Murmansk-Kandalaksha Defensive Operation

The 'Murmansk-Kandalaksha Defensive Operation' was the Soviet response to the 'Rentier', 'Platinfuchs' and 'Polarfuchs' (i) offensives of the 'Silberfuchs' plan in which the Germans, with Finnish support, attempted to secure the north coast of Finland and advance to take Murmansk, which was the USSR’s sole ice-free northern port and Kandalaksha on the White Sea (29 June/29 September 1941).

As such, the 'Murmansk-Kandalaksha Defensive Operation' was the first of the four undertakings which together constituted the 'Arctic and Karelia Strategic Defense Operation'.

Known to the Finns as 'Hopeakettu', 'Silberfuchs' was the German and Finnish undertaking from 29 June to 17 November 1941 to secure Petsamo and take Murmansk, and in overall terms was the central item in the complex of northern operations whose first and third stages were the related 'Rentier' and 'Polarfuchs' (i) on the north coast and 'Polarfuchs' (i) toward Kandalaksha. In 'Rentier', German forces advanced from the extreme north of Norway to secure the area around Petsamo and its nickel mines. Known to the Finns as 'Platinakettu', 'Platinfuchs' was the attack from the north by General Eduard Dietl’s Gebirgskorps 'Norwegen' toward Murmansk. Known to the Finns as 'Napakettu', 'Polarfuchs' (i) was the attack farther to the south by General Hans Feige’s Höheres Kommando zbV XXXVI and elements of Kenraalimajuri Hjalmar Siilasvuo 's Finnish III Corps to take Kandalaksha and ten advance to the north to take Murmansk in a pincer movement with the Gebirgskorps 'Norwegen'. The German and Finnish forces took some ground, but Murmansk was neither taken nor cut off, and thus served as an important destination for Allied convoys throughout the war.

Finland solidified its independence from Russia in the Finnish Civil War (January/May 1918), which was fought between German-supported nationalists and Russian Bolshevik-supported communists in the closing stages of World War I. Tensions between the new anti-communist Finnish republic and the USSR remained great in the early years between the two world wars, and in the aftermath of a number of border skirmishes in the Karelian border region, the Treaty of Tartu settled the border of the two countries in 1920. Relations between the two nations remained cool, but the countries signed a 10-year non-aggression pact in 1932.

With the rise to power in Germany of the Nazi party in 1933, the USSR feared a German attack and tried to secure itself against a possible German/Finnish alliance. Finland wished to preserve its neutrality at any cost. During negotiations in 1938 and 1939, the USSR demanded Finnish assurances to permit Soviet armed intervention in the event that a German armed entry into Finland. The Finns rejected the Soviet demand, and the USSR then suggested a trade of territory to gain strategic locations it deemed necessary for a defence against German aggression. Sotamarsalkka Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, chairman of the Finnish defence council, and other senior leaders favoured the proposal, but the Finnish government remained steadfast in its determination to rain neutral and protracted negotiations failed.

On 23 August 1939 the USSR and Germany signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which contained a secret protocol dividing Europe into spheres of influence for each country: within this, Finland fell into the Soviet sphere. Germany subsequently invaded Poland from the west in 'Weiss' (i) on 1 September 1939, and 16 days later the USSR invaded Poland from the east. With Finland still refusing the Soviet demands, the USSR finally attacked Finland in November 1939 at the start of the campaign which the Finns called the 'Talvisota' (winter war). In the negotiations which followed its defeat in March 1940, Finland was compelled to make major territorial concessions in the Moscow Treaty. Feeling abandoned by the Western Allies, Finland started to seek help against the threat still posed by the USSR. Finland sought inclusion in wider Scandinavian defense co-operation, but both Soviet and German opposition prevented this. The German occupation of Denmark and Norway from 9 April 1940 in 'Weserübung' severed practical Finnish connections to countries other than the USSR, Germany and Sweden. A proposed Swedish/Finnish military alliance failed as a result of German and Soviet pressure, and deprived of other potential sources of support, Finland started to seek closer ties with Germany as it attempted to secure its position against the USSR, and the two countries started to co-operate on the development of a joint policy against the USSR.

