Finnish reconquest of Ladoga Karelia (1941)
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Initial layout of forces
Initially the Finnish army was deployed in a defensive posture, but on June 29 Mannerheim created the Army of Karelia, commanded by Lt. Gen. Erik Heinrichs, and ordered it to prepare to attack Ladoga Karelia. The Army of Karelia consisted of VI Corps (5th and 11th Divisions), VII Corps (7th and 19th divisions) and Group O (Cavalry Brigade, 1st Jaeger Brigade and 2nd Jaeger Brigade). Also later when the 1st division and two regiments of the German 163rd division arrived in the area, they were given to the Army of Karelia.
Opposing them were the Soviet 7th Army with the 168th Rifle Division near Sortavala and 71st Rifle Division north of Jänisjärvi ("Hare Lake"). The Soviets had prepared field fortifications along the border across Sortavala and at the important road crossings at Värtsilä and Korpiselkä.
The beginning of the offensive
On July 9, the order for the offensive was given. The task to break through the Soviet defences was given to VI Corps, commanded by the hero of Battle of Tolvajärvi, Maj. Gen. Paavo Talvela. He had borrowed as much artillery as possible from other units of the Army of Karelia and even from the 1st Jäger Brigade. (Col. Ruben Lagus) from Group O. With strong artillery support he unleashed the 5th Division (Col. Eino Koskimies) to Korpiselkä July 10, overwhelming its defenders by the next morning. Talvela wasn't satisfied with the aggressiveness of Koskimies, and he relieved him from command and gave the 5th Division to Col. Lagus.
Lagus pursued the retreating Soviet IR 52 eastward with his light units and reached Tolvajärvi on July 12. Then he turned southwards and advanced using small roads, some in such poor shape that his men had to carry their bicycles. On July 14 his forces cut off Sortavala-Petrozavodsk railroad, and the next day they reached shores of Lake Ladoga, severing Soviet routes around the lake. The Soviets had to transfer two regiments and separate battalions from Karelian Isthmus to close down the hole on the eastern side of Lake Ladoga.
By July 4 the 11th division (Col. Kaarlo Heiskanen) had already found that Soviet forces had temporarily abandoned their trenches across the border, and they used the opportunity to capture them. By July 9, when the general offensive began, they had already pushed eastward from their captured positions over the roadless terrain and cut the road running from Korpiselkä to Värtsilä and Suistamo, on the eastern shore of Jänisjärvi. From there they threatened to encircle Soviet forces south of Korpiselkä and those fortified in Värtsilä. To prevent encirclement, the Soviets had to leave their positions and retreat eastward. The Soviet IR 367 was able to hold its positions north of Jänisjärvi until defenders of Värtsilä had retreated there by July 12. Heiskanen continued pressing IR 367 around the eastern side of Jänisjärvi, and reached Jänisjoki, running from Jänisjärvi to Lake Ladoga July 16, where they went on the defensive.
Lagus continued his offensive immediately along the north-eastern coast of Lake Ladoga. The Soviet Mot. IR 452 was coming from the Karelian Isthmus and its first units were set to defensive at Salmi, where the Tulemajoki reaches Lake Ladoga. Finnish forces arrived there on July 18, and early next morning they started the battle by crossing the river 5 km north of Salmi and managed to cut the roads leading to Salmi by afternoon. Next day the Finns were able to push into the village and only small units were able to escape the encirclement. Salmi was finally captured by early hours of July 21.
The strengthened 5th division continued its advance as fast as possible and crossed the old border July 22 at Rajakontu. Meanwhile, a battle detachment under Järvinen (Col. Järvinen) had secured the left flank of the main thrust by crossing the old border at Känsäselkä and on July 19 captured the villages of Kolatselkä and Palalahti near Tulemajärvi, where they secured north and east leading roads and continued their advance to the south. And on 23 July the 5th division from the west and detachment Järvinen from the north began their attack on the village of Vitele, which was captured the next morning. Lagus unsuccessfully tried to encircle the retreating Soviet forces and had by the evening reached Tuuloksenjoki, but Soviet tanks and artillery managed to stop the advance of his light forces there.
