Continuation War - An Overview
This article was done for PBS station WFYI in Indianapolis for the Emmy Award winning documentary Fire And Ice.
The peace terms that ended the Winter War in March 1940 were quite harsh to Finland. Not only was there the great loss of life (25,227 Finnish soldiers killed) but over 22,000 square miles of Finnish land was turned over to the USSR. This was a bit over 10 percent of the total territory of Finland. The Finns lost the entire Karelian Isthmus which included Finland’s second largest city Viipuri. The militarily important section of Hanko was lost, as were many of the areas that had previously been fortified against possible Soviet aggression. Industries related to timber, chemicals, textiles, and various refining plants were all greatly affected by the loss of Finnish territory. The loss of important port areas would also have lasting effects on the Finnish way of life. Over 400,000 Finns were displaced from their homes. There were also Soviet demands for war reparations which the Finns would struggle to meet.
Finland was also faced with major security issues that needed to be addressed. Before the Winter War, Finland had hoped that the Western Powers would intervene in case of Soviet attack but this hope was lost when the West did next to nothing when the Soviets invaded. Finland saw itself as alone and isolated from the rest of the world. The military was in dire need of resupply and new military equipment. While the Finns did receive Winter War aid, most of equipment did not arrive until the fighting was over and what the Finns did receive was, in many cases, equipment that was outdated or in poor condition. Also their border defenses were now in ruin and new defensive networks needed to be constructed. The relationship with the Soviet Union was still very uneasy and the Finnish military had to be prepared in case these relations took another turn for the worse.
During the negotiations of the peace treaty that ended the Winter War, Finland was approached by Sweden about forming a Nordic Defense Alliance (Finland, Sweden and Norway) that would help to ensure Finnish security. After the peace treaty was signed this idea was expanded upon and Sweden formally approached Finland about such an alliance. This was quickly protested by the Soviet Union and, under heavy pressure from Moscow, the Finns rejected the Swedish proposal. This action again lead to Finland feeling further isolated from the
rest of the world.
In April 1940, Denmark was occupied by the Germans and the Germans invaded Norway. In June the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were seized by the Soviets and their governments removed. These actions further worried the Finns as it seemed as if Stalin and Hitler were to have free reign on any smaller nation in Europe. The Finns greatly feared that Stalin’s intentions on Finland were the same as seen in the Baltic States with the aim of making Finland a part of the Soviet Union. June 1940 also saw the shooting down of a Finnish civilian aircraft over the Finnish Gulf (Soviet fighters) as well as Soviet Minister Molotov expressing interest in the nickel mines at Petsamo. These nickel mines were also of great interest to Great Britain and Germany. Lastly at the end of June, the Soviets demanded the island of Åland be demilitarized with Soviet oversight on this program. In July, the Soviets requested that limits to the numbers of Soviet troops traveling on the railroads to the Hanko base be eliminated. This meant the Soviets could move an unlimited number of troops inside Finnish borders. There were other Soviet demands made, dealing with the Soviet desire to replace certain governmental leaders in Finland. Finland signed a transit agreement with the Germans which allowed transport of arms, supplies and personnel to Norway via northern Finland, which angered leaders of the Soviet Union.
In January 1941, Finnish Chief of Staff Gen. Heinrichs, while in Berlin, was informed there was the possibility of a German-Soviet war looming. The Germans quizzed Heinrichs about the Finnish Army and its strength and there were questions on Finnish terrain, roads, weather and such related topics. This information was passed on to Finnish leadership but it was still unclear as to whether there would be war between Hitler and Stalin or if this talk of war was nothing more than talk. It was not until May 20 that this became clear, as Finnish President Risto Ryti was approached by Hitler’s envoy, Karl Schnurre, who informed the President that war was likely. The Finnish president was met with a proposal which stated that if Finland was attacked by the Soviet Union, Germany would come to Finland’s aid. By May 22 this proposal had been accepted by Finland, although no formal treaty was signed.
Mannerheim, Hitler, Risto Ryti in 1942
The reason the War is known as the Continuation War in Finland is that most Finns viewed these actions as the second part of the Winter War. While there were some in Finland that wanted to take land “in mass” from the Soviets, most Finns viewed this as the chance to take back just the land that was lost in the Winter War. The Finnish and German militaries also acted on their own behalf. In most cases there were not many Finn-German joint actions. The main Finnish hopes in the outcome were one of the following:
1) Germany defeats the USSR and Finland regains the lands lost in the Winter War. Finland might also acquire more territory, but overall these gains would be rather small and were not on the minds on most Finns since the main goal was to regain what was lost.
