”The Germans will never win. You are too brave.” This is what the Finnish officer told the German general Mathias Kräutler. You have to conquer the Arctic before you can face the enemy. The war action in the Arctic was pivotal to the final outcome of the war between nazi-Germany and the USSR.
In 2015 it is 70 years since 1945. In this blog we will have several posts about World War II before the happy days of May. During 2015 the plan is also to make a trip into Russia and blog from there. History books tend to separate the WW II events in Finland and Norway. However, this blog post will literally burn the two together.
The Nazi vision of Lebensraum was to expand the Third Reich eastward. The main idea was to annex part of the Soviet Union. Most of the fierce battles in Europe was between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army. The war in Europe was largely between nazi-Germany and the USSR. 90 % of the German soldiers fought on the eastern front during World War II. Close to 80 % of the Wehrmacht firepower was defeated by Red Army gunpowder.
The northern flank was crucial for two reasons:
- The nickel and iron ore from Kolosjoki (now Nikel) / Petsamo and Kiruna / Narvik. One third of all German tanks were made of Petsamo-nickel.
- Murmansk was the gateway to the USSR. To this port the allied forces would ship an unprecedented amount of military equipment to the Red Army.
From the spring 1940 until the autumn 1944 nazi-Germany had their hands on the north with the exception of Soviet Kola Peninsula:
- Norway was occupied
- Sweden was a trade partner
- Finland was an ally
In late 1944, however, the political map had been changed. The USSR had troops in the eastern part of northern Norway. The Swedes cooperated with the Americans under the supervision of the Soviets. And finally, Finland had to comply on a long-term relationship with the Soviets.
The Germans will never win. You are too brave
In the preparation ahead of the war against the nazi-Germans, Stalin demanded territory from Finland. The Soviets were aiming to get more space between the Wehrmacht and Leningrad, and other strategic sites in Karelen and the Kola Peninsula. Finland refused and the Winter War started in 1939. Despite resilient defence, Finland had to surrender late winter 1940. Finland had to give up territory to the USSR, and established an alliance with nazi-Germany.
In April 1940 Germany invaded Norway. One of the immediate goals was to secure the supply of iron from Kiruna, Sweden that was and is shipped from the harbor in Narvik, Norway. The fight in Narvik lasted until the allied forces abandoned their mission to defend Narvik. Due to the successful nazi-campaign in Belgium, the allies decided to concentrate their war efforts on the continent. Despite a defeat to the Northern Norwegian Army was imminent, in June 1940 the Germans could raise the nazi flag in Narvik . Throughout this process there had been talks on the top level in Sweden and Norway, whether the Swedes should invade northern Norway to ensure the neutrality of the area.
Ironically, old Norwegian veterans would years later tell that they learned to loathe the Swedes. The Swedish soldiers would shoot at Norwegian soldiers trying to get some rest on the Swedish side of the border. The priority of the Swedes was to stay as neutral as possible. Even, if that meant firing at their neighbor.
The Germans made use of every tenth Swedish train
Due to a fear of a Soviet invasion and the recent nazi conquest in Europe, the Germans were allowed to use the Swedish railroad system to transport troops and weapons through Sweden to Northern Norway and the northeast front. The Germans made use of every tenth Swedish train. The Germans established a big warehouse in Luleå for the north. It would be operative until the summer of 1944.
When the Nazis started the invasion of the USSR in the summer 1941, the strategic importance of the ice-free harbor of Murmansk became even more apparent. The Germans attempt to capture Murmansk literally froze to a halt in below 40 freezing degrees 50 km to the west of Murmansk late Autumn 1941. Between 1942 and 1944 the Germans would attack Murmansk from the air. It became the second most bombed city in the USSR. The anti-air defence of Murmansk was so tenacious that the Luftwaffe pilots preferred London three times before Murmansk.
As the Nazis had feared, Murmansk became the centre hub of Soviet war supply logistics. Between 1941 and 1945 the USA / Canada / Great Britain shipped a total of 4.000.000 metric tons equipment to the USSR, including 18.000 planes and 10.500 tanks. At the peak of the convoys, as many as 3.500 personnel were employed in the harbor of Murmansk.
The anti-air defence of Murmansk was so tenacious that the Luftwaffe pilots preferred London three times to Murmansk
The emerging superior amount of USSR resources and regrouped manpower turned the tables. The Wehrmacht experienced a devastating defeat at Stalingrad and the Germans started to retreat. In the north the withdrawal began in 1944 and the Germans decided to establish a new front in Lyngen, besides the three borders of Finland, Sweden and Norway. The previous front had been Petsamo / Kirkenes. In order to slow the expected advance of the Red Army as much as possible, Hitler decided to use the scorched earth tactic in the area the Germans left behind on their way home.
This included both the Finnish and the Norwegian side. One of the greatest humanitarian efforts ever in the Nordic countries was carried out in the Autumn of 1944. 50.000 refugees from Lappland were evacuated to Norrbotten, Sweden. Another 50.000 citizens in northern Norway had to move to different places, some as far as Trondheim and beyond. Approximately 30.000 buildings in Finnish Lappland and Northern Norway together with most of the communication infrastructure was destroyed.
Finland made a peace treaty with the USSR in September 1944 and started to drive their former ally Germany out of Lappland. The USSR repossessed the arm to the Arctic Ocean that had been Finnish along with parts of the Karelen. In addition, Finland had to pay war damages to USSR in many years to follow.
The war in the north reached its peak at Petsamo / Kirkenes in October 1944. The battle was one of the 10 largest battles on the east front. 135.000 USSR and 56.000 German troops fought in the battle that would last three weeks. The rivers were red of blood where the battle had been at its most intense.
The Red Army subsequently liberated Kirkenes on October 25th. From the autumn in 1944 to the end in 1945 Sweden would cooperate with the Americans, approved by the USSR, to aid the people in Northern Norway. The last Red Army soldier left Norway in September 1945.
The rivers were red of blood where the battle had been at its most intense
43.000 lives were lost in the battles of the north. In comparison, 850 Norwegian soldiers fell when nazi-Germany attacked Norway in 1940.
What World War II monument have you been to in the Arctic?
World War II stories
Interesting stories about WW II in the north.