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.