The 20th Mountain Army's katabasis1

Operation Nordlicht

Hitler approved the withdrawal of the 20th Mountain Army to the Lyngenfjord defense line in Norway after the OKW assessment was presented to him on October 3, 1944, but no date was set for the withdrawal of the XIX Mountain Corps on the Murmansk front. That Corps had to remain in position until the units withdrawing from central Finland were out of harm’s way. The OKW issued warning orders for the withdrawal of the 20th Mountain Army on October 4 and 5. The operation was code-named Nordlicht (Northern Lights) on October 6.

Operation Nordlicht, which is actually an extension of Operation Birke, has no parallel in military history. It involved the withdrawal, under pressure, of over 250,000 men and their equipment and supplies during winter in the arctic. The distances from Ivalo and Kirkenes to Narvik, respectively, were 1,100 kilometers and 1,000 kilometers. It was realized by all that the planned withdrawal could succeed only with great good luck and adherence to a strict timetable and centralized command.

The XXXVI was the most fortunate of the German corps in that it had an all-weather road for its withdrawal from Rovaniemi via Ivalo and Inari to Karasjok and Lakselv in Norway. It was planned to move the following units along this road: XXXVI Corps Headquarters, 169th Infantry Division, 163rd Infantry Division, and Group Steets.

The XVIII Mountain Corps was to withdraw over the so-called Finland Road from Tornio via Muonio to Skibotten in Norway. The road from Tornio in the south was unimproved to Muonio. Between Muonio and Skibotten it was only half completed and had a low carrying capacity. The motorized units of the 6th SS Mountain Division were to withdraw from Rovaniemi to Muonio and lead the withdrawal from there to Norway. The infantry elements of the division would follow and the withdrawal of the division could not be complete at its destination until their arrival. Other strong units sent on the road to Skibotten included the 7th Mountain Division, Division Group Kräutler, all the horse-drawn heavy artillery units, and XVIII Corps Headquarters.

The 6th SS Mountain Division was given movement priority to the Bjørnefell area east of Narvik to protect against possible Swedish intervention in conjunction with the landing of Norwegian forces from England. A radio announcement by the Norwegian king on October 26, 1944 that Norwegian forces would soon intervene in north Norway at the side of the Soviets strengthened the fear of Swedish intervention. This fear was also given as one of the reasons for the German decision to evacuate the civilian population and adopt a scorched-earth policy in Finnmark Province—so as to prevent the enemy from gaining a foothold in the area vacated by the Germans.

The XIX Corps would use the Pechenga–Kirkenes road in the initial phase of its withdrawal. Thereafter it would use Route 50 via Lakselv to Lyngenfjord. The units expected to use this route included the corps headquarters, 6th Mountain Division, 2nd Mountain Division, Division Group van der Hoop, and the 210th Infantry Division. It was planned for units of the XIX Mountain Corps to arrive west of Lakselv (Salmon River) by November 15 at the latest. Route 50 between Lakselv and Kirkenes was usually impassable because of snow between October 1 and late spring. The autumn of 1944 was unusually mild but that was not expected to last. A mobile rear guard from XIX Mountain Corps would cover the withdrawal.

The Lyngenfjord defensive line and the Narvik area were to be manned by units from LXXI Corps stationed in Norway. In addition, units from the withdrawing forces were also earmarked for this defensive line. These included the XIX Corps Headquarters, the 6th and 7th Mountain Divisions, the 210th Infantry Division, the Bicycle Reconnaissance Brigade Norway, and the Machinegun Brigade Finland. The 20th Mountain Army was informed that it had to rely on its own fuel stocks until April 1945.

There were numerous unknown problems and unanswered questions facing the Germans in this history-making withdrawal. Would the mild autumn weather continue or would the normal October gales set in with heavy snowfall which would make the withdrawal routes impassable? Would the Finns, following the two corps withdrawing from central Finland, launch offensives with superior forces? While the Soviets were expected to launch an offensive against the XIX Mountain Corps their objectives could not be anticipated. Would they turn southwestward against the XXXVI Corps at Ivalo or would they follow both the XXXVI Corps and the XIX Corps into Norway?

Other possibilities also had to be considered. Would the Soviets or the Western Allies cut off the whole 20th Mountain Army by attacking Narvik or the long and narrow coastal area between Narvik and Trondheim? As is true of all prudent military planners, the Germans had to assume that the Soviets would continue their pursuit at least as far as the Lyngenfjord defense line. Route 50, interrupted by many ferry crossings, paralleled the coast for long stretches and it was therefore vulnerable to both sea and air power. Sweden’s attitude towards Germany had become increasingly hostile, and as pointed out above, an intervention could not be ruled out. Sweden had already abrogated its trade agreement with Germany. The withdrawal route of the XVIII Mountain Corps took it very close to the Swedish border for several hundred miles and any minor incident could develop into open hostilities.

German Situation on the Murmansk Front

The withdrawal of the XIX Mountain Corps was forced by a Soviet offensive that began on October 7, the same day that General Rendulic ordered the withdrawal from Kemi and Tornio in the southwestern part of his area of operation, and more than a week before the Germans evacuated Rovaniemi. The 20th Mountain Army was still scattered over an area of 200,000 square kilometers.

The XIX Mountain Corps consisted of 2nd and 6th Mountain Divisions, the 210th Infantry Division, Division Group van der Hoop, and the Bicycle Reconnaissance Brigade Norway. It had no armored units assigned. The strength of the XIX Mountain Corps, commanded by General Ferdinand Jodl, was approximately 56,000. This number and the fact that the corps consisted of four divisions is by itself very misleading since the number involved large units of static and support troops and two of the combat units were small in comparison to divisions.

