Operation Arctic Fox
Operation Arctic Fox (German: Unternehmen Polarfuchs, Russian: Кандалакшская Операция)[a] was the codename given to a World War II campaign by German and Finnish forces against Soviet Northern Front defenses at Salla, Finland in July 1941. The operation was part of the larger Operation Silver Fox (Silberfuchs) which aimed to capture the vital port of Murmansk. Arctic Fox was conducted in parallel to Operation Platinum Fox (Platinfuchs) in the far north of Lappland. The principal goal of Operation Arctic Fox was to capture the town of Salla and then to advance in the direction of Kandalaksha (Finnish: Kantalahti) to block the railway route to Murmansk.
As a joint operation by German and Finnish forces, it combined experienced Finnish arctic troops with relatively unsuitable German forces from Norway. They managed to capture Salla after fierce fighting, but the German troops were unable to overcome the old, pre-war Soviet border fortifications further east. The Finnish units were able to make better progress, and came to within 30 km (19 mi) of the Murmansk railway. Strong Soviet reinforcements prevented any further advance. Because of the escalating situation further south in Central Russia, the Germans were unwilling to assign more units to this theatre, calling an end to their offensive. While the Finns were reluctant to continue the attack on their own due to diplomatic pressure from the United States. Arctic Fox ended in November 1941, when both sides dug in at their current positions.
Finland gained independence from Russia in a civil War between German supported nationalists and Russian Bolshevik supported communists in the aftermath of World War I. Tensions between the new anti-communist republic and the newly established Soviet Union remained high during the early interwar years. Following a number of brief skirmishes between Finnish nationalists and the Soviet Union in Karelia, an agreement was reached regarding the border of the two countries. During the following years Soviet-Finnish relations remained stable, but still cool, and a 10-years non-aggression pact was signed in 1932.
In 1933 the Nazis took power in Germany. The Soviet Union feared an attack by Germany and sought to secure itself against a possible German-Finnish alliance. Finland in turn wanted to preserve its neutrality at all cost. During the course of negotiations that lasted between 1938 and 1939, the Soviet Union demanded securities from Finland by allowing them to intervene with the Red Army in case of a German entry into Finland. After a Finnish rejection the Soviet Union proposed a land-trade for strategic locations deemed necessary by Soviets to defend them against a possible German invasion. While some of the Finnish leadership, like Carl Mannerheim, found the proposal favorable, Finland wanted to preserve its neutrality and the lengthy negotiations failed.
On 23 August 1939, the Soviet Union and Germany signed the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, which contained a secret protocol which divided Europe in spheres of influence for both countries. Finland fell into the Soviet sphere. Germany started World War II by attacking Poland in September 1939, and the Soviet Union followed. With Finland still refusing the Soviet demands, the Soviet Union finally attacked Finland in November 1939, which led to the Winter War. Finland had to make major territorial concessions as part of the resulting Moscow Peace Treaty. Feeling abandoned by the Western Allies, Finland started to seek help against the threat posed by the Soviet Union. Finland sought to be included in the wider Scandinavian defense co-operation but both Soviet and German opposition to it prevented its formation. The German capture of Denmark and Norway severed practical Finnish connections to countries other than the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and Sweden. A proposed Swedish-Finnish military alliance failed due Soviet-German pressure. Deprived of other potential sources of help Finland started to seek closer ties with Germany to secure its position against the Soviet Union and both sides cooperated to develop a joint policy against the Soviet Union.
The German High Command (OKW) now included Finland in its plan for a major offensive against the Soviet Union, called Operation Barbarossa. A joint Finnish-German offensive named Operation Silver Fox (Unternehmen Silberfuchs) was to support the Germany's main effort in central Russia, from the north. The principal goal of Silver Fox was to disable the port of Murmansk, which was a major destination for Western Allied shipping aid to the Soviet Union, by executing a two-pronged pincer attack against it. The southern pincer of this attack was named Operation Arctic Fox (Unternehmen Polarfuchs) and was to be launched from the Kemijärvi region in Central Finland against the Soviet defenses at Salla towards the east.
Salla was one of the areas occupied during the Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939. The German XXXVI Corps, consisting of both German and Finnish troops, was the principal German force intended to carry out the operation. The corps was commanded by General Hans Feige and was subordinated to the Army of Norway (AOK Norwegen) which was commanded by Nikolaus von Falkenhorst. XXXVI Corps was supported by the separate Finnish III Corps commanded by Hjalmar Siilasvuo.
