Posts Tagged ‘Lake Ladoga’

By mid-February of 1940, the Winter War was going badly for the Finnish Army.  Winter War?…what is this Winter War about which I type?  Well, it’s been a while since I’ve had anything to say about it.  In fact, nearly two years has gone by since this rather unknown conflict colored this page.  So let’s have a quick refresher.

The Winter War was fought (as you would guess) in the winter of 1939 and 1940 between Russia and Finland.  It started out as basically a Russian trade offer:  Finland gives up its territory between the Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga (and some other pieces of land) and receives some Russian territory in return.  The Finns rejected the trade offer and Russian leader Joseph Stalin simply ordered his army to take it, along with the rest of Finland.

And despite being grossly outnumbered, the Finns held the Russians back for more than two months.  If you want the details, William Trotter’s book A Frozen Hell is an outstanding source.  If you want a pretty lame overview, you can search Today’s History Lesson and find maybe a dozen pieces I’ve written covering different aspects of the Winter War.

Back to our story…

By mid-February, the Red Army had gotten itself organized and was finally using its vastly superior forces to good effect.  A massive multi-day bombardment at the beginning of the month gave way to a massive coordinated assault, and the Finnish defenses cracked.

One area of especially tough Finnish resistance was the Mannerheim Line.  Stretching across the land between the Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga, some positions along the Line had withstood repeated attacks.  In particular, the defenses around the village of Taipale had been really tough.  Located on the far left of the Finnish flanks (sitting right on Lake Ladoga), Taipale had been subjected to Russian attacks almost since the first week of December, and remnants of the Finnish Third Corps still held their ground.

In fact, it had become something of a thorn in the side of the Russians, who recognized this bubble as a point of attack.  Trotter writes in his book that, if the Finns had a spare division or two, this would have been the place to use them to best effect.  Unfortunately, they didn’t…but the Russians did.

On February 18, 1940, Trotter writes, “An entire Soviet division, supported by the usual stupendous artillery and aerial bombardment, smashed into a green replacement regiment and drove it from the field in panic.  A dangerous dent was hammered into the front lines, and several important strong points fell, but the support line, manned by the battered but battle-wise veterans of the sector, held out.”  It came to be known as “Black Day at Taipale”.  And while Taipale held, collapse was all around them.  Few Finnish soldiers doubted, as did the diplomats already in negotiation, that the end of the war was fast approaching.

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I’ve been away from the keyboard for a couple of days…not lost in the Bermuda Triangle or anything, but just busy with “life” kind of things.  I feel like the last couple months have been rather scatter-shot around here, but the good news is the calendar has lots of stuff coming up.  In fact, between now and the end of the year, only 3 days are blank in the spreadsheet.  We’ll see how I do…in the meantime…

As the bitter cold of 1941’s December descended, the picture was pretty bleak for Russian citizens.  Leningrad was basically surrounded while the German armies pounded the city and waited for its inhabitants to starve.  The spires of Moscow were in the sights of the Wehrmacht, and the encirclement of the capital was halted only by exhaustion, the need for fresh troops and supplies, and the afore-mentioned bitter cold.

And on the 5th, the Soviets struck hard, launching a massive counterattack aimed at relieving pressure on Moscow.  Simultaneously, Red Army forces struck around Leningrad, hoping the stop the strangulation of that city as well.  It was there that the Germans were trying to finish cutting off the eastern approaches to the city.  If that could be done, then even a frozen Lake Ladoga would be of no use to the Russians.

Russian troops made for Tikhvin, which was located little more than one hundred miles southeast of Leningrad and had been taken by the Germans in mid-November.  Two days later, Tikhvin was largely surrounded.  Hitler had promised to deliver 100 tanks and more than 20,000 troops, but what the Russians actually encountered were a half-dozen tanks and exhausted men that were freezing.  In the face of impossible odds and with 7,000 casualties already lost, German Field Marshal Ritter von Leeb was left with little choice but to abandon Tikhvin to the home country.  On December 9, 1941, Red Army forces recaptured the town.

If light of how precarious the overall situation was for Russia, it seems a rather insignificant victory…it’s one town.  But it also reopened a major railhead and reduced the road route to Lake Ladoga from nearly 200 miles to just 60.  Trucking supplies over the frozen lake had now moved from the realm of “near suicidal” to “feasible”.

For the time being, the victory saved Leningrad.  Dmitry Pavlov, Leningrad’s food chief, later wrote, “Without exaggeration, the defeat of the German Fascist forces at Tikhvin and the recapture of the northern railway line up to Mga station saved thousands of people from starvation.”

In his book Absolute War, Chris Bellamy writes, “More than that, the counteroffensive which retook the vital junction at Tikhvin on 9 December 1941 was the first major successful counteroffensive against the Wehrmacht by any combatant in the Second World War.”

The fight for Tikhvin displayed the first chink in the armor of German superiority, and that made the battle a big deal.