The 1st division (Col. Paavo Paalu) had arrived and was transferred to VI Corps on July 16, but it was not until July 20 when they reached the fast-moving front line and released attachment Järvinen to their attack towards Vitele. From there they continued to attack north towards Hyrsylä and east toward Vieljärvi which they captured a few days later. The Soviet AR2, IR24, IR28 and parts of IR9 and IR10 began a counteroffensive on July 23, and after five days of fighting the front line was established 10 km east of Vieljärvi.
Reorganization of forces and Soviet counterattack
The Soviet North Front reorganized its forces on July 21 by transferring the 168th division and one regiment from the 71st division to the 23rd Army, which was responsible for the defence of the Karelian Isthmus. The same day the 7th Army was reorganized into two operative groups, Petrozavodsk Group (Lt. Gen. M. Antonjuk) with infantry regiment, two motorized regiments, one armoured regiment and separate units and South Group (Lt. Gen. V. Tsvetajev) with a Marine brigade, two motorized regiments and a number of smaller units.
Mannerheim had recognized the situation, and had already ordered on July 19 a halt to the attack at the Vitele-Vieljärvi line, as strong enemy formations were still on the southwestern side of Jänisjärvi and the fast advance had opened the Lake Ladoga coastline at the right flank of the 5th division, where the defense had to be arranged.
The fears of Mannerheim were real, as on July 19 Maj. Gen. Pavlov, commander of the coastal defence of Lake Ladoga ordered the 4th Marine Brigade to conduct incursions behind Finnish defences. During early hours of July 24, they landed successfully on Lunkulansaari and Mantsi, two islands right beside Salmi. All 11th, 5th and 1st divisions were committed at the time so Talvela had to scrape together whatever forces he was able to get (including a bridge building company) to throw attackers back to the lake. With the help of heavy artillery, which destroyed four of the fifteen ships Soviets were using, the Finns were able to push marines to three separate mottis, and the attempt to reinforce these forces at the morning of July 25 was repulsed. One by one remaining mottis were destroyed. On July 26 the Soviets landed in Mantsi and this time they almost managed to capture the whole island before Talvela managed to reinforce the forces there, and fighting continued late into the night of July 27 when the last Soviet resistance ended.
Resumption of the offensive
Finnish VII Corps (Maj. Gen. Woldemar Hägglund) was ordered to attack along the right flank of VI Corps to Sortavala. The isthmus between Lake Ladoga and the Finnish border was quite narrow and the important rail junction of Matkaselkä was only ten kilometres from the border. So, it was no wonder that Soviets had started to fortify the border region, in depth, right after the Moscow Peace. These fortifications were weakest at the northern section of the front, so Hägglund decided to put the main thrust there. The 7th division (strengthened with pioneer units) and all of the Corps' artillery were concentrated there. The 19th division-south had to manage with only its own artillery.
On the evening of July 10 the attack began. As a heavy thunderstorm was raging at the area, it was decided that infantry would attack without artillery support so that surprise could be achieved. The plan succeeded and most Soviet forces were encircled in their pillboxes, which were then eliminated with artillery support. During the next day, the 7th division advanced, encircling Soviet strongpoints. By the morning of July 12, they managed to break through the region where the Soviets had prepared minefields and fortifications.
This was only a short relief, as the defending Soviet 168th division (Col. A. Bondarev) proved to be very capable in defence. Time after time, it created new minefields, dug strongpoints and trenches and skillfully evaded encircling Finnish units. The fighting of the 168th division was later used as a textbook example for defensive warfare in Soviet military schools.
The 7th division reached the western shore of Jänisjärvi July 13 and turned southward. By July 15 they managed to reach the Sortavala-Petrozavodsk railroad at Pirttipohja and encircled defenders there.
The 19th division (Col. Esa Hannuksela) had the unenvied task of assaulting the best defended section of the 168th division. Hannuksela decided to create a very narrow and deep breach at Niinisyrjä village, only 200–300 meters (700–1,000 feet) wide and four kilometres deep, to breach the fortified border region. IR58 (Lt. Col. Juva) was to spearhead the assault which began late in the evening of July 10. IR58 fought all night and the next day, advancing one and half kilometres. It became evident that they had insufficient artillery so they had to borrow artillery from II Corps. IR58 continued the attack and reached the end of border fortifications July 12. The Soviet 168th division counterattacked to close the breach and encircle the IR58, but the Finns managed to hold the corridor, although Soviets managed to close its usage with artillery fire. The Finnish IR16 (Col. M. Laurila), which followed IR58, managed to open the corridor by the morning of July 15.
