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By Sebastien Roblin,The National Interest
The Soviet Navy during World War II is perhaps best remembered for its vigorous role in the doomed defense of the ports of Odessa and Sevastopol in the Crimean Sea. However, in the Arctic North, the Soviet warships would have a major impact on the course of the war in the opening months of the war with Nazi Germany. A ragtag fleet of destroyers and patrol boats, backed up by two stout-hearted rifle divisions, brought Hitler’s elite mountain troops skidding to a halt, preserving a vital supply line to England and the United States.
In November 1939, the Soviet Union invaded Finland in the Winter War. After initially suffering disastrous losses in the three-month-long war, Stalin managed to force the Finns into making territorial concessions. This ironically laid the groundwork for the German-Finnish alliance the Winter War had been meant to forestall. When on June 22, 1941, Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the devastating German invasion of Soviet Union, German troops in the Arctic northern tip of Norway marched through Finnish territory to secure the vital nickel mines at Petsamo.
The next goal was the port of Murmansk, an important Soviet naval base and the most direct means by which convoys from the United Kingdom could deliver material aid to the beleaguered Soviet Union. Indeed, the Royal Navy almost immediately dispatched submarines, destroyers and aircraft carriers to the Arctic region. Still, the Nazi leaders did not expect the Soviet Union to last long enough for that aid to matter, so they committed only a modest force to the port’s capture.
Leading the assault was Gen. Eduard Dietl’s Mountain Corps Norway, consisting of two crack Austrian infantry units, the Second and Third Gebirgs (mountain) divisions. Both veterans of the campaigns in Poland and Norway, the Tyrolian Second Division was still associated with the old Habsburg aristocracy, while the Third was heavily steeped in Nazi ideology. Both of the lightly equipped units were thought to be ideal for handling the rocky Arctic tundra. The mountain units were reinforced by the Fortieth and 211th Panzer Battalions, the latter unit equipped with eighty-nine captured French Somua S-35 medium tanks and Hotchkiss H-38 light tanks. You can check out a map of the German plan here.
After spending a week moving from Kirkenes, Norway, to the staging point on the Finnish border, the German mountaineers launched their attack, codenamed Operation Platinfuchs (“Platinum Fox”) on June 29, overwhelming the machine gun battalions of the Twenty-Third Fortified Region. Spearheaded by French tanks, the Third Mountain Division managed to capture a bridge across the Titovka River, while to the North the Second managed to seal off the neck of the Rybachy Peninsula, but could not penetrate the defenses on the peninsula itself.
The German maps proved to have an over-optimistic assessment of the limited Soviet road network, and the two German divisions found they had to transport most of their supplies by foot across the boulder-strewn landscape. German engineers expended tons of explosives trying to flatten the desolate, moon-like landscape for wheeled vehicles.
Soon the Germans were confronted by a stout defensive line along the River Litsa held by the Fourteenth and Fifty-Second Rifle Divisions, both veterans of the Winter War. However, three battalions of the Third Mountain Division managed to secure a crossing on July 6, though they were soon hammered by counterattacks and strafing I-16 fighter planes.
Dietl was about to expand the bridgehead when learned that a rag-tag fleet of Soviet escorts and transports under Capt. I. G. Platonov had landed two battalions of marines at Litsa Bay, behind German lines. At the time, the surface ships of the Northern Fleet consisted of just eight destroyers, seven patrol boats, and a couple of minesweepers and torpedo boats.
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Worried for the security of his tenuous supply lines, Dietl called off his attack for an entire week and begged for reinforcements. He received a regiment of elderly Finnish soldiers and a machinegun battalion, which he used to hold the line along the Rybachy Peninsula while the Second Gebirg advanced southward towards the Litsa River on July 13. Five German destroyer sortied the day before in support of the operation in order to dissuade another Soviet landing, blasting a small Soviet convoy they encountered before retiring to Norway.
However, the unflinching Captain Platonov was not scared away from weaving his usual mischief. On the day of the new German offensive, he trollishly landed the entire 352nd Rifle Regiment of the Fourteenth Division on the western, German-held side of the Litsa River. His patrol boat Smerch—or as it jokingly became known, “the Litsa battleship”—even cheekily swooped over to German held riverbank and dueled with Austrian artillery batteries.
Dietl’s offensive came completely undone as units that had been committed to supplying the frontline were forced to deal with the pesky Soviet landing force. Air strikes on Petsamo and Kirkenes from the British carriers Furious and Victorious only worsened the chaos. Making little headway, Dietl called off his assault a second time. The German bridgehead over the Litsa collapsed into a smaller perimeter, and a series of costly battles were fought over hills and mountains of limited operational value in order to clear out infiltrating Soviet troops.
An improvised task force of Finnish and German troops finally managed to drive the 352nd Regiment from the west bank early in August. Finnish troops furiously potted away with rifles at Platonov’s fleet as it whisked the survivors of the 352nd to safety on the opposite shore.
The morale of the mountain troops in what was bitterly dubbed the “Duchy of Litsa” fell to an all-time low. Rumors spread in Austria that the alpine infantry had been consigned to die on the craggy Arctic moonscape. Dietl begged Hitler for a third mountain division to assure the capture of Murmansk. His wish was granted in the form of the Sixth Mountain division and the Ninth SS Regiment. However, British cruisers Nigeria and Aurora nearly destroyed one of the former unit’s transports at sea—and were only spared by the sacrifice of their escort Bremse, which was rammed and split in two by the British warships. Royal Navy submarines and squadrons of RAF Hurricane fighters were soon flying out of Murmansk to support the Soviet Navy. A week later, the German Navy declared it was too risky to continue transport and resupply operations by sea that far east.
This delayed the arrival of the Sixth Mountain division until October. Dietl decided to proceed with his final assault on September 8, reinforced by just the SS regiment and another unit of aging reservists. However, the SS unit’s fanaticism failed to make up for its lack of competence or training, and its battalions repeatedly fled in the face of Soviet counterattacks. The German mountain troops still managed to capture some craggy heights devoid of cover before reeling back under a counterattack by the Polyarny militia division.
Dietl ultimately began withdrawing his men to a defensive line on the Litsa River on September 19, bringing an end to German attempts to capture Murmansk. To the south, the parallel Operation Arctic Fox came close to cutting off the Murmansk railway line connecting the port with the rest of the Soviet Union, but foundered in November as the Finns reduced their support for the offensive as a result of Allied diplomatic pressure.
While the Second and Third Mountain divisions were retired from the theater, the Soviet Fifty-Second Division would be promoted to the status of an elite Guards division for its actions in the campaign. Over the next four years, the Allies would deliver vast quantities of supplies and military equipment to the Soviet Union via the dangerous Arctic cargo run to Murmansk, totaling more than 5,200 tanks, 7,400 airplanes, 4,900 antitank guns, and millions of rounds of ammunition and gallons of gasoline.
While numerically superior Soviet forces suffered catastrophic defeat after defeat in the opening months of Operation Barbarossa, the two Soviet rifle divisions in the Arctic managed to repel a German assault of nearly equivalent strength. This occurred not only because of their discipline and competent leadership, but thanks to the daring actions of the British Navy and the outgunned Soviet Northern fleet. Without a single capital ship or amphibious landing craft to its name, the latter force took advantage of its mobility in littoral waters to hamstring a foe struggling with long land-based supply lines across rough terrain. Platonov’s little fleet of patrol boats and destroyers made an outsized contribution to the Soviet resistance against Nazi Germany.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history forWar Is Boring.