Murmansk Offensive Operation

The 'Murmansk Offensive Operation' was a Soviet undertaking to protect the Arctic port of Murmansk,which was also the main base of the Northern Fleet, from any German attempt to take it (28 April/11 May 1942).

In preparation for their summer campaign of 1942 , the Germans planned the 'Lachsfang' offensive by Generaloberst Eduard Dietl’s Armee 'Lappland' to take Murmansk. Given the fact that the distance between the current front line and Murmansk was small, the threat to Murmansk was great, all the more so as it was the sole northern destination for Allied convoys carrying supplies to the USSR. The Soviet high command had knowledge of what the Germans were planning, and therefore decided to undertake their own pre-emptive offensive.

On 27 March, the Stavka ordered General Valerian A. Frolov’s Karelia Front to plan and launch an offensive, no later than 15 April, to the west from the area of Murmansk 'in order to strengthen the defence of the port of Murmansk and the Kirov railway'. This required the Karelia Front to defeat the main German grouping in the area of ​​the Bol’shaya Zapadnaya (Litsa Bay). Frolov set his forces the more difficult task not only of defeating the German group within 10 days but also of driving it back to the west into northern Finland. The task was assigned to General Major Vladimir I. Shcherbakov’s 14th Army.

The main problem faced by Shcherbakov was the fact that although much was demanded of him, his army was not reinforced to the extent that it possessed a superiority over the Armee 'Lappland': indeed, the Germans retained the numerical advantage and possessed a well-prepared defensive disposition that maximised the numerous defensive opportunities offered by terrain characterised by north/south hill ranges, river lines lines and deep coastal bays. On the dominant heights, the Germans had created potent strongpoints made of stone and reinforced concrete and constituting the hubs of an integrated defensive system. The Germans had built several roads along which the troops could be supplied and reinforced, and had also constructed cable-car runs in difficult areas. The Germans had learned well from their experiences in this theatre during the fighting of 1941, and had also strengthened their positions on the western coast of Litsa bay to defeat any Soviet attempt to repeat the amphibious tactics they had used successfully in 1941.

In its preparations for the 'Murmansk Offensive Operation', however, the Soviet command repeated the mistakes characteristic of offensive operations on other fronts in this phase of the war: it underestimated the Germans' defensive strength, provided the advancing troops with inadequate artillery and engineering support, made poor provision for co-operation between the various arms involved, and failed to appreciate that this region required tactics different from those applicable elsewhere. Adding to the problems posed by these deficiencies, wholly inadequate time was offered for the 14th Army to prepare its offensive: three weeks from the moment the offensive was ordered by the Stavka, though the Karelia Front then managed to gain an extension of two more weeks. Finally, the timing of the offensive was poor for at the end of April the thaw of the Arctic spring arrived.

On 28 April, a three-hour artillery preparation was followed by the launch of the ground assault. According to the Karelia Front’s plan, the 14th Army was to co-operate with an amphibious assault to surround and destroy the German grouping facing it by means of simultaneous strikes from the front and rear, and then to build on is success by defeating the Germans and driving westward to the Finnish/Soviet frontier. On the same day, ships of Vitse Admiral Arseni G. Golovko’s Northern Fleet were to make an amphibious assault in Litsa bay to land some 6,200 men of the 12th Marine Brigade: By the end of the day, the marines occupied a beach-head up to 4.4 miles (7 km) wide and 3.1 miles (5 km) deep. In the days which followed, the marines advanced 6.8 miles (11 km), but the landing was unable to complete its main task of cutting the Germans' main supply line, which was the road connecting Mishukovo and Titovka. The Germans held their ground extremely stubbornly, quickly brought forward reinforcements, and continually counterattacked to regain the initiative.

In the land sector, the 14th Army suffered heavy losses in its attacks on the strongpoint areas of the German defensive system, but managed in some place to advance as much as 3.7 miles (6 km). What became immediately apparent, however, was the inability of the Soviet artillery and tactical warplanes to destroy the Germans' major fortifications. The movement of motor transport on the area’s narrow roads immediately became difficult and, indeed, was often paralysed. German warplanes lacked the numerical advantage but operated very actively in the provision of reliable cover for the German troops, and also made supply of the Soviet troops very difficult.

In order to strengthen the advancing Soviet units, reinforcements were landed in the beach-head, and the 152nd Division was transferred to the offensive area from the area of Kem. Continued Soviet progress was hen defeated by the weather. On 3 May there began heavy rain that quickly became a blizzard which raged for three days. A weather disaster found the 152nd Division, not equipped for operations in the north, on the move as it approached the front line: the division’s columns were covered with snow, and the men were without shelter and hot food. Some 484 men froze to death, and another 1,683 men succumbed to severe frostbite. The situation was basically the same in the beach-head, where there were no tents and stoves for heating for the marines, who were also not provided with winter clothing. The rest of the 14th Army also suffered. For these days the Soviet offensive was completely paralysed, and attempts to resume it after modest improvement in the weather produce no positive results but merely a greater number of casualties.

On 10 May, Frolov reported to Iosif Stalin about the failure of the offensive, and with the Soviet leader’s agreement on the following day the Soviet troops went over to the defensive. On 13 May, ships of the Northern Fleet removed the landing forces.

The Soviet losses in the 'Murmansk Offensive Operation' were, excluding landing losses, 7,496 men including 1,925 killed, 5,119 wounded, 287 frostbitten and 165 missing. Nevertheless, one of the offensive’s main objects had been achieved: the Germans had been compelled to commit almost all of their reserves into the battle and thus planning and preparation for 'Lachsfang' was disrupted and the front line was stabilised along a line that remained little changed until the liberation of the Arctic area in the 'Petsamo-Kirkenes Strategic Offensive Operation' of October 1944. Thus the northern terminal of the Western Allies' main Lend-Lease supply line to northern Russia was preserved and the delivery of supplies continued to operate throughout the war.

The losses of General Ferdinand Schörner’s XIX Gebirgskorps, the main German force in this battle, were about 3,200 men.