Operation Polarfuchs (i)

Arctic fox

'Polarfuchs' (i) was the German and Finnish offensive undertaken in parallel with 'Platinfuchs' in the northern part of Finland in order to take Murmansk, both of them within the context of the 'Silberfuchs' overall scheme, to defeat the Soviet Karelia Front, to retake the Finnish town of Salla, and in its northern sector to take the Soviet port of Kandalaksha on the west coast of the White Sea and in its southern sector to take Belomorsk farther to the south on the western coast of the White Sea, thereby preventing the delivery of imported weapons and other equipment from the ice-free Arctic Ocean port of Murmansk to the rest of the USSR (1 July/17 November 1941).

The northern element of 'Polarfuchs' (i) was 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 strategic 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' winter war, and then to push forward with the aim of cutting the Kirov Railway line (between Leningrad and Murmansk along the White Sea coast and across the Kola peninsula) in the area between Kandalaksha and Loukhi.

The operation was thus a joint German and Finnish undertaking which combined Finnish troops trained in and equipped for arctic warfare with relatively unsuitable German forces from Norway. The German and Finnish forces managed to capture Salla after fierce fighting, but the German troops were unable to overcome the old, pre-war Soviet border fortifications farther to the east. The Finnish units were able to make better progress, and came within 18.5 miles (30 km) of the Murmansk railway at Kantalahti on the White Sea coast, where the arrival of strong Soviet reinforcements prevented further advance. As a consequence of the escalating situation farther south on the central part of the front in the USSR, the Germans were unwilling to allocate more of their strength to this northern sector, thereby bringing to an end their contribution to the undertaking. The Finns were both unable and unwilling to continue the attack on their own, 'Polarfuchs' came to an end in November 1941, after which each side entrenched itself in its current positions.

The Oberkommando der Wehrmacht included Finland in its plan for for the 'Barbarossa' grand strategic campaign against the USSR. A joint Finnish and German offensive, 'Silberfuchs' was designed for the support of Germany’s main effort in the central USSR by capturing or disabling the port of Murmansk, which was to be a major destination for Western Allied shipping aid to the USSR. The plan was based on the execution of a pincer attack against Murmansk, in which the southern arm of the pincer was to be 'Polarfuchs' (i) launched from the Kemijärvi region of central Finland against the Soviet defences at Salla.

Salla had been taken by the Soviet forces in the 'Talvisota' winter war of 1939/40, and the German component of the 'Polarfuchs' (i) operation was based on the use of General Hans Feige’s Höheres Kommando zbV XXXVI of Generaloberst Nikolaus von Falkenhorst’s Armee 'Norwegen', and Kenraalimajuri Hjalmar Siilasvuo’s Finnish III Armeijakunta (corps). Under the command of these two corps were Eversti Verner Viikla’s Finnish 6th Divisioona, SS-Oberführer Karl Demelhuber’s SS Kampfgruppe 'Nord' (mot.) [from September the SS Division 'Nord' (mot.)], and Generalleutnant Kurt Dittmar’s [from 29 September Generalleutnant Hermann Tittel’s] 169th Division), together with Eversti Uno Fagernäs’s Finnish 3rd Divisioona, 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 II light tanks and the 211th Panzerabteilung with captured French tanks.

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 'Grivnik' Separate Brigade.

The planning of the operation began in December 1940. Oberst Erich Buschenhagen, chief-of-staff of the Armee 'Norwegen' travelled to Finland and with the Finnish general staff created a plan which would determine Finland’s role in the war, including the first draft of German/Finnish joint operations against the USSR. On 8 December 1940 Hitler issued Führerweisung Nr 21, which detailed his plan for 'Barbarossa' as whole and included the targets for proposed German and Finnish co-operation. The detailed operational plan was created by von Falkenhorst with the staff of the Armee 'Norwegen' in January 1941.

The German formations and units assigned to the operation were transported to the Arctic in the 'Blaufuchs I' and 'Blaufuchs II' operations. The 169th Division and Feige’s headquarters were transported by ship and train to Rovaniemi, and from there they joined Finnish forces and took position for the offensive under the guise of border exercises. The other German contribution was the SS Kampfgruppe 'Nord' (mot.) that had been created by combining the 6th SS Infanterieregiment (mot.) and 7th SS Infanterieregiment (mot.), two battalions of artillery and one reconnaissance battalion. The unit was in essence little more than an untrained police unit and wholly unsuited for Arctic warfare. During transit from Norway to Finland a transport ship caught fire and 110 soldiers died. Two small Panzer units were attached to the German force: the 211th Panzerabteilung which was subordinated to the German element and used captured French Hotchkiss H.39 tanks, and the 40th Panzerabteilung which was subordinated to the Finnish element and comprised mainly obsolete PzKpfw I light tanks, obsolescent PzKpfw II light tanks and a small reinforcement of more modern PzKpfw III medium tanks.