The 210th Infantry Division, of five fortress battalions, was a static division and had only approximately 5,900 men assigned. The designation of van der Hoop’s outfit as a division group is also misleading. It was composed of two infantry regiments (193rd and 503rd) and had only about 4,000 men assigned. Colonel Adrian Freiherr van der Hoop had assumed command of this group on June 25, 1944, when its former commander, Major General Rossi, was killed in the same plane crash as General Dietl. When General Rossi had commanded the group it was known as Division Group Rossi. The Bicycle Reconnaissance Brigade Norway had an authorized strength of 2,130, but the actual strength is unknown. This unit had been brought in from Norway. General Rendulic had also planned to send the Machinegun Ski Brigade into the XIX Corps area but it was diverted to the Kemi-Tornio region. The 2nd Mountain Division had an assigned strength of about 16,000, and the 6th Mountain Division, with the 388th Infantry Regiment attached, had an assigned strength of about 18,000.2

The 210th Infantry Division was scattered in static positions from Alta to Kirkenes in Norway. Division Group van der Hoop was deployed from Pechenga Bay in the west to the mouth of Titovka River and thus included the neck of the Rybachiy Peninsula. The 6th Mountain Division held the main Litsa front from the Titovka River mouth south to Lake Chapr. It covered the main front and this was the reason it was reinforced with the 388th Infantry Regiment. The 2nd Mountain Division, with two regiments, held a strongpoint line along the Titovka River south and southwest of the 6th Mountain Division. The Germans had worked on their elaborate defensive positions on the Murmansk front since the summer of 1941. The German defenses along the Litsa and Titovka Rivers were based on lines of strongpoints (stutzpunktlinie) built over the past three years. The first line in this interlocking belt was occupied while the remaining two were ready for occupation. The strongpoints were built on dominating terrain and consisted of steel and concrete bunkers with all-around fields of fire. The bunkers were surrounded by barbed wire and minefields.

Major James Gebhardt gives a good description of one of these bunker complexes:

In the 2nd Mountain Division sector, for example Strongpoint Zucherhutl was manned by a company of mountain infantry, a reinforced engineer platoon, and an artillery observation section. This force was armed with thirteen light machine guns (145,000 rounds), four heavy machine guns, two 80mm mortars (2,100 rounds), two light infantry guns (1,600 rounds), and two 37-mm antitank guns (770 rounds). In the entire division sector, there were ten reinforced company-size strongpoints and several smaller positions occupied by a platoon or less…. Direct and indirect fires, engineer obstacles, minefields, and patrol covered the low ground between strongpoints, which varied in width to as much as two to four kilometers. Realizing that these gaps constituted a major weakness in the defensive system, the 2nd Mountain Division units constructed or improved additional intermediate positions in the week before the Soviet offensive began.3

A second defensive line was located 10–12 kilometers behind the front, along the west bank of the Titovka River. The final defensive line ran along the west bank of the Pechenga River, some 20–25 kilometers behind the second line. This line was strongest in the approaches to the towns of Pechenga and Luostari. In addition, there were defensive works covering the mining area at Nikel and the ports.

The Germans were aware of Soviet build-up and offensive preparations on the Murmansk front since the first half of September 1944. It was not possible to conceal these preparations in the open tundra. Construction of roads into the operational area and a trench system approaching the initial defensive line had been going on for many weeks.

The XIX Corps had brought these ominous signs of an impending offensive to the attention of the 20th Mountain Army and stressed the need for an early withdrawal. The 20th Mountain Army was therefore well aware of the danger of a major Soviet offensive in the Murmansk sector. But General Rendulic was in a dilemma. While he knew that he could not count on the mild weather continuing, he could not withdraw the XIX Mountain Corps from their well-prepared defensive lines because a Soviet push either to the northwest or southwest would imperil the withdrawal of all corps.

Some of the problems were caused by OKW insistence on evacuating large stores of supplies and equipment from the south over bad roads with limited means of transportation. Nevertheless, a sense of urgency was not evident since two weeks passed after the quartermaster reported that all stores in Rovaniemi had been evacuated before the town was vacated. This apparent lack of urgency may have been due to the belief that the XIX Corps’ well-constructed defensive front would halt any Soviet offensive and the belief at OKW that a withdrawal of the XIX Corps could be carried out in November. This last OKW opinion proved to be true as the mild weather continued into December but it should not have been the basis for planning since it was contrary to all past experience.

It was also important to delay the withdrawal for another reason. This involved the evacuation of the many facilities along the Arctic Ocean. German army facilities in Finnmark also had to be evacuated. The same was true for the Luftwaffe and its ground personnel. The Navy had to evacuate its bases in Finnmark. All this required time

Erfurth, however, maintains that the main reason for the delay can be traced back to Hitler.4 He was still obsessed with the need to hold the nickel mines despite Albert Speer’s statement minimizing their importance. Hitler’s preoccupation with the nickel mines was undoubtedly a reason for delay before October 3—when he was briefed by the OKW—but not subsequently. The delay to order the execution of Nordlicht in the XIX Corps area was probably more connected to the evacuation of supplies and the slow northward progress of the other two corps. Hitler, like others in the OKW, may well have been more worried about the effects of giving up well-prepared positions and thereby starting a process that could unravel the whole withdrawal. Even the XIX Mountain Corps appeared to have believed that the defenses on the Murmansk front would hold.5

Soviet Offensive Plans and Preparations

General Kirill A. Meretskov commanded the Karelian Front. This was a position he had held since February 1944, when planning for the offensive against the XIX Corps had begun. War games of the plans were conducted in April and May at all echelons from regiment to front.

The 14th Soviet Army had defended the approaches to Murmansk since the beginning of the war in 1941. The 14th Army was still there and commanded by Lieutenant General V. I. Shcherbakov, who had taken command in early 1942. Reinforcements for the 14th Army had flowed into the Murmansk sector since August. Forces available to General Shcherbakov at the onset of the offensive included:

1. Two light infantry corps (126th and 127th). These units were formed in early 1944 from naval infantry brigades and separate ski units. The 126th Light Infantry Corps, composed of two brigades, was commanded by Colonel V. N. Solovev. Major General G. A. Zhukov commanded the 127th Light Infantry Corps, also composed of two brigades. Major Gebhardt points out that with an authorized strength of 4,334 men in each brigade, a light infantry corps was slightly smaller than a full-strength Soviet division.6

2. Three regular infantry corps—31st, 99th, and 131st. The 31st Infantry Corps, composed of two infantry divisions (83rd and 367th), was commanded by Major General M. A. Absaliamov. The 99th Infantry Corps was commanded by Lieutenant General S. P. Mikulskii and was composed of three infantry divisions (65th, 114th, and 368th). The 131st Infantry Corps, commanded by Major General Z. N. Alekseev, had two infantry divisions (10th and 14th). The three corps were at 60–65 percent of authorized strength.

