The Murmansk Convoys
This is a logical place to digress temporarily before discussion of land operations in order to consider the importance of the Murmansk supply route for the Soviet Union. The actual convoy operations—a magnificent achievement under trying circumstances and atrocious conditions—are outside the scope of this book. These operations are covered in numerous books that are still available.1
As the war progressed and it became obvious that the Finns were reluctant to participate in an attack on Leningrad, there were only two possible benefits for the Germans to have Finland at their side:
1. Finnish operations to recapture their lost territories and their operations in East Karelia would draw some Soviet forces away from those facing Army Group North as it approached Leningrad from the south. In addition, Finland’s participation in the war assisted in the blockade of the Soviet Baltic Fleet and thus contributed to German control of the Baltic Sea.
2. More importantly, Finnish cooperation to isolate Murmansk was counted on since the Finns had not objected to it during the planning phase and had placed one corps at the disposal of the Germans for that purpose.
The German planners were undoubtedly aware that Murmansk had already gained some importance as a supply route towards the end of World War I. They also knew that the British had a great stake in keeping the Soviet Union in the war and they should have drawn the next logical conclusion: that Great Britain would make every possible effort to that end. German expectation of a short campaign is probably what caused them not to give Murmansk the attention it deserved. They fully expected to knock the Soviet Union out of the war before aid would be of any consequence.
Churchill was no admirer of Communism but in the life-and-death struggle that was now underway he followed the axiom that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Churchill took to the airwaves on the evening of June 22, the day of the German attack, to pledge the Soviet Union all possible assistance against what was now their common enemy.
Almost a month passed before the Soviet ambassador in London, Ivan Maiski, delivered Stalin’s reply on July 18, 1941. The Soviet dictator surfaced a proposal that was to be repeated frequently in the years to come. He wanted Great Britain to open a front against Germany in France or in the Arctic.
In his book The Second World War, Churchill expresses considerable irritation at the behavior of the Soviet Union on the subject of aid. From the outset, the Soviet demands were expressed in harsh language and the efforts of the British were constantly belittled. Stalin viewed British efforts in theaters that did not directly benefit the Soviet Union as sideshows. He demanded the lion’s share of the Lend-Lease supplies flowing from the United States and although he must have known its virtual impossibility, he clamored for the opening of a second front in the north in 1941.2 Stalin undoubtedly knew that a landing on the continent in 1941 was out of the question and may have used this harsh approach to obtain the supplies and equipment his armed forces so sorely needed.
Churchill met considerable opposition from the Admiralty when he proposed to send aid to the Soviet Union via the Arctic Ocean. Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, the First Sea Lord, thought the proposed operation flawed and very risky.3 Churchill viewed keeping the Soviet Union in the war as a paramount objective and insisted that supplying its armed forces to keep them from collapsing was worth the effort and risks. He was haunted by the fear of Stalin making a separate peace with the Germans. His fears were not groundless as demonstrated by the Soviet attempt to offer the Ukraine to Germany.4
The worries of the Admiralty were sound. The resources of the Royal Navy and the merchant fleets at the disposal of the British were Platinfuchs already strained.5 In addition to threats from U-boats and occasional sorties by the German fleet, which had most of its surface units in Norway, the convoys would pass perilously close to the Norwegian coast, well within reach of the Luftwaffe. The best time of the year to minimize these dangers was in the summer when the retreating Arctic ice-sheet allows ships to stay further away from the Norwegian coast. However, there is continual daylight at these latitudes in summer and it would be easy for the Germans to locate and track convoys.
In winter there are frequent violent storms and gigantic waves. The seas and mist sweeping over ships froze immediately upon contact with decks and superstructures, forming layer upon layer of solid ice. These were monstrous conditions for the crews and could lead to capsizing when a ship became top-heavy. Navigation was also a serious problem in the darkness superimposed on the fog produced as the cold Arctic air mass joined with the warmer waters of the Gulf Stream.
It was Admiral Sir John Tovey, the commander in chief of the Home Fleet, who was responsible for executing Churchill’s order for establishing a convoy system. The port of Archangel would soon be closed by the ice as the inlet to the White Sea froze and that meant all convoys in 1941 and the first months of 1942 would have Murmansk as their destination. While the British were familiar with both places from their efforts there from 1915 to 1919, they had virtually no information about the facilities that had sprung up since then. Admiral Tovey therefore sent Rear Admirals Philip Vian and Geoffrey Miles to discuss matters with Vice Admiral Golovko, the commander of the Soviet Northern Fleet, and to examine the facilities.
Faced with a multitude of problems in the summer of 1941, Churchill saw the need for closer consultations with the United States. President Franklin Roosevelt was also eager to provide aid to the Soviet Union in order to keep it in the war. A conference between Churchill and Roosevelt was arranged to be held off the coast of Newfoundland. Churchill set out for the conference on Britain’s newest battleship, HMS Prince of Wales.6
President Roosevelt, aboard the heavy cruiser Augusta, was already in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, when Churchill arrived on August 9, 1941. The meetings that followed between the two leaders had momentous consequences not only for the conduct of the war but because they laid the basis, through the Atlantic Charter, for the United Nations. For our purposes, the most important result of the meetings was President Roosevelt’s commitment of America’s industrial might in support of both Great Britain and the Soviet Union.
The first convoy sailed from Iceland on August 21, 1941. It arrived safely in Murmansk. The regular convoys that were to carry the famous PQ or QP designations started a month later, on September 29. Eight convoys of 55 merchant ships reached Murmansk safely by the end of 1941.7
The German response to the convoy traffic around north Norway was slow. The reason is likely their belief that the war would be short and that they were therefore of little importance. Lack of adequate air and naval forces in north Norway may also have played a role as did fuel shortages.
The situation had changed by late winter or spring of 1942. It was now obvious to the Germans that the war would not be short and they were becoming seriously concerned about the steady flow of supplies to the Soviets through the Arctic. The volume of this aid was on a far greater scale than had been anticipated.
Hitler issued orders in mid-March to step up operations against the Murmansk convoys. The navy was ordered to increase the numbers of U-boats in north Norway and the Luftwaffe was directed to increase its long-range reconnaissance and bomber forces.
The Royal Navy historian Sir Michael Lewis refers to the Arctic Convoys as a magnificent achievement under almost impossible conditions. This achievement was not without cost. The Allies, mostly the British, lost 18 warships and 1,944 sailors and airmen. Eighty-seven merchant ships and 829 merchant sailors were also lost. Six of the 87 merchant ships lost sailed independently and another five were sunk by German aircraft in Soviet ports. The German Navy lost one battleship, three destroyers, and 32 submarines.8
At the end of 1943 the German efforts against the Arctic Convoys essentially came to an end as a result of the sinking of the Scharnhorst, the crippling of the Tirpitz, and the lack of bombers in Norway after most were moved to other fronts. The U-boats remained a threat but the increased effectiveness of anti-U-boat operations reduced their usefulness. The Germans were waiting for the introduction of a new-type submarine that would overcome this problem.
