Battle of Ilomantsi
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The Battle of Ilomantsi was a part of the Continuation War (1941–1944). It was fought from July 26 to August 13, 1944, between Finland and the Soviet Union in area roughly 40 kilometers wide and 30 kilometers deep, near the Finnish-Soviet border, close to a small Finnish town of Ilomantsi, in North Karelia. The battle ended with a Finnish victory, as the last major Soviet attack against Finland was stopped here.
Order of battle
Finnish forces in the area before the battle consisted of only the 21st Brigade under Colonel Ekman but they were reinforced with Cavalry Brigade and three other battalions—3rd Border Jaeger Battalion and 2 battalion strong detachment P (Os. P). All Finnish forces were subordinated to a temporary formation named Group R (Group Raappana) after its commanding officer Major General Erkki Raappana and was tasked with defeating the advancing Soviet units and recapturing crossroads at Kuolismaa village.
During the initial Soviet push the sole unit defending and delaying it was the Finnish 21st Brigade (roughly 7,000 men). As the front in the Karelian Isthmus had been stabilized the Cavalry Brigade was rushed to the Ilomantsi to reinforce the 21st Brigade bringing the Finnish strength at July 31 when the counterattack began roughly to 13,000.
General Meretskov's Karelian Front's forces advancing towards Ilomantsi consisted of two divisions of Soviet 32nd Army under Lieutenant General Filip D. Garelenko – 176th (Colonel Zolotarjov) and 289th (Major General Tsernuha) divisions. Later as the battle progressed and the advancing divisions were encircled, Soviet forces in the area were reinforced with 3rd, 69th and 70th Naval Infantry Brigades and other formations.
According to Soviet archives, at the beginning of the Karelian Front's offensive at June 21, 1944 Soviet 176th and 289th Rifle Divisions of the 32nd Army had combined strength of roughly 16,000 men. By the time (June 31) the Finnish counterattack in Ilomantsi started the combined strength of the 176th and 289th division had dropped to 11,000 men. After the soviet 3rd Naval Infantry (ru. Morskaya Pekhota) Brigade and 69th and 70th Naval Rifle (ru. Morskaya Strelkovy) Brigades were brought to support the encircled 176th and 289th Divisions the combined Soviet infantry strength in Ilomantsi was slightly higher than 20,000 men.
At first, the Soviet offensive seemed to be successful as on July 21, 1944, the Red Army units were able to reach the Finnish-Soviet border of 1940, the only time during the entire Soviet offensive of 1944, and—in fact—ever since 1941. Finnish reinforcements arrived on July 28 and on July 31 Raappana started the counterattack. Already on August 1 Finns cut the sole road leading to Soviet 176th division and by August 3 both Soviet divisions were encircled as the Finnish forces utilized envelopment tactics ("motti" in Finnish) that drew upon the ancient methods of warfare and those already used by them in the Winter War (1939–1940).
Soviets deployed three brigades with armor support to open the road connections to the encircled divisions but Finnish efforts prevented it. Renewed attacks distracted the Finns enough to allow the encircled Soviet forces escape through the dense forests by abandoning their heavy equipment. Given the element of surprise and due to superior numbers of the Soviets the Finnish troops guarding the encircled divisions had little hope of containing organized breakouts especially in forests and so many of the encircled Soviets managed to escape to their own side with last escaping at August 10.
Two attacking Red Army divisions were decimated in this last major engagement on the Finnish front, before the armistice was concluded in early September, 1944. The commandership of the Finnish forces in the Battle of Ilomantsi was carried out by the famed Finnish General—and a Knight of the Mannerheim Cross—Erkki Raappana.
Military historians note that the two Red Army divisions were completely routed after a week and a half of fighting, leaving behind over 3,200 Red Army soldiers dead, thousands wounded and missing, and over 100 pieces of heavy artillery, approximately 100 mortars and the rest of the Soviet ordnance for the Finns to capture.
This was the ninth major Finnish defense victory in only a few weeks' period, since the main Soviet offense against the Finnish fences was launched in June 1944. Moscow could now only decide that the Finns had plenty of fight left in them.
General Raappana's men—the so-called Group Raappana ("Ryhmä Raappana" in Finnish)—had fired within ten days over 36,000 artillery shells, aimed at the Soviet forces in Ilomantsi. The Soviet artillery participating in Ilomantsi were able to fire only 10,000 shells during the same period. The main reason for the lower Soviet artillery successes were the Finnish disturbance tactics. For instance, a Finnish guerrilla detachment led by the Knight of the Mannerheim Cross, Lieutenant Heikki Nykänen, destroyed a Soviet convoy of 30 trucks carrying artillery rounds to the battle scene.
The Finns had achieved victory, and the remnants of the two Red Army divisions had barely escaped destruction, by breaking out from the encirclements. After the battle, Stavka (Soviet Armed Forces Headquarters) brought its offensive to a halt and gave up the demand of Finland’s unconditional surrender.
The Finnish President Mauno Koivisto spoke at a seminar held in August, 1994, in the North Karelian city of Joensuu, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Finnish victory in the crucial Battle of Ilomantsi. The future President of Finland witnessed this battle as a soldier in a reconnaissance company commanded by Finnish war hero and Knight of the Mannerheim Cross recipient, Captain Lauri Törni (who later served in USA as a Green Beret under the name Larry Thorne):
- In the summer of 1944, when the Red Army launched an all-out offensive, aimed at eliminating Finland, the Finns were "extremely hard-pressed", President Koivisto itenerated, but they "did not capitulate".
- "We succeeded in stopping the enemy cold at key points," the President said, "and in the final battle at Ilomantsi even in pushing him back."
- "I do not see a defeat in the summer's battles, but the victory of a small nation over a major power, whose forces were stopped far short of the objectives of the Soviet leadership. Finland was not beaten militarily ..."
- "Finland preserved her autonomy and her democratic social system ..."
- "Finland ... won the peace."
The Utrio area played a central role in General Erkki Raappana's—the leader of the 1944 Ilomantsi operation—plan of defence. Fast-moving battalions from the Cavalry Brigade, experienced in forest warfare, were driven through this area between lakes, as a wedge between the attacking Soviet 289th and 176th Divisions. The opening battles fell on the Finnish Light Infantry Battalion 6. When it turned against the encirclements at Leminaho and the Lutikkavaara hill, the Uudenmaa Cavalry Regiment attacked through Utrio and the River Ruukinpohja, with flanking from the Light Infantry Battalion 1.
Media related to Battle of Ilomantsi at Wikimedia Commons
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- Rausio, Ari; Kilin, Juri (2009). Jatkosodan torjuntataisteluja 1942–44 [Defensive Battles of Continuation War 1942–44] (in Finnish). Helsinki: Karttakeskus. ISBN 978-951-593-070-5.
- Rysti, Tuomo (director, writer) (4 June 2003). Korpisodan suurvoitto [Major victory in war in the wilderness] (in Finnish). Finland: Yleisradio (YLE).
- "Ilomantsi sodassa". 3 August 2009. Retrieved 20 July 2010.