Operation Nordlicht (iii)

northern lights

'Nordlicht' (iii) was the German withdrawal of its forces in the area of the Kola peninsula, in the extreme north-western USSR, to the Lyngenfjord in the northern part of German-occupied Norway during the 'Lapinsota' following the armistice which had ended the 'Jatkosota' between the Finns and the Soviets (September 1944).

The Finno-Soviet agreement demanded the rapid removal of the German forces from Finland, and the first German formation to pull back was Generaloberst Dr Lothar Rendulic’s 20th Gebirgsarmee. The Germans had initially planned in 'Birke' to fall back to defence lines already built across Finnish Lapland. During the implementation of the 'Birke' retreat, however, the operations staff of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht had reviewed the entirety of the German strategic position in Scandinavia and Finland. The review, concerned primarily with the question of whether or not to leave the 20th Gebirgsarmee in northern Finland, was also associated with Sweden’s growing hostility and the increased strategic significance of the U-boat bases in Norway as a result of Germany’s recent loss of the French bases and the projected resumption of full-scale U-boat warfare made possible by the introduction of new and much superior U-boat types. The operations staff came to the conclusion that the British naval and air forces formerly committed against the U-boat bases in France would now be switched to the north against the U-boat bases in Norway, the 20th Gebirgsarmee's increasingly vulnerable maritime lines of communication and supply, and the German desire to prevent the USSR from gaining any foothold in the northern part of Scandinavia. The operations staff also found that the continued retention of the northern part of Finland was no longer worth the risk as Albert Speer, controlling Germany’s war industrial effort, had recently delivered himself of the opinion that Germany’s existing stocks of nickel were adequate. On the other hand, the withdrawal of the 20th Gebirgsarmee into the northern part of Norway offered the possibility of strengthening the German defences in Norway against the Allies and against Sweden.

After seeing the operations staff’s conclusions, on 3 October Adolf Hitler approved a withdrawal into Norway to the 'Lyngen-Stellung', a short and potentially almost impregnable line across northern Norway between the Lyngenfjord and the northern tip of Sweden. In the two days which followed, preliminary orders were despatched to the 20th Gebirgsarmee and the codename 'Nordlicht' (iii) was assigned.

In operational terms, 'Nordlicht' (iii) was an extension of 'Birke' with the added problems of getting General Ferdinand Jodl’s XIX Gebirgskorps, currently based to the east of Petsamo, under way and also of evacuating the 20th Gebirgsarmee's stockpile of supplies, which were sufficient for eight months. Given its nature as the movement of an army of 200,000 men with all its equipment and supplies across the Arctic in winter, 'Nordlicht' (iii) was unprecedented, and the season was already well advanced. Known as Reichsstrasse 50, the road which the Germans had constructed along the coast of northern Norway, was normally considered impassable, because of snow, between Kirkenes and Lakselv between a time early in October and the following 1 June. Even though the autumn of 1944 was unusually mild, the XIX Gebirgskorps would therefore required a large element of good fortune and would have to have reached the area to the west of Lakselv by 15 November at the latest. General Emil Vogel’s XXXVI Gebirgskorps could use an all-weather road from Ivalo to Lakselv, and the road which General Friedrich Hochbaum’s XVIII Gebirgskorps would use was about half completed between Skibotten and Muonio and unimproved between Muonio and Rovaniemi. The low carrying capacity of this last was offset, at least in part, by the fact that it was the most southerly and most direct route to the 'Lyngen-Stellung'.

While the roads and weather posed unprecedented technical problems, the tactical situation of the withdrawing German formations and units was certain to be dangerous, and could indeed at any moment become catastrophic: the Finnish army might undertake significant offensives with superior strength against both the XXXVI Gebirgskorps and the XVIII Gebirgskorps. Moreover, the Soviets would naturally not permit the XIX Gebirgskorps to pull back unopposed, and had a number of options available to them: they could try to intercept and trap the XXXVI Gebirgskorps at Ivalo; or attack across the head of the Gulf of Bothnia and through northern Sweden to cut the army off at Narvik, demanding from Sweden the use of the railway linking Luleå in Sweden and Narvik in Norway as a 'reparation' for the German use of the Swedish railway system in 1941 as they prepared for 'Barbarossa' and its Finnish offshoots; or they could prosecute their pursuit through the northern part of Finland into Norway.

