Operation Polarfuchs (i)

Arctic fox

German and Finnish offensive against the Soviet forces in the Salla area of central Finland, which the Soviets had taken in the ‘Talvisota’, as half (with 'Platinfuchs') of 'Silberfuchs' (1 July/17 November 1941).

The undertaking was based on the use General Hans Feige’s Höheres Kommando zbV XXXVI of Generaloberst Nikolaus von Falkenhorst’s Armee ‘Norwegen’ 1. The opposition to the German and Finnish undertaking was found by General Leytenant Filipp D. Gorelenko’s (between September and November General Polkovnik Kirill A. Meretskov’s) 7th Separate Army and General Leytenant Valerian A. Frolov’s 14th Army of General Leytenant Markian M. Popov’s Karelia Front. The primary Soviet formation involved in ‘Polarfuchs’ (i) was General Major Roman I. Panin’s XLII Corps with the 88th Division in reserve, 104th Division in Kandalaksha, 122nd Division in the border defences and the 1st Tank Division in Kandalaksha, supplemented by the 54th Division of the 7th Army and later the independent ‘Grivnik’ Brigade.

Aimed at Kirovsk and Kandalaksha, which were to be taken before the German and Finnish forces wheeled to the north along the Murmansk railway to meet General Eduard Dietl’s Gebirgskorps ‘Norwegen’ for a possible combined assault on Murmansk, the 'Polarfuchs' (i) undertaking was schemed within the context of the ‘Silberfuchs’ overall plan, which also included ‘Platinfuchs’ farther to the north on the coast of the Arctic Ocean, to retake the areas between Salla and Kestenga lost by the Finns to the Soviets in 1940 during the ‘Talvisota’, and then to push forward with the aim of cutting the railway line (between Leningrad and Murmansk on the White Sea) in the area between Kandalaksha and Loukhi.

‘Polarfuchs’ (i) began on 1 July 1941, two days later than ‘Platinfuchs’, but over terrain which was vastly different to that over which its northern neighbour fought. The region around Kuusamo is ancient forest, with huge trees towering over heavy undergrowth in the drier areas between a myriad small swamps, streams and bogs. Despite its major differences in nature and appearance from that of the northern region, the terrain’s consequences were essentially the same: motor transport was confined to the few roads, and this gave the Soviets the opportunity to slow the advance with their excellent artillery.

The German formations had been transferred into the Arctic region in the preceding ‘Blaufuchs I’ and ‘Blaufuchs II’: the 169th Division had been shipped directly from Stettin to Oulu and then moved by rail to Rovaniemi. The SS Kampfgruppe ‘Nord’ had been created near Salla by combining two infantry regiments (6th SS Infanterieregiment and 7th SS Infanterieregiment), two artillery battalions (SS Artillerieabteilungen) and one reconnaissance battalion (SS Aufklärungsabteilung). The formation was more a police than an infantry unit, and therefore unsuited for operations in northern Finland.

The goal of the operation was to take Salla and then to proceed to the east along the railway line to take Kandalaksha and thereby sever railway communications from Murmansk to areas to its south and thus the main body of the USSR. For this the Finnish 6th Division was to capture Allakurtti and Käyrälä from Kuusamo to the south of Salla. In the north the 169th Division was to take the offensive in a direct frontal assault on the Soviet defences at the Tenniö river and the Kampfgruppe ‘Nord’ was to advance along the road linking Salla and Kandalaksha. Farther to the south, Siilasvuo’s Finnish III Corps was to support the main offensive with Eversti Uno Fagernäs’s Finnish 3rd Division. The Finnish III Corps was placed under German command for the operation. The ultimate goal for the Finnish forces was to cut the supply lines to the Soviet forces farther to the north by taking Loukhi and Kem. For this the Finnish 3rd Division was divided into two groups, of which Ryhmä ‘J’ on the left was to advance from Kuusamo to take Kestenga, and Ryhmä ‘F’ on the right was to advance from Suomussalmi to take Ukhta.

‘Polarfuchs’ (i) began at midnight on 1 July as the Finnish 6th Division crossed the border into Soviet-held territory. Several hours later the SS Kampfgruppe ‘Nord’ started its direct assault on the Soviet defences, but found it impossible to break through. During the next few days the SS troops tried repeatedly but fruitlessly to break through the Soviet lines, and it was not until the 169th Division supported the attack that the Germans broke through on 6 July and captured Salla. A Soviet counterattack then drove the Germans back out of the town, but on 8 July the 122th Division retreated, allowing the Germans to capture the town once again. The Soviets had abandoned most of their artillery, and in heavy fighting some 50 Soviet tanks were destroyed. After this, the SS Kampfgruppe ‘Nord’ pursued the 122nd Division toward Lampela, while the 169th Division turned toward Apa and Lake Kuola.

On 9 July the 169th Division reached Käyrälä, but was thrown back by determined Soviet counterattacks. The 104th Division, 124th Division and 1st Tank Division, comprising the XLII Corps, now formed a formidable defence line around the lakes, as well as the towns of Allakurtti and Käyrälä. The German advance stalled, facing difficulties with forest fighting in arctic geographical conditions.

