Petsamo-Kirkenes Strategic Offensive Operation

The 'Petsamo-Kirkenes Strategic Offensive Operation' was the Soviet undertaking to retake Petsamo in the extreme north of the German-occupied western USSR and then advance to take Kirkenes in German-occupied northern Norway (7/29 October 1944).

Following the failure of the German 'Silberfuchs' offensive in the summer of 1941, there had been little movement of the front in the Arctic. Geographical, climatic and supply conditions in this remote and almost totally roadless region made it difficult, if not impossible, to undertake major military operations, and as far as land warfare was concerned, the Arctic had become a backwater. The Germans maintained sizeable forces in the area to ensure continued retention of the strategically significant Finnish nickel mines of Petsamo, which were of importance to Germany in the fabrication of armour plate, and to guard the coast of northern Norway against an Allied amphibious assault.

By the 4 September 1944 armistice between the USSR and Finland, ending the 'Jatkosota' (Continuation War), the Petsamo region again became part of the USSR, although it was still largely occupied by the Germans, and the Finnish government was forced to agree to remove the remaining German forces from its territory by 15 September, so leading to the 'Lapinsota' (Lapland War). During the 'Birke' retreat of Generaloberst Dr Lothar Rendulic’s 20th Gebirgsarmee, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht decided to withdraw completely from northern Norway and Finland in 'Nordlicht' (iii), but during the preparations for this operation, the Soviets went over to the offensive.

The formation of the 20th Gebirgsarmee involved against the 'Petsamo-Kirkenes Strategic Offensive Operation' was General Ferdinand Jodl’s XIX Gebirgskorps (about 56,000 men of Generalleutnant Hans Degen’s 2nd Gebirgsdivision, Generalmajor Max-Josef Pemsel’s 6th Gebirgsdivision supplemented by the 308th Grenadierregiment, Generalleutnant Curt Ebeling’s 210th Division, Generalmajor Adrian Freiherr van der Hoop’s brigade-sized Divisionsgruppe 'van der Hoop' and the regiment-sized Radfahraufklärungsbrigade 'Norwegen'). The Germans had 145 pieces of artillery but no armour.

The Stavka had decided to move against the German forces in the Arctic in late 1944. The operation was to be undertaken jointly by General Kirill A. Meretskov’s Karelia Front and Vitse Admiral Arseni G. Golovko’s Red Banner Northern Fleet. The main brunt of the operations was to be borne by General Leytenant Vladimir I. Shcherbakov’s 14th Army, which had been in the Arctic since the beginning of the war. The core strength of the 14th Army was about 96,000 men in General Major Manzakir A. Absaliamov’s XXXI Corps, LXXXXIX Corps, General Major Zinovi N. Alekseyev’s (from 24 October General Major Fedor F. Korotkov’s) CXXXI Corps, and General Leytenant Boris A. Pigarevich’s Corps 'Pigarevich', and the CXXVI and CXXVII Light Mountain Corps; the Soviets had 2,100 pieces of artillery and 110 tanks. Meretskov was additionally provided with two formations especially configured to meet the requirements of operations in the far north: the CXXVI Light Corps and CXXVII Light Corps comprised light infantry with a number of ski troops and naval infantry. The Soviets also had 30 engineer battalions, large numbers of horse- and reindeer-equipped transportation companies, and two battalions equipped with US-supplied amphibious vehicles for river crossings. In addition to an overall total of 133,500 men and 2,100 pieces of artillery and mortars, the Soviets massed 750 aircraft and 110 armoured fighting vehicles, while the Germans lacked any armour, making Soviet forces far superior to the Germans.

The Soviet preparatory effort, which had lasted for two months, had been remarked by the Germans. The highly capable Rendulic, who served as both the commander of the 20th Gebirgsarmee and the overall theatre commander, was well aware of the threat posed by the inevitable Soviet offensive, and before the start of the Soviet drive, had ordered his forces to abandon Petsamo on 15 October, and Kirkenes by the beginning of November.

The 'Petsamo-Kirkenes Strategic Offensive Operation' can be divided into three phases: the breakthrough of the German position, the pursuit to Kirkenes, and the battle for Kirkenes, the last including the pursuit to the south which followed it. The offensive was also notable for the fact that the Soviets undertook several amphibious landings using their naval infantry as well as army units.The Germans' pre-planned withdrawal was initially hampered by Adolf Hitler’s strict orders to Rendulic to ensure that all supplies were withdrawn from the Petsamo region before it was abandoned.

Despite the intensive planning before the start of the offensive, the Soviet forces' initial attack on 7 October ran into difficulties right from its start, and poor visibility was instrumental in the difficulty of co-ordinate artillery and air support, so slowing the assault. Nevertheless, after some fierce fighting the Soviets broke through the German lines on the Zapadnaya Litsa river and then the Titovka river, and after blowing the bridges the Germans retreated. The Soviets pursued, and in the next few days undertook several amphibious landings in an effort to cut the German lines of retreat and so trap the leading elements of the 20th Gebirgsarmee. On 10 October the Germans shifted Generalleutnant Karl Rübel’s 163rd Division, which was already withdrawing from Finland to Norway, to the Petsamo region to bolster their defences. On 13 October the Soviets were poised to attack German forces round Petsamo, and units of the CXXVI Corps were able to establish a roadblock on the only escape route, but units of Degen’s 2nd Gebirgsdivision were able to clear the block on 14 October, securing the line of retreat for Rendulic’s forces. The Soviets captured Petsamo on 15 October, but as a result of logistical problems had then to halt their offensive for three days.

For the rest of the campaign the Soviets advanced in the wake of the Germans forces as the latter pulled back along the coast of northern Norway, the Soviets trying several times to block and cut off German formations and units on their retreat. As a result of their own constant supply shortcomings and German delaying efforts, which necessitated the detachment of sizeable forces for road reconstruction, the Soviets were not able to achieve success and the Germans escaped with the bulk of their forces intact. The Germans abandoned Kirkenes on 25 October and finally on 29 October Meretskov halted all but reconnaissance operations after a pursuit to the south-west as far as Neiden in the west and Nautsi in the south, which were taken on 29 and 27 October respectively.

The Soviets had lost 21,233 men (6,084 killed and missing, and 15,149 wounded), and the Germans 8,263 men in all.

The Soviet offensive ended in a clear-cut victory, albeit one not as decisive as the Stavka had planned and hoped. Even so, the 20th Gebirgsarmee had successfully performed an orderly withdrawal with the bulk of its forces intact, just as it did against the Finnish forces during its 'Birke' retreat through Lapland over basically the same period. The Soviet failure to inflict a decisive defeat on the withdrawing Germans resulted largely from their supply problems, themselves attributable in large part to the efficiency with which the Germans had destroyed all of the area’s road connections. With the only road available unpassable as a result of damage, which could be seen but then took time to repair, and mines, which could not been seen and slowed the pace of the advance, both supplies and heavy equipment, such as artillery, could not be moved forward to the front in sufficient numbers, and the more lightly equipped forces were at disadvantage against heavily armed German forces.

In the last days of the 'Petsamo-Kirkenes Strategic Offensive Operation', Meretskov was promoted to the rank of Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza, and was later given command of the 1st Far Eastern Front during the Soviet 'Avgust Buri' grand strategic offensive of August 1945 into Japanese-held Manchukuo. The 'Petsamo-Kirkenes Strategic Offensive Operation' remains notable for the fact that it was the last major offensive in an Arctic environment.