From all appearances British and US intervention was only slightly less certain than problems with the Soviets.

As it was interrupted by large numbers of ferry crossings and lay close to the coast for long stretches, the Reichsstrasse 50 was extremely, and indeed temptingly, vulnerable to naval and air attacks. The Germans also had to take into consideration an unlikely, but certainly not impossible, intervention from northern Sweden, which had not only terminated its trade agreements with Germany but also now seemed to be considering a complete break. The 20th Gebirgsarmee had already received orders to avoid any incident which could be construed as a provocation of Sweden, and this was a difficult task as the XVIII Gebirgskorps' axis of retirement took it directly along the Swedish border for several hundred miles.

The manner in which the first phase of 'Nordlicht' (iii) would be undertaken was dictated by the Soviets who, following a major strengthening of General Leytenant Vladimir I. Shcherbakov’s 14th Army of Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Kirill A. Metretskov’s Karelian Front in a process which the Germans had watched with some apprehension since the middle of September, began their 'Petsamo-Kirkenes Offensive Operation' against the XIX Gebirgskorps on 7 October. This German corps held the line it had held since a time late in summer of 1941: it was here that the northern part of the 'Arctic-Karelia Defensive Operation' brought the corps to a halt in the later stages of its 'Platinfuchs' offensive. On the left Generalleutnant Max Pemsel’s 6th Gebirgsdivision held the fortified front on the Litsa river, and on the right Generalleutnant Georg Ritter von Hengl’s (from 1 November Generalleutnant Hans Degen’s) 2nd Gebirgsdivision held the strongpoint line stretching to the south-west in the direction of Ivalo. Generalmajor Adrian Freiherr van der Hoop’s Divisionsgruppe 'van der Hoop' held a front across the neck of the Rybachy peninsula as well as the 'fortress' of Petsamo, and Generalleutnant Kurt Ebeling’s 210th Division occupied the coastal defences between Petsamo bay and Kirkenes.

Opposite the XIX Gebirgskorps, the 14th Army had been reinforced to a strength of five corps, giving the Soviets a strength of 97,000 men against the mountain corps' 53,000 men. On the Rybachy peninsula the Northern Defence Area had two naval brigades. The XIX Gebirgskorps had nevertheless to make a stand to protect the corps retreating from the south and to safeguard the great stockpiles of supplies and equipment, whose evacuation had only just started.

On the morning of 7 October General Major Zinovi N. Alekseyev’s CXXXI Corps attacked the 2nd Gebirgsdivision's strongpoint line at the divisional boundary to the south of Lake Chapr, and the XCIX Corps joined the assault on the right. The two corps, supported by artillery, aircraft and, much to the surprise of the Germans, armour, washed over several of the German strongpoints and by 12.00 had almost reached the Titovka river on the Finnish/Soviet border. The badly shaken 2nd Gebirgsdivision fell back toward Luostari along the Lan road. The 20th Gebirgsarmee's primary line of communication, the Arctic Ocean Highway, was threatened at Luostari. Rendulic ordered the 6th Gebirgsdivision to evacuate the Litsa front and release troops to protect the highway.

On 9 October General Major Vladimir N. Solovev’s CXXVI Light Mountain Corps attacked around the 2nd Gebirgsdivision's southern flank toward the Arctic Ocean Highway, on the Lan road the division’s northern flank was driven back, and a gap opened between the 2nd Gebirgsdivision and the flank of the 6th Gebirgsdivision. Rendulic sent forward a regiment and two battalions of the XXXVI Gebirgskorps as reinforcements.