The object of the operation was to retake Salla, and then to advance to the east along the railway to capture Kandalaksha, and thereby cut the railway line which connected Murmansk with the rest of the USSR. To accomplish this, the German and Finnish forces were to advance in two main groups: one led by the Höheres Kommando zbV XXXVI in the north and the other by the Finnish III Armeijakunta in the south. Within the part allocated to the Höheres Kommando zbV XXXVI, the 169th Division was to advance in a three-pronged frontal attack against the Soviet defence line along the Tenniö river. Farther south the Finnish 6th Divisioona was to make a flanking operation into the Soviet rear from Kuusamo, advancing through difficult terrain to the north-east and capturing the towns of Alakurtti and Käyrälä (Kairala). For this operation the Finnish III Armeijakunta was placed under the command of the Armee 'Norwegen', and was to link with the German force at Käyrälä. Both divisions were supported by the SS Gebirgsdivision 'Nord' (latterly the SS Kampfgruppe 'Nord' and subsequently the 6th SS Gebirgsdivision 'Nord') which was to advance in the centre along the road linking Salla and Kandalaksha in a frontal assault on the Soviet defensive line.

Farther to the south, the Finnish 3rd Divisioona was to launch a separate but co-ordinated attack to sever the Murmansk supply lines at Loukhi and Kem. For this the 3rd Divisioona was divided into two battle groups: Ryhmä 'J' on the left was to advance from Kuusamo to take Kestenga (Kiestinki), and Ryhmä 'F' on the right was to advance from Suomussalmi to take Ukhta.

Air support, albeit of a limited nature, for the offensive was provided by Generalfeldmarschall Erhard Milch’s Luftflotte II and Kenraalimajuri (from 3 October Kenraaliluutnanti) Jarl Lundqvist’s Ilmavoimat/e] (Finnish air force). The Luftwaffe created a new headquarters for the operation and moved it into Finland. The Finnish air force mustered some 230 aircraft of various types, and Luftflotte V assigned 60 aircraft to 'Silberfuchs', these including Junkers Ju 87 dive-bombers, and Ju 88 and Heinkel He 111 medium bombers for ground support.

The Soviets were very much less well prepared. While they had anticipated a German invasion, with possible Finnish support, Iosef Stalin did not expect an attack along their entire border so early in any German aggression. The northern border was heavily fortified, but the Soviet leadership was unprepared for the German attack. The formation opposing 'Silberfuchs' was Popov’s North Front, comprising the 7th and 14th Armies. On 23 August 1941 the North Front was divided into General Leytenant Valerian A. Frolov’s Karelia Front and Popov’s Leningrad Front. Frolov headed the Karelia Front until 1 September, when he was promoted and replaced by General Major Roman I. Panin.

During the first weeks of the Finnish campaign the Axis would have a useful superiority in numbers along the border as the Soviets had only 150,000 men in the area to the north of Lake Ladoga.

Finland and Germany had air superiority as Soviet Karelia was protected by the 1st and 55th Mixed Air Divisions, totalling 273 aircraft, many of which were obsolete types and therefore outclassed by most of their opponents' warplanes. This situation was partly alleviated by the reinforcement provided by the British in the form of of No. 151 Wing on 7 September at Vaenga airfield. This wing had the task of aiding the Soviets, especially in the Murmansk region, by providing Hawker Hurricane fighters and training for the Soviets, but also flew 365 sorties over the area, accounting for 14 German aircraft kills.

On 1 September 1940, Finland had signed a treaty allowing the Germans to move troops through Finland to Norway, and during the Finnish and German negotiations the Finnish high command had offered its support to the German 'venture'. However, the Finnish national parliament authorised military action against the USSR only in the event that the USSR became the aggressor through an attack on Finland. On 22 June 1941 Germany launched its 'Barbarossa' onslaught on the USSR. German aircraft used Finnish air bases, and in 'Rentier' the army took the port of Petsamo. Simultaneously Finland remilitarised the neutral Åland islands group. Despite these actions the Finnish government insisted it remained neutral, but the Soviet leadership already viewed Finland as Germany’s ally. The Murmansk oblast (region) declared a state of emergency, mobilising 50,000 soldiers and sailors. Conscripts and volunteers joined the newly formed 1st Polar Division, a militia formation including a large number of ex-prisoners released from eastern camps, while sailors from Vitse Admiral Valentin P. Drozd’s (from 26 July Admiral Arseni G. Golovko’s) Northern Fleet enlisted in a marine infantry brigade. Civilians were also employed in the construction of four lines of fortifications between Zapadnaya Litsa and Kola Bay. The Soviets launched an air raid on 25 June, bombing all major Finnish cities and industrial centres including Helsinki, Turku and Lahti. During a night session, the Finnish parliament voted to go to war against the USSR, and 'Polarfuchs' (i) began within the week.

