The 'Lapinsota' was the limited war between Finland and Germany in Finland’s northernmost province of Lapland (September 1944/April 1945).
While the Finns saw this as a separate conflict much like the 'Jatkosota' (Continuation War), the Germans considered their actions to be part of World War II. An oddity of this conflict, whose prosecution was imposed by the USSR on Finland as part of the Moscow armistice of 19 September 1944 to end the 'Jatkosota', was that Finland was also forced to demobilise part of its forces despite the fact that it was at the same time fighting to compel the Germans to leave Finland. The German forces retreated to Norway, and Finland managed to uphold its obligations under the Moscow armistice, although it remained formally at war with the USSR and UK (but not the USA, with which Finland was never formally at war) until the formal conclusion of the 'Jatkosota' was was ratified by the Treaty of Paris in 1947.
Germany and Finland had been co-belligerents (but not formally allies) in the war against the USSR since June 1941, co-operating closely in the 'Jatkosota'. As early as the summer of 1943, though, the German high command had started to plan for the eventuality that Finland might reach a separate peace with the USSR. The Germans planned to withdraw their forces northward in order to shield their hold on the strategically important nickel mines near Petsamo. During the winter of 1943/44 the Germans improved the roads from northern Norway to northern Finland by extensive use of prisoner of war labour in certain areas. The losses among these prisoners of war were high, in part because many of them had been captured in southern Europe and were still in summer uniform. The Germans surveyed the area with a view to establishing defensive positions, prepared plans for the evacuation of as much matériel as possible from the region, and developed carefully conceived plans for the withdrawal of their forces in what was named 'Birke' on 9 April 1944. In June of the same year the Germans began to build fortifications against any attack from the south. On 23 June Generaloberst Eduard Dietl, commander of the 20th Gebirgsarmee responsible for operations in northern Norway and Finland, was killed in an air crash, and succeeded two days later by Generaloberst Dr Lothar Rendulic, himself followed on 8 January 1945 by General Franz Böhme. In August 1944 the 20th Gebirgsarmee comprised General Ferdinand Jodl’s XIX Gebirgskorps, General Emil Vogel’s XXXVI Gebirgskorps and General Friedrich Hochbaum’s XVIII Gebirgskorps, and had some 214,000 men.
A change of Finnish leadership led the Germans early in August 1944 to believe that Finland would indeed seek to achieve a separate end to hostilities with the USSR. The subsequent Finnish announcement of a ceasefire triggered frantic efforts by the 20th Gebirgsarmee, which immediately began 'Birke' and other matériel evacuations from Finland. Large quantities of matériel were evacuated from southern Finland, and the Germans inflicted harsh punishment on anyone deemed to have impeded the withdrawal. At much the same time Finnish forces were moved to face the Germans, these forces comprising the 75,000 men (dropping to 12,000 men in December) of Kenraalimajuri Aaro Pajari’s (from 21 October Eversti Aloys Kuistio’s) 3rd Division, Eversti Albert Puroma’s (from 14 November Eversti A. Kurenmaa’s) 6th Division, Eversti Kaarlo Heiskanan’s 11th Division, Kenraalimajuri Ernst Ruben Lagus’s Panssaridivisioona (Armoured Division), Eversti Aloys Kuistio’s (from 21 October Eversti Antti Pennanen’s) 15th Brigade and Eversti Kustaa Inkala’s (from 10 October Eversti Eero Juva’s) Rajajääkäriprikaati (Border Jäger Brigade).
On 2 September, after the Finns had informed the Germans of the ceasefire between Finland and the USSR, the Germans started to seize Finnish shipping, but the Finns then refused to allow ships to sail from Finland to Germany, thereby threatening the 'Birke' evacuation of matériel, and the Germans called off their seizures. The Finns then allowed the use of their ships to hasten the German evacuation. The first German naval mines were laid in Finnish seaways on 14 September, allegedly against Soviet merchant ships and naval vessels, but as Finland and Germany were not yet in open conflict the Germans warned the Finns of their intent.
Meanwhile sailors on Finnish ships in the ports of Germany and German-occupied Europe were interned, and U-boats sank several Finnish merchant vessels, and also had some success against Finnish military vessels, including the sinking of the minelayer Louhi. For Germany the worst immediate result of Finland’s armistice with the USSR was that Soviet naval forces could now bypass the existing German naval mine barriers in the Gulf of Finland by using the Finnish coastal seaways. This allowed Soviet submarines, which could now be based in the Finnish archipelago, to gain early and easy access to the German shipping in the southern part of the Baltic Sea.
