Russian Preparation for a New Offensive on the Karelian Isthmus 1940 Part I

Reorganization of Forces and a New Strategy. After suffering stunning defeats on the Karelian Isthmus during December, the Red Army “licked its wounds” and, at the same time, looked for ways to improve its performance. It is apparent that Stalin himself undertook a reappraisal of the situation. He dismissed his Commissar for Defense, Marshal Voroshilov and appointed Timoshenko to replace him and also made Marshal Timoshenko Commander-in-Chief of the Red forces operating on the Finnish theater of operations. Stalin revised the strategy of these forces by calling for greater concentration of forces and a new effort on the Karelian Isthmus, and more cautious “adventures” on the northern fronts.

Although it had been expected that the Russians would immediately prepare for and launch a new offensive to restore their prestige, they spent the month of January primarily for conducting reconnoitering attacks and destroying Finnish strong points, especially the concrete bunkers on the Summa-Lahde front by heavy 8-11″ artillery from direct-fire positions only a few hundred meters away. They also pinpointed Finnish artillery emplacements by using aerial balloons as observation points and kept them under constant harassing fires. Also the Red Air Force increased its activities against targets in the immediate vicinity of the front line. Due to artillery and air activity, it was almost impossible to bring supplies up to the front and evacuate casualties during daylight hours. Therefore, troops received one hot meal a day which was carried in containers during darkness. These same horse drawn sleds were used for evacuating casualties to the rear. In spite of the extreme cold weather, “korsus” (dugouts), tents or other types of shelters could not be heated during daylight hours; even a trace of smoke invited artillery and mortar fire, even air bombardment.

During the month of January, the Red Army was reinforced up to overwhelming strength. Also a reorganization of troops was ordered. The group of divisions which had been fighting in the eastern zone of the Isthmus was transformed into the 13th Army. The 7th Army, originally deployed in the entire Isthmus zone, was assigned the new breakthrough mission along the Summa-Lahde gateway to Viipuri.

Intensive Training and Innovations.

All Red Army forces underwent intensive training behind the lines, and those army corps assigned the breakthrough role practiced their operations against a simulated “Mannerheim Line” with actual replicas of the Finnish concrete bunkers built behind the lines. The probing attacks conducted against Finnish troops on various sectors in January were clearly better organized and led than those of December.

During the attacks conducted in early January, even some new innovations were battle tested. For example, armor plated troop carrying sleds, some equipped with machine guns, were either pushed by tanks or towed behind them. A sled could carry a squad of men. Flame throwing tanks were used to burn the defenders in trenches. This tactic was tested already in the first battle of Summa in December. Individual shields mounted on skis were used to provide riflemen cover, concealment and protection while they advanced by crawling in deep snow. Such a technique was frequently used by engineer patrols for bringing explosive charges forward to the tank obstacles (boulder traps) for the purpose of clearing gaps for the advancing tanks.

Infantry and tank teams practiced coordinated attacks, and tanks also learned to support each other more closely which made it increasingly difficult and dangerous for Finnish tank destroyer teams or individual men to employ explosive charges and “Molotov cocktails” against tanks, especially in daylight. The few Finnish anti-tank guns, most of them antiquated models, were not able to cope with all of the tank attack formations, which at times included as many as 100-150 tanks. An example of a poorly coordinated tank assault took place at Summa front during 17-19 December when a heavy tank battalion penetrated along the Finnish positions and was doomed to be destroyed during darkness because the lighter tanks and infantry were stopped in front of the Finnish line.

Improvement of Morale and Political Indoctrination of Troops.

While the reorganization was going on, vast quantities of supplies, ammunition and equipment were transported into the tactical units’ rear positions. In addition, communication networks on the Isthmus were extended and improved. Troop morale was also a concern for the new leadership. Several high ranking political officers were brought in and political indoctrination classes were increased underlining patriotism and the soldiers’ duty to “destroy the enemy forces and thus forever prevent the Finnish warmongers’ access to the Gulf of Finland” as the 7th Army commander addressed his troops in his order of the day on 30 November 1939, the first day of the war.

Kuusinen’s Army.