The Finnish and German operation started at 00.00 on 1 July, when the Finnish 6th Division crossed the border. The SS Kampfgruppe 'Nord' and 169th Division attacked several hours later. The Soviet positions on which the Finns and Germans fell were heavily fortified and held by divisions of the 14th Army: these formations were the 122nd Division and 104th Division, and the 1st Tank Division. Attacking in daylight and facing determined Soviet opposition, the Finnish and German divisions sustained heavy losses and their attack failed, the SS Kampfgruppe 'Nord' faring especially badly. The situation worsened on the following day when, after a renewed assault, the Soviets counterattacked. The headquarters of the SS Kampfgruppe 'Nord' panicked and some of the division was routed, making it necessary for Feige and the Höheres Kommando zbV XXXVI to intervene and restore order.

This failure prompted a German reconsideration of strategy. To reinforce the troops and replace the losses, additional personnel were transferred from Generalleutnant Erwin Engelbrecht’s 163rd Division based in Southern Finland. With a combined effort by all the German forces, extensive air-support by Luftflotte V and a flanking attack by the Finnish 6th Divisioona, the Germans finally broke through the Soviet defences on 6 July and took Salla. A major Soviet counterattack then drove them out of the town before, on 8 July, a general retreat by the 122nd Division allowed the Germans to recapture the town. The Soviet troops had been compelled to abandon most of their artillery, and in the heavy fighting some 50 Soviet tanks were destroyed. In order not to lose momentum, the SS Kampfgruppe 'Nord' pursued the 122nd Division in the direction of Lampela, while the 169th Division turned tp the east toward Käyrälä. Meanwhile, the Finnish 6th Divisioona made good progress in its flanking manoeuvre to the east to pass round Käyrälä and the Apa lake.

On 9 July, the 169th Division reached Käyrälä, but was then driven back by Soviet counterattacks. All three Soviet divisions now formed a formidable defensive line round Käyrälä, incorporating the adjacent Apa and Kuola lakes into their defence. The German advance stalled, facing difficulties with forest fighting in arctic terrain. At the same time the Soviets managed to move forward reinforcements to offset their losses. On 16 July, von Falkenhorst arrived at the headquarters of the Höheres Kommando zbV XXXVI and exerted pressure on Feige to renew the offensive. Compelled to comply, on 27 and 29 July the corps delivered two more attacks, but these were of little avail. Thus there had developed a stalemate which the Germans could not break. As a result of the grim situation and the steady escalation of losses (5,500 men in just one month), the Armee 'Norwegen'[/] ordered Feige to halt his part of 'Polarfuchs' (i).

While the German advance slowed and then stalled, the 3rd Divisioona of the Finnish III Armeijakunta in the south was making good progress. The division’s first opponent was the 54th Division of the 7th Army. Ryhmä 'F' advanced very quickly through 40 mils (65 km) of rough terrain to the Vyonitsa river, where it encircled and destroyed several Soviet units between 10 and 19 July. Ryhmä 'J' advanced to the strongly defended canal between the Pyaozero and Topozero lakes. Astonished by the speed of this Finnish success, the Armee 'Norwegen' now decided to support the Finnish advance by transferring parts of the SS Kampfgruppe 'Nord' to the south and putting them under Finnish command.

Beginning on 30 July, the Finns infiltrated one battalion over the lakes, to a position behind the Soviet lines, which allowed them to flank and subsequently defeat the Soviets on the other side of the canal. On 7 August, the Finns captured Kestenga after fierce fighting. Reacting to the Finnish advance on the Murmansk railway, the Soviets moved the 88th Division and the 'Grivnik' Separate Brigade into the region. Soviet resistance now stiffened, leading to the checking of the Ryhmä 'J''s advance east of Kestenga. While Ryhmä 'J' had been embroiled in the battle around Kestenga, the Ryhmä 'F' had been able to reach the outskirts of Ukhta, then break through the defence line at the Yeldanka lake, and advance to within just few miles short of Ukhta proper. However, the Soviet reinforcements prevented further gains, and the Finnish attack stalled in this sector.

