Finnish Flag Jatkosota 1944:
Finland at War in 1944

By Scott Elaurant and Jyrki Saari

The Finnish Army became famous for its epic defence against Soviet invasion in the Winter War (Talvisota). Then in the Continuation War (Jatkosota) in 1941-42 it recaptured the lost Finnish territory, settling down to defend it over the next two years.

In the summer of 1944 Finland once again faces a massive Soviet invasion. This series of articles describes the Finnish army in the fighting of 1944 and 1945.

In most of the maps the terms are in Finnish. Please refer to the Glossary section for translation at the bottom of the page. Finnish troops are marked in blue, Soviet troops in red and German troops in grey.

Mid War History... 

Part One: The Soviet Attack on the Karelian Isthmus

“In the evening we were eight regimental commanders on the north shore of the river, I and seven Russian. Next morning I was the only one still alive”,
Colonel Adolf Ehrnrooth, commander of Jalkaväkirykmentti 7 (Infantry Regiment 7), 2nd Division, at defence of Vuoksi River, July 1944.

Strategic Position in 1944
After the spring battles of 1942 the Finnish troops dug in and the routine of positional warfare set in for the next two years. While the Finnish front was largely inactive the strategic position of Finland had deteriorated as the Germans first suffered the catastrophic defeat at Stalingrad and then lost initiative altogether in the battle of Kursk. However, the most serious setback from the Finnish point of view was when General Govorov lifted the siege of Leningrad in January 1944. While never complete the siege had effectively prevented any large-scale offensive preparations by the Soviets. Now the Red Army could once more mount offensives against Finland through the shortest route.

Withdrawal of Army Group North to Narva, Source: Sotatoimet p. 206
The Karelian Isthmus, the narrow strip of land between Finland and Leningrad, offered the shortest and best route to the Finnish heartland. It was the main front in the Winter War, although the Mannerheim Line defences had been destroyed during the Soviet occupation in 1940. In the Continuation War it had been of secondary status after the Finnish summer 1941 attack had pushed the Soviets back to Leningrad and Germans almost cut off the city from south. By 1944 only four Finnish divisions and two brigades were in the Karelian Isthmus. As the war dragged on the troops in many places neglected further reinforcing of the frontline positions and concentrated more and more on getting comfortable. Some commanders strove to keep their men active, but many others did not.
Finnish Defences

Finland had begun making peace offers to the Soviet Union in late 1943. However, the conditions set by Stalin were considered impossible; it was calculated the demanded war reparations alone would have ruined the Finnish economy. Upon hearing of the negotiations Hitler ordered the cessation of trade with Finland, so grain and weapons shipments were stopped. Stalin on the other hand, started to demand unconditional surrender.

Stalin next turned to an aerial terror campaign, with sustained bombing raids of Helsinki starting in February 1944. But improved Finnish anti-aircraft defence, skilled pilots, and good deception measures, saw this fail. In Helsinki, for example, only 4.8% of the bombs dropped hit the city itself.

Even so, the Finnish high command were guilty of wishful thinking and did not believe the Soviets would make another ground attack and thought they would concentrate on Germany instead. Even in the beginning of summer 1944 the official line of the supreme HQ was that an assault is “possible but not likely”.

Soviet Offensive Plan
In fact, the Soviets were planning a massive offensive, their “fourth strategic strike” of 1944, to deal with Finland once and for all. Four Soviet armies would be used. On the Karelian Isthmus the Leningrad Front with the Soviet 20th and 23rd armies under General Govorov would launch the main attack (1). In Eastern Karelia the Karelian Front under General Meretskov with the Soviet 7th and 32nd armies would then launch an attack (2), hoping to trap the Finnish forces in Karelia. In both cases the objective was to surround and destroy the main part of Finnish forces. Once these two forces had joined, they would press on to break the Finnish secondary defence lines on the 1941 border (3). In the north the Soviet 26th Army would launch a series of local attacks to break through from Kiestenki to Oulu (4). If the Finns did not surrender the 20th Army would press on to occupy Helsinki (5), which was to be done by 15 July.

By June 1944 the Soviets had massed considerable forces on the Karelian Isthmus (well over 10% of their total military strength!) under the command of army General Leonid Govorov, an expert in assault warfare, who had commanded Soviet forces during much of the siege of Leningrad. The 21st Army included 30th Guards Corps as well as 97th, 108th, 109th and 110th Corps with 15 divisions. The 23rd Army had 6th, 98th and 115th Corps, with 9 divisions.

