Operation Battle of Tali-Ihaltana

The 'Battle of Tali-Ihantala' was part of the Finnish-Soviet 'Jatkosota' continuation war (25 June/9 July 1944).

The battle marked the point in the Soviet 'Vyborg-Petrozavodsk Offensive Operation' at which the Finnish forces first prevented the Soviets from making any further significant gains. Earlier, at Siiranmäki and Perkjärvi, the Finns had halted advancing Soviet forces, but in the 'Battle of Tali-Ihantala' they achieved a defensive victory against overwhelming odds.

After the Soviet forces had failed to secure a breakthroughs at Tali-Ihantala, Vyborg Bay and Vuosalmi, Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Leonid A. Govorov’s Leningrad Front launched the previously planned transfer of troops from the Karelian isthmus front to the south in order to support the 'Narva Offensive Operation', which was meeting particularly determined German resistance. Although the Leningrad Front had thus failed to advance into Finland as ordered by the Stavka, it has been argued with some justification that the offensive was ultimately successful inasmuch as it eventually force Finland from the war.

After the initial Finnish advance of 1941, the first offensive of the 'Jatkosota' became stabilised into trench warfare with very little activity on either side. When the German siege of Leningrad was lifted in January 1944, the Stavka received orders to plan an offensive against Finland to push it out of the war.

The Soviet 'Vyborg-Petrozavodsk Offensive Operation' on the Finnish front began on the Karelian isthmus on 10 June 1944 in co-ordination with the Allied 'Overlord' invasion of Normandy. Three Soviet armies were pitted against the Finns, among them several experienced guard formations. The attack soon breached the Finnish main line of defence at Valkeasaari, and the Finnish forces retreated to their secondary defence line, the 'VT-linja' extending between Vammelsuu and Taipale. The Soviet attack was supported by massive artillery, armour and air strengths.

The 'VT-linja' was breached at Sahakylä and Kuuterselkä on 14 June; and after a failed counterattack at Kuuterselkä by the Finnish armour of Kenraalimajuri Ernst Ruben Lagus’s Panssaridivisioona (armoured division), the Finnish defence had to be pulled back to the 'VKT-linja' between Viipuri, Kuparsaari and Taipale.

The Finnish abandonment of the 'VT-linja' was followed by a week of retreat and delaying battles. The Soviet offensive was crowned by the capture of Viipuri (Vyborg in Russian) by the Soviets on 20 June after only a short battle. Despite the Soviets' great success in smashing two Finnish defence lines and capturing a substantial piece of territory in just 10 days, they had failed to destroy the Finnish army, which was able to concentrate its depleted forces on the 'VKT-linja', and had time to bring forward reinforcements from the other main front in the area to the north of Lake Ladoga.

Suomen marsalkka Carl Mannerheim, the Finnish commander-in-chief, had requested German help on 12 June, and four days later the Gefechtsverband 'Kuhlmey' reached Finland under the leadership of Oberstleutnant Kurt Kuhlmey and comprising about 70 dive-bombers and ground-attack fighters, together with a fighter and an air transport component. A few days later Hauptmann Hans-Wilhelm Cardeneo’s battalion-sized 303rd Sturmgeschützbrigade and Generalmajor Hero Breusing’s 122nd Division also arrived, but after this the Germans offered only supplies and equipment, of which the most important were Panzerfaust anti-tank weapons.

On 21 June the Stavka ordered the Leningrad Front to breach the Finns' defensive line and advance to Lake Saimaa, and on this same day the Finnish government asked the Soviets about the possibility for peace and the Soviet conditions for this. The Soviet response arrived on 23 June and demanded a signed statement to the effect that Finland was ready to surrender and was suing for peace, but the Finnish government rejected this.

The German foreign minister, Joachim Ribbentrop, had arrived in Finland on 22 June and demanded, as a condition for continued German military support, a guarantee that Finland would fight to the end. President Risto Ryti gave this guarantee as a personal undertaking.

