Kestenga Defensive Operation

The 'Kestenga Defensive Operation' was a Soviet component of the 'Arctic-Karelia Strategic Defensive Operation', and as such the Soviet response to an element of the Finnish and German 'Polarfuchs' (i) (1 July/10 October 1941).

As the German 'Polarfuchs' (i) attack in the north of the Finnish front’s central sector by General Hans Feige’s Höheres Kommando XXXVI slowed, the corps having advanced slightly more than 13 miles (21 km) at a cost of 5,500 casualties, Adolf Hitler’s Führerweisung Nr 34 of 30 July ordered Generaloberst Nikolaus von Falkenhorst’s Armee 'Norwegen' to shift its main effort farther to the south into the zone of Kenraalimajuri Hjalmar Siilasvuo’s Finnish III Armeijakunta (corps) and the drive to Loukhi, leaving only as many troops with the Höheres Kommando XXXVI as were necessary for defence and to create an impression of further offensive intentions. In the main, Hitler’s directive confirmed the measures already taken by the Armee 'Norwegen'. Since the middle of July, von Falkenhorst had believed that the rail line linking Murmansk with the rest of the USSR could be reached most quickly at Loukhi near the western coast of the White Sea, and on 19 July he had committed one regiment and one artillery battalion of SS-Gruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Karl Demelhuber’s SS-Kampfgruppe 'Nord' to the III Armeijakunta's attack in that direction. On 29 and 30 July, von Falkenhorst sent other elements (single infantry and artillery battalions of the SS-Kampfgruppe 'Nord') to the III Armeijakunta.

Hitler’s directive added that, should the drive toward Loukhi also to lose its momentum, all the German troops were to be withdrawn and sent to the southern sector of the Finnish front, where they were to join Kenraaliluutnantti Erik Heinrichs’s Karjalan Armeija (Army of Karelia). In fact, Hitler wished the Armee 'Norwegen' to undertake the immediate preparation for the commitment of its strength in support of the Karjalan Armeija on the Karelian isthmus. It appeared that Hitler was considering the complete termination of German operations in the zones of the Höheres Kommando XXXVI and Finnish III Armeijakunta, but he did not revert to this aspect of the directive again. Hitler’s reference to immediate support for the Karjalan Armeija was later clarified and limited to the 324th Infanterieregiment, which the Oberkommando des Heeres wanted to return to Generalleutnant Erwin Engelbrecht’s 163rd Division and which the Armee 'Norwegen' continued to insist it could not spare.

On 1 July, following the plan of the Armee 'Norwegen', the III Armeijakunta sent one regiment of the Ryhmä 'J' (Group 'J') across the Russo/Finnish border to the east of Kuusamo in the direction of Kestenga and Loukhi and Ryhmä 'F' to the east of Suomussalmi in the direction of Ukhta and Kem. In accord with the orders of the Armee 'Norwegen', the corps concentrated its main effort in the sector of Ryhmä 'F', committing its reserve regiment there for a converging attack by two regiments on Voinitsa (Vuoninnen in Finnish) some 12 miles (19 km) east of the border. The corps' sector was held by the Soviet 54th Division of General Leytenant Filipp D. Gorelenko’s 7th Army within General Lieutenant Markian M. Popov’s Northern Front, which at first divided its forces about equally to defend Kestenga and Ukhta.

The III Armeijakunta's offensive initially made good progress against weak resistance. By 5 July Ryhmä 'J' was in Makareli, 17 miles (27/5 km) east of the border, and the right-flank regiment of Ryhmä 'F' had marched 28 miles (45 miles) to Ponga Guba. On 10 July, as Ryhmä 'J' approached Tungozero, the two regiments of Ryhmä 'F' to the south ran into a Soviet centre of resistance at Voinitsa, which they encircled and destroyed during the next nine days. By 19 July, Ryhmä 'J' was on the Sofyanga, an 8-mile (12.9-km) channel connecting the Pya and Top lakes. This represented a significant obstacle, strongly defended, which could not be taken without careful preparation. Even so, the commander of Ryhmä 'J' was optimistic: once his force was in the narrows between the lakes he could advance to Kestenga without worrying about his flanks, and from Kestenga to Loukhi there were 42 miles (68 km) of improved road.