The puppet “Terijoki government” headed by Mr. Kuusinen, a former Finn who had escaped to Russia during the Finnish war of independence and became a trustee of Stalin, even had its own army. The “First Finnish Corps” of volunteers, the alleged nucleus of a future “People’s Army of Finland,” had, in accordance with the Red Star (a Soviet Army newspaper), some 5,000 men. The great majority of these men were recruited from those communists who fled Finland in 1918 and from Finnish speaking East Karelian Ingermanlanders. Only a handful of Finnish POW’s are known to have signed themselves up in the “Kuusinen’s Corps.” The Soviet psychological warfare measures were totally unsuccessful in their effort to influence Finnish soldiers for desertion.

Soviet Propaganda.

Soviet propagandists were so misinformed that they promised the Finnish soldiers an eight-hour work day in the future Soviet Finland, something which had been in force in Finland for two decades. A vast shower of leaflets, radio broadcasts and loudspeaker appeals to front line troops failed to convince them that life was better in the Soviet Union or that Finland’s defeat was imminent. These two themes were primarily used for propagandizing Finnish soldiers.

Red Army’s February Offensive

Deployment of forces in the Karelian Isthmus was as follows:

Finnish Army of Karelia: Lieutenant General H. Osterman (later Lieutenant General E. Heinrichs)

a. II Corps: Lieutenant General H. Ohquist

b. III Corps: Major General E. Heinrichs (later Major General P. Talvela)

c. Reserve.

Red Army:

a. 7th Army

b. 13th Army.

Operations.

Both Red armies started to conduct probing attacks on the entire length of their respective zones on 1 February. Apparently the purpose was to mislead the Finnish commanders and to wear out the defenders whose ranks were diminishing at a dangerous rate. Steady artillery and mortar fires plus repeated air attacks continued many times a day and night kept all awake and alert for an expected attack. At the same time, the Russians rotated fresh units to the front for every significant mission. The battle fatigue caused many Finnish soldiers to become completely apathetic. They were falling asleep even during combat

The strongest attacks were made against the 3rd Division in the Sumna front, and at Taipale. On 1 February, three of the concrete bunkers which were the bastions of the strongpoints, were partially eliminated out of action; one surrounded by tanks and infantry, the other two partially destroyed by artillery fire. The surrounded one, however, was retaken during the following night by elements of local Finnish reserves.

Attack patterns.

There were certain patterns to the operations, although their timing, intensity and location varied considerably. Always, first came a strong artillery preparation accompanied by aerial bombardment. Artillery preparation included wide and deep area fires on the entire front lasting from one half to five hours and including areas up to tactical reserve locations.

About 30 minutes prior to the H-hour, preparatory fires were concentrated on defensive installations, command posts, artillery and mortar fire positions, tactical reserves, etc. The last concentration was normally on the penetration point. Russian tanks advanced sometimes within their own barrage, at least the first tanks moved forward only a few seconds after the last artillery rounds. Immediately prior to the attack, mortar fires were switched on the penetration point(s) to neutralize the defenders. Often the first attack echelon advanced through their own fires. All fires were laid down with such weight and volume, and many times also with accuracy, that tanks and infantry were able to “drive and walk” into the initial Finnish positions without opposition.

Very seldom did the Russian infantry attack without tank support. The tank obstacles generally were found in front of defensive positions all along the Mannerheim Line which hindered and slowed down tank movements in support of an infantry attack. Therefore, open passages through the obstacles were required. These were made either by using explosives or by direct artillery fire. A lack of anti-tank weapons on the Finnish side allowed the Russian tank formations to advance almost at will, even to move parallel with the Finnish defense lines for the purpose of destroying crew served weapons positions or burning the trench system and personnel with flamethrowers.

Infantry onslaughts supported by large numbers of tanks were often repeated three or more times a day on a narrow front (normally 1-3 kilometers) with fresh troops committed to each wave. On a division sector, like the Summa-Lahde-Merkki front of about 15 kilometers wide, three divisions and a tank brigade were employed offensively, while a fourth division served as a back up force. This size of force, often supported by 200 aircraft, could attack four times a day. A fresh force was often thrown into action the very next day.

Under these conditions, the regular field artillery became increasingly critical to the defense. Unfortunately, Finnish forces’ ammunition reserves were already at the end of January so short that commanders were forced to place more strict limits to the use of artillery. Only absolutely essential targets could be engaged. This meant that the Russian troops, especially their artillery and other support units did not need to worry about being “disturbed” within their bivouac areas. By comparison, the Russian commanders could afford the luxury of expending tens of thousands of artillery ammunition during preparatory fire as well as for the harassing fires during the in between period. Furthermore, Red aircraft, roaming over the Finnish positions by the hundreds, attacked Finnish artillery units constantly, especially when they fired, thus restricting the use of artillery. Observation balloons were also used to direct Soviet artillery on Finnish artillery and mortar positions.

