Operation Battle of Honkaniemi

The 'Battle of Honkaniemi' was a Soviet and Finnish engagement during the 'Talvisota' winter war and notable within this undertaking for being fought by tanks on the sole such occasion in the 'Talvisota' (25/27 February 1940).

At this time the commander of the Finnish II Armeijakunta (corps), Kenraaliluutnantti Harald Öhquist, had attached the infantry of the 3rd Jalkaväkipataljoona (infantry battalion) and the armour of the 4th Yyhtiö (company) of the Panssaripataljoona (armoured battalion) to Kenraalimajuri Woldemar Oinonen’s 23rd Divisioona. This latter formation was responsible for the defence of the area around the Näykkijärvi lake, just to the south-east of Viipuri, the second largest town in Finland. The 3/67th Jalkaväkirykmentti (infantry regiment), which was on loan to the 5th Divisioona, also arrived, giving the reinforcement that Oinonen needed to launch an attack against the Soviets. At 10.15, Kapteeni I. Kunnas, the commander of the 3rd Jalkaväkipataljoona, and Luutnantti O. Heinonen of the 4th Yyhtiö also received orders to attack.

The original Finnish plan had involved six infantry battalions, four artillery battalions and the 4th Yyhtiö, but as a result of the haste in getting the plan started, the tanks missed important aspects of the battle, thus reducing the overall Finnish strength to four infantry battalions, two artillery battalions and the all-important 4th Yyhtiö.

On the nights of 25 and 26 February, men of the 3/67th Jalkaväkirykmentti were transported in trucks to Heponotko, which was about 1.85 miles (3 km) away from a depot in Honkaniemi (now Lebedevka). The Finnish infantry then skied to the start point at 04.00. The tank company arrived some 30 minutes later after an approach march of about 31 miles (50 km). That movement cost the Finnish tank unit more than it would have liked: as the weather and road conditions were equally bad, the tank company lost five of its 13 Vickers 6-Ton tanks, mostly as a result of engine failure.

Seeing this as a major blow to the Finns' offensive capabilities, Kunnas split his remaining tanks between the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Jalkaväenyhtiöt: six tanks were to support the two latter infantry companies while two were to help the 1st Jalkaväkikomppania in securing the Finns' left flank. It was decided that the attack would be committed at 05.00, but communication with the supporting artillery battalions failed, so the attack was rescheduled for 06.15.

When communications with the artillery battalions were restored, the time for the attack had arrived, but there had been another setback. During the preliminary artillery barrage, some of the Finnish fire landed on the start line, resulting in 30 Finnish soldiers being killed or wounded, and the attack was therefore postponed by another hour.

After the initial bombardment by two artillery battalions (the 1/5th Tykistörykmentti [artillery regiment] and 1/21st Tykistörykmentti), the attack finally began. Yet the Finns now suffered another setback as another two tanks had been lost as a result of technical failures, thereby reducing the total Finnish tank number to a mere six for the entire battle. Even after all these setbacks, there were more to come. The 1st Jalkaväkipataljoona had advanced only some 220 yards (200 m) before having to halt under heavy fire from the 84th Division's supporting artillery. The 1st Jalkaväkikomppania, which was covering the left flank, advanced toward the railway but was unable to cross it. The 2nd and 3rd Jalkaväenyhtiöt (infantry companies), which were the main attack force, had advanced some 220 yards (200 m) to the south-west of the railway, but had to be called to a halt.

The 4th Yyhtiö (company) now underwent a severe trial. One of its tanks became stuck in a ditch, damaging its turret in the process, and it had to retreat back to the starting point. The remaining five tanks were lost in action with Soviet T-26 light and T-28 medium tanks as well as 45-mm anti-tank guns.

The tank of the platoon commander, Luutnantti V. Mikkola, advanced the farthest, almost 550 yards (500 m) and nearly into the Soviet lines. Only two Finnish tanks were able to destroy any Soviet tanks when one of the vehicles, which had been immobilised, knocked out a pair of Soviet tanks before the crew had to abandon its machine, and the other destroyed one Soviet tank before itself being damaged.

Kunnas received orders at 22.00 that he was to abort the attack and retreat, and the Finns' first tank battle had met an unsuccessful end. The entire battle had been fought by inexperienced crews and almost no radio communication. In order to save money, the tanks had been bought from the UK without guns, optics and radios, and some even without the driver’s seat. For lack of vital equipment, communication between tanks was impossible and the tank commanders therefore had to act on their own judgement.

The battle caused the deaths of one non-commissioned officer, and the wounding of two officers and two non=commissioned officers; three privates were reported missing. Even though the Soviets had a huge advantage over the Finns in numbers and weapons, the Finns had nonetheless pressed home the attack.

On 27 February the remaining eight tanks of the 4th Yyhtiö were ordered to move to the Rautalampi area for anti-tank service.

According to Soviet sources, on 26 February six Finnish tanks were destroyed in two separate engagements. No losses were recorded by the opposing 112th Separate Tank Battalion of the 35th Light Tank Brigade.