SUURSAARI

15th of September 1944

 

Part 1 / 2

 

ISLAND WITH MANY NAMES

The northeast part of Baltic Sea located in between Finland, Russia and Estonia is called Gulf of Finland. The largest island on Gulf of Finland is known is known countries around Baltic Sea know with numerous names, which all typically reflect either its large size or steep, almost mountainous terrain. The Finns know it as Suursaari (which literally translates as "large island"), the Swedes as Högland ("high land"), the Germans as Hochland and the Russians as Gogland. For practical purposes in this page I use either the Finnish name or call it simply the island. North to south this island is about 11 kilometers long and south to west its width varies between one to three kilometres. As mentioned it is covered by large hills, between which spread rocks, steep hills, valleys and even few lakes. Most of the island was and is covered by thick forests. Highest hill is Haukkavuori Hill (158 meters), but not long behind are Mäkiinpäällys Hill (118 meters) and Pohjoiskorkia Hill (106 meters). Shoreline of the island is about 30 kilometers long and due to steep terrain in most places is very difficult to land from a boat. Since northern parts of Baltic Sea freeze every winter in winter time the open sea around the islands turns into plain of ice. Suursaari Island is in middle of eastern Finnish Gulf, about 40 kilometers from Finnish mainland and about 45 kilometers from Estonian mainland – a strategic location due to which it repeatedly became a battlefield during World War 2.

PICTURE: Map of Suursaari Island with the road network existing in September of 1944. CLICK THUMBNAIL TO SEE LARGER PIC (152 KB).

 

HISTORY BY 1944

Before World War 2 Suursaari Island belonged to Finland and had population of about 800 people, which gained their livelihood mostly from fishing, seafaring and seal hunting, but also tourism had been increasing its importance as source of income in 1930’s. The island had two villages – Suurkylä in north had 78 houses while smaller Kiiskinkylä in the east had 62 houses. Due to its beautiful scenery, some nice beaches and new casino in late 1930’s the island was gaining popularity as tourist attraction, with about 5,000 tourists visiting it just in year 1937. In Finnish – Soviet Tartto / Tartu / Dorpat peace treaty of year 1920 Suursaari Island was determined as demilitarized area, so it was not fortified in any way and lacked any real permanent Finnish military presence. As mentioned landing on the island was difficult, especially western beaches can be plain impossible to land during heavy winds and its eastern shores were not easy either. The safest places to land the island were its two harbors, from which Suurkylä harbor with its peer and breakwater was larger and safer, while the much less sheltered fishing harbor of Kiiskinkylä was notably more difficult to use during bad weather.

By year 1944 many of the civilian houses on Suursaari Island had been destroyed or damaged, the most destructive event being first Soviet attack there during Winter War. 1st – 3rd of January 1940 the Soviets aircraft bombed the island three days heavily dropping there over 2,200 bombs and had also shelled it with naval artillery before finally landing force of some 1,500 soldiers. Luckily the Finns had evacuated the island’s civilian population already before the war, so civilian casualties were avoided and personnel of the Finnish Border Guard station (some 45 men) succeeded safely leaving the island 1st of January after the first air raids. Once Winter War ended in March of 1940, Suursaari was among the many islands of eastern Gulf of Finland, which the Finnish - Soviet peace treaty transferred from Finland to Soviet Union.

December 1941 it was the Soviet turn to evacuate Suursaari Island without a fight, since after evacuating their base in Hanko/Hango/Gangut peninsula, they considered also keeping the island unnecessary. Once Finnish military noted that the Soviets had apparently abandoned the island, they decided to send some troops there. First Finnish unit to enter the island was engineer platoon sent by 2nd Coastal Brigade in 12th of December 1941. Soon rifle platoon was sent as its reinforcement with these two platoons forming unit named Osasto Pennanen (Detachment Pennanen) of about 70 men. Just 70 men was too little to properly guard the island of this size - especially so since the both sides were about to notice what sort of strategic location the island now had and started making plans concerning it. The Soviets had abandoned the island, but had now changed their mind and decided to re-capture it. 2nd of January 1942 they attacked with reinforced company of about 170 men led by Colonel Barinov. The unprepared and completely surprised Detachment Pennanen had little chance other than to leave the island after small skirmish. Only only after long walk on ice its men succeeded reaching nearest Finnish base on Luppi Island. While Detachment Pennanen succeeded escaping with losses of just few men, six civilian fishermen who had returned to Kiiskinkylä village were not so lucky and apparently perished in this attack. The island was back in Soviet hands, but with stakes getting higher would not remain so very long. Strategically important location of Suursaari Island and surrounding islands had by now sparked interest of Finnish Armed Forces General Headquarters, so Finnish Navy started making plans of island’s recaptured just two days after Detachment Pennanen had been forced to leave. This time Finnish military decided to attack the island with such a force, that at least lack of sufficient troops would lead not into further failure. Battle Group P (Osasto P) commanded by Major-General Aaro Pajari was created for this offensive across ice. The battle group contained two infantry battalions, coastal infantry battalion, heavy artillery battery, light artillery battery, two mortar companies and antitank-gun company. It had total of some 3,500 men, one additional infantry battalion reserved as reserve and two flight regiments providing air cover for the offensive with their 67 aircraft. The island was guarded by Soviet reinforced battalion of 518 men lead by Colonel Barinov. This time surprise was on Finnish side when Battle Group P attacked the island 27th – 28th of March 1942 and captured it after hard battle. In this battle the Soviets lost 213 killed in action and 36 as prisoners of war with 265 Soviets succeeding to slip past Finnish troops, that attacked the island from multiple directions. The decisive point of battle proved to be when group of Finnish soldiers that were former inhabitants of the island climbed the hill where Soviet command post was located by using a route that the Soviets had neglected to guard and took out the command post. Finnish troops losses in this battle were 61 men KIA, 109 WIA and 2 MIA.