The 7th division continued its attack July 15 eastward along the railroad. On July 17 they managed to breach Soviet defences at the isthmus between Jänisjärvi and Vahvajärvi. Meanwhile, IR30 and IR51 of the 7th division, advanced east towards Jänisjoki, where they contacted the 11th division at the same day. IR30 and IR51 cleared the western shore of Jänisjoki and reached Lake Ladoga by July 20, then started to clear islands at the front of Sortavala.
The IR37/7th division was ordered to advance westward at the southern coast of Vahvajärvi to contact the 19th division, trying to encircle the Soviets between the divisions. Bondarev recognized the situation and ordered the retreat of the IR402. The 19th division had continued its attack southeast, and between July 18 and 25. Fierce encirclements and counter-encirclements raged before the Finns managed to capture the main road and cut the railroad between Sortavala and Matkaselkä, which was captured July 18. Soviet forces managed to hold the IR37 at the village of Särkisyrjä between July 19–18 19 and again at the next village, Ilola, on July 22–20 22, securing the retreat route of IR402. By July 25 the Soviet 168th Division had managed to straighten its front line to a geographically more defensible line running from the Kiteenjoki river through the hills of Tirimäki, Okanmäki and Voinmäki to the Tohmajoki river.
As the Soviets were pushed out of the Jänisjoki valley, the remainder of the 7th division turned to the south-west. On July 25 they crossed the Tohmajoki. Advancement was slow, as the Soviets managed to hold their prepared strongpoints on hills, forcing the Finns to encircle them. On July 28, the 7th Division found a hole in Soviet defenses and IR30/7 Division quickly poured through and captured Voinmäki. The advancing Finnish troops managed to ambush a car transporting the Chief of Staff of the Soviet 198 Division, Lt. Col. Sinyk. The documents captured contained the order for a Soviet counterattack, which was to start next day, so all Finnish units were ordered to stop their offensive operations and prepare for defence.
The Soviet 23rd Army transferred the 198th Division from the Karelian Isthmus to Sortavala with an order to join the counteroffensive with the 168th Division. The goal of the attack was to recapture the isthmus between Jänisjärvi and Lake Ladoga, as that would create a difficult situation for Finnish forces at the northern side of the Lake Ladoga. When the offensive began on July 29, it failed to gain ground anywhere, as available forces were too few against the Finns, and the captured information had given the Finns time to prepare for the offensive beforehand. The Finns continued their offensive against the remaining Tirimäki and Okanmäki strongpoints (which prevented advancement towards Sortavala) on August 3 and captured them on August 5.
The II Corps
Meanwhile, the Finnish II Corps had started its own offensive July 31 at the narrowest point between Lake Ladoga and the Finnish border and quickly managed to break through Soviet defenses and advanced towards the coast of Lake Ladoga, threatening Soviet forces with encirclement. The Soviet 23rd Army canceled its offensive and ordered the 198th Division to proceed southwards for a counteroffensive against the advancing Finnish II Corps. The 168th Division was ordered to withdraw towards Lake Ladoga, starting August 5. The Soviet IR367 was given the responsibility to defend Sortavala.
Although Sortavala was militarily insignificant, and had been neutralized when the Finns captured the islands controlling access to Lake Ladoga on July 27, it was politically important. So, instead of pursuing the 168th Division, the Finns concentrated their forces to capture the city. On August 12 Sortavala was reached by the 7th Division and the city was taken from the Soviets on August 15. Only small groups of defending soldiers managed to escape from the city.
Finnish II Corps had cut railroads between Viipuri and Sortavala on August 6, and August 8. Mannerheim formed the new I Corps from the 19th, 7th and 2nd Divisions, with the task to clear the western shore of Lake Ladoga. The II Corps reached Lake Ladoga August 8 at Lahdenpohja, thus capturing the harbour which the 168th Division had been instructed to use for evacuation on July 23.