In the face of increasing Soviet resistance, the Finns and Germans revised their plan and decided to concentrate on only one target. Thus it was decided to halt the Ukhta offensive and instead support the advance to the east of Kestenga in the middle of August. This new undertaking was able to make some ground in the arctic no man’s land, but no decisive breakthrough was achieved. The increasing Soviet activity also worried Siilasvuo, especially as Ryhmä 'F' was now stationary in exposed terrain and therefore vulnerable to any Soviet encirclement. To counter this, the Armee 'Norwegen' opted to bolster the Finnish forces for a final push to the east, and the rest of the SS Kampfgruppe 'Nord' was moved south and put under Finnish command. Additionally, parts of Finnish 6th Divisioona were now moved south and returned to the Finnish III Armeijakunta to bolster its strength. Once this reorganisation had been completed, a new, and hopefully final, attack was to be launched by both Finnish battle groups in October.

At the same time as these advances, a Finnish jääkäri (light infantry) battalion was inserted into the largely unoccupied 150-mile (240-km) area between the Murmansk and Kandalaksha axes of the advance, and was able to cut the sole railway line connecting Kandalaksha with the Soviet forward positions at the Nyam station. This meant that for two weeks the 122nd Division received nothing in the way of supplies and had therefore to survive on its field dumps.

During the successful Finnish advance in the south, there emerged tensions between the headquarters of the Höheres Kommando zbV XXXVI and the Armee 'Norwegen'. Not without reason, Feige believed that his corps should lead the main effort against the Murmansk railway. Instead of giving him the reinforcements Feige had requested to overcome the strong Soviet defences and reach Kandalaksha, however, von Falkenhorst was transferring a flow of German units to the south to bolster the advance of the Finnish III Corps. While the Armee 'Norwegen'[/] believed that the greater chance of success lay with the III Corps, it nevertheless ordered Feige to resume his offensive to the east, leaving him in a very difficult situation. So, given his lack of any alternative, Feige created the plan for another offensive. The thinly stretched forces of the 169th Division had to be divided still further in order to take over the defence line along the entire frontline between Käyrälä and its adjacent lakes. The Finnish 6th Division would then be free to undertake another massive flanking operation: advancing from the very south, the division would bypass the Soviet positions at Käyrälä and thrust to a location to the east of it and thus descend on the Nurmi lake behind the Soviet lines, and the 169th Division was to do the same but from the north rather than the south, resulting in a large pincer movement to trap the Soviets.

At the beginning of August 1941 this plan was launched with the 6th Division leading the renewed drive of the Höheres Kommando zbV XXXVI with the 169th Division following. The plan met with unexpected success, for the attack completely surprised the Soviets and a major engagement developed round Käyrälä. The German and Finnish force was able to encircle large parts of the Soviet XLII Corps and its 104th Division. Although some units escaped, large parts of the Soviet formation were subsequently destroyed and the Soviets had to abandon most of their equipment behind. In the face of this new German and Finnish thrust, the Soviets retreated to the Tuutsa river. They tried to establish a new defensive line around Alakurtti, but were unable to check the pursuit. After they had lost Alakurtti, the Soviets withdrew to the Voyta river and the 1939 Soviet border fortifications

On 6 September, the Höheres Kommando zbV XXXVI launched a frontal assault on these fortifications, but made only slow progress. The Höheres Kommando zbV XXXVI attempted another flanking attack, similar to that at Kayrela, with one German regiment trying to bypass the Soviet defences in the south. This time the tactic it did not work as well as it had before, and the German effort bogged down in the face of heavy resistance. After days of fighting, the Germans were finally able to push behind the Voyta river, only to be confronted by another even stronger Soviet defence line, the so-called 'VL-linja' (Verman Line) extending from the Verkhneye Verman lake to Tolvand lake and included many large Soviet pre-war fortifications.

By this time the Höheres Kommando zbV XXXVI had reached the point of total exhaustion. With the transfer of the SS Kampfgruppe 'Nord' to the south, and a return of the Finnish 6th Divisioona to the Finnish III Armeijakunta, Feige believed that no farther advance in this sector was possible. With the Soviets bringing more reinforcements to the front on a daily basis, Feige requested more men if he was to start a new attack. Plans were indeed made by the Armee 'Norwegen' for a resumption of the offensive, but the German high command was unable to strengthen the Arctic theatre with additional units and the Armee 'Norwegen' was not in the position to send any useful reinforcement from its own resources. Thus all offensive plans were scrapped. Moreover, as a result of the more spectacular gains at the main front in the central USSR in 'Barbarossa', the Oberkommando des Heeres deemed the current situation acceptable and therefore ordered the cessation of offensive operations by the Höheres Kommando zbV XXXVI. Combined with heavy German casualties, this led to the attack’s termination at the end of September.

