Kestenga Offensive Operation

The 'Kestenga Offensive Operation' was a small-scale Soviet undertaking against Finnish and German forces in the Karelia region of the north-western USSR (24 April/11 May 1942).

As part of the Soviet general strategic offensive on the Eastern Front in the winter and spring of 1942, the Soviet supreme headquarters ordered General Leytenant Valerian A. Frolov’s Karelia Front to undertake an offensive in the area of Kestenga, a village on the northern shore of the Topozero lake in Soviet Karelia, to the west of Loukhi on the coast of the White Sea between Kandalaksha and Kem, with the object of defeating the opposing Finnish and German forces, reaching the line of the Sofyanga river and gaining a firm foothold on it, thereby strengthening the defendability of the strategically vital Kirov railway linking Murmansk and Leningrad. The operation was planned simultaneously with the 'Murmansk Offensive Operation and with the offensive of the 19th Army in the area of Kandalaksha which, according to the high command’s plan, would render altogether more difficult the capacity of the Finns and Germans to manoeuvre their forces.

The operation was entrusted to General Major Nikolai N. Nikishin’s 26th Army of Frolov’s Karelia Front. The main blow toward Kestenga was to be delivered from the north in a roundabout manoeuvre by a shock group from the area to the south of the Nizhneye Chernoye lake by part of General Major Vladimir A. Soloviev’s 23rd Guards Division, the 186th Division, the 8th Separate Ski Brigade and the 80th Marine Brigade. The frontal attack by the Kestenga group was carried out by General Major Lazar Ye. Fishman’s 263rd Division on the axis from Loukhi to Kestenga, with the 67th Naval Brigade operating on an auxiliary axis. The Soviet forces numbered 29,622 men, 29 tanks, 110 pieces of artillery, 382 mortars of all calibres and 847 machine guns, and air support was entrusted to a force of just 55 aircraft.

The opposing forces were based on SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Matthias Kleinheisterkamp’s 6th SS Division 'Nord' of Kenraalimajuri Hjalmar Siilasvuo’s Finnish III Armeijakunta (corps), an extemporised Finnish division, and a number of semi-independent smaller units. The Soviets estimated their opponents' number at 13,400 men, 10 tanks, 48 pieces of artillery, 192 mortars and 320 machine guns.

The Soviets thus possessed the advantage in manpower, artillery and mortars. This superiority was offset, however, by the Soviet forces' acute shortage of ammunition.

At 06.00 on 24 April, elements of the 23rd Division and 263rd Division simultaneously went over to the offensive on the main axis, and by the end of the offensive’s second day these formations had penetrated the German and Finnish defences to a depth of some 3.7 to 4.3 miles (6 to 7 km). In other sectors the Soviet forces did not achieve any advance. Since the operation had been launched during a heavy fall or snow, artillery and air support was very limited. The Germans and Finns were therefore able to delay the Soviets using only small forces in pre-prepared defensive lines and strongpoints: about two battalions defended against each Soviet division and brigade, and during this time the Germans and Finns brought up reserve units from other sectors of the front.

After a regrouping of their forces on 3 May, the Soviets resumed the offensive. Once again, the advance was slow, but the Soviet attacks were pressed so stubbornly that the German and Finnish forces in the Kestenga area were almost encircled, and on 30 April units of the 8th Ski Brigade cut the road along which the German and Finnish troops were supplied. A critical situation thus emerged for the Germans and Finns in the area of Kestenga. In order to prevent a Soviet breakthrough, Generalleutnant Erwin Engelbrecht’s 163rd Division of General Hans Feige’s XXXVI Gebirgskorps was hastily transferred into the sector from an area farther to the south, as too were three Finnish infantry regiments from the area near Ukhta and other sectors of the front. The Germans and Finns then managed to cut off the ski brigade and the infantry regiment which had advanced to the west of Kestenga, and these managed to extricate themselves only at the cost of heavy losses.

After another three-day regrouping, the Soviet troops resumed their offensive on 10 May, but achieve no success, and on the following day the Soviet supreme command ordered parts of the 26th Army to go over to the defensive. At the same time, in order that the defence could now be based on advantageous features, parts of the army abandoned about half of the territory which had been taken during the operation. The front line on the Soviet northern flank was thus pulled back 2.5 to 3.1 miles (4 to 5 km).

The main result of the operation for the Soviets was the depletion of the Germans' and Finns' reserves, thereby preventing the implementation of Karelian offensive operations which had been planned for the summer of 1942.

The main reasons for the Soviet failure were the lack of adequate preparation, for which a mere two weeks had been allocated, the lack of ammunition stocks, and the inadequacy of equipment, especially in engineering units to develop a movement capability on off-road and rough terrain. It was also notable that the Soviet forces had yet to adapt their tactics to the realities of the type of modern warfare now waged on the Eastern Front by the Germans and, to a lesser extent, the Finns: the Soviets still tended toward repeated attacks on the same positions on the same axes, and their inability to plan and execute flanking attacks and infiltration deep into their opponents' defences. This last, it is worth noting, was a tactic in which the Finns excelled. The Soviet artillery had no experience in tackling positions in forested areas and as a result tended to an aimless scattering of their increasingly scarce shells. An attempt to use tanks also failed: almost all of these became bogged down in swamp areas in front of the Germans' and Finns' defences.

The German and Finnish losses in the 'Kestenga Offensive Operation' were estimated by the Soviets as up to 5,000 men killed. The losses of the Soviet troops amounted to 12,649 men, of whom 3,145 were killed, 8,906 wounded and 598 missing. The Finns overestimated the Soviet losses as 11,000 men killed.