Operation Silberfuchs

silver fox

'Silberfuchs' was a joint German and Finnish three-part operation, known to the Finns as 'Hopeakettu', during the 'Jatkosota' continuation war on the Eastern Front against the USSR with the object of taking or at least isolating the key Soviet ice-free port of Murmansk by means of attacks from Finnish and Norwegian territory and in the process seizing the western coast of the White Sea and its strategic railway and road links between Kandalaksha in the north and Belomorsk in the south (29 June/17 November 1941).

The operation had three stages: in 'Rentier' (i) German forces of the Gebirgskorps 'Norwegen' advanced from Norway to secure the area around Petsamo and its nickel mines and then in 'Platinfuchs' ('Platinakettu') advanced on Murmansk; and in 'Polarfuchs' (i) ('Napakettu') there were paired undertakings as the German Höheres Kommando XXXVI attacked in the centre in order to retake the Finnish town of Salla and then take the Soviet town of Kandalaksha on the north-western coast of the White Sea, and in the south the Finnish III Corps, reinforced by a German division, attacked with the object of taking Belomorsk well to the south of Kandalaksha on the coast of the White Sea.

The aims of the offensive were thus to isolate the Soviet forces of General Leytenant Markian M. Popov’s North Front in the Kola peninsula for subsequent destruction and thereby aid the Germans in securing the major port of Murmansk and also tightening their grasp on the strategically important nickel-mining area of Petsamo, and to pave the way for a southward advance in the direction of Lake Onega and Lake Ladoga as a preliminary to a German assault on Leningrad from the north.

The Germans started to plan 'Silberfuchs' in December 1940, and in January 1941 sent Generalmajor Erich Buschenhagen, chief-of-staff of Generaloberst Nikolaus von Falkenhorst’s Armee 'Norwegen', to Finland with the task of discussing with Finnish leaders the possibility of a combined Finnish and German offensive against the USSR. As early as July 1940, Germany had planned, in the event of a new Finno-Soviet war, to implement 'Rentier' for the seizure of the nickel mines at Petsamo, taken from the Finns by the Soviets in the 'Talvisota' of 1939/40 but then returned under the terms of the armistice which ended this 'Winter War'.

Since September 1940 the Germans had possessed supply and troop transfer rights through northern Finland and, as noted above, late in February 1941 Buschenhagen was authorised to negotiate a combined offensive. Taking advantage of the co-belligerent pact between the two nations, Germany began to plan the movement of significant elements of the Armee 'Norwegen' into Finnish territory. These 'Blaufuchs I' and 'Blaufuchs II' operations began in June 1941: five German divisions and various attached elements (including two 'special purpose' Panzer units) were moved into position in the northern part of Finland, where they joined the Finnish forces currently being mobilised for 'border exercises'.

The Finns and Germans agreed on a three-phase offensive on two axes. The first undertaking within this overall scheme would be 'Rentier' to hold the Petsamo region using Generalmajor Ernst Schlemmer’s 2nd Gebirgsdivision and Generalleutnant Hans Kreysing’s 3rd Gebirgsdivision of General Eduard Dietl’s Gebirgskorps 'Norwegen'. This operation would move the Gebirgskorps 'Norwegen' from the occupied Norwegian region of Kirkenes into position to attack toward Murmansk. The second undertaking comprised second and third stages which were to be launched in unison. The 'Platinfuchs' northern assault called for the Gebirgskorps 'Norwegen', assisted by the Finnish 'Ivalo' Rajavartiopataljoona (border guard battalion), to advance east along the coast from Petsamo toward the Soviets' vitally important port of Murmansk on the Barents Sea. Taking place well to the north of the Arctic Circle, this operation would in all probability be severely hampered by adverse terrain and bad weather despite its commitment during the summer months.

Of all the undertakings planned by the Finno-German command structure, this was deemed the least likely to attain success. Murmansk was to become a lifeline for the Soviet forces later in the war, but early in 1941 it was deemed only a secondary target by the Germans. While the objective of 'Platinfuchs' was the capture of Murmansk from the two northernmost divisions of General Leytenant Valerian A. Frolov’s 14th Army, the primary objective of this operation was really to tie down Soviet troops and so prevent their redeployment to the south in order to aid in the defence of Leningrad at the head of the Gulf of Finland.

The 'Polarfuchs' (i) southern assault was to be the southern pincer of the Finno-German assault, and was separated from the northern assault by 200 miles (320 km). General Hans Feige’s Höheres Kommando zbV XXXVI, with two more German divisions and the two small special-purpose Panzer units as well as Eversti Verner Viikla’s Finnish 6th Divisioona, was to attack to the east from the Kuusamo region along the line from Salla to Urinsalmo through the defences of the 14th Army’s other two divisions and take Kandalaksha, the small port city at the western end of the White Sea and a chokepoint on the railway line connecting Murmansk and the Kola peninsula with the rest of the USSR, in the process tying down still more troops of the North Front, who would otherwise be sent to defend against 'Platinfuchs'.