3. A corps group named Pigarevich after its commander Lieutenant General B. A. Pigarevich, which was a composite unit consisting of one infantry division (45th) and two infantry brigades.

General Meretskov had concluded that the area of the 2nd Mountain Division was the key in the German defensive system. If that division were to be defeated, the routes to Pechenga, Luostari, and Nikel would be opened. He decided to launch his main attack on a very narrow front against the 2nd Mountain Division sector south of Lake Chapr.

Meretskov decided to use his two light infantry corps to turn the southern German flank where it dwindled away in the hinterland along the Finnish border. One of these corps, the 127th, was given the additional mission of advancing to the lake region at Salmijärvi about 55 kilometers west of the German right wing, so as to cut the Arctic Ocean Highway. His main forces would turn north to roll up the German defenses along the Titovka River. Group Pigarevich, which had been on the defensive during the breakthrough operations, would now go over to the offensive in a frontal attack on the German defensive line.7

Shtemenko writes that the density of artillery and mortars in the breakthrough sector was 160–170 per kilometer.8 Other sources generally agree. In addition to the organic artillery and mortar units, seven mortar regiments and seventeen artillery regiments were brought in from the other two armies of the Karelian Front, the 7th and 32nd. General Shcherbakov was also given three regiments and two brigades of the dreaded Katyusha Multiple Rocket Launchers (MRL), a total of 120 systems.9 The Soviets also enjoyed air superiority, bordering on air dominance. The Karelian Front had a total of 747 aircraft of all types and the Northern Fleet had another 275.10

The 14th Army did not have any organic armored units since all armored forces belonged to the Karelian Front. General Meretskov brought in three tank units for the attack on the German defenses in the area east of Pechenga—a total of about 70 T-34 tanks. Two self-propelled artillery units were also brought forward. Meretskov also asked the Supreme Soviet High Command (STAVKA) for a regiment of heavy KV tanks. His request was granted after some initial reluctance since the General Staff felt that the T-34s were more suitable.11 Twenty-one KV-85 tanks were attached to his command. This unit of heavy tanks was paired with one of the heavy self-propelled artillery regiments and attached to the 131st Infantry Corps. The 7th Tank Brigade (T-34s) was paired with another heavy artillery regiment and attached to the 99th Infantry Corps.

The Soviets also employed about 35 engineer battalions. Two special-purpose motorized battalions, each with 94 American-built amphibious vehicles, were attached to the 99th and 131st Corps. In addition there was ample river crossing equipment and much of this was attached to the attacking divisions.12

General Meretskov submitted his plans to STAVKA for approval. STAVKA made several modifications, some dealing with the relations between the 14th Army and the Soviet Northern fleet under Admiral Golovko. The Northern Fleet was in position to land sizable forces on the Rybachiy Peninsula and at various points along the coast to the west. STAVKA wanted this capability utilized and Admiral Golovko was ordered to have the naval infantry brigade already on the Rybachiy Peninsula break through the German defenses of Group van der Hoop. Another naval infantry brigade was to be landed on the mainland west of Rybachiy Peninsula and advance into the rear of the German defenses along the Titovka River.

STAVKA felt that this would eliminate the need for Meretskov’s forces to turn north along the Titovka River. Its order was clear: “Do not scatter your forces for a thrust to the northeast along the Titovka River.”13 Instead, STAVKA wanted the main forces to advance on Pechenga as quickly as possible. Finally, STAVKA put a break on the southern envelopment. It did not want the 127th Light Infantry Corps to advance as far as the Salmijärvi region, where it could risk being isolated. Instead, Meretskov was ordered to echelon that corps along the left flank of the Soviet attack.

The 99th and 131st Infantry Corps were assembled east of the breakthrough area south of Lake Chapr in early October and all required supplies were brought forward.

The Soviet Attack

The Soviet offensive, launched in the morning of October 7, 1944, was preceded by an artillery preparation that started at 0800 hours and lasted two hours and thirty-five minutes. Over 140,000 rounds for artillery and mortars were allocated for the preparation. In addition, about 8,500 MRL rockets were fired on each square kilometer against selected strongpoints.14

The Soviet infantry launched their attack when the supporting fire was shifted to targets behind the German front line positions. About four divisions from the 99th and 131st Corps made a massed attack on a very narrow front against the 2nd Mountain Division positions immediately south of Lake Chapr, near that division’s boundary with the 6th Mountain Division. The devastating attack quickly swept over several strongpoints and Soviet troops were closing on the Titovka River by noon.

The 2nd Mountain Division was thoroughly stunned by the inferno of artillery and mortar fire and the massed Soviet infantry attack. The Bicycle Reconnaissance Brigade Norway, which had been in reserve, was ordered to establish defensive positions along the Division’s supply road (named Lanweg—Lan Road—by the Germans), which intersects the Arctic Ocean Highway at Luostari.

On October 8, the 2nd Mountain Division fell back on the positions along the Lan Road. The 20th Mountain Army ordered that the Soviets had to be prevented, at all costs, from cutting the Arctic Ocean Highway. It gave the XIX Corps permission to pull the 6th Mountain Division back from the Litsa front in order to shorten the line and create reserves.

