VMV boats did not participate in any major action during the Winter War. During the Continuation War, their primary tasks were anti-submarine warfare and escort duty, although several boats participated in battles for control of islands on the Gulf of Finland. Five VMV boats were lost during the war, all in 1944. Two were sunk during air raids in Helsinki, one was lost to Soviet aircraft near Koivisto and two were lost when the Germans attacked Hogland during the Lapland War.
The German Navy had responsibility for Operation Tanne West and its preparations were completed by the end of March 1944. The Germans expected the Åland Islands to be defended by between 3,000 and 4,000 Finns, supported by coastal batteries. The Germans earmarked the 416th Infantry Division in Denmark and the 6th Parachute Light Infantry Regiment for this operation. Coastal artillery batteries for the defense of the islands were to be brought in from Norway.
The OKW also had made an effort to gain a foothold in the Åland Islands through peaceful means. The German Navy was ordered on April 24, 1944, to discuss the stationing of German naval forces on the islands with the Finns. The reason to be given for this request was to protect against the possibility of a sortie by the Soviet Baltic Fleet from Kronstadt and its future operations from Estonian ports. Apparently, the Naval Staff elected to handle the request through the German liaison staff at Mannerheim’s headquarters. The request was provided to the Finns on May 10. It placed the Finns in an awkward position since the stationing of foreign military forces on the islands would be a violation of the 1921 treaty. It appears they elected to ignore the request, hoping that the issue would go away.
The planned operation against the Åland Islands was controversial in Germany and in the end presented more problems than advantages. Sweden was a co-guarantor of the status of the Åland Islands by the 1921 treaty. German occupation of these islands would undoubtedly elicit a strong reaction from the Swedes and put in jeopardy the flow of iron ore and ball bearings from that country.
In addition to these political objections, there were also problems in providing the necessary forces. The 416th Infantry Division was needed in Denmark as Allied amphibious operations against this area were considered possible. The 50th Infantry Division was slated to replace the 416th, but had to be moved to the eastern front. About 14,000 men on leave in Germany from the 20th Mountain Army had been held back in Danzig despite General Dietl’s objections. These troops were considered for use in Operation Tanne and were therefore placed at the disposal of the OKW. However, it was quickly decided that this mixed force lacked unit organization and they were transferred as individual replacements to the eastern front. It was also difficult to come up with sea transportation. Finally, the German Naval Staff had serious objections since the navy needed all its forces to block the Gulf of Finland. Because of the serious ramifications the occupation of the Åland Islands would have on German–Swedish relations, Hitler reserved the final decision for himself. Apparently, the lack of forces, and danger to the flow of raw materials and finished products from Sweden caused Hitler to cancel Tanne West on September 3, 1944.
The Tanne Ost (Suursaari Island) operation was to be carried out by Army Group North under the direction of OKH. The objective of the planned operation was to block the Gulf of Finland. The OKW had considered whether Hanko or another point on the southern coast of Finland should be occupied instead of Suursaari but had concluded that the island was the most suitable location. A change in the planning occurred on July 4, 1944, when Hitler ordered that the navy should carry out the operation instead of Army Group North. The stabilization of the Finnish front led to a postponement of the operation on July 9.
The armistice between the Soviet Union and Finland revived the operation. Although the navy reported on September 3 that the operation could not be carried out due to a lack of trained troops, the OKW issued a warning order for the operation in the evening of September 4.
The operation remained in limbo for another week. The carrying out of the operation was given impetus by a report from the German naval liaison officer on Suursaari on September 11: the Finnish commander on the island had told him that he would never fire on German troops, even if ordered to do so. At the urging of the navy, which now apparently did not believe the quality of their troops important since no opposition was expected, Hitler ordered preparations for the occupation of Suursaari speeded up. On September 13 the time for the attack was set for 0200 hours on September 15.
The German Navy embarked a mixed force of naval and army personnel in Reval. Ziemke reports the size of the force as approximately that of a regiment. It was likely somewhat larger since the first wave comprised 1,400 men. A Finnish source gives the size of the landing force as 2,500. The landing commenced at the specified time.
The defense of Suursaari was the responsibility of the 16th Coast Artillery Regiment, part of the East Gulf of Finland Coastal Brigade. It had approximately 1,600 troops on the island.
The Germans landed their first wave directly in the harbor and demanded a Finnish surrender. The Finnish commander refused the German demand in accordance with his instructions, and hostilities commenced. The Germans were only able to occupy a part of the northern half of the island. The Soviets intervened with heavy air strikes after daylight and the second wave, consisting mostly of naval personnel, was prevented from landing. The fighting continued the whole day but the Germans eventually gave up and withdrew as many personnel as they could from the island.
The Suursaari operation was a total fiasco for the Germans. They suffered 153 killed and the Finns took 1,231 prisoners, 175 of which were wounded. The Finnish 16th Coastal Artillery Regiment had 36 killed, 67 wounded, and eight missing. The German prisoners were turned over to the Soviets in accordance with the terms of the armistice agreement.
The repercussions from the operation were equally detrimental to German interests. The Finns immediately ordered all Finnish ships in the Baltic to Finnish or Swedish ports. This order also applied to the Finnish ships that the Germans had leased to carry equipment and supplies back to Germany. Mannerheim also demanded on September 15, 1944, that General Rendulic immediately vacate the area south of a line running from Oulu to Suomussalmi and the entire Bothnian coastline to the Swedish border. Since much of this area had already been evacuated, the 20th Mountain Army replied that it would abide by the Finnish request. However, the Germans were slow in complying and this soon led to serious consequences.
Finnish relations with the Soviet Union benefited from the fighting on Suursaari. The action demonstrated to the Soviets, at a time when sensitive negotiations were taking place in Moscow that the Finns were prepared to use force against their former brothers-in-arms.
Evacuations from Baltic Ports
The Germans began withdrawing staff, nonessential personnel, troops destined for the eastern front, and supplies from Finland shortly after the Finnish–Soviet armistice became effective. These evacuations were carried out by sea from ports in the Gulf of Finland and Gulf of Bothnia. The 303rd Self-Propelled Assault Gun Brigade, which had been at the Finnish front, was loaded on ships and sailed from Finland on September 6, despite a request from the 20th Mountain Army on 24 August to have that unit come under its command. All Germans in southern Finland, including diplomatic and military staff, had left Finland by September 13.
The 20th Mountain Army evacuated 4,049 nonessential troops, 3,336 wounded soldiers, 332 political refugees, and 42,144 tons of supplies from the ports of Oulu, Kemi, and Tornio on the Gulf of Bothnia. A number of the ships used in the evacuation were leased from the Finns. Some of these ships failed to sail to Germany but put in at southern Finnish ports or in Sweden. A total of 13,064 of the 42,144 tons of supplies evacuated were thus lost. There was not enough shipping for most of the supplies and 106,000 tons were destroyed to keep them from falling into enemy hands. The Germans evacuated the port of Oulu on September 15 and the last ship left the port of Kemi on September 21. The German Navy evacuated their base at Uno on September 15. The 20th Mountain Army shifted its evacuation from the ports to the road leading to Skibotten in Norway on September 18.