Visiting Ryhmä 'J' on 18 July, Generalmajor Erich Buschenhagen, the chief-of-staff of the Armee 'Norwegen', was astounded by the speed of the Finnish advance over a distance of some 40 miles (65 km) and noted with surprise that the Finns had built a road all the way. Experienced in forest warfare, the Finns had on several occasions broken the Soviet forces' defensive efforts by rapid thrusts into their flanks and rear, which often could be developed into what the Finns called mottis (small tight encirclements), sometimes several at the same time. This tactic was particularly effective in the forest where the more sweeping encirclements favoured by the Germans were difficult to implement and nearly impossible to compress tightly enough to prevent the Soviets' escape. On the basis of Buschenhagen’s observations, the Armee 'Norwegen' decided to send the SS regiment and artillery battalion already mentioned to Ryhmä 'J' and to shift the III Armeijakunta's main effort from Ryhmä 'F' to Ryhmä 'J'. Siilasvuo therefore began to relocate two battalions out of the sector of the Ryhmä 'F' to the north flank.

While Ryhmä 'J' prepared to cross the Sofyanga, the Ryhmä 'F' resumed its advance on Ukhta. After clearing several small Soviet pockets in the area to the east of Voinitsa, which yielded prisoners and equipment, the group reached Korpijärvi on 23 July. From there, during the next five days, it advanced in two columns, one along the northern shore of Sredneye Kuito lake and the other along the road from Korpijärvi to Ukhta, to reach Yeldanka lake, some 12 miles 19 km) to the north-west of Ukhta.

On 30 July the Ryhmä 'J' began its assault across the Sofyanga and sent one battalion by boat over the western tip of Top lake to land in the Soviet forces' rear. On the same day the Armee 'Norwegen' decided to commit additional SS troops in the Ryhmä 'J' zone to protect its open northern flank between the lakes and the border. In three days of fighting, the Ryhmä 'J' broke the Soviet resistance on the Sofyanga and on the night of 7 August reached Kestenga. The Soviets were now committing what were believed to be their last reserves, namely 500 forced labourers, 600 men drawn from the headquarters guard of General Leytenant Valerian A. Frolov’s 14th Army in the Kola peninsula, and a replacement battalion from Murmansk.

By 11 August, the regiment of the Ryhmä 'J' had followed the railway embankment of the Kestenga spur line and was just to the south of the narrows between the Yelovoye and Lebedevo lakes, 20 miles (32 km) to the south-west of Loukhi. Strong Soviet resistance on the road and between the road and railway behind the leading Finnish regiment then forced a halt. On 14 July the westward movement of Soviet truck convoys from Loukhi confirmed the impression which had been gained from frantic Soviet radio traffic two days earlier that the 88th Division was being rushed into the area from Arkhangyel’sk, and during the following two days the strength of the Soviet resistance stiffened markedly.

Meanwhile, farther to the south, the advance of the Ryhmä 'F' had stalled on the Kis Kis river line on the road linking Korpijärvi and Ukhta, and the unit had begun a deep envelopment from the north, which was meeting resistance at all points, and from the south around the southern shore of the Sredneye Kuito lake. In the south the the Ryhmä 'F' reached Enonsuu, directly across from Ukhta, on 2 August and sent patrols as far as Lusalma. On 19 July, after a week of probing attacks which achieved no significant gains, the Armee 'Norwegen' ordered a halt to the operation so that it could shift more weight to the attack toward Loukhi, and a battalion was drawn out for transfer to the north.

In the sector of the Ryhmä 'J', the Soviets showed signs of weakening, but the strength of the Finnish and SS was also declining. In the last week of August the Ryhmä 'J' trapped a Soviet regiment in the area to the south of the railway and behind the advanced Finnish positions, but could not destroy it, and the fighting moved to the north across the railway as the Finnish and SS troops sought to tighten the ring and starve the Soviet forces into submission. On 25 August, Siilasvuo informed the Armee 'Norwegen' that his men were exhausted and that he did not consider it possible to carry out his mission, namely a swift thrust to Loukhi, with the forces currently available to him. Siilasvuo therefore requested a fresh Finnish division accustomed to forest warfare.