The Soviet main effort was switched to the south on October 9 with the 126th Light Infantry Corps moving around the right flank of the 2nd Mountain Division along the Lan Road and proceeding towards the Arctic Ocean Highway. At the same time the Soviets launched heavy attacks against the right flank of the 2nd Mountain Division, driving it back and creating a gap between the left flank of the 2nd Mountain Division and the right flank of the 6th Mountain Division. To prevent a collapse of the XIX Mountain Corps’ front, the 20th Mountain Army ordered a regiment from the 163rd Division, a machinegun battalion, and a SS battalion into the XIX Mountain Corps area. However, these units were still some distance from the XIX Corps area.

October 10 brought the XIX Mountain Corps a series of crisis situations. First, Soviet naval infantry landed on the mainland west of Rybachiy Peninsula. This force was able to turn the flank of Group van der Hoop, forcing it to give up its positions at the neck of the peninsula. Secondly, the 99th Infantry Corps sent two regiments north through a gap that had developed between the 2nd and 6th Mountain Divisions. Their objective was to cut the Russian Road, the 6th Division’s line of retreat to Pechenga.

Units of the 126th Light Infantry Corps pushed past the right flank of the 2nd Mountain Division and cut the Arctic Ocean Highway for a distance of eight kilometers west of Luostari. The 31st Infantry Brigade from the 126th Light Infantry Corps dug in astride the Arctic Ocean Highway facing west to hinder German reinforcements. The 72nd Naval Infantry Brigade from the same corps dug in astride the same highway facing east to block the German withdrawal route. The Soviet troops were beginning to show signs of exhaustion and supplies were running short. Several tons of ammunition and supplies were parachuted to the 126th Light Infantry Corps on the night of October 11–12. While units of the 2nd Mountain Division still held the road junction at Luostari, the Soviets held about eight kilometers of the Arctic Ocean Highway to the east.

The coherence of the 20th Mountain Army was beginning to unravel and the 2nd and 6th Mountain Divisions faced immediate danger of encirclement. If the Soviets were able to push south as far as Ivalo, the withdrawal route for the XXXVI Corps through Karasjok would be unusable. This had to be prevented at all costs. Units of the XXXVI Corps, under the command of Major General Karl Rübel, the commander of the 163rd Infantry Division, which had already withdrawn past Kemi River on the Salla–Rovaniemi road, were turned north and ordered to move into the sector of the XIX Corps at top speed. Part of Group Rübel—one regiment and three battalions—arrived in the area northwest of Luostari on October 11 and established a screen to prevent the Soviets from advancing toward Ivalo. The arrival of the 163rd Infantry Division on the battlefield is described by the division’s operations officer:

After a motorized march of more than 400 kilometers, the 307th Regiment literally detrucked on the battlefield. Soldiers almost frozen stiff had to be committed in battle immediately after leaving their vehicles because the enemy had already penetrated westward beyond the road fork…. The bulk of the 307th Regiment arrived by the afternoon of 12 October and received orders to attack in the evening, to drive back the enemy, and to occupy the road fork as its first objective.15

The 20th Army reserve under Major General Steets was also sent north to link up with Rübel’s forces. Rübel remained in command of his makeshift unit and while it is variously referred to as Battle Group Rübel or as Corps Group Rübel, I shall simply refer to it as Group Rübel.

The 127th Light Infantry Corps was meanwhile advancing across the trackless terrain to the south and crossed the Pechenga River in the morning of October 10. In the north, the 6th Mountain Division was ordered to attack westward and clear the Russian Road, cut by troops from the 131st Infantry Corps. Then the 6th Mountain Division and Group van der Hoop were to fall back to a line from Pechenga to Luostari. Preparations for the destruction of the nickel works were finalized.

The 6th Mountain Division managed to clear the Russian Road in the morning of October 11 but the Soviets cut it for a second time on October 12 after a bitter all-night battle with heavy casualties on both sides.16 The 6th Mountain Division and Division Group van der Hoop fell back to positions east of Pechenga by October 13.

The Soviet 99th Infantry Corps was meanwhile attacking to the south of the 131st Infantry Corps. Heavily supported by KV-85 and T-34 tanks as well as self-propelled artillery, the lead elements of the corps crossed the Titovka River on the night of October 10–11. The crossing of numerous mechanized and motorized vehicles, which could only be deployed on the road because the terrain was too rugged, caused a major traffic jam west of the river on October 11.

The Soviets captured Luostari on October 12 in a multi-directional attack, and on October 13 they reached the Pechenga River. Landings of Soviet naval infantry from speedboats were also made in the Bay of Pechenga. Shtemenko describes the fighting as exceedingly bitter but claims that the Soviets shot down 66 German planes.17 This is undoubtedly an exaggeration since the Soviets’ own estimate of total German air strength in the region was only 160.

Group Rübel and dispersed units of the 2nd Mountain Division that had come under its command attempted to clear the Soviets from the Arctic Ocean Highway. They were not successful. To make matters worse, the Soviet 72nd Naval Infantry Brigade, from the Soviet 126th Light Infantry Corps, drove north behind the 2nd Mountain Division and cut the Tårnet Road, the German line of retreat from Pechenga to Kirkenes. The XIX Corps was now isolated and some unpleasant decisions had to be made in an attempt to save the situation.

The high hopes that the OKW had entertained about German ability to hold the Pechenga region were shredded. The elaborate defensive installations constructed by the Germans over three years had been swept aside in less than a week. The OKW appears to have labored under the impression that the tundra terrain east of Pechenga was totally unsuitable to support large-unit operations. This false premise was probably shared by the 20th Mountain Army and the XIX Mountain Corps. It may also explain why the Germans had no armored forces in the XIX Mountain Corps area of operations.

