146: Tolvajärvi


North of Lake Ladoga, near Tolvajärvi the first successful Finnish counter attack would be launched.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 146 - The Winter War Part 4 - Tolvajärvi. This week a big thank you goes out to Jack, Melissa, Soren, Brad, and Fahid for choosing to become a member, find out more about becoming a member over at historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members. While the primary point of focus for both nations was the fighting that was occurring on the Isthmus, there would be fighting in many other areas along the border regions. One of these areas would be along the Tolvajärvi road to the north of Lake Ladoga. This area was much further north than the Finns had really believed the Soviets would put a significant number of forces, but they were very much incorrect. Overall the areas north of Lake Ladoga were far more active than the Finns had anticipated, with several Red Army divisions positioned north of the Lake and preparing to push forward. It started with the Soviet 168th Division just north of the lake, then to their north was the 80th division. These two divisions were within the area that the Finns believed the Soviets would attack, and therefore there were troops ready to meet them, and they did, and in those areas near the Lake things would go relatively well. The problem started just to the north of the 80th division, with the 139th division which was advancing along the Tolvajärvi road, which would take them to an important rail line that was used by Finnish forces to move troops north and south behind the front. This rail line connected the western end of the Isthmus to northern Finland and was therefore quite important. Standing in front of the 139th was just 4,000 men which were organized into Task Force R, but saying they were organized is perhaps giving them too much credit. This was because Task Force R was a completely ad hoc unit, with four infantry battalions, of various quality, just thrown together. This was a problem for the Finns, but it was clear that the situation was even worse when word arrived that the 139th division was not the northern most Soviet unit in the area, but there was also the 155th division to their north. When the conflict started there was almost nothing to stop the 155th division from continuing along its path to the west. The Soviet troops positioning demanded a response from Finnish High command, especially as reports started flooding in shortly after fighting started. But there would not be an immediate response, and it would take several days before any kind of reinforcement group could be put together, until that occurred the Finnish defenders would have to just hold out.

Task Force R would begin to feel the pressure of the Soviet advance just hours after the invasion started. This is because the Soviets would move quickly through the the areas around Lake Soujärvi. Just sheer numbers would quickly force the Finnish defenders to begin their retreat, first to some prepared delaying positions, but even these were not enough to prevent further Soviet advances. The challenge here in the north was the Soviet tanks. There were not nearly as many here in the fighting north of Lake Ladoga, but the Finnish forces that were forced to reckon with them were also very different than those manning the defenses further south. The Finnish units around Soujärvi were sometimes made up of men with very little training, and sometimes defensive units were thrown together of men who were not even trained for combat. In these situations they did their best, but they were simply unprepared to deal with Soviet tanks rolling towards them. As the situation appeared on the edge of deterioration orders arrived from Mannerheim at the Finnish headquarters, Task Force R would gather up all available forces and launch a counter attack. The goal was to retake some area between Lake Salonjärvi and Lake Suojärvi, primarily focused on a road in the area. The attack would go forward on December 3, and would experience at least some initial success, if only because the Soviet forces were caught completely off guard. But the disparity in numbers and equipment meant that once this surprise wore off, things would go very poorly. Here is a piece of a later interview done of one of the Finnish soldiers, Erkki Pololampi: “Tanks rattled onwards on the roads and also tried entering into the forest … Firing is intense and then somebody starts to shout that the tanks are now attacking from behind: ‘They have breached through!’ The man’s eyes are round with fear, another man sees his terror and the shout spreads from soldier to soldier. Nothing can stop it now: ‘Tanks are coming, tanks have breached through…’ Men start to run without hearing the commands and curses of their officers. Panic spreads … fear grips more and more of the companies … everybody has only one thought, to escape the terrible tanks. A young man tries to jump into a passing sleigh shouting: ‘Now the men of Finland are no match for the Russkies, tanks have broken through and troops are routed. Tanks will kill us all!’ … Even two or three days later, there were still scared men wandering around the Loimola area looking for their companies.” The Soviet attack resulted in a disorganized retreat all along the line, which was only slowed when the Finnish forces arrived at an area possessing good natural defenses at Ägläjärvi. But even this area would not be enough, and soon another general retreat would be ordered, this time conducted at least in a somewhat orderly fashion.

