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Continuation War

History -- Military history -- War -- History of Russia -- History of Finland -- World War II

The Continuation War is the name for the war between Finland and the Soviet Union from June 26, 1941 to September 19th 1944. It is named thus since the Finns see it as a continuation of the Winter War and the numerous threats against Finland during the peace that followed.

Finland's principal goal during World War II was, although nowhere literally stated, to survive the war as an independent country, capable to mind its own businesses in a politically hostile environment. It must be noted that Finland's exertion in this respect was successful, although the price most certainly was high counted in war casualties, pecuniary tribute, territorial loss, bruised international reputation and reverential adaptations to the Soviet Union.

The war was formally concluded by the Paris peace treaty of 1947.

Table of contents

Background After the Moscow peace treaty[?] of the Winter War, Finland was bent on getting back at the Soviet Union. The public opinion longed for the re-aquisition of the homes for the 12% of Finland's population who had been forced to leave Karelia in haste. The peace treaty was perceived as a great injustice, which (naively) was expected to be corrected at the big peace conference awaited after World War II. It seemed as if the losses at the negotiation table, including Finland's second town Vyborg, had been worse than on the battle field. How was it possible?[1] (http://www.winterwar.com/War%27sEnd.htm)

Then there was a vociferous minority opinion which since the 1920s had advocated the protection of the ethnically akin Finnic peoples under Soviet oppression by extending Finland's territory eastwards. Notably in the latters' opinion, Finland's security politics focusing on the League of Nations, the politically akin democratic Western countries, and Scandinavia (particularly Sweden) had led to a total fiasco.

The experience from World War I emphasized the importance of close and friendly relations with the victors, why Nazi-Germany was intensely courted immediately after the Winter War, when Germany had been the ally of the aggressive Soviet Union. Finland got a new Cabinet with a Foreign Minister, Rolf Witting[?], more in the taste of the Nazis, and a new energetic ambassador in Berlin, Kivimäki[?].

The World War was however not yet over, and the proclaimed State of War[?] was never revoked. Field Marchall Mannerheim remained commander-in-chief, censorchip wasn't abolished but rather used to facillitate the relations with Germany, and the military retained supremacy over civil authorities.

From August 18th 1940 Finland secretly negotiated with Germany on military cooperation, buying artillery and other badly needed weapons from Germany, which until then had been impossible in reverence of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Finland in return facilitated German troop transfers to Finnmark in Northern Norway (occupied by Germany since June-July 1940). Through the potential presence of German troops on Finnish territory, Finland intended to deter the Soviet Union from planing further military assaults, as that then would threathen to involve Germany on the side of Finland's. This secret Finno-German agreement was in material breach of the peace treaty of the Winter War, which in fact was chiefly targeted against cooperation between Germany and Finland. It has in retrospect been disputed whether the diseased President Kallio was informed. Possibly the responsibility was taken by the then-premier Risto Ryti in concert with Field Marshal Mannerheim[2] (http://www.mannerheim.fi/10_ylip/e_kkulku.htm).

Adolf Hitler had not been interested in Finland before the Winter War. Now he saw the value of Finland as a staging base for his forthcoming invasion of the Soviet Union, and maybe also the military value of the Finnish army. The informal German-Finnish agreement of August 1940 was formalized in September. It allowed Germany the right to send its troops by trucks and busses through Finland, ostensibly to facilitate Germany's reinforcement of its forces in northern Norway. A further German-Finnish agreement in December 1940 led to the stationing of German troops in Finland (mainly in the vicinity of the northern border to the Soviet Union) and in the coming months they arrived in small but increasing numbers, establishing quarters, depots and bases along the road to Norway, which later would be used for the concentration of troops aimed for Northern Russia. Although the Finnish people knew only the barest details of the agreements with Germany, the pro-German policy was generally approved. Especially the Karelians wanted to recover the ceded territories.

Coordination with Germany By the spring of 1941, the Finnish military was aware of the German plans for the invasion of Russia, although no-one could feel sure of Hitler's real intentions. An uncertainty still prevailed as to whether Hitler really intended to attack the Soviet Union before the Battle of Britain was concluded. Perhaps the build-up aimed only at applying pressure - not a two-front war? In that case Finland was a probable token of reconsiliation between Hitler and Stalin, which the Finns had every reason to fear.