Ziemke takes a slightly different view of things. While recognizing that the Germans had miscalculated when it came to Soviet ability to move and support large formations, including tanks and self-propelled artillery, he holds that the rapid collapse of the 2nd Mountain Division demonstrates that three years of inactivity had produced complacency and a decline in combat readiness on the part of the Germans. With regard to the German assumption that the terrain presented a serious obstacle to the employment of large formations he has this to say:

Nevertheless, their original assumption was only partially disproved, since the Russians employing a vastly superior force of specially trained troops with skillful and daring leadership against an opponent whose chief desire was to avoid a decisive engagement, failed—just as the Mountain Corps Norway had in 1941—to achieve their main objective, to trap and destroy the XIX Mountain Corps.18

Some of Ziemke’s conclusions are supported by Soviet writers. Gebhardt, using primarily Soviet sources, writes that the absence of usable roads seriously affected the battle since combat units could not replace their dwindling ammunition stocks or reposition their artillery. The lead elements of the 99th and 131st Infantry Corps had already advanced past the range of supporting artillery on October 9. The lack of artillery support was somewhat compensated for on that day by the Soviet Air Force, which flew over 1,000 sorties.19

German Withdrawal from the Pechenga Area

Despite the disastrous events in the XIX Mountain Corps area, the OKW and Hitler appeared to cling to the idea of temporarily halting the XIX Mountain Corps along a line running from the mining area along the Arctic Ocean Highway. The reason for this puzzling decision was that large amounts of supplies were stockpiled in the area. Most of these stockpiles had not been removed and 40 ships were in the process of positioning themselves in north Norwegian harbors for their evacuation. The OKW failed to appreciate the effects of the oncoming winter, the magnitude of the Soviet offensive, and the serious reduction in fighting power of the XIX Corps after the thrashing it had been subjected to in the past week. Trying to maintain a forward defense line for the purpose of evacuating supplies and equipment was a recipe for catastrophe.

Erfurth maintains that it was an officer with particular experience in the arctic region who was instrumental in having the policy changed.20 General der Gebirgstruppe Georg Ritter von Hengl had commanded a regiment in the 2nd Mountain Division during the invasion of Norway, moved up to command the division in Finland, and eventually took over as corps commander on the Murmansk front. He served in that capacity until 1944 when he was posted to OKH as head of the National Socialist Leadership Staff. Hengl was worried about the developments in the arctic. His new position included excellent connections to the OKW; consequently he was able to convince General Alfred Jodl that an immediate evacuation was necessary. This was also the argument made by the 20th Mountain Army. Hitler finally agreed.

General Hengl was ordered to fly to north Finland and, according to General Erfurth, was given authority to issue the necessary instructions to General Rendulic if the situation on the ground warranted.21 The objective was now switched from priority to save matériel, to one where saving the men took priority.

Hengl left Berlin on October 14 and arrived at the XIX Corps Headquarters the following day where he immediately attended a conference with General Rendulic, General Ferdinand Jodl, and the XIX Corps’ division commanders. After a situation briefing he exercised his authority and called for an immediate evacuation.

Ziemke takes note of General Hengl’s visit but downplays its importance in the scheme of things.22 He relates that General Rendulic was so surprised by the turnaround in the thinking of OKW related by Hengl that the 20th Mountain Army’s chief of staff, General Hölter, placed two calls to General Alfred Jodl to make sure that General Hengl had his story straight.

On October 15, the same day as General von Hengl met with the senior officers of 20th Mountain Army and the XIX Mountain Corps, Soviet assault elements crossed the Pechenga River and captured the town of Pechenga. Simultaneously, Soviet naval infantry that had landed in the Bay of Pechenga seized the port of Liinahamari to the north.

The XIX Mountain Corps, no longer capable of attacking eastward, requested a new directive from the 20th Mountain Army that would allow the corps to attack westward to reopen Tårnet Road, its only route of withdrawal, which had been cut by Soviet naval infantry on the night of October 12–13. The Germans had meanwhile decided that after reopening Tårnet Road, the badly mauled 2nd Mountain Division was to withdraw behind Group Rübel to rest and reorganize. The rest of the XIX Mountain Corps would screen the area between Pechenga and Kirkenes until priority supplies were evacuated. On October 17, the 20th Mountain Army ordered that the Kolosjoki and Kirkenes area be held for the time being.

Group Rübel, now approaching the size of two divisions, was ordered to hold a line northeast of Kolosjoki to give time for the defenses to be established further back to cover the town of Kirkenes in Norway. Holding this line would allow high-priority supplies to be evacuated and would prevent the Soviets from moving southwest against Ivalo. In fact, the units in this group held the fate of much of the 20th Mountain Army in its hands.

German troops were able to eliminate the Soviet forces blocking Tårnet Road west of Pechenga in heavy fighting by October 14. This allowed the 6th Mountain Division and Division Group van der Hoop to withdraw westward into Norway. In its operational summary at 0700 on October 16, the Karelian Front reported that “The remnants of the enemy’s battered units in the Petsamo region are retreating along a road running northwest toward Norwegian territory….”23

The 14th Soviet Army had advanced 35–60 kilometers in heavy fighting over difficult terrain following its breakthrough on October 7. The troops were exhausted and units had run out of supplies since the road network was inadequate. To allow the troops a chance to rest and allow the logistic system to bring up supplies, Lieutenant General Shcherbakov ordered a three-day halt to rest, reorganize, and resupply his forces.

The pause in Soviet offensive operations also gave the Germans a much-needed respite. On October 18, the 20th Mountain Army authorized the separation of XIX Mountain Corps and Group Rübel. Group Rübel was ordered to execute a retirement to Salmijärvi within three days.

The Germans realized early in the offensive that they were not going to be able to save much of their immense stores of supplies in the Pechenga area. Evacuation of supplies was prioritized, with fuel at or near the top of the list. Only 30,000 tons were removed through the port of Kirkenes and only 10,000 were evacuated from the Ivalo-Inari area to Porsangerfjord.

This does not include what was pre-positioned in supply points along the withdrawal routes. For that part of the XIX Mountain Corps’ withdrawal in the direction of Kirkenes, and then Lakselv, supply points had been established along Tårnet Road and Route 50. Supply points had also been established along the Arctic Ocean Highway as far as Ivalo. The XXXVI Corps, now consisting of the 2nd Mountain Division, 169th Infantry Division, and the 163rd Infantry Division, had supply points along the road from Ivalo as far as Lakselv. The pre-positioned supply points for the XVIII Mountain Corps, consisting of the 7th Mountain Division, 6th SS Mountain Division, and Division Group Kräutler, were located along the road leading to Skibotten and as far as Karesuando. The large stores at Muonio were evacuated successfully but it took a considerable period of time due to the atrocious state of the road.24 The supplies left in the Pechenga area fell into Soviet hands.

