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