German North Pole Operations in Finland, Norway, & the Soviet Union

A German column during the advance on Murmansk, 1941.

Operation Silver Fox

Operation Silver Fox (German: Silberfuchs) was a joint German–Finnish military operation offensive during World War II. Its main goal was to cut off and ultimately capture the key Soviet port at Murmansk through attacks from Finnish and Norwegian territory.

The operation had three stages. Operation Reindeer (Rentier) was the initial advance by German forces from Norway to secure the area around Petsamo and its valuable nickel mines. The follow-up operations, Operation Platinum Fox (Platinfuchs) from the north by Mountain Corps Norway and Operation Arctic Fox (Polarfuchs) from the south by XXXVI Mountain Corps together with units from the Finnish III Corps, aimed to cut off and capture the vital port of Murmansk afterwards in a pincer movement. Although the German-Finnish force was able to make some ground, Murmansk was neither cut off, nor taken, and continued to operate throughout the war.

Background

Finland gained independence from Russia in the Finnish Civil War between German supported nationalists and Russian Bolshevik supported communists in the aftermath of World War I. Tensions between the new anti-communist republic and the newly established Soviet Union remained high during the early interwar years. Following a number of brief skirmishes between Finnish nationalists and the Soviet Union in Karelia, an agreement was reached regarding the border of the two countries. During the following years Soviet-Finnish relations remained stable, but still cool, and a 10-years non-aggression pact was signed in 1932.

In 1933, the Nazis took power in Germany. The Soviet Union feared an attack by Germany and sought to secure itself against a possible German-Finnish alliance. Finland in turn wanted to preserve its neutrality at all cost. During the course of negotiations that lasted between 1938 and 1939, the Soviet Union demanded securities from Finland by allowing them to intervene with the Red Army in case of a German entry into Finland. After a Finnish rejection, the Soviet Union proposed a land-trade for strategic locations deemed necessary by Soviets to defend them against a possible German invasion. While some of the Finnish leadership, like Carl Mannerheim, found the proposal favorable, Finland wanted to preserve its neutrality and the lengthy negotiations failed.

On 23 August 1939, the Soviet Union and Germany signed the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, which contained a secret protocol which divided Europe in spheres of influence for both countries. Finland fell into the Soviet sphere. Germany started World War II by attacking Poland in September 1939, and the Soviet Union followed. With Finland still refusing the Soviet demands, the Soviet Union finally attacked Finland in November 1939, which led to the Winter War. After its defeat, Finland had to make major territorial concessions as part of the resulting Moscow Peace Treaty. Feeling abandoned by the Western Allies, Finland started to seek help against the threat posed by the Soviet Union. Finland sought to be included in the wider Scandinavian defense co-operation, but both Soviet and German opposition to it prevented its formation. The German capture of Denmark and Norway severed practical Finnish connections to countries other than the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and Sweden. A proposed Swedish-Finnish military alliance failed due to Soviet-German pressure. Deprived of other potential sources of help Finland started to seek closer ties with Germany to secure its position against the Soviet Union and both sides cooperated to develop a joint policy against the Soviet Union.

The German High Command (OKW) now included Finland in its plan for a major offensive against the Soviet Union, called Operation Barbarossa. A joint Finnish-German offensive named Operation Silver Fox (Unternehmen Silberfuchs) was to support the Germany’s main effort in central Russia, from the north. The principal goal of Silver Fox was to disable the port of Murmansk, which was a major destination for Western Allied shipping aid to the Soviet Union, by executing a two-pronged pincer attack against it.

The original plan for Operation Silver Fox.

Planning

Initial planning for the operation started in its earnest, in December 1940. Erich Buschenhagen, chief of staff of Army of Norway (AOK Norwegen) visited Finland and drew up a plan which would determine Finland’s role in the war, which included the first draft of German-Finnish joint operations against the Soviet Union. On 8 December 1940 Hitler issued Directive No. 21, which detailed his plan for Operation Barbarossa as whole and included the targets for proposed German-Finnish cooperation. The detailed plan the operation was created by Nikolaus von Falkenhorst, commander of the Army of Norway, and his staff in January 1941.

Operation Silver Fox was planned as a two staged pincer movement, which would include three separate operations. The first phase of the operation would be initiated by Operation Reindeer (Unternehmen Rentier). For that the two divisions of Mountain Corps Norway, the 2nd and 3rd Mountain Divisions under the leadership of Eduard Dietl had to move east from Kirkenes and to deploy in the Finnish held area around Petsamo. The goal of the first phase was to secure the nickel mines.