2) Germany and the USSR become involved in a bloodbath with neither side able to win. A stalemate would work for Finland as well since Finnish troops would have already taken the land lost in the Winter War. This would force a Soviet attack to displace the Finns. If there was a stalemate, this would be hard for the Soviets to do and if a treaty ended the war, Finland felt it would be able to keep what it had regained.
3) Germany inflicts massive damage on the Soviet Union and a quick peace is made. This also would allow Finland to keep the regained land.
Continuation War - 1941
Preparations for the War
In the first week of June 1941, long range patrols were sent by the Finns into the Karelian Isthmus areas to scout out Soviet defenses and positions. On June 6, German troops began to unload in Finland, the main German forces started to arrive at the Finn port of Pohjanmaa. By the June 15, the Germans were granted the right to operate in the Lapland area of Finland. Finnish troops in the area were placed under German control. In this same time frame, some Finnish patrols reached as deep as Viipuri (known at the time and now as Vyborg, Russia).
The Finnish Army is mobilized on the June 17 and 475,000 Finn soldiers were ready for battle by the end of the month. On June 20, civilians were moved from border areas, mainly due to the efforts of the Finnish border guards. On the June 21-22, Finnish and German naval forces begin to mine the areas around Finland, with one Finnish submarine mining the areas around Estonia.
The War Begins
When Germany attacked the Soviet Union on June 2, 1941, Finland declared itself neutral, but there were German bombers using Finnish bases to refuel their planes and using Finnish air space to attack points inside the Soviet Union. There were also German troops in the Lapland area that moved to take the town of Petsamo. Inside the Finnish borders the Soviet base at Hanko fired on the Finnish Navy and the Red Army Air Force hit at least 15 different target areas. By the June 25, after a massive Soviet air strike, Finland had stated that the Soviet Union had declared war, and that Finland must once again defend itself from the Soviet threat. Mannerheim moved his headquarters to Mikkeli, which is the same location used during the Winter War. By the end of June there were some Finnish-Soviet border clashes, and the German soldiers had moved from Lapland across the Soviet border. The Finnish Independent Detachment Petsamo was attached to German units. Their goal was to push toward Murmansk and the key areas around this Soviet city.
Stuka dive bombers
Mannerheim decided the best place to strike was against the Soviet forces in the area of Ladoga-Karelia and not towards Leningrad and the Karelian Isthmus. He ordered the attacks to begin on July 9. The Finnish forces went forward, and within a week’s time met with success. One of the main reasons for this success was that, unlike the Winter War, the Finns enjoyed numerical superiority over the Red Army in this region. The Finnish soldiers were also well commanded and well trained. The lessons learned during the Winter War showed on the battlefield. The Finnish forces were successful in splitting the Soviets in two and there were Finnish commanders who wished to push the attack forward to the Svir River. However, Mannerheim stopped the advance telling his commanders to hold in place. By August 23 the Finns had captured Suojärvi which was the last holdout in the region.
On July 30, the Finns began their attacks on the Karelian Isthmus with the attacks centered between Simpele and Rautjärvi. The main goal of this offensive was to take back Viipuri and move into key positions on the Isthmus. The first main attack was in the area of Hiitola and the aim was to cut off supply and communication between the Soviet forces in the area of Ladoga. The fighting in this region was hard and there was loss of life on all sides during these battles. Still the Finns were able to advance quickly and retook Viipuri by August 29. The Finnish advances threatened to encircle and trap the Soviets defending the city, so the Soviets decided that a retreat was the only way to survive. This victory was important to the Finns. The famous city had been lost during the Winter War. It was a city that meant a lot to the Finns, symbolically at least. By September, the Finns had moved into the area of the old 1939 border and stopped in place. In some cases they did advance past the old border but this was to take advantage of natural terrain improving Finnish defensive positions.
North of Lake Ladoga
For the most part, the fighting above Lake Ladoga was going well for the Finns, but the same could not be said for the German forces. The German attacks towards Murmansk were stalling as the Soviet resistance was greater than expected. Still, the Finns had met their goals in the region and the areas of Karelia that had been lost to the Soviets in the Winter War had been retaken (but for Hanko). The question the Finns began to face at this point was how far they would go into Soviet territory. The question had not been addressed before the fighting started. This was a very big question, and one the Finns could not take lightly. They had entered the war stating their goal was to retake the land lost in the Winter War and it had been done. If they did go further, just how much further would they be willing to go? After a debate, it was decided the Finns must advance in Karelia to allow a better defensive position. This would also assist in stopping Soviet bombing of Finland from bases in these areas.