On 10 October the Germans underwent a number of crises. At 24.00 the 12th Naval Brigade landed on the mainland to the west of the Rybachy peninsula and during the day turned the flank of the Divisionsgruppe 'van der Hoop', forcing it back from the neck of the peninsula. In the area between the 2nd Gebirgsdivision and 6th Gebirgsdivision, Alekseyev’s CXXXI Corps sent two regiments straight through to the north through the gap to cut the 'Russian Road', which was the 6th Gebirgsdivision's main route to the west. Off the 2nd Gebirgsdivision's right flank, Solovev’s CXXVI Light Mountain Corps capitalised on its success of the previous day and severed the Arctic Ocean Highway at a point some 5 miles (8 km) to the west of Luostari. Rendulic ordered the 6th Gebirgsdivision to clear the 'Russian Road' and then to withdraw to the line linking Petsamo and Luostari, and also sent Generalleutnant Karl Rübel’s 163rd Division to the north from Rovaniemi by forced marches and ordered the demolition of the Kolosyoki nickel works, which was a major undertaking: the works had been comprehensively bomb-proofed, some of the installations had been buried in deep underground bunkers and others left on the surface were protected by massive concrete shells, and reputedly there were stronger anti-aircraft defences than at any other location on the Eastern Front.

Over the following two days the 6th Gebirgsdivision reopened the 'Russian Road' and then, together with the Divisionsgruppe 'van der Hoop', pulled back toward Petsamo. The 2nd Gebirgsdivision managed to hold the road junction at Luostari. By this time the Soviets held about 5 miles (8 km) of the Arctic Ocean Highway, and to check their expansion to the west the Kampfgruppe 'Rübel' (two regiments of Rübel’s own 163rd Division) established a screening line straddling the highway.

On 13 October, while the Kampfgruppe 'Rübel' and the 2nd Gebirgsdivision attacked to the north and south unsuccessfully in an attempt to clear the highway, the CXXVI Light Mountain Corps sent a force to the north between them and cut the Tamet road, thereby effectively isolating the 2nd Gebirgsdivision, 6th Gebirgsdivision and Divisionsgruppe 'van der Hoop' as in the rocky tundra terrain of this inhospitable region large units could not move off the roads.

Thus, in just a single week, the 14th Army had destroyed a front on which the Germans had expended three years of labour. Rendulic ordered the divisions to yield Petsamo and Luostari, and to withdraw to the Norwegian border.

Even the Soviet troops, most of them specially trained, could not long maintain a fast pace across the tundra, and on 14 October paused to regroup.

The three German divisions fought their way through on the Tarnet road during the next several days but, by the time they had managed to achieve this, the condition of the 2nd Gebirgsdivision was now so poor that the formation had to be sent to the south to rest and refit behind the Kampfgruppe 'Rübel'.

On 18 October, in the expectation that the Soviets would resume their offensive within the next two days, Rendulic ordered the Kampfgruppe 'Rübel' to withdraw to Salmyarvi in three days and, since this would give the Soviets access to the road which had been used to transport nickel ore between Kolosyoki and Kirkenes, instructed the 6th Gebirgsdivision to hold the southern approaches to Kirkenes. Once these movements had been completed, the XIX Gebirgskorps and Kampfgruppe 'Rübel' would be separated and facing in opposite directions.

It was on 18 October that the 14th Army resumed the offensive, committing four of its corps in an attack on the Kampfgruppe 'Rübel'. The Kampfgruppe escaped the full force of the frontal attack by drawing back along the Arctic Ocean Highway, but its position became precarious during the following day when the CXXVI Light Mountain Corps attacked around the flank and threatened to cut the highway behind it. To keep its line of retreat open, the Kampfgruppe was compelled to fall back to the Lake Kaskama narrows, and the Soviet pressure then eased as the Kampfgruppe continued its withdrawal to Ivalo.