Magnitude and Importance of Western Aid to the Soviet Union
Hitler placed much emphasis on the early capture of the Soviet industrial area. However, he failed to appreciate the effects of the massive assistance of weapons, ammunition, equipment, and foodstuffs from Britain and the US. This proved instrumental in keeping the Soviet Union in the war.
While the effects of the Lend-Lease program are still hotly debated, it is worthwhile looking at what some writers have to say on this subject. The German historian Paul Carell writes this about the first two years of the aid:
And since Archangel was frozen up from November onward, supplies for the desperately fighting forces outside Moscow and Leningrad had to come via Murmansk. It was an endless stream, a stream which was not to cease again, but grow in volume, a stream which ultimately decided the German-Russian war.
Here are a few figures to prove the point. During the first year of the Soviet aid programme the following supplies were delivered along the northern sea route alone—i.e. through Murmansk and Archangel—in nineteen convoys:
3,052 aircraft: Germany entered the war in the East with 1,830 aircraft.
4,048 tanks: The German forces on 22nd June 1941 had 3,580 armoured vehicles.
520,000 motor vehicles of all types: Germany had entered the war with altogether 600,000 vehicles.
In fact, the American armament supplies during 1942 almost completely made good the material losses of the Soviet Army. The decisive effect of American aid on the destinies of the war could not be revealed more clearly than by this fact.9
What arrived in the Soviet Union via Murmansk was only part of the immense flow of aid from the Western democracies. Aid via the Persian Gulf began arriving in 1942 but the flow was small until 1943 when the railway system between Basra and the Caspian Sea area had been expanded sufficiently to accommodate the traffic. The supplies and equipment arriving by this route eventually amounted to about 25 percent of all aid to the Soviet Union.
The largest flow, accounting for about half the aid, came across the Pacific to Soviet eastern ports. The possibility that this route would be disrupted by the Japanese was taken into account and Stalin warned Japan not to interfere.10 Thus approximately 25 percent of the aid came via Murmansk and Archangel. The total tonnage shipped via the northern route was 3,964,231 out of a total of 16,366.747.11
War materials sent via the Murmansk route according to Woodman included:
5,218 tanks (1,388 made in Canada); 7,411 aircraft (3,129 made in America); 4,932 anti-tank guns; 4,000 rifles and machine guns; 4,338 radio sets; 2,000 field telephones; 1,803 radar sets; 473 million projectiles; 9 torpedo craft; 4 submarines; 14 minesweepers; 10 destroyers; and a battleship.12
As far as overall aid going by all routes Woodman makes the following listing:
Between March 1941 and December 1945, the United States of America contributed to Russia: 14,795 aircraft; 7,537 tanks; 51,503 jeeps; 35,170 motor bicycles; 8,700 tractors; 375,883 trucks and lorries; 8,218 anti-aircraft guns; 131,633 submachine guns; 345,735 tons of explosives; 1,981 locomotives; 11,155 railway wagons and trucks; 540,000 tons of steel rails; in excess of 1 million miles of telephone cable; food shipments to the value of $1,312 million; 2,670,000 tons of petrol; 842,000 tons of chemicals; 3,786,000 tyres; 49,000 tons of leather; and 15 million pairs of boots. The total value of the above is said to be $11,260,343,603.13
The extent to which this aid contributed to the ability of the Soviet Union to halt the German offensive and eventually go on relentless offensives of its own is difficult to quantify and the subject of continued controversy. Soviet writers during the period of the Cold War down-played the value of Western aid. The aid received was also labeled as consisting of obsolete items of little value. It was claimed by the Soviets in 1948 that the aid amounted to only 4 percent of Soviet production between 1941 and 1943.14 In the late 1970s Soviet scholars revised the estimate upwards admitting that the number of tanks received amounted to 10 percent of their own production and that the aircraft equaled 12 percent of the production.15
However, even after the breakup of the Soviet Union the tendency has been to be less than forthright in admitting the value of Western aid. Many Western historians fell in line with Soviet claims that the aid was of little consequence both because of the amount and the claim that it was of inferior quality.
Most of the tanks provided through 1943 were light tanks and certainly not up to the quality of the home-produced T-34. That some failed to measure up against what the Germans had is understandable but to claim that they were valueless is a total distortion, particularly the large number of Sherman tanks.
Soviet claims that the 14,795 aircraft provided by the United States fell into the useless category is even more questionable. Sixty-seven percent of these were fighters and 26 percent bombers. The Soviet air force lost over 1,800 aircraft in the first day of the German attack and 3,200 aircraft in the first four months. As Chris Bellamy writes, “even obsolescent aircraft were better than none” in a period of heavy losses and with a dramatic cutback in production.16
The most valuable aid may have been in the 1941–42 period when the Soviet war industry was moved to the Urals and beyond to keep it from falling into German hands. This was an achievement which contributed immeasurably to the ability of the Soviet Union to stay in the war and begin turning the tables on the Germans. However, production in 1941–42 was at its lowest and insufficient to meet the demands brought about by the enormous losses. Victor Kravchenko, who was involved in the Soviet armaments procurement industry during the war, claims that aid played a prominent role.
It may have been in the areas of logistics, transportation, food, communications, raw materials, and the more sophisticated equipment that the aid had its greatest importance. Bellamy points out that the Soviet armed forces had 665,000 motor vehicles at the end of the war but their own production between 1942 and 1944 was only 128,000. It is therefore obvious that most of them came from American factories and that they provided the Soviets with the capability to motorize their forces. The 436,087 vehicles, received mainly from the United States, enabled the Soviets to motorize their troops, their logistical support, and their command and control.