Four days later von Falkenhorst and Buschenhagen met Siilasvuo at Kuusamo. The Finnish general reported that the Ryhmä 'J' was stalled. His six Finnish and three SS battalions faced a total of at least 13 Soviet battalions, and that two of the SS battalions together had an effective strength of no more than 280 men. There was a danger that the Soviets would now be able to strike to the south on Kestenga and bring about the collapse of the positions of the Ryhmä 'J'. Siilasvuo also considered it had been wrong to halt the attack on Ukhta as there the Ryhmä 'F' was exposed in highly unsatisfactory positions. After consideration of Siilasvuo’s thoughts, von Falkenhorst decided that the attack on Ukhta would be resumed while the Ryhmä 'J' made every effort to hold its current positions. To assist in overcoming the immediate dangers, the Ryhmä 'J' was to be allocated a motorised machine gun battalion and the remaining two battalions of the SS Kampfgruppe. When the situation of the Höheres Kommando XXXVI permitted, the Armee 'Norwegen' would also send one regiment of Eversti Verner Viikla’s Finnish 6th Divisioona (division). It was expected that the arrival of that regiment would allow the advance toward Loukhi to be resumed.

On 3 August, the Höheres Kommando XXXVI ordered its divisions to pin the Soviet forces opposite them and thereby create conditions favourable for resumption of the advance after the reinforcements had arrived. That order was immediately superseded by an order from the Armee 'Norwegen' for the Höheres Kommando XXXVI to prepare to resume its offensive with the main effort on the southern flank, where the Finnish 6th Divisioona was positioned, and stating that no reinforcements could be expected in the shorter term. During the days which followed, the Höheres Kommando XXXVI renewed its requests for reinforcement on several occasions. Feige argued that the main effort of the Armee 'Norwegen' belonged logically in the sector of the Höheres Kommando XXXVI as there alone was the movement of supplies by road and rail assured, and as it was necessary to take and hold Kandalaksha in order to maintain a German seizure and occupation of Murmansk on the Arctic coast. Cutting the railway at Loukhi, Feige believed, could have no decisive effect because the Soviets would still be in possession of the vital line linking Kandalaksha and Murmansk, and would have contact with Arkhangyel’sk by way of the White Sea. The Armee 'Norwegen', on the other hand, despite the fact that it wanted the Höheres Command XXXVI to resume its offensive, believed that the greatest opportunity for immediate results lay in the attack on Loukhi and the best prospects for future offensives in the planned offensive of General Eduard Dietl’s Gebirgskorps 'Norwegen' on the Arctic coast. Thus the two fresh regiments which Feige wanted (and indeed believed he had been promised) were given to the Gebirgskorps 'Norwegen'. To a large extent, no doubt, the Armee 'Norwegen' was influenced by the peculiarity of its mission, which made the Murmansk railway less a strategic objective than a matter of prestige, with the result that the severing of the rail line as soon as possible and the early seizure of Murmansk became goals worth attainment even at the expense of sound tactical procedure.

Encouraged by the withdrawal of the armoured elements of the 1st Tank Division, the Armee 'Norwegen' wanted the Höheres Kommando XXXVI to execute a deep envelopment reaching up to the road and rail lines immediately to the west of Allakurtti. The Höheres Kommando XXXVI insisted that this was impossible as a result of the terrain and of inadequate strength. Instead, it set the lake and mountain at Nurmi, about mid-way between Kayrala and Allakurtti, as its easternmost objectives. The Höheres Kommando XXXVI intended to commit its entire strength on a single thrust by the 6th Divisioona to Nurmi mountain. The front of Generalleutnant Kurt Dittmar’s 169th Division was to be stripped to an absolute minimum so that sufficient troops could be grouped together to take over the 6th Divisioona's defensive positions, provide about one German regiment as corps reserve (in addition to one Finnish regiment), and form a Kampfgruppe of two infantry battalions and six companies of mixed SS, engineer and construction troops. Crossing the Nurmi river behind the left wing of the 169th Division, this Kampfgruppe was to push to the south-east toward Nurmi lake as the right arm of the envelopment. The 6th Divisioona was to direct its main force, one regiment with two regiments in reserve, toward Nurmi mountain, where it would block the road and railway. As flank protection, one regiment was to strike to the east in the direction of Vuorijärvi and then to the north along the road to Allakurtti.

Regrouping for this undertaking proved to be a sizeable task. A road completed on 14 August had to be built from Lampela to the southern end of the Apa lake for the delivery of artillery into the 6th Divisioona's sector. Meanwhile, the troops of the 169th Division being transferred had to be pulled out through Salla into Finland, sent south to the point where the 6th Divisioona had crossed the border, and then north along the 6th Divisioona's original route, a distance of some 110 miles (175 km) to cover a straight-line distance of 18 miles (29 km). It is likely, however, that this circuitous movement aided in deceiving the Soviets, for they continued to concentrate their probing attacks and patrol activities on the northern flank.