On 16 July von Falkenhorst arrived in the sector and urged Feige to renew the offensive. On 27 and 29 July the Höheres Kommando zbV XXXVI made two separate attacks, both of which failed. While the German advance remained stalled, farther to the south the Finnish 3rd Division was making good progress. The division’s first opponent was the Soviet 54th Division. Ryhmä ‘J’ advanced quickly for some 40 miles (65 km), which was twice what the German forces managed in the whole of July, through rough terrain to the Vyonitsa river, where it destroyed several trapped Soviet units between 10 and 19 July. Ryhmä ‘J’ advanced to the canal between Lake Pya and Lake Top, on 30 July moved across the river, and then defeated the Soviet forces in the region.

On 7 August the Finns captured Kestenga after fierce fighting. The Soviets transferred additional troops, in the form of the 88th Division and the independent ‘Grivnik’ Brigade, into the area.

The advance of the Ryhmä ‘J’ to the east of Kestenga was now bought to a halt, as too was the drive of Ryhmä ‘F’ toward Ukhta. The German command now decided to support the thrust of the Ryhmä ‘F’ on Ukhta and transferred the Ryhmä ‘J’ to the south to support the Ryhmä ‘F’. On 14 October the German command decided to halt the Ukhta offensive and instead support the advance of the Ryhmä ‘J’ to the east of Kestenga.

On 30 October the revised offensive began, and after two days a Soviet regiment was encircled. Instead of continuing the offensive, the Finns then cleared their perimeter in an undertaking which lasted to 13 November. Up to this time the Finnish 3rd Division had killed 3,000 Soviets and captured 2,600 others. Three days later the Finns decided not continue the offensive as their front was now overextended.

As an addition to ‘Platinfuchs’ and ‘Polarfuchs’ (i), one of the two available Finnish Jääkäri (Jäger) light infantry battalions was inserted into the largely unoccupied 150-mile (240-km) sector between the 'Platinfuchs' advance on Murmansk and the 'Polarfuchs' (i) advance on Kandalaksha, and this unit managed to sever the sole railway line connecting Kandalaksha with the Soviet forward positions at Nyam station. This meant that for two weeks the 122nd Division received no supplies and therefore had to survive on what was available in its field dumps.

During the successful Finnish advance in the southern part of its sector, the Höheres Kommando zbV XXXVI had prepared another attack. At the beginning of August the Finnish 6th Division spearheaded the renewed drive with the 169th Division following it. In the face of the new German thrust, the Soviets retreated to the Tuutsa river, had to yield Allakurtti and later pulled back to the Voyta river, where the Soviet 1939 border fortifications were located. On 6 September the Höheres Kommando zbV XXXVI made a frontal assault against the Soviet line, but made only slow progress. The Soviets now formed a strong defence line between Lake Verkhneye Verman and Tolvand along the so-called ‘VL’ (‘Verman Line’). The Soviets also received massive reinforcement, while the Höheres Kommando zbV XXXVI was exhausted after months of combat. The German casualties were heavy, and the attack was finally called off at the end of September. With the Finns stopping their offensive in the south on 17 November, this marked the end of ‘Polarfuchs’ (i).

The German and Finnish offensive had thus failed to attain its strategic objective, inasmuch as neither Murmansk nor the railway at Kandalaksha had been taken. The inescapable conclusion was that the Höheres Kommando zbV XXXVI was unsuited, ill-trained and unprepared for Arctic warfare and therefore made only small progress while suffering heavy casualties. The Finnish units, especially the 6th Division of the III Corps, had made good progress and inflicted heavy casualties on the Soviet forces, but as a result of the Finns’ limited resources and an overextended front Siilasvuo had been ordered to not proceed farther with the offensive, possibly as a result of the wish of Sotamarsalkka Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, the commander-in-chief of the Finnish forces, not to allow Finland to become heavily committed to Germany’s war.

Although the Finnish and German forces had managed to retake the eastern area of central Finland which had been lost to the Soviets in the ‘Talvisota’, their advance into the USSR toward Kandalaksha had been halted. The Höheres Kommando zbV XXXVI (from 18 November the XXXVI Gebirgskorps) then dug in and the front quickly stagnated, just as it had in the north, combat being reduced to skirmishing and patrol actions.

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This comprised Eversti Verner Viikla’s Finnish 6th Division, SS-Gruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Karl Demelhuber’s SS Kampfgruppe ‘Nord’ [from September the SS Division ‘Nord’], and Generalleutnant Kurt Dittmar’s [from 29 September Generalleutnant Hermann Tittel’s] 169th Division), together with Eversti Uno Fagernäs’s Finnish 3rd Division of Kenraalimajuri Hjalmar Siilasvuo’s Finnish III Corps, two Finnish Jääkäri (Jäger) battalions, and two German tanks units in the form of the 40th Panzerabteilung zbV with obsolete PzKpfw I and obsolescent PzKpfw light tanks and 211th Panzerabteilung with captured French tanks.rised