The 8,701 tractors, including half-tracks, provided by the US allowed the Soviets to motorize their artillery to keep up with the advancing troops. Without this the Red Army could not have kept its offensives rolling deep into central Europe. The accessories and spare parts provided to keep this vast transportation fleet running, for example, included 3,786,000 tires for the vehicles. In their final drive on Berlin the northern wing of the Soviet forces under Marshal Rokossovskiy crossed the rivers in East Prussia using General Motors Corporation DUKW six-wheel-drive amphibious vehicles.17
Nikita Khrushchev wrote in his memoirs:
Just imagine how we would have advanced from Stalingrad to Berlin without them [US vehicles]! Our losses would have been colossal because we would have no maneuverability…. Note by Crankshaw: The Soviet tanks were the finest in the world; but until Stalingrad the Soviet army had virtually no mechanized transport. It was with American and British trucks that it was able to advance swiftly, complete the encirclement of the German forces around Stalingrad, and sweep out rapidly across the steppe to shatter the German armor at Kursk—and on to Berlin and Vienna.18
The less sensational items of aid were perhaps the most important. Bellamy reports that only 58 percent of cultivated lands were under Soviet control in 1942, and that, compared to 1940, grain production had fallen by two-thirds; herds of animals had fallen by 33 to 78 percent, depending on type. To compensate for these enormous losses the US provided more than five million tons of food and the British also provided sorely needed foodstuffs although on a much smaller scale. The provision of food and leather as well as 15 million pairs of boots must have been very welcomed assistance that helped feed the Red Army and keep its offensives rolling.19
Joan Beaumont believes that perhaps the most important contributions of the Lend-Lease program were in the fields of communications, command and control, and railway equipment. The program provided the Soviets with almost one million miles of telephone cable and about 247,000 field telephones. The US aid included half a million tons of railway tracks that were important in rebuilding the 65,000 kilometers of railway tracks and 2,300 bridges destroyed by the Germans. The aid in this area also included 1,155 railroad cars and 1,981 locomotives.20
The Soviets have ridiculed the 2.67 million tons of petroleum received from the US in view of their own output of about 30 million tons per year. What is left out of their commentary is the fact that much of the US-provided petroleum consisted of high-octane aviation fuel, a type that was in short supply in the Soviet Union. The Lend-Lease program also provided much-needed raw materials, including about 75 percent of the aluminum and copper needed by Soviet industry between 1941 and 1944.21
On the subjects of food aid and the provision of raw materials, Khrushchev writes:
In addition we received steel and aluminum from which we made guns, airplanes, and so on. Our own industry was shattered and partly abandoned to the enemy. We also received food products in great quantities…. There were many jokes going around in the army, some of them off-color, about American Spam; it tasted good nonetheless. Without Spam we couldn’t have been able to feed our army. We had lost our most fertile lands—the Ukraine and the northern Caucasus.22
Khrushchev makes the following observations on why Soviet historians have failed to give proper credit for the aid received from the West during the war:23
Unfortunately, our historical works about World War II have perpetrated an illusion. They have been written out of a false sense of pride and out of a fear to tell the truth about our Allies’ contribution—all because Stalin himself held an incorrect, unrealistic position. He knew the truth, but he admitted it only to himself in the toilet. He considered it too shameful and humiliating for our country to admit publicly.
From the very onset of planning for the eastern campaign, the Germans underestimated Soviet strength and resilience. This continued during the war. While they had grown to appreciate the strength and endurance of the Red Army by 1942, their estimates of Soviet productive capability continued to fall far short of what the Soviets achieved. In March 1942 the Germans estimated Soviet steel production at 8 million tons while it turned out to be 13.5 million tons.24 This faulty estimate of steel production resulted in a much lower estimate of armament production than what was achieved.
The Lend-Lease program from the US and Britain was something the Germans had woefully underestimated. This underestimation badly aggravated German mistakes as far as Soviet production was concerned.
It is in this light that we should view Western aid and the efforts by the Germans to interdict the flow through Murmansk. The compounded German mistakes—underestimation of Soviet production and Lend-Lease aid—may explain why they did not press harder to cut the Murmansk Railroad in 1941. However, in 1942 they were beginning to get a more accurate picture of the vast program of Western aid. Nevertheless, they still continued to rely on inadequate forces for the cutting of the supply route and failed to press the Finns for vigorous efforts in this area.
The Mountain Corps Norway Plan
Operation Renntier (occupation of the Pechenga region) was completed without any problems on June 22, 1940. The two divisions of Mountain Corps Norway went into assembly areas just west of the Soviet border and prepared for the start of Operation Platinfuchs, the attack towards Murmansk, 90 kilometers to the east of the border. The artillery regiment would support both divisions. The OKW intelligence summary on June 6, 1941 estimated that there was only one Soviet division in the Murmansk area.
The assembly of the two divisions corresponded to their planned employment. The 2nd Mountain Division, commanded by Major General Ernst Schlemmer and consisting of the 136th and 137th Mountain Regiments, assembled east of Pechenga since it would constitute the left wing of General Dietl’s drive. The 3rd Mountain Division, commanded by Major General Hans Kreysing and consisting of the 138th and 139th Mountain Regiments, assembled further to the south, in the vicinity of Luostari. It constituted the right wing of the German advance.
The Finnish Petsamo Detachment (also referred to as the Ivalo Battalion) would stage a diversionary attack 90 kilometers to the south, north of the Lutto River. Its mission was to tie down Soviet forces in this area and act as flank security for Mountain Corps Norway. This detachment advanced to within 20 kilometers of Ristikent, southeast of Murmansk. After a number of sharp engagements with Soviet forces, it withdrew back to the Akka River near the Finnish–Soviet border and from then until the end of August it engaged primarily in patrol activities.
The final objective of the 2nd Mountain Division was Polyarnyy on Kola Bay north of Murmansk. The capture of this town would seal Murmansk from the Arctic Ocean. In the first phase of the operation Dietl expected his two divisions to reach a line from Motovka in the south to the Litsa village in the north. The 2nd Mountain Division would use one of its two regiments, after sealing off the neck of the Rybachiy Peninsula with one battalion, to strike southeastward to Titovka and Litsa village. The reinforced second regiment of this division would drive in a southeastern direction to the road between Titovka and Litsa village, interdicting this road east of the Litsa River. The 3rd Mountain Division would attack with one reinforced regiment in a southeast direction from its assembly area past Chapr Lake towards Motovka.
First Attempt to Breach the Litsa River Line
The attack across the border into the Soviet Union began on schedule at 0300 hours on June 29. There was no air support as the area was enveloped in heavy fog. General Erfurth writes that within a short time the Mountain Corps Norway gained 30–40 kilometers.25 However, the situation was not really that rosy.
The 137th Mountain Regiment had a particularly hard time reducing the pillboxes along the border. Determined Soviet resistance gave the Germans an early taste of what was in store in the days ahead. Thanks to dense fog, the line of pillboxes was finally reduced, with only light casualties. The Soviets, mostly Siberian and Mongolians, fought to the very end.26 Fewer than one hundred prisoners were taken. There was little Soviet air activity at the beginning of the operation. Despite the fact that the war had begun a week earlier, German bombers caught Soviet biplane fighters unprotected on the airfields near Murmansk, and most were destroyed.27
The Germans did not have accurate intelligence of Soviet strength on the Rybachiy Peninsula. The plan had been for one battalion from the 136th Mountain Regiment to peel off and seal the neck of that peninsula to prevent a threat developing against the German left flank. They soon found out that two battalions were required for this task. That left the 136th to make the drive towards Titovka and the Litsa village with only one battalion instead of with the two called for in the plan. However, the 136th captured the bridge over the Titovka River intact and found the airfield and nearby Soviet camp deserted.
Things also began well in the sector of the 3rd Mountain Division. The Titovka River was reached quickly and the Germans were ferrying troops across by 0600 hours. However, the entire situation changed in the next six hours.