The second phase of Operation Silver Fox was a two-pronged pincer attack against the Soviet port of Murmansk. Murmansk was a year round ice-free port which was together with Arkhangelsk the main destination for Western Allied shipping aid. The first pincer was a frontal attack against Murmansk by Mountain Corps Norway. The two divisions had to advance east from Petsamo to take Murmansk directly. On their way they had to secure the Rybachy Peninsula. They were supported by Finnish border units. This first pincer attack was named Operation Platinum Fox (Unternehmen Platinfuchs).

The second pincer was to be launched further south and codenamed Operation Arctic Fox (Unternehmen Polarfuchs). The goal of the operation was to take Salla, which had been conceded to the Soviet Union after the Winter War, and then to proceed eastward along the railway to capture Kandalaksha. This way the vital Murmansk Railway line which connected Murmansk with Central Russia would be cut. This operation would involve the German XXXVI Corps under command of Hans Feige and the Finnish III Corps commanded by Hjalmar Siilasvuo.

Aerial support for the offensive was provided by Luftflotte 5, which was originally based in Norway, and the Finnish Air Force. For the Operation Silver Fox the Luftwaffe created a new headquarters and moved it into Finland. The Finnish air force fielded about 230 aircraft of various types at the start of hostilities. Luftflotte 5 assigned 60 planes to the Silver Fox Operation in Finland and employed the Junkers Ju 87, Junkers Ju 88 and Heinkel He 111 aircraft, allowing it to provide essential close air support for the Finnish-German offensive.

By late February 1941, German units were moved into Finland. Germany was able to secure transit rights through neutral Sweden, and the German 2nd and 3rd Mountain Division were moved into place at Kirkenes, for Operation Reindeer. For the main body of XXXVI Corps, two sea transport operations were arranged: Blue Fox 1 and Blue Fox 2 (Blaufuchs I and Blaufuchs II). German units embarked in Stettin as well as Oslo and were then transported to Oulu, where they moved via train to Rovaniemi. From there, they joined Finnish forces and marched into position for the offensive under the guise of border exercises.

Soviet preparations in turn were meager. While the Soviets anticipated a German invasion with possible Finnish support, Stalin did not expect a German attack along the entire border so early. The border was heavily fortified, but the Soviet leadership was unprepared for the sudden German attack. The main adversary of the German-Finnish force was the Soviet Northern Front consisting of the 7th and 14th Armies stationed in the Arctic. They were commanded by Lieutenant-General Markian Popov. On 23 August 1941, the Northern Front was split up into the Karelian Front and the Leningrad Front, commanded by Valerian Frolov and Popov and respectively. Frolov remained in command of the Karelian Front until 1 September, when he was replaced by Roman Panin due to a promotion. During the first weeks the Axis would enjoy numerical superiority, as the Soviets only had 150,000 men stationed north of Lake Ladoga along the border. The Axis powers also possessed air superiority, as Soviet Karelian was only protected by the 1st and 55th Mixed Air Divisions, totaling 273 serviceable aircraft. These were considered to be heavily outclassed by their enemy counterparts.

Operation Silver Fox

During German-Finnish negotiations, Finland had demanded to remain neutral unless the Soviet Union attacked them first. Germany therefore sought to provoke the Soviet Union into an act of aggression toward Finland. On 22 June Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, invading the Soviet Union. German aircraft employed Finnish air bases, while also launching Operation Rentier, which resulted in the take-over of Petsamo at the Finnish-Soviet border. Simultaneously Finland proceeded to remilitarize the neutral Åland Islands. Despite these actions the Finnish government insisted via diplomatic channels to be still a neutral party, but the Soviet leadership already viewed Finland as an ally of Germany. On 22 June, the Murmansk Oblast entered a state of emergency, with a total of 50,000 mobilized into the army and navy. Conscripts and volunteers joined ranks of the newly formed 1st Polar Rifle Division, while sailors from the Northern Fleet entered the service of a marine infantry Brigade. A considerable number of civilians was also employed in the construction of four lines of fortifications, between Zapadnaya Litsa and Kola Bay. Subsequently, the Soviets proceeded to launch a massive air raid on 25 June, bombing all major Finnish cities and industrial centers including Helsinki, Turku and Lahti. During a night session at the same day the Finnish parliament decided to go to war against the Soviet Union. Operation Silver Fox could now commence.