PICTURE: Parade held by Finnish troops after re-capturing Suursaari Island in 1942. (SA-kuva photo archive, photo number 78436). CLICK THUMBNAIL TO SEE LARGER PIC (146 KB).

The unit selected to defend Suursaari Island after its re-capture was Battle Group M commanded by Major Martti J. Miettinen. Later this unit became the skeleton crew around which Coastal Artillery Regiment 12 (Rannikkotykistörykmentti 12) was created. Miettinen, who was promoted as Lieutenant-Colonel, was named as commander of Coastal Artillery Regiment 12, which remained in Suursaari Island and defended it for rest of the Continuation War.

PICTURE: Map showing strategic situation in eastern parts of Gulf of Finland 15th of September 1944. CLICK THUMBNAIL TO SEE LARGER PIC (116 KB).

 

STRATEGIC IMPORTANCE IN YEAR 1944

Year 1944 Finnish Navy had its Eastern Finnish Gulf Coastal Brigade (Itä-Suomenlahden Rannikkoprikaati) responsible defending eastern parts of Gulf of Finland. Coastal Artillery Regiment 12 in Suursaari Island was the largest unit of this brigade. As mentioned, Suursaari Island is located in middle of eastern part of Finnish Gulf with almost equal distance both from coasts of Finland and Estonia and during World War 2 this made it a strategically important location for Finnish, German and Soviet navies. Year 1941 the advancing German troops had succeeded pushing Soviet Baltic Sea Navy into its main naval base in Kronstadt. After completion of mine fields Seeigel and Rukajärvi, the Soviet ships had been for all practical purposes had closed there and were unable to operate in any other parts of Baltic Sea. These large sea mine fields created and maintained by Finnish and German navies contained some 28,000 sea mines and mine clearing obstacles, closed all remaining surface ships of Soviet Baltic Sea Navy into furthest eastern part of Gulf of Finland. Especially with anti-submarine net build between Porkkala Peninsula (in Finland) and Naissaari Island (of Estonia) in 1943 they proved dangerous obstacle also to Soviet submarines. Suursaari Island guarded by Coastal Artillery Regiment 12 and closest German base, Tytärsaari Island, some 20 kilometers southeast of it, were the key points for guarding these mine fields, since coastal artillery placed on them and naval vessels operating from their harbors inhibited the Soviet Baltic Sea Navy from clearing routes through the massive mine fields. Closest Soviet base, located some 40-kilometers east of Suursaari Island, was Lavansaari Island. Which was also the foremost Soviet base on this area.

However guarding the mine fields was not the only task, for which Suursaari Island proved useful during the war. Due to its location it was also prime real estate for keeping track of movements of Soviet aircraft and submarines in eastern parts of Gulf of Finland. Year 1944 the Germans brought two radar stations to Suursaari – Thor and Marder, radars type of which Finnish military knew with better codenames Riitta and Maija. Thor (Riitta) was air-surveillance radar, while Marder (Maija) was used for spotting both surface ships and as air-surveillance radar. Both of these radars were operated by German crews, which served on Suursaari Island. Year 1943 Finnish Navy had also built the island a hydrophone station, which was able to spot sounds of nearby moving Soviet submarines.

PICTURE: Map showing Finnish and German minefields in Gulf of Finland in September 1944. CLICK THUMBNAIL TO SEE LARGER PIC (105 KB).

