As seen in previous chapters, the Soviets and Finns had basically left each other alone on the Finnish front since the completion of the Finnish offensives at the end of 1941, except for the Soviet counteroffensive in early 1942. The Finns had resisted all German requests that they cross the Svir River in force or participate in the attack on Leningrad. This soon became apparent to the Soviets who had their hands full dealing with the Germans. It was therefore not in their interest to undertake offensive operations on the Finnish front.
The rather peaceful atmosphere on the fronts in southern and southeastern Finland was about to change. Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin had met in Teheran in December 1943 to orchestrate their military plans. The war plans called for the US and Great Britain to land troops in France in June 1944. At the same time the Soviets committed themselves to undertake a major offensive on the eastern front (Operation Bagration).
No action was contemplated against Finland unless that country refused to withdraw from the war prior to the offensive in Central Europe and accept a list of Soviet conditions for peace. The Finnish rejection of the Soviet demands accompanying the peace offer in April 1944 caused a hardening of the Soviet attitude. The Allies had agreed to demand unconditional surrender not only from the Germans but also from her allies. After the rejection of the April 1944 peace offer, Finland fell squarely into the unconditional capitulation category.
There were at least two political reasons for the Soviet decision on the timing of the offensive against Finland. Stalin was still skeptical about the planned US and British landings in France. Spending some time after that landing attending to Finland would give him a chance to see how that operation developed before beginning Operation Bagration in Byelorussia. Probably more important was his strong desire to have the Finnish question decided early. He was aware that Finland still enjoyed considerable sympathy in the West and that the US had not declared war on that country. Stalin wanted to settle things with Finland so that its fate rested in the hands of the Soviets alone and did not become part of the wider settlement of issues after the war against Germany ended. Stalin is reported to have told Averell Harriman, the US ambassador in Moscow on June 10, 1944 that “They [the Finns] are a serious, stubborn, blunt people and a sense must be hammered into them.”1
While the above political objectives were overriding, the Soviets also saw some military advantages in dealing with Finland immediately. First, an attack against Finland would draw German attention away from the planned operation in Byelorussia. Second, knocking Finland out of the war could free a significant number of troops for other missions. Finally, forcing a Finnish withdrawal from the war would isolate and neutralize the 20th Mountain Army in central and northern Finland.
The main Russian offensive in 1940 during the Winter War had been delivered in the western part of the Karelian Isthmus area with the city of Viipuri as its objective. It was the shortest distance from the Soviet border into the industrial and population center of Finland. The Finnish front on the Karelian Isthmus was only about 30 kilometers from the northern outskirts of Leningrad. It would not be surprising therefore that they would repeat the same strategy in 1944, particularly since there was a dense communications network in the area of Leningrad, something that was lacking both along the Svir and in Eastern Karelia.
The Soviets had actively planned a summer offensive against Finland ever since Finland had rejected the Soviet peace offer in April 1944. The objective was rather simple. The Finnish Army was to be destroyed forcing Finland to capitulate. To achieve this, Stalin demanded the attack to be exceptionally violent and quick. Like the Finns in 1941, the Soviets decided to stagger their offensive. They planned to start their offensive on the Karelian Isthmus on June 10 with troops from the Leningrad front. The main effort would take place in the western part of the isthmus. The Soviets expected to defeat the Finnish forces on the isthmus and capture the city of Viipuri within 12 days. They would then press on north and west and capture Helsinki by the middle of July. Soviet troops in the eastern part of the Karelian Isthmus were to drive north to trap the Finnish troops in East Karelia. When the Finns began to move forces from the fronts in East Karelia, the Soviets would start their next phase with troops from the Karelian front attacking in Maaselkä and across the Svir River. This was expected to happen around June 20.2
General Leonid Aleksandrovich Govorov had command on the Karelian Isthmus and was given two armies—the 21st and 23rd (later also the 59th)—consisting of seven corps. General Kiril Meretskov was responsible for operations in East Karelia and he also had two armies at his disposal—the 32nd and 7th. The front on the Karelian Isthmus was only 70 kilometers wide and in this relatively narrow sector the Soviets committed 270,000 troops, 1,660 pieces of artillery, 620 tanks, and 1,500 aircraft. The resources committed on the 220-kilometer wide Karelian front were also impressive: 184,000 troops, 2,140 pieces of artillery, 363 tanks, and 700 aircraft. Westerlund states that the Soviet quantitative advantages on the Karelian Isthmus were as follows: troops 4:1, armor 5:1, artillery 6:1, and aircraft 15:1.3
Some of the troops allocated to the offensive would be needed to support Operation Bagration in Byelorussia, an offensive scheduled to begin on June 22, 1944. The Soviet planners felt confident that they could achieve their major objectives in Finland in the period between June 10 and the start of the offensive in Byelorussia. Stalin believed the fighting qualities of the Finnish Army had declined through exhaustion as evidenced by their peace feelers. However, the operation was well prepared and the Soviets intended to use their experience in successful operations against the Germans. The troops trained for their mission for several weeks and detailed reconnaissance was carried out while maintaining the strictest operational secrecy.4
Finnish Force Dispositions and Readiness
The total strength of the Finnish Army in June 1944 was about 450,000 men. However, only a part of the army was located along the most likely Soviet avenue of approach on the Karelian Isthmus at the time of the Soviet offensive. Large forces were stationed along the Svir River in Ladogan Karelia and in the Maaselkä sector north of Lake Ladoga.5
Two corps faced the Soviets on the Karelian Isthmus. The various sources give a somewhat confusing picture of the order of battle. Both Westerlund and Ziemke write that the Finnish troops on the isthmus consisted of six divisions and two brigades. These forces also included those in Marshal Mannerheim’s reserve and were not at the front. For example, the Finnish armored division was located east of Viipuri.
