Stories from the War Years

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Kriegshistorische Stätten – Schauplätze der Geschichten – Was die Feldpost über den Krieg erzählt

Kainuu and Koillismaa in the Second World War

During the Winter War 1939–1940, Suomussalmi made the international headlines, but in reality, the fiercest battles from the Finnish point of view took place in Kuhmo. Contrary to expectations, Kuusamo was spared from military operations despite a few a skirmishes, and troops from the area were fighting in the Suomussalmi region.

In December 1939, the largest media of the time published heroic tales of Finns in areas such as Summa and Kollaa. However, the information supplied by the Headquarters from Suomussalmi at the turn of the year carried the most important message. According to the news, Finland had won two important defensive battles. In the first one, they defeated the Russians on the road to Kuusamo, chasing them out of the town centre and Hulkonniemi. The second great victory was the Battle of Raate Road.

Image source: SA-KUVA

On the Raate Road, Finns used the so-called motti tactics of dividing the enemy forces into smaller sections and besieging them. They crushed the Ukrainian division of the Red Army, after which the road sides were littered with dead bodies and heavy equipment caught in the roadblocks. International media described the situation on this narrow road in Kainuu as a frozen hell, with thousands of fallen Red Army soldiers left by the roadside.

The events in Suomussalmi were a strategic turning point in the Winter War in Northern Finland. After the defeat on Raate Road, the Red Army gave up on its goal of cutting Finland into two along the route between Suomussalmi and Oulu. Instead, the decisive battles of the Winter War took place almost entirely on the Karelian Isthmus and in Ladoga Karelia. After Raate, the Soviet Union concentrated its northern military action to the front lines in Kuhmo.

In January, most of the Finnish forces who had fought on the Raate Road continued towards Kuhmo, where they made an attempt to repeat the operation that had lead to the destruction of the 44th Division. The 54th Division of the Red Army had been halted on the Saunajärvi Road, where it formed a 45-kilometre column of troops, and its supply lines to the east had been cut. As a result of the main attack launched on 29 January, Finland managed to divide the attackers into smaller sections of mottis, but failed to destroy them due to the lack of ammunition and artillery. The relief attacks of the Red Army to save the 54th Division continued until the armistice. The most well-known one of these attempts led to the almost total destruction of the Dolin Ski Brigade. In the beginning of March, Finns pulled back from Kilpelänkangas to Löytövaara, where the war ended. The Moscow Peace Treaty marked the end of the Winter War, upon which Finland was forced to cede the eastern parts of Salla and Kuusamo to the Soviet Union.

In the attack phase of the Continuation War in summer 1941, Finnish troops made great progress from Suomussalmi towards the east, as Group F advanced 45 kilometres within a few days. The advance of the troops led by Colonel Fagernäs started to slow down the closer they got to the Vuonninen [Voinitsa] waterways. The swift conquest of Uhtua [Kalevala] never happened.

In the longitude of Kuusamo, Group J, led by Jussi Turtola, tried to break into Loukhi via Kiestinki [Kestenga] in order to cut the Murman railway. The group in question gained importance after the Germans had failed to access Kantalahti [Kandalaksha] in the longitude of Salla. The counter-attacks of the 88th Division of the Red Army led to the besieging of the Finnish forces in Kiestinki after mid-August. Turtola had set off on 11 August with 2 800 men, and when the evacuations started after the siege, there were only 800 men left. Particularly large numbers of men from Pudasjärvi died in battles in the Kiestinki region. Percentage-wise, Pudasjärvi lost the largest number of soldiers of all Finnish towns during the Continuation War.

Image source: Archives of Tuomo Kallioniemi

Finnish and German forces tried to advance to Loukhi in November 1941, but the attack was halted. At that stage, the foreign policy situation had changed substantially in Finland, after the German blitzkrieg had not yielded the desired results. Under the new circumstances, it was not sensible to cut the Murman railway with respect to foreign policy, as Finland wanted to maintain friendly relations also with the USA, which was supporting the Soviet war efforts. Fierce battles continued during the spring thaw in Kiestinki in April and May 1942, when Finnish forces stopped the Red Army Spring Offensive.

In the early stages of the Lapland War in September 1944, the Germans burned Hyrynsalmi as they were retreating from the Uhtua region. The same happened to the centre of Kuusamo, and later, the Red Army participated in the destruction. The Red Army occupied Kuusamo and the eastern parts of Suomussalmi for a couple of months, which puzzled historians for decades. According to the Russian professor Juri Kilin, the regions served as collateral to ensure that Finland would remain true to its obligations in accordance with the Moscow Armistice.