On September 4, the operations that would lead to the Finnish occupation of areas of Eastern Karelia began. The first attacks were in the general direction of the Svir River. On the right flank of the Karelian Army there quickly followed a strike of the armored division. The target was the village of Aunus, which fell on the September 5. The Soviet positions on the Svir River were taken by the September 7-9. The Finns crossed to the other side of the river to make use of the better roads located on the opposite riverbank. As such, the Finns were approximately 12 miles on the other side of the river on a 60-mile front – starting at the city of Osta and running to the west from that location. The left flank of the Karelian Army also began its advance on the September 14-15 with its goal being the capitol of Eastern Karelia, Petrozavodsk. The fighting was hard in this time frame but by October 10, the Soviets left the city to the Finnish Army. The next Finnish operation was undertaken just after the fall of Petrozavodsk, and the goal was to improve and secure defensive positions between Lake Onega and Lake Segozero. The city of Medvezh’egorsk was also a major target goal of the Finns. Mannerheim wanted to push this attack quickly but the fighting was quite hard. The land area was tough to control and the Soviet defenders put up a bitter defense. However, by December 5, this area was secured by the Finns. The result of this attack gave the Finns major control points on the Maaselkä Isthmus.
The Finnish attacks and success in this region were problematic to the Soviets. This advance threatened Leningrad and was seen as a very real threat to cut the Murmansk railroad. If this was done, supplies that were greatly needed by the Soviet Union would be cut off. This was so dire that if the railroad was cut off, the war might end with a German victory. Much of the allied aid going to the interior of the Soviet Union, as well as aid from a still non-combatant United States, was coming via this railway. A section of this railway had already been cut by the Finns in their attacks in Eastern Karelia.
Stalin began to pressure Churchill to assist in stopping the Finnish advance. He hoped the threat of Great Britain declaring war on Finland might halt the Finns. Churchill sent a personal letter to Mannerheim on December 1, asking for the Finnish advance to be halted. Churchill informed Mannerheim that unless the Finnish actions were stopped that England would be forced to declare war on Finland. While it is clear that Mannerheim both respected and liked Churchill, he felt the attacks had to continue to strengthen the Finnish positions. England declared war on Finland on December 6. Interestingly, the Finns were in the process of halting their advances when England declared war but, Churchill was not informed.
Mannerheim told the Germans that a Finnish attack on the Murmansk area was pending but, it seemed these plans were to be halted. The reasons were mainly political. The Finns were also faced with the fact the U.S. might declare war on Finland, which had been threatened if the Murmansk railway was cut. Mannerheim was also worried that if the Germans were to lose the war this advance might be costly later in terms of Finnish lives. On December 6, the Soviets started to counterattack the Germans which halted their advance towards Moscow and this did not encourage the Finns’ feelings about German success in the war. The Finns had done few joint military operations with the Germans up to this point and more joined actions seemed unlikely.
Finland was again in a difficult position as the Germans pressed the Finns to increase their attacks. There was no possibility of the Finns directly attacking Leningrad, which was a bone of contention with the Germans. The Finns knew that an attack on Leningrad would not be forgiven by the Soviets. Had the Finns attacked Leningrad and the Germans were to still lose the war, the Soviet retributions on the Finns would have been quite harsh. This was the same attitude the Finns took in the areas of the White Sea as their advances were halted. Additional Finnish offensive operations would be too costly in political terms in case the war turned against them. There was also only mild support in the Finnish population for more aggressive actions, since the Finns felt their war goals had been a success. Any further gains would seem more a war of aggression and conquest, not a continuation of the Winter War. There were also the losses. The Finns lost 25,475 killed or wounded, by the end of December. Part of these losses came in a large Soviet counteract on the Svir River near the city of Gora where the Soviet 114th Division attempted to push the Finnish lines. There was still some talk about Finn/German joint attacks but the chances of these began to fade as Mannerheim lost confidence in the German command.
This was to end the Finnish offensive stage of the Continuation War. The Finns slowly started to let older men leave army service and return to home, while all those soldiers of fighting age began to dig in for what was to come.
Continuation War - 1942
The War Slows Down
After the initial phases of Finnish advance, the warfare on the Finn-Soviet front became very static. The Soviets were engaged elsewhere in their fight against the Germans and the Finns began to strengthen their positions. On January 1, 1942, there was a Soviet attack on the Maaselkä Isthmus that at first has some success, but the Finns are able to regain control by the January 21. There was another Red Army attack in April on the Svir, River which turned into a Finnish rout. This victory was so complete that the German 163rd Division was able to leave the Svir River area and return to Lapland. The Island of Suursaari, in the Gulf of Finland, was attacked by the Soviets and lost by the Finns, but control was regained by March. In June, Mannerheim celebrated his 75th birthday, which included a visit from Hitler, secure in knowing that for the time being the Finns were in control of their front. Mannerheim was also named Marshal of Finland in this same time frame.
