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The Battle of Tolvajärvi

12 December 1939

The first major Finnish victory in the Winter War

 

The Situation

The number of troops, committed by the Red Army to the few roads in the Ladoga-Karelia (north of Lake Ladoga), came as an unpleasant surprise to the Finnish high command, especially the ones in the so-called Suojärvi area. The terrain was very hostile during winter and maneuvering entire divisions along the scattered roads, in those conditions, was thought to be nearly impossible.

The strong Soviet attack by the 139th division (Commander: General Beljajev, nearly 20 000 men, some 45 tanks and around 150 guns), directed towards Tolvajärvi, was opposed by the Task Force Räsänen (Osasto Räsänen, hereafter Os. R), which consisted of Er.P 10, Er.P 112, 8./JR 37 and 9./KTR 13 (totaling about 4 000 men).

 

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The Finnish-Soviet border in the Suojärvi area 30 November 1939

Notes:

The 1st battalion of JR 34 was deployed off this map

The 8th company JR 37 was only on loan from the parent regiment, deployed near Lake Ladoga

The blue markings in Tolvajärvi and Kollaa shows where the Soviets were stopped in this direction.

The area between Lake Suojärvi and Lake Tolvajärvi, 30 Nov 1939

After the first few days, the threat against the flank of the Finnish 12th division forced the IV Corps to commit the PPP 7 to the Os.R on 2 December.
One of the battalions, the Er.P 112, was formed from the older age groups, and was inexperienced, weakly equipped and had received little training.

The counterattack on 3 December, ordered by the IV Corps HQ, and executed by the PPP 7 and one company from the Er.P 112, was unsuccessful (as an example of the psychological effect, of the battles, on the men of the Er.P 112, during December 4th, one company left it's positions four times without permission and was each time returned to the front). The Finnish units, simply couldn't hold positions for long, as the Soviet 139th division showed unusual initiative and adaptation to the terrain, executing flanking attacks on stronger Finnish positions and rolling through weak ones.

The Soviet regiments, supported by tanks, fought their way through the meager resistance, reaching Ristisalmi strait in the early hours of December 7th.
The Soviet attack, supported by tanks, across Ristisalmi, at 0340 hrs on 7 December, was repulsed. The thank goes to the support of the few Finnish field guns and the cracks in the ice, sawn in the previous night.
The second attack, at 1630 hrs succeeded, mainly as the cracks had frozen solid, enabling the Soviet tanks to give effective support.
The prize for the 139th division, the crossroad at Korpiselkä, offering good routes south, west and north, was lying within reach!

On December 6th, Mannerheim summoned Col. Paavo Talvela (a Jaeger of the famous 27th Prussian Jaeger Battalion and a veteran of the War of Independence), and ordered him to take command of the troops defending Ilomantsi and Tolvajärvi, forming the Group Talvela (the name was actually Task Force Talvela until 19 December, when the name was changed to Group Talvela, but to keep it simple, I'm calling it Group Talvela in the text).
The new Group Talvela was reinforced by the JR 16, commanded by Lt.Col A.Pajari, also a Jaeger and an able veteran of the War of Independence, and one artillery battalion.

Col. Talvela sent Pajari to stabilize the critical Tolvajärvi area, and in the evening on December 7th, Lt.Col Pajari arrived to Tolvajärvi and assumed the command of the units in the area. The name of the Task Force changed as the new commander arrived, and the troops defending Tolvajärvi were now part of Task Force Pajari (Os. P in the text and map).
The JR 16 was still on route to the area, arriving in the following days, the I/JR 16 arrived by trucks in the early hours o 8 December and was sent directly to the front, where it relieved the tired troops, who had fought, almost constantly, for over a week.
The I/JR 16 deployed to defend the Kivisalmi strait, but as it was also inexperienced, it had a problem with false rumors and nervous mistakes, and the first Soviet attack routed the whole battalion.

By 9 December, the situation was stabilized, although still critical, and Talvela decided to boost the dwindling moral and gain the initiative, by an attack on 11 December.
The preparations were not finished when, on the night between 10th and 11th, the Soviet JR 718 sent a battalion-sized force in a flanking maneuver around the northern end of Lake Hirvasjärvi, reaching the road running west to Korpiselkä. Lt.Col Pajari, who was returning to the front-line, mustered a mixed force 100 man strong (including cooks, HQ personnel, medics, clerks and artillerists) and with the help of elements from the front-line companies, sent the Soviet force back to the woods, leaving over 100 corpses. The Finns lost 20 men killed and 55 wounded.
Also, a flanking maneuver another battalion-sized force came around the southern tip of Kotisaari island, and attacked the 9./JR 16. The company launched a counterattack, which routed the Soviet attackers, leaving again over 100 corpses on the ice, while the Finnish company lost under 20 dead and wounded.
The stronger Soviet attack, across Tolvajärvi, was launched on December 11th (luckily after the flanking attacks had already been repulsed), but it was beaten back, leaving the ice covered with literally hundreds of corpses and many burning tank wrecks.

Although all Soviet attacks on December 10 and 11 were repelled, the Finnish troops (by now a total of 7 battalions and 4 batteries) had tired so badly, that Col. Talvela postponed the Finnish attack to the next day.