The right sector bordering on the Gulf of Finland was held by IV Corps, commanded by Lieutenant General Taavetti Laatikainen. It consisted of the 10th Division under General Johanns Sihvo and the 2nd Division under Major General Armas-Eino Martola. The left sector on the isthmus was held by III Corps under General Siilasvuo. It consisted of the 18th Division under Major General Paavo Paalu and the 15th Division under Major General Niilo Hersalo.6 Ziemke writes that the Finns had three divisions in the front line and one brigade in reserve. He also notes that another three divisions were in the VT Line along with a brigade involved in building fortifications.7 The divisions Ziemke has in the VT Line must include the 3rd and 18th Divisions, and the third division to which he refers must be the armored division. There were 289 field artillery pieces supporting these forces.8
The Finnish V and VI Corps held the Svir front while II Corps held the front in East Karelia. The V Corps consisted of the 7th Division, 11th Division, and the 20th Brigade. The 5th and 8th Divisions as well as the 15th Brigade were assigned to VI Corps. II Corps consisted of the 1st Division and 29th Brigade. Furthermore, the 14th Division was in the Rukajärvi area. There were also three large units in a reserve status on the Svir and Maaselkä fronts—4th Division, 17th Division, and 20th Brigade. It is not clear whether these reserves were under corps control or if they were part of Mannerheim’s general reserve.
The defense of the Karelian Isthmus was based on three defensive lines. The first represented the front occupied by the Finns on June 9, 1944, and it coincided roughly with the 1939 border. The Valkesaari (Beloostrov) area in the IV Corps zone was considered the most exposed sector of the Finnish front and work on strengthening and expanding on the fortifications in this area had been ongoing for some time.
The second line, referred to as the VT position, was directly behind the front on more defensible terrain, at a distance of 14 to 22 kilometers behind the front. It ran from the town of Vammelsuu on the Gulf of Finland to the village of Taipale (Solovevo) on Lake Ladoga. The third line—referred to as the VKT position—ran from the city of Viipuri to the town of Kuparsaari and then along the Vuoksi River to Taipale. It was located on naturally defensible terrain but construction had only begun six months before the Soviet offensive and was far from complete. There was also a line to the north of the VKT position, representing the 1940 border between Finland and the Soviet Union. This was located in unfavorable terrain for defense and the fortifications had basically been neglected since 1941.
The Finnish forces had spent the period from the end of 1941 in a defensive posture. They prepared new defensive positions in the areas they had captured but it appears that the work was not carried out thoroughly nor with vigor. The lack of urgency may be related to the fact that the Finns felt a sense of security as long as Army Group North was in position in the Leningrad area. The work on the VKT and U positions (north of Lake Ladoga), for example, was not begun until November 1943 when it had become obvious that the Germans might lose their hold on the area to the south and southwest of Leningrad.
This long period in an almost garrison-type setting may have led to a lowering of morale and the loss of the fighting élan that was so evident in the 1941 offensives. The Finnish troops had been in the line for over two and a half years by the early summer of 1944. This resulted in both fatigue and a certain degree of mental burnout. The troops and their leaders appear to have become somewhat complacent as a result of this long period of trench inactivity. This is reflected in the lack of vigorous training, lack of urgency in the construction of fortifications, and a slackening in aggressive gathering of intelligence.9 The Finns may also have underestimated the Soviets and based their opinions on their own experience in the Winter War and the 1941 offensive, not factoring in the German experience on the eastern front since 1941. The increasing political opposition to the war and rumors of peace feelers probably had their impact on the morale of the soldiers.
There were also several serious deficiencies in armaments. The lighter Finnish antitank weapons were ineffective against the modern Soviet heavy tanks. Those that were effective were so heavy and cumbersome that they were difficult to move around on the battlefield. The modern German infantry antitank weapons were only made available on a rush basis after the start of the Soviet offensive and training in the use of these weapons was virtually nonexistent. The field and antiaircraft artillery had been modernized by weapons received from Germany, but their numbers were inadequate.
As mentioned earlier, the Germans (OKW and 20th Mountain Army) had rated the ability of the Finns to withstand a major Soviet offensive as low in January 1943. General Dietl predicted again in June 1943 that the Finnish Army could not withstand a strong Soviet attack. He concluded that the Finns were superior to the German troops as forest fighters and war under the severe climate in Finland but that they had a strong preference for avoiding major battles.10 Ziemke goes on to explain that there was a feeling among the Germans that the Finns had not adapted to the conditions of total war and that they had failed to appreciate the problems faced by the Germans on the eastern front. Most of these observations were confirmed by an OKW officer who visited southern Finland in July 1944.11
It is difficult to assign blame to any one individual for the apparent negligent positioning of forces and the less than satisfactory condition of defensive positions. As pointed out by Olli Vehviläinen, this issue is one of the most hotly debated in Finnish military history.12 It is rather clear that, as in all military operations, the primary responsibility rests with the commander, Marshal Mannerheim and his general staff. It is curious that they did not take immediate and energetic action as soon as it became evident that the Germans would not be able to maintain their grip on Leningrad. Some strengthening of the forces on the Karelian Isthmus had taken place in the spring of 1944 and the construction of fortifications was speeded up. However, it was too little and too late.