At this time the Finnish defensive effort on the Karelian isthmus was the responsibility of Kenraaliluutnantti Karl Lennart Oesch’s HQ of the Commander of the Isthmus Force and comprised Kenraaliluutnantti Taavetti Laatikainen’s IV Armeijakunta (corps) with Eversti Lauri Haanterä's 3rd Prikaati (brigade), Kenraalimajuri Aaro Pajari’s 3rd Divisioona (division), Kenraalimajuri Pietari Autti’s 4th Divisioona, Kenraalimajuri Paavo Paalu’s and from 26 June Eversti Otto Snellman’s 18th Divisioona, from 27 June Kenraalimajuri Kaarlo Heiskanen’s 11th Divisioona, Kenraalimajuri Einar Vihma’s 6th Divisioona, Lagus’s Panssaridivisioona, Everstluutnantti E. Magnusson’s LeR 3 unit with 33 Messerschmitt Bf 109 and 18 Brewster 239 Buffalo single-engined fighters as well as one Fokker C.X reconnaissance aeroplane, and Eversti O. Sarko’s LeR 4 with 33 Bristol Blenheim, 12 Junkers Ju 88 and eight Dornier Do 17Z twin-engined bombers.

The average strength of a Finnish infantry division was 13,300 men, of the armoured division 9,300 men and of a brigade 6,700 to 7,000 men. With other troops (at least four other battalions), headquarters and corps artillery battalions, anti-aircraft units etc, the Finnish ground forces during the last days of battle were actually nearly 100,000 men after rising from the 50,000 men of the campaign’s first days.

The Gefechtsverband 'Kuhlmey', which arrived in Finland on 16 June, had between 23 and 43 Focke-Wulf Fw 190A-6/F-8 single-engined fighters and ground-attack aircraft, between 24 and 30 Junkers Ju 87D single-engined dive-bombers, and between one and eight Bf 109G-8 reconnaissance fighters. The 303rd Sturmgeschützbrigade, which arrived in Finland on 22 June, had 22 StuG III Ausf G assault guns and nine StuH 42 assault howitzers.

The Soviet forces in the Tali-Ihantala area were part of the Leningrad Front, and comprised for the main part General Polkovnik Dmitri N. Gusev’s 21st Army with the XXX Guards Corps, XCVII Corps, CVIII Corps, CIX Corps and CX Corps, These five corps together controlled the 45th, 63rd and 64th Guards Divisions and the 46th, 72nd, 90th, 109th, 168th, 178th, 265th, 268th, 286th, 314th, 358th and 372nd Divisions. The armoured units of the 21st Army and the Leningrad Front on Karelian isthmus were the 1st Guards Tank Brigade, 30th Guards Tank Brigade, 152nd Tank Brigade, 220th Tank Brigade, 26th Guards Breakthrough Tank Regiment, 27th Guards Heavy Breakthrough Tank Regiment, 27th Separate Tank Regiment, 31st Guards Breakthrough Tank Regiment, 98th Tank Regiment, 124th Tank Regiment, 185th Tank Tank Regiment, 260th Guards Breakthrough Tank Regiment, 351st Guards Heavy Self-Propelled Gun Regiment, 394th Heavy Self-Propelled Gun Regiment, 396th Self-Propelled Gun Regiment, 397th Self-Propelled Gun Regiment, 1222nd Self-Propelled Gun Regiment, 1238th Self-Propelled Gun Regiment, 1326th Self-Propelled Gun Regiment and 1439th Self-Propelled Gun Regiment.

The strength of armoured brigades was about 60 tanks, and of regiments between 15 and 21 tanks or assault/self-propelled guns.

The 21st Army did not commit all of its forces simultaneously, but instead kept some of its strength in reserve, and sent them forward only after the initially committed formations had spent their offensive capability and required rest and refit. Moreover, at the beginning of the battle, some of the Soviet forces which later took part in the battle were deployed on nearby sections of the front: an example is the CVIII Corps, whose three divisions were deployed to Vyborg and the Vyborg Bay area. It has been reasoned that as much as one-quarter of the 21st Army’s forces was not committed on the 'Battle of Tali-Ihantala'.

