Operation Lapland War

The 'Lapland War', known to the Finns as the 'Lapinsota', was a campaign fought in northern Finland as the Finns ousted the German forces from Lapland, the northernmost region of Finland (29 September 1944/27 April 1945).

Although the Finns and Germans had been fighting as co-belligerents against the USSR in the 'Continuation War' since 1941, peace negotiations between Finland, the USSR and the Western powers had been conducted intermittently during 1943/44, no agreement had been reached. Then the Moscow armistice, signed on 19 September 1944 to bring the 'Continuation War' to an end, demanded that Finland break diplomatic ties with Germany and expel or disarm any German forces remaining in Finland after 15 September 1944.

The German forces had anticipated that this would be the case and planned an organised withdrawal to German-occupied Norway as part of 'Birke'. Despite a failed offensive landing operation by Germany in the Gulf of Finland, the evacuation proceeded initially on a peaceful basis. The Finns escalated the situation into open warfare on 28 September after Soviet pressure to adhere to the terms of the armistice, which demanded that the Finnish army both demobilise and pursue all German troops off Finnish soil. After a series of minor battles, the war came to an effective end in November 1944, when German troops had reached Norway or its vicinity and took fortified positions. The last German soldiers left Finland on 27 April 1945, shortly before the end of World War II in Europe.

The Finns considered the war a separate conflict because hostilities with other nations had ceased after the 'Continuation War'. From the German point of view, it was a part of the paired campaigns to evacuate their forces from northern Finland and northern Norway. Soviet involvement in the war amounted to the monitoring of the Finnish operations, minor air support and entering north-eastern Lapland during the 'Petsamo-Kirkenes Strategic Offensive Operation'. The military impact was relatively limited, as indicated by the fact that each side sustained only some 4,000 casualties, although the Germans' delaying scorched-earth and land mine strategies devastated Finnish Lapland. The German withdrew successfully, and Finland upheld its obligations under the Moscow armistice, but the country remained formally at war with the USSR and UK until ratification of the 1947 Paris Peace Treaty.

As noted above, Germany and Finland had been at war with the USSR since the German launch of 'Barbarossa' in June 1941, and the two nations co-operated closely in the 'Continuation War' and 'Silberfuchs' with Generaloberst Eduard Dietl’s 20th Gebirgsarmee stationed in Lapland. As early as the summer of 1943, however, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht began to plan for the eventuality that Finland might negotiate a separate peace agreement with the USSR. In this eventuality, the Germans planned to withdraw their forces northward in order to shield the strategically important nickel mines near Petsamo on he northern coast. During the winter of 1943/44, the Germans improved the roads between northern Norway and northern Finland by extensive use of prisoner of war labour in certain areas. Casualties among the labouring prisoners were high, in part because many of them had been captured in southern Europe and were still in summer uniform. In addition, the Germans surveyed defensive positions and planned to evacuate from the region as much matériel as possible, and undertook a meticulous preparation for withdrawal. On 9 April 1944, the German withdrawal plan was designated as 'Birke', and in June of the same year started to construct fortifications against a possible opponent’s advance from the south. The death of Dietl in an air accident on 23 June 1944 brought Generaloberst Dr Lothar Rendulic to the command of the 20th Gebirgsarmee.

After the Soviet 'Vyborg-Petrozavodsk Strategic Offensive Operation' in southern Finland from June to July and a change in Finnish leadership in August 1944, Finland negotiated a separate peace agreement with the USSR. The ceasefire agreement required the Finns to break diplomatic ties with Germany and publicly demand the withdrawal of all German troops from Finland by 15 September 1944. Any troops remaining after the deadline were to be expelled or disarmed and handed over to the USSR. Even with the German withdrawal operation, the Finns estimated it would take the German forces three months to complete their evacuation. The task was further complicated by the Soviet demand that the majority of the Finnish forces be demobilised even while conducting a military campaign against the Germans. Before deciding to accept the Soviet demands, President C. G. E. Mannerheim, the former Finnish commander-in-chief, wrote a letter directly to Adolf Hitler: 'Our German brothers-in-arms will forever remain in our hearts. The Germans in Finland were certainly not the representatives of foreign despotism but helpers and brothers-in-arms. But even in such cases foreigners are in difficult positions requiring such tact. I can assure you that during the past years nothing whatsoever happened that could have induced us to consider the German troops intruders or oppressors. I believe that the attitude of the German Army in northern Finland towards the local population and authorities will enter our history as a unique example of a correct and cordial relationship…I deem it my duty to lead my people out of the war. I cannot and I will not turn the arms which you have so liberally supplied us against Germans. I harbour the hope that you, even if you disapprove of my attitude, will wish and endeavour like myself and all other Finns to terminate our former relations without increasing the gravity of the situation.'

