Friday, July 22, 2011

Decisive Battles: Ilomantsi 1944

Ilomantsi - Dates: 31 JUL-13 AUG 1944Forces Engaged: Finland - Group Raappana (Ryhmä Raappana); an ad-hoc organization assembled for the defense of the "U-Line" in the North Karelia region. The major elements of this force were 21st Infantry Brigade (abbreviated on the Finnish tactical maps as "21Pr" from "21 Prikaati" the latter being Finnish for brigade), roughly 7,000 all arms, along with several Border Jager battalions and other elements of the 14th Infantry Division, disorganized after the Soviet offensive of mid-June.When the severity of the Soviet offensive became obvious the Finnish Cavalry Brigade (Ratsuväkiprikaati, abbreviated "RPr" on the tactical maps) was dispatched to reinforce the Ilomantsi sector, bringing the total Finnish strength to between 13,000 and 14,000 all arms under Major General Erkki Johannes Raappana.(Note: the Finns, as in most things, were a pragmatic people when it came to warfare. The Finnish cavalry was known for the delightful foppery of their dress [their dark red uniform pants were known to the ladies of Helsinki as "ecstasy trousers"] before the 1939 Winter War, but the Finns had been looking south and had seen what mechanized war did to horse cavalry. So from the outset the Finnish mounted units - the Uusimaa Dragoon Regiment [Uudenmaan rakuunarykmentti, URR] and Häme Mounted Regiment [Hämeen ratsurykmentti, HRR] - fought as mounted infantry. Later in the war, when keeping horses alive in combat became more trouble than it was worth, the dashing cavalrymen rode into battle...on bicycles.)Soviet Union - A portion of the 32nd Army, Karelian Front (Colonel-General Kirill Afanasievich Meretskov).

The full strength of this army in the summer of 1944 consisted of four infantry divisions; 27th, 176th, 289th, and 313th. The authorized strength of a Soviet 1944 rifle division was around 10,000 troops all arms, but the 32nd Army had been attacking for over a month at the time its right and center divisions - the 176th and 289th - approached the old pre-war Finnish border near Ilomantsi. So the total assigned strength of the two divisions together was probably around 15,000-16,000 all arms.

As the battle unfolded and the situation of the two divisions became clear the Army commander committed a division-size force of ground-pounding squids; the 3rd Naval Infantry (Morskaya Pekhota) and 69th, and 70th Naval Rifle (Morskaya Strelkovy) brigades. These units probably fielded about 1,500 to 2,000 troops each for a total of about 5,000 all arms.

(Note: The latter two Strelkovy brigades should not be confused with the Naval Infantry [Morskaya Pekhota] units. The latter, sometimes called the "Black Death" by their German enemies, were raised and trained as marines by the Soviet Fleet, and their organization dated back to the pre-Revolutionary times.Naval Rifle units, on the other had, were hastily raised from "excess" sailors in the blockaded Soviet fleet bases, augmented with conscripts, and were equipped and trained by the Red Army. They were, in effect, nothing more than a regular Soviet infantry formation and lacked both the amphibious training and the elan of the Pekhota, who considered themselves the Soviet Union's "Marine Corps")

So a rough total of 16,000 to 21,000 all arms.

The name of the operational commander for the Soviet maneuver elements has proved impossible for me to determine. It should have been the 32nd Army commander, whose identity is shrouded in Russian. Any assistance in determining who was in command of the Soviet forces in and around Ilomantsi during the high summer of 1944 would be greatly appreciated!The Campaign: The story of the 1939-1940 Winter War is well known and well-told elsewhere. so I will refer you to the many sources that discuss it. But the Battle of Ilomantsu is the last act in what the Finns referred to as the "Continuation War" (Jatkosota) that began when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in the spring of 1941.

