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Military actions near Suomussalmi
during the Soviet-Finnish war of 1930-1940

The Soviet Red Army concentrated for the attack in the Northern Karelia the 9th Army. The Army front was about 400 km – from the Polar Circle to the northern shores of the Ladoga Lake. It consisted of two infantry corpses (47th and Special) with 4 infantry divisions (122, 163, 54 and 44) and three detached tanks battalions. The elements of the 44th division began to arrive to the front only with the beginning of the military operations. The army main target was Kajaani with the first target line Kemijärvi-Rontiomäki. Later it should enter the shore of the Gulf of Bothnia and take Oulu (Uleåborg), cutting the Finland in two. That was the shortest way from the Finnish eastern border to the western shore. The operational depth was about 235 km. The headquarters of the 9th Army planned the duration of the operation about 20 days with daily pace of 14-30 km. At the beginning of the war only 4 Finnish battalions stood against the army.

The 9th Army attacked in three sectors – Kandalaksha, Uhtua and Reboly. The main attack was blown at the left flank (on Reboly sector) by the Special corps of the army, consisting of the 54th infantry division and 51st detached artillery regiment. The reserve 44th infantry division was also concentrating here. The 47th infantry corps, consisting of 122nd and 163rd divisions, detached tanks battalion and four artillery battalions, acted on the centre and the right flank. The 122nd infantry division advanced in the Kandalaksha sector. The 163rd infantry division under command of Kombrig (Brigade General) A.Zelenkov attacked in the centre of the Uhtua sector. The division consisted of three infantry regiments (81st alpine, 662nd and 759th), 365th artillery regiment, tanks, reconnaissance and field-engineers battalions. The division attacked from Uhtua (now – Kalevala) on Suomussalmi – Kajaani – Oulu (Uleåborg).

With the beginning of the military actions the 81st and 662nd regiments began the attack on the right flank along the Lehtovaara-Juntuoranta road. 759th regiment attacked from Vazhenvaara along the Raate-Suomussalmi road. At the first days the troops successfully deepened into the Finnish territory, as only one Finnish battalion and small groups of the boarder guards opposed them. In November 30th they took Juntuoranta and continued advance along Kuusamo-Suomusssalmi road.

Other formation also did not meet serious resistance. But the main success was achieved not at the sector of main attack, but in the centre of the army – in the sector of 163rd infantry division. Despite the difficult relief, its troops moved some 50 km into Finnish territory during four first days. But even this success did not please the General Headquarters, which expected higher temps. On December 2nd it demanded from the commanders of the 9th Army "in all ways to speed up the movement of our troops in the Uleåborg sector.

The 163rd infantry division continued their offensive and by December 4th cut Kuusalmo-Suomussalmi road near Pallovaara. The 662nd regiment turned to the North and 81st alpine regiment to the South towards Suomussalmi and in December 6th came to the settelment. On the next day the 759th infantry regiment approached it from the east. Suomussalmi, being the significant road crossing, was defended by two Finnish infantry battalions. Soviet troops, attacking Suomussalmi from two directions, forced Finns to retreat. On December 8th they took Suomussalmi and Finnish troops fortified on the southern and western shores of the Kiantajärvi Lake.

Finnish Headquarters understood the danger aroused with the loosing Suomussalmi: it opened the shortest way to Oulu (Uleåborg). It hurriedly transferred here the reserve infantry regiment. The new regiment together with the battalions already standing it Suomussalmi formed a brigade under command of Colonel H.Siilasvuo. On December 11th the brigade counterattacked and in the result of the flanking strike cut the road Raate- Suomussalmi, cutting the supply line of the avant-garde troops. The initiative went to the Finnish side and 163rd division had to temporally stop the offence.

After rebutting the Finnish counterattack, Kombrig Zelentsov attempted to continue the offence. He regrouped his troops and transferred the combat onto the right flank. The Soviet General Headquarters, disturbed by the negative development in the sector of the 9th Army, demanded to restore the situation immediately. In December 19th Komkor (Corps General) Dukhanov got the telegram signed by I.Stalin and K.Voroshilov. It demanded to transfer the 44th division from Reboly sector to the region near Suomussalmi and use all the forces of the 44th division "without any delay" to "do not allow the enemy to encircle and capture the two regiments of the 163rd division" and "use all the aviation to help" the division.

The Finnish Headquarters also continued to enforce the troops near Suomussalmi, sending there their last resourses – 64th and 65th infantry regiments and detached units. In December 22nd all the troops near Suomussalmi were combined into 9th infantry division under command of Colonel Siilasvuo.

After capturing the strategic points on the Raate road, blocking in this way 163rd division Colonel Raate started the attack on Suomussalmi. 81st and 759th regiments of 163rd division, cut off from supply, after a bitter battle had to leave Suomussalmi in December 28th and started the retreat th the nerth-east along the Kiantajärvi Lake towards Juntuoranta. At the same time at the right flank of the 163rd division four Finnish battalions had stricken at the 662nd regiment. Unable to withstand the regiment, with heavy losses, had to retreat to Juntuoranta.