The 20th Gebirgsarmee had been fighting the Soviet Karelian Front since 'Barbarossa' along the 430-mile (700-km) front between the Oulu river in the south and the coast of the Arctic Ocean in the north. The German formation now comprised 214,000 soldiers, a considerable number of these in Waffen-SS formations. The number of active troops decreased quickly as the army withdrew to Norway. The army had 32,000 horses and mules as well as something between 17,500 and 26,000 motor vehicles, plus 180,000 tons of rations, ammunition and fuel to last for six months. The 20th Gebirgarmee was positioned with General Ferdinand Jodl’s XIX Gebirgskorps in the far northern Petsamo area beside the Arctic Ocean, General Emil Vogel’s XXXVI Gebirgskorps in the area of Salla and Alakurtti in eastern Lapland, General Friedrich Hochbaum’s XVIII Gebirgskorps on the southern flank at Kestenga and Uhtua.

On the Finnish side, Kenraaliluutnantti Hjalmar Siilasvuo’s III Armeijakunta (corps) was gradually shifted from the Finnish defence against the Vyborg-Petrozavodsk Strategic Offensive Operation' northward to the Oulu river area and had been fully repositioned by 28 September. The III Armeijakunta comprised the 3rd Divisioona, 6th Divisioona and 11th Divisioona as well as the Panssaridivisioona (armoured division). Additionally, four battalions formerly under German command were converted into separate detachments. Two regiments, the 15th Jalkaväkirykmentti (infantry regiment) and the Rajajääkärirykmentti (border light infantry regiment) reinforced the III Armeijajunta. In total, Finnish ground forces in the Lapland theatre totalled 75,000 men. The number of Finnish troops dropped sharply as the Germans withdrew and the Finnish army was demobilised, however, and by December 1944 only 12,000 men were left. As a result, the Finnish soldiers were for the most part conscripts as veterans were transferred away from the front, and the latter part of the war thus became dubbed in Finland as the lasten ristiretki (children’s crusade).

The announcement on 2 September 1944 of the ceasefire and the Moscow armistice between Finland and the USSR triggered frantic efforts by the 20th Gebirgsarmee, which immediately launched 'Birke'. Large quantities of matériel were evacuated from southern Finland and harsh punishments were ordained for anyone hindering of the withdrawal. The Germans began to seize Finnish shipping. and Finland responded by preventing ships from steaming from Finland to Germany and thereby nearly doomed the matériel evacuations of 'Birke'. The order was rescinded and the Finns, in turn, allowed Finnish tonnage to be used to hasten the German evacuations. The first German naval mines were laid in Finnish waters on 14 September, supposedly against Soviet shipping, though since Finland and Germany were not yet in open conflict, the Germans warned the Finns of their intent.

As the Finns wished to avoid further devastation of their country, and the Germans wished to avoid hostilities, both sides strove for the evacuation to proceed as smoothly as possible. By 15 September, a secret agreement had been reached by which the Germans would inform the Finns of their withdrawal timetable, and the Finns would then allow the Germans to use Finnish transport for evacuation as well as to effect the destruction of roads, railways and bridges behind their withdrawal. In practice, friction soon arose from both the destruction caused by the Germans and the pressure exerted on the Finns by the Soviets.

On 15 September, the Kriegsmarine tried to land and seize the island of Suursaari in 'Tanne Ost', with the object of securing shipping routes in the Gulf of Finland. The USSR sent aircraft to support the Finnish defenders and the Kriegsmarine failed to capture Suursaari. After the landing attempt, a Finnish coastal artillery fortress on Utö island prevented German netlaying vessels from passing into the Baltic Sea on 15 September, as they had been ordered to intern the German forces. On 16 September, a German naval detachment comprising the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen and five destroyers arrived off Utö. The German cruiser remained out of range of the Finnish 6-in (152-mm) artillery and threatened to open fire with her 8-in (203-mm) guns and, to avoid bloodshed, the Finns allowed the netlayers to pass. In response to the German operations, Finland immediately removed its shipping from the joint evacuation operation, but the overland evacuation from Lapland to Norway progressed according to the secret agreement. The last German convoy departed Kemi in northern Finland on 21 September 1944 escorted by submarines and, starting from the area to the south of the Åland islands group, by German cruisers.