The Finns also fell short in their evaluation of both the strategic and tactical situations. Mannerheim writes that “it seems, from a military point of view, strange that the Russians attacked Finland at all,” since “there could be no doubt that the Finnish question would find its solution in the defeat of German arms.” He observes that “It could be taken for granted that Finland, even without being attacked, would accept bearable peace conditions, and it was not reasonable to assume that we could constitute a danger to the Soviet Union in the last phase of the war.”13 In retrospect, he offers the correct reason. The Soviet Union wanted to knock Finland out of the war so that it did not become part of the general settlement after the war. They wanted to ensure that they had a free hand in this area. It seems obvious, however, that he based his actions in early 1944 on the military assumption that the Soviets would leave Finland alone to wither on the vine, an apparent neglect of the fact that wars are fought for political objectives.
It may have been because of his preoccupation with the lack of military justifications for an attack on Finland that Mannerheim continued to keep the bulk of the Finnish Army in East Karelia, possibly hoping that possession of this area would give Finland a bargaining chip in the settlement that would obviously follow a German defeat. The failure of the Finns to request large numbers of infantry antitank weapons from the Germans, knowing that a major Soviet offensive would involve strong armored forces, points in the same direction—a full-scale Soviet offensive was not expected. These weapons had proved very effective on the eastern front and Germany had begun mass production of them in 1942.
The Finns were taken by surprise by the Soviet offensive. Part of this, as explained above, can be traced to how they viewed the geopolitical situation. This outlook may have influenced their faulty interpretation of intelligence warnings—which were not lacking. The Finnish intelligence service repeatedly warned the High Command that a Soviet offensive should be expected, but they were apparently not believed.14 Mannerheim mentions some of these warnings in his memoirs:
Since the early spring, enemy reconnaissance and artillery activities on the Karelian Isthmus had increased. In May, reports were received of a change in the composition of the enemy troops, of the appearance of new infantry divisions, artillery, and armoured detachments and an army staff not observed before.15
There were also several company-size probing attacks in both the Finnish and German sectors and the Soviets had busied themselves with mine-clearing operations in the Gulf of Finland. On June 1, the Finnish army intelligence service warned the General Staff that a Soviet offensive should be expected within ten days. The Soviets also imposed radio silence on their units four or five days before the offensive, a sure sign that something big was afoot. Even this did not convince the Finnish General Staff.16
The military logic of a Soviet offensive taking place on the Karelian Isthmus and all the warning signs should have energized the Finns. There was still time to bring in reinforcements from East Karelia but this was not done until the Soviet attack was well underway. In addition, troops who had been furloughed to participate in agricultural work were not recalled. Finally, settlers had been allowed to enter the recovered territories and they were now about to be caught in the maelstrom. As Vehviläinen correctly notes, the “highly motorized Red Army hungry for victory was met by an army ill-prepared in both morale and equipment for confrontation on the massive scale that was being fought in 1944.”17
The Soviet Offensive—June 9–10
Most sources give the start of the Soviet summer offensive as June 10, a day that Mannerheim describes as “the black day of our war history.”18 However, preparatory actions began on June 9 with a strong Soviet air offensive on the Karelian Isthmus. According to General Erfurth, over 1,000 Soviet aircraft carried out saturation bombing of the forward Finnish positions between the Gulf of Finland and Lake Lembaloskoye on the border between IV Corps and III Corps.19 The bombing campaign included the rear area of IV Corps. The Soviet artillery joined in laying down a heavy barrage on the Finnish front lines. Strong infantry probing attacks were also launched against the Finnish positions. Heavy fighting followed, particularly in the area adjacent to the Gulf of Finland, but the Finns were able to repel the attacks and seal the enemy penetrations.
The full offensive began at 0500 hours on June 10. Preparatory fires by Soviet artillery and aircraft were exceedingly violent. The Soviet infantry, supported by heavy tanks, also launched their attack. The main effort was directed at the right flank of the 10th Finnish Division, which was holding the sector along the Gulf of Finland. Several writers report that the artillery and air preparation was the heaviest of the war on the eastern front up to then, surpassed only by the storm of fire unleashed in the Soviet crossing of the Oder-Neisse line in their final drive on Berlin in 1945. It is reported that the Soviets deployed 200–400 pieces of artillery for each kilometer of front.20 The 13–14-kilometer wide front of the 10th Finnish Division was hit by 220,000 artillery shells within a couple of hours and the 17-kilometer wide front of the 2nd Finnish Division was hit by 60,000 shells.21
The main effort of the 21st Soviet Army was directed at the Finnish 10th Division. When the artillery preparation described above and the thousands of tons of bombs are included, the results were predictable. The pulverizing effect of the Soviet fire destroyed the Finnish front line trenches. The avalanche of exploding shells buried soldiers under tons of sand, earth, and debris. The protective minefields and barbed wire entanglements were practically destroyed. Units lost telephone communications with their headquarters as the rain of high explosive shells severed the lines, and radios were virtually impossible to use due to the incredible noise created by the continuous explosions. The noise was so loud and continuous that it rattled windows in the town of Mikkeli, the site of the Finnish General Headquarters. Mannerheim writes that the noise from the battlefield could be heard both in Mikkeli and in Helsinki, located 220 and 260 kilometers from the battlefield respectively.22
The counterbattery fire by the Finnish artillery was of little help, and the battery positions were constantly attacked by Soviet aircraft. The hell-on-earth situation in which the Finnish soldiers found themselves had a paralyzing effect. The debris and smoke from the thousands of exploding shells reduced visibility to only a few meters. The losses were heavy and rising. Panic developed in many areas and when the Soviet infantry reached the Finnish trenches they sometimes found them empty except for dead and wounded.23
The weight of the Russian attack by three corps (109th, 30th, and 97th) fell on the Finnish 10th Division and particularly on the regiment at Valkesaari, commanded by Colonel Viljanen. The regiment was virtually annihilated in the massive assault by three Soviet divisions. A steady stream of enemy tanks and artillery batteries pushed through the breach. Within seven hours of launching its massive attack, the 21st Soviet Army had broken through the Finnish front and was rapidly approaching the VT Line.