On June 28, an order was given for an armored division to be formed at Petrozavodsk, known as the Lagus Division, named after its commanding officer. For the rest of 1942 there were no large actions on the Finnish front lines. The biggest problems the Finns faced were Russian “partisan” soldiers being dropped behind the Finnish lines, as these soldiers were causing a fair amount of damage to Finnish inter- structure at least on a local scale. In this same time frame, the Finns increase their long range patrols at times crossing deep into Soviet territory. The Finns made use of this downtime in the fighting to strengthen their positions by building more trenches, bunkers and minefields on the front lines. In 1941 the Finns lost about 450 men per day in the fighting (killed or wounded) while in 1942 this number dropped to under 60, which shows how much the war had slowed down on this front. In December, Von Ribbentrop sent a note to Helsinki expressing some concerns that Finland might pursue a separate peace with the Soviet Union as he and Hitler were worried about Finnish inaction on the front lines.
Continuation War - 1943
Finland, Germany, the Soviet Union and the United States
By January of 1943 the Soviets began to break the siege at Leningrad and defeated the Germans in the Battle of Stalingrad. The Finns saw both of these as signs that Germany would lose the war. Many of the Finnish commanders viewed the German defeat as a near certainty and this realization became a turning point in the Continuation War. In February, Mannerheim for the first time publicly stated that Finland would no longer pursue offensive actions in the war. In his remarks, he stated that he had lost enough soldiers in the fighting. These statements infuriated the Germans as they wish to have the Finns press on towards Murmansk. But Mannerheim is resolute in his decision. The Germans, who had at times been slow in sending arms to Finland, deliver the first batch of Messerschmitt Bf-109-G2 fighters to the Finns in March, but was it also in March that Finland was approached with an offer from the United States to act as an intermediary between Finland and the USSR. These U.S. efforts led nowhere as the Soviet terms offered to Finland are so harsh the United States did not pass them along to Finnish leadership.
Finland was apprehensive about making a separate peace with the Soviet Union as the Germans were still militarily strong and, as such, the Finns gave up the idea of peace talks for the time being. German Foreign Minister Ribbentrop became irate when he was informed that the United States had approached Finland and that the Finns seemed willing to listen to offers of leaving the war. Hitler demanded a treaty be signed between Finland and Germany stating their common goals in the war against the USSR, but the Finns refuse to sign such a treaty. By the first of June 1943, the Finnish members of the SS were released from their contract of service to the Germans and return to Finland. This further angered the Germans, but there was nothing they could do to prevent this from taking place. In this time frame the Finns were very worried what German reaction might be. They saw what took place in Italy in September when the Italians tried to break from German control and leave the war. The Germans were also cutting back aid to Finland which added to Finnish concerns.
By September 1943 Hitler was convinced Finland would leave the war. As a measure against this he set a plan in place where if the Finns did leave the war, German forces would seize Åland and Suursaari from the Finns. The next month German Gen. Jodl threatens the Finns with serious German action if the Finns leave the war. Tensions between Finland and Germany were getting much more animated and heated as the Finns felt leaving the war is the wise choice. Finland had never been an ally of Germany in the war. They felt they were co-belligerents with the Germans against a common enemy. As such, making a peace with the Soviet Union separate from Germany would be correct as the Finns were, in their minds, fighting a separate war from the Germans.
In November the British declared that Finland was an Axis Nation and should only be allowed to accept non-conditional terms of surrender. The Soviets reversed this statement a few days later, allowing the Finns to surrender with negotiated peace terms. The Finns proposed an agreement that would have reinstated the old 1939 borders, but the Soviets reject this idea. The idea for peace was still alive, but no one seemed to be able to find an agreement that is acceptable to all sides. The Finns were dealing more and more with Soviet “partisan” troops behind Finnish lines on all fronts and these actions were becoming more and more of a problem to the Finns. It is also clear to the Finns that the Soviets were rearming their forces which made them more dangerous. Finland was also suffering as the Germans were not supplying arms in the manner promised. In December, Stalin began planning for large scale bombing raids on Finnish targets. Most of these bombings began in February 1944, with Helsinki suffering much of the focus of the attacks. By the end of 1943, 38,144 Finn soldiers had been killed or wounded.
