The Eastern Front remained a huge battle area, still over a thousand miles long from Finland down to the Black Sea, where the Crimea had just been liberated. Soviet forces had made good progress through the Ukraine and were on the point of moving into Poland. Yet elsewhere along the line conditions remained largely static.
In the far north Finland remained allied to Nazi Germany. The front was beginning to move as the Soviets pushed back against the territory that the Finns had recovered from them in 1941, following the Winter War, when the Finns had been assisted by the British.
Here in the forests of the north a bitter contest was being played out. For German troops, drafted in to reinforce the Finns, it was a different type of warfare, one that they had to swiftly adjust to:
The Finnish Cornet spoke with great frankness.
‘You have no idea,’ he said, and he became even more outspoken as he helped himself to the brandy which we had brought him. ‘You have no idea what you have let yourselves in for up here. You people are trained for fighting from concrete bunkers and are quite useless in this murder in the woods. You’ll see.’ And we did see.
The patrol stood ready to move off. We stared into the vast forest in front of us. Somewhere in this forest Captain Bern and his men were lying, either dead and finished, or at any rate in a pretty hopeless position, surrounded by the Ivans.
We were a forlorn hope – that was certain, everything else was uncertain. The lieutenant was very calm. And very calmly he explained the position to us. ‘We shall advance through the wood in wedge-shaped formation,’ he said slowly as if weighing each word. ‘I shall walk in front with Meier, machine-gun at the hip. You will follow at about five-yard intervals, covering the left and right. Ammunition carriers in the centre.
As soon as we meet Ivan, we charge. Machineguns to fire from the hip. We will take no notice of what happens to the left or right. We go on storming through the wood until we meet our own people. If I should drop out, Zech will take command, and if he falls, Brugmann. In that case, I shall be left lying. This applies to everyone. We can’t worry about the dead or wounded. I must tell you this quite frankly. And there is another thing: anyone who does not follow or keep up with us will be shot in accordance with military law. That is a promise. Now, let’s go.’
Not a very rosy prospect.
In open formation we started traversing the wood. We did not have to wait long, for after covering barely three hundred yards we were fired on. Close to me, Lieutenant Schleiermacher shouted, ‘Get ready to charge!’
As we ran forward we noticed large figures climbing out of their holes who had so far been hidden by the dense undergrowth. Flames shot from all our muzzles. Thus, less than ten minutes after falling in, we were in close combat with the Russians; it was the first time we had got so near to them.
I wish to God I could describe what it was like. I felt as if I were enveloped in a great heat from head to foot; I heard myself shout and scream; I pointed my machine-pistol towards the enemy and felt it tremble under the bursts of fire. Then a huge man appeared in front of me; he appeared as suddenly as if he had grown out of the earth. I held the machine-pistol against his belly, I shouted at the top of my voice, and as miraculously as he had risen, the man fell down again.
Of course we were lost. The wood teemed with gigantic strange figures. And then, as if in a dream, I saw, some fifty yards ahead, some newly thrown-up heaps of earth and heard the unmistakable hammering of a German machine-gun. We had made it! We had reached Captain Bern. And now everyone was shouting, ‘Our own troops . . . own troops.’
As if by magic, the enemy disappeared again. Instead, a thin lieutenant stood up in front of me, shouted something; I stumbled forward and fell round his neck.
We were completely out of breath. We sank into the gun pits and gasped. I was still burning with heat from head to foot, and I shook and trembled all over: suddenly I sobbed.
This account was published by an anonymous German in 1952 as ‘Einen Bessern Findst du Nicht’ Kindler Vertag. This translation appeared in Desmond Flowers (ed): The War, 1939-1945.
These photographs all come from the Finnish Wartime Photograph Archive, where thousands of images are available to view online.