Artillery was of singular importance on the Soviet approach to warfare by the later part of World War II, and the Leningrad Front and 21st Army were able to call on the 5th Guards Breakthrough Artillery Division, 15th Breakthrough Artillery Division, 51st Artillery Brigade, 127th Artillery Brigade, 3rd Guards Mortar Brigade (rocket launchers), 19th Guards Mortar Brigade (rocket launchers), seven field artillery regiments and four mortar regiments (rocket launchers).

General Leytenant Aleksandr I. Cherepanov’s 23rd Army attacked on the area of the front immediately to the east of that assaulted by the 21st Army with orders to advance on Noskua. The 23rd Army controlled the VI Corps comprising the 13th, 177th and 382nd Divisions.

The average strength of divisions of the Leningrad Front early in June 1944 was between 6,500 and 7,000 men, which was about half of the personnel strength of a typical Finnish infantry division.

In terms of air power, the Soviets had for defensive purposes on the ground the four regiments of the 32nd Anti Aircraft Artillery Division, and for offensive/defensive purposes in the air General Leytenant Stepan D. Rybalchenko’s 13th Air Army, which on 9 June comprised 817 aircraft (including 235 Ilyushin Il-2 single-engined ground-attack machines and 205 fighters). Also available were the Leningrad Guards Fighter Aviation Corps with 257 fighters and the Baltic Fleet Air Force with about 545 aircraft.

Altogether, therefore, the Soviets could call on about 1,600 combat aircraft, of which as much as four-fifths were deployed against the Finnish forces in June 1944 with the remaining one-fifth deployed for operations over the southern coast of the Gulf of Finland against General Kurt Pflugbeil’s Luftflotte I.

So far as the terrain was concerned, the 'Battle of Tali-Ihantala' was fought in a small area of about 39 sq miles (100 km²) between the northern tip of Vyborg Bay and the Vuoksi river around the villages of Tali and Ihantala, 5 to 8.7 miles (8 to 14 km) to the north-east of Vyborg. The Soviet forces were concentrated in and started from the area to the east of Vyborg, through the southern village of Tali, northward to Ihantala (Petrovka in Russian). This was the only terrain suitable for armoured forces to debouch from the Karelian isthmus, and was 6.2 miles (10 km) wide, broken by small lakes and limited by the Saimaa canal in the west and the Vuoksi river in the east.

Fighting in the area began on June 20, and the period to 24 June took the form of a defensive battle that the infantry of the Finnish 18th Divisioona (6th Jalkaväkirykmentti and 48th Jalkaväkirykmentti and the independent 28th Itsenäinen Pataljoona), the 3rd Prikaati (four battalions) and the Swedish-speaking 3/13th Jalkaväkirykmentti fought the Soviet XCVII Corps and CIX Corps supplemented by the 152nd Tank Brigade. The defenders were hit especially hard by the Soviet artillery and air attacks, but nonetheless put up a strong defence that stalled the Soviet advance long enough for Finnish reinforcements to arrive and join the battle.

On 25/26 June, the action of June 25 started at 06.30 with a one-hour Soviet heavy artillery bombardment and air attack, followed by a major Soviet offensive from Tali village at 07.30. The Soviet goal was to reach the area of Imatra, Lappeenranta and Suurpäälä before 28 June, and by this time the Soviet starting forces had been supplemented by the arrival of the XXX Guards Corps.

The Soviets tried to break through along both sides of the Leitimojärvi lake. The attack on the lake’s eastern side was stopped after 1.85 miles (3 km) by the 4th Divisioona. On the west side, the Soviet infantry of the 45th Guards Division and the CIX Corps became lodged in defensive positions around the hills of Konkkalanvuoret defended by the 48th Jääkäriprikaati. However, the 27th Tank Regiment was able to force its way through to the crossroads at Portinhoikka.