Dietl had given Hitler an accurate description of the difficulties facing Mountain Corps Norway when the two met on April 21, 1941. One aspect of his concerns was the total lack of east–west roads. To overcome this obstacle Dietl was assigned Reich Labor Service groups K363 and K376 under the command of Chief Labor Leader Welser.28
Dietl received maps of his operational area in May and these showed that things were not as difficult as he had depicted to Hitler. Only a small border strip in the zone of operations showed a complete lack of roads and tracks. A few kilometers inside, the country roads and tracks were marked. The maps showed one road leading from the bridge over the Titovka River to Litsa village. Then there was another road from Lake Chapr to Motovka. Finally, there was a road leading from Motovka north to Litsa village. All these roads connected to the main road leading east to Murmansk. The operational plans of the Mountain Corps were made on the assumption that the roads shown on the maps existed.
It may well be that OKW showed Hitler these maps and this may have caused him to believe that his Bavarian friend had painted an overly pessimistic picture of the transportation problems confronting Mountain Corps Norway. This may have led him to disregard Dietl’s recommendation that the main offensive effort take place from Salla towards Kandalaksha and that a defensive posture be adopted on the Arctic front.
By midday on June 29 the Germans discovered that the road shown on the maps from Chapr Lake to Motovka did not exist and aerial reconnaissance also showed that there was no road from Motovka to the Litsa village. The 2nd Division soon discovered that there was also no road from Titovka to the lower Litsa River. The explanation for this serious miscalculation appears to stem from an analysis of the maps at OKW. The analysts had assumed that the Soviets used the same map symbols as the countries in central Europe. As a result, they had interpreted the dotted double lines on the Soviet maps as depicting roads or tracks. What these maps actually showed were telephone lines and the routes used by the Lapps in their winter migrations.29
General Dietl quickly concluded that it would not be possible to supply two divisions moving on parallel routes across the trackless tundra. The advance of the lead elements of the 3rd Mountain Division, which had struggled forward past Chapr Lake, was halted. Major elements of the 3rd Mountain Division were ordered back across the border to take up positions along the Arctic Ocean Highway in the Pechenga area behind the right wing of the 2nd Mountain Division. However, the 3rd Division already had one regiment on the Titovka River. Two battalions from this regiment were ordered to proceed in a northerly direction into the 2nd Division sector while the third battalion was ordered to make a sweep in a northeasterly direction to make contact with the right regiment of the 2nd Division between Titovka and the Litsa River, about five kilometers from the end of the bay. Although this was the main route to Kola Bay, what was expected to be a road was little more than a track.
By the end of the first day of the offensive the Germans were forced to completely revise their operational plan. The right regiment of the 2nd Mountain Division (137th), joined by a battalion from the 3rd Mountain Division, was ordered to push eastward to the bridge across Litsa, southwest of Litsa village. It was hoped that a road from there to Kola Bay would offer some operational possibilities.
One battalion from the 136th Regiment of the 2nd Mountain Division captured Titovka on June 30.30 The remainder of this regiment was involved in heavy fighting at the neck of the Rybachiy Peninsula. The Soviets had landed reinforcements, supported by warships, on the east shore of Motovskiy Bay at the village of Kutovaya. The 137th Mountain Regiment was able to get one battalion to the right bank of Litsa River on July 1. The fighting near Titovka and in the drive to the Litsa River was heavy. The 95th and 112th Soviet Assault Regiments of the 14th Division suffered heavy losses in the first two days of fighting.
Faulty map reading and a trackless tundra wilderness were not the only problems facing the German mountain troops. German intelligence had, in the first week of June, estimated that there was only one Soviet division of poor quality in the Murmansk area. The Germans now discovered that they were facing two divisions—14th and 52nd Rifle Divisions of the 14th Soviet Army. These were highly motivated and proficient troops amply supported by artillery and air. Two regiments from these divisions were digging in to hold the Litsa River line. Another regiment, supported by a battalion of artillery, was contesting the Germans at the base of the Rybachiy Peninsula. The air resources from the 5th Air Fleet in Norway were inadequate to contest Soviet air superiority since these resources also had to support the XXXVI Corps, 350 kilometers to the south. The exceptionally difficult terrain favored the defenders and made the rate of movement by the German mountain troops very slow, not exceeding one kilometer each hour even when their advance was not contested. It was becoming abundantly clear to everyone, from Dietl to the infantrymen at the front, that the task they were facing was much more difficult than they had anticipated.
The Rybachiy Peninsula was sealed by July 4 but two battalions were required to hold the narrow neck near the village of Kutovaya. The 1st Battalion, 137th Mountain Regiment, secured the Litsa fishing village on July 3. A company from the battalion crossed the Litsa River in rubber rafts just above the estuary.
An attack by both divisions to pierce the Litsa River line was planned for July 6. The 2nd Division would strike from the west bank between the Litsa village and the bridge over the Litsa about 10 kilometers south from that village. The 3rd Division would occupy positions to the south of the bridge. The main effort would be made by both divisions near the bridge—one regiment from each division attacking north and south of the bridge. After securing the river line, both attacks would continue along the Russian Road.
The attack on the Litsa River line was planned for the morning of July 6 but it was delayed until late that day because the 2nd Division assembly area was subjected to heavy Soviet artillery fire and the 3rd Division, because of difficult terrain, had problems getting sufficient forces in place on the west bank of the river. The attacks, when they began, met fierce resistance. By the end of the day the 2nd Division had only one battalion across the river while the 3rd Division had managed to get two battalions into a 1.5 kilometer-wide bridgehead.
The Soviets now launched a serious flank threat to Mountain Corps Norway. Two Soviet transports, escorted by a cruiser and two destroyers, had steamed into Litsa Bay and landed two battalions, one on each side of the bay. The threat from the amphibious landing forced the 2nd Division to send a battalion to screen its left flank.
The Mountain Corps Norway’s chief of staff, Lieutenant Colonel von Le Suire, informed Falkenhorst’s headquarters that the Soviet amphibious landings threatened the corps flank and operations across the Litsa had to be suspended. The troops on the east bank of the river held their positions on July 7 but after repelling strong Soviet counterattacks during the night they were ordered to the west bank of the river in the morning of July 8. In a situation report to Falkenhorst, General Dietl demanded increased air support and reinforcements. He asked for at least one additional regiment.
Hitler now intervened indirectly in the operations of Mountain Corps Norway. He was again becoming fixed on the danger of a British landing in north Norway and demanded immediate strengthening of the defenses there as well as around Pechenga. The land forces for Pechenga’s defense—one battalion of mountain troops and three artillery batteries—were stripped from Dietl’s Mountain Corps.
The offensive strength of Mountain Corps Norway was slowly being frittered away. First, it had to provide two battalions to seal off the Rybachiy Peninsula. Then it had to detach one battalion to screen the left flank of the corps against the threat posed by the Soviet amphibious landing. Finally, a reinforced battalion was sent back to the Pechenga area to act as a defensive force. These detachments represented 30% of Dietl’s striking power.