Planning and Preparation
Initial planning for the operation started in its earnest, in December 1940. Erich Buschenhagen, chief of staff of Army of Norway (AOK Norwegen) visited Finland and drew up a plan which would determine Finland's role in the war, which included the first draft of German-Finnish joint operations against the Soviet Union. On 8 December 1940 Hitler issued Directive No. 21, which detailed his plan for Operation Barbarossa as whole and included the targets for proposed German-Finnish cooperation. The detailed plan the operation was created by Nikolaus von Falkenhorst with the Army of Norway staff in January 1941.
During the following months the German units earmarked for the operation were transported into the Arctic in the preceding operations Blue Fox 1 and Blue Fox 2 (Blaufuchs I and Blaufuchs II). The 169th Division and Feige's headquarter was transported directly by ship from Stettin and Oslo to Oulu and then by train to Rovaniemi. From there they joined Finnish forces and marched into position for the offensive under the guise of border exercises. The SS-Infantry Kampfgruppe Nord was created as a mixed unit of the 6th and 7th Motorized SS Infantry Regiments, two artillery battalions, and one reconnaissance battalion. This unit was mostly untrained and more of a police unit and therefore unsuited for harsh arctic warfare. While it was being transported from Norway to Finland, a transport ship caught fire and killed some 110 soldiers. The unit was later renamed the 6th SS Mountain Division Nord and was led by General Demelhuber. Attached to the German and Finnish force were two small Panzer units: Panzer-Abteilung 211 which operated captured French tanks, and Panzer-Abteilung 40 which consisted mainly of Panzer Is and Panzer IIs.
The goal of the operation was to take Salla, and then to proceed eastward along the railway to capture Kandalaksha, and to cut the vital Murmansk Railway line which connected Murmansk with Central Russia. To accomplish this, the German-Finnish forces advanced in two main groups: one led by the XXXVI Corps in the north, and one by the Finnish III Corps in the south. For XXXVI Corps part, the 169th Division had to advance in a three-pronged, frontal attack against the Soviet defense line along the Tenniö River. Further south the Finnish 6th Division had to undertake a massive flanking operation into the Soviet rear from Kuusamo. They had to advance through difficult terrain to the northeast and capture the towns of Alakurtti and Kayraly (Kairala). There they would meet up with the German divisions. Both divisions were supported by the 6th SS Mountain Division that had to advance in the centre along the Salla – Kandalaksha road in a frontal assault against the Soviet defense line.
As part of Finnish III Corps' effort further south, the Finnish 3rd Division launched a supporting assault. The units of Finnish III Corps were placed under the general command of the German AOK Norwegen for the operation. The Finnish forces' ultimate goal was to cut the Murmansk supply-lines at Loukhi and Kem. For this the Finnish 3rd Division was split into two operational battlegroups, Group J and Group F. Group J was ordered to advance from south of Kuusamo and take Kestenga (Kiestinki), while Group F was to attack from Suomussalmi and capture Ukhta.
Aerial support for the offensive was provided by Luftflotte 5, which was originally based in Norway, and the Finnish Air Force. For the Operation Silver Fox the Luftwaffe created a new headquarter and moved it into Finland. The Finnish air force fielded about 230 aircraft of various types at the start of hostilities. Luftflotte 5 assigned 60 planes to the Silver Fox Operation in Finland and employed the Junkers Ju 87, Junkers Ju 88 and Heinkel He 111 aircraft allowing it to provide essential close air support for the Finnish-German offensive.
Soviet preparations in turn were meager. While the Soviets anticipated a German invasion with possible Finnish support, Stalin did not expect a German attack along the entire border so early. The border was heavily fortified, but the Soviet leadership was unprepared for the sudden German attack. The main adversary of the German-Finnish force was the Soviet Northern Front consisting of the 7th and 14th Armies stationed in the arctic. They were commanded by Lieutenant-General Markian Popov. On 23 August 1941, the Northern Front was split up into the Karelian Front and the Leningrad Front, commanded by Valerian Frolov and Popov and respectively. Frolov remained in command of the Karelian Front until 1 September, when he was replaced by Roman Panin due to a promotion. During the first weeks the Axis would enjoy numerical superiority, as the Soviets only had 150,000 men north of Lake Ladoga along the border stationed. The Axis powers also possessed air superiority, as Soviet Karelian was only protected by the 1st and 55th Mixed Air Divisions, totaling 273 serviceable aircraft, which were considered to be heavily outclassed by their enemy counterparts.
