Saturday, 17 August 2019

The Fight for Vyborg (June 1944)

The Russian port town of Vyborg, on the Karelian Isthmus, about 100 kilometres from St Petersburg is just a few steps from the modern day Finnish border. It's a interesting place - largely untouched by tourism. Whilst there is an undercurrent of seediness which is accentuated by a small but busy 'red light' scene the place retains a certain charm. Until the final months of the 1940-44 Continuation War the town was Finnish (Vipuri).

The Russian Town of Vyborg - view of Vyborg Castle (13th Century)
Following the forced withdrawal of the German Heeresgruppe Nord from the Leningrad region in early 1944 Finland's military position became critical. Having partnered with Germany in June 1941 the Finns had played a subtle strategic game in supporting their allies whilst not behaving too aggressively towards the Soviet Union. Many historians are critical of Mannerheim's decision to reject a Soviet peace offer in April 1944. In doing so the prospect of a concerted effort by the Red Army to push the Finns back beyond the pre Winter War (1939-40) border became reality.

Derelict Finnish House on Ovchinniy (Turkinsaari) Island
We decided to travel to the islands in the Gulf of Vyborg to explore parts of the battlefield assaulted by the Soviet 43rd Rifle Corps (of Ivan Korovnikov's 59th Army). In Finnish times the islands had been partly cleared of trees and were inhabited by peasants and fishermen. The Gulf of Vyborg was a busy waterway with the port of Vyborg at its heart. There is a lot to see from a military history perspective; Ovchinney (Turkinsaari) was a seaplane base and a mine research station and Vikhrevoy is home to 19th Century fortifications which were reused in the First World War, The Winter War and indeed the Continuation War. Similarly there is much to explore on Maly Vysotsky  (Ravansaari) and Chernovoy (Mustassari).

Transport to the Battlefields of Vyborg Bay
We hired a yacht for the day - one of a handful based in Vyborg. The Gulf freezes in winter so yacht ownership can be an expensive business insofar as the vessels need to be lifted from the water in winter. The islands did not disappoint though - once landed, the going was pretty heavy - thick undergrowth and swarms of insects. The military fortifications tended to be on the seaward facing side of the islands for obvious reasons whilst, for practical reasons, our yacht anchored on the sheltered landward side. Evidence of the pre-war Finnish settlements was prolific and I couldn't help wondering what happened to the people who inhabited the simple wooden houses that we explored.

Island Berth - Ready to Hike
Some of the forts date back to the Crimean War - indeed the area has been the scene of conflict for much of the previous hundred or so years. The Battle of Vyborg Bay between the forces of Gustav III of Sweden and Russia on July 4th 1790 supposedly established the naval tactic of 'firepower over mobility'. Walking across the island we came across trenches and foxholes used in the 1944 battles as well as fortifications dating to the Winter War a few years earlier. The 19th Century forts are in ruins and the guns, of course, are long gone but nevertheless it is possible to explore the remaining structures - above and below ground.

Corridor Linking Gun Batteries
Archive Map of Crimean War Era Fortifications
As is so often the case, on top of the 19th Century casements one can find evidence of use in later conflicts. First World War anti-naval guns, Winter / Continuation War anti-aircraft guns and structures that had been fortified as protection against amphibious attack (across the water or, in winter, the ice).

Barbed Wire - 1944
As far as the final battle is concerned, the Red Army attacked across the Bay of Vyborg on June 30th 1944 using a combination of assault troops, artillery and naval vessels. The 124th and 224th Rifle Divisions led the attack with the 80th in reserve. The Finnish 22nd Coastal Artillery Regiment were the main defenders, albeit with elements from the Finnish V Corps in support - bolstered by the German 122nd Infantry Division (lent to Finland as a political and strategic expediency). The Finnish Navy were on hand in strength.

Island Defences - Bay of Vyborg
The Finns fought with characteristic tenacity. The Soviets lost heavily during their amphibious assaults on the islands of Teikari and Melansaari. Although the first two attempts at amphibious landings were pushed back the islands fell on July 6th. Other islands fell to the Soviets despite fierce resistance and heavy involvement from the Finnish ships. Fighting in the Bay died down in August after the German 122nd Division had successfully repulsed a Soviet attempt to establish a bridgehead on the northern shore. After the blocking of the Red Army's progress at Vyborg then the Soviets successfully prosecuted their campaign elsewhere on the Karelian Isthmus eventually forcing the Finns to accept terms on 29th August.

A Peaceful Island Scene in the Bay of Vyborg

I'm very grateful to my Russian friends who made this brief exploration of parts of the Gulf of Vyborg possible. As is invariably the case, walking the ground has stoked my appetite to learn more!

Vyborg Flickr Portfolio

Thursday, 6 June 2019

A Schoolboy in Portsmouth - Memories of D-Day

Watching the media coverage of the 75th anniversary of D-Day it struck me today how much my father would have enjoyed the coverage. Before he succumbed to what proved to be a terminal illness he jotted down some recollections of his childhood in Portsmouth during the war years. I thought I'd digitally transcribe what he had to say about D-Day. The picture shows my father and his mother (my Paternal Grandmother) strolling in Southsea a few months before the start of the Second World War.

"Early in 1944 Portsmouth became the centre for the D-Day preparations with the planning staff located just to the North at Southwick House. The Harbour, Spithead and the Solent were crammed with warships, freighters, tankers and landing craft each flying an attendant barrage balloon as a defence against low flying intruders. There were also giant sections of Mulberry Harbour which we found quite puzzling. We had only limited access to the seafront as it was isolated with concrete blocks and rolls of barbed wire. Many temporary piers were constructed to allow the troops to file onto transports.

We schoolboys did have access to Clarence Pier where we could watch the strange sight of Italian prisoners-of-war filling in the moats around Old Portsmouth to provide hard standings for the for the thousands of armoured and other vehicles parked for embarkation. We would beachcomb in this area and on one occasion we found the beach awash with American electric light bulbs and on another oranges - both presumably 'lost overboard' (incidentally these were the first oranges I'd seen since I found one in my Christmas stocking in 1939).

Amongst the measures taken to protect this armada and the city, harbour and Southsea Common were dotted with ant-aircraft rocket guns. These were of a very simple, sturdy design and when they were abandoned at the end of the war most of the local youngsters acquired the rubberised grips from the control handles and installed them on their bicycle handlebars. The ear shattering noise when these rockets were in action was extremely disturbing.

Action was frequent as in these were the days of the V1 Flying Bomb. Many of these 'doodlebugs' came over the coast on their way to haphazard destruction well inland. The distinctive 'phut phut' sound of their motors and their ominous shape and black colouring with the Luftwaffe Iron Cross symbol made them an eerie sight. On one occasion I can remember an RAF Meteor jet fighter pursuing a V1 as it crossed the promenade just opposite Eastney Barracks. RAF fighter planes tipped the wings of the V1s so they tipped harmlessly into the sea".

Michael Curme - Schoolboy Portraits