Finnish conquest of East Karelia (1941)

Finnish conquest of East Karelia (1941)

The Finnish conquest of East Karelia (1941) refers to a military campaign carried out by Finland in 1941. It was part of what is commonly referred to as the Continuation War. Finnish troops occupied Soviet East Karelia and held it until their retreat in 1944.


For over a month after the outbreak of the Continuation war, the Karelian Army had stayed in place, replenished its forces and prepared for the continuation of its offensive while the Finns had recaptured the Karelian Isthmus. Also the Soviets had prepared new fortifications and brought new troops to the front. When encirclements on the western shore of Lake Ladoga were resolved, the Finnish 7.D were transferred to the junction of VI and VII Corps where it could assist both of them.

The Finnish offensive started on the early hours of September 4 at Tuulos, when the largest artillery barrage so far in Finnish history was unleashed. This artillery barrage, its effectiveness, leading practices and ammunition usage was carefully inspected right after the battle, and prompted numerous improvements which were honed to perfection in the Battle of Tali-Ihantala. Closely following the barrage, the 5.D crossed the River Tuulos 7 km from the mouth of the river at 5am. The river crossing was easy, but soon the Soviet defence strengthened. The Finnish armored battalion followed the spearhead and helped to destroy enemy strongpoints, and finally the coastal road was severed at 11am. The Soviet counterattack started at 1pm, and managed to encircle the Finns who had advanced to the coastal road. At 2pm when situation seemed dangerous to Finns, Col. Karhu committed the reserve division, the light detachtment 4 to the battle, and together with tanks they managed to break the encirclement at 17:30, and in the ensuing battle scattered the defending forces and reached the coast of Lake Ladoga, thus cutting the retreat route of the forces still between them and River Tuulos. During the night the encircled forces were destroyed. In the battle Soviet 3. Marine Br., IR452 and IR419 were shattered and partially destroyed; the road to Olonets was open.

As soon as the breakthrough was secured, Detachment Lagus rushed through the 5.D towards Olonets which it captured on September 5 with only a short firefight. From there it advanced through the night towards the River Svir which the first units reached at 5am on September 7th. The Marttinen Detachment was separated from the Lagus Detachment and armored battalion, and it advanced east from Olonets and captured the northern end of the railroad bridge over the River Svir and severed the western branch of the Murmansk railroad on the morning of September 8.

On the left side of 5.D, the 17.D wasn't so successful, but the Soviet 3.D was able to hold its positions at Säntämä. Further north the 17.D fared better and its IR13 reached the Olonets-Petrozavodsk road on the evening of September 5, where IR 34 continued its advance southward along the road. From Olonets IR44, which was part of the Lagus detachment, started advancing northwards September 6 along the road towards Nurmoila, which was captured the next morning. This meant that all road connections were severed from Soviet 3.D and it quickly broke away from Säntämä and tried to recapture Nurmoila unsuccessfully. During the September 7 Finns managed to capture the whole road between Nurmoila and IR34, but by abandoning their vehicles most of the Soviet 3.D managed to break through the Finnish lines at September 8 and cross the road eastward, thus escaping to the roadless forests there.

The 17.D marched to the River Svir and started to clear both banks eastward from the railway bridge where the Murmansk railroad crosses the Svir. The Soviets had reinforced the area with the new 314.D, and the Finnish advance was slow, and by September 22, the Finns had consolidated a 5-10 km deep and 40 km wide bridgehead on the southern bank of the River Svir.

On the northern side of the 7.D, the 1.D and 11.D were preparing to attack along the Olonets-Petrozavodsk road. Consequently, it had already started to capture bridgeheads across the River Säpsänjoki on August 31. Also here the Soviets had prepared defences along the roads, so the Finns decided to advance through the trackless forests to encircle the defending Soviet forces. On September 7 it managed to cut the Aunus-Petrozavodsk road north of the Prääsä roadcrossing, which was captured the following day. This resulted in the Soviet 272.D, IR9 and IR24 being cut off from their supply lines. The 1.D had attacked these forces and at September 7 it reached the main road.

The Soviets started a counterattack to open the road to Petrozavodsk from both sides against the roadblock at Prääsä, September 11-September 13, but they failed to open the road. This meant that the Soviet forces had no other option than to abandon their heavy equipment and retreat through the forests eastward, which they did during the next three days. After the area was cleared of Soviet forces, the 11.D continued the attack on September 20 by advancing along the main road and cutting it every two kilometers thus forcing the defenders to abandon their positions. Advancing this way the 11.D reached the village of Puoliväli at September 24, 20 km from Petrozavodsk.

