Operation Lachsfang

salmon trap

'Lachsfang' was the German unrealised successor to the unsuccessful 'Polarfuchs' (i) combined Finnish and German offensive designed to take Kandalaksha and Belomorsk on the western coast of the White Sea and thereby sever the Soviet railway link connecting Leningrad and Murmansk on the coast of the Arctic Ocean (22 July/22 October 1942).

Late in April 1942, Generaloberst Eduard Dietl’s Armee 'Lappland' (from 22 June the 20th Gebirgsarmee) informed the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht that as its promised reinforcement would not be completed until the autumn of that year, it considered impractical any and all offensive operations during the imminent summer. Just one month later, in its directive for the operations of the Armee 'Lappland' in the summer, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht accepted that estimate and allocated the army merely specific tasks: the restoration of the situation to the east of Kestenga, regaining the previous defence line, and the movement of all the forces that could be spared from the first task to General Ferdinand Schörner’s Gebirgskorps 'Norwegen'. From this time onward the army’s primary effort was to in the sector of the Gebirgskorps 'Norwegen', whose primary task was the protection of northern Norway and Finland against any British, and possibly US, invasion. The Oberkommando der Wehrmacht pointed out that it considered the Rybachy peninsula to be of the greatest importance for the conduct of the war in the far north and that preparations for taking the peninsula must therefore be continued. Since it could not foresee the time when the troop and supply situations would make such an operation possible, the date was left open, though possibly the late summer of 1942 or the late winter of 1942/43.

On 4 June Adolf Hitler and Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel, the chief of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, flew to Imola in south-eastern Finland to pay their respects to Suomen Marsalkka Carl Gustav Emil Mannerheim, the commander-in-chief of the Finnish armed forces, on the occasion of his 75th birthday. The visitation was not wholly welcome to the Finns as it worsened their already strained relations with the USA, and indeed resulted in a breach of consular relations two weeks later. During the German visit Dietl told Hitler that the Armee 'Lappland' lacked sufficient strength to take the Rybachy peninsula or to hold it should it be taken. Hitler was reluctant to abandon the operation and ordered the continuation of preparatory work, instructing Generaloberst Hans-Jürgen Stumpff’s Luftflotte V to ready all its ground installations in the area for the arrival of very strong forces. The proposed operation against Belomorsk, on the western coast of the White Sea, also came under consideration, and Keitel reported later that the Finns had expressed their sorrow that they had not been able to execute the operation during the past winter because Belomorsk was of special importance to them not only militarily but for the purpose of establishing their post-war frontier. They did not consider the operation possible during the summer but had it under consideration for the winter of 1942/43.

After the Soviets had fallen back from Kestenga, the front became quiet. In June the Armee 'Lappland' completed the movement of its five fortress battalions to the coast of the Arctic Ocean, and during July and August it forged ahead with work on its coastal artillery element, emplacing 21 batteries in the zone between the Tanafjord and Pechenga bay: at the end of the summer, the headquarters of Generalleutnant Karl Wintergerst’s 210th Division was brought in to command these fortress battalions and the coastal artillery element. On 22 June, the Armee 'Lappland' was redesignated as the 20th Gebirgsarmee. In July General Franz Böhme’s XVIII Gebirgskorps staged a small attack to recover a commanding height off its left flank which had been left in Soviet hands when Kenraaliluutnantti Hjalmar Siilasvuo’s III Armeijakunta (corps) hd ended its offensive operations. Otherwise, the Germans and Soviets both contented themselves with harassment, which for the most part took the form of starting forest fires in each other’s areas. White phosphorus shells easily ignited the evergreen trees, and the fires occasionally burned across minefields or threatened installations, so resulting in serious but temporary inconveniences. Other changes in June were the transfer of Generalleutnant Anton Dostler’s 163rd Division to General Hans Feige’s XXXVI Gebirgskorps, and the predesignation of SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Matthias Kleinheisterkamp’s SS-Division 'Nord' as the SS-Gerbirgsdivision 'Nord'.

