Finnish-Soviet War (25 June 1941- 4 September 1944) (Continuation War)

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Finnish troops passing by the remains of a destroyed Soviet T-34 at the battle of Tali-Ihantala.

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Finnish, German, and Soviet troops at the start of the Continuation War in June/July 1941. The Germans began their assault on 29 June from Petsamo area, and the Finns attacked on 1 July from Suomussalmi and Kuusamo area.

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The front line on 4 September 1944, during the last days of the war.

Renewal of warfare between Finland and the Soviet Union, also called the Continuation War. The fighting occurred mainly northwest and northeast of the Soviet city of Leningrad.

Finland’s rejection of Soviet demands for territory and bases to protect access to Leningrad-including the cession of Viipuri (Vyborg), Finland’s second-largest city, and the surrounding Karelian Isthmus-led to the first Finnish- Soviet War, known as the Winter War. The war began in November 1939, and although the Finns fought well, the odds against them were hopeless. In March 1940, Finland was obliged to sue for peace, in which it had to cede even more territory that the Soviets had originally demanded.

Fearing additional Soviet demands and resenting Soviet interference in its policies, Finland aligned itself with Germany. In fall 1940, chief of the Finnish General Staff Lieutenant General Erik Heinrichs held talks in Berlin with German leaders, who requested Finnish assistance during Operation BARBAROSSA, the planned German invasion of the Soviet Union (chiefly of Leningrad and Murmansk). The Finnish government welcomed this as an opportunity to recover territory lost to the Soviet Union in the Winter War. As planning progressed, the Germans and Finns agreed that German forces would secure the nickel-rich Petsamo region and attack Murmansk in the far north, while the Finns would be responsible for operations in the southeast toward Leningrad and Soviet Karelia, centered around Petrozavodsk. General Carl Mannerheim (he was raised to field marshal in 1942) commanded the Finnish forces, as he had in the Winter War of 1939-1940. Mannerheim had 16 divisions: 11 along the frontiers, 1 opposite the Russian base at Hanko, and 4 in reserve.

On 22 June 1941, the Germans launched their massive invasion of the Soviet Union. Finland had already secretly mobilized its forces and declared war on 25 June, but as a cobelligerent of Germany rather than as an ally. The German drive in the far north from Petsamo eastward fell short of both Murmansk and the large Soviet naval base at Polyarny. German forces also had little luck driving east from the northern city of Rovaniemi, failing to cut the Soviet rail line running from Murmansk south along the White Sea coast. In the south, however, the Finns made much better progress. Preoccupied with the massive German onslaught, Red Army forces north of Leningrad were outnumbered.

General Mannerheim divided his forces into two armies: one drove down the Karelian Isthmus between the Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga, and the other marched southeast between Lake Ladoga and Lake Onega toward the Svir River to take Petrozavodsk, capital of Karelia. On 29 June, the Finnish Karelian Army (II, IV, VI, and VII Corps) attacked to the west and east of Lake Ladoga, crossing the Russo-Finnish border of 1940, recapturing Finnish Karelia, and driving on toward Leningrad. Aided by German contingents, Army Group Mannerheim attacked Soviet Karelia. Farther north, combined Finnish and German forces recaptured lost Finnish territory around Salla while the German mountain troops, coming from Norway, reached as far as the Litsa River on their drive toward Murmansk.

The Finns had originally planned to unite their troops with German Army Group North around Leningrad. On 1 September, the Finns reached the old Russo-Finnish border. Despite heavy fighting, the Soviets were able to withdraw, but by late August the Finns had recovered all territory lost to the Soviet Union in the Winter War. The Finnish attacks stalled north of Lake Ladoga in September.

Although the Finns were not eager to take non-Finnish land, they did advance somewhat beyond the pre- November 1939 borders for defensive purposes. Much to Germany’s displeasure, however, they refused to cooperate with German troops against the city of Leningrad. Finnish and German commanders disliked each other, and the German air force failed to provide as much air cover as had been promised. German troops did not perform well in the northern part of the front. In the dense forests and swamps that marked the terrain in the north, tanks, heavy artillery, and aircraft were often ineffective. Finnish casualties were not light, and Finland had a small population and insufficient resources for a long war. Given these points, the Finns only undertook those operations that suited them, and that did not include Leningrad. The Finns were nonetheless disappointed that the German army was unable to secure a rapid defeat of the Soviet Union.