The Continuation War - 1941-1944

Finland's leaders had met with the Nazi German hierarchy in the spring of 1941 and were informed of the plans for Barbarossa. They did not share Hitler's territorial ambitions but wished to recover the territory they had lost on the Karelian Isthmus and in "Ladoga Karelia", the area north of Lake Ladoga. After some inconclusive scuffling and air attacks the Finnish Army attacked in July of 1941 and within the month of August had regained the old 1939 borders.I get the sense that most Finns thought that once the old borders were retaken the need for war was over. But I think that the apparent success of Barbarossa seduced the Finnish leadership; President Ryti publicly mooted the notion of a "Greater Finland" which would include the Kola Peninsula, East Karelia and possibly even much of Ingria, Inkerinmaa, the region that runs along the eastern Baltic around then-Leningrad.

The Commander-in-Chief of the Finnish Army, FM Mannerheim swore to "liberate" Karelia on 10 JUL 41. But the Soviet defenses stiffened, and by the autumn of 1941 the stalemate in the north was becoming obvious.Finland had succeeded in 1941 largely because they mobilized a huge proportion of their manpower, far more than they had in 1939. The result was a near-collapse of the far-from-lavish Finnish agriculture. Finnish soldiers had to be demobilized to prevent economic collapse, and ended up needing to import half of their cereal grains from Germany that fall to prevent widespread hunger.

By December 1942 the offensive in eastern Karelia had ground to a halt. The Finnish Army had lost 75,000 troops out of a force of no more than 550,000. The northern war then settled into a grim static slog for the next two and a half years.

Finland has typically been well thought of in American lore for it's "plucky" defense in 1939. The Continuation War is usually forgotten. And, broadly speaking, of the Axis powers Finland was probably the least-objectionable other than the hapless Italians. It remained a democracy. And it refused to participate in the extermination programs of Nazi Germany. The total number of Finnish Jews known to have been murdered for their parentage was eight.

But the Finns are a hard people, and the Finnish record is not spotless.

The temporary rulers of East Karelia were determined to ethnically cleanse the Russians living there. Some were expelled, as many as a third were interned in camps, almost all women, children, and old people. The Wiki entry reads:
"The winter of 1941–1942 was hard for the Finnish urban population due to poor harvests and a shortage of agricultural laborers. However, for the interned it was disastrous and over 3,500 of them died, mostly from famine. The figure was equivalent to 13.8% of the inmates, where the corresponding figure for the free population of the occupied territories was 2.6% and for Finland proper 1.4%"
The Russians have not forgotten this, those that still live in the Karelian region, and like as not they have not forgiven it, either.By 1943 the Finns began to recognize that things were not going to turn out well in the fight their German neighbors had picked. The Finnish government reorganized with a new cabinet and began negotiating with Stalin to try and find a way out of the war without getting skinned. Stalin had little or no interest. The Soviet STAVKA then tried an air campaign in February 1944 to try and bomb the Finns into unconditional surrender, but the Finnish Air Force and antiaircraft defenses managed to make the air attacks, as so often in history, a waste of Russian time, lives, and money.

In January 1944 the Soviet Leningrad Front had forced the German and Finnish forces back, finally ending the siege. With the road to Berlin becoming ever more visible Finland asked for peace terms in February, but the Eduskunta, the Finnish Parliament, wouldn't accept the harsh terms Stalin insisted on. Finland resolved to fight on, and Stalin's STAVKA resolved on an attack to knock the irritating little bastards out of the war.

Endgame 1944 - The Soviet Isthmian Offensive

This attack is known as the Vyborg-Petrozavodsk Offensive. The Leningrad Front would attack up the Karelian Isthmus, whilst the Karelian Front would cross the Svir River through Ladoga Karelia. Between the two army groups the Soviet forces would smash the Finnish forces in Karelia and move on Helsinki.The Finnish Army had pissed away its time since 1941 and the supposed fortifications that had been planned for the Isthmus were in terrible shape. The plan was for a triple line of fortifications; the "front line", the "VT Line" and the "VKT Line". Only the front line had been fully fortified and these defenses were typically a single string of positions that had been allowed to fall apart while the troops opposing Leningrad sat on their collective asses. The VT line is reported to have had decent strongpoints but many holes where little more than foxholes had been dug.The VKT Line existed principally in Mannerheim's imagination.

This sloppy mess was defended by two corps up front; III AK (15th Division and 19th Brigade) and IV AK (10th and 2nd Divisions) with two infantry divisions 3rd and 18th, the Armored Division (Panssaridivisioona) and the Cavalry Division in reserve behind the VT-line or further west; a total of 6 infantry divisions and a separate brigade, an armored division, and a mounted infantry division.