 

OPERATION TANNE

March of 1944 German military started making plans for the eventuality, that Finnish front might collapse resulting Finland falling to Soviet hands or that Finland might sue for separate peace and abandon the war. For these eventualities German military created Plan Birke (Plan Birch), which was operational plan for German retreat from Finland. This operational plan was designed to contain two operational plans of smaller scale, which were intended to capture certain strategically important Finnish islands and formed plans for military operation known with codename Operation Tanne (Operation Fir). The two parts of this operation were simply named Operation Tanne West (Operation Fir West) and Operation Tanne Ost (Operation Fir East). During Operation Birke German military would have to try shipping much of the troops and equipment from northern Finland to Germany, in this route Ahvenanmaa / Åland Islands with their Finnish coastal artillery forts might prove a tight spot to pass, so Tanne West was an operational plan for capturing these islands and temporarily keeping them at least until ships of Operation Birke would have passed them safely. Tanne Ost on the other hand was operational plan for capturing Suursaari Island in case that the Soviets would have succeeded getting it in their hands. However already the assumptions made for creating these operational plans contained misconceptions, which in time would undermine the reasoning behind whole operation.

The Germans completed creating plans for Operation Tanne by 31st of March 1944. At that time Finland was seeking possibility of starting peace negotiations with Soviet Union, but once the Soviets replied Finnish offer with terms that the Finns found impossibly harsh to accept, Finnish government rejected the offer. Preparing for the worst, the Germans had already started preparations for Operation Tanne. 9th of April Finnish rejection of Soviet offer changed the political situation, so the Germans cancelled the operation for now, but they decided to file the existing plans and keep updating them for possible later use. This updating process seems to have continued until final launching of the Operation Tanne Ost.

June of 1944 the trench war phase ended in Finnish – Soviet front as the Soviets launched their massive offensive. Finnish lines were crushed and for a few weeks survival of Finnish Army hang on the balance, until Soviet advance was stopped in battles of Tali-Ihantala, Viipurinlahti Gulf, Äyräpää-Vuosalmi, Nietjärvi and Ilomantsi. Stopping the Soviet advance Finnish military had succeeded buying time for peace negotiations, which were now re-started between Finland and Soviet Union. This time the peace talks were successful and Finland signed armistice treaty that ended Finnish – Soviet Continuation War ended 4th of September 1944. As the Germans had suspected this armistice treaty included several parts, which were to cause them serious problems. The most serious part of the treaty for them was the demand of German military to exit Finnish territory before 15th of September 1944 and that the Finns were required to intern all Germans still remaining in Finnish territory after that. This caused the Germans extreme haste as far as Operation Birke was concerned and also set Operation Tanne attached to it in motion.

In that situation the Germans had apt possibility of re-considering if operations Tanne Ost and Tanne West were still viable. They decided to forget Operation Tanne West since occupying demilitarized Ahvenanmaa/Åland Islands with their Swedish-speaking population and located so close to Stockholm would have created considerable political problems with Sweden. As it turned out Operation Tanne West would have been completely unnecessary anyway, since Finnish military allowed the German ships to pass Ahvenanmaa / Åland Islands without firing a shot. But as far as Operation Tanne Ost was concerned, German General Headquarters decided to go forward with it, even if the development of military situation was not exactly encouraging and changes of political situation were swiftly undermining the goals that the Germans had intended to achieve with this operation. September of 1944 the best edge of the German military was already long gone and in the eastern front they were now loosing far more battles than winning. By that time Soviet aviation had taken over air superiority in eastern part of Gulf of Finland and due to this German Navy was unable to operate there daytime without suffering heavy losses. In such situation German Navy would have absolutely needed harbors in northern Estonia for supplying troops placed on Suursaari Island, but the German ability to keep these harbours even for the next few weeks was already looking quite dubious. German Army Group Nord fighting in this area was having serious difficulties. The Soviets had succeeded breaching its lines around city of Narva in July of 1944, which had forced German troops to retreat into Tannenberg-line, against which the Soviets had launched unsuccessful attacks until 9th of August and we now preparing to launch next set of attacks.

The Finnish – Soviet armistice treaty provided the Soviets access to coastal shipping lanes of Finnish Navy, which allowed Soviet Baltic Sea Navy to neatly pass the mine fields, which the Germans still considered so important. In fact once Headquarters of German Navy issued an order for Operation Tanne West, their Chief-of-Staff for Admiral of the eastern Baltic Sea Commodore Forstmann reported that launching the operation was not advisable for these reasons, but commander of German Navy Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz decided to overrule his opinion. There is reason to suspect that early September 1944 German General Headquarters (OKW) overestimated the possibilities of Army Group Nord to keep its positions in Estonia. At that time new submarines under command of Admiral Dönitz were one of the very few effective weapons that the Germans could still hope to affect outcome of the war. Since southern parts of Baltic Sea contained training areas for the crews of these new submarines, for Admiral Dönitz keeping Soviet Baltic Navy off from them was a highest priority - one for which he was willing to take risks.

