The northern theatre of war in 1944.
It came as a great relief to the Germans when they realized that the Finns would do their best to get German troops out of the country as peacefully and as quickly as possible by 15 September 1944, which was the deadline for internment according to the armistice conditions. When Romania had laid down its arms, the German 6th Army, which had been fighting there, had been trapped and destroyed. Above all, the Germans wanted to avoid the same fate in Finland. There was just enough time to save the military staffs, the medical personal, the wounded and civilians in southern Finland. Hitler immediately issued an order on 3 September that relations with Finland should be handled in a spirit of `friendly accord’. By avoiding any kind of conflict with the Finns, the Germans also gained the time to extract the 20th Mountain Army from northern Finland.
When the time limit ran out on 15 September, the Germans made a surprise attack and tried to seize Hogland Island. In accordance with his instructions, the commander of the Finnish forces on the island gave the order to open fire. The invasion was repelled, and over a thousand Germans were taken prisoner. The battle of Hogland demonstrated that the Finnish Army was willing and able to fight against its recent brothers- in-arms. This to some extent eased the position of the Finnish government at a time when matters in Moscow were delicately balanced.
When Finland withdrew from the war, the 20th Mountain Army found itself in an untenable position. Its southern flank was left completely open, and its supply lines to the harbours of Finland were cut. The order that Hitler had given in September 1943 to withdraw to northern Lapland but to keep control of the Pechenga nickel mines in the event of Finland pulling out of the war was still in force. The Germans expected the Russians to give pursuit, and in order to make this pursuit more difficult, it would be necessary to lay waste wide tracts of land. The withdrawal of the Mountain Army began at the beginning of September 1944, a few days after the armistice came into force. In northern Finland and adjoining areas, the Germans had over 200,000 men – mostly unmotorized infantry – and large stores. Nobody imagined that it would be possible for them to pack up and go in a couple of weeks. According to calculations previously made by the Finnish military authorities, three months would hardly suffice. The Finns were weary of the war and wanted to save their land from devastation. The Germans, too, wished to avoid an armed confrontation as far as possible. Thus there was a certain unity of interests although official relations were severed, and this resulted in a secret agreement between the Finnish and German military authorities in which the Germans agreed to limit the devastation of the country and the Finns to facilitate the Germans’ withdrawal even after 15 September. At first, the Finnish forces followed behind the retreating Germans in accordance with an agreed timetable in such a way as to avoid contact with them. Wide tracts of the country were spared from destruction, and the people of Lapland were successfully evacuated from the war zone to areas further south and to Sweden.
At the beginning of October, Hitler finally renounced the earlier plan for the Germans to hold northern Lapland and ordered the 20th Mountain Army to pull out into Norway. He was prompted to do this by difficulties in maintaining supplies to the German forces as well as by the realization that the nickel from Pechenga was no longer indispensable to the German war economy. The Germans might have left northern Finland without a fight, but this did not suit the Russians. The phoney war that the Finns were conducting in the north was glaringly at odds with the terms of the armistice agreement, and it placed the whole country in jeopardy. The Allied Control Commission, which had arrived in Finland at the end of September, intervened sharply and demanded effective measures against the Germans. Finally, on 30 September, the acting Chairman of the Control Commission, Lieutenant-General Savonenkov, presented the Finns with a direct ultimatum. The Finns had now got their troops into position in northern Finland and Mannerheim ordered their commander, General Hjalmar Siilasvuo, to do something spectacular enough to satisfy the Russians. `The fate of Finland now rests on the shoulders of the general!’ he said.
The Finns’ war against the Germans began with Siilasvuo’s daring landing behind German lines at Tornio on 1 October. His advance northwards was slow, however, as the Germans blew up the bridges and mined the roads. In this they no longer showed any scruples, and they also burned down all dwellings. Soviet troops did not take part in the war operations conducted on Finnish soil. On the other hand, they did launch an offensive of their own on the coast of the Barents Sea, taking Pechenga and advancing into northern Norway. By the end of the year, the Germans had withdrawn from Finnish territory completely, apart from the extreme north-western corner. The Finns were left with a devastated Lapland, which only slowly came back to life as the population returned to their burned villages.
Finland succeeded in making peace much more easily and with less damage than the other states that had fought alongside Germany. The Soviet Union occupied Romania and Bulgaria in its prosecution of the war, Hungary remained a theatre of war for a long time, and in the end it, too, was occupied by the Soviet Union. All three ended up with communist regimes as a result of the occupation. Finland never became a field of battle between the great powers, and it was never occupied. Losses among the civilian population were small, and the major centres of population and industry together with the road and rail network survived intact, except in Lapland. However, in the autumn of 1944, the Finns were prepared for the worst. Surrender was out of the question. The army prepared to continue the struggle by means of guerrilla warfare if the country was occupied. Under cover of the darkness of autumn, intelligence personnel, technical equipment and files were shipped to Sweden, and arms for nearly 35,000 men were hidden in caches around the country.
The USSR indeed threatened to occupy Finland if it did not comply with the armistice conditions. However, Stalin probably thought that the armistice was enough to secure Soviet interests in Finland. The Soviet Union held all the trump cards. Above all, it had the base in Porkkala. The central part of the `Sea Fortress of Peter the Great’, which had been built in the last years of the Czars to defend the capital of the empire, was constituted by the heavy gun emplacements in Porkkala and on the Estonian coast, which could close off access to the Gulf of Finland by means of cross-fire. Porkkala was to serve the same purpose again in 1944. And just as in the days of the last czar, the Russian coastal fortifications had another function: to curb the unreliable Finns, whose capital was now within the range of their heavy guns.
Although the immediate threat of occupation had been avoided, the post-war situation frightened many Finns. The communists would come out into the open. They would be able to take advantage of the people’s economic plight and their frustration at defeat in the war. `From now on, Aaltonen is the commander-in-chief’, Mannerheim is reported to have said. Aleksi Aaltonen was the Social Democratic Party Secretary. The battle would go on, but the front line would now be inside the borders of the country.