It did not take OKW long to respond to Dietl’s urgent request for reinforcements. OKW ordered Falkenhorst on July 7 to transfer troops from the XXXVI Corps—the main effort. Falkenhorst was also asked to contact Mannerheim and request help for Dietl so he could again gather his forces for offensive operations. Falkenhorst provided one motorized machinegun battalion from his own resources and prevailed on Mannerheim to make the 14th Infantry Regiment, minus one battalion, available to Mountain Corps Norway. When it arrived it was used to relieve the German troops sealing the Rybachiy Peninsula.
Dietl had toyed with the idea of resuming the offensive almost immediately after the troops were withdrawn behind the Litsa. This time he intended to use only the 3rd Mountain Division, again in the vicinity of the bridge and along the road. It is not known why he waited until he had withdrawn his troops to the west bank of the river before he decided to resume the offensive. The plan was aborted on July 10 after a dispatch rider carrying the attack orders missed his turnoff to a regimental headquarters near Kutovaya and drove straight into the Soviet lines and was wounded and captured. Because of supply difficulties, it is doubtful if the operation could have succeeded. The divisions were supplied by pack mules but many of them had died from exhaustion. Those left could barely transport rations let alone the large amount of ammunition needed for offensive operations.
Second Attempt to Breach the Litsa Line
On July 12 Dietl shifted the weight of the attack to the left flank of the corps. The 2nd Mountain Division was to attack eastward from its present positions near the Litsa village to the chain of lakes lying in a rough arc about 10 kilometers behind the river. Then it would turn south into the rear of the Soviet forces defending the river’s west bank—thereby allowing the 3rd Mountain Division to launch its attack on the river line. With the two divisions advancing along the road the corps hoped to push about 12 kilometers to where the road passes between two lakes—Lake Kuirk and a lake the Germans named Traun.
By the evening of July 13, the first day of the renewed attacks, the 2nd Division had seven battalions on the east bank of the Litsa River and had advanced about three kilometers. Enemy resistance stiffened on July 14 and there were reports of additional amphibious operations not only on the north side of Litsa Bay but at several other points along Motovskiy Bay. Mountain Corps Norway concluded on July 15 that the threats to its left flank would have to be eliminated before the offensive could proceed. The German attacks continued throughout the day of the 15th and one German column succeeded in penetrating the area between Lakes Kuirk and Traun. However, the outlook was not promising. The Soviets launched heavy counterattacks against the German bridgehead from the south and southwest. At the same time, in what appeared to be part of a coordinated effort, the Soviets attacked the German force that held the neck of the Rybachiy Peninsula.
The determined resistance by the Soviet troops on the Litsa line and the amphibious landings on Mountain Corps Norway’s undefended left flank presented the Germans with almost insurmountable problems. Instead of having to defend the six-kilometer neck of the Rybachiy Peninsula and a 20-kilometer front on the Litsa River, they now had to worry about a front of almost 70 kilometers from Kutovaya in the north almost to Motovka in the south.
The German logistical situation continued to deteriorate as troops previously used in the supply effort were used in the beachhead to maximize combat power. Dietl informed the Army of Norway on July 17 that he could no longer continue his advance against Murmansk. He intended, instead, to reduce the size of the bridgehead and use the troops thereby freed to mop up Soviet forces that had landed north of Litsa Bay. In summary, Dietl did not believe it would be possible to resume the offensive until he received, as a minimum, one additional division.
On July 18, the 2nd Mountain Division withdrew its troops in the Litsa bridgehead back to a line extending from a point three kilometers south of the Litsa village to a waterfall about six kilometers to the south. The 3rd Mountain Division settled into a line on the west bank of Litsa from the waterfall to a point west of Traun Lake, about five kilometers south of the bridge over the Litsa.
A meeting between General Falkenhorst, his chief of staff Colonel Buschenhagen, Admiral Hermann Boehm (commander of German naval forces in Norway), and General Dietl took place on July 21. They all agreed that with winter approaching, Mountain Corps Norway could not be left where it was. Either it had to be withdrawn to Finland or it had to push through to Murmansk. Falkenhorst favored pushing on to Murmansk and believed that three regiments could be quickly brought to Dietl provided Hitler would allow such a switch. Admiral Boehm, who had already stationed a flotilla of five destroyers at Kirkenes, promised that two submarines would be added to that force. However, he cautioned that there was not much the navy could do to assist Dietl because of Soviet naval superiority east of Varangerfjord (the bay where Kirkenes is located). The danger to the German Navy in the north was also brought home on July 30 when British carrier-based aircraft bombed Kirkenes, Liinahamari, and Pechenga.
Dietl was informed on July 23 that he would receive two battalions from Norway and the Army of Norway ordered him to resume the offensive. Dietl was pessimistic after assessing his situation. He had started the offensive on June 29 with two mountain divisions of two regiments each. The fighting since then had seriously depleted his fighting units to a point where all his regiments were seriously under-strength. Three battalions from these regiments were involved in a desperate attempt to cope with the threat to his left flank and one reinforced battalion acted as a mobile reserve for the defense of the Pechenga area. The 3rd Mountain Division was already behind the Litsa River line and the 2nd Mountain Division, fighting off repeated heavy Soviet attacks on its bridgehead, had recommended that it be withdrawn to the west bank of the river. Dietl informed the Army of Norway on July 24 that the only thing he could accomplish after receiving the two-battalion reinforcement was to eliminate the threat to his left flank.
The Army of Norway completed a review—at the request of OKW—of the situation in its three corps in Finland (Mountain Corps Norway, XXXVI Corps, and III Finnish Corps) on the same day as Dietl submitted his pessimistic report of the situation on his front. OKW had intimated that consideration be given to terminating operations in central Finland and moving forces north to reinforce Mountain Corps Norway if the situation in central Finland did not look promising. This would allow Dietl to continue his attack and take Murmansk before the onset of winter. The Army of Norway’s comment on the OKW suggestion was that while the situation in the III Corps area did not look good, to adopt a defensive posture in central Finland would allow the enemy to throw his forces against either the remaining forces in central Finland or against Dietl’s mountain corps. The Army of Norway still believed that Dietl could take Murmansk if he was assigned another mountain division by the end of August.
Relentless Soviet pressure against the German bridgehead on the Litsa continued at the end of July. Mountain Corps Norway had assembled a force of four battalions for a drive northeastward from the line Titovka–Litsa village to eliminate the flank threat to the corps. This operation, dubbed the Hofmeister “unternehmen” (undertaking) after the group commander, was successful. The Soviets had spread their two forward battalions in a thinly manned 15-kilometer line and the German attack, which began on August 2, made rapid progress. One Soviet battalion was destroyed by August 5, and the second battalion was evacuated to the south side of Litsa Bay after sustaining heavy casualties. This success also reduced the pressure on the German bridgehead. It appeared that the Soviets were switching to a defensive posture throughout the Mountain Corps Norway’s area of operations.