From military point of view German plans for Operation Tanne West were very well made with plenty of intelligence available. Close relations existing at that time between Finnish and German military and German military personnel serving in Suursaari Island had provided the Germans excellent possibility for gathering intelligence for this purpose. Finnish and German officers were often visiting each other, had discussions and even exchanged maps and defense plans. It is worth noting that both Colonel Mäder, who was intended commander of landing troops for Operation Tanne West and Korvetten-Käpitän Kieffer, who had originally been selected to command the naval units used for bringing the troops of Operation Tanne Ost to the islands, had both visited Suursaari Island in year 1944. Besides radar crews, the Germans had also radio station and liaison officer on Suursaari Island - bringing the total of permanent German military personnel there in late 1944 to some 26 - 27 men. Liaison officer Senior Lieutenant (Leutnant zur See) Wilhelm Müller, who arrived to the island in March of 1943, was regular guest in Lieutenant-Colonel Miettinen’s headquarters and presumably had photographed much of the Finnish defenses. As the German map later captured during the battle proved, well beforehand launching the operation German military had succeeded gathering detailed knowledge of Finnish units, fortifications, gun placements and the weapons in them. With all this detailed information the Germans had selected the best locations for landing their troops. The main landing area was to be harbor of Suurkylä Village and the beach north of it. The plan included also landing strong infantry unit to Selkäapajanniemi Cape in southwest part of the island and smaller unit to Vähäsomerikonlahti Bay, but only if the weather would allow landing troops to these two locations. If the landing operation would happen in poor weather, all troops were to be landed in Suurkylä harbor and beach north of it. Plan for Operation Tanne Ost included also further orders which after capturing the island called for immediate preparations for fighting a defensive battle against possible Soviet landing attempt. But even with their well-made and updated plans, the Germans would find that things had changed between April and September of 1944 and that their operation plan had failed to anticipate many of the surprises that they were about to face.

 

FORTIFIED ISLAND

As mentioned earlier, Suursaari Island had been re-captured by Finnish military in 27th – 28th of March 1942. After doing this Finnish Army started preparing for possible renewed Soviet attempt of invading it. Finnish troops started fortifying the island and also civilian workers were brought in for this purpose. The fortification work on Suursaari Island started already April of 1942 and continued until ending of Continuation War in 4th of September 1944. Early on there only 42 civilian workers had been brought there, but by summer of 1944 their total number had increased to over 400. Civilian workforce used for this was mostly Finnish civilians, but included also 27 Estonians, 100 Finnish civilian convicts working for company Suojarakenne Oy and even 33 interned Jewish refugees originating from variety of countries. Main problems for the civilian workers seem to have been isolation (regular ship connection to Kotka did not work during bad weather) and not always getting their wages in time. Convicts and interned refugees were housed in barracks surrounded by barbwire fences, but were otherwise treated as well as Finnish civilian workers. However the interned proved lacking work experience and physique suitable for construction work, so in 1943 they were transferred to Jokioinen, where they received less demanding work in agriculture. But before this happened nine of the interned Jewish refugees had been taken to mainland and eight of them became the unlucky, which were only Jews that Finland ever handed over to Germany. About half of the total civilian work force of about 400 men and women was evacuated to the Finnish mainland in early September of 1944. Rest of them found themselves in middle of battle in 15th of September 1944 and five of them perished in it.

Suursaari Island had existing pre-war road network, but its roads were narrow, in very poor shape and as mentioned pre-war civilian buildings had suffered extensive damage in previous battles. As the island had been demilitarized area before World War 2, it had no fortifications from that era. January – March 1942 the Soviets had built 15 bunkers made from longs, rocks and concrete, but during the battle of 27th - 28th March of 1942 Finnish troops had destroyed many of these. So there was not much to begin with, when the Finns started systematically fortifying the island in 1942. Transporting building materials to the island in the island also proved problematic, but the slowly progressing work bear fruit and September of 1944 Suursaari Island was quite well fortified.

