World War II operations in northeastern Europe may be divided into three stages: the Russo-Finnish War of 1939–1940; the German invasion and conquest of Denmark and Norway in spring 1940; and the struggle in the Baltics, Finland, and northwestern Russia between the Soviet Union on the one side and Finland and Germany on the other from June 1941 until fall 1944. Sweden remained officially neutral during the war.
Soviet leader Josef Stalin initiated the Russo-Finnish War (also known as the Winter War) when Finnish leaders refused his demands for the Karelian isthmus and bases. Although Stalin offered more territory than he demanded (albeit in the far north), Finnish leaders believed the Soviets were bluffing. On 30 November 1939, five Soviet armies crossed the border. The main attack came in the southeast from the Leningrad area in the direction of Finland's second-largest city, Viipuri (Vyborg).
The unprepared Soviet forces were soon halted by deep snow and woods, but also by the fierce and stubborn Finnish resistance. A major share of blame for the failure of the Soviets to win the war quickly rested with Stalin, who had refused to take Finland seriously. Stalin personally intervened to reject the plan advanced by chief of staff Marshal Boris M. Shaposhnikov that entailed a careful buildup and employment of the best Soviet troops, even those from the Far East. Many of the Soviet units were poorly trained scratch formations. Worse, the Soviet troops were unprepared for winter fighting.
By January 1940, Soviet troops had moved deep into Finnish territory in the north. In the southwest, however, the Finns halted the main Soviet thrust at the so-called Mannerheim Line. After the Soviets regrouped and brought up reinforcements, it was only a matter of time before Finland was defeated. At the beginning of February, the Red Army began another determined attack, managing to achieve a breakthrough after two weeks. Finland surrendered on 12 March 1940.
Under the peace terms, Finland was forced to surrender more territory than Stalin had originally demanded, including eastern Karelia and large areas in the northeast as well as a naval base at Petsamo. Although Finland lost 25,000 men killed and a comparable number of wounded, the Soviets lost perhaps 250,000 killed and a comparable number of wounded. One consequence of the war was that it convinced Hitler that his armed forces could defeat the Soviet Union easily.
Hitler believed that the Allies intended to occupy Norway, and he was determined to beat them there. Securing Norway would guarantee the Germans access to vital Swedish iron ore, which in the winter came from the Norwegian port of Narvik. The many fjords along the Norwegian coast would also provide bases for German submarines and surface raiders into the north Atlantic, as well as airfields from which the Luftwaffe might attack Britain. Acquiring Denmark would mean additional foodstuffs, especially dairy products, for the Reich.
The German assault on Norway and Denmark began on 9 April 1940. With virtually no military means to defend itself, Denmark succumbed in less than a day. The occupation of Norway, spearheaded by air attacks, saw the first real employment of paratroopers near Oslo and the port city of Stavanger. At the same time, German amphibious landings took place at Narvik, Trondheim, Bergen, Kristiansand, and Oslo. Allied forces landed in Norway beginning on 15 April. While British troops in the south had to be evacuated after two weeks, a combined Norwegian, British, French, and Polish force gained a foothold in the north, taking Narvik on 28 May. The Germans sent reinforcements to the north to recapture it. This, combined with the German invasion of France, forced the Allied expeditionary force to withdraw on 8 June. Norway capitulated two days later.
The Norwegian Campaign brought immense gains to Germany, but it also badly damaged the German surface navy. Germany lost 3 cruisers and 10 destroyers, half of the navy total. Hitler had secured additional food production for the Reich and protection for his northern flank on the Baltic. Most important, the Kriegsmarine had locations for naval bases nearer to the Allied Atlantic convoy routes. From these bases, it would launch attacks into the North Atlantic and later the Allied PQ Arctic convoys bound for the Soviet Union.
Both Norway and Denmark were under occupation until the German capitulation. The Germans established a puppet state in Norway headed by home-grown Nazi Vidkun Quisling, whose name became synonymous with "traitor." King Haakon VII escaped abroad on June 7, and after the Allies evacuated Narvik, he set up a government-in-exile in Britain. Most of the country's 4.7 million tons of merchant shipping now passed into Allied hands, an invaluable addition. In 1941, 40 percent of foreign tonnage destined for English seaports was Norwegian. By the end of the war, Hitler had some 400,000 men and major artillery assets in Norway, providing security and protecting it against invasion although it was a serious drain on stretched German resources.