The Soviets also attacked with the 178th Division over the Saarela Strait, which was defended by the 1/6th Jääkäriprikaati, but here too the Soviet attack was thrown back. Meanwhile, the XCVII Corps attacked the 3rd Prikaati's positions but gained little ground. At this stage the situation was very critical for the Finns, whose units were at risk of being cut off and surrounded. This would inevitably have led to the defeat of the IV Armeijakunta and the loss of the 'VKT-linja'.

The Finns were able to organise a counterattack with the 18th Divisioona's reserves, parts of the 17th Divisioona and some battle groups of the 4th Divisioona. Later, in the afternoon of that same day, the armoured vehicles of the Panssaridivisioona joined the battle and drove the Soviet attackers on the western side of the Leitimojärvi lake back to their starting point. The whole of the 27th Tank Regiment was destroyed with the exception of six tanks which the Finns captured.

Between 27 and 30 June, additional Finnish units joined the battle along with the 303rd Sturmgeschützbrigade. The Finnish units had become divided, slightly dispersed and intermixed during the battle, and this made difficult the organisation of a concentrated and cohesive defence. The Finnish units were therefore reorganised into two battle groups, the Taisteluryhmä 'Björkman' and the Taisteluryhmä 'Puroma'. The Soviets also reinforced their forces with the CVIII Corps. At this stage, the Soviet forces included at least one armoured brigade, two armoured breakthrough regiments, and four assault gun regiments with a maximum of some 180 armoured fighting vehicles.

The Finns tried to regain the initiative by attacking the 46th Guards, 63rd Guards, 64th Guards and 268th Divisions as well as the 30th Guards Tank Brigade, which had broken through to the east of the Leitimojärvi lake from three directions, in order to trap the Soviets in a motti. The Taisteluryhmä 'Björkman' and Taisteluryhmä 'Puroma' did succeed in advancing to within 1,100 yards (1000 m) of each other, but could not effect a junction and thus failed to surround the Soviet divisions, which had established themselves in a hedgehog defence around Talinmylly. The Finnish attack failed because of heavy Soviet resistance, especially by massed armour and artillery, and because communication between several Finnish battalions broke down during the attack. Eversti Albert Puroma said after the war that the one thing he regretted was the failure to make a motti encirclement of Talinmylly. Despite its only limited success, the Finnish counterattack gave the Finnish defenders a 72-hour respite over the period in which the fresh 6th Divisioona and 11th Divisioona reached the battlefield. There were several armoured clashes during this period of the fighting.

On 28 June, air activity was high on both sides as Finnish level bombers and German dive-bombers hit the Soviet formations and the Soviet 276th Bomber Division hit the Finnish troops. On this day Oesch ordered Finnish formations and units to withdraw to the line marked by Vakkila, the Ihantalajärvi lake, Kokkoselkä and Noskuanselkä (still within the 'VKT-linja'), but the withdrawal was overtaken by a renewed Soviet offensive. In the 18th Divisioona's sector in Ihantala, a heavy barrage by 14 Finnish artillery battalions, totalling about 170 guns and howitzers, destroyed or damaged at least 15 Soviet tanks.

The following day was the worst and hardest for the Finns during the whole battle. A Soviet victory seemed close, but the Finnish forces managed to restore the line after very bloody fighting. On 30 June, the Finnish forces retreated from Tali. The heaviest fighting took place on 1 and 2 July when the Finns lost some 800 men per day.

The Finnish concentration of artillery fire that followed was the heaviest in the country’s military history, and was based on the fire-correction method devised by Tykistönkenraali Vilho Nenonen, the Finnish inspector of artillery, which enabled easy fire correction and quick changes of target. At the critical Ihantala sector of the battle, the Finnish defenders concentrated their fire to the extent of smashing the advancing Soviet spearhead. This sophisticated fire-control system enabled as many as 21 batteries, totalling some 250 pieces of artillery, to fire at the same target simultaneously. The fire controller did not need to be aware of the location of individual batteries to guide their fire, which made quick fire concentration and target switching possible. At this time the Finnish artillery fired more than 122,000 rounds. These fire missions halted and destroyed Soviet forces assembling at their staging areas, and on 30 occasions the Soviet forces destroyed were of greater than battalion size.