At the same time, a Finnish-led operation, involving Kenraaliluutnantti Erik Heinrichs’s Finnish Karjalan Armeija (Army of Karelia) and the Finnish Kaakkois Armeija (South-East Army) of one German and 13 Finnish divisions in the Finnish II Armeijakunta (corps), IV Armeijajunta, VI Armeijajunta and VII Ameijakunta commanded respectively by Kenraalimajuri Paavo Talvela [from 29 June Kenraalimajuri Taavetti Laatikainen], Kenraaliluutnantti Lennart Oesch, Kenraalimajuri Aarne Blick and Kenraalimajuri Woldemar Hägglund) of Sotamarsalkka Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim’s Finnish Army Group, would attack to the south-east toward Lake Ladoga and Svir river.

Completing the line-up on the Finnish front, and linking the Höheres Kommando zbV XXXVI and the VI Armeijakunta on the northern end of the Karjalan Armeija was Kenraalimajuri Hjalmar Siilasvuo’s Finnish III Armeijakunta, whose sole formation, Eversti Uno Fagernäs’s 3rd Divisioona, was to move eastward through the defences of the northernmost division of General Leytenant Filipp D. Gorelenko’s 7th Army to take Kestenga and Ukhta before driving forward to Loukhi and Kem, so dividing the 14th Army in the north from the North Front’s other two major formations, Gorelenko’s 7th Army and General Leytenant Piotr S. Pshennikov’s (from August General Leytenant Mikhail N. Gerasimov’s) 23rd Army, in the south.

The first phase was 'Rentier', which was launched on 22 June to coincide with the start of 'Barbarossa'. The two mountain divisions of the Gebirgskorps 'Norwegen' advanced from Kirkenes and began to deploy to the east of Finnish-held Petsamo. The operation was successful, the appearance of the Gebirgskorps 'Norwegen' on their border coming as a surprise to the Soviets. Dietl’s troops then re-formed and prepared for the launch of 'Platinfuchs'. In the south, the units of the Höheres Kommando zbV XXXVI prepared for their attack over the same period, and then on 25 June 1941 the Soviets launched a major air offensive which brought Finland into the war. Four days later, 'Polarfuchs' (i) and 'Platinfuchs' were launched. In the north, Dietl’s attack got under way against two Soviet divisions. The terrain in this region is broken and barren, the severe cold means that there are no trees and virtually no growth of any type, and being littered with large boulders is effectively impassable to motor vehicles and tanks. Advancing to the east, the Germans had to construct the roads they needed, and all motor vehicles were confined to these, providing good targets for the Soviet artillery. To ease supply problems, the Germans imported pack animals from Greece, but these soon perished in the harsh climate. The attack slowed and then stopped completely, largely as a result of supply difficulties in the 330-mile (530-km) distance from the nearest railhead at Kemijärvi. The Soviets were only 37 miles (60 km) from the port of Murmansk, on the other hand, and tracks from the railway line from the south passed close to their positions.

As the Gebirgskorps 'Norwegen' advanced, albeit slowly, the Soviets reinforced their front, adding another division and several naval infantry units from Murmansk itself. The Soviets were now heavily entrenched and outnumbered their attackers. On 22 September, after repeated attempts to advance past the Litsa river, Dietl conceded the failure of 'Platinfuchs'.

The front soon settled as the Gebirgskorps 'Norwegen' halted offensive operations and dug in. For the remainder of the war, the northern front remained relatively stable, with small-scale ski patrol operations typical of local operations.

In the south, 'Polarfuchs' (i) had begun on the same date as 'Platinfuchs'. Wholly novel to the Germans, and therefore very unnerving, the terrain in the sector of the Höheres Kommando zbV XXXVI was vastly different to that of its northern neighbour, the area round Kuusamo being covered with thick forest in which huge trees towered over heavy undergrowth interspersed with countless small swamps, streams and bogs. Despite its difference from the northern region, the terrain exercised the same adverse effect on German movement. All motor traffic was confined to the few roads, allowing the Soviet artillery to check the advance.

Despite the protests of its commander that his unit was not yet ready for combat, SS-Oberführer Karl Demelhuber’s SS Kampfgruppe 'Nord' was sent into action through the dense forest around the villages of Märkäjärvi and Salla. In heavy fighting, the Kampfgruppe performed poorly and suffered heavy casualties, losing 700 men in two days and being broken by the determination of the Soviet resistance.

The advance on Kandalaksha slowed and stopped, and the troops of the Höheres Kommando zbV XXXVI prepared to hold the line they had reached. Here too there was an end to movement, combat being reduced to skirmishing and patrol actions. Finally, Adolf Hitler ordered a halt to the German advance.

The failure of 'Silberfuchs' had a lasting effect on the course of the war on the Eastern Front. While the rest of the Soviet front had collapsed in 1941, the forces of Popov’s North Front had held, inflicting losses of up to 15% on the Germans. The German failure can be attributed to a number of factors including the terrain and the lack of any assault focus for the spearheads of the two German-led thrusts. Murmansk remained in Soviet hands throughout the war, and about one-quarter of all Lend-Lease deliveries was received through this port, the rest coming through Vladivostok (almost one-half), Iran (one-quarter) and the Black Sea (rest). The supplies coming through Murmansk were notably important in aiding the Soviets to speed their recovery from the disasters of 1941.

The war in the north dragged on until September 1944, when the Finns sued for peace and the Lapland War began, but at no point was a decisive victory on this front a possibility.