Soviet offensive plan for summer 1944
In addition there were 8 Tank Regiments, 4 Tank Brigades and 9 Assault-Gun Regiments, a total of 628 tanks and assault-guns. During the fighting a further 3 Tank Regiments, 1 Tank Brigade and 2 Assault-Gun Regiments were committed, or an additional 224 tanks and Assault-Guns. The total of 852 armoured fighting vehicles included IS-2, ISU-122, ISU-152 assault guns and predominantly T34 and T-70 tanks. Two artillery divisions from the Stavka Reserve plus divisional guns meant there were some 2851 artillery pieces and mortars in the Karelian Isthmus. The ground forces were supported by over 1000 aircraft from the Soviet 13th Air Army. Added to this, there were another four corps, and sixteen divisions (though less than half the total of tanks), with the 7th and 32nd Armies in Eastern Karelia.

The Karelian Isthmus Assault
The Finnish defences were planned in several successive lines. The front line from 1941-44 is shown below in blue, the secondary Vammelsuu-Taipale (VT) Line in red, the final Viipuri - Kuparsaari - Taipale (VKT) Line in green and the Winter War Mannerheim Line (now dismantled) in black.

As the focus of the fortification efforts had been north of Lake Ladoga only the front line was fully fortified on the Karelian Isthmus. However it lacked depth and the fortifications had been allowed to deteriorate so that their worth in places was questionable. The VT line included strong fortifications but also significant “holes” where fortification work had barely begun. The VKT line existed mostly on paper and in many places not even preliminary work had begun. 

Finnish defensive lines in the Karelian Isthmus
Finnish Sturmi The Finnish frontline was manned by two corps, III AK (15th Division and 19th Brigade) and IV AK (10th and 2nd Divisions; 10th Division having replaced 18th from the frontline). The Cavalry Brigade (Rv.Pr.), 3rd Division (transferred from Lapland), 18th Division and Panssaridivisioona (Armoured Division, transferred from East Karelia) were in reserve in the VT-line or further behind.

After the 1942 reorganisation of the Finnish Army each division now had two infantry regiments of three battalions and a separate infantry battalion instead of three full regiments. Each division thus had seven battalions to man a quarter of the 60km frontline with the sector for each battalion 3km wide in average. The western end of the line (10th Division) was especially vulnerable, due to the more open terrain that offered less cover and favoured tanks. This did not go unnoticed by Govorov. By contrast Soviet preparations were thorough; nothing was left to chance.

Aerial reconnaissance was conducted frequently, artillery was ranged in, and trenches dug towards Finnish positions. Captured Soviet maps later showed they knew the position of Finnish defences as well as Finns themselves.

The storm broke on 9 June in the Valkeasaari (western) sector of 10th Division. Hundreds of planes from Soviet 13th Air Army bombarded Finnish positions. The Soviets had 300 guns firing per kilometre and they fired over 80,000 rounds on the Karelian Isthmus that day. Badly maintained positions dug in sandy terrain collapsed and minefields exploded.  

The initial assaults were repulsed, but these were just probes, and in the evening a new assault was launched with greater force. The Soviets managed several break-ins into Finnish positions, the most serious about a kilometre wide and deep, in the sector of Jalkaväkirykmentti 1(JR1). Counterattacks were unable to dislodge the Soviets and regain the frontline. There was no breakthrough, but the 10th Division, including all local reserves, was now fully committed to battle. Officer casualties had been extremely heavy, and all telephone connections were cut from battalion level down.
On the morning of 10 June the Soviet "fourth strategic strike" was truly started by the 21st Army. 63rd Guards Division (30th Guards Corps) renewed its attack after an even heavier bombardment than the previous day. The resistance of JR1 collapsed. The majority of the regiment broke and retreated in complete disarray, spreading panic to the rear lines. Artillery was overrun as some guns fired at the attackers over open sights. The other infantry regiment of 10th Division, JR58, had to retreat as well when its flank was exposed which, in turn, exposed the flank of 2nd Division.