Meanwhile, Col. Lagus had gathered his forces at the railroad bridge over the River Svir. On September 18 he resumed his offensive by attacking eastwards along the river to the village of Ostretsina, where he turned northwards to Latva village. Between the 15th and 20th of September the 7.D had built over 30 km of road through the swamps and marshy forests towards the Latva station on the Murmansk railroad. The intention of these maneuvers was to encircle (in a double envelopement) the Soviet defenders (the 3.D and separate battalions) who had prepared defences along the railroad and who were supported by armored train, impenetrable by Finnish AT weapons. The Finnish attack achieved surprise and the railroad was severed and the village of Latva was captured at September 21. Encircled Soviet forces started an immediate retreat northwards along the railroad, and with the help of the armored train they managed to break the encirclement and retreat northwards at September 22.

Lagus didn't wait for the end of the battles at Latva station, but ordered two battalions (lead by Lt. Col. Björkman) to attack northwards from Latva village and on September 24 they reached the shores of Lake Onega at the village of Derevjannoje, thus severing the last land connection south of Petrozavodsk.

At September 25 Lagus ordered Björkman to cut the railroad again near Petrozavodsk, and at September 27 he cut the railroad at Orsega. At the next day, Björkman was only 4 km from Petrozavodsk, when the attack was stopped as the forces were needed in Orsega, where Soviets were trying to break their encirclement. At September 29 Soviets managed to force their way through Finnish frontline at Orsega, and managed to advance still 5 km northwards before the Finns stopped them. The 7.D was following on the heels of the Soviet forces and at September 30 fierce fighting started at Orsega. The IR9 of the 7.D attacked southwards along the coastal road of Lake Onega, and at reached the River Svir at October 2. The planned immediate crossing had to be postponed as tired troop refused to cross the river in the darkness of the night. The crossing succeeded at October 6 at 14:00, and during the following week the 7.D created 10 km deep bridgehead to the southern bank of River Svir, until the arrival of Soviet 114.D halted Finnish advance and all troops started to prepare defensive positions.

At September 26 11.D and 1.D had continued their attack towards Petrozavodsk. The Soviet forces recognized the threatening situation and started to evacuate forces from Petrozavodsk, so when the 11.D cut the main road and railroad northwards from Petrozavosk at September 30, most of the Soviet forces had already left the town. The last defenders of the town were evacuated over the Lake Onega and Finns captured the town at the morning of October 1.

The Soviet 3.D realized that the road northwards was blocked, and after destroying its heavy equipment, including the armored train, it retreated to the roadless forest and started a long retreat southwards. The Finnish IR30 started the pursuit, and after two weeks the remaining few hundred men of the 3.D managed to escape over the River Svir.

At the left side of the 11.D the 4.D advanced along the Sortavala-Petrozavodsk railroad. The direction was heavily fortified before the Winter War, and advancement was much slower so 4.D was still 12 km from Petrozavodsk when the town fell to the Finns. At the further north there was group Oinonen with 2.JBr and Cav. Br. with an orders to advance northeast. There were two roads with the wide roadless forest between which group Oinonen had to use, so Soviet 71.D decided to concentrate their forces against one of these, so they were able to force 2.JBr. in a counterattack of September 16-September 21 almost 10 km backwards before they were forced to retreat as the attack of the cavalry brigade threatened them with an encirclement. Group Oinonen continued pressuring Soviet 71.D, and reached Lake Vatselänjärvi at September 29, thus opening the road eastward.

After the capture of Petrozavodsk, Karelian Army was ordered to continue offensive northward along the railroad and capture the string of lake isthmuses up to River Suununjoki. The 1.D crossed the Bay of Petrozavodsk to Cape Gromovskoje October 2 and had cleared the southern part of the cape at October 7. The first isthmus was breached by 4.D at October 5, but the advance was slow because of delaying Soviet IR 1072. So the 1.D took responsibility of the attack and attacking IR5 was transferred from 4.D to 1.D. Also a new IR29 was sent from Petrozavodsk to help 1.D, and finally at October 18 the River Suununjoki was reached. The 4.D continued attack northward on the western side of the lakes, leaving only small detachments to secure next two isthmuses until it reached group Oinonen which had advanced eastward to the isthmus between Lake Sunjärvi and Lake Pälläjärvi at October 13. The attack continued northward along the western bank of Lake Pälläjärvi, and at October 19 the 4.D captured Juustjärvi roadcrossing, opening the road towards Karhumäki right before Soviet IR126 managed to pass the crossing, forcing it to abandon it's heavy equipment and retreat north through the woods.

The 8.D had been transported from Karelian Isthmus to Porajärvi, which had been captured by Brigade Kuusjärvi at October 12 when Soviet forces started to retreat from their prepared positions in threat of the advance of the 4.D towards Juustjärvi. At October 15 the 8.D, strengthened with Brigade Kuussaari, started the attack across the River Suununjoki and at October 18 captured the roadcrossing at Lake Jänkäjärvi, from where it continued towards Juustjärvi, where 4.D was contacted at October 20, and towards Lake Seesjärvi, which was reached at October 19. The 8.D continued cleaning the southern shore of the Lake Seesjärvi, and captured the village of Maaselkä at November 1 before it has to stop when it faced a new Soviet 289.D. The attack started again after three weeks preparations at November 21, and managed to press defenders against the shores of the lake, but those managed to retreat over the frozen lake at November 28. Also the capture of the Maaselkä railway station failed, as a new Soviet 263.D reached the station right before the Finns. As it became evident that offensive couldn't be continued to the target (the railway station), the 8.D was ordered to prepare defensive positions.

