Isthmus had been the scene of the heaviest fighting in the Winter War and three Finnish Corps attacked it, including the 2nd, 4th, 8th, 10th, 12th, 15th and 18th Divisions. A pincer offensive was launched which retook Viipuri by the end of August, trapping three Soviet divisions at Porlammi.

Finn in summer uniform
Covering a field with a Maxim HMG

By December 1941 Finnish forces had regained all of the Isthmus and dug in on a new defensive line. The Germans wanted them to continue and capture Leningrad, but they refused.

East Karelia Offensive

In July 1941 he Finnish Commander, Marshal Mannerheim, launched what was to become Finland’s most successful offensive of the war—the drive to take back the rich farming area of Karelia east of Lake Ladoga. This involved two corps including the Finnish 1st, 5th 6th, 11th, and 14th Divisions, and the German 163rd Division in Group Oivonen. Most of the captured Soviet tanks were combined with 1st Jääkäri Brigade into Group Lagus—the future Finnish Panssari Division—to lead the attack.

The 5th Division quickly achieved a break through at Korpiselkä on 10 July. The offensive soon recaptured the Finnish town of Sortavala and pressed on, trapping two Soviet Divisions against Lake Ladoga. By the end of September 1941 it had recovered all lost Finnish territory. However, Marshal Mannerheim ordered the offensive to capture the rest of Soviet East Karelia. This would result in a shorter, more defensible front line. In October the 4th and 8th Divisions were transferred from the Karelian Isthmus to reinforce the advance. The spearhead swung south and within three days Group Lagus reached a secure defensive position along the Syväri (Svir) River between Lake Ladoga and Lake Onega. Finns geared up for combat
Petroskoi on the shores of Lake Onega fell on 1 October 1941. On Independence Day, 6 December 1941, the areas lost in the Winter War were declared as rejoined to Finland and the refugees displaced by the Winter War began the slow repopulation of their homes. The Finnish Army had lost 26,000 men recovering their lands.
Clearing mines

Shifting to Defence

Not wishing to incur the wrath of the United States, Marshal Mannerheim and President Ryti decided not to continue the offensive to the White Sea, leaving the vital supply port of Archangelsk in Soviet hands and ensuring the continued flow of American and British lend-lease equipment to the Red Army. Battles continued until January 1942 to mop up the last pockets of Soviet resistance, but by then the front line was largely set. Strong defensive lines of field fortifications and earthworks were established across the Karelian Isthmus, along the Syväri river running between the southern ends of Lake Ladoga and Lake Onega and across the Maaselkä Isthmus north of Lake Onega. Further north the line was thinly held by ski patrols.

With the war lasting longer than anticipated the country began to feel the shortage of manpower and many of the older generation of soldiers were released from active service to return to important home front tasks like farming and industry. Five divisions were disbanded and only enough men for defence were kept in the line. 

Soviet Counterattacks

Early in 1942 the Soviet Union launched the first of several counterattacks, striking with several divisions and naval brigades at the eastern-most part of the Finnish lines in the area of Kriv on the Maaselkä Isthmus. The Finnish 3rd Brigade was quickly moved from their position on the Karelian Isthmus to reinforce the line and the Soviet offensive driven back, suffering heavy losses.

In early January 1942 the Red Army took Suursaari Island in the Gulf of Finland. Major General Aaro Pajarit’s Combat Unit P launched a surprise attack across the ice to retake the island in March. Strongly supported by the Finnish Air Force, they were successful.
On several occasions in early January the Soviets attempted to establish a foothold on the western side of the White Sea Canal north of Lake Onega and to retake the towns of Poventsa and Karhumäki. They met strong resistance from the veteran Finnish 1st Jääkäri Brigade, who where able to repulse the attacking force of two rifle regiments and a ski brigade. The Soviets suffered heavy losses leading the Finns to dub the area Tapponiemi (Slaughter Cape).
Holding the line The largest Soviet offensives occurred in April 1942. At the Syväri River three Soviet corps, including large formations of KV-1 tanks, breached the defences. However a Finnish counterattack by four divisions, including the 3rd and 6th Panssari Komppania, was highly successful. The Soviet spearhead was cut off and destroyed. By June 1942 the defensive line on the Syväri River had been re-established. Meanwhile at Kestenga in the north several Soviet divisions attacked the Finno-German corps. They made little progress in the rugged terrain, and the attack soon stalled.
During July the fiercest battle on the Karelian Isthmus occurred over the possession of Sevastopol, a Finnish base located in the sector controlled by the 7th Infantry Regiment. Both sides suffered losses but the Finn defence held firm. About this time a brigade of Soviet partisans infiltrated behind the Finnish lines under cover provided by the heavy forests in the area. Within a few days the Finns had killed or captured much of this brigade with relatively little damage being done.

For the remainder of 1942 and 1943 there were no large-scale operations conducted and the area settled down to relative quiet. In the south, from Lake Onega to the Karelian Isthmus, both sides adopted tactics of static trench warfare. However in the north the long frontier, forests and lack of roads all combined to make trench lines impractical. Borders were patrolled regularly and there were many small-scale skirmishes. Reconnaissance operations continued to capture prisoners for intelligence or to scout defensive positions. A number of small scale raids captured strategic features. Several small bases changed hands frequently during this time. Attacks on village populations caused deep resentment among the Finns. Soviet and Finnish patrols continued to probe the lines and in eastern Karelia, where the earthworks gave way to expanses of wooded wilderness.
Finns with German made PaK 38 anti-tank gun
Finnish Sturmi (StuG III G) Securing Peace

As the war dragged on and Germany’s fortunes waned, Finland sought peace. However, Stalin demanded unconditional surrender, a price Finland was not prepared to pay. As a result of the negotiations, Germany’s support for Finland also soured and Hitler withdrew crucial arms supplies.
In June 1944, the Soviets started an all-out offensive with two Guards Tank Armies, quickly smashing through the Finnish defensive lines on the Karelian Isthmus.

Marshal Mannerheim made a personal plea to Hitler who relented and rushed vital anti-tank weapons to the front line. However, the Soviet advance continued until, in forests north of Viipuri, the two armies clashed in the mighty battle of Tali-Ihantala, the largest ever seen on Nordic soil.

After a week of intense and bloody fighting the Soviet advance was halted by Finnish troops using new German artillery, assault guns and Panzerfaust rockets. Further fierce battles at Viipurinlahti, Vuosalmi, Siiranmäki and Äyräpää, also stopped Soviet attacks. Then the Red Army then turned its attention to  Poland and the Balkans and the front once more stabilised. However, Finland was weary of the war and Stalin needed to free up his forces, so peace was negotiated.

Finns with Panzerfausts
The war with the Soviet Union was over. Finland had secured its independence.

Last Updated On Tuesday, January 11, 2022 by Wayne at Battlefront