The situation around Soujärvi demanded some kind of response from Mannerheim, by December 4th the Finnish defenders had already retreated over 60 kilometers, and the only way that retreat was going to be halted was by a fresh injection of reinforcements. The movement of reinforcements was possible, there were multiple Finnish divisions in reserve that could be pulled from, but the primary challenge was that there were so many far flung areas that needed assistance. Finnish reserves were not infinite, and so care had to be taken to not overcommit to the fighting north of Lake Ladoga, because those reserves may be needed elsewhere, especially in the south where the largest Soviet attack was expected. Therefore, over the course of several days after December 4th, reinforcements would be dispatched in small groups, generally a regiment at a time. These regiments would be sent to positions throughout northern Finland, because these areas around Soujärvi were not the only areas under threat, with other Soviet attacks further north also demanding a response, we will cover come of those areas next episode. For the areas around Soujärvi Mannerheim would pick Colonel Paavo Talvela to lead a new formation which was to be sent into the area. Talvela was a very good choice for this assignment, he was a long service veteran, having commanded Finnish troops in the region during the Civil War 20 years earlier. He requested that the 16th Infantry regiment be assigned to him due to a close personal relationship with the Regiments commander, with both of them fighting together in the area during the Civil War. This would be granted, and on December 5th Talvela would receive the orders to move north. Over the next several days and weeks the exact forces under Talvela’s command would shift somewhat, but he would be in control of all of the forces in the area around Tolvajärvi, which was to the west of Soujärvi, would be under Talvela’s command and would be called Group Talvela. The formation of Group Talvela, which would include the 16th Infantry regiment, did not immediately resolve the manpower problems in this area of the front, and when the Group arrived they were still outnumbered around 5 to 1, just in infantry with the odds being far worse in basically all other categories of equipment.

After taking command Talvela decided on two courses of action, he would form a defensive line on the western shores of Lake Tolvajärvi and it would look for an opportunity to launch a counter attack. To accomplish these tasks, and to generally prevent the complete disintegration of the Finnish units he would send the commander of the 16th Infantry Regiment, Pajari to the front with full authority to do whatever might be necessary to restore the situation. The counter attack would then be launched in the form of a large raid which would push across Lake Tolvajärvi. The raid would be executed by two companies of infantry from the 16th Infantry Regiment against Russian troops on the other side of the lake along a road. In Finland during December many lakes would be frozen, and so they offered new avenues for troop movements, but there were always risks involved. One of the risks was the possibility of the ice not completely covering large lakes like Tolvajärvi, and in fact this would be a problem for Finnish raid. One of the companies involved in the raid would run into an area of open water, and were forced to detour to the south of this area to find ice that would support the soldiers. This caused the two companies to become separated, and they would reach the other side of the lake at different times, diluting their attacking power by attacking individually. Another major risk would not be a problem for the Finns in this case, but would amplify the stress felt by all of those involved. If there is one thing that a frozen lake does not offer, it is cover from incoming fire. Meeting a Soviet patrol, or being discovered while still crossing the ice, could be catastrophic, there simply was no place to hide. But in this case the Finns would make it to the other side, and the fourth company in particular would pull of their part of the raid excellently. They would cross the lake and then scouts would spot large Soviet bonfires that their units were using to keep warm. The Finnish raiders were able to eliminate a Soviet patrol unit without making any noise, and then they spread out along a ridge line that looked down on a large bonfire area. The Finns took their time, they spread out all of their men and machine guns along the ridge before opening fire. Then when they did start firing it was like they were at a shooting gallery with all of their targets silouette against the fires. In a few minutes of firing many of the Soviet soldiers were dead, and the rest were being very careful about being seen. The Finns would retreat back across the ice, their mission a success. This relatively small success has impacts far beyond just the number of soldiers killed. For the Finns it was one of their first real victories of the war, which up to that point on December 8th the war had mostly been about retreating in the face of Soviet advances. For the Soviets, and especially for the Red army soldiers at the front, it was everything they feared and over the next several days they would not advance any further into Finland, buying further time for the Finnish defense to solidify itself, and even begin to consider a larger counterattack.