The Withdrawal into Norway

In a conference with his subordinate commanders on October 15, General Rendulic ordered the 6th Mountain Division to defend the Kirkenes area as long as possible to allow for the evacuation of supplies. The rest of the XIX Mountain Corps (except for the 210th Infantry Division already located in Norway) was to withdraw in the direction of Ivalo. Group Rübel was ordered to defend the road network east of Akhmalakhti and Nikel for as long as possible. The 2nd Mountain Division was ordered assembled at Salmijärvi, and to support Group Rübel. The Germans expected the Soviets to resume their offensive on October 18.

The Ivalo defensive position was occupied in the night of October 18. It had to be held until all forces from the Murmansk front had passed through. The Germans destroyed the roads and bridges as they withdrew and the Luftwaffe provided valuable help in completing the destruction behind the withdrawing ground troops.

On approaching the Norwegian frontier, General Meretskov requested permission from Stalin on October 18 to pursue the Germans into Norwegian territory. Merentskov had expected a long answer with all kinds of political instructions. To his surprise, Stalin’s answer was short and without any political guidance: “That’ll be good.”25

Since the Germans had split their forces for the withdrawal with one group moving towards Kirkenes and the other towards Ivalo, the Soviets did likewise. When the Soviet offensive was resumed on October 19, they directed their main effort against the forces withdrawing towards Ivalo with a strong secondary effort against Kirkenes. In the direction of Kirkenes the Soviets employed the 131st Corps with three infantry divisions and a guard tank brigade. The corps was also equipped with more than 90 American-built 2½-ton amphibious vehicles for river-crossing operations.

The main Soviet effort was directed towards Akhmalakhti, just north of Salmijärvi. By securing Akhmalakhti the Soviets would be at the Pasvik River, which marked the Norwegian border. The 99th Infantry Corps, with three infantry divisions, a guard heavy tank regiment, and a heavy self-propelled artillery regiment, had the mission of advancing on Akhmalakhti. The 126th Light Infantry Corps was ordered to support the 99th Infantry Corps by advancing to the Pasvik River on the north flank of the 99th.

The 31st Infantry Corps, with two divisions, attacked along the south flank of the 99th Corps toward the Nikel settlement southeast of Salmijärvi. The corps was reinforced with three artillery regiments, two MRL regiments, and a tank regiment. The 127th Light Infantry Corps was to make a cross-country advance in support of the 31st Infantry Corps by severing the road leading south from Nikel, thus isolating the German troops north and east of that town. Nikel, and Nautsi further south, comprised the center of the Finnish mining areas.

The main Soviet attack was directed against Group Rübel but it withdrew west along the Arctic Ocean Highway and thus escaped the full force of the 99th Corps’ assault. However, Group Rübel’s situation became dangerous on October 20 when the 127th drove around its southern flank and threatened to cut the Arctic Ocean Highway behind it. Rübel averted the danger by withdrawing his troops during the next two days to the lake and river narrows in the south. The Soviet pressure thereupon lessened and Group Rübel was able to make a rapid withdrawal to Ivalo.

On October 21, the nickel plants (Kolosjoki) and the Nikel settlement were evacuated by the Germans after thorough destruction. The Soviets captured Nikel the following day and soon thereafter they secured Nautsi further to the south, just south of the corner of Norwegian territory extending into Finland.

The 126th Light Infantry Corps crossed the Pasvik River at Akhmalakhti on October 24 and continued its drive northwestward in the direction of the Norwegian town of Neiden, which it reached on October 27, thereby cutting Route 50. The 6th Mountain Division and other German forces had already withdrawn through the town toward the west. The Germans withdrawing along Route 50 benefited from a double stroke of good fortune—the tough defensive fighting of Group Rübel which slowed the Soviet advance towards Neiden and the decision by the 20th Mountain Army—approved by OKW—not to fight for Kirkenes. If either of these had gone the other way the German forces east of Neiden would have been trapped.

At the same time as the main attack was carried out against Group Rübel, the 131st Infantry Corps advanced against the 6th Mountain Division defending Kirkenes. There was no way the 6th Mountain Division could stop the Soviet advance since the Soviets held a 3:1 superiority. The ground attack was accompanied with naval infantry landings on the arctic coast northeast of Tårnet. Tårnet was the location of the hydroelectric plants supplying power to Kirkenes. The cutting of electrical power meant that the ships in Kirkenes could no longer be supplied with water for their boilers. The 20th Mountain Army therefore requested permission from OKW on October 22 to stop the evacuation from Kirkenes. Permission was granted.

The Germans withdrew rapidly northwest along Route 50, and only minor rear-guard actions preceded the Soviet capture of Kirkenes on October 25. The evacuation of the Varanger Peninsula, including the town of Vardø, began on October 26.

The Soviet pursuit ended at Tanafjord while the Germans continued their withdrawal to Lakselv. Of the stores in Kirkenes, 45,000 tons were saved while about 90,000 tons were destroyed to keep them from falling into Soviet hands. Heavy losses were suffered at Kirkenes during the last two days of embarkation of supplies due to Russian air attacks over 24 hours. Evacuation of supplies and equipment from the large area between Porsangerfjord and Lyngenfjord proceeded according to plans after the Soviets ended their pursuit.