During the regrouping, relations between von Falkenhorst and Feige did not improve. At the Höheres Kommando XXXVI's headquarters on 15 August, von Falkenhorst remarked that battalion-for-battalion the sides were equal, a statement that Feige interpreted as an attempt to make his earlier insistence on two fresh regiments appear superfluous, if not frivolous. Feige countered with the suggestion that the Soviets were maintaining a constant flow of replacements as a time when the replacement situation of the Finns and the Germans was decidedly precarious.

Early on 19 August, in conditions of heavy rain and fog, the 6th Divisioona began it attack. Its main column, meeting light resistance, reached Lehtokangas late in the afternoon, but the Finnish regiment on the right made slow progress against heavy resistance, and the German regiment on the left advanced only very slightly from its starting positions. The Höheres Kommando XXXVI expected counterattacks, but there were none as complete surprise had been achieved, and the Finnish main force was able to reach and cut the road and railway between Nurmi lake and mountain on the following day. To strengthen the main thrust, the Höheres Kommando XXXVI committed one of its reserve regiments and assigned the other to the 6th Divisioona for use as and when required. By 22 August the Finns had established five battalions in defensive positions across the road to check the Soviet forces seeking to break out to the east. It had now become urgently necessary to close the encirclement ring from the north, where the left-hand envelopment force was making slow progress to the east of the Nurmi river and thus, in order to lend additional impetus to the advance, the 169th Division thinned its holding positions once more and was thus able to send two infantry battalions and one artillery battalion to the east of the river.

Intercepted during the night of 22 August, a Soviet radio message spoke of a 'complete encirclement'. On the following day the 6th Divisioona committed its last reserve regiment to extend the right-hand arm of the encirclement farther to the north. The Soviets. meanwhile, were escaping over a previously undetected road to the north of the Nurmi lake, which the northern enveloping force did not reach and cut until 25 August. On 24 August, the Finnish regiment on the right took Vuorijärvi, and on the following day an improvement in the weather made possible the first bomber and dive-bomber attacks on the retreating Soviets.

On 25 August it was apparent that a clear-cut Finnish and German victory was imminent. The Soviets were streaming in a disorderly manner to the east past Nurmi lake, and an SS battalion pushed through the narrows at Kayrala. The Soviet defences to the north and south of the lakes were collapsing. By 27 August the encirclement battle had given way to a pursuit. The success was somewhat diminished by the fact that, although the Soviets had been compelled to abandon almost all their vehicles and equipment, most of the their troops escaped as a result of the Germans' inability to close the ring from the north.

While the Soviets managed, in bloody fighting, to keep the jaws of the pincers apart in the area to the north-east of Nurmi lake during the morning of 27 August, the Höheres Kommando XXXVI hastily regrouped, returning its detached units to the 169th Division and attaching three SS battalions to the 6th Divisioona, and ordered a relentless pursuit in the direction of Allakurtti. At the end of the day advanced elements were within 4 miles (6.4 km) of Allakurtti on the road and the railway, but the Soviets had fallen back to prepared positions and held a bridgehead around the towns western outskirts. Attacking the bridgehead frontally and on each of its flanks, the corps made small progress until a time late on 30 August, when it forced the Soviets back to the eastern bank of the Tuntsa river. On the next day a regiment of the 169th Division, having found a footbridge the Soviets had overlooked when they blew the road and rail bridges, crossed into the eastern section of Allakurtti. On 1 September, after another day of fighting at the eastern edge of town, during the night the Soviets suddenly fell back, leaving the way open to the Voyta river, some 6 miles 910 km) to the east. As the Höheres Kommando XXXVI drew up to the Voyta river on 2 September, the Armee 'Norwegen' pulled out the last two battalions of the 7th SS-Infanterieregiment for transfer to the III Armeijakunta, and ordered the battalion of the 9th SS-Infanterieregiment that had been attached late in the Kayrala operation, to return to the Gebirgskorps 'Norwegen',

With its strength thereby reduced, the Höheres Kommando XXXVI faced the Voyta river line, the pre-1940 Soviet border fortifications, manned in the critical central sector astride the road and railway, by the motorised regiment of the 1st Tank Division and on the flanks by the remnants of four regiments of the 104th Division and 122nd Division. The motorised regiment had been attached to the 104th Division but had been located outside the Kayrala encirclement and was thus comparatively fresh. The Soviets were bringing up reinforcements, believed to have numbered some 8,000 men, from Kandalaksha. These reinforcements were primarily prisoners and labour camp inmates, and had arrived by 15 September. The Höheres Kommando XXXVI aligned its forces along the river, the 169th Division in the north and the 6th Divisioona in the south.