Continuation War - 1944
1944 - Finland Fights To Survive
By January 14, the Soviet Union had lifted the siege on Leningrad which opened the possibility for the Red Army to conduct operations against the Finnish lines. In February, Soviet bombings took place in Helsinki, and Mannerheim sees the renewed Red Army as a growing threat to attack the Isthmus or in Eastern Karelia. Mannerheim urged Finnish President Ryti that peace needed to be made quickly. He felt the Finnish Army would not be able to hold off a massive Soviet push. The Finns had meetings with the Soviets in Sweden in February, but the sides were still far apart on the terms of ending the war. In April, the Finns received their first supply of Panzerschrecks and Panzerfausts from the Germans. The Germans hoped these new weapons would improve the Finnish attitude towards the war, but the Finns were still looking for a way to end the war with the Soviets. Hitler became more and more concerned about Finland and its goal to make a separate peace with the USSR. Seven days after the Finns receive these new weapons, Hitler suspended further arms deals to Finland. Hitler hoped this added pressure would force the Finns to stay the course. What neither Hitler nor the Finns knew was that late in April Stalin signed an order to begin the planning of a massive assault against the Finnish forces. The attack was to take place in June, with the attack led from the Karelian Isthmus by a strong Soviet force.
In May the Finns began to notice increased Soviet activity near the Finnish lines on the Karelian Isthmus, but they are unsure if these were preparations for a Soviet attack or a feint to hide the real intentions of the Red Army. Mannerheim became more concerned when he learned the Soviet troops in the area were adhering to strict radio silence. He viewed this as a sure sign of an impending attack. He plead that the work on the various defensive lines be completed, or at least the work be finished in what he deems key areas. Finnish intelligence officer Maj. P. Ketonen passed along his feeling that the Soviets would attack on the Finnish front in June. The Finns tried to step up the progress of the works on the VT (Vammelsuu-Taipale) Line on the Isthmus. The Swedish Army intelligence office secretly passed information to Finnish officers that the Soviet forces were indeed building up for a possible attack with strength on the Isthmus. In mid to late May Mannerheim sent a letter to Hitler asking that Germany reinstate the weapons program to the Finns, and he assures Hitler that the German weapons will not fall into Soviet hands. Hitler did not yield to Mannerheim’s request which leads to Finnish concerns of their stockpile of heavy arms and anti-tank weapons. Even with all the warning signs not all Finns were convinced that a Soviet attack was being planed. In fact, the 4th Army Group HQ issued a statement to Mannerheim stating they felt an attack was not a strong likelihood; however, Mannerheim wisely began to move more forces to the Isthmus to strengthen the Finnish lines in the area.
Finnish howitzers during the Continuation War.
The Finnish plans for defense in the area were much along the same as the Winter War, which was the dependence on various fortified defensive lines. The main line on the Karelian Isthmus was the VT Line which ran some 80-90 kilometers from Vammelsuu to Taipale. The line did not run straight, but made use of natural terrain and defenses when presented. The line was started in 1941, but by June 1944 there were still sections that were incomplete. Many sections of the VT Line were only a defensive network on the planning room table. Still the line was large and well defended with lines of entrenchments with concrete infantry shelters for 15-20 men, concrete command and observation points, and concrete machine gun positions. There were also larger machine gun and artillery pillboxes grouped on the important heights and roads. VT line had more than 900 installations of various types, vast minefields, armored small-arms positions in the trenches, and there was railway along sections of the line for quick reinforcements and supply. With over 400,000 cubic meters of concrete used, the VT Line was more formidable than the Mannerheim Line of the Winter War.
An example of Finnish defensive trenches.
The Soviet attacks that began in June 1944 were on a massive scale. It was on such a scale that entire world was taken by surprise as most felt the Soviet attacks would focus towards the German forces in or near Poland or a Soviet push into the Baltic States. Instead of this the Soviets decided to launch an attack toward Finland, which it was hoped, would force Finland out of the war. While the Finns were aware the Soviets seemed to be massing their troops, they simply had no idea of the large amount of Soviet troops, artillery, tanks and planes that were to be sent on the Finnish front. The main goals of the Soviet attack were to destroy the Finnish Army on the Isthmus and take back Viipuri (Vyborg). After the first attacks met with success, the general plan was to advance as far Helsinki. There would also be attacks made in Eastern Karelia with the main forces wishing to advance to the area of Ilomantsi. It was hoped these attacks would draw the Germans to the south to assist in defense which would allow another Soviet attack in the northern area of Finland. The overall scale of this attack was stunning and its goals were grand.