The Oberkommando der Wehrmacht thus included Finnish forces in its plan for the 'Barbarossa' offensive of 1941 against the USSR: it should be noted that Finnish was never an adherent to the Tri-Partite Pact, and so was a co-belligerent against the USSR rather than an ally of Germany. Thus a Finnish/German offensive named 'Silberfuchs' by the Germans was to support the main Axis effort, directed against central Russia, from the north. 'Silberfuchs' was intended to remove the port of Murmansk as a Soviet asset as it was an obvious initial destination for Western Allied aid to the USSE.

The planning of 'Silberfuchs' began in December 1940. Oberst (soon Generalmajor) Erich Buschenhagen, the chief-of-staff of General Nikolaus von Falkenhorst’s Armee 'Norwegen' (Gruppe XXI redesignated in that same month) visited Finland and drew up a plan which would determine Finland’s role in the war, which included the first draft of the overall German/Finnish scheme for operations against the USSR. On 8 December, Hitler issued 'Führerweisung Nr 6, which detailed the campaign plan for 'Barbarossa', including the targets for proposed German/Finnish co-operation. The detailed plan for the operation was created by von Falkenhorst and the staff of his army in January 1941.

On 18 February, Buschenhagen arrived in Helsinki, and during the following days was involved in talks with members of the Finnish general staff, namely Kenraalimajuri Aksel Fredrik Airo and Kenraalimajuri Axel Erik Heinrichs. Buschenhagen later paid a visit to the Kuusamo area and eastern Rovaniemi, as well as Petsamo, to undertake a personal reconnoitre, and his visit to Finland ended on 28 February.

'Silberfuchs' was schemed as a two-stage pincer movement in three distinct operations: the first phase was 'Rentier' in which the two divisions of General Eduard Dietl’s Gebirgskorps 'Norwegen' (Generalmajor Ernst Schlemmer’s 2nd Gebirgsdivision and Generalleutnant Hans Kreysing’s 3rd Gebirgsdivision were to move to the east from Kirkenes and to deploy in the Finnish-held area around Petsamo to secure the nickel mines. The second phase of the operation was to be a pincer attack against Murmansk, a port that was ice-free in winter and with Arkhangyel’sk was likely to be a destination for Western Allied supplies to the USSR. The first prong of the attack was 'Platinfuchs' was to be a frontal assault on Murmansk by the Gebirgskorps 'Norwegen', whose two divisions were to advance to the east from Petsamo to take Murmansk. On their way, they were to secure the Rybachy peninsula with the support of Finnish border units. The second arm of the pincer was 'Polarfuchs' (i), which was to be launched farther to the south in order to take Salla, ceded to the USSR after the 'Talvisota', and then to advance to the east along the railway to capture Kandalaksra, cutting the vital Murmansk railway line connecting Murmansk with the rest of the USSR. The operation would be undertaken by Feige’s Höheres Kommando zbV XXXV and Kenraalimajuri Hjalmar Fridolf Siilasvuo’s Finnish III Corps.

Air support for the offensive was to be provided by Generaloberst Hans-Jürgen Stumpff’s Luftflotte V, which operated from bases in Norway, and Kenraalimajuri Jarl Frithlof Lundqvist’s Finnish Ilmavoimat (air force). For 'Silberfuchs', the Luftwaffe created a new headquarters and moved it into Finland. The Finnish air force mustered about 230 aircraft of various types at the start of hostilities. Luftflotte V assigned 60 aircraft to 'Silberfuchs' and employed the Junkers Ju 87 dive-bombers, Junkers Ju 88 medium bombers and Heinkel He 111 medium bombers for close air support for the Finnish and German offensives.