Against this the Leningrad Front was going to hit the Finns with 24 rifle divisions; 21st Army with 15 divisions, and 23rd Army with 9 divisions. Included in the echelons-above-corps were 14 brigade-sized tank units and 11 assault-gun regiments - 852 armoured fighting vehicles included ISU-122, ISU-152 assault guns, and T34, T-70, and IS-2 tanks. Two artillery divisions from the STAVKA Reserve plus divisional artillery added up to 2,850 cannons and mortars. The Soviet 13th Air Army had about 1,500 aircraft. And to throw in makeweight there were the massive fortress and railway guns of the Leningrad defenses and the battleships of the Red Banner Baltic Fleet.

By comparison the effort north of Lake Ladoga was relatively meek; sixteen divisions of the 7th and 32nd Armies of the Karelian Front, with less than half the tank strength.

Here the Finnish defense had originally consisted of three Army Corps; II AK (1st, 4th, 6th, and 14th Infantry Divisions, 21st Infantry Brigade, and four separate battalions) V AK (11th and 17th Infantry Divisions, 20th Infantry Brigade), and VI AK (5th, 7th, and 8th Infantry Divisions, 15th Infantry Brigade, and seven separate battalions).

The thunder of massed artillery announced in traditional Soviet fashion that the Leningrad Front thought they were hard enough to give the isthmian lines a go.As you might expect, the Soviet attacks on 9 JUN 1944 went through the Karelian defenses like a dose of salts. The Finnish 10th Infantry Division was posted on the south end of the "front line" in open country that was decent for tanks. Between the catastrophic artillery prep and the waves of tanks and infantry the 10th Division effectively ceased to exist in 24 hours and the Soviets poured through.The Kannaksen Joukkojen Komentajan Esikunta (the Finnish command element in charge of all troops on the Karelian Isthmus, identified by the to-English-speaking-eyes-comical acronym of KaJoKE) ordered a pullback to the VT-line, but this, in turn, was assaulted and taken, the breakthrough coming again on the Finnish right, and over the next seven days the KaJoKE forces executed a well-conducted withdrawl-under-pressure to the notional VKT-line. Here the Finns finally got lucky; for more than half of its length this "line" ran along the Vuoksi River. In June this watercourse was unfordable, too deep to wade and too wide to swim and, of course, impassible to tanks.A combination of mistakes and misfortunes managed to lose Viipuri/Vyborg on 20 JUN, but from there the Finnish lines stiffened. The German Heer supplied an infantry division and an assault-gun battalion while the Luftwaffe transferred Gefechtsverband (Detachment) Kuhlmey of mixed Ju87 and Fw190 ground-attack aircraft, Fw190 fighters, and Bf109 reconnaissance aircraft - a crucial piece of assistance that was even more vital than the crates of antitank rockets - Panzerfausts and Panzerschreiks - arriving from Germany.Between 25 JUN and 9 JUL the Soviet forces attacked IV and V Corps along the Tali-Ihantala line, but the Finnish defenders held. This was largely because

- The defenders used a combination of blocking positions and spoiling attacks to prevent the Soviet attacks from developing, and counterattacked immediately to prevent the Soviet troops from consolidating gains.

- Finnish radio intelligence was excellent, and Soviet communications security exceptionally poor. Several Soviet attacks were smashed inside their own line of departure due to careless commo procedures that compromised operational security.

- The Finnish had developed a truly exceptional command-and-control net for their artillery, allowing a single observer to coordinate fires from units across the defensive sector. As many as 200 cannons and mortars would be directed by one FO, resulting in truly shattering massed fires.

