The Continuation War was the second Finnish war with the Soviet Union during World War II, the first being the Winter War.
The Interwar Period
In December 1940 Risto Ryti became the president of the Republic of Finland after his predecessor Kyösti Kallio had fallen ill. Marshal Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim retained his position as the Commander in Chief. The new government faced the task of relocating over 400 000 people: these evacuees had to leave their homes in the areas ceded to the Soviet Union in the peace treaty that ended the Winter War in March 1940. These areas were also vital for Finland's production of grain, and with foreign trade obstructed due to the ongoing war, rationing became necessary.
The Soviet Union took part in Finnish internal politics and voiced its opinion on appointments in office. During 1940 the Baltic countries of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia were taken by the Soviets, causing additional concern for the Finns.
The country, in need of a friend, turned to Central Europe. The Allies had offered much sympathy but little actual help during the previous war. Germany, on the other hand, was faring very well in the war, having conquered France, and the two countries had established relations thanks to Germany's role in the Finnish Civil War. The Third Reich was interested in Finland as it was within striking distance of Leningrad, and could be used to cut off Murmansk, the primary Soviet harbour to the northern seas, from the rest of Russia.
In August 1940 Germany initiated arms trade with Finland and Germany's corps in Norway were given military access. In early June it was agreed that German forces could use Finland as a base of operations and that the northern Finnish forces would be under the direct command of Germany.
When Operation Barbarossa, the German attack on the Soviet Union, finally began on the 22nd of June 1941, Finland declared itself neutral. The SU declared likewise, but warned that it would act in defence should Finland allow German forces to operate in Finnish territory.
By this time, the Finnish-Russian border in the north was already crawling with the Wehrmacht and parts of the Kriegsmarine had arrived in the southwestern archipelago. Åland had also been militarised and the Finnish navy was mining the Soviet coastline. The final straw was when Luftwaffe planes made a bombing run on Leningrad and used Finland as a refueling station on their way back.
500 planes of the Soviet air force bombed fifteen Finnish population centres on the 25th of June 1941. The Continuation War had begun.
The Finnish Assault
Over the course of early 1941 the Soviet Union had reinforced its troops on the Finnish border, devoting seventeen divisions, approximately a tenth of its might, on the area. These forces, after the relatively failed campaign of 1939-1940, were better equipped, armed and trained.
The Finnish fighting force consisted of 475 000 men split in sixteen divisions. The army had no armoured units to speak of, save for the Soviet ones captured in the previous war, but trade with Germany had equipped them with the latest in infantry weapons, artillery and aeroplanes.
The first few weeks of the war were quiet, as the Finnish forces set themselves into a defensive formation along the eastern border. When the German offensive in the Baltic countries started in early July, the Red Army was forced to pull back forces from the Finnish theatre to fight the Wehrmacht in the southwest. This was the perfect opportunity for the Finns to strike. The goal was to recapture the areas lost in the Winter War.
The offensive was a resounding success, as the Soviet forces were pushed to the east. In a week the northern shores of the Lake Ladoga were in Finnish control, and after that the city of Sortavala fell. The assault came to a standstill as the German attack in the north couldn't keep up to the pace, but was continued in the last days of July.
On August 20th the battle for the Karelian Isthmus began. Ten days later the surrounded city of Vyborg fell, and after brutal fighting the Soviet forces finally withdrew behind the 1939 borderline. At that point, on the 9th of September 1941, the Finnish forces stopped the offensive, having achieved the object of "taking Karelia back".
On December 6th 1941 the United Kingdom and its closest allies declared war on Finland, but the western Allies never engaged Finnish forces. The same month the Finnish military command decided that it was in a suitable defensive position on the eastern front as the war raged on. The evacuees started to slowly return to their homes.
Brothers in Arms
All the way through 1941 the Soviet Union tried to persuade Finland to sign an armistice. The SU offered to return to the 1939 borders and that the Allied powers would guarantee Finland's independence and sovereignity. Germany forbade Finland from all negotiations. Finland saw Germany as a very powerful ally and feared what its reaction to a separate peace would be, and thus no peace talks were held.
Finland stated vehemently, however, that it was not allied with Germany and that the two countries were simply fighting a common enemy as brothers in arms, or co-belligerents. The Germans agreed to this, as they didn't quite know how an independent Finland would fit into their plans of a Germanic superstate.
Finland did defy Germany on one matter. Finnish forces were asked to assist the Germans in the assault and siege of Leningrad, but the request was refused as it would have damaged Finland's reputation severely in the west. So far, the Finns had merely taken back lost areas, save for Eastern Karelia which did have historical ties to Finland, and advancing on Leningrad would have completely sealed Finland's position as an aggressor.
In the Trenches
In early 1942, 100 000 of the eldest soldiers were allowed to return home and the Finnish forces prepared to keep the taken lands. The existing barricades and fortresses were not further fortified, as the troops concetrated more on carpentry, studying and other more civilian activities. While not wise from a strictly strategical point of view, it helped to keep up the will to fight. The period of trench warfare saw several large battles along the front, but no major breakthrough was made.