It took hours before the Finnish General Headquarters had some idea of what was happening along the front on the Karelian Isthmus. This was not an unusual situation in a large battle where all means of communications are destroyed and where the enemy air situation is such as to prevent travel on the roads leading into the sector under attack.
The Finnish Cavalry Brigade, located along the Gulf of Finland, tried to stem the Soviet onslaught but was almost immediately forced to withdraw by the oncoming steamroller. It withdrew into the VT Line. The badly mauled 10th Finnish Division was also making a rapid retreat to the second defensive line, having lost most of its artillery. This forced the adjacent 2nd Division, which had so far held its positions, to bend its right wing north in trying to maintain contact with the 10th Division. The Soviets had not yet exerted any strong pressure against the III Finnish Corps on the eastern half of the Karelian Isthmus and it remained in the original front line.
The Soviets relied on the method of attack that had served them well in their battles with the Germans. They had assembled a force of some 24 divisions in the Karelian Isthmus sector to achieve a breakthrough and carry out a pursuit. To achieve this, the Soviets relied almost entirely on their vast superiority in armor, artillery, and aircraft. As they had done so often against the Germans, the Soviet offensive was concentrated on a narrow front to achieve a quick breakthrough and then exploit that breakthrough by several corps operating abreast.
By midnight on the first day the Soviets had expanded their penetration in the IV Finnish Corps sector and widened the salient to a distance of almost 35 kilometers. The IV Corps commander, Lieutenant General Laatikainen, was ordered to recapture the original defensive line. The Finnish General Headquarters still had no clear picture of the magnitude of the Soviet offensive and the critical situation at the front. General Laatikainen tried to carry out his orders but the 30th Soviet Guards Army Corps, leading the advance in the center of the breakthrough, made such a rapid advance that any Finnish offensive operations were out of the question. The lead element of the Soviet corps had reached the Finnish artillery positions either by the end of the first day, or early the next. Before withdrawing, the artillery personnel resorted to using their indirect weapons in a direct-fire role. Some of the artillery fell into enemy hands.
Mannerheim and his staff were now becoming aware of the magnitude of the Soviet offensive and it became obvious that the original front could not be restored through counterattacks. The best that could be hoped for was to seal off the penetration. To achieve this, Mannerheim intended first of all to use whatever forces that were immediately available. These included the armored division east of Viipuri, the 3rd Division in the vicinity of the VT Line, the 200th Estonian Regiment, and a few battalions and batteries from the 2nd and 18th Divisions that were located adjacent to the 10th Division.24 All personnel on leave were recalled to their units. Reinforcements from outside were also ordered to the Karelian Isthmus. These included the 3rd Brigade in the Salla area of the 20th Mountain Army sector and the 4th Division from the Maaselkä front in East Karelia. Some of the fighter aircraft from the 3rd Air Regiment and 60 bombers from the 4th Air Regiment were ordered to the Karelian Isthmus.25
Marshal Mannerheim, having realized that counterattacks would not work to restore the situation, ordered General Laatikainen to withdraw his forces to the VT Line. The problem was that the Soviet troops could reach the VT Line before the Finns could occupy the positions. The lack of artillery and the demoralized state of the troops withdrawing from the front hampered the delaying actions required for an orderly withdrawal.
The Soviet Offensive—June 11 and 12
The 3rd Finnish Division, from Mannerheim’s strategic reserve, occupied its part of the VT Line on June 11. The badly mauled 10th Division withdrew to the rear through the 3rd Division. The Cavalry Brigade occupied the VT positions between the 3rd Division and the Gulf of Finland. Those units of the Finnish IV Corps that had not been driven out of their positions on June 10 were driven back to the VT Line on June 11. The 2nd Division took up positions on the east flank of the 3rd Division. The 18th Division was also ordered forward and took up positions to the east of the 2nd Division. In order to avoid the development of a gap in the front the Finnish III Corps continued to bend its right wing northward to maintain contact with IV Corps.