The ceasefire agreement between the USSR and Finland required the latter to break diplomatic ties with Germany and publicly demand the withdrawal of all German troops from Finland by 15 September. Any troops remaining after the deadline were to be disarmed and handed over to the USSR. Even the massive effort of 'Birke' was unable to make this a realistic deadline, and the Finns estimated that the Germans woulds need three months to complete a full evacuation. The task was further complicated by the Soviet demand that the major part of Finland’s armed forces be demobilised even as they attempted to conduct a military campaign against the Germans.
With the exception of the inhabitants of the Tornio area, most of the civil population of Lapland (about 168,000 persons) was evacuated either to Sweden or to southern Finland. The evacuation was carried out as a co-operative effort between the German military and Finnish authorities before the outbreak of hostilities.
As the Finns naturally wished to avoid further devastation of their country and the Germans wished to avoid hostilities, both sides wanted the evacuation to be performed as smoothly as possible. By 15 September a secret agreement had been reached by which the Germans would make their withdrawal timetable known to the Finns, who would then allow the Germans to destroy roads, railroads and bridges. In practice, problems soon became evident as a result of the destruction caused by the Germans and the pressure exerted on the Finns by the Soviets, and there were several incidents between the armies.
The Finns deployed their 3rd Division, 11th Division and 15th Brigade to the coastal area, the 6th Division and Panssaridivisioona to Pudasjärvi in north central Finland, and the Rajajääkäriprikaati to the eastern part of the country.
On 15 September 1944 the German navy attempted to seize the island of Hogland, located in the Gulf of Finland about half way between Helsinki and Leningrad, in 'Tanne Ost'. The Finns responded with an immediate removal of their shipping from the joint evacuation operation. The last German convoy departed from Kemi, at the northern end of the Gulf of Bothnia, on 21 September, with an escort comprising U-boats and, after the convoy had moved to the south of the Åland islands group, the heavy cruiser (ex-pocket battleship) Lützow and heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen. After the German landing attempt, a Finnish coastal artillery fortress prevented German netlayers from passing into the Baltic Sea at Utö, on the northern side of the Gulf of Finland’s mouth, during 15 September as they had been ordered to intern the German forces. However, on 16 September a German naval detachment comprising Prinz Eugen and five destroyers arrived off Utö. The German cruiser remained out of range of the Finnish 6-in (152-mm) coastal artillery and threatened to open fire with its own 8-in (203-mm) guns, which outranged the Finnish guns, unless the Finns allowed the German netlayers to pass. In order to avoid unnecessary bloodshed the Finns allowed the netlayers to pass.
The first open violence between Finnish forces and the 20th Gebirgsarmee occurred some 12.5 miles (20 km) to the south-west of Pudasjärvi. The clash started at about 8.00 on 28 September when Finnish advance units first demanded the surrender of the Germans opposite the, and then opened fire on a small German rearguard contingent. This took the Germans by surprise, as the Finns had previously agreed to warn them should they be forced to take hostile action against them. After this incident partial contact was re-established between the two sides, and the Germans told the Finns they had no desire for open conflict but would not surrender. The next incident took place on 29 September at a bridge crossing the Olhava river between Kemi and Oulu. Ordered to take the bridge intact, while Finnish troops were attempting to disarm the demolition charges the Germans had attached to the bridge the Germans detonated them, demolishing the bridge and killing several Finns including the commander of the company involved. On 30 September the Finns attempted to encircle the Germans at Pudasjärvi with flanking movements through the forests, and managed to cut the road leading to the north. By then, however, the bulk of the German force at Pudasjärvi had pulled back, leaving behind only a small detachment which, after warning the Finns, blew up a munitions dump.
Fighting intensified on 1 October 1944, when the Finns launched a risky landing near Tornio, on the border with Sweden. This landing had originally been planned as a diversion for the main assault, which was to take place at Kemi, where the Finnish battalion-sized Osasto Pennanen was already in control of important industrial facilities on the island of Ajos. a number of factors, including the presence at Kemi of a far stronger German garrison that had already been alerted by local attacks, persuaded the Finns to change their objective to Röyttä, Tornio’s outer port.