The capture of Juustjärvi threatened the long right flank of Soviet forces defending the eastern bank of River Suununjoki. So 4.D reinforced with IR45 was ordered to advance to the shores of Lake Onega and isolate Soviet forces there. The attack started at October 20, and October 24 it captured the village of Mäntyselkä at the southern end of the Lake Semsjärvi, but failed to advance from there. IR26 was ordered to encircle the enemy by going around the lake, and in the early morning of October 27 it managed to capture the village of Kumsa, thus severing the Soviet connection behind and forcing them to retreat. Meanwhile the IR45 had advanced through forest paths and improved them so that motorized vehicles could use the route, and reached the railroad near Käppäselkä station at October 27. During the next two days, they managed to capture the station and an armored train which became stuck at station.

At the same time, October 27, the main offensive across the River Suununjoki started, and Cavalry Brigade managed to secure bridgehead. On the next day, also the 2.JBr. crossed the river and started advancing towards Kontupohja, while Cavalry Brigade turned northwards to race around the Lake Santalanjärvi. In the following day also the 1.D crossed the river and together with the 2.JBr. they started attacking Kontupohja, but the first assault on the move failed and Finns stopped for preparations. The Soviet 313.D, which defended Kontupohja, had noticed that additional Finnish units threatened it's connections northward, so it started withdrawing from Kontupohja at the evening of November 2, just before the planned Finnish offensive of the next morning. Finns captured the burned down town before midnight and continued pursuing retreating Soviets, but although Cav. Br. had severed the railroad and main road northwards, the Soviet division managed to retreat using the hastily built road between the main road and the shores of the lake.

The situation although improved for the defenders, as the length of the front shortened and it was anchored on the both ends to the lakes. The reinforcements had improved the force ratio: There was three Finnish divisions and two brigades against four Soviet divisions and a brigade. Also the high hills south and west of town Karhumäki provided natural defensive positions which were improved by extensive field fortifications, where Finnish advance stopped November 8.

During the next two weeks Finns proped the defences, and at November 21 1.D started an attack which managed to drive 5 km deep wedge to the Soviet defences before being stopped. At the northern side of Karhumäki, the 4.D had to stop only 4 km from the center of the town at November 19. The renewed offensive started at November 29, which managed to breach the outer defences west of the town by December 2. Meanwhile, Mj. Gen. Lagus' 1.JBr. reached the front and joined the offensive at December 4. At the next morning the 4.D from north and the 1.JBr. from west breached the Soviet lines and advanced to the town. The 2.JBr. followed right behind Lagus' men and started clearing the town when 1.JBr. continued quickly eastward towards Poventsa, which they reached next day, thus closing the White Sea Canal. Small units crossed the canal and advanced few kilometers before returning to Poventsa, where they were ordered to form defensive positions. At the night of December 8 the Soviet pioneers blew up the locks of the canal, and the following flood breached the protecting banks of Poventsa thus drowning a few men.

North of the Karelian Army, the Finnish 14. Infantry Division (Col. E. Raappana) was ordered to advance to Rukajärvi. The area was defended by Soviet IR337 (of 54.ID) and 73.Border Guard Detachment, and also here the defenders had prepared 15-20 km deep area with field fortifications.

First patrols crossed the border July 1, and general advance started July 3. Defenders managed to delay Finnish advance, and it was July 8, when Finns captured Repola. The advance continued July 11, when Finns crossed Lake Lieksajärvi, and started to encircle Soviet forces defending narrow isthmuses. The encirclement was completed July 21, and as Soviet attempt to open the road eastward was repulsed July 23, it started evacuate personnel over the Lake Roukkulanjärvi. The evacuation wasn't fully successful, as over 100 men drowned and 300 was captured, when the motti of Omelia finally surrendered at July 24.

Because Finns had no light units available, they advanced slowly eastward, and next battles were fought about the control of Ontrosenvaara hills between July 30 and August 12, where Soviet 54.D had brought reinforcements, including parts of IR137 and 71.Border Guard Detachment. When these forces were unable to stop Finnish attack, Soviet 7.Army ordered new 27.ID to be formed to the area. It turned out, that Soviets had carefully prepared positions at Rukavaara hill only few kilometers eastward, and retreating forces manned these positions and managed to stop Finnish advance for three weeks there. At September 3, Finns attacked, encircling the hill and forcing the defenders to leave their positions at September 8. The village of Rukajärvi was captured September 11, and the River Onkajoki was crossed September 15. After advancing only 2 km Finns reached the Soviet positions which it couldn't capture on the move. Although the regimental target wasn't reached, the target Mannerheim had ordered was reached by capturing Rukajärvi and securing it, so 14.D was ordered to defensive.


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