By July 12 the Finns had managed to occupy the VT Line in the IV Corps area and the forces were arranged in the following order from west to east:
1. Cavalry Brigade.
2. The 3rd Division.26
3. The 2nd Division.
4. The 18th Division (actually straddling the border between IV and III Corps).
At the rear of the VT Line was the Armored Division, the remnants of the 10th Division, and some other units as part of Mannerheim’s reserve. The Finnish High Command also ordered III Corps, which had not been under serious attack, to withdraw to the VT Line. This allowed the front, which had become bent with the withdrawal of IV Corps, to be straightened out and shortened.
Marshal Mannerheim sent General Erfurth, the German liaison officer, a request that the Germans lift their embargo on ammunition. This query was immediately sent to the OKW. The Finnish request on June 11 was followed by a new one on June 12. The first part of the request involved Luftwaffe support. The Finns wanted the Luftwaffe to take over air operations in the southern part of the Karelian Isthmus to disrupt Soviet supply movements into the operational area. The second part of the request involved the immediate delivery of aircraft, assault guns, and anitaircraft artillery that the Finns had ordered earlier but which had been held back in Germany. The initial OKW reply was to announce that the ammunition and grain deliveries that had been halted earlier would resume immediately.
The Soviet 21st Army attacked the VT Line at Vammelsuu and Kivennapa (Pervomajskoje) on the morning of June 12. The Soviets also attacked the Finns east of Kivennapa where the III Corps was in the process of withdrawing to the VT Line. In spite of continuous heavy attacks throughout the day the Finns held out about five kilometers south of the VT Line. The most serious equipment shortcoming in the Finnish Army was the lack of antitank weapons for the infantry. In spite of this, the Finns reportedly managed to destroy 29 Russian tanks in front of the VT Line on June 12.27
The most important question now facing the Finnish High Command was whether the VT Line could be held with the forces available. The 3rd Brigade from Salla and the 4th Division from the Maaselkä front were on their way to the Karelian Isthmus but there was no great optimism that these additional units would be able to make the difference.
The Soviet Offensive—June 13–15
General Dietl, the commander of the 20th Mountain Army, met General Erfurth in Helsinki on June 13, 1944. They were both pessimistic about the situation on the Karelian Isthmus, believing that the Finns would not be able to hold the VT Line. Dietl also visited President Ryti who displayed a confident and calm outlook. Dietl was forced to spend the night at Mikkeli because his aircraft slid off the runway when he dropped off General Erfurth. There he met with Defense Minister Walden, Lieutenant General Heinrichs, the chief of the Finnish General Staff, and in the morning of June 14 with Marshal Mannerheim at the latter’s country estate at Sairila. As opposed to President Ryti, Mannerheim appeared genuinely concerned about the military situation and believed that the Soviets were striving for a decisive outcome in their offensive.
Heinrichs told Dietl that if the VT Line could not be held the Finns intended to give up the Svir and Maaselkä fronts and pull back to a shorter line northeast of Lake Ladoga, thus making two or three divisions available for the Karelian Isthmus. Since November 1943, when the possibility loomed that Army Group North would be driven from the Leningrad area, the Finns had worked on the so-called U Line. This line ran from Koirinoja on Lake Ladoga to Loymola and then northeast to Tolvajärvi. Dietl urged General Heinrichs to carry out that plan as quickly as possible, but he considered it quite possible that in their reluctance to give up East Karelia, the Finns would procrastinate so long that the withdrawal would be jeopardized. This was the gist of Dietl’s report to the OKW upon his return to Rovaniemi. He recommended to Hitler that the Finns be given as much support as possible but that Germany dictate a Finnish course of action that would not so dissipate their energy in holding East Karelia that it would preclude other options. Dietl believed that the Finns could hold out indefinitely in a shorter line and thereby spare the Germans from having to carry out the planned withdrawal to Norway.28
Mannerheim ordered the transfer of the 17th Division and the 20th Brigade by rail from the Svir front to the Karelian Isthmus. Even with these reinforcements—on top of the 4th Division and 3rd Brigade—it appeared doubtful that the Finns would be able to hold their own in view of the men and matériel the Soviets had poured into their offensive.
As more and more Finnish units were on their way to or had received orders to move (the 11th and 6th Divisions) to the Karelian Isthmus, Mannerheim found it necessary to make some command changes. Since tactical control of operations on the Karelian Isthmus had become difficult from Mikkeli, Lieutenant General Oesch was ordered from the Lake Onega area to take command of all forces on the Karelian Isthmus except for the strategic reserves. Lieutenant General Talvela assumed command of all Finnish forces on the Svir front and Major General Mäkinen took over the Maaselkä front. Oesch assumed his post on June 15. His staff was inadequate in numbers at the outset.
The Finns expected the Soviets to continue their drive along the shortest line to Viipuri and that the main effort on this drive would be in the vicinity of Kivennapa. They therefore concentrated the 3rd Division and the Armored Division for the defense of this town. The left flank of the 3rd Division was located at the town of Siiranmäki where it tied into the 2nd Division, which was responsible for the protection of the III Corps right flank.
General Govorov paused his drive momentarily in front of the VT Line on June 13 while the lead elements reconnoitered for weak spots in the Finnish defenses. They found that Kivennapa was well defended but that the line appeared weakest to the west, in the vicinity of the town of Kuuterselkä (Lebyazhe), and to the east near Siiranmäki. The Soviets therefore divided their main effort into two attacks. Against Kuuterselkä they committed three infantry divisions, a brigade of armor, one assault regiment, one armor assault regiment, and two assault gun regiments. The 98th Army Corps was committed against Siiranmäki. The 30th Guard Corps took up positions at Kivennapa while the 97th Army Corps constituted the reserve.