Operation Nordlicht Ends

The German evacuation of their forces from Ivalo and along the Swedish border went according to plan, with little interference from the enemy. The 169th Infantry Division of the XXXVI Mountain Corps occupied defensive positions south of Ivalo from the middle of October. The XXXVI Corps also established a protective screen in the direction of Lutto and Ristikent to the east. The Lutto position was abandoned on October 30 after the last units of Group Rübel had passed through Ivalo on their way to Lakselv. The Germans began abandoning their defensive positions south of Ivalo on October 31, and had cleared the area by November 3 when the last elements of the 169th Division’s rear guard left. The 2nd Mountain Division, which marched to Norway on the Arctic Ocean Highway under some joint pressure from the Finns and the Soviets, reached Route 50 at Lakselv on November 2. Here it joined the main forces of the XIX and XXXVI Mountain Corps for the final stage of the withdrawal to Lyngenfjord.

The XVIII Mountain Corps held Muonio until the large ammunition depot located there had been evacuated. The withdrawal from Muonio began on October 29. The 7th Mountain Division established a covering position west of Karesuando that had been constructed for Operation Birke. Occupation of this narrow strip of Finland between Norway and Sweden served to protect the flank of the Lyngen position and the German forces withdrawing along Route 50. The 139th Regiment was stationed at the Norwegian settlement of Kautokeino, off the left flank of the 7th Mountain Division.

Two divisions of the LXXI Corps in Norway were attached to the XIX Mountain Corps in October 1944 and provided security along Route 50 for the withdrawing German forces in the area between Lakselv and Skibotten. The Germans withdrew westward along Route 50 from Lakselv without enemy pressure. Only four mobile infantry battalions on skis were left behind as well as small detachments at Hammerfest and Alta.

The rear guards of the 20th Mountain Army withdrew past Billefjord on December 18. This was the signal for the 139th Regiment to begin its withdrawal from Kautokeino. The last German troops left this area on December 19. The 7th Mountain Division held its covering position at Karesuando without any Finnish pressure until January 12, 1945, when it withdrew through the Lyngen position held by the 6th Mountain Division. Over 50,000 German soldiers and 6,030 vehicles were ferried across Lyngenfjord during November.26

Operation Nordlicht terminated at the end of January but the name continued to be used until the end of the war for the movement of units of the 20th Mountain Army back to Germany. The large Finnmark Province was practically empty of German troops. There was a small German detachment at Hammerfest and another one at Alta. These continued to evacuate supplies until February 1945 when they were withdrawn. By the middle of November, the Germans occupied only a few square kilometers of Finnish territory in the northwest part of the country, part of the Lyngen defensive position. It was not until April 28, 1945, that Lieutenant General Siilasvuo could report to Marshal Mannerheim that the last German soldier had left Finland at 1330 hours on April 27. Since then, April 27 has been celebrated as Finland’s Veterans Day.27

Scorched Earth

Hitler was intent on preventing the Russians or the Norwegian government in England from gaining a foothold in the areas in north Norway from which the Germans were withdrawing. Therefore, he ordered that a scorched-earth policy be carried out east of Lyngenfjord. A systematic destruction of roads and structures was carried out after the withdrawing Germans had passed. Route 50 was destroyed to such an extent north and east of Lyngenfjord that no major movements were possible.

As part of the scorched-earth policy employed in the Finnmark Province of Norway, Hitler had issued orders on October 28 that the whole Norwegian population east of Lyngenfjord was to be evacuated. This evacuation was mostly carried out in small boats in order to keep Route 50 clear for military traffic. While the evacuation began as a voluntary measure, force was soon used against those who declined to participate.

The Wehrmacht played a large role in this evacuation and there can be no doubt that General Rendulic wanted to use the same scorched-earth strategy in Norway as he had used in Finland to secure a safe retreat. Norwegian representatives from Nasjonal Samling (NS—Quisling’s party) also participated. The measures resorted to in the absence of an active pursuit exceeded those which may be considered necessary in military operations. Even subordinate officers complained in writing to Rendulic and some local commanders, at great personal risk, allowed some families, homes, and food supplies to remain in the evacuated areas.28

Hitler’s order was nevertheless carried out in most places with typical German thoroughness. An area much larger than Denmark was completely devastated. Over 10,400 homes were destroyed along with 115 schools and 27 churches. About 43,000–45,000 individuals were driven out of Finnmark Province by the Germans or NS representatives.

General Rendulic claimed that only about 200 escaped the evacuation, and he promised to hunt them down.29 Despite the thoroughness of the evacuation it appears that between 20,000 and 25,000 managed to avoid the exodus. This included at least 10,000 from Kirkenes and Varanger Peninsula who could not be evacuated because of the tactical situation and 8,500 nomadic Laps who were exempt. The actual number who avoided the forced exodus was therefore considerably larger than Rendulic admitted.

Norwegian Forces Appear in Finnmark

The Norwegian government in exile had maintained a military liaison mission in Moscow headed by Colonel Arne D. Dahl, a former battalion commander in the 6th Norwegian Division during its operations against the Germans in 1940.30 In anticipation of an end to the war, the US, USSR, and UK had entered into an agreement with the Norwegian government in exile on March 17, 1944, on civil administration on Norwegian territory that might be occupied by one of the signatories. This agreement invested Allied commanders with supreme authority for civil administration in time of hostilities. The USSR used this agreement, as well as the address by the Norwegian king and a message from the Norwegian government, as authority for the 14th Soviet Army to begin the initial work of establishing a functioning civil administration following the departure of the Germans and pending the arrival of Norwegian forces from the UK.31

Despite worries by the Norwegian government and the Western Allies, most Soviet forces withdrew rather quickly from Norwegian territory. Only a detachment in Kirkenes was left at the end of the war and this was withdrawn in August–September 1945. Despite the rapid German withdrawal to the Lyngen position, the conquest of the northeast corner of Finnmark Province had not been a “walk in the park” for the Soviets. This is demonstrated by the fact that almost 2,900 Soviet soldiers lost their lives on Norwegian soil.32

A token force of Norwegians was sent to Finnmark but it did not arrive until January 1945. It consisted of the 2nd Mountain Company from the Norwegian brigade in Scotland, staff, and civilian administrators—a total of about 300. The force was under the command of Colonel Dahl and was soon reinforced (including by Norwegian military police troops from Sweden) and eventually grew to about 3,000. These Norwegian troops remained under Soviet command until February 6, 1945.