Early on the priority had been given for making gun pits to numerous coastal- and antiaircraft-guns, improving of roads, repairing existing houses and building barracks, which were used as living quarters. These gun pits were typically mined into a solid rock and once most of them were strengthened with concrete, provided good shelter for artillery weapons. Along them also dugouts, machinegun-nests and trenches were built in various parts of the island. Later also search light shelters and antitank-gun nests were added. While early dug-outs had all been built from wooden logs and soil, later on some were apparently also build from concrete. By April 1943 completed fortifications included at least 33 gun-placements for coastal guns, 30 gun-positions for antitank- and antiaircraft-guns, 50 machinegun nests and 20 dugouts. Reasonably good road network had been created between the most important coastal batteries and other defenses. All beaches considered to be possible landing areas had barbwire-obstacles and the Soviets had already erected sharp poles to all large open areas suitable for airborne landing. The island itself had minefields containing over 4,300 landmines and its near waters had six sea mine obstacles containing 131 sea mines placed there for any unwanted ships trying approach the island otherwise than using approved routes. February 1944 order was issued to build additional eight gun placements, 12 positions for heavy mortars, 10 tunnels (most of them to be used as ammunition storages), 13 dugouts, trenches and obstacles - but building most of these was probably never completed, and possibly not even started.

PICTURE: Map showing northern part of Suursaari Island in better detail. This was the battlefield where the battle was fought in 15th of September of 1944. Suurskylä village was spreading north-west of the its harbour and large casino building in south-west side of the harbor. Kappelniemi Cape had a small cemetary. Village church marked with a cross had suffered extensive damage in earlier battles. CLICK THUMBNAIL TO SEE LARGER PIC (135 KB).

 

FINNISH TROOPS

The Finnish unit defending Suursaari Island was Coastal Artillery Regiment 12 (Rannikkotykistörykmentti 12, abbreviation RTR 12), which was commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Martti Miettinen. By Finnish scale of that time this was rather powerful coastal artillery regiment which had numerous modern coastal and anti-aircraft batteries and it had received further reinforcements in summer of 1944, but in last two weeks its firepower and manpower had been reduced considerably. According Finnish – Soviet armistice treaty Suursaari Island and the islands around them were to be handed over to the Soviets and Finnish Navy had already started preparations for this. So starting 4th of September 1944 weapons and men of heavy coastal artillery batteries had been evacuated to the mainland. That day the regiment still had 2,056 men, but by 14th of September their number had dropped to 1,712. These 1,712 men included 75 officers, 314 non-coms and 1,323 soldiers. However this reduction of manpower was not such a great loss, as had the loss of firepower in form of almost all coastal guns. Units evacuated from Suursaari Island to mainland in 4th – 14th September 1944 included:

Their evacuated weapons included two 152-mm coastal artillery batteries, 120-mm coastal artillery battery and 75-mm coastal artillery battery. Removal of all this artillery firepower left the island with only two 122-mm guns and small number of guns in 75-mm - 76-mm caliber-range. Luckily for the Finns nine 120-mm mortars belonging to Heavy Mortar Company were still in the island, since later they would play very large role.

Along artillery weapons evacuated were also all searchlights (which as the events show would have been highly useful if they had remained in the island), over half of the infantry heavy weapons and about half of infantry ammunition stockpile. Coastal defense company (torjuntakomppania) type units used for beach defense in case of enemy landing attempts, were still on the island, but had lost large part of their firepower when their heavy infantry weapons had been evacuated to the mainland. For evacuation work Finnish troops had also made holes to existing barbwire-obstacles and had dug up part of telephone cables belonging to the island’s field telephone network, whose cables had previously been dug underground. This field telephone network was the backbone of communications between Finnish units stationed in the island. But now parts of it had been dug up and even some of the cables had already been removed - which seriously compromised the whole telephone network.

One can only consider it rather tragicomic that while the Germans were preparing to launch their Operation Tanne Ost to Suursaari Island, Finnish troops defending the island were busy dismantling their defenses as fast as they could. This situation changed only absolutely in the last possible minute. Finnish military still assumed that the Germans would have no interest towards Suursaari Island anymore, since German – Soviet frontline in Estonia had already passed to west of the southern end of Seeigel mine field. But at the last minute Finnish Armed Forces General Headquarters started having suspicions concerning Soviet intensions. 11th of September 1944 Finnish Armed Forces GHQ sent Headquarters of Coastal Artillery Regiment 12 order to maintain defense capability due to delays in peace negotiations. Two days later the regiment received another order, which ordered it to make preparations in case the Soviets might not follow the armistice treaty and could try invading the country regardless the treaty, as they had done in Rumania.

Headquarters of Coastal Artillery Regiment 12 reacted to these two orders by launching series of actions intended to swiftly regain as much of the remaining defensive capability as possible. Infantry heavy weapons already evacuated to mainland included 40 medium machineguns and antitank-guns belonging to coastal defense companies. Lacking their heavy weaponry weapons these companies were left with only small arms and small number of medium machineguns to fight against possible enemy landing. With 40 medium machineguns evacuated to the mainland, only 24 medium machineguns remained in the island. For the purpose of trying to provide a quick fix in the situation 11th of September six old 47/40 Obuhov (47/40-O) light coastal guns were brought to the island and issued as replacement for some of the antitank-guns evacuated to mainland and return of previously evacuated medium machineguns was requested. German soldiers still in the island made snide remarks of these six pre World War One era 47-mm coastal guns – remarks they would later regret.