The situation grew critical again for the Finns on June 14. The Soviets launched full-scale attacks against the VT Line from Siiranmäki to Vammelsuu. The attack against Vammelsuu was repelled by the Finnish Cavalry Brigade. The Soviets broke into the Finnish line at Sahakylä, northeast of Vammelsuu, but they were driven back in a counterattack. The main attack against Kuuterselkä was preceded by a heavy artillery and air preparation. The attack by two Soviet divisions and an armored brigade fell on a single Finnish battalion and led to a penetration that was sealed off with difficulty by local reserves. Some of the troops that attacked Kuuterselkä turned to the left and struck the Finnish Cavalry Brigade’s left flank and rear. The brigade had to make a hasty withdrawal to avoid being encircled.
The IV Corps commander, Lieutenant General Laatikainen, ordered a counterattack by troops from a light infantry brigade and the assault gun battalion from the Armored Division to regain the positions in Kuuterselkä. The counterattack, supported by 20 bombers and artillery, made good progress initially and the lost positions were recaptured. Ten Soviet tanks were destroyed in a violent tank battle that raged throughout the night near the town. However, the counterattack ran out of steam and ammunition. The Finnish losses were heavy, including the assault gun battalion commander, and they were forced to withdraw. The enemy followed the withdrawing Finns and poured through the penetration in the VT Line in increasing numbers and continued in the direction of the town of Perkjärvi (Kirpitshnoje), to the northwest of Kuuerselkä. By the morning of June 16 the penetration was deepened to a distance of 10 kilometers. Heavy enemy artillery fire and air activity prevented the movement of forces to seal the penetration. The 2nd Division further to the east was also subject to heavy attacks.
Since the Finnish infantry was having great difficulty coping with Soviet tanks, the Finnish High Command made an emergency request to the Germans for light antitank weapons. The request was acted on immediately. The first shipment arrived by plane from the 20th Mountain Army in Rovaniemi. A larger amount was brought in by a German torpedo boat.
The OKW was increasingly worried about the Finns’ ability to halt the Soviet offensive and sent a Führer directive to the 20th Mountain Army to hasten the construction of rear defensive positions in Lapland. The Finns, who had their hands full with the events on the Karelian Isthmus, were either not aware of the directive or failed to pay it any attention.
It had become obvious to the Finnish High Command by June 15 that they would not be able to hold the VT Line. The reinforcements from East Karelia had not yet arrived. It appears that some thought was given to occupying the old Mannerheim Line from the Winter War rather than withdrawing directly to the VKT Line. Lieutenant General Oesch, who had just taken over command on the Karelian Isthmus, did not think that sufficient time remained for occupying the Mannerheim Line, and he pointed out that it was in poor condition from damage inflicted during the Winter War as well as from mismanagement in the period following. Oesch’s recommendation was for a tough fighting withdrawal directly to the VKT Line to allow time for the reinforcements to reach their destinations. His recommendation was accepted.
The Soviets had in the meantime continued their offensive and by June 15 they had torn up the Finnish front over a 13-kilometer stretch between Kuuterselkä and the Viipuri-Leningrad Railroad along the Gulf of Finland. The enemy was obviously heading for Viipuri and the Finns had no forces available to stop them. The greatest Finnish worry was that the Soviets would, for the time being, bypass the city and head for the 27-kilometer isthmus between the Bay of Viipuri and the Vuoksi River. If they carried out this operation, the Soviets had a good chance of reaching that isthmus before the III and IV Corps could be withdrawn. Such an event could be decisive since it would prevent the occupation of the western part of the VKT Line and force the Finns to retreat northward across the Vuoksi. They would probably be forced to abandon their heavy equipment in the process since there was only one bridge across the river.
Under continued heavy attacks Mannerheim ordered a withdrawal to the VKT Line on June 16. The Finns were to conduct a tough fighting withdrawal but not become involved in decisive engagements that would risk their destruction. Some of the early reinforcements from East Karelia were now beginning to arrive. The 4th Division was directed to the lake country between Viipuri and the Vuoksi River. The 20th Brigade was directed to the area southeast of Viipuri.
Eastern Sector of the Karelian Isthmus
According to Soviet plans, Lieutenant General A. Tjerepanov’s 23rd Army initially had the mission of binding the Finnish forces in its sector while the 21st and 23rd Armies conducted the main attack further west. Later, it was to attack the Finnish III Corps and cross to the eastern bank of the Vuoksi River. Because of its more limited tasks in the offensive the 23rd Army consisted of only two corps initially. The plans were to add a corps as operations progressed. The 23rd Army was faced with the III Finnish Corps under Lieutenant General Hjalmar Siilasvuo but because its area of responsibility overlapped the sector of the Finnish IV Corps, it also faced significant forces of the Finnish 2nd Division belonging to that corps.
Soviet troops attacked the 2nd Division on June 10 between Kivennapa and Termola. The Finnish defenses held but the situation further west at Kuuterselkä forced the IV Finnish Corps to order a withdrawal. In the evening of June 11 the 2nd Division was established in the VT Line at Siiranmäki and eastward.
