Thursday, January 31, 2019

November 11, 1941: Finland's Double Game Erupts

Tuesday 11 November 1941

Kestenga Finnish machine gun nest, 11 November 1941,
A Finnish machine gun squad east of Kestenga (Kiestinki) near Loukhi (Louhi), 11 November 1941 (SA-Kuva).
Eastern Front: Finland occupies an awkward position throughout World War II. While coordinating its military activities closely with the Reich, it does not consider itself to be an ally. Rather, Finland takes pains to characterize itself as a "co-belligerent." While at first glance the difference may seem merely semantic, to the Finns it is of immense importance. Finland is the only Axis power which maintains somewhat normal relations with the United States throughout the conflict, and it is only because the Finns cling to their co-belligerent status.

Victoria Street bomb damage in London, 11 November 1941,
Bomb damage at the rear of 15 Victoria Street on Abbey Orchard Street in the West End of London, 11 November 1941 (Copyright Westminster City Archives).
As of 11 November 1941, that has not interfered with military operations. The Finnish Army has excelled in the forests and marshes recently occupied by the Soviet Union during and following the Winter War. There is no question that its soldiers perform better in that environment than do attached Wehrmacht units. The Germans are somewhat mystified by why the Finns perform so well but are highly appreciative of the military assistance. However, today the Finns' double game of fighting alongside the Germans while also trying to maintain proper relations with the Allied powers creates an impact on operations in the field that is of lasting significance.

Australian War Memorial opening day ceremonies, 11 November 1941,
"Canberra, ACT. 11 November 1941. Members of the RAN from HMAS Harman, RAAF from RAAF Base Fairbairn, Cadets from Duntroon Military College, and members of the Women's Royal Australian Navy Service (WRANS) participating in the opening day ceremonies at the Australian War Memorial." Australian War Memorial P02972.001.
The commander of Finnish III Corps within Army of Norway, Major General Hjalmar Siilasvuo, is commanding the portion of Operation Silver Fox which aims to cut the Soviet Murmansk railway at Loukhi. While technically the Germans command Siilasvuo through the Army of Norway headquarters, in reality, Siilasvuo is in complete operational control because the German troops are of minimal effectiveness. In addition, all supplies to all of the troops at the front are controlled by the Finns. A complete withdrawal of Finnish cooperation and assistance would leave the German troops stranded and end all operations on the extreme end of the Eastern Front. Everybody knows this, and this gives the Finns complete control, especially on the fronts where Finnish troops predominate. These fronts include the area directly north of Leningrad, where the Germans want the Finns to attack but the Finns completely refuse. They also include the front east of Kestenga, where a joint Finnish-German battle group is attempting to cut the critical Murmansk railway which brings Western Ally supplies into the Soviet Union.

War cartoons, 11 November 1941,
Old World War I cartoons reprinted in the Miami Daily News-Record in honor of Armistice Day, 11 November 1941, page 3. The paper's point is that things are extremely similar to the same date in 1914. The left cartoon shows the United States (in the person of Lady Liberty) trying to tiptoe on a high wire market "Neutrality." The top middle cartoon shows that Japanese ambitions encompass the entire Pacific Ocean. The bottom middle cartoon shows "A British suggestion for the German Invasion" with German soldiers crossing the Channel on the back of a giant dachshund.  The right cartoon shows the ghost of Napoleon asking the Kaiser, "Did you hope to succeed where I failed?", with "German Defeat" written in the clouds overhead. 
Marshal Mannerheim, the commander of the Finnish Army, is extremely attuned to the political machinations going on behind the scenes between Finland, Germany, and the Western Allies. Finland is not at war with either Great Britain or the United States and the Finnish government aims to keep it that way if it can. The Americans have demanded that Finland cease operations against the Murmansk railway because American supplies flow through it. The clear implication in the United States' position is that interference with those supplies will lead to a United States declaration of war against Finland - even while the United States is not at war with Germany. This places Finland in a very uncomfortable position which has been percolating for some time.

Scammell Pioneer artillery tractor towing a 6-inch howitzer, 11 November 1941,
"A Scammell Pioneer artillery tractor towing a 6-inch howitzer forms part of a recruiting parade in a Yorkshire town, 11 November 1941." © IWM (H 15529).
On 11 November 1941, the Finns make their choice. They deliver t a long diplomatic letter to  Washington which explains at great length their situation. The Finns explain that their military is acting independently of the Reich's (which heretofore really has not been the case in most instances) and that they do not take orders from Hitler. The Finns also decide to make an object lesson of this "independence" in the field. Marshal Mannerheim issues a secret order to Siilasvuo to halt the attack on the Murmansk railway at Loukhi. The Finns realize that cutting the railway could not help but be noticed in Washington. By discontinuing the attack, the Finns hope to maintain their neutral status vis-a-vis the Americans and the British.

Australian War Memorial opening day ceremonies, 11 November 1941,
The opening of the Australian War Memorial on 11 November 1941 (Australian War Memorial 130300).
The Finns do not tell the Germans about any of this. Instead, the Finns just stop attacking, with Siilasvuo making excuses about declining Finnish manpower, the heavy losses being incurred, and the difficulties of winter warfare. Finnish losses indeed are high relative to its population - they lose 79 men on the 11th - but sustainable if one is fighting a war for important national goals. The Finns continue resisting Soviet attacks, one of which they beat off today which attempts to rescue an encircled Soviet regiment west of Loukhi. However, they go over to the defensive here and elsewhere on the Eastern Front. From this point on, the Finns do just enough to satisfy German demands but absolutely no more than that. There is no question that the Finns could do more - if they were so inclined. Mannerheim from now pays more lip service to joint operations than giving actual commitments. It is a subtle but very real turning point in the war.

Der Adler, 11 November 1941,
The cover of Der Adler, 11 November 1941, showing German bomber construction.

November 1941

November 1, 1941: Finns Attack Toward Murmansk Railway
November 2, 1941: Manstein Isolates Sevastopol
November 3, 1941: Japan Prepares to Attack
November 4, 1941: German Advances in the South
November 5, 1941: Last Peace Effort By Japan
November 6, 1941: Stalin Casts Blame in an Unexpected Direction
November 7, 1941: Stalin's Big Parade
November 8, 1941: Germans Take Tikhvin
November 9, 1941: Duisburg Convoy Destruction
November 10, 1941: Manstein Attacks Sevastopol
November 11, 1941: Finland's Double Game Erupts
November 12, 1941: T-34 Tanks Take Charge
November 13, 1941: German Orsha Conference
November 14, 1941: German Supply Network Breaking Down
November 15, 1941: Operation Typhoon Resumes
November 16, 1941: Manstein Captures Kerch
November 17, 1941: Finland Halts Operations
November 18, 1941: British Operation Crusader
November 19, 1941: Sydney vs. Kormoran Duel
November 20, 1941: The US Rejects Final Japanese Demand
November 21, 1941: Germans Take Rostov
November 22, 1941: Kleist in Trouble at Rostov
November 23, 1941: Germans Take Klin, Huge Battle in North Africa
November 24, 1941: Rommel Counterattacks
November 25, 1941: HMS Barham Sunk
November 26, 1941: Japanese Fleet Sails
November 27, 1941: British Relieve Tobruk
November 28, 1941: Rostov Evacuated, German Closest Approach to Moscow
November 29, 1941: Hitler Furious About Retreat
November 30, 1941: Japan Sets the Date for its Attack


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