Operation Reindeer

The first phase of Silver Fox was launched on 22 June 1941, to coincide with the launch of the general German offensive as part of Operation Barbarossa. The two divisions of Mountain Corps Norway moved out from Kirkenes to the east and began deploying in the Finnish held area around Petsamo. The operation was successful, and the appearance of a German corps on their border came as a surprise to the Russians. The nickel mines were secured. Dietl’s troops reorganized and prepared for the launch of Platinum Fox. In the South, the units of Feige’s XXXVI Corps prepared for their attack at Salla.

Operation Platinum Fox

On June 29, Dietl launched his attack together with Finnish border units towards the east. They were opposed by two Soviet divisions of the 14th Army, namely the 14th and 52nd Rifle Division. The initial advance at the first day of Dietl’s forces looked promising. The 2nd Mountain Division was able to secure the neck of Rybachy Peninsula, while the 3rd Mountain Division was able to penetrate the Soviet lines at the Titovka Valley, capturing a bridge over the river.

After the surprise was lost, the German offensive got bogged down as they faced increased organized Soviet defenses and difficult surroundings. The rough terrain, the lack of maps and the Arctic weather slowed the Germans down for the entirety of the offensive. Against heavy Soviet resistance, the 2nd Mountain Division could not penetrate the Soviet defenses at the Rybachy peninsula further, and had gone into defensive positions at its neck by July. Some of its units were sent south to aid the 3rd Mountain Division. With joined forces the Germans were able to advance further east against heavy resistance and reached the Litsa River, where they established a bridgehead over the river. Here the Soviets were able to halt the German advance. An attempt by Dietl’s forces to expand the bridgehead towards the east failed, when the Soviets launched a flanking attack by landing further north on the German side, threatening the German positions. Dietl asked for further reinforcements, but the German High Command was unwilling to grant further units, and Dietl received only marginal reinforcements from Norway.

While Dietl’s units were halted by heavy Soviet resistance, the supply situation for Mountain Corps Norway deteriorated rapidly. Soviet and British naval forces harassed German supply shipments along the Norwegian coast, weakening the Germans further. Any attempt to renew the offensive failed, instead the Soviets were able to clear the German bridgehead east of the Litsa River and on 21 September the operation came to a halt. Mountain Corps Norway was now ordered to defend the front line and secure the Petsamo area and its nickel-mines, as a renewed offensive was ruled out. Both sides now dug in at their current positions. For the remainder of the war, the northern front was to remain relatively stable until the Soviet offensive of 1944, with only small scale ski patrol skirmishes occurring.

Finnish soldiers east of Kestenga in the arctic forest.

Operation Arctic Fox

Parallel to Platinum Fox Polarfuchs started on 1 July. The German main force at Salla consisted of three divisions, the regular 169th Division, the SS-Infantry Kampfgruppe Nord and the Finnish 6th Division. They were faced by three divisions of 14th Army, namely the 122nd Rifle Division, the 104th Rifle Division, and the 1st Tank Division. The German units launched a frontal attack against Salla, while the Finnish 6th Division attempted a massive flanking attack behind the Soviet lines further south towards Alakurtti and Kayraly (Kairala).

The initial attack went badly, as the German troops were untrained for Arctic warfare and especially the SS division, merely a former police force, could not deal with the organized Soviet defense. After repeated attacks failed, XXXVI Corps combined all its forces and with the help of a flanking attack by the Finnish 6th division the Soviet defenses were finally breached at 6 July. Salla was taken on 8 July and the Soviets started a general retreat towards Kayraly to the east. To not lose the momentum, they were pursued by XXXVI Corps, which arrived at the town the next day. Kayraly was protected by heavy Soviet defense and large natural lakes around the town, which prevented any further German advance, rendering the situation into a stalemate for the remainder of the month.