By a time late in February 1941, German units were moved into Finland. Germany had secured transit rights through neutral Sweden, and the 2nd Gebirgsdivision and 3rd Gebirgsdivision were moved into place at Kirkenes for 'Rentier'. For the main body of the Höheres Kommando zbV XXXV, two sea transport operations were arranged as 'Blaufuchs I' and 'Blaufuchs II'. German units embarked in Stettin and Oslo for Oulu in Finland’s north-western coast in the Gulf of Bothnia, from where they continued by train to Rovaniemi. Once there, they joined Finnish forces and marched into position for the offensive under the guise of border defense exercises.

Soviet preparations were scanty. Although the Soviets anticipated a German invasion with possible Finnish support, Iosif Stalin did not expect a German attack along the USSR’s entire western border at so early a date. The border had been fortified, but the Soviet leadership was taken by surprise. The main adversary of the German and Finnish forces was General Leytenant Markian M. Popov’s North Front, which until the start of the war had been the Leningrad Military District, and comprising General Leytenant Filipp D. Gorelenko’s 7th Army and General Leytenant Valerian A. Frolov’s 14th Army stationed in the Arctic region. On 23 August, the North Front was divided into the Karelia Front and the Leningrad Front, commanded by Frolov and Popov respectively. Frolov remained in command of the Karelia Front until 1 September, when he was promoted and replaced by General Major Roman I. Panin. During the first week of the war in the Arctic, the Germans and Finns had a useful numerical superiority, as the Soviets had only 150,000 men stationed along the border to the north of Lake Ladoga. The Germans and Finns also possessed air superiority, as Soviet Karelia was protected in the air by only the 1st and 55th Mixed Air Divisions, with 273 serviceable but wholly obsolete aircraft.

During the German and Finnish negotiations, Finland had demanded that it remain neutral unless the USSR attacked it first. Germany therefore sought to provoke the USSR into an act of aggression toward Finland. On 22 June 1941, Germany launched its 'Barbarossa' invasion of the USSR. German aircraft operated from Finnish air bases and also launched 'Rentier', which led to the recovery of Petsamo on the Finnish/Soviet border. Simultaneously, Finland proceeded to remilitarise the neutral Åland islands group in the mouth of the Gulf of Bothnia. Despite these actions, Finland insisted via diplomatic channels that it was still neutral, but the Soviets already viewed Finland as a German ally. On 22 June, the Murmansk oblast (region) entered a state of emergency, with 50,000 persons mobilised into the army and navy. Conscripts and volunteers joined the ranks of the newly formed 1st Polar Rifle Division, while sailors of the Northern Fleet entered service as a marine infantry brigade. Also, many civilians were employed in the construction of four lines of fortifications between the Zapadnaya Litsa river and Kola bay. Then the Soviets launched a massive air raid on 25 June, bombing all major Finnish cities and industrial centres, including Helsinki, Turku and Lahti. During a night session on that same day, the Finnish parliament decided to go to war against the USSR, and 'Silberfuchs' was thus authorised.

The first phase of 'Silberfuchs' was launched on 22 June. The two divisions of the Gebirgskorps 'Norwegen' moved out from Kirkenes to the east and began to deploy in the Finnish-held area round Petsamo. The appearance of a German corps on their border came as a surprise to the Soviets. The operation was successful and the nickel mines were secured. Dietl’s troops then reorganised and readied themselves for the launch of 'Platinfuchs'. Farther to the south, the units of Feige’s Höheres Kommando zbV XXXV prepared for their 'Polarfuchs' (i) attack at Salla.

On June 29 Dietl launched his attack, aided by Finnish border units, to the east. The Germans and Finns were opposed by the 14th and 52nd Divisions of the 14th Army. On the first day, the initial advance looked promising. The 2nd Gewbirgsdivision was able to secure the neck of Rybachy peninsula, while the 3rd Gebirgsdivision was able to penetrate the Soviet lines at the Titovka river valley, capturing a bridge over the river.