Leningrad Front Attack, Source: Sotatoimet p.222
Reserves were committed but it was too little too late. While these troops were advancing towards the frontline they met the Soviet armoured spearhead. Vastly outnumbered and without effective anti-tank cover they had to withdraw as well.
Finnish anti-aircraft position Elsewhere in the line other divisions had initially held their positions although against much weaker attacks. Even so, in the evening Finnish High command decided the front line was lost and there was not sufficient strength to take it back. Withdrawal to the VT-line was authorised and 3rd and 18th divisions from operational reserve were ordered to take positions there. A delaying action was fought in front of the VT-line to give time to man the defences. Jääkäriprikaati (JPR – Light Infantry Brigade) of the Panssaridivisioona as well as 2nd Division performed this task very well although JPR suffered heavy casualties when it was ordered to counterattack without artillery support due to unclear command structure.
Breaking the VT Line
On 13 June the Soviets began attacking the VT line at Kuuterselkä and Siiranmäki. At Siiranmäki reinforced JR7 from 2nd Division was attacked by first two and then a third Soviet division, but fought an epic defence stopping all attacks in spite of heavy casualties and murderous artillery fire. All three Soviet divisions were repulsed with heavy losses and Soviets were prevented from turning the flank of III Corps.

However, at Kuuterselkä village Govorov concentrated on the weakest point in the Finnish lines. He feinted a strong attack towards Kivennapa then threw a reinforced Corps at Kuuterselkä. The single reinforced company from II Battalion/JR53 defending the village itself was overwhelmed and Soviets broke through again, the 1st Tank Brigade leading the way. The Soviets then turned south and nearly overran the Finnish Cavalry Brigade headquarters, which had to relocate hastily. This broke communications with the cavalry regiments and when Soviet tanks rampaged through their rear area the whole brigade retreated, tearing open the whole Finnish front from Kuuterselkä to the Gulf of Finland.

2nd and 3rd Division battles, 14-15 June, Source: Sotatoimet p.228
Sturmi Assault Guns head to the front At the same time Detachment Puroma from the Panssaridivisioona mounted a counterattack on the Soviet spearhead at Kuuterselkä. The detachment consisted of the Jääkariprikaati (less JP5), the Panssarijääkäri Battalion (less 6th Gun Company) (Armoured Light Infantry), 1st Company of the Rynnäkkötykki Battalion (Assault Gun Battalion, Sturmi Stu40 G), and an armoured anti-aircraft battery. The detachment was supported by five battalions of artillery, but radio communications failed and little fire could be brought on after the preparatory bombardment. The attack met with initial success, blunting the tip of the Soviet spearhead and pushing it back, but it could not recapture the Kuuterselkä village itself where the Soviets had already created a strong defence.
The Jääkari Brigade itself suffered heavy casualties and lacked the strength to push on without adequate artillery support. In any case the retreat of the Cavalry Brigade had changed the whole situation and the attack had to be abandoned. The counterattack was not completely in vain, though, as it delayed the Soviet advance by forcing them to regroup and bought valuable time. It prevented the critical situation caused by the retreat of the Cavalry Brigade from turning into a full-blown catastrophe.

Withdrawal to VKT line and the loss of Viipuri
The Finnish army in the Isthmus now staged a fighting withdrawal to the VKT (Viipuri-Kuparsaari -Taipale) line. The newly arrived 3rd Brigade was now available to reinforce the right wing of IV Corps. Even the badly mauled 10th Division was ordered back into action there. On the right wing the situation was serious as the Cavalry Brigade, having lost most of its heavy equipment in the hasty withdrawal, was without adequate anti-tank and artillery support and was continuously pushed back. The 10th Division had still not recovered (JR1 had practically no combat value) and gave ground rather too easily forcing 3rd Brigade to withdraw as well. The Panssaridivisioona counterattacked the Soviet spearheads, buying time for the newly arrived 4th Division to get into position and plug a dangerous hole in the line between the left wing of 3rd Brigade and Perkjärvi. The Panssaridivisioona was then withdrawn and moved behind 10th Division to shore up the crumbling defences there.

By 20 June the Soviet spearheads had reached the VKT line. 

Retreat to the VKT-Line, Source: Sotatoimet p.232

The VKT line itself was a combination of a strong natural position, and a few as yet partially constructed defences. In the east more than half of its length ran along the River Vuoksi, which was wide, unfrozen and difficult to cross in the summer. In the west the VKT line was similarly partly finished to the coast at the city of Viipuri, but without the benefit of a wide water obstacle. In fact the line followed almost exactly the course of the final Finnish defence line in Winter War.

On the western end of the line Viipuri, Finland’s third largest city, was defended by 20th Brigade, which had been hastily moved from eastern Karelia and had only just arrived to take positions there on 19 June. Govorov lost no time and attacked Viipuri in strength, the main objective of the first phase of the Soviet assault. The infantry were supported by tanks, including T34s and lend-lease Churchills.