The lack of Finnish aggression was noted by the Allied Control Commission monitoring adherence to the Moscow armistice and the USSR threatened to occupy Finland if the terms of expelling or disarming the Germans were not met. Siilasvuo therefore had little option but to order the III Armeijakunta to engage. The first hostilities between the Finnish army and the 20th Gebirgsarmee in Lapland took place some 12.5 miles (20 km) to the south-west of Pudasjärvi at around 08.00 on 28 September, when Finnish advance units first issued a surrender demand and then opened fire on a small German rearguard contingent. The Germans were taken by surprise as the Finns had previously agreed to warn them should they be forced to take hostile action. After this incident, partial contact was re-established. The Germans told the Finns they had no interest in fighting them, but would not surrender. The next incident took place on 29 September at a bridge crossing the Olhava river between Kemi and Oulu. Finnish troops, who had been ordered to take the bridge intact, were attempting to disarm explosives rigged to the bridge when the Germans detonated them, demolishing the bridge and killing, among others, the Finnish company commander. On 30 September, the Finns attempted to trap the Germans at Pudasjärvi in a motti (pocket) 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 already departed, leaving only a small detachment which, after warning the Finns, blew up a munitions dump.

The risky landings of the 'Battle of Tornio', on the border with Sweden next to the Gulf of Bothnia, began on 30 September when three Finnish transport ships (Norma, Fritz S and Hesperus) departed Oulu for Tornio without air or naval escorts. The ships arrived on 1 October and disembarked their troops without any interference. The landing had originally been planned as a diversionary raid, with the main assault to take place at Kemi, where the Finnish battalion-sized Osasto 'Pennanen' (Pennanen detachment) was already in control of important industrial facilities on the island of Ajos. A number of factors, including a stronger-than-expected German garrison at Kemi already alerted by local attacks, made the Finns switch their target to Röyttä, Tornio’s outer port. The Finns initially landed the 11th Jalkaväkirykmentti (infantry regiment) of Kenraalimajuri Aaro Pajari’s (from 21 October Eversti Aloys Kuistio’s) 3rd Divisioona that, together with a Civil Guard-led uprising at Tornio, managed to secure both the port and most of the town as well as the bridges over the Tornio river. The Finnish attack soon bogged down as a result of disorganisation caused in part by alcohol looted from German supply depots as well as by stiffening German resistance. During the ensuing battle, Generalmajor Mathias Kräutler’s Divisionsgruppe 'Kräutler', a reinforced regiment, made several counterattacks to retake the town as this constituted an important transport link between the two roads running parallel with the Kemi and Tornio rivers. At the instruction of Rendulic, the Germans took 262 Finnish civilian hostages in an attempt to trade them for captured soldiers. The Finns refused and the civilians were released on 12 October.

A second wave of four Finnish ships arrived on 2 October and a third wave, of three ships escorted by Brewster B-239 Buffalo single-engined fighters, landed its troops with only a single ship suffering light damage from the attack of a Junkers Ju 87 single-engined dive-bombers. On 4 October, adverse weather prevented Finnish air cover from reaching Tornio, leaving the fourth landing wave vulnerable. Dive-bombers scored several hits and sank Bore IX and Maininki alongside the pier. The fifth wave on 5 October suffered only light fragmentation damage despite being both shelled from shore and bombed from the sky. The Finnish gunboats Hämeenmaa and Uusimaa and the 'VMV' class patrol boats 15 and 16 arrived with the sixth wave just in time to witness Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor four-engined bombers delivering unsuccessful attacks on the shipping at Tornio with Henschel Hs 293 glide bombs. The arrival of the naval assets allowed the Finns to safely disembark heavy equipment to support the battle, and about 12,500 soldiers arrived during the landings. The German forces were reinforced by the 2nd Kompanie of the 211th Panzerabteilung, two infantry battalions and the MG-Ski-Brigade 'Finnland'. The 11th Jalkaväkirykmentti was reinforced with the arrival of the 50th Jalkaväkirykmentti and the 53rd Jalkaväkirykmentti. The Finns beat back German counterattacks for a week until 8 October, when the Germans withdrew from Tornio. Meanwhile, Finnish troops were advancing overland from Oulu towards Kemi, with the 15th Prikaati (brigade) making only slow progress against small-scale German resistance. The Finnish advance was hampered by the destruction of roads and bridges by withdrawing Germans as well as a the overall lack of offensive spirit in both the Finnish troops and their leaders. The Finns attacked Kemi on 7 October, attempting to encircle the Germans into a motti with a frontal attack by the 15th Prikaati and an attack from the rear by the Osasto 'Pennanen'. Strong German resistance, the presence of civilians in the area, and the consumption of looted alcohol prevented the Finns from achieving a full entrapment of all the Germans. Although the Finnish forces took several hundred prisoners, they failed to prevent the Germans from demolishing the bridges over the Kemi river once they began to withdraw on 8 October.