After capturing Petrozavodsk and Medweschjegorsk on the western and northern shore of Lake Onega, in December the Finns established a defensive position somewhat inside Soviet territory and about 20 miles from Leningrad. Had the Finns advanced farther, Leningrad would probably have fallen to the Germans, with uncertain consequences for the fighting on the Eastern Front. The Finnish Front remained largely static from early 1942. Despite some Soviet counterattacks toward Petsamo, the battle lines changed very little in the months to follow.

At this point, in August 1942, Moscow offered the Finns extensive territorial concessions in return for a separate peace, but the Finns, confident of an ultimate German victory, refused. In September 1941, London and Washington made it clear to Helsinki that any Finnish effort to advance beyond its prewar frontiers would mean war. Indeed, Britain declared war on Finland in December 1941.

As the war continued into 1942 and then 1943, the Finns lost enthusiasm for the struggle, especially when German military fortunes changed. In January 1944, a Soviet offensive south of Leningrad broke the blockade of that city. With the tide fast turning against Germany, the Finns asked the Soviets for peace terms, but the response was so harsh that Finland rejected it. Not only would Finland have to surrender all its territorial gains, but it would have to pay a large indemnity.

Soviet leader Josef Stalin then decided to drive Finland from the war. The Soviets assembled some 45 divisions with about half a million men, more than 800 tanks, and some 2,000 aircraft. Using these assets, in June 1944 the Soviets began an advance into Finland on both flanks of Lake Ladoga on the relatively narrow Karelian and Leningrad Fronts. While the Finns were well entrenched along three defensive lines, they could not withstand the Soviet onslaught. Viipuri fell on 20 June after less stubborn resistance than during the Winter War. Heavy fighting also occurred in eastern Karelia. Although they failed to achieve a breakthrough, Soviet forces caused the Finns to retreat and took the Murmansk Railway.

After the fall of Viipuri, the Finnish government requested German assistance. The Germans furnished dive-bombers, artillery, and then some troops, but it demanded in return that Finland ally itself firmly with Germany and promise not to conclude a separate peace. President Risto Ryti, who had been forced to provide a letter to that effect to German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop (which bound him, but not his country, to such a policy), resigned on 1 August in favor of Marshal Mannerheim.

On 25 August, Helsinki asked for terms. Moscow agreed to a cease-fire to take effect on 4 September, but Soviet forces actually fought on for another day after that. One of the ceasefire terms was that the Finns should break diplomatic relations with Berlin and order all German troops from Finnish soil by 15 September. German leader Adolf Hitler refused the Finnish request for an orderly departure of his forces and ordered German troops in northern Finland to resist expulsion and, if forced to retreat, to lay waste to the countryside. The German troops followed this order to the letter. Because there were 200,000 Germans in Finland, the damage to Lapland, where they were located, was considerable. During October, the Russian Fourteenth Army threw back German forces at Liza, supported by a large amphibious landing near Petsamo, and by the end of the month the Germans had withdrawn completely into Norway.

The war ended for Finland on 15 October 1944. The Continuation War cost Finland some 200,000 casualties (55,000 dead)-a catastrophic figure for a nation of fewer than 4 million people. Finland also had to absorb 200,000 refugees. Finland agreed to withdraw its forces back to the 1940 frontiers, placed its military on a peacetime footing within two and one-half months, granted a 50-year lease of the Porkkala District, allowed the Soviets access to ports and airfields in southern Finland, and provided the Soviet Union use of the Finnish merchant navy while the war continued in Europe. Finland also paid reparations of US$300 million in gold over a six-year period. Stalin did refrain from absorbing the entire country, but in the coming decades Western-oriented democratic Finland was obliged to follow policies that would not alienate the Soviet Union.

References Lundin, C. Leonard. Finland in the Second World War. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957. Vehviläinen, Olli. Finland in the Second World War. New York: Palgrave, 2002. Wuorinen, J. H. Finland and World War II, 1939-1944. New York: Ronald Press, 1948.