Finnmark Liberation Operation

The 'Finnmark Liberation Operation' was an undertaking by Soviet and Norwegian forces to liberate Finnmark, the northernmost part of German-occupied Norway (23 October 1944/26 April 1945).

After the German invasion and occupation of Norway between April and June 1940, the Norwegian government-in-exile established a military mission in Moscow under the leadership of Colonel Arne Dagfin Dahl. Foreseeing the defeat of Germany, the USA, UK and USSR signed an agreement with the Free Norwegian authorities on 17 March 1944 concerning the administration of Norwegian territory should it be reoccupied by one of the other three parties, and this agreement stipulated that military authorities would have ultimate control over civil administration so long as the war continued.

After the Moscow armistice between the USSR and Finland on 4 September 1944, ending the 'Jatkosota' continuation war, the Finns ceded the Petsamo region, which was still largely occupied by the Germans, to the USSR, and also agreed to remove the remaining German forces from their own territory by 15 September, which led to the 'Lapinsota' Lapland war. During the 'Birke' retreat of Generaloberst Dr Lothar Rendulic’s (from 21 January 1945 General Franz Böhme’s) 20th Gebirgsarmee, whose forces in northern Norway were Generalleutnant Hans Degen’s (from 6 February Oberst Roschmann’s and from 6 February Generalleutnant Willibald Utz’s) 2nd Gebirgsdivision and Generalmajor Max-Josef Pemsel’s (from 20 April 1945 Oberst Josef Remold’s) 6th Gebirgsdivision, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht decided to withdraw the German forces completely from northern Norway and Finland in 'Nordlicht[. While the Germans prepared for this operation, the Soviets decided to seize the offensive initiative on the Karelian Front.

The Stavka decided to move against the German forces in the Arctic region late in 1944 in an offensive which was to be undertaken jointly by General (from 26 October Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza) Kyrill A. Meretskov’s Karelia Front and Admiral Arseny G. Golovko’s Northern Fleet. The main operations were to be conducted by General Leytenant Vladimir I. Shcherbakov’s 14th Army, which had been in the Arctic region since the beginning of the war. The spearhead of the offensive was to be General Major Khariton A. Khudalov’s 10th Guards Division.

Soviet air forces had started to attack the German positions in Finnmark as early as February 1944, the first target being Hammerfest that was first attacked on 14 February. On 23 August the Soviet air forces bombed the town of Vadsø, occupied by some 2,000 German troops. Hammerfest was bombed for a second time on 29 August, and the heavily damaged remnants of these two towns would be almost wholly destroyed during the German withdrawal in following months.

Lasting two months, the Soviet preparations did not go unnoticed by the Germans. Rendulic, who was the overall theatre commander as well as commander of the 20th Gebirgsarmee, was aware of the threat posed by the forthcoming offensive and, before this latter’s start, had ordered the German defenders to abandon Petsamo on 15 October and then Kirkenes by the beginning of November. To stall the Soviets, the Germans enacted a scorched-earth policy and began to sabotage local infrastructure and destroy the area’s villages. Thousands of civilians from Finnmark and the northern part of the neighbouring Troms county were forcibly evacuated to southern Norway: in all, somewhere between 43,000 and 45,000 Norwegian civilians were thus forced out of Finnmark. Rendulic claimed to have successfully evicted all but 200 Norwegians, whom he promised he would handle, but in fact between 20,000 and 25,000 civilians avoided relocation, this total including 10,000 persons of Kirkenes and the Varanger peninsula, who could not be moved as a result of logistical constraints and 8,500 Sami reindeer-herding nomads exempted from the removal policy.

It was on 7 October that the Soviets began their offensive. They captured Petsamo on 15 October in the 'Petsamo-Kirkenes Offensive Operation', but as a result of supply problems had then to halt their offensive for three days. Resuming their advance on 18 October, the Soviets progressed along the road linking Petsamo and Tarnet, reaching the Norwegian border on the evening of 19 October, and from here pressed forward in the direction of Kirkenes.