By this time the Finns had concentrated in this area half of their artillery as well as their only armoured division, equipped primarily with StuG III assault guns) and the German 303rd Sturmgeschützbrigade, which destroyed only one Soviet armoured fighting vehicle. The defenders at last possessed the new German anti-tank weapons that were previously kept in storage. The Finns also made good use of the Panzerschreck anti-tank weapons provided by the Germans. With these weapons the Finns destroyed a large number of Soviet tanks, including 25 in one afternoon engagement. During 1 July, near the village of Tähtelä, the field artillery of the 6th Divisioona damaged four tanks, and on the next day destroyed five tanks in the area of Vakkila, Tähtelä and Ihantala.

On July 2 the Finns intercepted a radio message that the 63rd Guards Division and 30th Guards Tank Brigade were about to launch an attack at 04.00 on the following day. Two minutes before the supposed attack, 40 Finnish and 40 German bombers attacked the Soviet troops, and 250 guns fired a total of 4,000 rounds into the Soviet assembly area. On the same day, beginning at 06.00, 200 Soviet warplanes and their infantry attacked the Finnish troops, but by 19.00 the Finns had restored their lines.

On 6 July the Soviet forces met with some success, despite the fact that the 6th Divisioona could call on 18 battalions of field artillery and one battalion of heavy for their defence. The Soviets were driven back on the following day, however, and their counterattacks, at 13.30 and 19.00 on that day, gained them nothing. By 7 July, the focus of the Soviet attacks was moving to the area of Vuoksi, and the Soviets now began transferring what was left of their best formations ands units to the Narva front in Estonia, to fight the Germans and the Estonians. From 9 July, the Soviet forces no longer attempted a breakthrough, but even so a measure of fighting continued.

In the period between 21 June and 7 July, the Soviet forces had fired 144,000 artillery and 92,000 mortar rounds, surprisingly close to the Finnish totals, which suggests that the Soviet forces had suffered some logistic issues. The field artillery of Soviet divisions was also relatively light, with 70% to 75% of its guns of 3-in (76-mm) calibre while only 30% of the Finnish field artillery was light. According to Soviet statistics, the average weight of a field artillery shell in 1944 was just 27.5 lb (12.5 kg), whereas in the 'Battle of Tali-Ihantala', just as in the Vuosalmi and 'U-linga' sectors, the Finns concentrated their artillery fire in one-minute barrages in which the average shell weight was 97.2 to 116.6 lb (44.1 to 52.9 kg).

During the period between 20 June and 7 July, the total Finnish artillery ammunition expenditure in the sector of the 18th Divisioona, 6th Divisioona and 3rd Prikaati was 113,500 rounds, in the sector of the 4th Divisioona 24,600 rounds, and in the sector of the 3rd Divisioona 25,150 rounds for a total 163,250 rounds.

It was on 10 July that the Soviet forces were ordered to cease offensive operations and take up defensive positions as the Stavka redeployed forces to the Baltic fronts, where the Soviets were meeting 'fierce German and Baltic resistance'.

Finnish sources estimate that the Soviets lost about 600 tanks in the 'Battle of Tali-Ihantala', mainly to air attack, artillery strikes and close defence weapons. Between 284 and 320 Soviet aircraft (some 200 between 9 and 30 June, and about 80 between 1 and 19 July) were claimed as shot down, although modern studies suggest that Soviet aircraft losses were considerably smaller. For instance the 13th Air Army and Baltic Fleet air force lost, according Soviet sources, just 23 bombers between 9 June and 19 July over the Karelian isthmus. The Finns took prisoner only 25 Soviet aircrew in the Karelian isthmus during whole summer of 1944. These figures also suggested that the Soviet aircraft losses were not as high as claimed by the Finns.