Hitler ordered the 6th Mountain Division from Greece to the Arctic front on July 30, 1941. It was a long move and the most optimistic scenario had it arriving in the Mountain Corps Norway area during the second half of September. The Army of Norway, worried about early signs of autumn in the Arctic, felt that something had to be done to get the stalled Mountain Corps Norway moving before the arrival of the 6th Mountain Division. Falkenhorst proposed to make two regiments available from the forces in Norway. Hitler denied the request initially, believing that there would still be time to act after the arrival of the 6th Mountain Division. However, after an investigative visit to the Mountain Corps Norway area by Major General Walter Warlimont, chief of the OKW’s National Defense Section, Hitler relented. The 388th Infantry Regiment and the 9th SS Infantry Regiment were withdrawn from Norway and attached to Dietl’s forces.
Final Attempt to Breach the Litsa River Line
Mountain Corps Norway spent most of August planning for a new drive across the Litsa. It was hoped that a quick penetration of this front would allow for a rapid drive to Murmansk after the arrival of the 6th Mountain Division and before the winter weather made operations impossible. The Germans did not alter their approach but essentially repeated the strategy tried in July. The 3rd Mountain Division with the 388th Infantry Regiment attached would attack frontally across the Litsa River. The 2nd Mountain Division, with the 9th SS Infantry Regiment attached, would push south from the bridgehead behind the forward Soviet positions along the Litsa River. The objective focused on inflicting maximum losses on the defending Soviet forces since this would facilitate the drive towards Murmansk after the 6th Mountain Division arrived.
A debate ensued between Dietl and the Army of Norway about the upcoming attacks. Based on experience in the XXXVI Corps area of central Finland, Falkenhorst wanted Mountain Corps Norway to drive around the Soviet left flank using the 3rd Mountain Division. The experience in central Finland had shown that the Soviets did not yield ground and each position had to be eliminated in costly fighting. Flanking attacks, on the other hand, threw the Soviets into confusion and forced them to retire after their lines of communication were threatened or else face encirclement. This had also been the experience of the Finns in the Winter War. Dietl argued, however, that the tundra terrain in which his troops found themselves did not lend itself to flanking movements that might be appropriate elsewhere. Movement was exceedingly slow in the rugged terrain where there was no concealment or cover and this allowed the enemy ample time to shift forces to meet any envelopment.
The final decision on August 25 was heavily influenced by the views Operation Platinfuchs of Major General Hans Kreysing, the commander of the 3rd Mountain Division. Reconnaissance of his front revealed that the Soviets had made significant improvements to their defensive positions. Kreysing viewed the prospects of success in a frontal attack as very poor. He suggested that a better chance of success could result if he moved his forces several kilometers to the south in order to drive around the Soviet left flank.
The plans for the German attack were dependent upon interdicting the existing roads on the east side of the Litsa River. All these roads served as supply routes for the Soviet forces and assisted the movement of their forces behind the front. The most important road was the one the Germans referred to as the “Russian Road,” the main route to Kola Bay. This road had been the objective of the earlier operations of the 3rd Mountain Division. The road referred to as the “New Road” branches off from the Russian Road between Lakes Kuirk and Traun, 11 kilometers south of the Litsa Bridge. It runs north for about 16 kilometers to where it intersects with the Ura Guba Road. To call the latter a road is a stretch of the imagination. It was little more than a path in the rocky tundra. The Ura Guba Road continued towards positions occupied by the 2nd Mountain Division after intersecting with the New Road. If the New Road could be reached, it would give the Germans a chance to move behind the Soviet forces on the Litsa front. Dietl planned to begin the attack on September 8.
The 2nd Mountain Division massed two regiments, one mountain regiment and the 9th SS Regiment, on its left flank to attack east for about three kilometers and then swing south behind the chain of lakes to the junction of the two roads—New Road and Ura Guba Road.
The 3rd Mountain Division assembled its two regiments south of its right flank for an attack around the Russian left flank. The drive would take them to the junction of the Russian Road and New Road. From there the two regiments would advance along the New Road to link up with units of the 2nd Mountain Division. It was anticipated that this junction would take place near where the New Road intersected with the Ura Guba Road.
The 388th Infantry Regiment, attached to the 3rd Division, was to launch a frontal attack across the Litsa to capture the two prominent hills about three kilometers from the bridge, which the Germans referred to as Pranckh and Brandl Hills. These hills constituted the anchor positions of the Soviet left flank. After taking these hills, plans called for the regiment to continue eastward and join up with the advance of the two other regiments from the 3rd Mountain Division along the New Road.
The lack of security for the routes of supply and reinforcement was brought home to the Mountain Corps Norway at the end of August. Two German transports carrying replacements for the Mountain Corps were sunk by a Soviet submarine. Much of the 6th Mountain Division was to be brought to north Norway by sea and the likelihood of accomplishing this in face of the naval threat caused the Army of Norway to order Dietl not to wait for the arrival of the entire 6th Mountain Division before he undertook his offensive against Murmansk. The delay of the division was underscored on September 7 when British naval forces attacked a German troop convoy near North Cape. While the transport managed to seek refuge in a fjord, the escorting artillery training ship Bremse was sunk.
The outlook for the success of their planned attacks appeared doubtful to the Germans even if major parts of the 6th Mountain Division should arrive. Major General Buschenhagen (promoted from Colonel to Major General on August 1, 1941), the chief of staff of the Army of Norway, told Jodl that he was very pessimistic about the prospects. Whether or not the operation was successful would hinge on the first few days of the offensive. The Army of Norway was already considering the use of the 6th Mountain Division in the drive to Kandalaksha and the only thing that kept them from doing it was Hitler’s desire to capture Murmansk at the earliest opportunity.
Dietl informed Jodl on September 5 that even if the attack and advance were successful it would be extremely difficult to reach the west shore of Kola Bay before winter began in early October. Even if his forces, including the 6th Mountain Division, reached Kola Bay he doubted that he had sufficient combat power to cross to the east side of the bay and capture Murmansk. And, should Murmansk be reached and captured, his forces would be cut off from their source of supplies for the remainder of the winter. For Murmansk to be held and his troops to survive the winter would require that Kandalaksha be captured and the Murmansk Railroad north of that town be put into operation for supplies.
There was lack of realism at OKW. Both the Army of Norway and the commander of Mountain Corps Norway had expressed serious Operation Platinfuchs doubts about accomplishing the corps’ mission at this late date. The best decision would have been to go into winter positions near Pechenga or along the Litsa River. This would have provided ample time for all reinforcements to arrive to take part in renewed operations in the spring.