During the afternoon of 6 September the Höheres Kommando XXXVI began a frontal assault across the river with four regiments and sent one regiment in a wide enveloping sweep around the northern flank of the fortified line to Hill 366, to the south-west of the northern Verman lake. The frontal attack was stopped dead except on the right flank of the 169th Division, where one regiment established a small bridgehead to the south of the road. The enveloping thrust advanced to Hill 366, but there the regimental commander discovered that the hill, which reconnaissance two days earlier had reported to be unoccupied, was in fact fortified and strongly held. The regiment found itself in an extremely precarious situation, tied down in heavy fighting, and isolated 5 miles (8 km) behind the Soviet lines. From this, during the next several days, there developed a heated exchange of demands and accusations between the headquarters of the Höheres Kommando XXXVI and the regimental commander, who had made a name for himself in the fighting for Salla. The acrimony resulted in part from the immediate crisis, but was also symptomatic of the exhaustion which was now overtaking the corps.

On the next day, in torrential rain, the attack made no progress. That night the Höheres Kommando XXXVI intercepted a radio message from an NKVD station ordering that the Voyta positions was to be held at all costs, even if this led to an encirclement. Knowing the Soviet tenacity in holding prepared positions, corps immediately decided to abandon the frontal attack and concentrate on the envelopment off the left flank. The regiment there was in trouble, however. On 7 September it had taken Hill 366 and reported taking Hill 386 about 1 mile (1.6 km) farther to the south, but on the following morning it emerged that Hill 386 had not been taken. The regimental commander, his agitation increasing throughout the day, on several occasions called for more men and artillery support. The Höheres Kommando XXXVI ordered an additional regiment to join the attack and began to send a Finnish regiment to cover the exposed flank to the north-east of Hill 366. At this critical stage the Höheres Kommando XXXVI had no air support. The Armee 'Norwegen' had only three dive-bombers available at Rovaniemi, the rest of its allocated air strength having been assigned to the operation of the Gebirgskorps 'Norwegen' currently in progress on the Litsa river.

The attack to the north of Hill 386 remained stalled for two days. When the hill was finally taken on 10 September, the Höheres Kommando XXXVI ordered the new regiment to push to the south as far as the road and then east to the Verman river, and the original regiment to turn to the west past the Lysaya mountain and bring about the collapse of the Voyta defences by an attack from the rear. The latter regiment hesitated for almost a day and moved out only after Feige made a personal intervention. On 11 September, the 169th Division pushed one battalion across the Voyta at the road, and after another day of fighting established contact with the regiment coming from the east. With the road open, artillery and tanks could move up to the Verman river, but to the south of the road the Soviets clung to their positions and had to be driven out, unit by unit, by the 6th Divisioona in another week’s fighting. On 15 September the Soviets briefly threatened the Höheres Kommando XXXVI's entire front by retaking Hill 366. When this last problem had passed, the Höheres Kommando XXXVI found itself facing the so-called 'Verman Line', which comprised another series of prepared positions extending along the Verman river. The line was anchored in the north on the Verkhneye Verman lake and in the south on the Tolvand lake, with the Soviets still holding small bridgeheads around the road and railroad. In the 'Verman Line' the 104th Division and 122nd Division were regrouping, and over the course of the following two weeks, the arrival of the 5,000 replacements were raised to about 60% of their nominal strengths. Between the 'Verman Line' and Kandalaksha the Soviets had, since June, been using forced labour, mostly women, to build at least three more fortified lines.

On 13 September, the Armee 'Norwegen' informed the Höheres Kommando XXXVI that it intended to shift the army’s main effort to the latter’s zone as the operation of the Gebirgskorps 'Norwegen' on the Litsa river was faltering. The Höheres Kommando XXXVI characterised this proposal as 'grotesque' and 'hardly calculated to arouse confidence in the higher leadership'. The corps was totally exhausted: since the start of the campaign, it had sustained 9,463 casualties, of which 2,549 had been suffered after 1 September. The 169th Division was judged no longer capable of executing even a defensive mission. In his situation estimate of 16 September, Feige maintained that two good opportunities for exploiting the successes of the Höheres Kommando XXXVI had been lost for lack of adequate strength: these reverses had been that after the encirclement of Kayrala, and the other on 15 September in front of the 'Verman Line' when, Feige said, 'the door to Kandalaksha stood open'. The Höheres Kommando XXXVI could go no farther, and each passing day saw the Soviets regained strength. A push to Kandalaksha was still possible, but it would take at least one mountain division and one more Finnish division. Even so, as the Soviets had been given the time to recover their equilibrium, it would be a continuation of the process of fighting from line to line.