From the start of the war, the Germans had systematically destroyed and mined the roads and bridges as they withdrew in a delaying strategy. After the first hostilities had taken place, Rendulic issued several orders on destroying Finnish property in Lapland. On 6 October, a strict order was issued to classify only military sites or military necessities as targets, and on 8 October German aircraft bombed and heavily damaged factory areas of Kemi. On 9 October, the demolition order was extended to include all governmental buildings with the exception of hospitals. On 13 October, the destruction was ordered of 'all covers, installations and objects that can be used by an enemy' was ordered in a scorched-earth strategy. Although it was logical for the Germans to deny pursuing forces any shelter, it had a very limited effect on the Finns, who always carried tents for shelter.

As their opponents' advances continued, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht and the 20th Gebirgsarmee asserted that it would be perilous to maintain positions in Lapland and to the east of Lyngen municipality in northern Norway. Likewise, the German minister of armaments and war production, Albert Speer, had determined that German nickel stores were sufficient and that the further retention of Petsamo was unnecessary. Preparations for more withdrawal began. Hitler accepted the proposal on 4 October, and the plan was codenamed 'Nordlicht' (iii) on 6 October. Instead of a gradual withdrawal from southern Lapland into fortified positions farther to the north while evacuating matériel, as in 'Birke', 'Nordlicht' (iii) called for a rapid and strictly organised withdrawal directly behind the Lyngenfjord in Norway, while under pressure. As the Germans withdrew toward Rovaniemi, a road junction point in Lapland, and toward Norway, movement was limited mostly to the immediate vicinity of Lapland’s three main roads, which constricted military activities considerably. In general, the withdrawal followed a pattern in which advancing Finnish units would encounter German rearguards and attempt to flank them on foot, but the destroyed road network prevented them from bringing up artillery and other heavy weapons. As Finnish infantry slowly picked their way through the dense woods and marshland, the motorised German units would simply drive away and take up positions farther along the road.

On 7 October, the Jääkäriprikaati forced the 218th Gebirgsjägerregiment to fight a delaying action off the Germans' pre-set timetable at Ylimaa, some 40 miles (65 km) to the south of Rovaniemi. The opposing forces were roughly equal in numerical terms, but their lack of heavy weapons and exhaustion from long marches prevented the Finnish brigade from trapping the defending Germans before they received permission on 9 October to withdraw after inflicting substantial losses on the Finns. On 13 October, the tables were turned at Kivitaipale, some 12.5 miles (20 km) to the south of Rovaniemi, and only a fortuitous withdrawal by the 218th Gebirgsjägerregiment saved the 33rd Jalkaväkirykmentti from a severe mauling. The German withdrawal allowed the Finns to surround one of the delaying battalions, but the 218th Gebirgsjägerregiment returned and managed to rescue the stranded battalion. The Germans initially concentrated on destroying governmental buildings in Rovaniemi, but the fire spread and destroyed housing beyond that. German attempts to fight the fire failed and a train loaded with ammunition caught fire at the railway station on 14 October, resulting in an explosion which spread the fire throughout the town’s primarily wooden buildings. The first Finnish units to reach the vicinity of Rovaniemi on 14 October were components of the Jääkäriprikaati advancing from Ranua. The Germans repelled Finnish attempts to capture the last intact bridge over the Kemi river and then left the mostly scorched town to the Finns on 16 October.