Operation Arctic Fox
Start of the war
During German-Finnish negotiations Finland had demanded to remain neutral unless the Soviet Union attacked them first. Germany therefore sought to provoke the Soviet Union into an act of aggression towards Finland. On 22 June Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, invading the Soviet Union. German aircraft employed Finnish air bases, while also launching Operation Reindeer, which resulted in the capture of Petsamo at the Finnish-Soviet border. Simultaneously Finland proceeded to remilitarize the neutral Åland Islands. Despite these actions the Finnish government insisted via diplomatic channels to be still a neutral party, but the Soviet leadership already viewed Finland as an ally of Germany. On 22 June, the Murmansk Oblast entered a state of emergency, with a total of 50,000 mobilized into the army and navy. Conscripts and volunteers joined ranks of the newly formed 1st Polar Rifle Division, while sailors from the Northern Fleet entered the service of a marine infantry Brigade. A considerable number of civilians was also employed in the construction of four lines of fortifications, between Zapadnaya Litsa and Kola Bay. Subsequently, the Soviets proceeded to launch a massive air raid on 25 June, bombing all major Finnish cities and industrial centers including Helsinki, Turku and Lahti. During a night session at the same day the Finnish parliament decided to go to war against the Soviet Union. Operation Arctic Fox could now commence.
Capture of Salla and stalemate at Kayraly
The offensive commenced on 1 July 1941, with the Finnish 6th Division crossing the border at midnight. Several hours later the 6th SS Mountain Division Nord and the 169th Division followed with their attacks against the Soviet front line. The Soviet positions were heavily fortified and manned by three divisions from the Soviet 14th Army: the 122nd Rifle Division, the 104th Rifle Division, and the 1st Tank Dvision commanded by Valerian A. Frolov. In broad Arctic daylight, against heavy Soviet resistance, both divisions sustained heavy losses and were unable to make any gains so the attack failed. The SS Nord Division fared especially badly. Confusion arose during the heavy fighting and command and control broke down. The situation worsened the next day when, after a renewed assault, the Soviets attempted a counterattack. The SS Nord staff panicked and parts of the division went into full retreat, forcing Feige and the XXXVI Corps command to intervene personally to restore order to the chaos.
This failure prompted the German command to rethink its strategy. To reinforce the troops and replace the losses, additional personnel were transferred from the 163rd Infantry Division based in Southern Finland. With a combined effort by all the German forces, extensive air-support by Luftflotte 5, as well as a supportive flanking attack by the Finnish 6th Division, they finally broke through the Soviet defenses on 6 July and captured Salla. A heavy Soviet counterattack drove them back out of the town but on 8 July, a general Soviet retreat of the 122nd Rifle Division allowed the German forces to recapture the town. The Soviet troops had to leave most of their artillery behind and in the heavy fighting some 50 Soviet tanks were destroyed. In order not to lose momentum, the SS Division Nord pursued the 122nd Rifle Division toward Lampela, while the 169th Division turned east toward Kayraly. Meanwhile, the Finnish 6th Division was making good progress in its flanking manoeuvre to the east to circumvent Kayraly and Lape Apa.
On 9 July, the 169th Division reached the town of Kayraly, but was thrown back by strong Soviet counterattacks. All three Soviet divisions now formed a formidable defense line around Kayraly, incorporating the adjacent lakes Apa and Kuola into their defense. The German advance stalled, facing difficulties with arctic forest fighting. At the same time the Soviets managed to bring additional reinforcements to replace their losses. On 16 July, Falkenhorst arrived at the XXXVI Corps' headquarters and pressured Feige to renew the offensive. Feige relented and on 27 and 29 July the corps made two additional attacks separately against the Soviets which led to nothing. A stalemate had developed at the front line that the Germans could not break. Due the grim situation, and mounting losses (5,500 men in just one month), AOK Norwegen finally ordered Feige to halt the offensive.
Attack of the Finnish III Corps
While the German advance stalled, the Finnish 3rd Division of III Corps in the south was making good progress. The division's first opponent was the Soviet 54th Rifle Division of the Soviet 7th Army. Group F advanced very quickly through 64 km (40 mi) of rough terrain to the Vyonitsa River, where it encircled and destroyed several Soviet units from 10 to 19 July. Group J advanced to the strongly defended canal between Lake Pyaozero and Lake Topozero. Astonished by the rapid Finnish success, the AOK Norwegen now decided to support the Finnish advance by transferring parts of the SS Nord Division south and put them under Finnish command.