The June Attacks On The VT Line
On June 9, massive Soviet artillery attacks begin on the Karelian Isthmus followed by a full scale assault launched by the Red 21st and 23rd Armies. These armies totaled over 260,000 soldiers, 1,000 aircraft, 7,500+ mortar and artillery pieces, and over 600 tanks and assault guns. This artillery attack is one of the heaviest launched in all of World War II. The scale of these attacks is stunning and the Finns are forced to move backward. The Red Army the Finns were now facing was a much greater foe than had been faced in the Winter War. The Red Army had become a well trained killing machine in the years fighting the Germans. The Finns were seeing the alteration first hand. When the U.S. ambassador to the USSR heard of the scale of this attack he contacted Stalin, as the U.S. was still hoping Finland would take a separate peace. But, Stalin informed him that the Finns are stubborn and slow witted, so common sense must be hammered into dull witted Finnish heads. The Finns had stationed on the Isthmus two Army Corps, the 3rd and the 4th, which totaled 90,000 total men – so the Finns were outnumbered over 2 to 1. This ratio was much greater in regards to planes, artillery, heavy mortars and other heavy equipment. Over the next three days Mannerheim is forced to shuffle his defensives as he sends the 3rd Brigade, the 4th Division and the Armored Division to positions on the Isthmus. This is quickly followed by the moving of the 20th Brigade and 17th Division to help check this Soviet advance. By June 14-15 the Soviets broke the VT Line at Sahakylä and Kuuterselkä, and the entire front was in peril of being broken. In the time frame of this battle the Finns once again appealed to Hitler to supply more arms – mainly AT arms. Hitler decided that as long as the Finns are fighting he would give (sell) them arms, but if he saw the Finns begin to talk of leaving the war he will not be there to assist Finland again. After heavy fighting and Finnish counter attacks the VT Line is breeched, forcing the Finns to retreat. They were able to retreat intact and fought delaying actions against the advancing Red Army. As a result of the breech of the VT Line and the continued Soviet advance, the city of Viipuri (Vyborg) is lost to the Soviets on June 20.
While the Soviet attacks were impressive and led to a victory, it should be noted that the main goal of destroying the Finnish Army was not achieved. The Finns were forced to concede land and lost a great many men, but the Finnish Army was able to leave the field in order. One key reason for the survival was the smaller groups of Finnish soldiers who covered the rear of the retreat, delaying the Soviet advance and keeping the main Soviet forces from overtaking the Finnish Army. The Finns also put to good use the AT weapons the Germans had supplied. If not for the inspired actions of the Finnish soldiers in this battle the Finnish Army as a whole might have been swallowed by the Soviets.
Finnish artillery in action June 1944.
Further June Soviet Attacks
On June 21, the Soviets began their attack on the region of the Svir River and on the Masel’ga Isthmus, further north. The Soviet troops on the Svir River were under the command of Soviet Gen. Krutikov whose eight divisions included 340 tanks, 2,500 artillery pieces and mortars, over 700 planes and like armaments. As Mannerheim was forced to move Finnish troops from this region to assist on the Isthmus, the Finnish forces in the area were approximately 50,000. The main defense line the Finns had in the area ran 150 kilometers of the 180 kilometer front and was known as the PSS Line. The PSS Line was strong in its western areas but sections of the line were unfinished and would be open to attack. Mannerheim ordered the Finnish troops to move to the U Position which was a smaller defensive line located to the north. The U Position was only 50 kilometer long, but Mannerheim knew the key battles would be fought in the land surrounding this smaller line. The Finns moved to the rear in a controlled retreat engaging the Soviets in delaying tactics. The Finnish commanders were under orders not to become involved in a large-scale battle with the advancing Soviet forces. The main goal of the Soviets was to engulf the Finnish forces and move into Finland so they could attack the Finnish Isthmus defenders from the rear.
On June 22, Von Ribbentrop unexpectedly arrives in Helsinki. He demands that Finland put in writing that they will not pursue a separate peace with Moscow or else German assistance will be halted. The German Army’s 303rd assault gun brigade arrives in Finland the same day. Unbeknownst to the Germans, the Finns had approached the Soviets earlier in the day about terms for ending the war. On June 24, the Soviets demand that Finland accept an unconditional surrender and Finnish troops in the Eastern Karelia region be moved to the so called PSS defense line. As the 122nd German regiment arrives in Finland the Finns inform the Germans they will stay the course.
Finnish soldier armed with a L39 altered for use as an anti-aircraft gun.
Battle of Tali-Ihantala
The Finns were faced with the possibility that the Soviets could invade the interior sections of Finland, which would mean the death of the Finnish nation. Marshall Mannerheim, his commanders, the common foot soldiers, and all Finns know that what was to take place in the coming days would either save or lose the sovereignty of their country. The Soviets had made attempts to move west after the earlier battles but they could not press the attack, as such the Red Army decided to concentrate northeast of Viipuri. The small village of Tali became the key area for the Soviets as the region was suited for tanks and there were railroads in the area.