Operation barbarossa, the attack on Soviet Russia, began in the early hours of 22 June 1941. Army Group North's 4th Panzer Group and Sixteenth Army advanced through Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia toward the Russian border. At the northern end of the line, German troops were aided by Finnish forces. Finland rejoined the war against the Soviet Union as a cobelligerent. In the so-called Continuation War, 16 revamped Finnish divisions recaptured the territory lost earlier to the Soviet Union. The Finns refused, however, to shell Leningrad. In the winter of 1941, when Soviet lines were stretched to the breaking point, a determined Finnish assault would undoubtedly have given the Germans Leningrad, with uncertain consequences for the war in the east.
The Finns had originally planned to unite their troops with German Army Group North around Leningrad. On 1 September, they reached the former Finnish-Soviet border. Mannerheim now essentially went over to defensive operations. Soviet resistance stiffened, and after capturing Petrosawodsk and Medweschjegorsk on the western and northern shore of Lake Onega, the Finns established a defensive position slightly inside Soviet territory in December 1941.
To the south, German forces in Operation barbarossa had come close enough to Leningrad by 1 September to start shelling the city. A week later, Leningrad had been cut off from the last land connection, and Hitler decided to starve the city into capitulation. Food supplies ran out after a month, and in November, 11,000 people died. Even though the Soviets managed to supply the city via the frozen Lake Ladoga in winter, up to 20,000 people died each day of starvation, exhaustion, and disease. Attempts to relieve the city between 19 August and the end of September 1942 were defeated by the German Eighteenth Army. On 11 January 1943, the Soviets managed to establish a small corridor south of Lake Ladoga through which they could also deliver supplies. The siege ended in January 1944 after 900 days. Other than that, the northern sector of the Eastern Front saw only limited action between fall 1941 and January 1944.
Pressed by the Soviet Leningrad, Wolchow, and 2nd Baltic Fronts, German Army Group North then withdrew from the Leningrad area in January 1944 and fled toward the Baltic coast. By the end of April, the Soviets had recaptured most of their pre-June territory in the Baltics. As Army Group Center also had fallen back, Army Group North was now certain to be cut off. The 3rd Belorussian Front, the northern front of the Soviet drive on Army Group Center, took Vilnius on 13 July.
In July and August, the Red Army's three Baltic fronts occupied the eastern parts of Latvia and Lithuania. German army defensive positions fell in succession. Tallinn (Reval) fell on 22 September and the Germans fled to the islands of Dagö and Ösel. The Red Army captured Riga on 15 October. Already at the end of September, the whole of Army Group North was trapped in Courland, where it remained until the end of the war, although the German navy carried out perhaps its most brilliant operation of the war, evacuating many troops and German civilians by sea.
By October 1944, Soviet forces had advanced into Eastern Prussia, and fighting now took place inside Germany. After stopping at Memel, the 1st Baltic and the 2nd and 3rd Belorussian Fronts advanced on Königsberg (Kaliningrad) and the coast, trapping German troops and civilians against the Baltic Sea for the remainder of the war. Those who could not be evacuated surrendered on 9 May 1945 with the rest of the German army.
In June 1944, the Soviet Karelian and Leningrad Fronts began an invasion of Finland on both flanks of the Ladoga Lake. West of the lake, they overwhelmed defenses at the Mannerheim Line. Vyborg was taken on 20 July. To the north and east, even though they failed to achieve a breakthrough, the Soviets forced the Finns to retreat and took the Murmansk Railway. In northern Finland the Soviet Fourteenth Army threw back German forces at Liza, supported by a large amphibious landing near Petsamo.
In accordance with the 19 September 1944 armistice ending Finnish participation in the war, Finland had to help eject German forces from its soil, since Hitler refused to extract them. By the end of the month, the Germans had withdrawn completely into Norway. In late January 1945, the Soviets reached the coast west of Danzig and the mouth of the Vistula River. By the end of the month, the Soviets had passed Posen (Poznan). By early February, the Red Army had reached the Oder within 40 miles of Berlin, surrounding large German troop concentrations at Posen and Breslau. Neither side gave quarter in the bitter fighting, and as they advanced, Soviet troops took their revenge on the Germans with as many as 3 million civilian casualties, as well as looting and rapes.
Thomas J. Weiler and Spencer C. Tucker
Claasen, Adam R. A. Hitler's Northern War: The Luftwaffe's Ill-Fated Campaign, 1940–1945. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2001.; Haupt, Werner. The Wehrmacht in Russia 1941–1945. Lancaster, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 2000.; Mann, Chris, and Chester Jörgensen. Hitler's Arctic War: The German Campaign in Norway, Finland, and the USSR, 1940–1945. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2003.; Newton, Steven H. Retreat from Leningrad: Army Group North 1944–1945. Lancaster, PA: Schiffer Military History Book, 1995.