The attack on September 8 started out with the Germans making good progress. The 2nd Mountain Division, after breaking out of its bridgehead, captured Hill 173.7 and then turned south behind the Soviet units in the forward area. The right flank regiment of the 3rd Mountain Division also made good progress after crossing the Litsa River. By the end of the day it had reached the neck of land between Lakes Traun and Kuirk.
However, the day that started out well did not end well for either of the German divisions. The troubles began with the 388th Infantry Regiment. This unit was to attack across the Litsa River from a position in the left portion of the 3rd Mountain Division’s area. Two battalions from this regiment made rapid progress towards the two key terrain features, Pranckh and Brandl Hills. However, the forward Soviet units had not been eliminated by the advancing Germans and they made their reappearance as soon as supporting fire was lifted. This placed them at the rear of the advancing Germans who were taken under heavy fire by the bypassed Soviet units.
Two German companies were heavily mauled by fire from the rear and both flanks. The situation became desperate by mid-afternoon and the commander of the 388th Regiment asked permission to pull his troops back across the Litsa. He informed the 3rd Mountain Division commander that this was the only way to avoid complete destruction of his regiment. One battalion of the regiment had already suffered 60% casualties and was therefore for all practical purposes combat ineffective. The 388th was given permission to withdraw and was back across the river late in the day.
The danger of hasty advances by inexperienced troops was repeated in the sector of the 2nd Mountain Division. Two battalions of the 9th SS Infantry Regiment made quick progress on the left flank of the division, capturing Hill 173.7 and continuing their advance. Again, the Soviets had allowed themselves to be bypassed and opened a devastating fire on the Germans from the rear at the same time as Soviet troops in front of the Germans launched a counterattack supported by artillery. Panic developed among the SS troops and they broke and ran. Control was restored only after the 2nd Division committed mountain troops to recapture the lost ground.
The 2nd Mountain Division managed to push about five kilometers to the south on September 9, but then its advance was halted by heavy Soviet counterattacks. The 3rd Division advanced with one regiment forward and reached to within a few hundred yards of the junction of the New Road and the Russian Road. Here they encountered a Soviet regiment in prepared positions. The advance came to a halt while artillery and supplies were brought forward. Bringing supplies forward was a laborious task and the 3rd Division estimated that it would not be ready before September 11. Both mountain divisions were tied down in repelling heavy Soviet counterattacks on September 10.
The 3rd Mountain Division was not ready to resume its attack on September 11. The commander set September 13 as a resumption date but he had to delay the attack for another day because the Soviets hit the division with a strong counterattack as it was getting ready. The 2nd Mountain Division did resume its attack on September 12 but advanced only a little over one kilometer against determined resistance. Most of the ground gained during the day was lost to Soviet counterattacks during the night.
Bringing supplies forward continued to be a serious problem. Pack mules were used but their numbers had again dwindled from exhaustion and exposure. There were only enough mules available to keep the two divisions supplied for defensive operations.
The 3rd Mountain Division resumed its offensive on September 14 with both regiments. While they were able to secure the area around the lakes, the exhausted condition of the troops and the inclement weather (cold, rain, and sleet) took its toll. Both divisions were so worn down that their activities on September 15 and 16 were limited to patrols and minor offensive operations to frustrate Soviet counterattacks.
While the main reasons for stopping offensive operations had to do with determined Soviet resistance, the lateness of the season, and supply difficulties, other problems also had a great impact for the Army of Norway and OKW. Mention has already been made of the loss of two German transports on September 12 and 13. The German Navy then halted all shipping to ports east of North Cape. This coincided with an inventory of supplies on hand in the Mountain Corps Norway. While there were sufficient rations and fuel on hand to last until the end of September, ammunition was critically short.
The realization began to set in at the Army of Norway that the supply difficulties in the Mountain Corps Norway sector would only increase with the arrival of the 6th Mountain Division. The prospects of capturing Murmansk under these circumstances were very dim. While the Army of Norway proposed to move the 6th Mountain Division to central Finland to take part in the attack on Kandalaksha, Hitler did not agree.
In a conference with General Falkenhorst in Berlin on September 15 Hitler agreed that the effort to reach Murmansk in 1941 should be abandoned. However, in a poor compromise, he insisted that the attacks in progress should be allowed to run their course and that the 6th Mountain Division should be moved up to relieve the 2nd and 3rd Mountain Divisions. The 6th Mountain Division was expected to hold the line during the winter and prepare to resume the attack against Murmansk in the spring.
After Falkenhorst left Berlin, Hitler decided—with Jodl’s support—to use battleships to clear the sea–lanes in the far north. This view was probably supported by General Falkenhorst, who considered that the threat from the British Navy posed the greatest danger to the shipping route. Actually, the presence of eleven Soviet submarines stationed off the Norwegian coast was a more immediate danger. Falkenhorst may not have known about the deployment of that many submarines in the area around the North Cape or he may have felt that they could be countered by an increase in the number of lighter German naval units.
Admiral Raeder refused to use his battleships in a defensive role as escorts for convoys. He pointed out that the enemy could quickly muster superior forces and that the clearing of the sea–lanes would only be a temporary measure as the naval threat would quickly reappear.
British naval operations in the far north had a primarily political objective: the demonstration of support for the Soviet Union. Sea operations in the far north to support land operations were basically viewed by the British as a waste of precious resources that promised little payoff. This was their experience in late July when, in response to a Soviet request, the British had sent two aircraft carriers, two cruisers, and six destroyers into the area. Aircraft from the two carriers bombed Pechenga, Liinahamair, and Kirkenes. The damage inflicted was relatively minor and the losses in aircraft high.
A smaller British naval force—two cruisers and two destroyers—was sent into the area on August 19 but its primary mission was to evacuate the residents of Svalbard and destroy the coal mines located there. A third incursion into the Arctic Ocean took place at the end of August. This force consisted of two cruisers, an aircraft carrier, and a freighter loaded with fighter aircraft bound for Archangel. While these British operations were not intended to interdict German sea routes, one German freighter was sunk on the task force’s return voyage.
Generals Dietl and Buschenhagen decided to halt the Mountain Corps Norway offensive on September 18. The conditions already described led to this decision, chief among them the critical supply situation. In addition, the Soviets had not only replaced their losses but intelligence reported they had brought forward a unit designated as the Polyarnyy Division. This unit was understrength and composed mostly of prisoners, labor-camp workers, and sailors. Buschenhagen again put forward his earlier idea of transferring the 6th Mountain Division to central Finland but Dietl stated that this unit was needed in the north since his two mountain divisions were worn down and needed to be relieved.