On 14 June, the Soviet 97th Army Corps, supported by heavy artillery preparations and tank forces, attacked the reinforced 7th Finnish Infantry Regiment, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Ehrnrooth. The attack led to heavy fighting in a seesaw battle that raged for two days. The 97th Corps was relieved by the 98th Corps, but the 7th Infantry Regiment continued the fight without reinforcements. The regimental losses rose to 900 troops and fatigue became an important factor. The Soviet losses were much greater and they lost at least 21 tanks. The 7th Infantry Regiment held its positions but was finally ordered back to the VKT Line at Äyräpää in order to avoid being encircled.
With the expected arrival on the Karelian Isthmus of the 11th and 6th Divisions from East Karelia, the Finns had switched the preponderance of their forces from East Karelia to the Karelian Isthmus. To command the increasing number of Finnish forces on the Karelian Isthmus the commander of the Finnish V Corps, Major General Antero Svensson, and his staff were moved from the Svir front to the Viipuri area. On June 22, General Svensson’s V Corps took over the reinforcements assembling in this area, including the 17th Division, 20th Brigade, and a number of smaller units.
Soviet Offensive—16–21 June
Soviet attacks and Finnish retreats continued unabated on June 16 and 17. The strongest Soviet pressure was in the area along the coast near the Gulf of Finland. The Finns slowly retired in the direction of the VKT Line but continued to hold the eastern part of the VT Line from Siiranmäki to the shore of Lake Ladoga. This eastern part of the VT Line was evacuated on orders from the Finnish High Command on June 17.
The Soviets, employing strong armored forces, captured the town of Perkjärvi southeast of Viipuri but it was recaptured in a Finnish counterattack. The Soviets also made an armor-led breakthrough in the Kuolemajärvi area but the Finns were again able to avert a deep penetration and the Soviets reportedly lost 34 heavy tanks. The potential of the newly arrived infantry antitank weapons had been demonstrated.
The main elements of the 4th Division and the 3rd Brigade arrived on June 16. The 17th Division and the 20th Brigade arrived between June 18 and 20. The 20th Brigade was sent to Viipuri. The 17th Division was split. Its 13th Regiment was assigned to the IV Corps and two battalions of that regiment took part in the fighting in the 4th Division sector. The rest of the 17th Division was moved to the Kilpenjoki area as part of the strategic reserve.
The III Finnish corps occupied the long eastern part of the VKT Line, along the eastern bank of the Vuoksi River to Taipale. A small bridgehead was retained on the western bank of the Vuoksi in the Vuosalmi area. This bridgehead was occupied by four battalions.
The VKT Line was the last defensive line on the Karelian Isthmus. The 20th Brigade was responsible for the defense of Viipuri on a five-kilometer wide sector. It tied into the 3rd Brigade in the east, which also held a sector of approximately five kilometers. To its east was the 18th Division, which held a 10-kilometer sector followed by the 3rd Division, which held the sector to the Vuoksi River where it tied into the 2nd Division of III Corps. The reserve consisted of the Armored Division, the 10th Division, the Cavalry Brigade, and the 17th Division minus one regiment. These were all located to the west or southwest of Viipuri. The 10th Division and the Cavalry Brigade had been badly mauled and had lost most of their artillery and heavy equipment. The 6th and 11th Divisions were still on their way to the Karelian Isthmus.
On Lieutenant General Oesch’s recommendation it had been decided not to halt and defend the old Mannerheim Line. General Govorov had expected this line to be heavily defended, remembering its tenacious defense in the Winter War. When the Soviet forces reached this line and pushed through it with virtually no opposition, they took it as an indication that the Finnish Army was finally destroyed. General Govorov was quickly promoted to Marshal of the Soviet Union in anticipation of receiving a delegation of Finnish officers who would acknowledge their defeat.
The Soviet advance continued and their troops soon reached Tali to the northeast of Viipuri. Their order of battle was impressive. There were two corps in the vicinity of Viipuri and another six corps to the east of Viipuri. These corps contained 20 infantry divisions, three artillery divisions, four armored brigades, five to seven armored regiments, and seven self-propelled assault gun regiments. It looked discouraging for the Finns who were still trying to establish themselves in the VKT Line. Against these units, the best the Finns could hope for by using all their reserves was a force of 10 divisions and four brigades.
Mannerheim hoped to continue the delaying actions until the last reinforcements from East Karelia arrived. In part of his order of the day on June 19 he exhorted his soldiers:
When the army now takes up the defense in the VKT-positions, it is time to bring the enemy’s penetration into the country to an end…. I know that the fortifications are nonexistent or unfinished, but I trust the Finnish soldier will, if necessary, use the terrain and his perseverance to create an unwavering defense.29
The city of Viipuri fell quickly to the Soviets on June 20 after a short fight, within the scheduled time frame laid down in their plans. The Soviet fixation on the capture of the Karelian capital may have helped the Finns escape what could have been a disaster. The main Soviet effort had been directed against Viipuri. Had they directed their offensive a little further east, against the narrows between Viipuri and Vuloksi, they could have frustrated Finnish efforts to establish themselves in the VKT Line, the general area where they stopped the Soviet advance in 1940.
In the evening of June 21, Lieutenant General Oesch ordered Lieutenant General Laatikainen to send the 17th Division from Juustila, north of Viipuri, to the northern coast of Viipuri Bay at Tienhaara to prevent a Soviet crossing of that bay. Only the 61st Infantry Regiment, a separate battalion, a mortar company, and most of the divisional artillery were available.
