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!

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

Sunday, 2 September 2018

The Fight for Sortavala & The Northern Shore of Lake Ladoga - The Finnish / Russian Continuation War (1941-44)


The drive from St Petersburg, Russia to Sortavala on the northern shore of Lake Lagoda takes the traveller through a sparsely populated landscape of exposed rock, trees and lakes. In the summer the days are long, the temperatures balmy and the air is black with mosquitoes. In the winter the area is transformed into an inhospitable world of snow and ice.
Karelian Village 50km East of Sortavala

The internal border between Leningrad Oblast and The Republic of Karelia is heavily guarded and it took us almost two hours to get through. We were determined to walk two battlefields - the first at Sortavala where the Finns 'liberated' the town from the Russians in 1941 (only to lose it again in 1944) and the second, the Kollaa Front which was the scene of continuous fighting throughout the 1939-40 Winter War. This blog entry concerns the former.

Sortavala was an attractive objective for the Finns since it had, until the 1941 post Winter War settlement, been a Finnish town. Furthermore control of the area would shut down Russian lines of communication between Leningrad and the vast territories to the North East of Lake Ladoga. The fighting was fierce, as is evident in the old trenches and strongpoints which pepper the thick forest around the town. Local expert, Sergei Gurin set a cracking pace in taking us on an exploration of the Russian lines to the north of Sortavala.

The road north from Sortavala - towards the Finnish border

Sergei devotes his weekends to exploring the battlefield and over the course of the last twenty years or so has recovered the remains of over five hundred Russian, Finnish and German soldiers. 380 Soviet soldiers are interred in a newly created 'unofficial' community instigated cemetery in Sortavala. All of these casualties, recovered by Sergei and his team, were from the 168th, 142nd, 198th and the 71st Soviet Rifle Divisions. Of these men, twenty five have been identified and ten families traced.

The 'unofficial' Soviet Cemetery in Sortavala

Artefacts recovered from the battlefield are on display in the local museum along with items from both the Winter War and the Continuation War donated by local people. The map featuring earlier in this blog shows the situation through the late summer of 1941. The red annotations show the lines of withdrawal for the Red Army ending with a final evacuation to one of the major islands which is, again, shown on the map.

Russian artefacts recovered from the forests around Sortavala

Sergei Gurin in a Red Army foxhole
The fighting for Sortavala in July 1941 was ferocious - The Red Army lost 4,500 men in the vicinity of the town. The Finns were desperate to regain ground conceded to the Soviet Union after the Winter War and their German 'partners' were just as keen to see the Finns succeed so as to complete the encirclement of Leningrad and to range artillery onto Lake Ladoga which remained a major supply route during the 900 days that the city was under siege.

Memorial (with graves) - Soviet 402nd Regiment - Sortavala

The story of the Continuation War is complicated to say the least. The Finns had achieved stunning success in the earlier Winter War but eventually had to concede territory in the face of overwhelming Soviet force. As Barbarossa unfolded and the German Heeresgruppe Nord steamed through the Baltic states, eventually reaching the Western shore of Lake Ladoga, the Finns aligned themselves with the Axis powers and attacked the Soviet Union. Opinion is split on Mannerheim's intentions.
Sadly, 'Black Diggers' are also active

The accepted Finnish view is that the intention was simply to regain Finnish territory lost in the Winter War. Others (for example Henrik O. Lunde in Finland's War of Choice) have argued that the decision was opportunistic and that had the German's not faltered in the Winter of 1941 then the Finns may well have gone further - perhaps cutting the vital railway links into Murmansk further to the North.

There is a consensus around the events of 1944 however. With the German in retreat, the Finns were horribly exposed and had no choice but to come to an accommodation with the Soviet Union. Mannerheim declined to concede territory through negotiation thus precipitating a full-scale attack by the red Army which resulted in many thousand of deaths. Inevitably, the territory fell into Soviet hands anyway and the current border between Russia and Finland is based on this final position.

Sunday, 19 August 2018

The Transit Camp at Hanko, Finland (1942 - 44)

A couple of months ago I accepted an invitation from Jan Fast to visit Hanko in Finland. Jan and his rotating team of volunteers are excavating Durchgangslager Hanko, a transit camp originally set up in 1942 by the Wehrmacht and subsequently scaled-up following a decision by Sweden, in August 1943, not to allow the safe passage of Axis forces through neutral territory to the Finnish theatre of operations. Over a period of approximately 18 months over one million German service personnel were 'processed' through Hanko en route to Germany for a spot of home leave.

