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|26 JUN 2012 at 11:34pm|
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Author: Henrik O. Lunde
Publisher: Casemate Publishing, 2011.
Finland’s valiant but futile resistance to the Soviets in the Winter War of 1939-1940 has earned it the cachet of being World War II’s equivalent of World War I’s “plucky little Belgium”. Colonel Henrik O. Lunde, USA (ret.), tarnishes that image by examining Finland’s actions between 1941 and 1945. The Nordic country comes off as opportunistic, coquettish and duplicitous. In doing so, Lunde must deal with a tangled series of events.
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The Finns, including the iconic Field Marshal Carl Mannerheim, saw the German 1940 victories in Scandinavia and Western Europe as indications that Hitler would soon attack the Soviet Union. In late 1940, German and Finnish staff officers nearly began a regular commuter line between each other’s countries. Plans for cooperation against the Soviets were made with Finland, who saw an opportunity to win back what was lost during the Winter War. Hitler had larger goals: securing Finnish nickel supplies and aid to assist in exterminating the Soviet Union. Lunde points out that the difference between the two sets of goals could be papered over only if Operation Barbarossa succeeded quickly. A prolonged war would show the differences between the war policies of a democracy and a totalitarian state.
The initial plans for operations in Finland divided the country in three parts. The northern and central fronts were manned by a combined German-Finnish force under German command, eventually named 20th Mountain Army. The primary goal for these fronts was to capture or isolate the ice-free port of Murmansk. The southern front was an entirely Finnish affair under Mannerheim with the objective of regaining territory near Lake Lagoda and Leningrad. German troops were shipped to Finland “in transit” to Norway while Finland was proclaiming neutrality. Lunde points out that the preparations were no surprise to the Soviets, who began building up the positions along the borders.
Finland declared war on Russia June 25, 1941 when the Soviets bombed German airfields in Finland—action began immediately. Using detailed maps and brigade level descriptions Lunde portrays the northern front actions as a shambles due to sloppy German logistics and intelligence, the Germans’ lack of training in Arctic warfare, and Russian resistance. Reinforcements from Norway were withheld due to Hitler’s obsession with Allied landings in Norway. Reinforcements were sent from Germany but would not arrive for weeks. Operations in the center fared little better. Finnish regained land lost in 1940 and pushed into Russian East Karelia but, hampered by the German high command’s penchant for shuffling units to and from the north, could not cut the Murmansk railway.
Operations along the all-Finnish southern front went much better. Despite heavy casualties, the Finns cleared the northern and western shores of Lake Lagoda and crossed the 1939 border to take up better defensive positions in Russian territory. They then stopped advancing, ignoring German requests to close-up on the northern parts of Leningrad. Mannerheim pleaded heavy losses and troop exhaustion but Lunde, reading between the lines of self-serving post-war memoirs, postulates that all Finnish objectives had been achieved and further offensives would damage Finland’s still positive image in the West; especially in the US. Mannerheim and the Finnish government basked in overwhelmingly positive public approval.
Lunde pinpoints the start of the decline in German-Finnish relations to late December 1941, with the German reverses at Moscow. The free Finnish press reported events in detail and public opinion gradually began to turn. Militarily, nothing but skirmishes happened in Finland from 1942 to 1944. Mannerheim even demobilized part of the Finnish army to aid the over-stretched home front. The Germans put forward many plans for joint offensives, and the Finns agreed to all on the convenient condition that the Germans take Leningrad first. Lunde lets the coy irony of this position speak for itself. Leningrad did not capitulate and all troops in Finland sat tight, got bored and lost efficiency.
Lunde calls the period the “Sham War”, but goes into detail about the diplomatic activity occurring with the continued German decline in 1942-1943. The US had not declared war on Finland but threatened the Finns with war if they went on the offensive. The Finns started emphasizing semantics, pointing out they weren’t Germany’s ally but a “co-belligerent” with wide latitude of action. Lunde describes the use of this latitude in early 1943 when Helsinki began to send out peace feelers to Moscow. Russian demands were unacceptable and Hitler, who knew of the machinations, increased aid to Finland to keep his northern flanks secure.
The inevitable occurred in the summer of 1944 when the Soviets launched an overwhelming offensive. Aided by increasing supplies of anti-tank weapons from Germany, Finnish forces slowed but could not stop the onslaught. The opposition party in the Finnish parliament forced the government’s resignation and appointed Mannerheim president. The Russians offered lighter terms for peace and Finland accepted them in September 1944.
One of the terms of the ceasefire was the evacuation of all German troops from Finland in two weeks, after which the Germans were to be made prisoners of war. The Finnish road system made quick evacuation impossible. Also, the Finnish government tacitly allowed the Germans to destroy roads and bridges to slow the Russians. Finnish troops took umbrage to that and fighting between the former “brothers-in-arms” broke out. A Finnish amphibious landing behind the 20th Mountain Army slowed its move to Norway. Most German troops left Finland in 1944 but a few still defended the nickel mines until April 1945.
Colonel Lunde has done an admirable job of steering a course through murky waters. Linguistic problems prevented him from using primary sources, but his critical scrutiny of a myriad of secondary sources yields an objective and biting narrative of this little-known chapter of World War II. His style is clear, if a bit dry. One could wish he had given some accounts from troops who fought, but his goal was to describe operations—he does that well. His use of maps, orders of battle and quotes from staff officers are combined to facilitate the narrative. The result is a definitive work on an interesting topic. More historians should follow his lead in looking at forgotten fronts instead of rehashing the same battles ad infinitum.
Review written by: Jim Cobb, Staff Writer
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