Tuesday, 13 November 2018

The Battles for Kiviniemi / Losevo - The Winter War (Dec 1939) and The Continuation War (July 1944)

Sometimes, when travelling through a theatre of war, one comes across a location of such strategic importance that it must have had military significance. Such is the town of Losevo on the eastern side of the Karelian Isthmus, some fifty miles south of the modern day Finnish / Russian border. A major arterial road and two railway lines converge at the point where the Vuoksa river thunders through a narrow gorge linking two major lake systems. Nowadays there are two railway bridges and one road bridge. Prior to the Winter War there was one rail and one road bridge - both of which were destroyed by the Finnish Army on 6 December 1939. At that time the village was known as Kiviniemi and was well inside Finnish territory.

Rail Bridges - River Vuoksa - Losevo, Russia (was Kiviniemi)
The Rail Crossing at Kiviniemi - 1939 to 1944

During the 1930s the importance of this sector had been recognised by the Finnish General Staff and the northern side of the gorge was protected by a defensive line anchored on a couple of deep concrete bunkers - these formed part of what has come to be known as the Mannerheim Line. We parked at a petrol station having crossed the road bridge and it wasn't long before we found one of the bunkers concealed in the undergrowth. It's location is marked by a crude concrete memorial.

Finnish Bunker Ki - Eastern Karelian Isthmus
On 7 December 1939 the Soviet 90th Rifle Division attempted to cross the river in darkness without proper reconnaissance. The bridges had been destroyed and the commander of the attacking troops had a choice of pushing his men across the fast flowing, narrow water in the Losevskaya channel or sending them out to the flanks where the nearby lakes were iced over to an indeterminate thickness. The attacking troops put pontoons across the river but these were destroyed by the Finnish defenders. The Divisional Commander called on amphibious T-37 tanks to support those attackers who had made it to the northern shore but many of these were lost as were the troops stranded on the Finnish side who were unable to scale the icy cliffs above.

T-37 Amphibious Tank
1930s Postcard Showing Two Bridges
The decision to attack without reconnaissance, deployment of artillery or inter-unit co-ordination was disastrous and seriously underestimated the determination of the Finnish Army to defend their territory on the line built over the preceding few years. A post war Soviet account speaks of the Finns training searchlights into the gorge just as the attacking troops reached the faster flowing middle section. Tanks turned over in the middle channel and others were swept down the nearby rapids. The renowned Russian poet Alexander Tvardovsky was present and wrote the poem 'The Crossing' as a result.

The Ghost House at Losevo
The following day the local Soviet Corps Commander demanded that the 90th Division try again with the help of the 142nd. He was convinced by counter arguments that the attack front should be widened, proper preparation should be undertaken and that their should be logistical support. This second attempt was 'stillborn' in a chaotic logistics operation and appalling weather conditions. Thereafter, as far as the Winter War is concerned, the Finnish 8th Division continued to successfully defend this sector until the end of hostilities on 13 March 1940.

The Road Bridge - June 2018
The Destroyed Road Bridge - 1940
The story resumes in 1944 when the Red Army launched a major offensive against the Finns who were, by then, isolated by the German Army's withdrawal from Leningrad - westwards through the Baltic countries. The storm broke at 4am on 9 July when a major artillery barrage was delivered by the batteries of the Soviet 23rd Army. Twenty minutes later the 142nd Division forced the river under the protection of their own guns. Losses were minimal and a bridgehead was established - 4-6 km in depth.

Both Rail Bridges & The Road Bridge
Attempts by the Soviet 10th Division to break the flanks were less successful so the local commander resorted to a straightforward ferry crossing into the foot of the bridgehead already established by the 142nd. Units of the 92nd Infantry Brigade were also ferried across. Attempts to breakout of the bridgehead continued from the 10th July to the 15th. Notwithstanding the fact that the Red Army ferried tanks across, a Finnish counter attack served to contain the bridgehead until several weeks later when breakthroughs elsewhere removed the need to force the crossing at Kiviniemi.

Modern Recreational Map pf Losevo
Nowadays Losevo is a pleasant little town defined by the road and rail routes which pass through it. The gorge and the rapids are heavily used for canoeing and kayaking. On the northern side there are a couple of restaurants with paths leading down to gravel beaches. Like many of rural towns in Russia, the place feels 'run down'. This may change as substantial improvements are being made to the road north to Sortavala and beyond.