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More than a year ago, we talked about Nikolai Baibakov and his work in keeping Russia’s vast oil supplies from falling into the hands of the Germans during the Second World War.  His incentive, according to his boss Joseph Stalin, was simple.  Save the oil, save your life.  Lose the oil…well, you can probably figure it out.

By early 1942, Leningrad (in the far north) had already been under seige for months and getting supplies into that desperate city, particularly fuel, was difficult.  But in April, the Russian Defense Committee came up with the idea of an oil pipeline under Lake Ladoga, situated to the west and north of the city.

And with a stern directive from Stalin coupled with the knowledge of the “award” for failure, work began at a feverish pace.  In less than 2 months, on June 18, 1942, a tremendous technological achievement was completed and the pipeline became operational.  Nearly 300 tons of fuel per day were pumped through the underwater lifeline…not nearly enough for every need, but enough to keep Leningrad alive.

The idea caught on and, by September, the Volkhov power station was using an underwater cable to send electricity to the city.  And in August 1944, after the Allies invaded Normandy, Operation PLUTO (PipeLine Under The Ocean) was launched.  A pipeline was laid under the English Channel, pumping (as you might guess) about 300 tons of fuel per day.  Of course, more capacity would be added, increasing daily flows ten-fold.  But that was a couple of years down the road and, right now, the fuel to power essential services and the defenses of Leningrad was mighty welcome.

Recommended Reading: Absolute War – Soviet Russia in the Second World War

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On February 1, 1940, a Finnish reconnaissance plane made its way through stiff enemy air cover to photograph Russian positions.  The war being fought between these two countries since late November had, for the last few weeks, been at something of a standstill.

But when the film was quickly developed and analyzed by the Finnish military, what was discovered was a massive buildup of cannon that had seemingly appeared overnight.  A collective gasp went up in the room with the sudden realization that the lull was just about over.  In fact, it ended that day, with a massive bombardment that was described as “the last thunderclap of Armageddon.”

The Red Army drive against tiny Finland was about to begin anew, with fresh forces, more tanks (now operating in harmony with the troops), more guns, and more planes.  On the other side, their opponents, now exhausted with many formations operating at half-strength (or worse), were overwhelmed.  But they fought on and, even in their weakened state, were still capable of killing lots and lots of Soviet invaders.  But it was never enough.

On February 11, 1940, the Finnish fear of a Red Army breakthrough became a reality as breaches were made in both flanks at Lake Ladoga and the Gulf of Finland.

The “December part” of the Winter War had shown what superior tactics, superior leadership, and effective cover could achieve against a larger and more arrogant opponent.  The “February part” served as a sobering reminder that overwhelming force with even a modicum of coordination against an exhausted foe was still the preferable position in which to be.

The February 11th breatkthrough was the beginning of the end of Finnish resistance.  A month later, the guns would fall silent.

Recommended Reading: A Frozen Hell

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For nearly a month, direct negotiations had persisted.  Back-and-forth communications?…more than 18 months.  The Soviet Union had, since April of 1938, been interested in territory that belonged to Finland, its neighbor to the west.  And Finland had (more or less) politely refused.

The Nazi-Soviet Pact came and went.  The combined German-Soviet removal of Poland from the map came and went.  And still the Soviets negotiated with Finland.  Not as far as he could kick him did Soviet dictator Jospeh Stalin trust his counterpart in Berlin.  Yes, half of Poland gave Stalin a sizeable space-cushion between himself and the National Socialism he despised.  But he was still afraid that Adolf Hitler would use his military might, vastly superior to any of the Scandanavian countries, to take over Finland, whose borders were just a stone’s throw from the Communist “Mecca” of Leningrad.

So, Stalin’s representatives asked that Finland give up 20 miles of territory on the Karelian Isthmus (the strip of land between the Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga).  They also desired that Finland cede several islands in the Gulf of Finland and the northernmost tip of Finland (the Rybachi Peninsula).  Finally, they asked that Finland allow them to lease the port of Hanko (on the the southernmost tip of Finland) and build a base there.  Essentially Stalin was creating additional buffer space on all approaches to Leningrad.

For its part, Finland reiterated that it was a decidedly neutral nation, and any incursion (including one from Germany) would be viewed as hostile.  So there was no need to give the Soviets a buffer zone…Finland would provide it for free.  What’s more, giving up territory in the Karelian Isthmus meant destroying much of the Mannerheim Line, a fairly stout series of fortifications, tank traps, and pillboxes.  Finland would essentially be defenseless, which wasn’t necessarily terrible…if that’s all that Stalin wanted.  If.  IF.

But Joseph Stalin was a man who had spent most of the last several years slaughtering thousands and thousands of officers, including a goodly number of Finnish-born officers.  If his own men could not trust him, how much less a target country with almost no military power?  If Finland ceded the territory, there was no way it could defend itself against subsequent aggression.

Carl Gustav Mannerheim, Finland’s leading military man, did not hold to the Finnish convention.  He strongly believed Finland should give the Soviets what they wanted.  He said that if the Soviets wanted the territory badly enough, they would simply take it by force, and Finland could do nothing anyway.  So while Foreign Minister Eljas Erkko was convinced Stalin was bluffing, Mannerheim was not.