Those six 47/40 Obuhov coastal guns were issued to three units:

Composition of the small-arms armament in use of Coastal Artillery Regiment 12 was rather typical to Finnish coastal defense and coastal artillery formations of that time. The standard issue rifle for the regiment was Swedish 6.5-mm infantry rifle M/96, while its submachine guns were apparently 9-mm Suomi M/31, light machineguns 7.92-mm FN D and medium machineguns water-cooled German 7.92-mm Maxim M/08.

Since quickly replacing the evacuated heavy coastal guns was impossible, wooden decoy guns were built and placed their old guns placements. Another important action that regimental HQ did in those last three days was transferring artillery units still remaining in the island to such positions, that they best covered the most likely landing areas.

These last minute unit transfers within the island were:

During their intelligence gathering the Germans had tried to estimate the quality of soldiers serving in Coastal Artillery Regiment 12 to estimate how dangerous opponents they would in case of battle. They had ended up considering the regiments military discipline certainly being poor (by German standards), but were unable to agree how much affect this would have the actual fighting moral. Finnish officers serving in the regiment had noted the fighting moral good, even if the soldiers were sometimes bored or homesick due to the isolated nature of the island, which allowed only limited number of holidays on mainland. The regiment contained both Finnish- and Swedish-speaking units, but grand majority of these units had not seen any combat since year 1941. Much of the officers were capable, had served long in coastal artillery and knew each other beforehand before starting their service in this unit. Chief of staff for the regiment (and commander of Coastal Infantry Battalion 7) was Captain Esko Laaksonen, who was known as especially capable officer and was old friends of Lieutenant-Colonel Miettinen. Unlike in many units of Finnish Armed Forces, this regiment had maintained training program for its troops during its time in the island. Infantry training courses with duration of two months were organized for one company at the time, with each company-size unit being rotated through this training. Also additional forward observation courses were organized and artillery units had live fire training. During the time that the regiment spent in Suursaari Island, it also received new soldiers which often lacked any combat experience, but had already received basic military training before being sent to the regiment, which took care of their specialist training.

PICTURE: 75 K/17 field gun in Finnish use. This was the type of light field gun used by 201st Light Artillery Battery. (Photo property of Jaeger Platoon Website). CLICK THUMBNAIL TO SEE LARGER PIC (85 KB).

 

Units of Coastal Artillery Regiment 14th of September 1944:

- Regimental Headquarters (Lieutenant-Colonel Miettinen).

- Coastal Infantry Battalion 7 (Captain Esko Laaksonen).

- 201st Light Artillery Battery (Captain Vepsäläinen).

- 9th Motorised Heavy Artillery Battery (Lieutenant Pyysalo).

- 24th Light Artillery Battery (Lieutenant Osmo Ahjopalo).

- 34th Light Artillery Battery (Lieutenant Urho Kauppinen).

- 5th Light Coastal Anti-aircraft Battery (Lieutenant Kaarlo Nummilehto).

- 3rd Light Coastal Anti-aircraft Company (Ltn Mauno Rikkonen).

- Heavy Mortar Company (Ltn Päiviö Noronen)

- 7th Coastal Defense Company.

- 9th Coastal Defense Company (Lieutenant Hämäläinen).

- Transferred from nearby Someri Island just week ago, most of the personnel had no combat experience.

- 10th Coastal Defense Company.

- Training Company (Captain Veli Autio).

- 2 Engineer Platoons of 1st Coastal Engineer Company.

 

PICTURE: Map showing locations of Finnish troops in northern parts of Suursaari Island at the moment when the battle started. CLICK THUMBNAIL TO SEE LARGER PIC (197 KB).

 

Coastal Artillery Regiment 12 had organized defense of Suursaari Island as four sections (lohko), which each were responsible for defending certain part of the island. From north to south these sections were North Section (Pohjoislohko), Mountain Section (Vuorilohko), Middle Section (Keskilohko) and South Section (Etelälohko).

Manpower in each of these sections:

Section name:

Commanding officer:

Number of men:

North Section

Captain Väinö Arponen

340

Mountain Section (*)

Major Åke Sokajärvi

475

Middle Section

Captain Esko Laaksonen

295

South Section

Major Jukka Soini

416

(*) Does not include regimental HQ Company (of 184 men), which was directly under command of Regimental HQ instead of section commander.