Beginning on 30 July, the Finns succeeded in smuggling a battalion over the lakes, behind 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 transferred additional troops (the 88th Rifle Division as well as the independent Grivnik brigade) into the region. Soviet resistance now stiffened, leading to a stall of Group J's advance east of Kestenga. While Group J had been embroiled in the battle around Kestenga, Group F was able to reach the outskirts of Ukhta. They broke through the defense line at the Yeldanka Lake, and were able to come within a few miles short of Ukhta proper. However, the new Soviet reinforcements prevented any further gains, and the Finnish attack stalled in this sector too.
With the increasing Soviet resistance, a plan was made to concentrate on only one target. It was decided to halt the Ukhta-offensive and instead support the advance east of Kestenga in mid-August. This new drive was able to make some ground in the arctic no-man's land, but no decisive breakthrough could be achieved. The increasing Soviet activity also worried Siilasvuo, especially as Group F was now standing still in exposed terrain, open to a possible Soviet encirclement. To counter this, AOK Norwegen decided to bolster the Finnish forces for a final push to the east and the rest of the SS Nord division was moved south and put under Finnish command. Also parts of 6th Finnish Division were now moved south and returned to the Finnish III Corps for more reinforcements. Once the reorganisation had been completed, a new, final attack had to be launched by both Finnish battlegroups in October.
Concurrently to these advances, a Finnish jaeger (jääkäri) battalion was inserted into the largely unoccupied 240 km (150 mi) area between the Murmansk and Kandalaksha directions of the advance and was able to cut the sole railway line connecting Kandalaksha with forward Soviet positions at the Nyam station. This meant that for two weeks the Soviet 122nd Rifle Division did not receive any supplies and had to live off its field dumps.
Renewed attack in the centre toward the Murmansk Railway
During the successful advance by Finnish forces in the south, tensions between the headquarters of XXXVI Corps and AOK Norwegen rose. Feige naturally believed that his corps should lead the main effort against the Murmansk railway. Instead of giving him the requested reinforcements to overcome the strong Soviet defenses and reach the goal of Kandalaksha, Falkenhorst was transferring more and more units south to bolster the Finnish III Corps' advance. While AOK Norwegen indeed saw the greatest chance of success within III Corps, nevertheless it ordered Feige to resume his offensive towards the east, leaving him in a very difficult situation.
With no other choices left, Feige drew up a plan for another offensive. The thinly stretched forces of the 169th division had to split up to take over the defense line along the entire frontline between Kayrala and its adjacent lakes. The Finnish 6th Division would then be freed to undertake another massive flanking operation. Coming from the very south, they would circumvent the Soviet positions at Kayrala and thrust to a position east of it behind the Soviet lines at Lake Nurmi. The 169th Division would do the same, but from the north, resulting in a large pincer movement to trap the Soviets. At the beginning of August 1941 this plan was launched with the Finnish 6th Division heading the renewed drive of the XXXVI Corps with the 169th Division following. The plan met with unexpected success. The attack completely surprised the Soviets and a large firefight developed around Kayraly. The German-Finnish force was able to encircle large parts of the Soviet 42nd Rifle Corps and its 104th Division. Although some units escaped, large Soviet formations were subsequently destroyed and the Soviets had to leave most of their equipment behind. In the face of the new German thrust, the Soviets retreated to the Tuutsa River. They tried to establish a new defensive line around Alakurtti, but were unable to hold out against the pursuing Finnish-German units. After the Soviets lost Alakurtti they withdrew to the Voyta River where the old 1939 Soviet border fortifications were situated.
On 6 September, XXXVI Corps launched a frontal assault against the Soviet fortifications but made only slow progress. XXXVI Corps attempted another flanking attack similar to Kayrela, with one German regiment trying to circumvent the Soviet defenses in the south. This time it did not work as well, and the German effort bogged down against 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 defense line. The so-called VL or Verman Line stretched from Lake Verkhneye Verman to Lake Tolvand and included heavy Soviet pre-war fortifications.
By this point XXXVI Corps had reached total exhaustion. With the transfer of the SS Division Nord to the south, and a return of the Finnish 6th Division to III Corps, Feige deemed any further advance in this sector impossible. With the Soviets bringing more reinforcements to the front every day, Feige requested more men if he was to start a new attack. Plans were made by AOK Norwegen for a resumption of the offensive, but the German High Command was unable to reinforce the Arctic theatre with additional units and AOK Norwegen could not send anything meaningful itself to aid Feige. Consequently, all offensive plans were scrapped. Due to the more spectacular gains at the main front in Central Russia during Operation Barbarossa, the OKW deemed the current situation acceptable and an end was ordered to the offensive operations of XXXVI Corps. This, combined with heavy German casualties, led to the attack finally being called off at the end of September.