After the element of surprise had been lost, the German offensive became bogged down as the divisions encountered increasingly organised Soviet defenses and difficult terrain. The rough country, the lack of maps and the Arctic weather combined to slow the Germans for the entirety of the offensive. Against heavy Soviet resistance, the 2nd Gebirgsdivision failed to punch through the Soviet defenses on the neck of the Rybachy peninsula, and by July had gone into defensive positions. Some of the division’s units were sent south to aid the 3rd Gebirgsdivision. With the additional forces the Germans were able to advance farther to the east against heavy resistance and reached the Zapadnaya Litsa river, across which they took a bridgehead, but here the Soviets were able to halt the German advance. An attempt by Dietl’s forces to expand the bridgehead toward the east failed when the Soviets launched a flanking attack by landing farther to the north behind the German front, thereby threatening the Germans' eastern positions. Dietl asked for further reinforcements, but the German high command was unwilling to accede to this request, and Dietl received only very minor reinforcements from Norway.

While Dietl’s forces were halted by determined Soviet resistance, the supply situation of the Gebirgskorps 'Norwegen' worsened rapidly. Soviet and British naval forces harassed German supply shipments along the Norwegian coast, weakening the Germans still farther. Every attempt to revitalise the offensive failed, the Soviets were able to eliminate the German bridgehead to the east of the Zapadnaya Litsa river, and on 21 September the operation came to a halt. The Gebirgskorps 'Norwegen' was now ordered to defend its front and secure the Petsamo area with its strategically important nickel mines, even as a renewed offensive was ruled out. Both sides now entrenched themselves, and until the Soviet 'Petsamo-Kirkenes Strategic Offensive Operation' of October 1944 the front in the extreme north remained relatively stable, with only small-scale ski patrol skirmishes occurring.

Undertaken in parallel with 'Platinfuchs', 'Polarfuchs' (i) began on 1 July. The German main force at Salla was the Höheres Kommando zbV XXXV, which comprised three main elements in the form of Generalleutnant Kurt Dittmar’s 169th Division, SS-Obergruppenführer Karl-Maria Demelhuber’s SS Kampfgruppe 'Nord' and Eversti Verner Viikla’s Finnish 6th Division. These were opposed by the 122nd Division, 104th Division and 1st Tank Division of the 14th Army. The German units launched a frontal attack on Salla, while the Finnish 6th Division attempted a major flanking attack behind the Soviet lines farther to the south toward Alakurtti and Kayraly (Kairala in Finnish).

The attack went badly right from the start as the German troops were untrained for Arctic warfare. In particular, the SS unit, merely a former police unit, was unsuccessful in dealing with the Soviets' well-organised defense. After repeated attacks had failed, the Höheres Kommando zbV XXXV combined all its forces and, with the help of a flanking attack by the Finnish 6th Division, finally broke through the Soviet defenses on 6 July. Salla was taken on 8 July, and the Soviets started a general retreat in the direction of Kayraly to the east. The Höheres Kommando zbV XXXV managed to maintain its momentum in pursuit of the retreating Soviet troops, and reached Kayral on the following day. Kayraly was protected by a heavy Soviet defence and the large lakes round the town. This prevented any further German advance, rendering the situation into a stalemate for the remainder of the month.

Meanwhile, to the south Siilasvuo’s Finnish III Corps launched its own offensive to the east from Kuusamo to support the German advance at Salla. The III Corps' object was to reach Kestenga (Kiestinki in Finnish) and Ukhta in a two-pronged attack by a pair of battle groups. From there the corps would then advance towards Loukhi and Kem, where it would cut the Murmansk railway. The initial Finnish advance against the 54th Division was very successful. Moving swiftly through the Arctic forest, the III Corps defeated several Soviet regiments and advanced about 40 miles (65 km) to the canal between the Pyaozero and Topozero lakes in just 20 days. The German command of the Armee 'Norwegen' was highly impressed by the speed of the Finnish advance and decided to support the Finns by moving units of the Höheres Kommando zbV XXXV to the south to support this attack.