Defensive plan of the island was such, that enemy landing to one of the defense sections would be limited into it if possible with help of defensive positions build within the island. In case enemy surrounding the island and succeeding to land in multiple locations, the four largest hills (Pohjoiskorkia, Mäkiinpäällys, Haukkavuori and Lounatkorkia) would be used as strong-points, to which the troops would concentrate their defense. In addition of troops defending each of four sections, the regiment had also prepared certain units to be used as reserves during a battle. But recent troop transfers from the island had compromised this plan. While originally Coastal Infantry Battalion 7 had been intended as main reserve of the regiment, parts of its troops were now tied into defending parts of the island. Hence these regimental reserves included:

In Mountain Section:

In Middle Section:

In South Section:

While this reserve was quite strong (577 men), as noted it consisted of rather small units who were dispersed in all other parts of the island, except the North Section. It is worth noting that from all units of the regiment 3rd Company of Coastal Infantry Battalion 7 was the only one with recent combat experience. In June of 1944 this company commanded by Captain of Cavalry (Ratsumestari) Dan von Weissenberg had been transferred to Viipurinlahti Gulf, where it had taken part in bloody battles of Tuppura and Teikari Islands, in which it had suffered heavy losses (24 KIA and 48 WIA out of 164 men). Many of the units of Coastal Artillery Regiment 12 had arrived to the island rather recently and were not yet familiar with the terrain. 9th Coastal Defense Company had arrived from Island of Someri just week ago, 24th Light Battery had arrived 22nd of August and 5th Light Coastal Anti-aircraft Artillery Battery 1st of July 1944.

PICTURE: Mannequin with typical equipment of Finnish Continuation War (1941 - 1944) era coastal troops soldier. This is the way that Finnish soldiers taking part to this battle were likely typically equipped. Swedish M/21 or M/26 helmet, Finnish M/36 summer tunic, Finnish M/36 uniform pants, standard issue leather boots, Swedish 6.5-mm Mauser M/96 rifle, Swedish M/96 bayonet with scabbard, Finnish M/30 leather belt, egg hand grenade, Finnish Army standard issue rucksack and breadbag. Ammunition pouches seem to be the version originally issued for "Terni-rifle". (Photo taken in Rannikkotykistömuseo). CLICK THUMBNAIL TO SEE LARGER PIC (109 KB).

 

GERMAN TROOPS

As mentioned already before launching the operation the Germans has some 26 men serving on Suursaari Island in their own radio station and radar station. After Finland signed the armistice treaty with Soviet Union, crew of the German radar station received order to demolish its radars and did as ordered - only to soon receive new set of orders cancelling the previous ones. Even with the radar station now permanently out of order due to being blown up by their own crew, the Germans would soon find other use for these men.

In operational plan of Tanne Ost, German Navy (Krigsmarine) had the mission of transporting the troops to island, landing them there and supporting the landing with their naval artillery. Originally when the plan had been made, the Germans had created separate brigade named Lehrbrigade Nord for this purpose. This brigade of about 2,000 men commanded by Colonel Mäder had also rehearsed the landing in Estonian coastline in terrain conditions resembling Suursaari Island. Since the operation had been cancelled first time in 9th of April 1944, readiness for it had been ordered again 21st of June - only to be cancelled again. With its chronic lack of manpower Army Group Nord could not keep brigade of this size waiting in the wings for the several months just because it was reserved for possible future operation. So, by September of 1944 Lehrbrigade Nord had been disbanded with its units dispersed into various parts of frontline, effectively making extracting them for the operation impossible. Responsibility of the Operation Tanne Ost was also transferred to German Navy in June of 1944. Hence when Operation Tanne West was set in motion with their meager reserves Army Group Nord, German Navy and German Air Force faces serious problems finding troops for it, which seems to have effected both to composition and quality of the troops now picked for it. Shortly said the units that they now selected for Operation Tanne Ost, were a strange mix for an operation that might require capturing an fortified island from determined enemy by force. At the same time these delays in finding troops resulted to leaving less time for preparations. The strange troop composition of German troops was presumably at least partly explained by the fact, that apparently they were not expecting serious resistance. Large reason for this misconception were apparently due to German liaison officer Senior Lieutenant (Leutnant zur See) Wilhelm Müller, who in his reports had repeatedly estimated that commander of Suursaari Island, Lieutenant-Colonel Miettinen, would hand over the island to the Germans without real resistance. Müller's reports went as far as to suggest possibility that Coastal Artillery Regiment 12 might even volunteer to German service in such situation. What actually had happened in discussions between Miettinen and Müller will never be known for certain. For his status as commander of Coastal Artillery Regiment 12 Miettinen was required to maintain friendly relations to number of German officers simply for maintaining good working relationship, so he had plenty of contact with them. Later Miettinen absolute denied to have ever made any such treasonous promises and after the war Müller denied, that he would have written the reports that still exist in German archives. Whatever had been discussed and reported, the Germans were apparently under the impression that capturing the island would be a cake-walk and chose to launch it with unit-composition, which would have been better suited for defensive operation than offensive one. The main embarking area for the operation was Tallinn, from where the German Navy would transport the units to Suursaari Island. Commodore Mecke had been selected to lead the operation and his direct superior for the operation was to be German Admiral of the eastern Baltic Sea, Rear-Admiral Burchardi, who had his Headquarters in Tallinn.