Meanwhile, further south the Finnish III Corps launched its own offensive to the east from Kuusamo to support the German advance at Salla. The goal of III Corps was to reach Kestenga (Kiestinki) as well as Ukhta in a two pronged attack by two battlegroups. From there the corps would then advance towards Loukhi and Kem, where it would cut the Murmansk railway. The initial Finnish advance against its adversary of the 54th Rifle Division was very successful. III Corps moved swiftly through the arctic forest and defeated several Soviet regiments while it advanced 64 km (40 mi) to the canal between Lake Pyaozero and Lake Topozero in just 20 days. The German command of Army of Norway was impressed by rapid Finnish advance, and decided to support the Finns by moving units from units from XXXVI further south to support this attack.

Captured Soviet equipment.

III Corps managed to cross the canal and captured Kestenga on 7 August, while simultaneously reaching the outskirts of Ukhta. The Soviets now moved heavy reinforcements into the area in form of the 88th Rifle Division, which would lead to a stalling of the Finnish offensive operations. Meanwhile, in the north XXXVI Corps renewed its offensive on Kayraly in mid-August. A large pincer movement by the 169th Division from the north and the Finnish 6th Division from the south encircled the city, trapping large Soviet formations inside. After clearing the perimeter, XXXVI Corps advanced further to the east. It took Alakurtti and reached the Voyta and Verman Rivers where the old 1939 Soviet border fortifications were situated. Against heavy Soviet resistance, the exhausted troops of XXXVI Corps could not advance further. With the German High Command moving units from XXXVI Corps to the south to bolster III Corps advance, Feige’s corps was unable to continue offensive efforts. It went onto the defensive at the end of September.

Bolstered by the new German arrivals, the Finnish III Corps launched its final offensive on 30 October. The Soviets had increased their defenses and moved additional units from other parts of the front. Nevertheless, the Finns were able to take some ground and encircled an entire Soviet regiment. Suddenly on 17 November the Finnish command ordered an end to the offensive despite positive feedback from the field commanders that further ground could be taken. The reason for this sudden change in Finnish behavior was the result of diplomatic pressure by the United States. Prior to the cancellation of the offensive, US diplomats warned Finland that a disruption of US deliveries to the Soviet Union would have serious implications. Therefore, Finland was no longer interested in spearheading such an offensive. With the Finnish refusal to be involved in further offensive operations, Arctic Fox came to an end in November and both sides dug in at their current positions.

Aftermath

Operation Silver Fox was unable to meet its sophisticated goals. During the operation the Germans and Finns were able to take some ground at both fronts, but overall the operation failed in terms of its strategic intentions, as neither Murmansk nor the Murmansk railway at Kandalaksha were captured. The closest the German-Finnish force came to disrupting the Murmansk railway was east of Kestenga, where they were about 30 km (19 mi) away from it, while Dietl’s force in the north did not even come close to approaching Murmansk. The German forces, especially the SS-troops, were unsuited, ill-trained, and unprepared for Arctic warfare and therefore made little progress while suffering heavy casualties. On the other hand, Finnish units, especially the 6th Division of the III Finnish Corps, made good progress and inflicted heavy casualties on the Soviet forces.

The failure of Silver Fox had a significant impact on the course of the war in the east. Murmansk was a major base for the Soviet Northern Fleet and it was also together with Arkhangelsk the main destination for Allied aid shipped to the Soviet Union. British convoys had traveled to Murmansk since the summer at the onset of the war, but with the entry of the United States into the war in December 1941, the influx of Western Allied aid increased massively. The United States enacted the Lend-Lease pact in which they vowed to supply the Soviet Union with large quantities amounts of food, oil, and war materiel. One quarter of this aid was delivered via Murmansk. This included large amounts of raw materials like aluminium as well as large quantities of military goods for the Soviet war effort, including 5,218 tanks, 7,411 aircraft, 4,932 anti-tank guns, 473 million rounds of ammunition and various sea vessels. Those supplies benefited the Soviets significantly and contributed to their resistance.

For the remainder of the war the Arctic front remained stable. The German High Command did not regard it as an important theater and therefore refrained from transferring the substantial reinforcements needed for a renewal of the offensive. The Finns likewise were not interested in continuing the offensive on their own as they did not want to antagonize the Western Allies further. In September 1944, following a series of devastating German defeats, the Finns sued for peace with the Soviet Union and had to give up all their territorial conquests. The Germans subsequently retreated from Central Finland to Petsamo and Norway. In October 1944, the Red Army conducted the Petsamo-Kirkenes Operation and achieved a decisive victory over the German forces in the Arctic by completely expelling them from Finland.

 

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German Military History with a focus on World War 2 History including other areas of German History

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