The Lappland War, 1944
The German withdrawal from Finland, summer 1944.
October 1 1944 to April 25 1945
The Lapland War (Finnish: Lapin sota) is the name given to the hostilities between Finland and Nazi Germany between September 1944 and April 1945, fought in Finland's northernmost Lapland Province.
The war is notable in that the Finnish army was under pressure to demobilize their forces while fighting the German army off their lands. Despite the odds, the Germans got the worst of the fighting and suffered heavier casualties.
Since June 1941, Germany and Finland had been at war with the Soviet Union, co-operating closely in the Continuation War. As early as the summer of 1943, the German high command began making plans for the eventuality that Finland might make a separate peace agreement with the Soviet Union. The Germans planned to withdraw their forces northward in order to shield the nickel mines near Petsamo.
During the winter of 1943-1944, the Germans improved the roads from northern Norway to northern Finland by extensive use of POW labour. Casualties among the POWs were high, due in part to the fact that many of the POWs had been captured in southern Europe and were still in summer uniform. In addition, the Germans accumulated stores in the region. Thus, they were ready in September 1944, when Finland declared the Moscow Armistice with the Soviet Union.
Progress of operations
While German ground troops withdrew northward, the German navy mined the seaward approaches to Finland and with Operation Tanne Ost attempted to seize Suursaari Island in the Gulf of Finland. The sailors on Finnish ships in German-held ports (including Norway) were arrested, and in the Baltic Sea, German U-boats sank several Finnish civilian vessels. Although some Wehrmacht and Finnish army officers tried to organize a relatively peaceful withdrawal, fighting broke out between German and Finnish forces even before the Soviet-Finnish armistice was signed. Fighting intensified when the Finns sought to comply with the Soviet demand that all German troops be expelled from Finland.
The Finns were thus placed in a situation similar to that of Italy and Romania, who, after surrendering to the Allies, had to fight to free their lands of German forces. The Finns' task was complicated by the Soviet demand that the major part of Finnish armed forces must be demobilized at the same time, even during the campaign against the Germans.
General Hjalmar Siilasvuo, the victor of Suomussalmi, led the Finns against the Germans under General Lothar Rendulic. Striking first at Kemi-Tornio and in October and November 1944, Siilasvuo drove the Germans out of most of northern Finland. Hard battles were fought at Tankavaara and Kaunispää, where the Germans made a stand to cover their retreat towards Norway.
Most of the civilian population of Lapland, totalling 168,000 persons, was evacuated to Sweden and Southern Finland prior to start of the hostilities, with the exception of the inhabitants of the Tornio area. The evacuation was carried out as a cooperative effort of German and Finnish authorities. However, they conducted severe scorched earth warfare, burning most buildings in the province. The town of Rovaniemi was destroyed completely, all important bridges demolished and the roads extensively mined. On the other hand, hundreds of women who had been engaged to German soldiers left with the German troops, meeting diverse fates.
In their retreat, the German forces under General Lothar Rendulic devastated large areas of northern Finland using scorched earth tactics. A total of 40-47% of the dwellings in the area were destroyed, and the provincial capital of Rovaniemi was burned to the ground, as well as the village of Savukoski. Two thirds of the buildings in main villages Sodankylä, Muonio, Kolari, Salla and Ivalo were demolished.
675 bridges were blown up and all main roads were mined, 3,700 km of telephone lines were destroyed. In addition to the property losses, about 100,000 inhabitants became refugees, a situation that added to the problems of postwar reconstruction. (After the war the Allies convicted Rendulic of war crimes, and he was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He was released after six years.)
The last German troops were expelled in April 1945. By that time only 600 Finnish troops, mostly fresh recruits, were left facing them due to the Soviet demand for demobilisation of the Finnish army. Because of this, the latter half of the Lapland War is known in Finland as the Children's Crusade.
Military casualties of the conflict were relatively limited: 774 KIA, 262 MIA and about 3,000 WIA for the Finnish troops, and 1,200 KIA and about 2,000 WIA for the Germans. 1,300 German soldiers became POWs, and were handed over to the Soviet Union, according to the terms of the Moscow Armistice with the Soviets.
Operation Tanne Ost, 15 September 1944
Operation 'Tanne Ost'
Operation Tanne Ost ("Fir East") was a German operation during World War II to capture the island of Suursaari (Swedish Hogland, Russian Gogland) in the Gulf of Finland before it could fall into Soviet hands. Suursaari was especially important because it worked as a lock in the Finnish gulf guarding the minefields keeping the Soviet Baltic Fleet in Kronstadt.
The operation was initially planned with another operation to capture the Âland Islands (Operation Tanne West), which was not carried out.