The Höheres Kommando XXXVI perceived the error as lying entirely with the Armee 'Norwegen', but this was not actually the case. On 25 August, von Falkenhorst had asked the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht for the remaining two regiments of the 163rd Division to exploit the victory at Kayrala, but had received no reply. In the conference of 4 September with General Alfred Jodl, the chief of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht’s operations staff, Buschenhagen had proposed the diversion of Generalmajor Ferdinand Schörner’s 6th Gebirgsdivision from the Gebirgskorps 'Norwegen' on the northern sector of the Finnish front to the Höheres Kommando XXXVI, but at that time Hitler was still intent on using the division to take Murmansk as soon as possible. Ten days later, at Hitler’s headquarters, von Falkenhorst had requested authorisation to use both the 6th Gebirgsdivision and the 163rd Division in the Höheres Kommando XXXVI's zone, but the use of the mountain division was refused. Hitler had promised a decision on the 163rd Division in three to four days, depending on the outcome of the operations around Leningrad, which at that time were believed to be in their final phase. The Höheres Kommando XXXVI, Hitler had ordered, was to continue its advance 'if at all possible'.

On 17 September, the Armee 'Norwegen' ordered Feige to establish a defensive line on the Verman river and rest his forces one-third at a time. All that the army could promise was the Schützenverband 'Oslo', a regimental headquarters with two battalions, which was on its way from Norway. Feige noted with some bitterness that his troops and his staff both believed that the corps' exertions had been in vain, and that another opportunity to take Kandalaksha had been missed. He predicted that the corps had seen its last major action, for winter was approaching.

Five days later, on 22 September, the Führerweisung Nr 36 ordered the Höheres Kommando XXXVI to make all preparations for a resumption of the offensive toward Kandalaksha in the first half of October. The Finnish high command was to be asked to send the 163rd Division in time for this. The operations of the III Armeijakunta were to be stopped, and all the troops thereby made available were to be transferred to the Höheres Kommando XXXVI. But as the month drew to and end, any prospects of getting the 163rd Division faded. On 5 October, after learning that the 163rd Division could be expected in no less than four to five weeks, the Armee 'Norwegen' postponed the Höheres Kommando XXXVI's operation until winter and began to pull out troops with the intention of reviving operations in the zone of the III Armeijakunta.

On 8 October, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht answered the Armee 'Norwegen' report on its revised intentions with an order to cease all operations. A call to Jodl at the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht elicited the explanation that the overall situation on the main Eastern Front had changed so radically that the military collapse of the USSR in the foreseeable future appeared to be 'not unlikely'. Two days later the Führerweisung Nr 36 confirmed the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht’s order and Jodl’s remarks. This directive stated that, in light of the Armee 'Norwegen''s reports on the condition of its troops and its operational possibilities combined with the likelihood of the defeat or destruction of the mass of the Soviet armed forces on the main front to make it unnecessary to pin the Soviet forces in Finland for any time longer, so the Armee 'Norwegen''s operations were to be brought to a halt. The army’s primary missions in the short term were to protect the nickel mines of the Petsamo area and to prepare to take Murmansk and the Rybachy peninsula in the Arctic coast during the winter. German and Finnish units would be exchanged by the Höheres Kommando XXXVI and III Armeijakunta so that Sotamarsalkka Carl Gustav Emil Mannerheim, the Finnish commander-in-chief, could reassume control of the III Armeijakunta and move forward with his planned reorganisation of the Finnish army.