The III Corps crossed the canal and captured Kestenga on 7 August, while simultaneously reaching the outskirts of Ukhta. The Soviets now moved heavy reinforcements, in the form of the 88th Division, into the area and this stalled the Finnish offensive. Farther to the north, meanwhile, the Höheres Kommando zbV XXXV renewed its offensive toward Kayraly in the middle of August. A large pincer movement by the 169th Division from the north and the Finnish 6th Division from the south encircled the town and trapped large Soviet formations. After clearing the perimeter, the Höheres Kommando zbV XXXV advanced farther to the east. The corps took Alakurtti and reached the Voyta and Verman rivers where the pre-'Talvisota' Soviet border fortifications were situated. Against heavy Soviet resistance, the exhausted troops of the Höheres Kommando zbV XXXV could advance no farther. With the German high command moving units from the Höheres Kommando zbV XXXV to the south to bolster the III Corps' advance, Feige’s corps did not continue offensive efforts and went onto the defensive at the end of September.

Bolstered by the new German arrivals, the III Corps launched the final stage of its offensive on 30 October. The Soviets had increased their defenses and had brought in more units from other locations by this time, but despite this the Finnish forces took some ground and encircled an entire Soviet regiment. Suddenly on 17 November the Finnish command ordered an end to the offensive despite positive reports from the field commanders that further ground could be taken. The reason for this sudden change in Finnish behaviour was the result of diplomatic pressure by the USA. Before the cancellation of the offensive, US diplomats had warned Finland that a disruption of US deliveries to the USSR would have serious consequences for Finland. Finland therefore lost interest in spearheading the offensive. With the Finnish refusal to be involved in the offensive, 'Polarfuchs' (i) came to an end in November and both entrenched themselves along the current front line.

Thus 'Silberfuchs' had failed to achieved its ambitious goals. During the operation the Germans and Finns had taken some ground on both parts of the front, but in overall terms the operation had failed in strategic terms as neither Murmansk nor the Murmansk railway at Kandalaksha had been captured. The closest the German and Finnish forces came to disrupting the Murmansk railway was in the area to the east of Kestenga, where they were about 18.5 miles (30 km) distant from it, while Dietl’s force in the north did not even come close to approaching Murmansk. The German forces, especially the SS troops, were unsuited, ill-trained and unprepared for Arctic warfare and therefore made little progress while suffering heavy casualties. On the other hand, Finnish units, especially the 6th Division of the III Corps, made good progress and inflicted heavy casualties on the Soviet forces.

The failure of 'Silberfuchs' had a significant impact on the course of the war in the east. Murmansk was a major base for the Soviet Northern Fleet and, together with Arkhangyel’sk, was the main destination for Allied aid shipped to the USSR. British convoys had been sailing to Murmansk since the summer at the onset of the German war against the USSR, and with the entry of the USA into the war in December 1941, the influx of Western Allied aid increased massively. The USA enacted the Lend-Lease Act by which they opened the way for delivery to the USSR of large quantities of food, oil and war matériel,of which about one quarter was delivered via Murmansk. The deliveries included significant quantities of raw materials such as aluminium, as well as large quantities of manufactured military goods, including 5,218 tanks, 7,411 aircraft, 4,932 anti-tank guns, 473 million rounds of ammunition and various naval vessels. These supplies benefitted the Soviets significantly and contributed first to their resistance and then their fightback.

For almost all of the remainder of the war, the Arctic front remained stable. The German high command did not regard it as an important theatre and therefore did not transfer the substantial reinforcements needed for a renewal of the offensive. The Finns likewise possessed little real interest in continuing the offensive on their own as they wished not to antagonise the Western Allies still further. In September 1944, following a series of devastating German and Finnish defeats, the Finns sued for peace with the USSR and had to give up all of their territorial conquests. German forces subsequently retreated in 'Birke' from central Finland to Petsamo and thence Norway. In October 1944, the Soviet 'Petsamo-Kirkenes Strategic Offensive Operation' achieved a decisive victory over the German forces in the Arctic and expelled them from Finland.