Knocked out BT42 assault gun The defending 20th Brigade was inexperienced, not familiar with the position, and had only light anti-tank guns for support against Soviet armour.  Worse, ammunition for both artillery and small arms was running low and re-supply from IV Corps was delayed by the bureaucratically minded Corps artillery commander. The obsolete BT-42 assault guns of Er.Ps.K (Erillinen Panssari Komppania - Separate Armour Company) counterattacked but were ineffective against the T34 tanks. Most were lost and the company commander, Ltn. Sippel, was killed in action. The loss of Viipuri has probably been debated more than any other single incident in the Finnish war history. Reasons are manyfold but the fact remains that 20th Brigade withdrew almost without a fight and Viipuri was lost in a single day, on 20 June.
Stalin had reason to be pleased. Two of the three Finnish defence lines had been breached. Viipuri was captured on schedule and the Soviets had won a victory of great propaganda value. As a reward for the progress, General Govorov was promoted to Marshal of the Soviet Union. On the Finnish side the loss of Viipuri was a great blow to morale as not even in the Winter War had the “Lock of the isthmus” been captured. Yet even for the Soviets not all had gone according to plan. Although the 10th Division and Cavalry Brigade were badly mauled (JR1 had practically lost all fighting value) and many other units had suffered heavy casualties no Finnish unit of even battalion size had been cut off or destroyed. The Finnish army was still very much in the fight.
303. Sturmgeschütz Brigade StuG III G Help Comes from Two Directions
Help was beginning to arrive. Two more divisions (6th and 11th) were on the way to reinforce defences in the Karelian Isthmus. German assistance was by now also significant. Finland had appealed to Germany for military aid in mid-June to help prolong the defence. Although Finnish-German relations were by now strained, Marshall Mannerheim’s personal request to Hitler saw the renewal of trade, issuing to infantry of more anti-tank weapons - panzerfaust (panssarinyrkki) and panzerschreck (panssarikauhu) – and more ammunition, tanks and assault guns.

The German 122. Infanteriedivision, 303. Sturmgeschütz Brigade (Assault Gun Brigade of about battalion strength), and, most importantly, Air Group Kuhlmey were temporarily transferred to Finland. In return to German demands for political guarantees Finnish President Risto Ryti agreed he would not sign a separate peace treaty with the Soviet Union. As a result the USA broke all diplomatic relations with Finland, while Soviet propaganda (ably aided by the Swedish press) trumpeted about Finland becoming a servant of Hitler.

Battle of Tali - Ihantala
After the loss of Viipuri the Soviet 21st Army had immediately tried to break through the positions of 17th Division at Tienhaara north of the Gulf of Viipuri. JR61 stopped all of these attacks during the period of 21 to 23 June. The Soviet plan also called for 21st Army to press on to Lappeenranta and Lake Saimaa around the Gulf of Viipuri through the village of Tali, just north east of Viipuri. The 23rd Army would press on to Imatra and turn north east to surround III Corps. This would set the scene for the largest battle ever fought in Scandinavia.

From Tali north a stretch of open country offered the best route for armour to advance into Finland. The Soviets committed all 15 divisions of 21st Army to the attack. On the Finnish side the 3rd, 4th, 6th, 18th and Panssari divisions as well as 3rd Brigade were used, with 11th Division arriving later as reinforcements. Almost half the Finnish artillery was available – over 250 guns - and the Finnish Air Force gave valuable support. German assistance included 303. Sturmgeschütz Brigade and most importantly, Air Group Kulhmey with fighters, Stukas and FW190 fighter bombers. Group Kuhlmey doubled the air strike capability available to the Finns in the Karelian Isthmus. Of a total of 2000 tons of bombs dropped on Soviet forces in the battle Group Kuhlmey dropped nearly half.

The isthmus between the Gulf of Viipuri and the Vuoksi River was defended by the Finnish 3rd Brigade and 18th Division. The Soviet 97th and 109th Corps had pushed both back a couple of kilometres, but had not achieved a breakthrough yet.