Fulfilling the order of the General Headquarters Komkor Dukhanov ordered the commander of the 44th infantry division Kombrig (Brigade General) A.Vinigradov to strike at Suomussalmi from Vazhevaara, unblock the Raate- Suomussalmi road and get in contact with the troops of 163rd division. The 44th division consisted of three infantry regiments (25th, 146th and 105th), two artillery regiments (122nd and 179th), tanks, reconnaissance, field-engineers, anti-tank and signals battalions, field hospital and other units. But the deployment of the division went very slow. Some units at that time still were in the troop trains. Because of the lack of automobiles the troops went to Vazhenvaara both by wheels and afoot. The division column stretched for about 30 km. As a result, the units were entering the battle from the march, usually by battalions. It also should be noted that the division just came from Ukraine and practically was not ready to act in the conditions of the northern war theatre. The snow and the difficult relief did not allow the commander of the division to use effectively the heavy weapons. As a result, the blow was too weak and did not help the 183rd division, which was loosing the strength.

And the 44th division also came into difficult situation. After liberation of Suomussalmi the commander of the Finnish 9th infantry division regrouped his forces and retargeted the main attack against 44th division. Setting a covering against its avant-garde, Colonel Siilasvuo arranged several flanking attacks on the 44th division column spread along Raate road. All communications were broken. The division could not get ammunition, fuel and food, could not evacuate the wounded. At this time the 44th division was only 10 km short to positions of 163rd division.

As a result bad coördination, Colonel Zelentsov, without the concordance of Kombrig Vinogradov, decided to make a retreat under the cover of rear-guard. The division units crossed the Kiantajärvi Lake by the ice and retreated to the north-east. About 30% of the men and most heavy armament were lost during this retreat.

The position of 44th division worsened every day. As a result of Finnish attacks during December 30th 1939 to January 4th 1940 the division was divided into six pockets. Kombrig Vinogradov was unable to predict Finnish actions and to organise counter-measures. The Commander of the 9th Army Komkor (Corps general) Chuykov (he replaced Komkor Dukhanov on this post in December 22nd) and the commander of the 47th corps Kombrig (Brigade general) I.Dashichev were also unable to organise the coöperation between 163rd and 44th divisions.

The situation was worsened by the fact that at the moment of Finnish flanking attacks the commander of the 44th division Kombrig Vinogradov was in the 146th regiment which was the first to get into encirclement. The division commander tried to organise deblockading by the attack of 25th regiment, but all the attempts failed. The units of the Finnish 9th infantry division held the four strongpoints at which they cut the road. The road was staffed with transport, artillery and infantry, but the main forces of the 44th division were left without supply and military units were isolated from each other.

In January 5-7 Vinogradov tried to arrange the break-through, but without supply the attacks stalled. Small Finnish groups were giving constant short blows. They unexpectedly appeared at the flanks and in the rear, opened the fire and disappeared. They attacked not only line troops but also staffs. This disorganised the troops, cut the communication and caused heavy losses. To make it worse, the soldiers, hastily thrown to Karelia from Ukraine, were not equipped to withstand heavy frosts. They did not have winter coats, warm boots and woollen mittens. Light overcoats, puttees and tarpaulin mittens could not keep warmth at the 100 degrees frosts.

Neither the army commander nor the corps commander could organise any sufficient help – they did not have real reserved. All the reserved consisted of one battalion of 305th infantry regiment, 179th howitzer artillery regiment that managed not to be encircled and five companies arranged from the reinforcements. But those forces could only slightly press the Finns – about half a kilometre. All the attempts to break the circle around 44th division failed.

Trying to save the rest of the people Kombrig Vinogradov decided to wreck the transport and heavy armament and to break through only with the light weapon. He did not wait for permission and in January 5th started the break through. In January 5th-7th the division, with heavy fighting, tried to force the way through. But only a few could return. After January 10th the active actions on this sector practically stopped. The remnants of the 44th division took stand on the Suomussalmi road some ten kilometres from the border. Those who could break through the encirclement were concentrating near Vazhenvaara.

After the battle the following units left from the 44th division: 179th howitzer artillery regiment (with all guns), one battalion of 305th infantry regiment, 78th military hospital, second-tier transport units and division rears that practically did not suffer. In the infantry regiments the were only about 1000 men left. 1057 wounded and frostbitten soldiers were sent to hospitals. Many wounded were left in the encirclement.

According the report of the 9th Army headquarters only during the period from January 1st to January 6th the 44th division lost 33 tanks, 9 armoured cars, 14 mortars, 225 trucks. At the same time 3500 men were killed or lost without notice. Total losses were over 6000 men.

Any war is a people tragedy. Russia and Finland passed through that in the winter of 1939/40. The 105-days war brought to the Soviet and Finnish peoples sorrow and suffering. We shall note the wisdom of peoples and governments of Russia and Finland that learned on this war. They had the courage not only to find the ways for reconciliation, but to establish friendly relations, which allowed to stiffen the pain of the former offences and jointly to immortalise the memory of those, fallen in action. The monument near Suomussalmi, opened a year ago, is a real proof of that.

Alexander A.Koltyukov

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