The only summer activity veeging on the strategic was 'Klabautermann', which the German navy and air force, with Finnish and Italian support, conducted from Finnish bases on the shore of Lake Ladoga. The idea of using small boats to interdict Soviet traffic on Lake Ladoga had occurred to Hitler only in the autumn of 1941, at a time when it was too late to be put into effect in that year. The concept underwent a renaissance in the spring of 1942 after Finnish reports suggested that the Soviets were evacuating Leningrad. Hitler feared that the Soviets might withdraw entirely from Leningrad, a situation in which the northern sector of the Eastern Front would no longer be important to the Soviet and allow them to transfer troops to other parts of the Eastern Front. Hitler therefore ordered the evacuation to be 'combated with all means'. By July the naval force on the lake had German and Italian torpedo boats boats ready for action on action on the lake. The air force brought in its craft a month later. Both services claimed overall command, and this further impaired the operation, which was already hampered by lack of air cover and the hazards of operations in the lake’s shallow water. 'Klabautermann' dragged on until 6 November when the German crews and equipment were withdrawn, and by this time the Soviets had completed their evacuation as planned, using boats to carry supplies and military equipment from Novaya Ladoga to the northern shore of the Karelian isthmus and evacuating non-essential civilians n the return trips.

In June it seemed that the 20th Gebirgsarmee's next mission would be the seizure of the Rybachy peninsula, which was planned as 'Wiesengrund'. As Mannerheim’s Finnish forces was about to take over the Ukhta sector, releasing thereby releasing Generalleutnant Dr Julius Ringel’s 5th Gebirgsdivision for other tasks, the troop problem appeared to have been solved. In the first week of July, however, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht informed Dietl that the 5th Gebirgsdivision could not be transferred to the Pechenga area as it was impossible to deliver sufficient supplies for another full-strength division in the Pechenga area. Thew Oberkommando der Wehrmacht intended 'in the long run' to send in enough static troops (without horses and vehicles) to relieve the 6th Gebirgsdivision on the line of the Litsa river, thus freeing both this and it and Generalleutnant Georg Ritter von Hengl’s 2nd Gebirgsdivision for 'Wiesengrund'. Dietl protested that the line of the Litsa river was no place for poorly equipped third-rate troops, and with that 'Wiesengrund' was shelved.

Now having one division to spare, Dietl thus returned immediately to the idea of a double thrust to the Murmansk railway by the XXXVI Gebirgskorps to Kandalaksha and by the III Armeijakunta to Belomorsk. In conferences with General Dr Waldemar Erfurth, the chief German liaison officer with the Finnish high command, on 8 and 9 July and with General Alfred Jodi, the chief of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht’s operations staff, on 13 July, the project was further developed, and after Jodl reported back to Hitler’s headquarters, the German leader gave it his approval in Führerweisung Nr 44 of 21 July. The 20th Gebirgsarmee was to prepare to take Kandalaksha in the autumn and was assured that, in order to free the required Finnish forces, Leningrad would be taken in September at the latest and the 5th Gebirgsdivision would be in Finland by the end of September. Hitler warned that defence of the nickel mining area of Pechenga remained the army’s most important task and required maintenance of sufficient reserves at all times. He also officially cancelled 'Wiesengrund' for implementation in 1942 but ordered the continuation of preparations in a fashion such that the undertaking could be executed in the spring of 1943 on eight weeks' notice. The operation against Kandalaksha was then assigned the codename 'Lachsfang'.

The XXXVI Gebirgskorps initiated the planning process for 'Lachsfang' on 22 July. Success, it was believed, hinged on two requirements: firstly, a swift breakthrough on the Verman line and, secondly, a subsequent rapid thrust toward Kandalaksha before the Soviets could make another stand. The XXXVI Gebirgskorps intended to break through the Verman positions by punching through with one infantry division along the road and another along the railway while a mountain division swept round the northern flank and drove eastward to prevent the Soviets from organising a second defensive line farther back. The corps planned to employ 80,000 me, with was twice the number used in the operations of the summer of 1941, and Luftflotte V agreed to provide 60 dive-bombers, nine fighters and nine bombers, which represented a greater commitment than had been provided for the whole of 'Silberfuchs' in 1941. Time was an essential element. Operations could be continued up to 1 December, but after that would be impossible because of deep snow and short periods of daylight. The late winter, the period between the middle of March and the middle of April, afforded a second, but less favourable, possibility as the German infantry was untrained for winter operations in the Arctic. The XXXVI Gebirgskorps believed that it would need four weeks for 'Lachsfang', and wanted to time the operation’s end for the middle of November as by then the length of daylight would be less than seven hours and this would be shortened by one hour each week after that.