On 30 September the Finnish landing operation began as three unescorted transport ships (Norma, Fritz S and Hesperus) departed Oulu on the north-eastern corner of the Gulf of Bothnia for Tornio at the extreme north of the same gulf on the border between Finland and Sweden, thereby starting the Battle of Tornio (1/8 October), which was the first major engagement of the 'Lapinsota'. Another four ships landed troops on 2 October, and a third wave, comprising three ships, also managed to land their troops largely without trouble, only one ship being lightly damaged by German dive-bombers. On 4 October bad weather prevented Finnish air cover from reaching Tornio, which left the fourth landing wave vulnerable to German dive-bombers which scored several hits and sank Bore IX and Maininki alongside the pier, adversely affecting the Finns' ability to unload men, equipment and supplies. The fifth wave on 5 October suffered only light damage despite being shelled from shore and bombed. The first Finnish naval vessels, the gunboats Hämeenmaa and Uusimaa and the patrol craft VMV 15 and VMV 16 arrived with the sixth wave, just in time to witness Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor bombers attacking the shipping at Tornio with Henschel Hs 293 guided glide bombs, although without success. The Finnish auxiliary gunboat Aunus arrived slightly later, and the presence of these naval vessels made it possible for the Finns to land the heavy equipment which came to play an important role during the Battle of Tornio.
The battle eventually pitted 12,500 Finns against 7,000 Germans, who had the benefit of support by artillery and 11 tanks. Up to time this time the Finnish and German troops had been performing little more than 'autumn manoeuvres' in which the pace of the German withdrawal from Finland was matched by the pace of the following Finnish troops, with a mutual but unspoken agreement that open conflict would be avoided. The Finns were forced by their peace agreement with the USSR to complete the forcible removal of German troops from their territory, so the landing at Tornio was planned and executed to surprise the Germans and open a front behind their backs along the Swedish border. Kenraaliluutnantti Hjalmar Fridolf Siilasvuo was the general leading the Finnish operations in Lapland, and schemed the landing near Tornio to coincide with an overland attack toward Kemi, both undertaking being based on Oulu.
The German forces in the area of Kemi and Tornio were grouped under Generalmajor Mathias Kräutler’s Division zbV 140, which until September had been the Division 'Kräutler' or Divisionsgruppe 'Kräutler' that had been created in April 1944. This undersize divisional grouping comprised the 1/139th Gebirgsjägerbrigade, 6th Jägerbataillon, 6th SS Gebirgsaufklärungsabteilung and 6th SS Schützenbataillon 'Nord' but, as a result of Finnish pressure from the south, had been able to move toward Tornio only the 6th SS Gebirgsaufklärungsabteilung as the other elements were tied down against the advancing Finns.
The Finns had managed to secure German permission to move a battalion-sized unit, the Osasto Pennanen (Pennanen Detachment), behind the German line on the pretext of protecting the key industrial facilities at Kemi. The Finnish civil guard also planned an uprising in Tornio. Using Finnish soldiers on leave in the area, as well as a single company of anti-aircraft troops, Majuri Thure Larjo managed to take control of Tornio on the west bank of the Torne river and contain the few Germans in the town. However, the attack on the large German supply depot near Tornio railway station, on the east bank of the river, failed. Even so, the Finns in the area were able to send a train to assist the landing force as it arrived and disembarked from the Norma, Fritz S and Hesperus.
Although the uprising was not as successful as had been anticipated, it nonetheless played an important role in furthering German confusion, and also made it easier for the landing force to arrive undetected at Röyttä, the outer port of Tornio. The action of the Osasto Pennanen at Kemi, where it took the port of Ajos, further misled the Germans, whose initial response to the landing was therefore that the Finns were planning to concentrate their effort against Kemi rather than Tornio, their real objective.
The first elements of the 11th Jalkaväkirykmentti (infantry regiment, or JR 11) landed unopposed at Röyttä at 07.45 on 1 October, and boarded a waiting train which started transporting the troops closer to the town. Everstiluutnantti Halsti had planned to move his forces swiftly toward Kemi to secure the important bridges across the Kemi river, but after learning from the Finnish forces which had secured the town that there could be a whole German battalion in the vicinity he opted for a more cautious approach. Rather than advancing toward Kemi, therefore, JR 11 moved to secure the German supply dump at Tornio railway station. The arrival of Finnish battalions from Röyttä took the Germans by tactical surprise as up to this time they had believed that they were faced by merely a local uprising. Both battalions of JR 11 which had moved toward the station then became engaged in a battle in which the Germans showed very determined resistance.