After almost two weeks of continuous fighting the KaJoKE units had lost 8,000 men killed or too wounded to fight. But the Soviets has lost over a quarter of their fighting vehicles and probably on the order of 20,000 casualties. The isthmian phase of the “fourth strategic strike” of 1944 was over.Endgame 1944 - The Attack in Ladoga Karelia

Perhaps the most critical element in the outcome of the next phase - the last phase - of the July battles around Lake Ladoga was the Finnish response to the success of the Soviet isthmus offensive. Finnish Army command ordered their forces north of the Lake to shorten their lines, and withdrew all of V Corps to bolster the lines to the south.Between 16 JUN and the kickoff of what is termed the Svir–Petrozavodsk Offensive on 20 JUN the Finnish forces in Group Raapana were reduced to the equivalent of about six divisions in two Corps; Group Maaselkä (later II Corps) in the north with 1st Infantry Division, 21st Brigade, and four separate battalions, and "Group Aunus" with 5th, 7th and 8th Infantry Divisions, 15th Brigade, and seven separate battalions.

And more importantly, both units stepped back from the 1942-43 lines to the so-called "PSS-line", and were authorized to fall back even further if pressed.

So, when the Soviet Karelian Front crossed the LD on 20/21 JUN it fell mostly on empty air. In the south the Finnish 5th Division conducted a delaying action against the Soviet 7th Army falling back to the PSS-lines on the Maaselkä isthmus between Lake Ladoga to the south and Lake Lake Ääninen (Onega to the Russians) to the north. To the north of Ääninen the Soviet 32nd Army pushed II Corps back as well, doing considerable damage as it did.The Karelian Front then conducted a neat little amphibious operation on the night of 22/23 JUN, landing 3rd Naval Infantry and 70th Naval Rifle brigades between Tuulos and Vitele on the north coast of Lake Ladoga, effectively turning the PSS-line positions. By the next day Group Aunus ordered a withdrawal to the "U-line", the final fortification lines located just inside the 1939 borders.

Here, as on the Karelian isthumus, the combination of better fortifications, artillery and aerial coordination, and, probably, Soviet exhaustion and supply problems caused the offensive to slog to a stop on the Maaselkä front. Attacks and counterattacks ranged along the U-line from mid June to mid July without significant effect. STAVKA looked to the north to attempt to turn the Finnish defenses and threaten a strategic debacle.

Here the Finnish position was shaky; two divisions of the Soviet 32nd Army, 176th Rifle and 289th Rifle, were set on a single brigade (21st). The overwhelming numbers made even a delaying action precarious - at least once the Finnish brigade was nearly enveloped. By late June the 21st Brigade had been backed up nearly to the Ilomantsi area.This position was important for the Finns to hold. East of Ilomantsi the terrain was just more Karelia; a nasty, swampy wilderness without decent roads or anything of military value, really. But from Ilomantsi west was "Finland" - good roads and infrastructure that led to Joensuu and the inner Finland heartland. Taking Ilomantsi offered the Soviet offensive its last, best chance for a breakthrough into Finland proper and a hope for proper military victory.

The Finnish Army command knew this as well.

Now that the situation along the Karelian Isthmus had stabilized it transferred the Cavalry Brigade north to bolster II Corps. The two brigades (21st and Cavalry) were reinforced with two infantry battalions fro 14th Division to form Group Raappana, setting the stage for the engagement around Ilomantsi.The Sources: As always with 20th Century warfare between industrialized nations the problem of sources is vastly simplified by the habit of Western armies of keeping voluminous records. Ilomantsi is documented in unit histories, strength and casualty returns, after-action reports, and official accounts...not to mention the widespread written records of individuals all the way from the lowest private soldiers to their commanders.

In this case, however, we English-speakers have two significant difficulties.

On one side the records of the defense are largely in Finnish. Not an easy language, and barriered, as well, by the rather taciturn position of Finland as the most eastern-facing of the Scandinavian nations, many of the Finnish records are difficult to find in English without serious effort. And what is available online is often poorly translated or fragmentary.

On the other, the Soviet records are still in the archives constructed by the old Soviet Union, whose purpose was not nearly so much to record history as to use it as a way to make the Soviet Union look good. The post-Soviet Russian archivists are said to be only slightly more forthcoming than they were when their pay notes featured Lenin on the front.

While researching this post I noted that very few of the online sources contain information from both Finnish and Soviet records. The most comprehensive appears to be the Wiki entry for the Vyborg-Petrozavodsk Offensive. Interestingly, the little website for the military hobby wargame "Flames of War" has some nice background pages, including this one discussing the Karelian operations of 1944.