Before any Finnish attack could be launched the Red Army would begin moving again. On December 10th a Soviet force had marched through the forests north of Lake Tolvajärvi with the goal of hitting the Finnish defenses where they least expected it. And they were actually quite successful, and when they attacked they not only found few Finnish defenses, but also very few Finnish defenders. With how outnumbered the Finns were, they were weak in many areas and in this case the Soviets were able to take advantage of one of those weak areas. They would overrun all of the Finnish troops they encountered, and they would even capture an intact field kitchen with some nice tasty Finnish Sausage Soup which the Red Army soldiers took advantage of, cannot say I really blame them. The pause to eat would allow just the briefest of moments for the Finnish defenders to organize themselves and prepare to react. When they did they would scrape together enough troops, including the headquarters company of the 16th Infantry Regiment to launch a counter attack which would completely catch the Soviets off guard. Soon the Soviets were in full retreat back to their lines. Over the course of December 11th other attacks would be launched against various Finnish positions, but none of them would have as much success as the initial attack in the north. The one important outcome of these attacks is that it pushed back the planned Finnish counterattack by 24 hours, but it was still going to happen.

The new date for the counterattack was December 12th. Talvela’s goal was to use the freshest units that he had available to him, a battalion of the 16th Infantry Regiment along with a few additional companies to launch a pincer attack with the goal of capturing two key areas. The first was some high ground on the Hirvasharju peninsula on Lake Hirvasjärvi that overlooked a critical supply road that the Russians would have to keep open if they wanted to keep their troops in the area supplied. On that high ground was a resort hotel building where the most important fighting would take place. The other pincer would then cut off that same peninsula to prevent Soviet reinforcements from arriving. The troops available, even if they were successful in these attacks, were not enough to make the counter attack into a more general and wide attack but the hope was that these two pincers, if they were successful, would cause enough unsteadiness along the Russian front so that more units could be thrown into the offensive to continue it forward. At this same time, there would be a separate attack further north where several additional Finnish battalions would attack a different Soviet line of advance. If everything went well this would blunt the entire Soviet invasion north of Lake Ladoga, and give the Finnish forces some much needed breathing room.