Final battles of III Corps and the end of the operation
While XXXVI Corps was struggling against the Soviets, III Corps' situation was not much better, despite reinforcements arriving from the transfers of XXXVI Corps to the south. Group F's new drive on Ukhta was immediately stopped in its tracks by recent reinforcements of the 88th Rifle Division. The Soviets now launched a heavy counterattack. The Finns, who were still reorganising with the recently arrived German units for a revived push to the east, were forced to retire. To counter the new threat AOK Norwegen now threw in everything it had available to bolster the Finnish front. New assignments included another regiment from XXXVI Corps as well as parts of the 14th Finnish Infantry Regiment pulled from Operation Platinum Fox, the German front in the far north. The new 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. Finnish General Hjalmar Siilasvuo proceeded to clear the perimeter with his troops. After the disappointing performance of the SS units under his command and the realization that he neither the Finnish nor the German high command is going to provide him with additional forces or substantial reinforcements, he slowed down the advance towards the east and instead concentrated on clearing and securing the area. Those mop-up operations were completed by 13 November. By that point the Finnish 3rd Division had killed 3,000 Soviet soldiers and captured 2,600.
With the Germans mostly unable to operate and advance without the support of the experienced Finnish units, their hope now lay on a continuation of the attack led by the Finns themselves. These hopes were soon squashed. Field Marshal Carl 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 Corps' offensive, despite positive feedback from his field commanders that further ground could be taken. The reason for this sudden change in Finnish behaviour was probably the result of diplomatic pressure by the United States. Prior to the cancellation of the offensive, US diplomats warned Finland that a disruption of US deliveries to the Soviet Union would have serious implications. Therefore, Finland was no longer interested in spearheading such an offensive. With the Finnish refusal to be involved in further offensive operations, Arctic Fox came to an end in November and both sides dug in at their current positions.
Operation Arctic Fox was unable to meet its sophisticated goals. During the operation the Germans and Finns were able to take some ground and took Salla as well as Kestenga, but overall the operation failed in terms of its strategic intentions, as neither Murmansk nor the Murmansk railway at Kandalaksha were captured. The closest the German-Finnish force came to the Murmansk railway was east of Kestenga, where they were about 30 km (19 mi) away from it. The XXXVI Corps, especially its SS-component, was unsuited, ill-trained, and unprepared for arctic warfare and therefore made little progress while suffering heavy casualties. On the other hand, Finnish units, especially the 6th Division of the III Finnish Corps, made good progress and inflicted heavy casualties on the Soviet forces.
The failure of Arctic Fox had a significant impact on the course of the war in the east. Murmansk was a major base for the Soviet Northern Fleet and it was also together with Arkhangelsk the main destination for Allied aid shipped to the Soviet Union. British convoys had traveled to Murmansk since the summer at the onset of the war, but with the entry of the United States into the war in December 1941, the influx of Western Allied aid increased massively. The United States enacted the Lend-Lease pact in which they vowed to supply the Soviet Union with large quantities amounts of food, oil, and war materiel. One quarter of this aid was delivered via Murmansk. This included large amounts of raw materials like aluminum as well as large quantities of military goods for the Soviet war effort, 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 stale. The German High Command did not regard it as an important theatre and therefore refrained from transferring the substantial reinforcements needed for a renewal of the offensive. The Finns likewise were not interested in continuing the offensive on their own as they did not want to antagonize the Western Allies further. In September 1944, following a series of devastating German defeats, the Finns sued for peace with the Soviet Union and had to give up all their territorial conquests. The Germans subsequently retreated from Central Finland to Petsamo and Norway. In October 1944, the Red Army conducted the Petsamo-Kirkenes Operation and achieved a decisive victory over the German forces in the Arctic by completely expelling them from Finland.
- a Russian historiography commonly describes the fighting in this area as the Kandalaksha Operation.
- b A mixed unit consisting of ad-hoc drafted and volunteered sailors, later renamed 186th Rifle Division. In November, it was transferred to the south of Murmansk when Operation Platinum Fox slowed down.
- c The Finns suffered around 5,000 casualties during the course of the whole Silver Fox operation.
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