As a simultaneous Finnish operation against Belomorsk was considered essential, Erfurth sounded out the Finnish reaction to the Führerweisung Nr 44. Jalkaväenkenraali Axel Erik Heinrichs, Mannerheim’s chief-of-staff, indicated that the Finnish attitude was 'positive' but also that Leningrad would first have to be taken. The Finnish command also regarded it was a 'necessity' that the left flank of Generalfeldmarschall Georg von Küchler’s Heeresgruppe 'Nord' be advanced as far to the east as he central reaches of the Svir river. The first condition was expected by the Germans, but the second surprised the. At the Oberkommando des Heeres, the Germans told Mannerheim’s representative, Kenraaliluutnantti Paavo Juho Talvela, that if the Mannerheim insisted on this as a prerequisite, 'Lachsfang' would have to be dropped. Avoiding a firm commitment, Mannerheim in August sent Heinrichs to Hitler’s headquarters to settle the matter. Having entered a caveat, the Finns proposed to employ eight divisions and Kenraalimajuri Ernst Ruben Lagus’s Panssaridivisioona (armoured division), which was activated in July 1942, in an attack to the north-east from the Maaselkä front. Again, time was a critical element, since four of the divisions would have to come from the Karelian isthmus front, and redeployment on poor roads could not be accomplished in less than three to four weeks after the fall of Leningrad.

As a combined German and Finnish undertaking, 'Lachsfang' had a good chance of success, but whether or not the operation could be executed depended entirely on events in the sector of Heeresgruppe 'Nord'. In the Führerweisung Nr 45 of 23 July 1942 Hitler ordered the army group to be prepared to execute 'Nordlicht' for the capture of Leningrad by September. He promised five divisions and heavy siege artillery from Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s 11th Army, which had completed its operations in Crimea, since Heeresgruppe 'Nord', which had been partially stripped in favour of the summer offensive by the southern army groups, was already very thinly disposed over an extensive front. Generaloberst Georg Lindemann’s 18th Army, in the Leningrad zone, believed that 'Nordlicht' would require between two and three months for execution. Because 13 Soviet infantry divisions and three tank brigades (exclusive of those opposite the Finns) were known to be in the Leningrad area, Heeresgruppe 'Nord' set its own troop requirements at 18 divisions. With five divisions from the 11th Army and five of its own, it still anticipated to be short of eight divisions.

On 8 August, von Küchler, who had succeeded Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb as commander of the army group on 17 January 1942, reported on 'Nordlicht' at Hitler’s headquarters. He pointed out that the Soviets already outnumbered his own troops by a factor of almost 2/1, and asked the Oberkommando des Heeres for new divisions. Hitler replied that he could not give divisions he did not have and that he had already made artillery available on a scale not seen in warfare since the Battle of Verdun in World War I. When asked how much time was required, von Küchler replied that he expected to complete 'Nordlicht' by the end of October. One of those present, Jodl interjected that it would have to be ended sooner since it was not an end in itself but a preparation for 'Lachsfang'. Hitler then set 10 September as the latest starting date for 'Nordlicht'.

In was immediately clear that the conference had satisfied no one, and Jodl at one point suggested turning the operation over to von Manstein, who as commander of the 11th Army, had achieved a brilliant success in the 'Störfang' siege of Sevastopol. Although the idea appeared to make no impression on Hitler at the moment, two weeks later he announced his intention to give von Manstein and the 11th Army's staff overall command of 'Nordlicht'. Heeresgruppe 'Nord' protested this decision on the grounds that, with the plan already worked out by the 18th Army and the starting date a mere three weeks distant, a change of command would create only confusion but, having made up his mind, Hitler was determined that von Manstein would command.