The Finnish army reported that 8,561 of its men were killed, wounded or missing. According to one Finnish historian, based on the daily and 10-day summary casualty reports of the 21st Army, the Soviets reported their losses as between 18,000 and 22,000 men killed or wounded. The uncertainty about casualties arises from the fact that one-quarter of the 21st Army’s forces were not involved in the battle. In addition to the losses of the 21st Army, the 23rd Army’s VI Corps, which attacked to the east of the 21st Army closer to the Vuoksi waterway, suffered 7,905 casualties, of which 1,458 were killed and 288 missing without taking into account the losses of its supporting formations.

The ceasefire between the USSR and Finland began at 07.00 on 4 September, although for the following 24 hours the Soviets did not comply with it.

According to a number of historians, the 'Battle of Tali-Ihantala', along with Finnish victories in the 'Battle of Vyborg Bay', 'Battle of Vuosalmi', 'Battle of Nietjärvi' and 'Battle of Ilomantsi' finally convinced the Soviet leadership that the attempt to conquer Finland was very difficult and in fact not worth the cost. The battle was possibly the single most important battle fought in the 'Jatkosota' as it largely determined the war’s outcome and allowed Finland to conclude the war on comparatively favourable terms and continue its existence as an independent nation. The work of Finnish researchers indicate that Soviet sources, such as prisoner of war interviews, show that the Soviets intended to advance all the way to Helsinki, and there is also a Stavka order for the Soviet forces to advance far beyond the border of 1940.

It should be noted that the 'Battle of Tali-Ihantala' was not fought in isolation, for the 'Vyborg-Petrozavodsk Offensive Operation' comprised six sub-operations and over much the same period the Soviets also undertook their three-part 'Svir-Petrozavodsk Offensive Operation' between Lakes Ladoga and Onega, and their 11-part 'Belorussian Strategic Offensive Operation' to push into Belorussia and eastern Poland. To the north of the Gulf of Finland, the Soviet offensive paved the way to the 'Battle of Vyborg Bay', 'Battle of Vuosalmi' and 'Battle of Tienhaara'.

The Soviet 59th Army attacked the islands in Vyborg Bay from 4 July, and after several days of fighting forced the vastly outnumbered Finnish forces out from most of the islands while themselves suffering heavy losses. However, the Soviet attack aimed at crossing Vyborg Bay was a failure as the Soviet troops were thrown back by the German 122nd Division of the V Armeijakunta. The Soviet 23rd Army attempted to cross the Vuoksi river on 4 July at Vuosalmi, but as a result of the Finnish defence at Äyräpää Ridge was unable to start the crossing until 9 July. Even with the crossing completed, the Soviet forces (elements of three divisions) were not able to expand the bridgehead against the 2nd Divisioona, which was later reinforced. The Soviet breakthrough attempts continued without success until 21 July.

In addition to Tali-Ihantala, the Finnish front line held fast at Kivisilta and Tienhaara to the north of Vyborg Bay. There was more heavy fighting on the north-eastern side of Lake Ladoga, and in the 'Battle of Ilomantsi' the Finns were able to encircle two Soviet divisions, though most of the trapped troops were able to escape.

On 12 July, the Soviet forces received an order to stop their attempts to advance and dig in. Finnish scouts soon spotted trains with empty wagons moving toward Vyborg to remove troops from the Finnish front for redeployment father to the south in the great strategic offensives toward Berlin.

The Finnish government declined further negotiations late in June and did not ask for peace until the Soviet offensive had been stopped. The Finnish government instead used the Ryti-Ribbentrop agreement to strengthen the Finnish forces. Only after the Soviet offensive had been stopped on all primary fronts was Ryti ready to resign on 28 July. Together with the leading social-democrat Väinö Tanner, Ryti requested that Mannerheim accept the candidacy for president, thus freeing Finland from the Ryti-Ribbentrop agreement, which had only been made as a personal pledge by Ryti rather than a national pledge. Finland could then ask the USSR for peace.