German troops picked for Operation Tanne Ost included:

While quality of German troops had already declined by 1944, the units of this mötley crew of 2,741 men were not of best quality even then. Infantry unit of Coastal Artillery Regiment 531 (M.A.A. 531) was well trained and experienced, but with its only 580 men, its seven companies were considerably understrength. Also parts of Infantry Regiment 68 (650 men) had combat experience, but the unit had just been re-created with much of its personnel transferred from supplies units. Coastal Artillery Battalions 533 and 629 would have been better suited for defensive operation. Luftwaffe-provided Anti-Aircraft Battalion had two light anti-aircraft batteries and light anti-aircraft battery. The two Engineer Boat Assault Companies had about 80 men.

For transporting these troops German Navy had gathered a small mixed fleet:

Captain (Korvetten-Käpitän) Emil Kieffer was leading this small fleet from mine sweeper M 15. 3rd Mine Search Flotilla had its biggest ships - three 600-ton M-class mine sweepers (Minensuchboot) and two smaller Flakjäger anti-aircraft ships. Both MFP-type transport ferries and AF-type artillery ferries were commanded by Captain Theo Sonnemann. 1st Mine Sweeping Flotilla had four R-class minesweepers (Minenräumboot). Additional ships included for example Estonian tugboat forced to take part the operation with its civilian crew and motor torpedo boat S67. The convenient cover for approaching the island was to be provided by the need for picking up 26 Germans stationed to the island and taking them off Finnish territorial waters by 15th of September.

Support assets allocated by the German Navy for this operation included 6th Destroyer Flotilla (3 destroyers and 2 torpedo boats) sent to western side of Suursaari Island with orders to provide fire support if necessary. In addition naval unit gathered around cruiser Prinz Eugen had been ordered to get ready for possible transfer to eastern parts of Gulf of Finland. German Air Force had promised, if necessary, to provide air support with two squadrons of ground attack aircraft and twelve fighter aircraft.

As part of the preparations also Separate Detachment Schönherr (215 men) had been transported to Tallinn, but not included to troops that embarked there for this operation. German plans after capturing of the island called for two motorized coastal batteries (170-mm coastal battery with four guns and 105-mm battery of three guns) to be stationed there, until they would be able to get their fixed coastal guns operational. Needless to say, this part of the plan was completely unrealistic considering the German situation in the larger scheme of things at that time.

 

COMMANDERS

Since the commanders to both sides played so important roles to this battle, few words of them are in order. Finnish commander Lieutenant-Colonel Martti J. Miettinen was coastal artillery officer with a long and highly successful career. He was 41 years old, strict, strong-willed and stubborn and sometimes even temperamental with streak of egoism. For a Finnish senior officer of 1940's he also had extensive language skills, which besides Finnish included also Swedish, German, French and Russian languages. As mentioned he had been a commander of Coastal Artillery Regiment 12 since it was created and due to this knew both the island and officers of this regiment very well. During Winter War he had been commander of Saarenpää coastal fort which had fought artillery duel against Soviet battleships Oktjabrskaja Revolutsija and Marat in December of 1939. In beginning of Continuation War he had served as commander of Coastal Infantry Battalion 2, which in 1941 captured number of island and capes near and in Viipurinlahti Gulf. So he had previous experience of leading troops in combat from both of these commands.

PICTURE: Lieutenant-Colonel Martti J. Miettinen. (SA-kuva photo archive, photo number 160397). CLICK THUMBNAIL TO SEE LARGER PIC (96 KB).

German commander Commodore (Käpitän zur See) Karl-Conrad Mecke was bit older, just few months shy of his 50th birthday. He was best known for his part in battle of raid of St. Nazaire in March of 1942 and had been awarded with Knights Cross of Iron Cross in April of 1943. Before becoming commander of Operation Tanne Ost his last command had been as chief of Anti-aircraft and Coastal Artillery School in Swinemünde. Originally he had been selected as commander of Operation Tanne West, but in September he was rapidly updated as commander of Tanne Ost, plans of which he was not familiar with. He arrived to Tallinn just four days before launching the operation, which left him very little time to learn all the details and make all necessary preparations. While the Germans apparently assumed that they could capture the island without a real battle, in case of resistance Mecke had been ordered to capture it by force, if necessary.

 

PART 2 of Suursaari Battle


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