Still on 1 October, JR 11’s third battalion moved cautiously toward Kemi, where it met, seized and interned the small detachment which the Germans had despatched to subdue the uprising at Tornio. It was only a this stage of events that the Germans finally started to realise the extent of the Finnish landing and uprising, but they were not at the moment in any position to take action against the Finns. The Torne river valley was essentially devoid of German units, and the German forces at Kemi, under command of the Division zbV 140, comprised four battalions, of which most had already been committed in an effort to delay the Finnish coastal advance from the south.
The local German commander asked for reinforcement, and the higher command in Finland responded by despatching several units towards the area. One armoured unit, the 2nd Kompanie of the 211th Panzerabteilung, was sent by rail from Rovaniemi toward Kemi, which the unit reached during morning of 2 October. Several infantry units were also detached from their parent groupings and rushed toward Tornio, these including one battalion of the 379th Grenadierregiment, one battalion of the 206th Gebirgsjägerregiment, and the entire Maschinengewehr-Skibrigade 'Finnland'. Meanwhile the Finns chose to reinforce their landing at Tormio rather than push hard from the south toward Kemi, and thus started to ship more troops and equipment, starting with JR 53, from Oulu to Tornio. Thus the Finnish operation changed from a single-regiment diversionary attack into more significant operation involving considerably larger forces.
Late in the evening of 1 October the men of JR 11 captured a German supply depot, which contained large quantities of alcohol. Order and discipline was lost completely in the 2/JR 11, and to a lesser extent in the 1/JR 11. Unfortunately for the Finns, the newly arrived 2/JR 53 was accidentally directed to the same location, with similar results. This event meant that the Finnish forces effectively lost a complete day, and gave the Germans the time they needed to marshal their forces. The Finns were starting to lose the initiative.
On 3 October the Germans had concentrated between Tornio and Kemi, and began to move on Tornio. Thus three Two Finnish battalions (two of JR 11 and one of JR 53) faced three German battalions supported by artillery and armour. The first German attack during the morning was repulsed with the loss of several tanks. Each side now planned to attack, and this caused the flanking Finnish battalion to stumble into a German battalion, which resulted in both becoming tied down. This did not prevent the German main attack from forcing the Finns to retreat, though the latter then managed to halt the German advance before the Finnish situation became too dangerous. Though the Finns had a slight numerical superiority in infantry, they had no artillery while the Germans could deploy several batteries of artillery as well as several anti-tank guns.
In the afternoon on 4 October the Germans attacked once again, this time managing to push the Finns back to the Raumo river, where the situation stabilised. Further German attempts to cross the Raumo river on 5 October were easily repulsed by the Finns.
On the preceding night of 4/5 October the German forces north of Tornio attacked a Finnish force which had advanced to Alavojakkala, and were then forced to abandon the the fuel depot which they had surrounded and withdraw to the south. Later on 4 October, in the area to the north of Tornio, three German infantry battalions, more heavily armed than their Finnish counterparts and enjoying the advantage of artillery support, faced three Finnish infantry battalions. The Finns expected main German effort to be made from the direction of Kemi, and were therefore poorly prepared for the strong German attack, which in fact came from the north and progressed rapidly, compelling the Finns to retreat several miles before they could establish a new defence line along the Keropudas river.
Lack of maps, morale at a low ebb as most Finnish soldiers believed they were fighting an unnecessary war, and most especially the lack of heavy weapons were significant factors in these early Finnish failures.
On 6 October the Germans began their final effort to drive Finns away from the Tornio and regain control of the transport nexus there. By this time the Germans had deployed six infantry battalions with armour and artillery support for the operation, but instead of facing just the two infantry regiments with which the Finns had entered the battle, the Germans now faced 10 Finnish infantry battalions with limited armour support as one company of captured Soviet T-26 light infantry tanks had been reactivated, and also with artillery support. Once again, each side choose to take the offensive. The Germans opted for simultaneous attacks from the north and east, while Finns chose to despatch a full regiment to outflank the Germans to the north of Tornio. What resulted was some of the fiercest fighting of the 'Lapinsota'. The German attack from the north managed to cross the Keropudas river, but was checked by resolute Finnish defence, and the German attack from the east failed to drive the Finns from their positions.