And so the Soviet-Finnish meetings continued.  Having begun in earnest on October 12, 1939, they had lasted throughout the month.  The Finnish delegation (shown above) gave some ground, offering to give up a bit of Karelian territory and some of islands, but the Mannerheim Line and the port of Hanko were simply non-negotiable.

It was on this day, November 9, 1939, that the negotiators met for the last time, where the Finnish delegation reminded Stalin of their compromises…and their unwillingness to go any further.  Stalin was somewhat surprised by the intransigence he witnessed.  After an hour, the meeting concluded (despite the heavy discussions) on an upbeat note. Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet Foreign Minister smiled and waved.  Stalin wish the Finns the best and then departed…

…to meet with his generals and begin making plans to subdue a stubborn little pip-squeak country on its western border.

Recommended Reading:  A Frozen Hell – A friend (and fellow reader of Today’s History Lesson) recommended this book to me.  I’m reading it now, and it’s really good.

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Nikolai Baibakov lived to be 98 years old.  That’s a pretty uncommon occurance and, without any additional embellishment, would probably stand on its own merits.  But Baibakov lived in the Soviet Union, was an important oil minister, and served under Joseph Stalin.  Living to be 98 and having Stalin for a boss meant he was either really good, really lucky, or really really lucky.

During the Second World War, Nikolai was a deputy oil commisar.  In 1942, with the Germans taking off for the oil fields of the Caucasus Mountains, Stalin summoned him for a meeting.  Placing two fingers to Baibakov’s temple, the paranoid dictator said, “If you fail to stop the Germans getting our oil you will be shot. And when we have thrown the invader out, if we cannot restart production, we will shoot you again.” Joseph Stalin knew how to get his point across.

Nikolai made sure the Germans didn’t get the oil.  But he didn’t just prevent the enemy from getting Soviet oil…he made sure the Soviets, Leningrad in particular, got oil.

If you recall, Leningrad had been almost completely surrounded by the Germans in September of 1941.  Facing starvation, the Russians had turned to a frozen Lake Ladoga as a way to transport supplies into to the beleaguered city.

On April 25, 1942, the Russian Defense Committee decided to use Lake Ladoga again…for transporting oil to Leningrad.  But they wouldn’t truck the oil over the ice road.  Instead, it was determined that an oil pipeline run under the lake was the safest, most efficient way of delivering crude.  Baibakov was tasked with the effort.

One can almost imagine the Defense Committee, Nikolai, and Stalin sitting around a table in a big room.  The Committee looks at Baibakov, Baibakov looks at Stalin at the head of the table, and Stalin smiles back, two fingers placed at his temple.  Nothing like incentive to get the job done.

Of course, our man (with the help of others) would succeed, running more than 17 miles of oil pipeline, yet another lifeline into Leningrad.

Recommended Reading: Absolute War – Soviet Russia in the Second World War

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When Germany’s war machine was turned loose in the Soviet Union, one of its primary targets was Leningrad.  Its status as a port city on the Baltic Sea (specifically the Gulf of Finland) made it important militarily.  But more than that, Leningrad was the former capital of Russia and was home to the Russian Revolution that brought Lenin, Joseph Stalin, and Communism to power.  That made it an especially attractive target for Adolf Hitler.

Germany’s invasion, begun in late June, overwhelmed the Soviet defenses.  Less than three months later, German forces were camped just a few miles outside the former capital, and the Siege of Leningrad (which would last more than 2 years) had begun.  Early experience in Operation Barbarossa had taught the invaders that infiltrating cities was costly in lives and equipment, so the decision was made to simply surround the city and starve it out.  The plan was for the Germans to surround from the west and south, while the Finnish armies (eager to fight for obvious reasons) would come in from the north and east.

Unfortunately, the Finns didn’t feel quite the same way about Leningrad, as their goal was more about reclaiming territory lost in 1940 than destroying Leningrad.  So while they approached the city to within 25 miles on the north, they never moved in from the east, leaving the land between Leningrad and Lake Ladoga in Soviet hands.  And with an especially harsh winter in 1941, Lake Ladoga began freezing earlier than usual…which gave the defenders an inspiration.  Why not use the lake to ferry supplies?

And that’s what they did.  On November 19, 1941, the Ice Road was completed.  At this point, the ice still wasn’t thick enough to support motorized vehicles, so nearly all the prep work had been done by hand and horse.  Still, it was a start.  Initially, supplies came in very small quantities on horse-drawn sleds.  And it immediately became a target for German artillery and air strikes, so much so that people called it “The Road of Death”.  But in 1941, the most important purpose the road served was allowing citizens of Leningrad to leave the city, thereby avoiding almost certain death from starvation…more than a million would do so.

The Siege of Leningrad was one of the worst sieges in history, but it was the Ice Road over Lake Ladoga that helped evacuate much of the civilian population.  And though it only functioned a few months out of the year, “The Road of Life” (its more appropriate name) brought in just enough supplies and ammunition to keep the defenders alive and fighting.

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