Operation Battle of Rovaniemi

The 'Battle of Rovaniemi' was fought between Finnish and German forces in the course of the 'Lapinsota' Lapland war (12/13 October 1944).

The fighting pitted elements of between the components of Kenraalimajuri Ernst Ruben Lagus’s Panssaridivisioona and Kenraalimajuri Aaro Pajari’s 3rd Divisioona against element of Generaloberst Dr. Lothar Rendulic’s 20th Gebirgsarmee, and took place in and round the town of Rovaniemi in the western part of northern Finland as the Germans were undertaking their 'Birke' withdrawal toward northern Norway.

Rovaniemi was the capital of Lapland, the northernmost province of Finland. During World War II, Rovaniemi was an important transport hub as it lay on the road northward to the Petsamo area and Liinahamari, the only free port in the north.

When the 'Jatkosota' continuation war between Finland and the USSR started in June 1941, the Finnish government allowed the Germans to station forces of General Eduard Dietl’s Armee 'Lappland', which was redesignated as the 20th Gebirgsarmee on 14 January 1942, in Lapland to help defend the long border with the USSR. The German strategic objective was to control the nickel mines in the Petsamo area and to take the Soviet port of Murmansk to prevent the USSR receiving Allied supplies convoyed to that port. Rovaniemi was the German headquarters in Lapland and also a base for the warplanes of Generaloberst Hans-Jürgen Stumpff’s (from 27 November 1943 General Josef Kammhuber’s) Luftflotte V.

Relations between the German garrison forces and the local populace in Lapland were generally cordial during the war. When the Finns signed a separate peace with the USSR, however, the relationship soured. The Germans had some 200,000 troops in Finland and Germany was still at war with the USSR. As part of the ceasefire and subsequent peace negotiations in September 1944, the Soviets demanded that the Finns remove all German troops from their territory within two weeks, which was a logistical impossibility. Rovaniemi was a critical transportation nexus in Lapland, and through this town through this the only railway line and several main roads passed, a fact which made control of the town highly important to the Germans 'Birke' evacuation effort.

By 1 October, the Finns were moving against the Germans in the region of Kemi and Tornio in order to convince the Soviets of their intention to live up to the terms of the peace treaty. Simultaneously, Finnish forces advanced along other roads in northern directions. The Panssaridivisioona started its advance to the north in the direction of Rovaniemi from Ranua. Once the fighting in Tornio region had ended, the 3rd Divisioona also started to advance toward Rovaniemi on the road running alongside the Kemijoki river.

However, the Finnish forces advancing along the Kemijoki river were unable to move swiftly enough to engage the Germans, but the Finnish forces advancing from Ranua did come up with the Germans. The latter were using a preset timetable for determining when ground should be yielded, as this process maximised the efficiency of their evacuation, and this called for Oberst Emil Schuler’s 218th Gebirgsjägerregiment, part of Generalleutnant August Krakau’s 7th Gebirgsdivision in General Friedrich Hochbaum’s XVIII Gebirgskorps, to delay the Finnish advance. Finnish and German forces clashed on several occasions along the road, first at Ylimaa and later at Kivitaipale, without decisive results.

As they retreated, the German force made use of scorched-earth tactics to delay the Finnish advance, and though at first Rendulic ordered only the public buildings in Rovaniemi to be destroyed, on 13 October was instructed to destroy all the buildings in Rovaniemi, excepting only the hospitals and houses in which people were still living. While the German rearguard was undertaking the destruction, an ammunition train in Rovaniemi station exploded and set fire to the town’s largely wooden houses. The German troops suffered many casualties as a result of the explosion, mainly from glass splinters. A Finnish commando unit claimed to have blown up the ammunition train, and thus may well have been the primary cause of the town’s ruin. The cause was unknown at the time and generally assumed to be the deliberate intent of Rendulic. During these hostilities some nine out of every 10 buildings in Rovaniemi were destroyed.

On 14 October the first Finnish forces reached the Rovaniemi area. These forces were men of Eversti Henrik Saussel’s 1st Jääkäriprikaati, part of the Panssaridivisioona, advancing from Ranua. The Finnish forces found that one of the bridges crossing the Kemijoki river was still intact and moved to seize it. The Germans had failed to blow the bridge because the ammunition train had exploded with a force so great that, even though the bridge was 1.85 miles (3 km) distant, it blew the German explosives from the bridge into the river. The Finnish forces reached the bridge while it was still intact, but then the German rearguard managed to push them back from the bridge long enough for them to demolish it. This stranded the 1st Jääkäriprikaati on the southern side of the river.

The next Finnish unit to arrive was Everstiluutnantti Wolf Halsti’s 11th Jalkaväkirykmentti, whose infantrymen were advancing along the road on the northern side of the Kemijoki river on 15 October 1944. Halsti decided to encircle the remaining Germans and moved to cut the road from Rovaniemi northward toward Kittilä. Fortunately for the 2/12th SS Gebirgsjägerregiment 'Michael Gaissmair', the Finns were short of ammunition and thus unable to support the encircling units, and this permitted the German battalion to escape nearly unscathed.

The fighting near Rovaniemi achieved very little for either side. The most notable part of the fighting was the devastation inflicted to the town just prior to the fight. With the German rearguard still in the town, during the controlled destruction of governmental buildings fire quickly spread to the town’s wooden housing despite German attempts to prevent it.