The Soviet 168th Division, with a number of separate regiments and battalions, continued its retreat towards the shores of Lake Ladoga, with the Finnish 2nd Division pressing from the south-west and 19th Division from the north, while the 7th Division continued its offensive against Sortavala. On August 17, Soviets controlled only a 12 km wide and 10 km deep bridgehead, but during the following days Soviets concentrated naval and air units to protect the evacuation of the 168th Division and other units. This evacuation was a great success, and Finns could only capture a small booty from the motti, including 40 artillery pieces, 8 tanks, 310 cars, 35 tractors and 1500 live or dead horses.
At the northern side of the Finnish main offensive group, Oinonen, with the Cavalry Brigade and the 2nd Jäger Brigade, was ordered to advance to the old border. Opposing them were parts of the IR52/71 Division, 80th Border Guard detachment and the IR126/71 Division, which was commanded by Maj. Valter Valli (a Finnish-born Communist who had emigrated to the Soviet Union after the Finnish Civil War). Many Karelian, Ingrian and Finnish-born Communists served in its ranks, as well as many veterans from Kuusinen's People's Army of the Winter War.
The probing attacks started on July 7, then the main attack started, with the southernmost 2nd Jäger Brigade reaching Tolvajärvi by July 14. From there the Brigade began a northern encirclement towards Ägläjärvi. The attack of the Cavalry Brigade didn't succeed as well, and the Finns were forced to encircle the well prepared Soviet hillforts, which Finns were unable to capture directly, due to lack of artillery and air support.
By that time the German 163rd Division (Lt. Gen. Engelbrecht) (lacking one brigade and a part of the artillery, which was diverted to Salla during transport) had reached the front at Tolvajärvi and attempted to breach Soviet positions there on July 21, with only one brigade, but failed as the Soviet forces turned out to be stronger than expected.
A new offensive started on July 25, when two battalions from the German IR310 and one from the Finnish IR56 started attacking along the railroad, near the Näätäoja station. At Tolvajärvi, Engelbrecht decided to use the route the 2nd Jäger Brigade had opened, and ordered them, and one German infantry battalion from the IR307, to capture the village of Ägläjärvi, to sever the Soviet supply route to Tolvajärvi. The attack failed and the Soviets managed to keep the road through Ägläjärvi open, although they lost a supply depot during the fighting.
Lt. Gen. Engelbrecht exchanged the Cavalry Brigade with a couple of infantry battalions which were ordered in defence , and ordered the Cavalry Brigade to cut the road between Tolvajärvi and Ägläjärvi, by advancing through the forests. The attack started August 2 and by August 4 they reached the road and started advancing towards Tolvajärvi and Ägläjärvi. On August 3, the 2nd Jäger Brigade and German I/IR307 started attacking the village of Ägläjärvi, which they captured on August 5. On August 6 they contacted the Cavalry Brigade south of Ägläjärvi. The Soviets continued their retreat to Aittojoki, where they blew up the bridges and dug in. Also, their northern forces feared encirclement from Ägläjärvi, and left their fortified positions there August 8, retreating east of Kuolismaa.
The 11th Division
On July 20, the 11th Division had been relieved from Jänisjoki and was moved first to the reserve and then to the area between the German 163rd and 1st Divisions, against Hyrsylä, on August 11. The Soviets reinforced their forces in the area with the new 272nd Division on August 10, and they immediately started attacking towards Vieljärvi against Finnish 1st Division, but managed, in only a few places, to advance two kilometres in five days, before the attack was stopped.
On August 19, the 11th Division started the attack from Hyrsylä northwards and reached the Petrozavodsk railroad, and the main road, the next day. From there they continued northeast towards Suvilahti, which they captured August 21, and northwards towards Tsalkki, the location of the last usable supply road for Soviet defenders. Also on August 19, the 2nd Jäger Brigade, the Cavalry Brigade and German IR307 stormed over the Aittojoki. The Cavalry Brigade tried to encircle the defending Soviet forces, but recognized their precarious situation and quickly withdrew, managing to retreat most of their forces eastward before the 11th Division cut their retreat route at Tsalkki on August 23. With the capture of Suojärvi, the last town in Ladoga Karelia had been liberated.