The German attack had meanwhile entered its final phase. The 3rd Mountain Division captured Pranckh and Brandl Hills on September 17. This achievement was short-lived. A fresh Soviet regiment approached the division’s southern flank and the following day, September 18, was spent in repelling repeated Soviet attacks. The situation for General Kreysing’s troops was reaching a crisis stage as the Soviets brought up two regiments from the Polyarnyy Division. The 3rd Division was soon under heavy attack from two directions. It occupied a long triangle-shaped front from the Litsa River to the lake region and Pranckh and Brandl Hills with the northern part of the salient running back to the Litsa River south of the bridge. Because the front was long, the defensive positions thinly occupied, and casualties continuing to mount, General Kreysing did not believe his division could hold its position. He requested permission to withdraw to the west bank of the Litsa in order to avoid its complete destruction. Dietl approved the request and by September 26, the whole division was again back behind the Litsa.
The Army of Norway cancelled offensive operations in the Mountain Corps Norway sector on September 21 and a directive by Hitler approved the Army of Norway order on September 23. The 2nd Division was allowed to continue operations in order to acquire good defensive positions for the winter.
In his directive canceling the offensive operations of the Mountain Corps Norway Hitler raised the possibility of operations to secure the Rybachiy Peninsula before winter. The Army of Norway and Mountain Corps Norway opposed such an operation as it would lengthen the defensive lines considerably.
Mountain Corps Norway became busy constructing winter positions. The 6th Mountain Division moved into the area in the middle of October. The 2nd Mountain Division was moved back to the area around Pechenga. The 3rd Mountain Division, which had been in the Arctic since it landed at Narvik on April 9, 1940, was moved to southern Finland and from there to Germany.
The transfer of the 3rd Mountain Division was apparently a political decision. The morale in this unit had suffered considerably due to the heavy fighting and setbacks during the summer. Ziemke writes the following about this transfer:
One of the current rumors had it that the 3rd Mountain Division was being kept in the Arctic as part of a plot to exterminate the Austrians. (Most of the division personnel were Austrian.) Finally, one of the soldiers who was a Nazi Party member complained to the party authorities; and, since there were at the same time signs of unrest in the Austrian provinces, the matter was taken through party channels to Hitler, who ordered the division transferred.31
End of Operation Platinfuchs
The Germans did not have much to show for their strenuous efforts on the Arctic front. They began their operations with their objective—Murmansk—at a distance of 90 kilometers. After two-and-a-half months of attacks by some of the most elite troops in the German Army, they were still 66 kilometers from their objective. The corps had suffered 10,290 casualties, a high price for little gain.
In retrospect, it is relatively easy to see where mistakes were made. However, some of the problems should have been foreseen.
Hitler’s fixation with the defense of Norway, where no real threat existed, did much to doom Platinfuchs to failure. The force made available for the operation was dictated, not by what was required for its success but by what could be spared from Norway. Faulty planning and preparations led to logistics levels that were barely able to support Dietl’s two divisions. A quick logistics fix to support a larger force level from the Kirkenes/Pechenga base area was not possible because the means of transportation over poor and insecure routes were lacking.
The shortage of forces led the Germans, according to Ziemke, to modify their goals for the operation. However, this observation in itself is erroneous since whether Polyarnyy or Murmansk was the goal made little difference. The force required for a drive to Polyarnyy would be essentially the same as that required for a drive to Murmansk. The planners must have realized that the Soviets fully understood that the capture of Polyarnyy would eliminate Murmansk as a gateway to the world, and that they would therefore resist its capture as strenuously as they would a direct attack on Murmansk.
Hitler’s preoccupation with the defense of Pechenga also played a role in the failure of Operation Platinfuchs. Again, the problem can be traced back to the faulty planning that failed to factor in security forces for Pechenga at an early date. Stripping forces for that purpose from the attacking divisions was a poor solution.
The Germans underestimated the difficulties posed by the terrain despite having been informed by experts. Dietl had sought out the opinions of knowledgeable Scandinavians, and all had expressed the view that the terrain between Pechenga and Polyarnyy was totally unsuitable for offensive military operations, even in summer. This was reported by Dietl to OKW as early as May 15, 1941. Jodl brushed this aside by stating that the difficulties were well known to OKW and that the accomplishment of anything above the defense of Pechenga should be considered a gift. Such statements reveal doubts about prospects for success from the commander on the ground to the highest level in the German command structure and should have been sufficient to question the wisdom of wasting two of Germany’s finest divisions in an operation pre-ordained to fail.
The fact that the Soviets employed much larger forces, including armor, in this area in late 1944 does not change this conclusion. They had a reasonably good road leading up to the Litsa River and they had upgraded that road along with others in the area between 1941 and 1944.
The Germans underestimated the skill and tenacity of the Soviet soldiers in defensive operations. This was undoubtedly influenced by the poor showing of the Soviet Army during the Winter War. They failed to give proper weight to the fact that the Soviets confronted an enemy in the Finns who were ideally suited to fight in the kind of terrain found in their homeland. They undoubtedly also underestimated the interim improvements that had been made in the Soviet military.
German intelligence estimates were faulty. They expected to be confronted by one division of the 14th Soviet Army but they faced two divisions, which had increased to three by the time they made their last effort to pierce the Litsa River line. There was a strong feeling within Mountain Corps Norway that this came about because of the staggered starting time for operations out of Finland. Major General M. Kräutler refers to the week from June 22 to June 29 as the neglected or lost seven days (Die versäumten sieben Tage).32
The Soviets were fully aware of the significant buildup of forces in north Norway during the spring and summer of 1941 and that sizeable portions of this force moved into the Pechenga area on June 22. The movement into the Pechenga area signaled the Soviets that they should expect an offensive and gave them a week to increase their force level between Pechenga and Murmansk to thwart the operation.
The faulty interpretation of Soviet map symbols between the Finnish border and the Litsa River at OKW was a grievous error. However, it is unlikely that a correct interpretation would have changed anyone’s mind about the operation. It was not surprising that the Soviets decided to make their stand along the Litsa River. They had a relatively good road (Russian Road) leading into that area from Murmansk while a more forward deployment would have presented them with supply problems similar to those of the Germans.
In addition, the Soviets made full use of their naval dominance and amphibious capabilities in Motovskiy Bay to launch threats against the German flanks. This was apparently not anticipated by the German planners and the woefully inadequate Luftwaffe resources made available for operations in Finland could not counter this threat.
It can be argued persuasively that the operations of Mountain Corps Norway should have been terminated with the first failure to crack the Litsa River line on July 17. It appears that this was what General Dietl had in mind. Instead of doing so Hitler and the OKW made the capture of Murmansk a stated objective of the continued offensive.
Ziemke concludes that the interdiction of the sea routes around North Cape led to the failure of Operation Platinfuchs.33 While this caused a delay in the arrival of the 6th Mountain Division and decreased the flow of supplies by sea, the addition of another division that needed to be supplied in the roadless tundra may only have exacerbated those difficulties. Dietl had concluded that he would not have been able to break through to Murmansk even with the 6th Mountain Division because the Soviets could mount a defense in depth and keep supplied via the relatively good road from Murmansk and by sea.34