Forces breakdown - Battle of Tali-Ihantala
The Finnish Army on the Isthmus was under the command of Lt. Gen. Karl Oesch who had three army corps under his control:
Army Corp V of Maj. Gen. Antero Svensson
Army Corp IV of Lt. Gen. Taavetti Laatikainen
Army Corp III of Lt. Gen. Hjalmar Siilasvuo
Finnish Brigades and Divisions
Col. Lauri Haanterä's 3rd Brigade which was under the control of the 18th Division
18th Division Maj. Gen. Paavo Paalu
3rd Division Maj. Gen. Aaro Pajari
4th Division Maj. Gen. Aleksanteri Autti
6th Division Maj. Gen. Einar Wihma
11th Division Gen. Kaarlo Heiskanen
Maj. Gen. Ruben Lagus's Armored Division as well as the German Sturmgeschütz-Brigade 303.
The Soviet Forces
Marshal Govorov was the overall commander as he was the head of the military district. Under his control were three armies.
The Soviet 59th Army Lt. Gen. Ivan Korovnikov
The Soviet 23rd Army Lt. Gen. Alexander Cherepanov
The main Soviet force was the 21st Soviet Army commanded by Col. Gen. Dmitrii Gusev. This army had 14 rifle divisions, tank brigades, heavy artillery, and other heavy support weapons so were quite a strong force.
Finnish anti-tank position
This was the largest battle ever fought in the Nordic region of the world and was the key moment of the war for Finland. The battle began on June 25, with the Soviet forces attacking the Finnish 3rd Brigade stationed between Suomenvedenpohja and Lake Kärstilänjärvi. The losses on both sides of this opening stage of the battle were horrific and were to set the tone for the entire battle. The fighting in the Tali-Ihantala region was as fierce as that seen on any front in World War II. The battle was regulated to an area that was only 10 square kilometers, but this area was filled with troops, tanks, artillery, and the sky above had hundreds of planes engaged in the fighting. From June 25 until July 9 the Finnish and Soviet forces battled for the key positions, with both Armies doing their best to break the backs of their opponents. This battle showed the major improvements to the Finnish artillery that had taken place since the Winter War. Mannerheim had ordered a full one half of all Finnish artillery to take part in this battle and in many cases the Finnish artillery saved the Finnish Army from being overrun. Finnish artillery during the Continuation War was one of the better forces at laying down fast and accurate fire and the results of their ability were thousands of dead Red Army soldiers. By July 9 the Soviet advance had been stopped and was unable to regroup and advance further.
Some of the keys to the Finnish victory:
Soviet supply lines were stretched quite a bit. Re-supply became nearly impossible and as the battle worn on this became a major issue for the Red Army.
Finnish artillery was outstanding in this battle. Their skill in placing accurate fire down quickly saved the Finnish Army time and time again in the back and forth battles that were taking place. The largest portion of the Soviet losses came not from small arm fire but from Finnish artillery fire.
While the more elite Finnish Jaegers and armored units fought well in the battle, all of the Finnish soldiers in their various units performed above and beyond the call of duty. The Finns knew that if they lost the battle their country would be lost as well, so their motivation for performing well was high.
The Soviets also suffered from poor planning. They had felt the battle would be ended quickly and when this did not happen some of the later attacks were rushed or poorly planned. The Soviets at times resorting to nothing more than massive frontal infantry assaults which the Finnish artillery could easily break up.
The Finnish efforts earlier in June had worn down the Red Army. While the VT Line had been breeched in a short period of time the advancing Soviet troops had to deal with Finnish delaying tactics on an almost daily bases. This constant flow of battle began to show on the Soviet troops.
Finnish troops rushed into battle.
Finnish armor on the move.
This was the most important battle of the war for Finland. Had the Soviets broken the Finnish lines, it is most likely that Finland would have lost the war. The Soviets had planned to advance to Helsinki after this battle, but that was not to be the case. Losses on all sides were terrible. The Soviets lost over 500 tanks in this battle and over 22,000 soldiers were killed or wounded. The Finns lost 8,561 in killed or wounded. In the heaviest fighting of July 1-2 the Finns lost almost 800 soldiers a day The Soviets also lost over 250 planes in the fighting. These losses were so great that Stalin began to rethink the attacks on Finland. Due to this battle the Finns were able to make a separate peace with Stalin, as he knew that any further actions against the Finns would be just as difficult. The Soviets did not need to suffer these large losses so Stalin decided it would be easier to just let the Finns leave the war on their own. While there were other battles that would take place after Tali-Ihantala, this was the last major Soviet push to occupy Finland.