In 1941 the German army's standing was in zenith. Germany's final victory, and Europe's adaptation to German hegemony, seemed unavoidable. Race issues were reasons of particular concerns: The Finns were not viewed favorably by the Nazi race theorists. By active participation on the side of Germany's, Finland could hope for a more independent position in post-war Europe, at the same time as the Soviet threat was removed, and the akin Finnic peoples of the neighbourhood could be granted the advantage of inclusion in Finland. This view gained increasing popularity in the Finnish leadership, and also in the press, during the preparations for the awaited outburst between Germany and the Soviet Union.

What began for the Finns as a defensive strategy, designed to provide a German counterweight to Soviet pressure, ended as an offensive strategy, aimed at invading the Soviet Union. The Finns had been lured by the prospects of regaining their lost territories and ridding themselves of the Soviet threat.

Outbreak of the war The signs and rumours of the German assault on Russia heaped up, and on June 9th partial mobilization was ordered, and the northern Finish air defense troops consisting of 30,000 men were put under German command. In practice Germany already held the northern half of the border to Russia. On June 14th also the 3rd Army Corps was mobilized and put under German command. On June 17th general mobilization took place. On June 20th Finland's government ordered 45,000 people at the Soviet border to be evacuated. June 21st, Germany finally informed Finland's General Staff chief, Erik Heinrichs, that the German attack was under way.

The Finnish government did not want to appear as the aggressor, why Finland took no part in the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22th. (Hitler's public statement gave another impression. Hitler declared Germany to attack the Bolshevists "(...) in the North in alliance ("im Bunde") with the Finnish freedom heroes".) Three days later, Soviet bombing of residential areas and railway stations in for instance the towns of Porvoo, Turku and Helsinki, gave the Finnish government the needed pretext to open hostilities, and war was declared on June 26th.

July 10th 1941, the Finnish army began a major offensive on the Karelian Isthmus and north of Lake Ladoga. Mannerheim's order of the day clearly states that the Finnish involvement was an offensive one.[3] (http://www.mannerheim.fi/10_ylip/e_mtuppi.htm) By the end of August 1941, Finnish troops had reached the prewar boundaries. The trespassing of the pre-war borders led to tensions in the armed troops, in the Cabinet, in the parties of the parliament, and in the domestic opinion. The expansionism might have gained popularity, but it was far from unanimously championed.

Also international relations were strained - notably with Britain and Sweden, whose governments in May and June confidently had learned from Foreign Minister Witting that Finland had absolutely no plans for a military campaign coordinated with the Germans. Finland's preparations were said to be purely defensive. Sweden's leading Cabinet members had hoped to improve the relations with Germany through indirect support of Operation Barbarossa, mainly canalized via Finland. The political support in Sweden turned however out to be insufficient, particularly after July 10th, and even more so after Finland by deeds had commenced a war of conquest. A tangible effect was that Finland virtually became dependent on food, munition and arms supply from Germany.

In December 1941, the Finnish advance had reached the outskirts of Leningrad and the Svir River (which connects the southern ends of Lake Ladoga and Lake Onega). By the end of 1941, the front stabilized, and the Finns did not conduct major offensive operations for the following two and a half years. The fighting morale of the troops declined when it was realized that the war would not end soon. It has been suggested that the execution of the prominent pacifist leader Arndt Pekurinen in November 1941 was an attempt to restore the morale of the troops.

Diplomatic manoevres Germany's eastern campaign was planned as a blitzkrieg lasting a few weeks. Also British and US observers believed the attack to be concluded before August. In the autumn 1941 this turned out to be wrong, and leading Finnish militaries started to mistrust Germany's capacity. Finland's strategy now changed. A separate peace with the Soviet Union was offered, but Germany's strength was far too terrifying. Finland had to continue the war for some time, putting the own forces at the least possible danger, and hoping for the Wehrmacht and the Red Army meanwhile would mince eachother.

Finland's participation in the war brought major benefits to Germany. The Soviet fleet was blockaded in the Gulf of Finland, so that the Baltic was freed for training German submarine crews as well as for German shipping, especially for the vital iron ore from northern Sweden and nickel from the Petsamo[?] area. The sixteen Finnish divisions tied down numerous Soviet troops, put pressure on Leningrad - although Mannerheim refused to attack - and threatened the Murmansk Railroad. Sweden was further isolated and was increasingly pressured to comply with Finnish and German wishes, although with limited success.

