Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Pudasjärvi Incident: A betrayal of Comrades?

If you head towards Kuusamo from Oulu you'll come across a lone M1938 152mm Howitzer just before you come into Pudasjärvi (about 70km from Oulu) For many people it is nothing more than just exactly that, an old piece of military equipment out on display for no particular reason. However for those interested in military history, the piece marks an important point in the Second World War and for Finnish-German relations.

Source:- Personal collection
The Finns started negotiating a separate peace with the Soviet Union from the end of 1943 to early 1944. Feeling the writing was on the wall for their cooperation, the Germans started to make plans for a withdrawal from Finland proper (with the exception of occupying the vital Petsamo nickel mines). However the negotiations broke down as the Soviets demanded too harsh a terms for the Finns to accept and so the Finnish-German military cooperation continued and in response the Soviet's launched a massive offensive on the Finnish positions in Karelia. From June the Finnish front started to collapse and a retreat through several defensive lines occurred in a short time. Soon the Finns found themselves in a precarious position, with the threat of their entire defence crumbling and allowing for a Soviet strike in the Finnish heartland. However, with the help of the Germans, they managed to stablelise the front by the end of July and reopened negotiations with the USSR.

A ceasefire was enacted by the Finns on September 4th (and curiously by the Soviets on the 5th). As part of the negotiations, the Finns were forced to demobilise their military to a peacetime footing within two and a half months and also expel all remaining German forces by the 15th September. The Finns had no desire to continue fighting, especially against their former brothers in arms, and so a period known as Syysmanööverit came into being. This basically was a secret agreement between the Finns and Germans for an orderly withdrawal, followed by Finns 'capturing' the lossed ground. The idea was to avoid any actual fighting and to save the kinship of the two nations. Coming into effect on the 14th September, the patomine helped save the city of Oulu from destruction (as it was evacuated on the 15th September and 'retaken' later in the same day by the 15th Brigade of the 6th Division). The Finns gathered their forces at Oulu (as well as other places like Kajaani and Suomussalmi) with the intention of slowly moving up behind the German retreat, however the soviet led Allied Control Commission arrived in Finland on the 22nd September and demanded that harsher and more rigorous action be used in the eviction of the Germans. Fearing 'help' from the Soviets in this task, Mannerheim assigned Lieutenant General Hjalmar Siilasvuo to the task and ordered that he take a more willing and prompt line.

Upon his arrival in Oulu, General Siilasvuo ordered the 5th Jaeger Battalion (of the Armoured Division) to advance to the town of Pudasjärvi to disarm the German contingent there and secure the bridge in the area. The Battalion's vanguard arrived, led by Major Veikko Lounila, at the crossroads just outside of the town and encountered a rearguard of the 7th Mountain Division. Major Lounila demanded their surrender but was refused and a firefight broke out. The short exchange of fire ended with no Finnish casualties but 2 dead Germans, 4 wounded and 2 prisoners. A ceasefire was called and Major Lounila again demanded the Germans in Pudasjärvi surrender. He was refused again but instead of launching an assault, he ordered his battalion to adopt defensive positions. Small exchanges of fire occurred for the next two days until the Germans withdrew across the Ii river and the 5th Jaeger Battalion occupied Pudasjärvi.

Source: Personal Collection

The incident was seen by the Germans as a betrayal of the secret withdrawal agreement. General Lothar Rendulic, commander of the 20th Mountain Army, gave permission to Lieutenant General August Krakau, commander of the 7th Mountain Division, to defend themselves from the Finns, by force is necessary. He also got in contact with General Siilasvuo and demanded that the agreement be held or that open hostilities would follow. This incident was soon followed up by similar in Kemi, Olhava and the Tornio landings.

The memorial stands as reminder of the price of forming alliances, of being forced to take actions that don't sit well in the moral consitution, of the first shots of the Lapland War, of the epilogue of Finland's Wars.

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