There are several items of interest available on the internet for an English-speaker, particularly this 2008 translation of a 1947 doctoral dissertation by one Knut Pipping. This work, "The Infantry Company as a Society", is primarily concerned with soldier group and individual behavior. But Pipping also served as section sergeant for a machinegun platoon in the 12th Infantry Regiment through the entire Continuation War period, and does a nice job of describing the daily lives of the ordinary jalkaväki during this time.

One recent examination of the engagement that looks promising is Pasi Tuunainen's "The Battle of Encirclement at Ilomantsi in July-August 1944—An Example of the Application of the Idea of Cannae in the Finnish Art of War" in the Journal of Slavic Military Studies, v. 19, issue 1. It's available here but costs $34, which is a little steep for me. A serious student of the battle, however, would seem to do well to investigate this material both for its accessibility and its discussion of the engagement in its historical context.

The Engagement: The fight at Ilomantsi has been called the "last work of the motti-master", and so we should probably first stop and discuss what this odd Finnish art was and how it was performed.

A motti is, literally, one cubic meter of cut wood. Finnish and Swedish woodcutters would fell and trim their logs and then stack them to be picked up later. So a "motti" in Finnish military slang was a larger enemy unit cut up into fragments for ease of destruction.The main reason that the Finns could do this is that most Soviet units were not adept at moving through the northern terrain. I've never been to Finnish Karelia, but those who have described it to me as very similar to an area I have visited, the boreal forest of northern Minnesota and the U.P. of Michigan. Stands of thick dog-hair timber on the uplands with lots of nasty, boggy swamps in the low ground. Dense brush separated by mirey cold seeps, infested with bugs in the summer, frigid in winter.It's the kind of place that only a Finn could love, which may be why so many ended up in the upper U.S. Midwest...

And the Finland of the Forties was still a largely rural nation. Even Finnish draftees were more familiar with their woods and swamps than the Soviet conscripts they fought, and their Army trained specifically for fighting in the boreal forests.What helped was that the Soviets were more roadbound than their enemies, and especially by 1944 the Soviet steamroller was very dependent on their armor to lead its attacks and artillery to anchor its defense. Neither of these arms was particularly deft at moving and fighting in the dense woods and soft ground of Karelia.

Soviet attacks then tended to be channelized down whatever roads or tracks the reconnaissance elements could find. Even if the Soviet unit commanders had a map - and many didn't - the Soviet topographic engineers were few and generally underresourced when present. So the Soviets were often unsure of there their enemies were, and just as often unsure even of where their own flanking elements were.

The Finnish Army was surprised by the mottis they created in 1939; they thought that the Soviets, when defeated, would run, and were not actually pleased finding these knotty little groups of Russians that had to be reduced. Finnish troopers noted that the individual Russian soldier was usually good at digging in, and even though the "mottiryssä" were no longer able to contribute much to the tactical advantage of their forces they seldom collapsed and nearly always had to be reduced by assault.

Neither of the Soviet rifle divisions attacking Ilomantsi had fought in the Winter War, so they had to learn the hard way what happened when you attacked Finns on ground of their choosing without overwhelming strength.The 176th Division on the right attacked west around the villages of Lehmivaara and Vellivaara, the 286th on the left attacked west and southwest from the village of Kolismaa towards Lutikkavaara and Konukka. The Finnish defenses stalled both divisions, and counterattacks split them into mottis as the Group Raapana troopers cut the roads and tracks, felling trees and destroying vehicles, then slipping around the flanks and rear of the stalled Soviets. The 176th managed to at least retain most of its unit integrity; the 286th was badly cut up, with elements encircled in or near four separate villages - as many as five mottis are shown on the Finnish battlemap.By 4 AUG 44 both divisions were cut off and ineffective in attack. Border Jager detatchments ranged along the supply routes east, ensuring that the Soviets received no replacements for food and ammunition.