During the first half of September, the situation of the III Armeijakunta continued to deteriorate. the Ryhmä 'F' resumed its offensive but was immediately stopped by the Soviets who, after the arrival of the 88th Division, had been able to assemble two complete infantry regiments, one artillery regiment and the headquarters of the 54th Division in the Ukhta area. The Ryhmä 'J' and the SS-Kampfgruppe 'Nord' was under constant pressure from the 88th Division, which was supplemented in the middle of September by the Independent Brigade 'Grivnin' (one regiment of the 54th Division and the Special Regiment 'Murmansk'), and had now to abandon its advanced positions to the south of Yelovoye lake and fall back to a line some 8 miles (13 km) to the east of Kestenga. After the Soviets achieved a number of local breakthroughs and threatened to force a farther withdrawal, on 9 September the Armee 'Norwegen' requested an additional Finnish regiment. General Waldemar Erfurth, the German liaison officer at Finnish headquarters, refused to forward this request to Mannerheim on the ground that the Finnish political situation made it inopportune. On 12 September, in order to provide the III Armeijakunta with some sort of reserve, the Armee 'Norwegen' withdrew the SS-Aufklärungsabteilung from the Höheres Kommando XXXVI's sector and ordered the transfer of the regimental staff and one battalion of the Finnish 14th Rykmentti (regiment) from Pechenga on the north coast. A second appeal to Mannerheim for a regiment brought another refusal, though this was tempered by a promise of 2,800 replacements.

When the last elements of the SS-Kampfgruppe 'Nord', which was redesignated as the SS-Division 'Nord' in September, were transferred to the III Armeijakunta early in September, von Falkenhorst insisted that the unit be assigned a sector under its own commander. Wishing to keep the SS force under the command of the Ryhmä 'J', Siilasvuo protested but von Falkenhorst could not allow a Finnish general to command a German force while its own headquarters stood aside. The SS force had to some extent found itself, but was still far from reliable. In the middle of the month Siilasvuo again asked that the SS force’s own staff be removed so that he could assign the troops according to their capabilities. He had given the SS force the best sector, which was subsequently reduced several times until it comprised barely one-third of the line, but the SS force was still incapable of fighting off Soviet attacks without help. von Falkenhorst still refused Siilasvuo’s request, and the III Armeijakunta had to adjust its operations to take into account this element of weakness.

After his trip to Hitler’s headquarters on 14 September, von Falkenhorst received instructions, later confirmed in Führerweisung Nr 36, to stop the attack of Ryhmä 'F' on Ukhta and permit Ryhmä 'J' and the SS-Kampfgruppe 'Nord' to go over to the defensive, shortening their front if necessary. Toward the end of the month, after the sudden easing of the Soviet pressure and interrogation of prisoners had revealed poor state of Soviet morale in the area of Kestenga and Loukhi, the III Armeijakunta asked for reinforcement and proposed to concentrate its advance on Loukhi. As the likelihood of getting the Höheres Kommando XXXVI back into motion had dwindled to almost nothing, the Armee 'Norwegen' immediately offered a regiment of the 6th Divisioona, the Schützenverband 'Oslo', the 9th SS Infanterieregiment from the Gebirgskorps 'Norwegen', one artillery regiment and the remaining battalion of the 14th Rykmentti. On 6 October the Armee 'Norwegen' gave its orders for the attack, which was cancelled two days later when the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht ordered the cessation of all operations. The planned troop movements were halted, but the 9th SS-Infanterieregiment and the battalion of the 14th Rykmentti were held in the III Armeijakunta's sector at the disposal of the Armee 'Norwegen'.

At exactly the time Hitler cancelled the operations of the Armee 'Norwegen', the situation on the left flank of the III Armeijakunta was changing from favourable to distinctly tempting. The Independent Brigade 'Grivnin' had been dissolved: one of its regiments was soon identified opposite the Höheres Kommando XXXVI and the other had moved south, possibly to the 54th Division. On 11 October von Falkenhorst and Siilasvuo met and decided that the changed situation offered good prospects for an attack but that, in the light of Hitler’s order, it would have to be limited to an effort to improve the positions of the Ryhmä 'J' and the SS-Division 'Nord'. Some 12 days later, Siilasvuo reported that he believed the attack to improve his positions would be a complete success. von Falkenhorst revealed the direction his thoughts were taking when he asked whether, in a favourable situation, a thrust straight through to Loukhi was possible. Siilasvuo replied that it was. The Armee 'Norwegen' had already ordered the 9th SS-Infanterieregiment to Kuusamo and one regiment of the 6th Divisioona, one infantry battalion and one Nebelwerfer rocket-launcher battery from the Höheres Kommando XXXVI, which was redesignated as the XXXVI Gebirgskorps on 18 November 1941, to the III Armeijakunta.

