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!

Friday, 14 September 2018

The Lemetti Pocket / Motti (Jan - Feb 1940)

In the opening stages of the Winter War the Soviet Eighth Army launched an offensive against the Finnish IV Army Corps north of Lake Ladoga. The plan was to take Sortavala and Joensuu before attacking the main Mannerheim defence line (which lay across the Karelian Isthmus) from the rear. With the help of local guide Sergei Gurin and armed with Bair Irincheev's book War of the White Death we spent a day exploring a part of the battlefield made famous by the effective use of Motti tactics by the Finns.

Mother Russia - Soviet Cemetery - Kollaa Front

The Finnish word Motti denotes a pile of logs or timber, held in place by stakes - ready to be chopped or sawn into convenient lengths of firewood. Motti tactics as used by the Finns in the area north of Lake Ladoga - in proximity to what became known as the Kollaa Front - are usefully described in William R. Trotter's book The Winter War: The Russo-Finnish War of 1939-40.  Firstly, reconnaissance to get a fix on the enemy and identify an appropriate area for encirclement. Secondly, short sharp attacks to split a Russian column into separate components and finally, the detailed destruction of each pocket starting with the weakest.
Finnish Memorial - Uomaa - Lemetti Road

Sergei built on this description during our our walk around the Lemetti pocket. The Red Army attacked in brutal winter weather and traffic was inevitably restricted to a few ice-bound arterial roads. A concerted attack on a column on the march would quickly create a split. When part of a column was 'isolated' in this way the encircled troops would block the road at each end of the surrounded component and then throw up a defensive perimeter. The first thing the well equipped Finns would aim for were the fires and the field kitchens. During the cold nights Soviet soldiers would gather around the fires and they therefore offered an easy target. The field kitchens were critical - without hot food men would soon die. 

Soviet Cemetery - Lemetti West
The Lemetti Pocket

A series of Finnish counter attacks were launched in the opening days of 1940 and on the 6th Jan the Soviet 18th Rifle Division, the 168th Rifle Division and the 34th Light Tank Brigade were encircled in the Lemetti, Uomaa and Kitila areas. Our battlefield walk took us down the 2km length of the Lemetti Motti - an area defended until 17 February when the survivors attempted - with limited success - to break out. 

Battlefield Relics - Lemetti
Unfortunately 'black diggers' have been active in the more accessible parts of the battlefield. Since the Konrashov's 18th Rifle Division had held the line for so long, the perimeter is still very much evident - delineated by tranches, dug-outs and foxholes. The bottle that can be seen in the picture on the left is a cleaning container for a Soviet Mosin-Nagent rifle. One side contained oil and the other neat alcohol.
Finnish Troops / Soviet Equipment

In his book War of the White Death Bair Irincheev quotes some of the eye witness accounts from the desperate struggle at Lemetti. For example he quotes the Commander of the 18th Rifle Division reporting on the 29 Jan that "we have been encircled for sixteen days. We have five hundred wounded. No ammunition left, no bread. Hunger, sickness and death are here." Sergei described it as a "mini Stalingrad".

Air supply for the encircled Soviet troops was irregular and inefficient. There was no help forthcoming from the Soviet LVI Rifle Corps or the Eight Army and in one month of fighting the bulk of the 18th rifle Division was destroyed. Bair quotes a figure of 8,754 fatal casualties for the 18th and a further 1,707 for the 34th Light Tank Brigade. Sometime after the breakout - in March 1940, the surviving Commander of the 18th Rifle Division, Kombrig Kondrashov, was arrested by the NKVD and executed. Clearly blame had been apportioned!

Battlefield Cemetery - Lemetti
The area to the south of Lake Syskyjarvi in which this set piece battle was fought consists of extensive pine forest interspersed with lakes and accessible by a small number of gravel roads. The ground is pitted with trenches and dugouts and, where the fighting was thickest, there are numerous small cemeteries and individual memorials.

My review of War of the White Death: Finland Against The Soviet Union 1939-40 by Bair Irincheev. I'm grateful to Bair for his hospitality in Vyborg - a topic I will be covering soon.

Lemetti Pocket / Motti - Flickr Collection