While the Höheres Kommando zbV XXXVI was faring poorly against the Soviets, the Finnish III Corps' situation was not significantly better despite the arrival in the south of reinforcements from the Höheres Kommando zbV XXXVI. The Ryhmä 'F''s drive on Ukhta was stopped in its tracks by the recently reinforced 88th Division, and the Soviets now launched a heavy counterattack. Still reorganising with the recently arrived German units for a revived push to the east, the Finns were compelled to retire. To counter the new threat, the Armee 'Norwegen' now committed all that it had available to bolster the Finnish front. New arrivals included another regiment from the Höheres Kommando zbV XXXVI as well as parts of the Finnish Jalkaväkirykmentti 14 infantry regiment diverted to the south from 'Platinfuchs' in the far north. The reinforcements helped to stabilise the front.

Finally, on 30 October, the new long-planned offensive began, and after two days a Soviet regiment was encircled. Siilasvuo’s forces then proceeded to clear the perimeter. After the disappointing performance of the SS units under his command and the realisation that neither the Finnish nor the German high commands was about to provide him with additional forces or substantial reinforcements, he slowed the eastward advance and instead concentrated on clearing and securing the area. These mopping-up operations had been completed by 13 November, and by that date the Finnish 3rd Divisioona had killed 3,000 Soviet soldiers and captured 2,600.

Largely incapable of operating or advancing without the support of more experienced Finnish formations and units, the Germans now hoped for a continuation of the attack by the Finns. These hopes were soon quashed. Sotomarsalkka Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, supreme commander of the Finnish forces, insisted on delaying further offensive operations, citing military and logistical reasons. On 17 November, Siilasvuo ordered an immediate stop to the Finnish III Armeijakunta' offensive, despite indications from his field commanders that further progress could still be made. This sudden change in Finnish behaviour was, at least in part, the result of diplomatic pressure by the USA and UK. Finland was no longer interested in spearheading such an offensive, moreover, and with the Finnish refusal to be involved in further offensive operations, 'Polarfuchs' (i) came to an end in November, and each side then dug in.

'Polarfuchs' (i) and its 'Platinfuchs' half-brother had therefore failed to achieve their goals. During the 'Polarfuchs' (i) operation the German and Finnish forces had indeed taken Kestenga and Salla, but in overall terms the operations had failed in terms of their strategic intentions as neither Murmansk nor the Murmansk railway at Kandalaksha had ben captured. The closest the German and Finnish forces came to the Murmansk railway was a point to the east of Kestenga, where they were about 18.5 miles (30 km) distant from it. The Höheres Kommando zbV XXXVI in general, and most especially its SS component, was poorly trained and unprepared for arctic warfare, and as a result had made little progress while suffering heavy casualties. On the other hand, the Finnish units, especially the 6th Divisioona of the III Armeijakunta, had made good progress and inflicted heavy casualties on the Soviet forces.

The failure of 'Polatfuchs' (i) had a major impact on the course of the war in the east. Murmansk was a vital base for the Soviet Northern Fleet and, with Arkhangyel’sk, the main destination for Allied aid shipped to the USSR. British convoys had traveled to Murmansk since the first summer of the war, but with the USA’s December 1941 entry into the war, the flow of Western Allied aid to the USSR increased massively. The USA enacted the Lend-Lease Act in which they vowed to supply the USSR with large quantities of food, oil and war matériel, and one fourth of this aid was delivered via Murmansk. This included large quantities of raw materials such as aluminium as well as large quantities of military goods, the latter including 5,218 tanks, 7,411 aircraft, 4,932 anti-tank guns, 473 million rounds of ammunition and various sea vessels. Those supplies benefited the Soviets significantly and contributed to their continued resistance.

For the remainder of the war the arctic front remained inert. The German high command did not regard it as an important theatre and thus did not transfer the substantial reinforcements which would have been needed for any renewal of the offensive. Likewise, the Finns had no interest in continuing the offensive on their own as they wished to antagonise the Western Allies no further. In September 1944, following a series of devastating German defeats, the Finns sued for peace with the USSR and had to abandon all of their territorial conquests. The Germans subsequently retreated from central Finland to Petsamo and Norway. In October 1944, the Soviets undertook the 'Petsamo-Kirkenes Offensive Operation' and achieved a decisive victory over the German forces in the arctic by completely expelling them from Finland.