Marshal Timoshenko’s Operational Plan and Its Execution

At the end of the first week of February 1940, the new operational plan for the Red Army seemed to become effective. Apparently, it called for a major thrust toward Viipuri on the zone Muolaanjarvi Lake-Summajarvi Lake-Summa Village, with a secondary drive toward Antrea Station from the Muolaanjarvi Lake-Vuoksi River front, and a third advance aimed at Kakisalmi from the Taipale Region at the eastern end of the Mannerheim Line.

Attack on Lahde Front Beginning on 11 February.

During the night of 10-11 February, the Russian assault units occupied their attack positions. Additional artillery intended for point blank firing was moved forward by hand in order not to alert the Finns. The day of February 11 was cold; the mercury dropped to about -25C, but by 0800 hours the Russian 123rd Division and the supporting 35th Tank Brigade were in their jumping off positions. The tanks were about 1-3 kilometers from the Finnish lines. About the same time, hundreds of artillery guns (over 50 batteries) blanketed their target areas, reaching deep into regimental support line areas. The entire Mannerheim Line was experiencing an unprecedented barrage of artillery fire. The preparation lasted for 2-3 hours.

The artillery fire in the Lahde Road sector was the most terrifying ever experienced. By the time this storm was over, several concrete bunkers were destroyed and other field fortifications were crushed, many like matchsticks.

Behind the two kilometer front between Summajarvi Lake and the Munasuo Swamp, there were five concrete bunkers, including the most modern, “Poppius,” just west of the Lahde Road and the “Million” about one kilometer further westward by the Summajarvi Lake, each consisting of three machine guns, an artillery forward observer team and two to three rifle squads. Both of these bunkers and the three older model bunkers were extensively damaged before the massive barrage of 11 February. In addition to these permanent fortifications, there were a number of earth and timber machine gun nests and trench systems which also were destroyed by the preparatory fire.

To defend the entire two kilometer front, there was only an understrength battalion, the 2nd Battalion, 9th Infantry. Its three rifle companies were all on line: the 1st Company to the west occupying the second which included the “Million” bunker; the 2nd Company in the center occupying the Lahde Road sector which included the “Poppius” bunker; and the 3rd Company to the east occupying the Munasuo Swamp sector. The support line in this sector was located from 800 to 1,500 meters behind the forward positions.

While the other 18 divisions and five tank brigades were simultaneously engaged in the offensive across the entire Karelian Isthmus, the attack in the Lahde Road sector began at Noon, 11 February. The Russian 123rd Division commenced its well rehearsed assault on fortified positions with one regiment in reserve. One regiment attacked against the 1st Company’s sector near the “Million” bunker, while the other regiment advanced against the 3rd Company’s sector on the right. The center, the Lahde Road sector and its “Poppius” bunker, were attacked by a reinforced battalion supported by two companies of tanks. The defenders, however, delivered such effective fire from the damaged bunkers and the remaining trenches that they held up the advance of the attacker.

The second echelon of the attack regiment was committed to the battle while scores of tanks pounded the defenses at point blank range. In the furious fighting, four heavy tanks were damaged before the last anti-tank gun was smashed. At least one Russian infantry company lost all of its men in the assault. When tanks halted right in front of the embrasures of “Poppius” bunker, its crew finally abandoned that fortification to continue to battle in the open. In the eastern sector, the 3rd Company cut down the enemy infantry attacking across the Munasuo Swamp; but it was compelled to retreat later in the afternoon when T-28 tanks flanked it along the Lahde Road.

The battle for the “Million” bunker seesawed into the night. The Russians repeatedly surrounded it, only to be thrown back by counterattacks of the defenders. Within a few hours, the Finnish 2nd Battalion, 9th Infantry had lost one half of its manpower and most crew served weapons.

Late in the afternoon, the survivors of the 2nd Battalion, 9th Infantry could not hold their positions any longer. By the time darkness fell, the Russian tanks and infantry had advanced up to the battalion support line along the Lahde Road where they dug in for the night.

Although Marshal Timoshenko’s great 11 February offensive extended across the entire Karelian Isthmus, in no other sector was its success as great as at Lahde. At Summa, west of the Lahde Road penetration, strong attacks which began in the morning continued late into the night, but the 7th Infantry held its positions.