The fight for Kirkenes started on 23 October as the 14th Division beat off a series of counterattacks by the German forces retreating from Finland. During that night, the 45th Division crossed the Jarfjord, leaving its tanks and 'Katyusha' rocket launchers with the 14th Division. Farther to the south, the 10th Guards Division crossed over a pontoon bridge at Holmfoss, accompanied by KV heavy tanks and self-propelled artillery.

On 24 October the 45th Division met little in the way of realistic resistance as it advanced to the edge of the Bøkfjord, just across from Kirkenes. The 14th Division had more trouble at Elvenes, where the Germans had destroyed the bridge. Two companies were able to cross the fjord farther to the south, where the fjord’s width was only some 165 to 220 yards (150 to 200 m). The 10th Guards Division had advanced within 6.2 miles (10 km) in the area to the south of Kirkenes, securing the iron ore mines in which many civilians had taken shelter. The 28th Guards Regiment was detached from the 10th Guards Division to cut off a possible German escape route around the Langfjord, as the forces originally assigned to this task had run short of supplies. Soviet air reconnaissance noticed German columns withdrawing from Kirkenes toward Neiden. Fires and explosions were seen in Kirkenes as the withdrawing Germans had set the town on fire as part of their scorched-earth policy. The 10th Guards Division had reached the southern outskirts of the town by 03.00 on 25 October and engaged the withdrawing Germans.

The Soviet forces at Elvenes attempted once more to cross the Bøkfjord at around 05.00. The Germans withstood the assault for about one hour before a direct assault and heavy artillery bombardment compelled them to retreat. Using Lend-Lease amphibious vehicles and makeshift rafts, the majority of the Soviet troops had been able to cross the river by 09.00. From there the Soviet forces headed toward the south-eastern outskirts of Kirkenes.

Supported by tanks and artillery, the 10th Guards Division, 65th Division and 14th Division cleared the final German rearguards from Kirkenes by 12.00 on 25 October.

On 26 October the 10th Guards Division captured the German airfield 9.33 miles (15 km) to the west of Kirkenes: aircraft operating from this base had been a major thorn in the side of the Allies Arctic convoys. The 28th Guards Regiment reached Highway 50 at Munkelv during that morning and discovered that German units were still retreating through the area. Fighting ensued, and the Soviets summarily blocked the road, forcing the Germans to evacuate to the north for later evacuation by sea. By the evening, the entirety of the Munkelv area had been secured and the Soviets were pushing up the Neiden river.

The German rearguard had readied a defence on a ridge in Neiden but, with the help of local fishermen, the Soviets were able to cross the river on 27 October and capture the ridge. The fighting was severe, and the Germans managed to burn every building in the village, but for the local church, before withdrawing.

Faced with rugged terrain and increasing cold, the 14th Army’s forces in the area were ordered to halt their advance and assume a defensive posture. Only a reconnaissance force of the 114th Division continued to the west, advancing 72 miles (116 km) to the north-west of Neiden before halting at Tana on 13 November.

On 25 October, upon hearing that Soviet forces were now entering the northern part of Norway, the British ordered the immediate deployment of Free Norwegian forces to the area. The Norwegians assembled under Dahl, with a military mission for liaison with the Soviet forces and to re-establish a civil administration, the 231-man Bergkompani 2 (2nd Mountain Company) under Major S. Rongstad, an 11-man area naval command, and a 12-man Area Command Finnmark. Designated as Force 138 by the British, the Norwegians embarked on he cruiser Berwick as part of 'Crofter', reaching Murmansk on 6 November and there embarking in a Soviet ship for the passage to Liinakhamari. From there the Norwegians travelled by truck to enter Finnmark on 10 November. Dahl located the headquarters of his mission in Bjørnevatn.