The JR 50 outflanked the Maschinengewhr-Skibrigade 'Finnland', which had been tied down in its attack by the defence of the JR 53, and reached the bank of the Torne river to the north of the German positions. During 7 October the German situation worsened as their attacks had been repulsed and suffered heavy losses. The Germans were not the only ones in trouble, however, for the JR 50, which had been rushed to the battle, had been forced to leave most of its equipment in Röyttä and man-pack its supplies over swamps and otherwise marshy terrain.
The German attempts to relieve their encircled units did not succeed during 7 October, and on the following day the Finns started to clear the German pocket with attacks from all directions. Many Germans were captured, but many others escaped, though their casualties were heavy. The Battle of Tormio had resulted in Finnish losses of 375 men killed, 1,400 wounded and 23 captured, while the Germ losses amounted to between 700 and 900 men killed, 1,600 wounded and 400 captured, as well as the loss of four tanks.
Though the Germans had been able to launch air sorties to the area of Röyttä from 1 October, their first major attack was delivered on 4 October, when a squadron of Junkers Ju 87 dive-bombers attacked the port of Röyttä. The Finns could not respond as their fighters were grounded by adverse weather farther to the south. The dive-bombers scored several hits on the Finnish transport vessels unloading at the port, sinking Bore IX and Maininki in positions near the pier, thereby greatly hampering the unloading process. German air raids on Röyttä continued until the end of fighting at Tornio region.
In response to the Finnish landing at Tornio and the capture of German troops, the Germans started to take Finnish civilians hostages, 132 from Kemi and further 130 from Rovaniemi, and attempted to exchange these for the captured Germans. During fighting at Tornio a German negotiator arrived with the demand that Finns were required to release their prisoners and withdraw to Röyttä or the Germans would execute the hostages. The Finnish response was that such an action would result in the immediate execution of all captured Germans. This hostage stand-off also offered the Finnish media an excellent propaganda weapon against the Germans. Realising their mistake, the Germans on 12 October abandoned the hostages to the advancing Finns at Jaatila.
During this period other Finnish troops were advancing from Oulu toward Kemi, the 15th Brigade making slow progress despite limited nature of the German resistance. The Finnish advance was hampered by the efficient destruction of roads and bridges by the Germans as they withdrew, and the overall lack of offensive spirit among the Finnish leaders and troops. The Finns attacked Kemi on 7 October, attempting to encircle the Germans with a frontal attack by the 15th Brigade and an attack from the rear by the Osastu Pennanen. Determined German resistance, the presence of civilians in the area and the effect of 'liberated' alcohol combined to prevent the Finns from trapping the entire Germans force: though they took several hundred prisoners, the Finns failed to prevent the Germans from demolishing the important bridges over the Kemijoki river once they had started to withdraw on 8 October.
The original Finnish plan had been to cut all the routes over which the Germans could retreat from the area of Kemi, but the German were able to secure the road to Rovaniemi and retreat in an orderly fashion. On the other hand, the capture of Tornio effectively cut the German troops in Finland into two parts: one fighting in Tornio river valley and the other in Kemijoki river valley. For lack of roads, the delivery of supplies to the troops around Kemi had to be routed through Rovaniemi. By October 8 the whole area of Kemi and Tornio had been cleared.
Rendulic, the German commander in the north, believed that the capture of Tornio was a betrayal by the Finns, and ordered a scorched earth destruction of Lapland in retaliation. However, by attacking Tornio and seeking to prevent the escape of sizeable German forces, the Finnish government had proved to the USSR that it was working actively to remove the German presence from Finland. In addition, the Finnish army had shown that it was not only capable but also willing of turn its arms against its former co-belligerent.
Even as the fighting for Tornio continued, Rendulic and the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht decided that it had by now become militarily too risky to attempt to maintain the 20th Gebirgsarmee's positions in Lapland and northern Norway in the area to the east of Lyngen, and began preparations for a strategic withdrawal. After long delays, Adolf Hitler accepted the proposal on 4 October 1944, and the undertaking was named 'Nordlicht' (iii) on 6 October. Now, instead of the 'Birke' gradual German withdrawal from southern Lapland into fortified positions farther to the north while evacuating all German matériel, 'Nordlicht' called for a rapid and carefully structured retirement directly to new positions to the west of the Lyngenfjord in Norway while under pressure from the harassment of the Finns and also the Soviets, who had launched their 'Petsamo-Kirkenes Strategic Offensive Operation'.