Jan Fast with Finnish TV at Durchgangslager Hanko

Hanko was strategically important as an ice free port dominating the Baltic approaches to Leningrad (now St Petersburg). After the 1939-40 Winter War it was leased to the Soviet state and in 1941 at the start of the Soviet / Finnish Continuation War the Red Army gave up the territory to the Finns who at that time were in the ascendancy, militarily speaking. From 1942 to 1944 there were two Finnish run Soviet PoW camps in Hanko. The inmates in these camps were from a number of different ethnic groups. In 1943 some 100 PoWs of Ukrainian origin were turned over to the Germans. Whilst in the camp some of them were housed in plywood tents on part of the site known as the Ukrainerlager. It is not known what happened to the Ukrainian prisoners (though one could assume the worst).

Area leased to the Soviet Union after the Winter War

The trip down to Hanko is an easy two hour drive from Helsinki and it is easy to spot the old Soviet border which is marked by a Soviet T26 (in Finnish livery) beside the road. It's worth stopping at this spot because there is an excellent battlefield museum and a marked trail through the trenches and fox holes in proximity to the road. Much of the content of the museum is from the immediate area with recent finds being located through the use of drone borne cameras. The facility was originally set up by Second World War veterans and it is now maintained by an enthusiastic band of volunteers.

Winter War era Soviet T26 in Finnish livery
Battlefield Trail - Hanko / Soviet Border

The archaeological dig site at Cape Tulliniemi must be approached on foot as it lies on a sandy peninsular south of what is still a very busy working port. The vast site of Durchgangslager Hanko is fenced off and has been, to all intents and purpose, inaccessible since 1945. Many of the buildings are still in place although, being of wooden construction, they are in various states of decay. We were met at the fence by one of Jan's student volunteers and were taken to the current site of excavation - the area where incoming fighting men took off their grubby uniforms for washing and disposal. Needless to say the ground was giving up all sorts of interesting artefacts - adding to the thousands already cleaned and catalogued.

Sieving at the site of the Delousing Shed
According to Jan, over 200,000 German soldiers were based in Finland between the years of 1941 and 1944. The Armee Oberkommando Norwegen units fought in the north of the country but many personnel served elsewhere in Finland - for example supporting the Finnish lines to the north of Leningrad. All were entitled to one leave per year and each soldier passed through Hanko, arriving by train and leaving by ship - usually for Tallinn. In the early days troops were decanted from trains straight onto ships but a proper transit process was put in place after the Todt Organisation had completed the expansion and 'tidy up' of the old PoW camp.

Barracks at Durchgangslager Hanko
Latrine Block at Durchgangslager Hanko 

The camp was evacuated without casualties as part of the German withdrawal in the Autumn of 1944. The Finns had partnered with Germany in 1941 but with the German Heeresgruppe Nord being pushed back through the Baltic states President Mannerheim thought it expedient to distance Finland from its' erstwhile ally (the German withdrawal was less straightforward in the north of Finland - there were casualties on both sides and a great deal of destruction). The last German troops retreated from Hanko to Tallinn at the beginning of September 1944 only to find themselves trapped in the Kurland Kessel (the Ukrainians mentioned above may have ended the war there as well).

Faces of Durchgangslager Hanko
Jan and his team have collaborated with the local museum in Hanko (different to the battlefield museum spoken about earlier) - near the modern day marina and adjacent to the port a room has been set aside telling the story of Durchgangslager Hanko. The range and quality of recovered artefacts is astonishing but what makes the collection particularly interesting is the work done on identifying and tracing some of the men who passed through the camp. Around the walls one can see pictures of many of the German servicemen who served in the Finnish theatre of operations but who did not survive the war. All would have know Hanko.

The Marina at Hanko
In recounting this visit it is appropriate to acknowledge the excellent job being done by the local community in discovering and protecting their Second World War heritage. Jan Fast was brought up in the area and used to find bits and pieces relating to Durchgangslager Hanko. How appropriate it is therefore, that as an archaeologist he is now able to investigate the site properly and I congratulate him for doing so.

The local museum have been incredibly supportive and their leaflet 'Durchgangslager Hanko 1942-44' by Jan Fast, Laura Lotta Andersson, Kim Kidron and Lassi Patokorpi is well worth reading. On the occasion of my visit I was delighted to be presented with a copy of 'Inside and Beside the Camp', a beautifully produced artistic interpretation of the site and the excavation by Jan Kaila and Japo Knuutila (The Academy of Fine Arts / University of Helsinki - ISBN 978-952-7131-36-7).

Hanko (1942-44) - Flickr Photographs