Shcherbakov wished the Norwegians to be deployed into the front line as rapidly as possible. Too small in number to cover the front by themselves, the Norwegians enlisted local volunteers into hastily formed 'guard companies' armed with Soviet weapons pending the arrival of reinforcements from the UK. About 1,500 men from the Kirkenes area were recruited. On 29 November the Free Norwegian corvettes Eglantine and Tønsberg Castle, together with three minesweepers, departed Loch Ewe as part of the JW.62 convoy with 2,000 tons of supplies to assist the Norwegian forces in Finnmark. The ships reached the Kola inlet without incident on 7 December, but on 14 December Tønsberg Castle hit a mine and sank with heavy loss of life.

Norwegian police troops, who had been training in secret for two years in Sweden, started to arrive on 12 January 1945. Totals of 1,442 men and 1,225 tons of equipment and supplies were eventually delivered by air to Finnmark from Kallax in Sweden. The USA sent nine Douglas C-47 twin-engined transport aircraft to aid the movement of the troops, and by April there were more than 3,000 Norwegian soldiers in northern Norway.

One of the Norwegian force’s first undertakings was a front-line reconnaissance to monitor German troop movements and investigate the whereabouts of the local population. Reports from Porsanger showed that the Germans were in the process of withdrawing, and were laying mines and torching buildings. Few civilians were left.

During this time some members of the local population emerged from hiding and returned to their destroyed villages. In Gamvik, about 300 civilians who had avoided forced evacuation built temporary huts and shacks out of wreckage, but on 19 December 1944 the Germans used S-boote to deploy landing parties, and these destroyed the town for a second time. Some of the civilians managed to arm themselves and hold off the Germans long enough for most of the population to escape, but 17 people were captured and forced to evacuate.

The Norwegians sent rescue parties under Colonel Gunnar Johnson to assist civilians left stranded in the scorched-earth parts of western Finnmark. By Christmas 1944, nearly 900 people had been brought to safety in liberated territory. In January 1945 Johnson began to plan a rescue operation on the island of Sørøya. On 15 February, in the only direct military action undertaken by the Western Allies other than Norway during the campaign, a force of four destroyers (three British and one Canadian) rescued 502 men, women and children from the island. By 1945 a group of Norwegian militiamen started to operate on the island, ambushing German patrols while trying to avoid destruction. Various skirmishes and raids between February and March result in the deaths of six militiamen, and the capture of 14 more. Six fishing vessels employed by the militia were destroyed in a German air attack. Several Germans were also killed on the island.

Elsewhere the Norwegians assisted the local population and dealt with the occasional German raid. Bergkompani 2 lost four men while retaking Finnmark, and on 26 April declared Finnmark to be free. By the time of the German general surrender in Europe on May 8, the 1st Varanger Battalion was poised on the border between Finnmark and Troms.

The Germans in the rest of Norway surrendered on 8 May, bringing a definite end to the conflict. Almost 2,900 Soviet soldiers had died in Norway during the conflict. It was the civilian population which was the group most affected by the campaign, however. Pursuing their scorched-earth policy, the Germans had destroyed thousands of houses, barns, huts, shacks, sheds and businesses, along with much of Finnmark’s infrastructure. Almost all of Kirkenes, Hammerfest, Hasvik, Vardø, Skarsvåg, Tufjord, Karmoyvaer, Gjesvær, Nordvågen and Neiden had been burned to the ground. About two-thirds of the houses in Vadsø had been destroyed. Berlevåg, Mehamn and Gamvik had been wholly razed. Some 50,000 people had fled or been forced by the Germans to evacuate to the south. It is estimated that more than 300 civilians had died of exposure or other causes during this exodus. Another 25,000 who chose to remain sheltered in improvised huts, caves and mines: one tunnel near Bjørnevatn held 3,000 people. Parts of Troms had also be evacuated and burned by the Germans, who had expected a continuation of the Allied offensive from the north. Even after hostilities had ceased, many civilians could not return to their towns and villages until the Allies had cleared abandoned German munitions.

The last Soviet forces withdrew from Norway on 25 September.