Despite Finland's contributions to the German cause, the Western Allies had ambivalent feelings, torn between residual goodwill for Finland and the need to accommodate their vital ally, the Soviet Union. As a result, Britain declared war against Finland, but the United States did not. There was no combat between these countries and Finland; but Finnish sailors were interned overseas. In the United States, Finland was highly regarded, because it had continued to make payments on its World War I debt faithfully throughout the interwar period. Finland later also earned respect in the West for the strength of its democracy and its refusal to allow extension of Nazi anti-Semitic practices in Finland. Finnish Jews served in the Finnish army, and Jews were not only tolerated in Finland[4] (http://www.finemb.org.il/Historia.htm), but most Jewish refugees also were granted asylum (less than 20 of the more than 500 refugees were handed over to Germans). The field synagogue in Eastern Karelia was probaly unique on the German side during the War.

Some Soviet prisoners of war, mainly communists and officers (and a handful of Jewish refugees) were given to Germans. Most of the people handed over ended in concentration camps, but some were given to Gestapo for interrogation. Sometimes these handovers were demanded in return of arms or food. Sometimes the Finns received Soviet prisoners of war in return. These were mainly Estonians and Karelians willing to join the Finnish army. These, as well as some volunteers from the occupied Eastern Karelia, formed the Tribe Battallion (Finnish: "Heimopataljoona"). At the end of the war, the members of the Tribe Battallion were handed over to the Soviet Union. Some managed to escape during the transport, but most of them were either sent to the Gulag camps or executed.

As a token of Finnish goodwill, one battallion of "volunteers" was ordered to join the German Waffen-SS. This Mortgage Battallion (Finnish: "Panttipataljoona") fought in Ukraine and Caucasia. When the German army was on the retreat after the battle of Stalingrad, the Mortgage Battallion surrendered to the Soviets in Caucasia.

The end of the war Finland began actively to seek a way out of the war after the disastrous German defeat at Stalingrad in January-February 1943. Edwin Linkomies[?] formed a new cabinet with the peace process as the top priority. Negotiations were conducted intermittently 1943-1944 between Finland and its representative Juho Kusti Paasikivi on the one side and the Western Allies and the Soviet Union on the other, but no agreement was reached.

Instead, on June 9, 1944, the Soviet Union opened a major offensive against Finnish positions on the Karelian Isthmus and in the Lake Ladoga area (it was timed to accompany the Battle of Normandy). On the second day of the offensive, the Soviet forces broke through the Finnish lines, and in the succeeding days they made advances that appeared to threaten the survival of Finland. Finland clearly needed more weapons and ammunition, which the Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop offered in exchange of guarantees that Finland would not again seek a separate peace. President Risto Ryti gave his guarantee, by Ryti intended to last for the remainder of his precidency.

With new supplies from Germany, the Finns were now equal to the crisis, and halted the Russians in early July 1944, after a retreat of about one hundred kilometers that brought them approximately to the 1940 boundaries. Finland had already become a sideshow for the Soviet leadership, which now turned their attention to Poland and to the Balkans. Although the Finnish front was once again stabilized, the Finns were exhausted and wanted to get out of the war. President Ryti resigned, and Finland's military leader and national hero, Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, became president, accepting the responsibility for ending the war.

September 19th 1944, an armistice (practically a preliminary peace treaty) was signed in Moscow between the Soviet Union and Finland. Finland had to make many limiting consessions: The Soviet Union regained the borders of 1940, with addition of the Petsamo[?] area. The Porkkala[?] Peninsula (adjacent to Finland's capital Helsinki) was leased to Soviet for fifty years as a marine base, and transit rights were granted. Finland's army was to demobilize in haste. And Finland was required to expel all German troops from its territory. As the Germans refused to leave Finland voluntarily, the Finns had no choise but to fight their former supporters out of Finland (the Lapland War).

Conclusion In retrospect it might seem as the Continuation War was the result of a long series of political mistakes and miscalculations, and for sure that's how many foreign observers initially would view it. The matter has been throughly scrutinized in Finland, and most considerate commentators would probably hold that Finland was more a victim of bad luck than of bad skills, although Finland's martial skills clearly outshined her diplomatic skills. The aged Field Marshall Mannerheim might have been responsible for a couple of misjudgements, the infamous order of the day, from July 10th 1941, probably being one of them, but those mistakes are without any doubt outnumbered by all good and right things he also did for Finland.

After all, Finland's fate was not worse than any other country's struck by the World War - quite the contrary. Finland had protected her territory and her civilians with more success than most other European countries. Only 2,000 civilians were killed during World War II, and only relatively narrow border regions had been conquered by force. Until June 20th 1944, when Vyborg fell, not one major town was besieged or occupied.

Finland had not won, how would that have been possible against the Soviet Union with a population 50 times as big? But Finland had managed to avoid the total occupation and the highly probable following annihilation. A major goal of post-war Finnish foreign policy was to keep it that way.

See also: Finlandization



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