The CXXXI Corps attacked the 6th Gebirgsdivision's front screening Kirkenes, aiming its thrust at Tarnet, the location of the hydro-electric plant which supplied power to Kirkenes. By 22 October the plant was under fire, and Rendulic, informing the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht that without the power to operate dock facilities it was pointless to send ships to Kirkenes, sought authorisation to stop the evacuation of supplies and operate according to the tactical situation. After a delay of several hours, Rendulic received the authority he had requested, and subsequently the troops still to the east of Kirkenes fell back rapidly, the last of them passing to the west onto the Reichsstrasse 50 on 24 October. After German rearguard actions on 27 and 28 October, the Soviet pursuit slowed. Of the German corps' supplies, only some 45,000 tons, representing about one-third of the total, had been saved.

On 26 October the Germans began their withdrawal from the Varanger peninsula, and the Soviets pursued as far as the Tanafjord. Ahead of the XIX Gebirgskorps, two divisions of Generaloberst Nikolaus von Falkenhorst’s Armee 'Norwegen' had arrived between Skibotten and Lakselv to defend the vulnerable points on the Reichsstrasse 50 until the 20th Gebirgsarmee had passed. On the orders of Hitler, who was adamant that neither the Soviets nor the Free Norwegian government were to be permitted to seize a foothold to the north of the Lyngenfjord, Rendulic now instituted a scorched-earth policy. The civilian population of about 43,000 persons was evacuated, mostly in small boats to avoid congesting the Reichsstrasse 50.

In the XXXVI Gebirgskorps' zone, during the middle of October Generalleutnant Georg Radziej’s 169th Division occupied the 'Schutzwall' defences constructed to the south of Ivalo for 'Birke', and in the east, toward Lutto and Ristikent, the division established a screening line. It was here, on 21 October, that the corps experienced a brief alarm when radio monitors identified the headquarters of General Leytenant Georgi K. Kozlov’s 19th Army and three divisions in the Lutto river valley. However, ground reconnaissance then discovered that the Soviet radio traffic was a deception.

After the units of the former Kampfgruppe 'Rübel' had passed through Ivalo in the direction of Lakselv, the Lutto front was abandoned on 30 October, and the withdrawal from the 'Schutzwall' position began on the following day. On 2 November the 2nd Gebirgsdivision moved onto the Reichsstrasse 50 at Lakselv to begin the final stage of the XIX Gebirgskorps' and XXXVI Gebirgskorps' retirements. On the following day the rearguard of the 169th Division departed Ivalo. After holding Muonio until the large ammunition dump there had been evacuated, on 29 October the XVIII Gebirgskorps began to fall back to the 'Sturmbock' position to the west of Karesuando. There, in the fortifications built for 'Birke', Generalleutnant August Krakau’s 7th Gebirgsdivision remained to hold the narrow strip of Finnish territory projecting to the north-west between Sweden and Norway as a temporary flank protection for the 'Lyngen-Stellung' and the units arriving from the east on the Reichsstrasse 50. On 18 December the rearguard on the Reichsstrasse 50 passed the Billefjord. The 7th Gebirgsdivision remained in the 'Sturmbock' position until 12 January 1945, when it began an unopposed retirement back to the 'Lyngen-Stellung', which in the meantime had been manned by Pemsel''s 6th Gebirgsdivision.

At the end of January 'Nordlicht' (iii) came to an end. At the extreme north-western tip of Finland a small slice of Finnish territory which had been included in the 'Lyngen-Stellung' remained in German hands until the last week of April 1945. In the area to the east of the Lyngenfjord as far as the Varanger peninsula, Norwegian Finnmark was empty except for small German detachments at Hammerfest and Alta, from which the evacuation of supplies continued until February 1945. In January the Norwegian government-in-exile despatched a token police force from the UK and Sweden, and after this the Soviet forces gradually withdrew, leaving only a detachment at Kirkenes.

Although 'Nordlicht' (iii) was a superb example of German military skill and endurance, luck was possibly as significant as skill in its success. Of the most serious dangers and threats which had been anticipated, none in fact eventuated. The weather was as favourable as could have been expected in the Arctic, and the winter set in much later than was usual. Most fortunately of all for 20th Gebirgsarmee, 'Nordlicht' (iii) was executed at exactly the time when the resources of the USSR and Western Allies were stretched to the limit on their main fronts, so that the Soviet effort was modest and the Western Allies put in no appearance at all.