Continuation War - 1944
Nearing the End of the Continuation War
While the Battle of Tali Ihantala was the turning point of the war it was not the only battle that was underway. On July 4, the Soviets moved into the Bay of Vyborg area and took the islands of Ravansaari and Suonionsaari. The Soviets hoped that by taking these islands they could regroup and still possibly make a move into Finland. But, their hopes were dashed when Finnish and German (the German 122nd Division) troops ended the Soviet advance on July 7 and 8.
There was also action at Battle of Vuosalmi. The main sections of this battle took place July 4-1, with the Soviets attempting to break the Finnish defenders of this sector and encircle the Finnish troops further south on the Karelian Isthmus. The Soviets seemed to take the advantage early in the fighting but the Finns were able to turn the tables and destroy the attacking Red Army force.
Finnish artillery in 1944.
The End – Battles In Eastern Karelia
There had been battles raging on the other side of Lake Ladoga since June 21 with the Finns mainly engaged in delaying tactics against the advancing Soviet forces. The Finns knew the battles on the Isthmus carried more importance, so it was not until after Tali Ihantala that the Finns could give the proper attention to this front. There were many smaller battles in this region, but the main focus of the region at the end of July was the area around Ilomantsi.
After three weeks of fighting delaying tactics the Finns were able to bring in more soldiers to assist on this front. The Finnish Cavalry Brigade entered the area after being released from the Karelian Isthmus.The terrain on this front includes many forests, lakes and swamps. There were few roads or rail lines in the region. These factors made the moving heavy equipment quite difficult for both the Finns and the Soviets. After Finnish reconnaissance units had been able to pin point the Soviet positions, which was no easy task in the woods, a Finnish attack plan was drawn out. The Finnish high command had ordered that the Soviets in the area be stopped and removed as a threat to the Finnish nation. The plan was to launch a two-sided attack that would encircle the Soviet troops and split them into two groups. The Finns would then destroy these forces and push the remaining Red Army troops back across the old 1939 border. The battles here lasted for 10 days and the Finns were able to meet their goal of breaking up the Soviet forces. Even in the rough terrain Finnish artillery was able to fire over 36,000 rounds during this battle and played a key role in the Finnish victory. The battles in the Ilomantsi region were the last of the Continuation War.
Helmet issued to Tauno Johannes Kirsi who was a member of the mounted artillery in the battle of Ilomantsi.
Brent Snodgrass collection
After the Finnish efforts from June to August, the Soviets made the decision that continuing the war against Finland would be much more costly than they had imagined. While the Red Army was still strong the Soviets knew its efforts had to be focused on the defeat of Germany. The time and effort needed to fight the Finns would outweigh the gains.
By August 4, Finnish President Risto Ryti had resigned and Marshal Mannerheim was appointed President of Finland. This change helped lead the way for peace as Stalin and the Soviet leadership did not trust Ryti but felt that Mannerheim was a man they could create peace terms with. Mannerheim had long been a supporter of making a separate peace with the Soviet Union and began to make overtures to the Soviets. Hitler and the Germans were unsure of the Finnish plans. In an effort to show support towards Mannerheim, Hitler presented him with the Oak Leaf of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross. This gesture did not alter Mannerheim’s wishes for peace. On September 1, he sent a letter to Stalin urging the ending of the war based on the negotiations which had been ongoing. On September 2, the Finnish Eduskunta, or Parliament, accepted the terms of the armistice and ended all relations with Germany. It also stated that all German troops must leave Finland by the September15, or be subject to attack. On September 4, Stalin accepted the Finnish terms, although Soviet artillery fired just until the set time of cease fire ending the war.
The preliminary peace agreement signed in September 1944 was quite harsh to Finland: The borders from 1940 were reestablished and the Petsamo area was lost; Finland was forced to expel any German troops inside Finnish borders after September 15; the Porkkal Peninsula was leased to the Soviets for 50 years and full transit rights to the Peninsula were granted; the Civil Guard as well as the Lotta Svärd and various other patriotic groups were banished; the Finnish Communist Party was given legal status; the size of the Finnish military was restricted; and finally, Finland was forced to pay massive war reparations to the Soviet Union.
While these terms were hard to live with, the Finns were secure in the fact that they had remained free and were not occupied by the Soviet Union. Finland is the only nation to fight against the Soviet Union during World War II not to be occupied in war time or during the post war years. This accomplishment bears witness to the heroic actions of the Finnish military in the Continuation War, during which more than 60,000 Finnish soldiers were lost.