Finnish demobilisation and difficult supply routes took their toll. At Tankavaara, 37 miles (60 km) to the south of Ivalo, barely four battalions of the Jääkäriprikaati attempted, unsuccessfully, on 26 October to dislodge the 12 battalions of Generalleutnant Georg Radziej’s 169th Division entrenched in prepared fortifications. The Finnish forces gained ground only on 1 November after the Germans withdrew northward. Likewise, on 26 October at Muonio, 125 miles (200 km) to the south-east of defensive positions in Norway, SS-Gruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Karl Heinrich Brenner’s 6th SS Gebirgsdivision 'Nord', reinforced by the Kampfgruppe 'Esch', again had numerical and material superiority with artillery and armoured support. This prevented Heiskanem’s 11th Division from gaining the upper hand despite initially fairly successful flanking operations by the 8th Jalkaväkirykmentti and 50th Jalkaväkirykmentti. The Finns planned to isolate the SS division, marching from the direction of Kittilä in the south-east, before Muonio and thereby trap it in a motti. The delaying action by the Kampfgruppe 'Esch' and the destroyed road network thwarted the Finnish pla.

General (from 26 October Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza) Kirill A. Meretskov’s Karelian Front began its ' Petsamo-Kirkenes Strategic Offensive Operation' and started to drive the XIX Gebirgskorps toward Norway from Soviet territory along the Arctic coast on 7 October. By 25 October, formations and units of this front had captured the Norwegian port of Kirkenes. The 14th Army pursued German troops withdrawing to the south-west from Petsamo and Kirkenes approximately 31 miles (50 km) into Finnish territory along the Inari lake. By 5 November, Soviet reconnaissance troops had linked with the Finnish army at Ivalo. Likewise, the 26th Army had followed the withdrawing XVIII Gebirgskorps about 31 miles (50 km) over the Finnish border in southern Lapland to Kuusamo and Suomussalmi, but left the area in November. The Soviet troops in Ivalo did not leave until September 1945.

For all practical purposes, the 'Lapland War' ended early in November 1944. After holding Tankavaara, the Germans swiftly withdrew from north-eastern Lapland at Karigasniemi on 25 November. The Jääkäriprikaati pursuing them had by then been mostly demobilised. In north-western Lapland, only four battalions of Finnish troops were left on 4 November, and by February 1945 this figure had been reduced to a mere 600 men. The Germans continued their withdrawal but remained in positions first at the village of Palojoensuu, 93 miles (150 km) from Norway, early in November 1944. From there, they moved to the fortified 'Sturmbock-Stellung' position along the Lätäseno river, some 62 miles (100 km) from Norway, on 26 November. Generalleutnant August Krakau’s 7th Gebirgsdivision held these positions until 10 January 1945, when northern Norway had been cleared and positions at the Lyngenfjord were occupied. On 12 January, the Finnish minelayer Louhi was sunk with the loss of its 10 men in the Gulf of Bothnia by the U-boat U-370 using an G7es acoustic-homing torpedo. Some German positions defending Lyngen extended to Kilpisjärvi on the Finnish side of the border, but no major activity occurred. The German forces had withdrawn completely from Finland by 27 April 1945, and a Finnish patrol raised the flag on the three-country cairn between Norway, Sweden and Finland to celebrate the end of the war.

There was never an official peace agreement signed between Finland and Germany. It was not until 1954 that the government of Finland officially noted that 'the hostilities have ceased and interaction between Finland and Germany since then developed peacefully' and thus that 'the war has ended'.

The 20th Gebirgsarmee had successfully withdrawn most of its 200,000 or more men as well as supplies and equipment from Lapland to continue defending occupied Finnmark from the USSR. The casualties of the 'Lapland War' were relatively small: 774 men killed, 262 missing and around 2,904 wounded for the Finns; and about 1,000 men killed and 2,000 wounded for the Germans, together with 1,300 taden taken prisoner and handed over to the USSR according to the terms of the armistice. However, the German delaying operations had left Lapland physically devastated. In addition to 3,100 buildings demolished elsewhere in Finland, estimates of destroyed infrastructure in Lapland included 14,900 buildings (about 40 to 46% of Lapland’s property), 290 miles (470 km) of railway, 5,900 miles (9500 km) of road, 675 bridges, 2,800 road storm drains, and 2,300 miles (3700 km) telephone and telegraph lines.

The reconstruction of Lapland lasted until the early 1950s, although the railway network was not functional until 1957. In addition to the demolished infrastructure, the Germans had large large numbers of mines and other explosive devices in the area. By 1973, more than 800,000 cartridges, 70,000 mines and 400,000 other explosives had been located and removed in Lapland.