Elsewhere along the exhausted 3rd Division sector, the attackers took some forward positions at Merkki, the division’s easternmost sector, but the defenders also recaptured these and beat back the renewed assaults that night.

West of the 3rd Division sector, the Russians penetrated the forward zone of the 4th Division sector two kilometers south of Marjapellonmaki around Noon, 11 February. Concurrently, the Russians also tried to flank the Division over the ice of the Gulf of Finland. Some 2-3 battalions of marines approached the coast behind the Mannerheim Line near Muurila. Local coastal batteries caused the attackers to stop and spread out for the time being.

On the opposite flank of the 3rd Division in the Taasionlampi-Suursuo Swamp area, the 1st Division met strong Russian forces supported by about a battalion of tanks. However, these became stuck in the partially frozen marsh and the offensive lost its momentum.

It had been a demanding day for the front line unit commanders of the 3rd Division, for the II Corps commander and no less for the Commanding General of the Karelian Isthmus Army, General Osterman. During the evening, however, elements of the 8th Infantry Regiment succeeded in clearing the enemy out of the western part of the Lahde Road sector, and two battalions continued the counterattack along the Lahde Road in an attempt to regain the eastern portion of the badly beaten 2nd Battalion, 9th Infantry.

Marshal Mannerheim Releases His Reserves.

Late at night on 11 February, Marshal Mannerheim became convinced that local reserves had been used to their maximum capacity and that his own reserves must be employed to save the extremely critical situation. Accordingly, he released his main reserve force, the 5th Division, to the use of the II Corps’ commander. (The 5th Division included the 13th Infantry, the 14th Infantry and the 15th Infantry regiments.) The 15th Infantry was initially attached to the 4th Division on the west, while the 13th Infantry was ordered to occupy the support line at the Lahde Road sector.

General Ohquist, the II Corps Commander was put into a difficult situation. He knew that his western flank, the 4th Division sector was in danger of becoming outflanked by forces advancing over the ice on the Gulf and that there were penetrations on the Marjapellonmaki area. He also recognized the even greater threat at Lahde, east of the Summa front. In order to be prepared for this latter threat, he decided to neutralize the first of the danger spots within the 4th Division sector by dispatching one half of the 15th Infantry into his western flank with the mission of assisting the 4th Division commander in recapturing the pockets near Marjapellonmaki-Muurila coastal areas threatened by the enemy forces advancing across the ice. The other half of the 15th Infantry was temporarily attached to the 3rd Division for the purpose of clearing the enemy penetrations at Suokanta in the westernmost sector of the division.

A battalion combat team consisting of the 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry and the Mortar Company, 15th Infantry was alerted on 10 February and ordered to march cross country from Naykkijarvi Lake area to a position within the 4th Division sector. Its mission was to be prepared to conduct combat operations as directed by the 4th Division Commander. Upon arrival at the objective area after a 25 kilometer march off roads, the combat team received another mission:

“The 1st Battalion will march as soon as possible to the Suokauta sector and be prepared to counterattack and regain the positions now in enemy hands.” This meant another 15 kilometers without rest or food within the last 24 hours. In the meantime, the mortar company was ordered to continue to the Lahde sector and be prepared there to support the 13th Infantry within that sector. The distance to the objective area was about 25 kilometers. It was a clear, cold night with temperatures of -30C. The mortar company arrived at Majakyla bridge at 0300 hours, 13 February. Upon receipt of its mission from the commander of the 13th Infantry, the company participated in the Lahde campaign providing the various battalions of the 13th Infantry fire support until late evening of 15 February.

At that time, advancing Soviet forces threatened to overrun the company positions and the company was given the order to march to a location about 10 kilometers northwest and on arrival to report to his commanding officer, the CO, 15th Infantry, for further assignment. This was a typical example of a situation when commanders were tempted to employ even strategic reserves in a piece meal fashion to satisfy too many urgent needs of subordinate commands.