The latter set as its objective the line between the Yelovoye and Verkhneye lakes. The SS-Division 'Nord' was to pin the Soviet forces on its front between the road and railway, and the Ryhmä 'F' (three Finnish regiments and the 9th SS-Infanterieregiment) was to break through along the railway before turning to the north to trap the Soviet forces pinned by the SS-Division 'Nord'. In the south an independent detachment of two battalions was to bypass the Soviet left flank toward the Verkhneye lake. The attack began on 30 October, and in two days the III Armeijakunta had encircled one Soviet regiment pinned by the SS-Division 'Nord'. On 3 November the III Armeijakunta reported its intention to destroy the regiment as quickly as possible and drive forward to the narrows to the north of the Lebedevo lake, but in the course of the following days the offensive took a strange turn as Siilasvuo insisted on mopping up the pocket before pressing forward in his advance.

On 9 October a sharply worded telegram from the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht called for a report on the III Armeijakunta's situation and intentions, and pointed out that the Führerweisung Nr 37 had ordered operations on this sector of the front to be limited to defensive undertakings. The Armee 'Norwegen' replied that two regiments of the 88th Division had been essentially destroyed, and the narrows between the Lebedevo and Yelovoye lakes could be taken as a springboard for future operations against Loukhi. On the same day Erfurth informed the Armee 'Norwegen' that Mannerheim wished to proceed with his planned reorganisation of the Finnish army and asked that the III Armeijakunta go over to the defensive as soon as possible. To an inquiry as to whether 'as soon as possible' meant 'immediately', Erfurth responded that Mannerheim left the exact time up to the Armee 'Norwegen', but that he was determined to proceed with the reorganisation as soon as was feasible. On 15 October, Buschenhagen travelled to Helsinki for a conference with Generalmajor Walter Warlimont, the deputy chief of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht’s operations staff, in which the latter emphasised that the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht took a dim view of the III Armeijakunta's operation: the Finns wanted control of their troops in order to proceed with their army reorganisation, and Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler wanted the SS-Division 'Nord', which he intended to replace with other SS units, to be sent home. Warlimont demanded that the first German troops be withdrawn from the III Armeijakunta's sector by 1 December at the latest.

Meanwhile, beginning on 7 November, the Soviets had moved their 'Polyarny' Division, renamed the 186th Division, to the III Armeijakunta's front. This new arrival was regarded as only an insignificant threat as it had no more than 2,600 men. On 13 November, the III Armeijakunta completed the mopping up of the pocket, counting 3,000 Soviet dead and taking 2,600 prisoners.

Siilasvuo made no move toward continuing the operation, however, and on 16 October he reported that his corps was facing 17 Soviet battalions, which led him to conclude that a further attack would produce no results. The commanders of SS-Division 'Nord' and Ryhmä 'J', both of whom believed that the prospects for continuing the operation were good, objected to Siilasvuo’s estimate of the situation. Nevertheless, on the following day Siilasvuo informed the Ryhmä 'J' that the attack was cancelled, and on 18 October told the Armee 'Norwegen' that he was not in any position to continue the operation and would hold his corps' current line. The Armee 'Norwegen', influenced by the Finnish attitude and that of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht as expressed by Warlimont, had already decided to abandon the operation, and instructed the III Armeijakunta to take up defensive positions.

Reports from the German liaison officers with the III Armeijakunta and Ryhmä 'J' revealed that as late as 18 November the commander of the Ryhmä 'J' had believed his force to be fully capable of continuing the attack, and had stated that both he and his regimental commanders wanted to do so. Siilasvuo, on the other hand, had since the closing of the pocket in the first days of November shown signs of an unwillingness to continue the advance and had started to construct defensive positions even before the pocket was destroyed. von Falkenhorst thought Siilasvuo’s remarkable behaviour could be traced to recent US peace moves directed at Finland.

von Falkenhorst’s suspicion was well founded. On 27 October the US government had indeed submitted a strong note to President Risto Ryti of Finland in which it demanded that Finland stop all offensive operations and withdraw to the 1939 border, and at the same time issued the specific warning that 'should material of war sent from the United States to Soviet Territory in the north by way of the Arctic Ocean be attacked on route either presumably or even allegedly from territory under Finnish control in the present state of opinion in the United States such an incident must be expected to bring about an instant crisis in relations between Finland and the United States'. During the next few weeks relations between the USA and Finland declined dangerously close to a breach. Although Ryti indignantly rejected the US demands, Finland certainly did not want, in those parlous days, to have a Finnish corps under German command posing the only serious threat to the Murmansk railroad. Thus the Germans were beginning to experience the frustrations of coalition warfare.