As they withdrew, the Germans moved mostly along or close to Lapland’s three main roads, a fact which severely limited the military options available. In general the actions followed a pattern in which advancing Finnish units encountered German rearguards and attempt to flank them on foot as the road network the Germans had carefully destroyed in their wake prevented the Finns from bringing up artillery or other heavy weapons. As Finnish infantrymen picked their cautious way through the dense woods and marshland, the motorised German units simply drove away and assumed positions farther to the north along the road.
The Finnish pursuit of the Germans comprised the 11th Division’s advance to the north from Tornio on the road running along the Torne river, and the 3rd Division’s advance from Kemi toward Rovaniemi. After the 6th Division and the Panssaridivisioona linked at Pudasjärvi they too advanced to the north, first towards Ranua and then Rovaniemi. The Rajajääkäriprikaati moved north along Finland’s eastern border, establishing border guard positions as it advanced. In all these areas the Finns were forced to use combat troops to repair the destruction which had been inflicted on the road network: at times, for example, the whole of the 15th Brigade was committed to road repair.
The Finnish forces advancing from Kemi toward Rovaniemi saw no significant action, as Finnish troops on foot were not able to keep up with the motorised withdrawal of German units. Eve so, on the road from Ranua toward Rovaniemi there were several small encounters, first at Ylimaa, then Kivitaival, and finally Rovaniemi. To the north of Rovaniemi the Finns encountered heavily fortified German positions at Tankavaara. On the road running along the Torne and Muonio rivers, the German withdrawal went so smoothly that there was no fighting until the 11th Division reached the village of Muonio.
On 7 October, at Ylimaa, the Finns captured documents detailing the German positions, and this made it possible for the Finns to force the Germans to fight a delaying action unscheduled in their timetable of retreat. The forces involved were of approximately equal size, but the Finnish lack of heavy weapons and the exhaustion of the Finnish troops after long marches combined to prevent the , prevented the relevant Jäger brigade from trapping the 218th Gebirgsjägerregiment before it received permission to withdraw on 9 October. At Kivitaival on 13 October the tables were turned and only the withdrawal of the 218th Gebirgsjägerregiment saved the 33rd Regiment from being very severely handled. The German withdrawal allowed the Finns to surround one of the delaying battalions, but the 218th Gebirgsjägerregiment returned and managed to rescue its stranded battalion.
All this paved the way to the so-called Battle of Rovaniemi, in when there was fighting between elements of the Panssaridivisioona and 3rd Division, totalling 1,500 men and 20 tanks, against some 500 German troops supported by three tanks. The notoriety of the encounter derives from the almost total destruction of the town of Rovaniemi, the capital of Lapland and a major communications nexus (with a railway line and several roads) as it lay on the route to the Petsamo area and the only ice-free and oceanic port in the north, Liinahamari.
From 1 October Finnish forces had started to advance to the north. The Panssaridivisioona began its advance toward Rovaniemi from the Ranua area, and after the Battle of Tornio had ended the 3rd Division also began to moved toward Rovaniemi along the road running alongside the Kemijoki river. Though the Finnish forces advancing along the Kemijoki river were unable to move quickly enough enough to catch and engage the Germans withdrawing ahead of the, this was not the case for the Finnish forces advancing from Ranua. The Germans were working to pre-set schedule which fixed the dates on which ground should be yielded, their entire process being calculated to maximise the efficiency of their evacuation, and in the Rovaniemi this schedule called for the 218th Gebirgsjägerregiment to check and delay the Finnish advance. As noted above, the Finnish and German forces clashed on several occasions along the road, first at Ylimaa and later at Kivitaipale, without decisive results.
Fought on 12/13 October, the Battler of Rovaniemi was a small-scale encounter, but has become well known for the near-total destruction of the town, which was the capital of Lapland, Finland’s most northerly province. In World War II, the town was an important transport hub as it lay on the road to the Petsamo area and the only free port in the north, Liinahamari.