While relations between the Soviets and Norwegian civilians were good, this was apparently not true of initial relations between civilians in Finnmark and the Norwegian troops who were referred to as “Londoners.” Provisions for the devastated population that remained in Finnmark were exceedingly slow in arriving. Civilians were criticized by the new arrivals for lack of patriotism and the custom of shaving the heads of women who had fraternized with Germans was particularly resented. Colonel Dahl saw to it that this practice was quickly discontinued.33

Some Reasons for the Success of Operation Birke

Operation Birke and its extension—Operation Nordlicht—had begun with minimal hopes of success. All German options looked like invitations to disaster. It turned out to be a surprising success with an outstanding display of skill and endurance on the part of the troops and leaders of the 20th Mountain Army in one of the most inhospitable areas of the world for military operations in winter.

However, luck also played a big part in the successful extrication of the army. The anticipated dangers and threats did not materialize. The Soviets started their offensive on the Murmansk front late. An earlier start would almost certainly have caused the Germans serious problems. Closely associated with this is the fact that the Soviets failed to pursue aggressively and showed a reluctance to cross the Norwegian frontier other than in the Kirkenes area. When it became obvious that the Soviets were not going to advance west from Tana and the Finns were not moving against Porsangerfjord, the Germans could continue the withdrawal at a leisurely pace.

The Soviet decision not to pursue was undoubtedly based primarily on military considerations with political overtones. Nordlicht took place when the resources of the Soviets and the Western Allies were strained to their limits on the main fronts in Europe. The Russian efforts in Finland were therefore relatively modest, and after having captured Kirkenes, units were quickly moved to the main theater of operations in the south. The Western Allies made no appearance in north Norway. Their offensive in the west had come to a temporary halt while they waited for their supply situation to be sorted out.

The dreaded winter in north Norway showed up late, letting much of the German withdrawal take place during one of the mildest autumns on record. When the snowfall and temperatures of minus 30 Celsius finally made their appearance, the most difficult part of the withdrawal was over.

The main achievement was that no units were cut off or destroyed, so that the Mountain Army remained fully intact except for battle losses. While the 22,236 casualties were almost the same as the losses in the German offensive in Finland in 1941, they were small compared to what was happening to other German armies.

The Fate of the 20th Mountain Army

The Army of Norway had passed 1944, as it had the previous two years, waiting for an invasion that never came. In the middle of the year its strength was 372,000 but by the time the withdrawal from Finland began 80,000 of these had been removed for use on the eastern front or in France. When the threatening attitude of Sweden forced the army to deploy units to the border east of Trondheim and Oslo, the army experienced a shortage of personnel for the first time in the war.

The arrival of the 20th Mountain Army in Norway brought the strength in that country back up to between 450,000 and 500,000. However, the continual demand for troops on the continent caused this number to decline rapidly. Many of the troops that came back were transferred to other fronts but even that transfer involved difficulties. The troops had to march not only to the Lyngen position but from that position southward, in most cases as far as Mo in Nordland Province and in certain cases as far as Trondheim. This was done in order to relieve traffic on the low-capacity Mo–Oslo line. Upon arrival in Oslo they were transported to Denmark and then on to other fronts. The movements were not only difficult and exhausting because of the distances involved in the inclement season, but dangerous because enemy air and surface attacks at sea caused considerable casualties.

As many units as could be spared were sent to Germany during the winter. The 6th SS Mountain Division embarked in Oslo in mid-November and between November 1944 and April 1945, the 2nd Mountain Division and the 163rd, 169th, and 199th Infantry Divisions were sent south. The lack of coal for the railroad brought the transfer program to a crawl in March 1945 and the next division scheduled to be sent to Germany—the 7th Mountain Division—became bogged down in Trondheim at the end of April.

The arrival of the 20th Mountain Army in Norway also ushered in a period of major organizational and personnel changes. The LXXI Corps became part of the 20th Mountain Army in October and the army assumed responsibility for the Narvik area. General Falkenhorst, who had been commander in Norway since he led the invasion in 1940, returned to Germany and General Rendulic became armed forces commander in Norway. The Army of Norway and the 20th Mountain Army were joined into one organization named the 20th Mountain Army. A new organization, Armeeabteilung Narvik (Army Detachment Narvik) took over the Lyngenfjord-Narvik area and was composed of the XIX Mountain Corps and the LXXI Corps under the command of Headquarters, XIX Mountain Corps. Headquarters, XXXVI Mountain Corps, assumed command of the troops stationed on the Swedish border.

Warfare in the north for the remainder of the war was limited to air and sea operations. The British continued to raid the ports and coastal shipping while German submarines kept up their activities with increasing losses. Bergen and Trondheim had become the main German submarine bases after the loss of the Atlantic ports and the British gave them special attention.

The 20th Mountain Army in Norway watched helplessly as German armies on the continent were torn to pieces. In January 1945 General Rendulic was transferred to the eastern front to take command of Army Group North. General Franz Böhme took over as armed forces commander in Norway.

Except for increased resistance activity, Norway was one of the most peaceful places in Europe. The 20th Mountain Army was nevertheless a source of worry for the Allied Supreme Command. They considered it possible that it might become an area for a last desperate stand by the Nazis.

The 20th Mountain Army had no plans for a last stand or for disobeying orders from the OKW. Böhme even refused a Swedish offer, at the prodding of Himmler’s representative Walter Schellenberg, to have the 20th Mountain Army and all German military personnel in Norway interned in Sweden. On May 8, the day after Germany’s unconditional surrender, Böhme was told that doing anything contrary to the surrender terms would have dire consequences for the German people.

In announcing the surrender to his troops Böhme described the 20th Mountain Army as undefeated, and one that only accepted the dictates of the enemy for the greater national interest. In a message to OKW on May 10 complaining about the severity of the surrender terms, he concluded with “Woe to the vanquished.”34

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