Armoured Division counterattack, Source: Sotatoimet p.244
The new Soviet attack, spearheaded by the rested 30th Guards Corps, started on 25 June, with massive artillery and air bombardments of the Finnish positions. During the morning 18th Division was pushed back along the whole front and 30th Guards corps achieved two breakthroughs on both sides of Leitimojärvi (Lake Leitimo). 3rd Brigade on the right flank of 18th Division was attacked by the 97th Corps but managed to prevent a breakthrough, although it was pushed back several kilometres as well. The southern armoured spearhead advanced through Portinhoikka crossroads as far as Juustilankangas before it was first stopped and then pushed back to within a kilometre of its starting line by a counterattack by the Panssaridivisioona. The northern spearhead, however, continued to advance towards the Portihoikka-Ihantala road pushing back JR6 and JR48.
Armoured Division counterattack 27 June, Source: Sotatoimet p.246

On 26 June Maj.Gen Lagus (Commander of the Panssaridivisioona) instead of waiting for reinforcements, decided to try an immediate counterattack with the forces at his disposal against the remaining spearhead. The Soviets, however, started a counterattack themselves and pushed forward, cutting the Portinhoikka-Ihantala road at Mutala.

By 27 June the newly arrived JR50 (11th Division) replaced the Jääkäriprikaati in the front line, freeing it to participate in another counterattack against the Soviet spearhead. Lagus formed a battle group from four battalions of 18th Division supported by a few Sturmi (StuG III assault guns) and T-26 tanks under the command of Col. Björkman. The plan was for Detachment Björkman to attack the Soviet spearhead from the north east while the reinforced Jääkäriprikaati attacked from the south west and the remaining troops of 18th Division, supported by a company from the German 303. Sturmgeschütz Brigade, attacked from the north. By this time the Jääkäriprikaati had been badly depleted from near continuous fighting and 18th Division had likewise suffered many casualties.

The battalions could on average muster a little over two hundred men each. Detachment Björkman and the Jääkäriprikaati managed to advance within a kilometre of each other, but there was not sufficient strength left to cut off the Soviet spearhead.

On 28 June, while the Finns were preparing to bring in their last available troops to once more continue the attack, the 30th Guards Corps restarted their offensive and pressed simultaneously against Detachment Björkman and Jääkäriprikaati. The tired and depleted Finnish units could not stop the attack and were forced to retreat. 

Finnish T-26 tank
At the same time 108th Corps managed to push back JR50, threatening the right flank of the Jääkäriprikaati. As it was clearly not possible to continue the attack and the initiative had switched to Soviets, the commander and chief of the Karelian Isthmus, Lt.Gen. Lennart Oesch, ordered the troops on 29 June to pull back to Ihantala and Vakkila where the newly arrived 6th Division had taken positions. Fighting on 29 June was fierce and continued well into the night. The troops of 21st Army attacked furiously and the Finns, in turn, made local counterattacks and established several blocking positions to slow down the advance of the Soviets. By 30 June the 21st Army had reached the new Finnish defensive line. 18th Division took position between 6th Division and 3rd Brigade while 11th Division and Panssaridivisioona were put in reserve behind the line. Even though, by now, the Soviets had suffered significant casualties themselves they lost no time in attacking the new defensive line. On 30 June they managed several break-ins to the positions all over the line yet all were retaken by counterattacks supported by strong Finnish artillery fire. Still, fierce battles continued as the Soviets tried to force a breakthrough.
Soviet attack stopped at Ihantala, Source: Sotatoimet p.250 By now the Finnish artillery was starting to play a key role in stopping the attacks. A flexible and efficient command system and fire control method made it possible to concentrate fire from the artillery regiments of several different Divisions as well as separate battalions onto a single target. Furthermore, direct cooperation with mortars was possible. Finnish signals intelligence intercepted a Soviet radio message giving the exact time and place for the next attack by 63rd Division planned for 3 July. Minutes before the scheduled start 20 battalions of Finnish guns saturated the Soviet start area with shells, followed by attacks by Group Kuhlmey and the Finnish Air Force. This disordered the attack. After regrouping the remaining Soviet forces tried again and managed a breakthrough that was restored by a Finnish counterattack. On 4 July another radio message was intercepted giving the time and place for next attack. This time the attack was stopped on its tracks by artillery fire and air attacks. On 6 July a final Soviet attack pushed back the Finnish 6th Division, but a counterattack again restored the situation. After 9 July Soviet attacks petered out and the area settled down to a stalemate. The Finns dug in and with their artillery support could not be shifted.

Over 12 days the Soviets had lost over 300 tanks and at least 22,000 casualties, while the Finns lost 8000 casualties. The VKT line had been bent but not broken.

Part Two: Soviet Attacks on other fronts... 

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

Last Updated On Wednesday, November 23, 2011 by Wayne at Battlefront