STAVKA attempted to relieve the encircled units by throwing a division-sized naval unit down the Kuolismaa-Leppävaara road. The attacks, which were unsupported by significant armor or artillery, did nothing.Rather surprisingly the Finnish cannoneers had far the better performance; the Soviet mottis were deluged with 3:1 throw-weight superiority, more than 35,000 shells of all calibres against some 10,000 counterfire rounds. Innovative Finnish fire control techniques again paid off, allowing the Finnish attacking-defenders to hammer strongpoints and break up reaction forces before they could seal up break-ins.After nine days and some 3,000 casualties the Soviets had enough. The rifle divisions requested, and received, permission to break out, and on 12/13 AUG did so, leaving behind their dead and many wounded along with nearly all their heavy weapons. The Finns did not pursue.The Outcome: Finnish tactical victory leading to political conclusions.The Impact: The 1944 Karelian battles had several effects on both the Finnish and Soviet governments.For Stalin and STAVKA, the fight the Finns had put up, from Tali-Ihantala to Ilomantsi, suggested that forcing a victor's peace on the pesky northern neighbors wasn't worth the time, losses, and effort. There were bigger Nazi fish to fry, and more prosperous lands to subdue, on the central European plain.The Soviet offensive had gone much better than it had in 1939; the troops were better trained, the equipment better designed, and the Soviet commanders better all around. But the cost had still been heavy; not the 7-to-1 casualty ratio the Finns had exacted five years earlier, but still...3-to-1 was nothing to cheer about, and the Finnish artillery had been shockingly good. One thing Soviet armies respected was good gunnery, and they had been outgunned in Karelia.

If Stalin was anything he was a ruthless pragmatist. He had no need for a Finnish client state so long as the Finns could be made harmless.

In Finland the successful defense of Karelia was almost no victory. The Finnish Army had been mishandled badly in the opening weeks of the fourth strategic offensive, and overall had lost 60,000 men dead in the three years of the Continuation War, and for nothing. The total casualties for the war, about a quarter million, were about six and a half percent of the Finnish people. And equivalent loss in the U.S. of 2011 would come to some two million total, nearly 500,000 dead, the sort of bloodletting we have not seen since our Civil War.The Finnish people, and the Finnish government, knew that if the Soviets wanted to pay the price they could march on Helsinki and dictate a conqueror's peace. So an agreement must be reached, and before the Germans could be crushed.

President Ryti would need to be the first to go - he had signed a pact with Hitler that Finland would not seek a separate peace with the Soviets. Marshal Mannerheim was appointed to replace him.

Fighting ended in Karelia in early September, and on 19 SEP 1944 Finland and the Soviet Union signed an armistice agreement.

The critical element of this agreement was that Finland avoided a Soviet occupation. She had to demobilized pretty much all of her Army, cede some fairly substantial chunks of eastern Finland, including the battlefields of Karelia and the city of Viipuri/Vyborg, to the Soviets, and pay a sizeable reparation.In one of the most farcical chapters in World War 2, the Finns were required by their treaty to attack the German forces that had been stationed in their Arctic north when the latter refused to abide the Soviet deadline to withdraw. What started out as comedy - for the first two weeks the former allies conspired to hide their cooperation from the Soviets; the Germans would sneak away and then the Finns would come up roaring and shooting into empty positions - ended in tragedy, with Germans taking Finnish civilians hostage to try and force a release of POWs, and then destroying much of Finnish Lappland as they retired to Norway. The mines they left behind killed hundreds of Finnish EOD troopers and presented a nightmarish hazard to life in northern Finland well into the Fifties.Finland has, in my opinion, done a fine job of managing its dangerous eastern neighbor. It remains a vital and tidy little state, and maintains a good little Army that holds onto the traditions of the tough fighters that held the Karelian woods outside of Ilomantsi and sent the Soviets fleeing back east for one final time.Touchline Tattles: There's a very Finnish story told about the border guard who is well-hidden in his OP on the first day of the Winter War. He's got good warm clothing, his rifle is sighted to hit within a couple of millimeters over a kilometer, and he's invisible to the immense column of Soviet infantry and armor slogging towards him through the gloomy woods. He contemplates this parade for some time, chewing on his hard ryebread pettuleipä, and says to no one in particular;

"So many of them, and so few of us."

He chews for a moment more and adds glumly;

"How will we ever manage to bury them all?"

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