The Last Campaign on Summa-Lahde Sectors and on V-Line

1-12 February 1940. While the 123rd Soviet Division continued its attack to widen the base of its wedge along the Lahde Road zone, the second echelon regiment which was clearing the few remaining Finnish pockets along the forward edge of the battle area was halted by the 1st Company, 9th Infantry. Its platoon still occupied the “Million” bunker strongpoint. Fierce seesaw battles raged around the severely damaged fort all afternoon and into the night of the l1th when Russian infantry finally surrounded it for the last time. Under cover of darkness, a Soviet sapper group of combat engineers hauled in a tank drawn sled and a great amount of explosives and positioned them on the bunker in the early hours of the 12th and detonated them. An ear-splitting explosion blasted a 10 meter crater in the fortification and killed the entire Finnish platoon. Regardless of the crippling loss, the 1st Company, 9th Infantry held their totally isolated positions until Noon, when they withdrew north of Summajarvi Lake to the battalion support line.

Although there was some fierce fighting at the Lahde Road support line on 12 February, the Russian 123rd Division seemed to consolidate its gain rather than continuing the offensive. This hesitation on the part of the Russian 7th Army gave the Finnish forces a short but very important breathing spell. During the pause, Finnish reserves were brought from their distant staging areas toward the Lahde Road sector, and plans for counteroffensives were formulated.

The major counterattacks for the morning of 12 February were to be a three pronged strike to recapture the front line. At 0700 hours, two battalions of the 14th Infantry began their attacks by advancing from the Majakyla Village along the western side of the Majajoki River with the mission to attack in a southeasterly direction on the left flank of the Russian 123rd Division which was consolidating its gains on the 1 kilometer wide salient. By noon, the counterattacking force had thrown the enemy’s elements within its zone off the hill north of Summajarvi Lane. The advance came, however, to its inevitable halt when the enemy’s overwhelmingly superior artillery was directed against the Finnish battalion (lst Battalion, 14th Infantry).

During this phase of the counteroffensive, the leading battalion changed its commander four times in an hour. During the afternoon, tanks smashed through the battalion forcing the regimental commander to order a withdrawal to the support line between Suursuo Swamp and Majajoki River. The eastern part of this line was manned by the remnants of the 9th Infantry, reinforced by a battalion from the 13th Infantry. Losses were especially heavy among the officers, even the regimental commander was mortally wounded early on the morning of 13 February.

Elements of the 3rd Brigade were counterattacking from the east against the right flank of the Russian 123rd Division. For an unknown reason, the attack was delayed and the Russians were able to stop it in front of their temporary defense line which secured their eastern flank.

13-14 February.

The 13th Infantry which was defending on and behind the support line was under extreme pressure early on the morning of the 13th. Good flying weather facilitated the heaviest air attacks to date, and artillery fire was intensive. In the morning, several attacks were repulsed but in the afternoon some 50 tanks broke through just east of the Lahde Road on a front about 800 meters wide. Since there were no anti-tank guns available, there was little hope of preventing the Russian 123rd Division and its supporting 35th Tank Brigade from exploiting their success.

The fighting at the point of the breakthrough was so fierce that in one company with a strength of more than 100, only 14 survived. Due to the confusion of those hectic moments, the Finnish infantry neglected to warn the artillery about the Russian tanks’ penetration and ten 152mm howitzers of the supporting artillery battalion were abandoned when heavy tanks overran their positions east of Majakyla Village. The last tank destroyer unit in the II Corps was rushed to the area but just when these men were preparing for their suicidal attacks in the evening, additional tanks overran them. This time, Soviet infantry accompanied the armor by riding on the tanks up to the next Finnish position and protected them. The massive tank onslaught was terrifying. It is understandable that some of the helpless defenders fled in panic, while other reserves were being rushed to the scene. The gloomy situation, however, took another turn; incredibly, the Russian spearhead suddenly halted its advance at night after a promising two kilometer deep penetration.

Although the Finns had no more fresh reserves, another counterattack was being planned for the night of 13-14 February to dislodge the enemy from its positions along the line about 1,200 meters south of the Majakyla-Lahde crossroad. However, the plan was cancelled late at night. The critical shortage of artillery ammunition led to the realization that sending troops against tanks on the reasonably open terrain where scores of tanks were maneuvering, would only lead to pointless slaughter.

The II Corps’ last reserve, the Civil Guard battalion of young 13-15 year old school boys from Viipuri was employed together with the remnants of the 14th Infantry on the hastily organized line southeast of Majakyla. Elements of the 13th Infantry were occupying the Majajoki River line, their front toward the east, while the 3rd Brigade was still covering the long eastern side of the Russian salient. In the meantime, the II Corps commander was organizing forces to man the next prepared positions along the so called V-line at Naykkijarvi Lake about 12 kilometers to the northwest.

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