On September 15 1944, a first wave of 1400 men from both the Wehrmacht and the Kriegsmarine were loaded on ships in Tallinn. Before the assault, the German commander tried to negotiate with the Finnish commander on Suursaari, as he thought the Finns might leave without resistance. The negotiations were a complete failure and the invasion had to begin. When the German ships approached Suursaari, the Finnish crew on the island opened fire. However, most of the troops made it to the beaches, but there the difficulties continued, somewhat because of the Finnish defense being much more numerous than expected. Two Finnish patrol boats were trapped in Suurkylä harbor and sunk. After sunrise, the Soviets made bombing runs on the German ships and later bombed both German and Finnish positions in the island. A second wave of untrained Kriegsmarine troops was withdrawn before they could land. Finnish Navy motor torpedo boats sank several German vessels. After that, German ships decided to leave because they failed to make radio connection to the landed troops. The operation ended in a complete failure, with the Finns capturing 1231 German prisoners.
the Soviet Air Force made three attacks against German positions and ships. The attacks also caused some Finnish casualties. The Germans didn't let the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen support the invasion, as Soviet air threat in the area was shown by these attacks.
This operation marked the beginning of hostility between German and Finnish troops, known as the Lapland War. Before this, the Germans had conducted their withdrawal from Northern Finland without incident.
Finnish order of battle
Finnish forces consisted of Coastal Artillery Regiment 12 (RTR 12). Defence was organized into four sections as follows.
Northern section, 1st Battalion (strength 340 men)
- 10th Coastal Defence Company
- 1st Section/201st Light Artillery Battery
- 24th Heavy AA-Battery
- 5th Light Coastal AA-Battery
- 1st Platoon/Heavy mortar Company
Mountain section, 2nd Battalion (strength 475 men)
- HQ-Company/Coastal Artillery Regiment 12
- Section/9th Motorised Heavy Artillery Battery
- 2nd Platoon/Heavy Mortar Company
- 1st Platoon/1st Coastal Engineer Company
- 8th Coastal Defence Company
Middle section, Coastal Infantry Battalion 7 (strength 295 men)
- 7th Coastal Defence Company
- 9th Coastal Defence Company
- 34th Heavy AA-Battery
- Training Company
Southern section, 3rd Battalion (strength 418 men)
- 2nd Company/Coastal Battalion 7
- 3rd Company/Coastal Battalion 7
- 3rd Platoon/Heavy Mortar Company
- 2nd Section/201st Light Artillery Battery
- During the attack on Tornio, Finnish troops liberated a German supply depot containing a large quantity of brandy... As a result, the advance was halted for day until the soldiers had sobered up.
- Some Finnish women had left their homes to follow their German boyfriends and actually participated in the battle on their side, killing at least one Finnish soldier.
The Battle of Tornio, 1-8 October 1944
The Battle of Tornio, 1 October to 8 October 1944, was the first major engagement between Nazi Germany and Finland in the Lapland War; although hostilities had already begun elsewhere (see Operation Tanne Ost).
The Germans had, until then, been withdrawing steadily towards Norway, ceding their positions to Finnish troops. The German interest was in keeping hold of the Petsamo area and its nickel mines. On the other hand, the German and Finnish troops had been fighting together for three years, and many personal friendships had been forged between the two armies. Thus, until now, there had been very few actual hostilities between the German and Finnish troops.
The Finns, however, were forced, by their peace agreement with the USSR, to forcibly remove German troops from their territory. Thus, the invasion of Tornio was planned and executed to surprise the Germans and open a front behind their backs along the Swedish border. Lieutenant-General Siilasvuo was the officer in charge of the operations in Lapland and planned an amphibious assault near Tornio in time with an overland attack towards Kemi; both operations had Oulu as their base.
The capture of Tornio took the Germans by surprise. The Finnish 11th infantry division landed unopposed at Röyttä harbour and took the town of Tonio the same day. The German troops in town were surrounded in a few pockets, so-called motti, until they surrendered. The 15th Jäger brigade advanced to Kemi via Simo, but their progress was slow, because the Germans had laid copious amounts of land mines and blown all bridges, with the exception of the Tornio railway bridge that was saved after intervention by the Swedes. Further landings in Tornio the next day came under attack from the Luftwaffe, but were completed successfully. German counter-attacks were repulsed with the aid of a battery of field artillery that was part of the second landing and fire support from Finnish gunboats, which had arrived to the port. Some of these guns now adorn war memorials all over the Tornio river valley.
The original Finnish plan had been to cut off the German troops around Kemi from all ways of retreat. However, the German troops were able to secure the road to Rovaniemi and retreat in an orderly fashion. On the other hand, the capture of Tornio effectively cut the German troops in Finland into two parts: one fighting inthe Tornio river valley, the other in the Kemijoki river valley. Due to lack of roads, the supplies to the troops around Kemi would have to be routed through Rovaniemi. This forced the Germans to withdraw their units from Kemi. By October 8 the whole Kemi-Tornio area had been cleared.
The German commander in the North, General Lothar Rendulic, considered the capture of Tornio a betrayal by the Finns and ordered the scorched earth destruction of Lapland in retaliation. On the other hand, the Finnish government had proven to Soviet Union that it was working actively to remove the German troops. In addition, the Finnish army had shown that it was capable and willing to turn its arms against the former co-belligrents.