If he expected a more optimistic approach to 'Nordlicht', Hitler was mistaken. In his first conference with von Küchler, on 28 August, von Manstein said that he did not believe massive air and artillery bombardments were in themselves sufficient to break the Soviet resistance. von Manstein added that his operation to take Sevastopol had demonstrated the Soviet forces' relative immunity to the supposed morale-sapping effects of heavy bombardment. He believed that 'Nordlicht' would be difficult, and expressed his preference for an offensive by the Finnish forces of the Karelian isthmus front. In any event, von Manstein felt that the attack would have to be made from both fronts.

In the meantime, another difficulty had arisen. Heeresgruppe 'Nord' would have to release the 5th Gebirgsdivision before 15 August if this formation was to be involved in 'Lachsfang' on the basis of the current schedule. That was impossible, von Küchler said, as he possessed no reserves with which to relieve the division and could risk no further weakening his front on the Volkhov river. The problem was referred to Hitler, who dithered for a week and at the last minute, on 15 August, decided to leave the 5th Gebirgsdivision with Heeresgruppe 'Nord' and instead transfer Generalleutnant Hans Kreysin’s 3rd Gebirgsdivision from Norway to Finland.

On 27 August, as von Küchler had feared, the Soviets demonstrated that they held most of the advantages the, on 19 August, they opened the '3rd Sinyavino Offensive Operation' from the east in the area immediately to the south of Lake Ladoga, striking at the so-called Flaschenhals (bottleneck), the extreme north-east flank of Heeresgruppe 'Nord' where its fronts facing to the east and facing Leningrad stood back-to-back only a few miles apart. The Soviet offensive clearly possessed the potential re-establish overland contact with Leningrad, and within a day or two the Soviets had achieved local breakthroughs. Hitler was furious but helpless as he watched his own plans for an offensive evaporate.

On the last day of the month the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht had no option but to divert the 3rd Gebirgsdivision, some of whose elements were already at sea, from Finland to Heeresgruppe 'Nord', and at the same time the 18th Army reported that vas the Soviet offensive would certainly be a major concern for some weeks, 'Nordlicht' had become a completely parlous concept. One day later the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht and Oberkommando des Heeres drew the inevitable conclusions and cancelled 'Lachsfang' for 1942 and made 'Nordlicht' dependent on the situation in the Flaschenhals bottleneck, the feasibility of assembling adequate strength and the weather. Informing Mannerheim of these decisions, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht requested Finnish involvement in 'Nordlicht'. Delivered on 4 September, the Finnish reply stated that the Finnish army headquarters did not refuse 'in principle' a Finnish participation in 'Nordlicht', but described the possibilities as 'very limited'.

The prospects for 'Nordlicht' were now poor. The fighting to restore the north-eastern flank of Heeresgruppe 'Nord' lasted until the middle of October, and the German high command, from Hitler on down, was more chary of being caught off balance by the Russian winter than it had been a year earlier. On 1 October the Oberkommando desc Heeres, considering the imminent arrival of the autumn rains and the resulting rasputitsa cloying and movement-hindering mud, postponed the operation until the increasing cold had frozen the mud and once again made movement possible, and three weeks later made the postponement indefinite and ordered that the assembled artillery was to be used to inch the line around Leningrad forward gradually with as small a commitment of troops as possible. At the end of the month the 11th Army was placed under the direct control of the Oberkommando des Heeres and introduced into the line between Heeresgruppe 'Nord' and Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte'. Though still notionally a commitment, 'Nordlicht' had thus ceased to be even a remote possibility.

With 'Nordlicht' out of the picture, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht informed Dietl that it would no longer be possible to create the conditions necessary for 'Lachsfang' to be carried out in the late winter of 1942/43, and thus that all 'Lachsfang' operations were to be cancelled forthwith. The Oberkommando der Wehrmacht intended to give the 20th Gebirgsarmee one additional division in the coming spring, which might be used to execute 'Lachsfang' during the summer of 1943. The army’s main effort for the immediate future was allocated to the Gebirgskorps 'Norwegen', which on 6 November was redesignated as the XIX Gebirgskorps, but in this corps' sector no special measures were to be undertaken, at least in the short term. In December, Hitler ordered that the strength of the 20th Gebirgsarmee, currently 172,000 men, be boosted by one Luftwaffe field regiment and one police regiment.