When the 'Jatkosota' between Finland and the USSR began in 1941, the Finnish government allowed German troops of the 20th Gebirgsarmee in Norway to be stationed in Lapland to help defend the long border. The German objective was to take control of the nickel mines in Petsamo and to seize the Soviet port of Murmansk, thereby isolating the USSR from Allied supply convoys. Rovaniemi was the German headquarters in Lapland and also the base for Luftflotte V.
Relations between the German garrison and the local populace in Lapland were generally cordial, but when the Finns signed a separate peace with the USSR, relations turned from cordial to sour, for the Germans had some 200,000 men in Finland and they were still at war with the Soviets. The USSR demanded that the Finns remove all German troops from their territory in two weeks, which was a logistical impossibility. Rovaniemi was a critical transportation nexus in Lapland through which the sole railway and several of the main roads passed making controlling it very important to the German evacuation effort.
By 1 October he Finns had already started to move against the Germans in the Kemi-Tornio region to convince the Soviets of their intention to abide by the treaty terms. At the same time, Finnish forces started to advance along other roads toward the north. The Panssaridivisioona began its progress to the north in the direction of Rovaniemi from Ranua, and after the fighting in the Tornio region had ended Pajari’s 3rd Division started to move on Rovaniemi along the road running alongside the Kemijoki river.
Although the Finnish forces advancing along the Kemijoki river were unable to move swiftly enough to engage the Germans, the same did not hold true for the Finnish forces advancing from Ranua. The Germans used a pre-set timetable for determining when ground should be given in order to maximise the efficiency of their evacuation toward northern Norway, and this called for the 218th Gebirgsregiment to delay the Finnish advance. The Finnish and German forces clashed several times along the road, first at Ylimaa and later at Kivitaipale, in each case without decisive results.
As they retreated, the German forces made use of scorched earth tactics, and though Rendulic initially ordered that only the public buildings of Rovaniemi should be destroyed, on 13 October the German forces was additionally ordered to destroy all the buildings in Rovaniemi with the exception of hospitals and inhabited homes. While the German rear guard was implementing the destruction, an ammunition train in Rovaniemi station exploded and set fire to the wooden houses of the town. The German troops suffered many casualties, mainly from glass splinters, as a result of the explosion. A Finnish commando unit claimed to have blown up the ammunition train and may well have been the primary cause of the town’s ruin. The cause was then unknown and generally assumed to be the deliberate intent of Rendulic. During these hostilities 90% of all the buildings in Rovaniemi were destroyed.
It was on 14 October that the first Finnish forces reached the Rovaniemi area. These Finnish forces comprised men of one of the Jäger brigade constituting half of the Panssaridivisioona advancing from Ranua. The Finns learned that one of bridges across the Kemijoki river was still intact and moved to capture it. The Germans had failed to destroy the bridge as a result of the detonation of an ammunition train at Rovaniemi station: the explosion devastated most of the town and also hurled the explosives the Germans had planned to use for destroying the bridge into the river even though the station was 1.85 miles (3 km) distant. Finnish forces reached the bridge while it was intact, but the German rearguard managed to drive the Finns off the bridge long enough for its demolition to be completed. This stranded the Jäger brigade on the southern side of the river opposite of the withdrawing Germans, and there were no other means for an immediate crossing of the river.
The next Finnish unit to arrive, on 15 October, was the JR 11 advancing along the road on the northern side of the Kemijoki river. The regiment’s commander decided to encircle the remaining Germans and therefore moved to cut the road from Rovaniemi towards Kittilä. Fortunately for the German force, which was the 2/12th SS Gebirgsjägerregiment, the Finns were short of munitions and unable to support the encircling units, which allowed the German battalion to escape virtually unscathed. The battle had cost the Finns 36 men killed, 101 wounded and four missing, and the Germans 52 men killed, 164 wounded and nine missing, as well as one tank.
The fighting near Rovaniemi achieved very little for either side. The most notable aspect of the battle was the devastation inflicted to the town just before the battle, but with the German rearguard still in the town, the controlled destruction of governmental buildings got out of control, despite the efforts of the Germans, and the fire spread rapidly to the town’s wooden houses. The Germans then abandoned the mostly demolished town to the Finns on 16 October.