The 61st Infantry Regiment, under Lieutenant Colonel Alpo Kullervo Marttinen, arrived at Tienhaara in the afternoon of June 22 and established itself along the shore. German aircraft from Group Kuhlmey carried out a bombing attack against the amphibious craft assembled by the Soviets on the other side of the bay. Troops from two Soviet divisions attacked across the bay in the evening of June 22 following a heavy artillery barrage. The attack was repelled but new attempts were made throughout the night.
Marshal Govorov decided that trying to cross the Bay of Viipuri would be too costly and time-consuming. The Soviet troops involved were relieved by other forces and moved to the main operational theater in the Juustila-Ihantala area.
Despite having frustrated Soviet attempts to cross the Bay of Viipuri, things were far from bright for the Finns. The loss of Viipuri was a heavy blow to Finnish morale. Having captured Viipuri the Soviets could direct their offensive both westward along the northern shore of the Gulf of Finland against the harbor city of Hamina and northward to Ihantala and Lake Saimaa from Lappeenranta to Imatra. After reaching these areas the terrain opened up and the possibilities for an armor-led advance were excellent. The Finns knew that the decisive fight was close at hand.
German Assistance and Political Developments
As soon as the magnitude of the Soviet summer offensive became evident, the Finnish military leadership realized that they could avert catastrophe only with help from Germany. The only other alternative was to seek peace with the Soviet Union. Both avenues were tried—simultaneously. The two avenues were actually linked since the Finns had concluded that the only way they could get acceptable terms from the Soviets would be by stabilizing their fronts. In their desperate situation the Finns were prepared to use German aid for purposes that were against the interests of their brothers-in-arms. The Germans may well have realized what the Finns were up to in view of the many flirtations with the West and the Soviet Union over the past two years but there was not much they could do about it except, as we shall see in the next chapter, conditioning their aid on a firm commitment by the Finns to stay in the war at the side of Germany. Not providing the requested aid would only lead to Finland being promptly knocked out of the war.
The Germans responded quickly to Finnish requests for assistance despite their own precarious situation. Hitler lifted the embargo on June 13. German torpedo boats brought in 9,000 Panzerfausts.30 Mannerheim also requested a large number of Panzerschrecks31 as well as ground support aircraft. The Finnish request stated that the VKT Line could be held only if these requests were approved and delivery expedited. Five thousand Panzerschrecks were airlifted to Finland on June 22.
The Finns also tried to get military assistance, in the form of arms, from Sweden. A request to that effect was made on June 18. It resulted in a unanimous refusal by the Swedish government.
Lieutenant General Heinrichs asked Erfurth late on June 19 whether the Germans were prepared to provide aid other than weapons. He specifically asked for six divisions to take over the front in East Karelia in order for the Finns to concentrate their efforts on the Karelian Isthmus. The formal request was made by Mannerheim on June 20.
The German answer came quickly. It pointed out that to provide the six divisions Mannerheim requested was impossible but other help was promised. This was a sensible answer in view of Germany’s own force requirements. However, setting these aside, it made little military sense to send a large German force to East Karelia. The Germans already had their strongest army tied up in central and northern Finland, contributing virtually nothing to the war effort. It would be folly to send an equally strong force to be isolated in East Karelia where there would be great difficulties keeping it supplied.
The OKW answer on June 20 was based on the verbal request from Heinrichs on June 19. Aside from not being able to provide the requested six divisions, OKW promised significant help as long as they were assured that the Finns were determined to hold the VKT Line. Besides weapons, ammunition, and supplies, the Germans offered the 122nd Infantry Division from Army Group North, and the 303rd Assault Gun Brigade.32 They also agreed to make available Luftwaffe units. Air Group Kuhlmey, consisting of one fighter group and a group plus a squadron of Stuka ground support aircraft were made available. These 70 aircraft came from the 1st and 5th Air Fleets. They were stationed at Imola Airfield outside Helsinki. The air support was immediate and the German aircraft flew 940 support sorties in support of the Finnish Army on June 21.33
This was substantial aid considering the desperate situation in which the Germans found themselves. The Western Allies had landed in Normandy while the greatest Soviet offensive of the war was expected any day.
The Finnish political leaders, surprised by the magnitude of the Soviet offensive, were prepared to make peace quickly and on almost any terms. The loss of the VT Line caused a political crisis in Finland. Linkomies and Tanner decided on June 15 that there should be a change in government and that President Ryti had to step down so that a new government acceptable to the Soviet Union could seek peace. They felt that Mannerheim should take over as president. They believed he would be acceptable to the Soviet Union and at the same time his prestige would help keep the country together after the expected harsh conditions.
Ryti was willing to give up the presidency and Mannerheim agreed with a change in government and suing for peace but he refused adamantly to accept the position being offered.34 Mannerheim was obviously in a pessimistic mood and that is understandable as the VT Line had been lost, his troops were retreating, and reinforcements were not in place. He urged that the proposed steps be undertaken quickly since it was not a matter of days but of hours. He soon had a change of heart, probably because of promised German assistance and the fact that his troops were fighting a successful delaying action that would provide the time needed for reinforcements to arrive. He concluded that it was risky to burn the bridge to Germany by discussing peace terms with the Soviets until the front had been stabilized.35