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Posts Tagged ‘Petsamo’

June 22, 1941 is a day that needs no major introduction to students of World War II.  Operation Barbarossa was (and still is) the largest offensive in military history.  With most of Western Europe now under the shadow of the swastika, Adolf Hitler turned his legions east in a titanic blitzkrieg of men, tanks, guns, and planes.  The gamble he took, unparalleled in history, was that the Russian military was a house of cards that he could overrun it before it could get fully organized.

For Hitler, the gamble had worked on a smaller scale in France and the Low Countries a year before, so he was confident of its success again.  And the reality of Stalin’s paranoia-and-power-induced purges of the preceding years had not been lost in the planning.  Germany’s military leadership knew they’d be facing not only officers with little experience, but officers that would be more tentative, terrified of making a wrong move that would cost them their lives.  Hitler wasn’t being totally unreasonable when he said that “we have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.”

But what might need a bit of an introduction is Operation Reindeer.  Initiated along with Barbarossa, the offensive was much smaller in scale, involving a couple of divisions stationed in northern Norway.  Their objective was to cross the border into northern Finland, specifically the Petsamo region.  The area was known for its nickel mines, and the Germans desired to grab them before the Russians.  Reindeer was launched on June 22, 1941 with the 2nd and 3rd Mountain Divisions entering Finland.

And like the 4 million men setting off to the south and east, Reindeer got going without a hitch.  In fact, there was no fighting to speak of in Petsamo until they reached the Red Army defenses on the Litsa River.  Operation Silver Fox, the follow-up to Reindeer, had as its goal the capture of Murmansk.  But strong Russian defenses and political pressures – the U.S. notified Finland that cutting off Lend-Lease’s main supply port with Russia would have very negative consequences – meant that Murmansk would remain in Soviet hands throughout the war.

So in the end, Operation Reindeer was a very minor operation that had little bearing on the war.  It was a rather isolated outpost that would, with the turn of fortunes against Germany, eventually be abandoned.

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In the days following the end of negotiations between Finnish diplomats and Joseph Stalin, the citizens of Finland began to relax just a bit.  It was no secret that their army stood little chance…correct that…no chance against the military tsunami that the Soviets could unleash, and the Finns had initially prepared for the inevitable attack.  But to this point, none had come, and that was good enough for them.

They knew their sovereignty was recognized by the world, and Stalin must have realized that, too…hence his inaction.  And what’s more, the Finns were convinced that, should the Soviet hordes set foot upon the sacred Finnish soil, Western countries would flock to Finland’s defense.

Carl Gustav Mannerheim believed otherwise.  As Finland’s leading military man, he begged the Finnish government to reopen negotiations with the Soviets, claiming they would simply take what they wanted in the end.  His reports of Soviet forces drifting westward were, in his mind, a most ominous portent.  He even moved his own forces on the Karelian Isthmus (the main area of contention) back as a show of non-aggression.  On the 26th of November, however, several artillery shots were reported landing about half a mile inside the Russian borders near the village of Mainila.  History would show that they were fired by the Red Army, but as you would expect, the Soviets blamed the Finns.  Mannerheim wasn’t stupid (he knew how this would play out), and his anger at the “Finnish stubborness” boiled over.  The day after the “Mainila Shots”, Gustav Mannerheim resigned from the army.

In the Kremlin, Stalin had spent the last few weeks assessing his military options.  When questioned, his generals assured him that Finland would be a pushover.  Nikita Khrushchev, then a Politburo member, described the general consensus when he said, “All we had to do was raise our voices a little bit and the Finns would obey.  If that didn’t work, we could fire one shot and the Finns would put up their hands and surrender.”

The Soviet dictator also wanted to know if the Communist contingent among Finnish workers would rise up when the fighting started.  He was assured by his sources that they would.  But one must now consider the backdrop of the time when looking at this “information”.  Clearly, people with any loyalties to Trotsky, the old Czarist regimes, or any other view differing from Stalin were receiving fatal gunshot wounds.  By the ten of thousands they were dying…Khrushchev himself narrowly escaped the executioner’s pistol.  So when Stalin wanted “the scoop”, those around him told him what he wanted to hear, regardless of whether there was any truth or research behind it.  “Will the Finnish Communists join the Red Army?”“Why, of course they will.”  Stalin’s reign of terror was one of his own worst weapons.

So it comes as little surprise that the first bombing run carried out against Finland came at 9:20am on November 30, 1939.  The single plane dropped thousands of leaflets over Helsinki which urged the workers to rise up against their leaders and overthrow the government.  That plane then dropped a couple bombs to get everyone’s attention, have them run out of the factories, and read the notes.

Seventy minutes later, a group of bombers arrived over Helsinki, this time with real bombs.  Simultaneously, the Red Army invaded Finland all along the border, from Petsamo in the far frozen north to the southern edge of the Karelian Isthmus in the still-very-cold south.  In all, more than 25 divisions set off into Finnish territory that was protected by a total of 8 divisions and a collection of reserve and Civic Guard troops.

It did not shape up to be much of a contest, but wars are not fought on paper.

Recommended Reading: A Frozen Hell

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