In 1943 the Soviets again approached Finland on the matter of a ceasefire. The German campaign was not doing as well as it had been, and as a result the conditions were much harsher than two years ago. The re-elected president Ryti and the Finnish government rejected them as unacceptable.
However, the inner circle of the government was already making plans to get Finland out of the war. Germany, like in 1941, warned Finland against such an act and threatened to cut off the vital supply of arms and supplies.
In February 1944 the Soviet air forces made a large bombing run on the capital city, Helsinki, to further force Finland to sign a peace treaty, but the effect of the raid was not significant thanks to effective interception and AAA.
The Soviet Counterattack
When the major Soviet assault finally began on the 9th of June 1944, the Finnish forces had had the opportunity to further stock up on German equipment. The tide of the war had turned against Germany, so its help was not expected, but thanks to intel the offensive was not a surprise. Its strength, however, was.
Soviet Russia pushed on the Karelian Isthmus against the Finnish lines with twenty-four divisions, over 600 tanks, large amounts of artillery and about one thousand aeroplanes. The Finns had roughly three divisions in the front and two divisions securing the line behind them. The inevitable breakthrough occurred on the 10th of June, but the Finns managed to keep their ranks together, pulling back and fighting.
In the Battle of Tali-Ihantala, northeast of Vyborg, an enormous concetration of Finnish troops faced the bulk of the Soviet assault. It was the largest battle in the history of Nordic countries. 50 000 Finnish soldiers, despite being outnumbered 3 to 1, emerged victorious, absorbing most of the power of the Soviet incursion. Nonetheless, ten days into the assault, the borders were back to the way they were in 1940. After the battles in Tali, Ihantala and Vuosalmi, the Soviet advance halted in August.
As the battles went on in Karelia, the German government approached president Ryti, demanding closer commitment to their joint war effort in exchange for more weapons and supplies. Ryti signed an alliance, but only strictly between Ryti himself and Germany due to pressure from Mannerheim.
The Cost of Peace
On the 4th of August 1944, with the battles on the front quieting down, president Ryti resigned from office, with Mannerheim stepping in his place. A new government was appointed and Germany was informed that the pact between it and Ryti no longer bound Finland, revealing what Mannerheim had had in mind. Peace talks were initiated, and on the 4th of September 1944, 800 hours, all Finnish combat operations ceased. The Red Army went on for another day. The tentative, temporary peace agreement was signed in Moscow, on the 19th of September.
Finland's obligations according to the armistice were the following:
Besides the areas ceded in the Winter War, Finland was to also cede the area of Petsamo, losing its connection to the northern seas. The area of Porkkala on the coast of the Baltic Sea, about 50 kilometres west of Helsinki, was ceded to Soviet control for fifty years, to be used as a military base. The area was returned to Finland in 1956.
Finland was also to reduce its standing army to a pre-wartime state, and acquiring nuclear weapons, submarines, bombers or other weapons of aggression was strictly forbidden.
Finland also agreed to disband all "Hitler-minded" political and military organizations, and organizations which practiced "an anti-Soviet agenda". Most of the Finnish commercial fleet was also given to the Soviet Union.
Financial reparations were set to 300 million US dollars in various industrial and agricultural products. The goods were to be delivered in a tight schedule in six years, but later the amount was cut by 10% and Finland was given two more years of time to make the payments. In the end, everything was paid by the last dime, and the Finnish reparations are to date one of the largest that have been paid in full.
Finland was also ordered to remove all citizens and military personnel of Germany from its territory. This resulted in the Lapland War.
Finland was to try its war criminals in a court. Finnish legislation did not have any law regarding the crimes the Finnish government had committed, but nonetheless several officials and officers, including former president Ryti, were sentenced to several years in prison. No death sentences were given. Mannerheim was not prosecuted and remained as the president until 1946.
A supervisory commission set by the Allied powers, formed of mainly Soviet members, oversaw that the conditions were met. It was appointed soon after the armistice was signed, and was disbanded when a permanent peace treaty took effect in 1947. The comission had no direct power, but exerted enormous influence on the government.
The Continuation War was seen by the Finns as a natural extension of the Winter War, hence the name. It was a war of aggression, and its goal was to correct the wrongdoing Finns felt they had suffered in an unprovoked war. While the Soviet Union fired the first shots in both wars, Finland's intentions were quite clear by the time the German forces were stationed on its soil. Finland's initial plans were those of defence, but over the interwar period they turned into an active attack strategy.
There are two theories in Finnish history research regarding the events that lead to the Continuation War. The other is called "the driftwood theory", while the other is "the rapids boat theory". According to the former, Finland was simply "a driftwood in the stream of history", unable to control the course it had to take. An alliance with Germany was the natural and only way for Finland to survive the war.
The rapids boat theory postulates that while Finland was stuck in the stream, heading in the same direction no matter what, it could use its paddles to avoid the largest rocks. Therefore, Finland did have a choice in some matters, and could have possibly avoided the second war with the Soviet Union altogether. Of course, such speculation will always remain just that, speculation.
Seppo Hannula: Muutosten maailma 4: Suomen historian käännekohtia
, printed in Jyväskylä, Finland, by WSOY, in 2003. (The World of Changes 4: Turning Points in the History of Finland, my lukio