Exhaustion, enforced demobilisation and supply difficulties were by now as much the enemies of the Finnish advances as the Germans, and at Tankavaara barely four battalions of the Jäger brigade attempted, unsuccessfully, to dislodge the 12 battalions of Radziej’s 169th Division holding prepared fortifications. The Finnish forces reached the area on 26 October, but gained ground only on 1 November after the Germans had withdrawn farther to the north. On this date, at Muonio, the four battalions of the Kampfgruppe 'Esch' and SS-Gruppenführer und Generalleutnant Karl Brenner’s 6th SS Gebirgsdivision 'Nord' again had numerical and matériel superiority, in the form of artillery and armour support, and this prevented the Finns from gaining the upper hand despite initially successful flanking operations by the JR 8 and JR 50. The Finnish plan had been to prevent the 6th SS Gebirgsdivision, moving from the Kittilä area, from reaching Muonio, and then to trap it. However, the delaying actions of the Kampfgruppe 'Esch' and the destruction of the road network made it impossible for the Finns to reach Muonio before the Germans.
The 'Lapinsota' ended, for all practical purposes, at a time early in November 1944. In north-eastern Lapland the Germans held off the Finnish pursuit at Tankavaara the Germans then withdrew rapidly from Finland at Karigasniemi on 25 November. The Jäger brigade pursuing the Germans had by that time been considerably weakened in numerical terms by demobilization. In north-western Lapland, therefore, there were on 4 November only four battalions and by February 1945 just 600 men. The Germans continued their withdrawal but paused in fortified positions first at Palojoensuu village, some 37 miles (50 km) to the north of Muonio along the Torne river, early in November, and from this fell back to the 'Sturmbock-Stellung' positions along the Lätäseno river on 26 November. Generalleutnant August Krakau’s 7th Gebirgsdivision held these positions until 10 January and then fell back to prepared positions on the Lyngenfjord. Some of the German positions in this area extended across the border into Finland, but there was no serious fighting before the Germans completed their withdrawal from Finland on 25 April.
From the start of the 'Lapinsota', the Germans had systematically destroyed and mined roads and bridges as they withdrew, but it was only after the first serious clashes between the Germans and Finns that Rendulic issued the first of several orders about the destruction of Finnish property in Lapland. An order of 6 October ordained that only military or militarily important sites were to be destroyed, but from 8 October, as a result of the fighting in the area of Tornio and Kemi, the Germans made several bombing raids, targeting factory areas of Kemi and inflicting heavy damage on them. Even so, on 9 October the demolition order was extended to include all governmental buildings with the exception of hospitals. On 13 October the destruction of all habitable structures, including barns but excluding hospitals and churches, was ordered in the area to the north of the line between Ylitornio to Sodankylä via Sinettäm a small village some 12.5 miles (20 km) to the north-north-west of Rovaniemi). Though this made sense from the German perspective, as a means of denying the pursuing forces shelter, in fact the resulting destruction had only a very limited effect as the Finns, unlike the Germans, always carried tents with them and did not require any other shelter.
At Rovaniemi the Germans initially concentrated their effort on the destruction of government buildings, but once fire had got out of control several other building succumbed. German attempts to fight the fire failed, and a train loaded with ammunition caught fire at Rovaniemi railway station on 14 October, the resulting explosion causing further destruction as well as spreading the fire throughout the primarily wooden buildings of the town. German attempts to fight the fire had failed by the time, on 16 October, that they abandoned the now ruined town to the advancing Finns.
In their retreat the Germans used scorched earth tactics to devastate large areas of northern Finland, and as a result up to 47% of the houses in the area were destroyed and, in addition to Rovaniemi, the villages of Savukoski and Enontekiö were destroyed by fire. Two-thirds of the buildings in the main villages of Sodankylä, Muonio, Kolari, Salla and Pello were demolished, 675 bridges were blown up, all main roads were mined, and 2,300 miles (3700 km) of telephone lines were destroyed. In addition to the property losses, about 100,000 inhabitants became refugees, a situation that added to the problems of post-war reconstruction.
The military casualties of the conflict were comparatively small. The Finns lost 774 men killed, about 3,000 wounded and 262 missing, while the figures for the Germans were about 1,200 killed, 2,000 wounded and 1,300 taken prisoner, the latter being handed over to the USSR in accordance with the terms of the Finno-Soviet armistice. The extensive German minelaying effort caused civilian casualties for decades after the war, and almost 100 Finnish personnel were killed in the course of mineclearing operations.