The two pincers of the attack against the peninsula would have very different results. The northern pincer would almost immediately start having problems which had nothing to do with the actions of the Red Army but were instead based on the weather, with deep snowdrifts slowing down their movements up to the front. This put the attack behind schedule, but more importantly meant that it went forward in broad daylight which was never desirable. When the attack then ran into Soviet resistance some progress was made, but when they were still far short of the goal of the attack the decision would be made that the attack could no longer make any progress. Some of the Finnish troops would withdraw completely at this time, while others would dig in and defend their furthest gains. While this meant they would not be able to complete their objectives, these troops would go on to tie down large numbers of Soviet troops who might have been sent further south to meet the attack that was developing against the hotel. In the main attack to the south, events also did not start according to plan. There was some initial hesitancy to attack without artillery support, but the artillery would not be in place in time and so the decision was made to wait for them. At the time this seemed like a necessary delay because the Soviet positions in this area were occupying strong defensive positions. Finally about 2 hours after the attack was supposed to start the artillery was in position and the attack went forward. The artillery fire was not very effective, and Pajari the commander of the 16th Infantry Regiment regretted delaying the attack to wait for it. But the Finns continued to move forward event against strong Soviet opposition, making good use of their heavy Maxim machine guns to try and compensate for their lack of other firepower. One of the challenges during this attack was that the closer the attackers got to the large hotel building the more fire they received from the building. The Finnish troops did not have anything to silence this fire, and so they just had to keep advancing against it. As they approached the hotel the Soviets sent forward three tanks to stem the tide. Unfortunately for the tankers they would have to advance in a single file line up a narrow road that they could not move off due to the terrain. Even more unfortunate for the men in those three tanks was the fact that this was one of the very few areas of Finland that were covered by some Bofors anti-tank guns that Pajari had placed specifically to cover the road that the tanks were advancing along. All three would be destroyed. Even with this success by noon the Finnish attack had stalled, there was simply too much Soviet firepower to easily move forward and the Finnish troops had become disorganized during the morning advance. They were also tired, because fighting is hard work. This resulted in an order to pull back from some of the furthest gains so that the men could rest and recuperate, and reinforcements could be sent forward. During this pause Pajari would also make the decision to take a company of infantry and send them to attack the hotel from the northwest, to spread out the Finnish effort. At 1:30PM the attack then resumed. It was still hard going, with the Finns having to basically take every single Soviet position slowly and individually, but progress continued. When they finally fought their way up to the hotel, that company that had been sent on the flanking mission arrived on the other side at the perfect time, bringing the hotel under fire from two different directions. Around this time many of the Soviet defenders that were around, but not in the hotel, began to retreat to the east. Dozens of grenades would then be thrown into the bottom flow of the hotel, which killed or wounded most of the defenders. This allowed the Finns to capture all of the ground floor, but strong resistance still continued from the second floor. Again a concentrated attack was made with many grenades thrown onto the second story before Finnish troops stormed in. They would be successful. One of the easy to gloss over benefits of an action like this, beyond the territory gained or the effect on morale on both sides, was the captured weapons and ammunition. This would be an important part of the Finnish success in this attack, with the troops who captured the hotel also capturing 18 automatic weapons and plenty of ammunition for them. For a well equipped and well supplied army this may not have been a big deal but for these Finnish troops it meant it drastically increased the firepower of the units involved.

On December 13th, the day after the hotel was captured, the Finnish troops in the area were mostly idle, resting after their exertions. But then on December 14th the attack would restart for what would be 9 days of almost continuous fighting. The problems that were faced at this point was that, as the attack continued day after day the territory regained from the Soviets dropped drastically, while the casualty numbers skyrocketed. There were a number of reasons for this, but the most important two were the terrain and simple exhaustion. After the capture of the hotel and the territory of the first few days there were some relatively easy advances for the troops involved, but then to the east they ran into another set of strong Soviet positions. Pajari and Talvela still believed that their men had it in them to push through these new challenge, and they would spend the next week trying to make it happen. As the casualty numbers rose day after day Mannerheim considered ordering the attacks to be stopped, but Talvela, the local commander who had been promoted on December 19th to Major General, wanted to continue. He still believed, even as late as December 23rd that a breakthrough was possible which would completely reset the situation north of Lake Ladoga. But this was not in the cards, and by the end of December 23 the attack had to be called off, the men at the front simply exhausted. It was a bloody campaign for the Finnish units under Talvela’s command, with 630 men killed and 1,320 wounded. Those raw numbers may not seem very large, until you consider that it represented a third of all of the officers and a quarter of all of the men under Talvela’s command, making these attacks the bloodiest actions by the Finnish army during the entire war. Soviet casualties are a bit of a question mark, with numbers as high as 4,000 dead and 5,000 wounded, which are numbers drawn primarily from Finnish sources, honestly they seem a little high to me when compared to the Finnish casualties for a defensive action where the defenders, by and large maintained their cohesion. The one piece of good news is that all of this effort, and all of the Finnish casualties, would gain one key advantage for the rest of the war this part of the front would remain mostly quiet, which is what the Finns had been planning for before the war started. Most importantly this meant that they would not need to send many resources into the area and could focus their limited numbers and material in more important sectors to the south.