Stalin Tank and ISU-152 at Keksholm, Russia
on the route up to the modern day Russian / Finnish border lies the site of the Keksholm (or Korela) Fortress which dates back to the 12th Century. Originally Swedish, the fort changed hands a number of times before being captured by Peter the Great for Russia during the Great Northern War (1700-1721). In the early 20th Century the town became part of Finland. Lost to Russia at the end of the Winter War in 1940 it was retaken by the Finns at the start of the Continuation War in 194. In 1944 the town was again captured by the Red Army whose presence is still felt today in the form of an ISU-152 self propelled gun and an IS-2 (Josef Stalin) tank parked up on the town square.

Flickr Collection - The Battles for Kiviniemi / Losevo

Saturday, 6 October 2018

The Anatomy of a Soviet Bunker (1941-44)

I have explored many battlefield fortifications in my time but to visit a bunker still armed and intact after the passage of seventy plus years is a rare privilege. The forward Finnish fortifications of both the Winter War (1939-40) and the ensuing Continuation War (1941-44) were rendered unusable following the cessation of hostilities but many of the Soviet fortifications in the concentric defensive  positions around Leningrad (now St Petersburg) remain intact.

Soviet Anti-Tank Bunker - Sestroretsk
Maxim, Unknown, Natalya, Katya & Phil

We travelled north from Rzhevka following the route of the main railway track from Leningrad up to Helsinki. On 25th June 1941 the Finns attacked the Soviet Union with a particularly heavy concentration of effort in the Karelian Isthmus north of Leningrad and a complimentary attack to the east of Lake Ladoga. Co-ordinating their efforts with the Axis Heeresgruppe Nord the Finns succeeded in retaking all of the ground ceded after the signing of the post Winter War Moscow Peace Treaty.
Plan of Sestroretsk Bunker

As is well known, the city of Leningrad subsequently endured a nine hundred day siege with the German Army on the West, South and East and the Finns to the North. Whether the Finnish war aims were more ambitious than the simple repatriation of land lost in the Winter War is the subject of some debate. What is beyond dispute however, is that despite German protestations to the contrary, the Finns did not attempt to break into the city.

The Soviet defenders and their Finnish enemy did engage sporadically throughout the period of the siege. Finnish artillery commanded the northern approaches to the Baltic port of Krondstadt and a major proportion of Lake Ladoga's waters - in the latter case, assisted at one point - rather incongruously - by a flotilla of Italian motor torpedo boats. The opposing lines across the Karelian Isthmus were manned on both sides by heavily armed infantry occupying strongly fortified trenches, gun-pits and bunkers amongst the pine trees which were (and are) a major feature of the landscape.

Water Cooled Heavy Machine Gun
Anti-Tank Gun - Shell Hoist Below
The bunker we visited is effectively a time-capsule from the period. After hammering on the iron door to wake up the custodian who seems to live inside we eventually stepped into a world seemingly untouched since the last shots were fired in anger in 1944. The three guns shown on the plan above are all in place complete with all of their their accoutrements - two anti-tank guns and one heavy machine gun to deal with attacking infantry. In addition there is a Maxim gun positioned in an aperture adjacent to the door of the bunker at the rear. 

Anti-Personnel Rear Protection
The bunker is intact and has all of it's original fittings. In addition, every available space is stacked with weapons, artefacts, documents and photographs dating back to the time when this facility was operational. 

Notwithstanding the declining fortunes of the Axis forces in the East, the German political establishment were well aware of the importance of the Leningrad Front to the Finns. Indeed a plan to finally take Leningrad was scheduled for the late summer of 1943. Operation Parkplatz was predicated on the success of Operation Zitadelle further south around Kursk. With the failure of the Kursk offensive the continuation of offensive moves in the Leningrad sector was a non-starter. 

Field of Fire - Towards Finnish Lines
In June 1944 the Soviet storm broke. Two Finnish corps (six divisions and two brigades) faced the Red Army in the Karelian Isthmus  they were deployed in three defensive lines which were roughly situated on the old 1939 border (i.e. pre Winter War). On June 9th 1944 1,000 Soviet aircraft carried out saturation bombing of the Finnish positions. The following morning 300 Soviet guns fired 220,000 shells on a 17km front. By the end of the day the Soviet 21st Army had broken the Finnish lines and were battling there way towards the strategically important city of Vyborg, further north (which will be the subject of my next post). 

Machine Gun Aperture - Anti-Personnel
By the end of August the Finns had reached the point of exhaustion. The settlement reached in Moscow on the 7th September 1944 restored the 1940 - post Winter War borders and deprived Finland of the entire Pechenga region in the far north of the country. The Soviet bunkers of the Leningrad northern defence line were locked up only to be re-opened many years later - so as to accommodate curious locals and visitors such as us!