 

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The Plan

The objective of the attack was simple, encircle and destroy as many units of the 139th division as possible. As the strength favored the Soviets, the attack was planned to be a flanking attack from the north, sending a strong reconnaissance force from the south, leaving a strong reserve to exploit any success. A new task force was formed from two battalions, with the mission to attack across the northern end of Lake Hirvasjärvi. It was designated Task Force Malkamäki (Os. M in the map), and it was consisted of Er.P 9 and I/JR 16.

The plan of the main forces was as follows:
- II/JR 16 attacks along the road to the Hirvasharju tourist Hotel and across the Lake Hirvasjärvi
- III/JR 16 attacks on the right side of the 2nd battalion past the northern tip of Kotisaari island
- Er.P 112 attacks the southern end of Kotisaari, clears the island with it's main forces and sends a company to cut the road in Kivisalmi strait
- The reserve (Er.P 10, PPP 7 and 8./JR 37) is under the command of Major Paloheimo ready to continue the attack on any direction
- 1./Er.P 10 (located south of the map) sends a platoon to cut the road on the southern end of Lake Kuikkajärvi (its visible on the map as a Finnish maneuver arrow coming from the south )

The attack was to begin at 0800 hrs when Os.M would start the attack, and the bulk of the troops in Os. Pajari would launch their attacks after the attack by Os. M would bring results.
(For an unknown reason, Lt.Col Pajari had issued an order, during the night, to start the other attacks also at 0800 hrs)

 

As a coincidence, the Soviet 139th division had also planned to launch an attack with a strengthened regiment (JR 718), supported by the 1st and 2nd artillery battalions of the 354th artillery regiment, across lake Hirvasjärvi and near the road.
The JR 364 was to attack, from it's positions from the Kotisaari island, across Tolvajärvi, trying to get a foothold south of the Tolvajärvi village.

(The Finns found, after the battle, lots of plans and other documents from killed Soviet officers, and e.g. the whole archive of the Soviet 609th Rifle Regiment (JR 609) was captured. From the captured Soviet attack plans, one can assume that the 139th division was unaware of the Finnish JR 16, transported into the area, and was probably expecting to face the same 4 battalions, that had been involved in the battles in the previous two weeks.)

The Battle of Tolvajärvi

1) wooded area, includes all types of forest, heavy and light
2) marshy ground
3) rise or a hill
4) main road
5) secondary road / track
6) open area / cultivated field & buildings
7) the tourist hotel
8) Finnish defensive positions
9) Finnish maneuvers
10) Soviet defensive positions
11) Soviet maneuvers
12) Soviet rear area pocket / billeting area (containing supply formations, reserves, artillery etc.)
13) The Soviet 139th Rifle Division
14) The Soviet 364th Regiment
15) "Osasto Pajari" i.e. Task Force Pajari
16) Task Force Malkamäki
17) Finnish Reserves (Detachment Paloheimo)
18) 3rd battalion of the 16th Regiment (Finnish)
19) Separate Battalion 9
20) 7th Bicycle battalion
21) the 3rd company of the Separate Battalion 10

 

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The Battle begins

 

Task Force Malkamäki (Os. M)
"The northern pincer"

 

The battle had a poor start. The Os. M, was delayed by a orientation mistake, and could start it's advance at 0845 hrs. The Er.P 9, led by Capt. K.Turkka, reached the eastern shore of Lake Hirvasjärvi, continued to advance towards Hirvasvaara hill. The battalion met strong Soviet resistance near Hirvasvaara, and was stopped.
The I/JR 16, led by Capt. U.Herranen, was advancing north from Er.P 9. Elements from the battalion was engaged in a fight with a strong Soviet detachment, on the western side of Lake Hirvasjärvi (probably with a mission to penetrate into the Finnish rear area, again) while the rest of the battalion crossed the Lake Hirvasjärvi It met almost immediately elements of the Soviet JR 718, preparing for their own attack.

Now the both Finnish battalions were engaged in a fight with a stronger enemy force. The ferocious fight broke the cohesion of the battalions on both sides, and the fight turned into firefights between small detachments. By noon, Major Malkamäki gave the order to withdraw, and most of the Finnish companies retreated to the NW, around the upper end of lake Hirvasjärvi.
Not all Finnish units retreated. A company sized force, which was engaged near Hirvasvaara, fought on. The small Finnish detachment tied down a relatively strong Soviet force, preventing the JR 718 to send strong reinforcements to the south.

Although the attack of the Task Force Malkamäki (Os. M) was a failure, it disrupted the JR 718 so much, that the planned attack (Finns became aware of that from captured documents) was not executed.

 


Task Force Pajari (Os. P)
"The southern pincer"

 

The Er.P 112, led by Capt. A.Kanerva, was deployed on the extreme right (without the 3rd company, which was deployed to defend the Tolvajärvi village), and was supported by heavy machine guns, and a few artillery pieces. The battalion started it's attack on the southern end of Kotisaari island, at 0800 hrs, and gained a foothold on the island. The 1st company continued the attack towards the northern end of the island and the 2nd company crossed the eastern part of Lake Tolvajärvi, trying to cut the road south of Kivisalmi.

Shortly after the 1st company had reached the northern tip of Kotisaari island, around noon, a strong Soviet counterattack threw the Finnish company back to the southern end. The 2nd company had almost reached the road, when a Soviet counterattack forced the Finns to withdraw to the southern end of Kotisaari island.
While the Er.P 112 was preparing a new attack, decided Lt.Col Pajari to strengthen it by two companies from the III/JR 16, deployed for defense near the Tolvajärvi village, and so the strengthened Er.P 112 (4 companies), drove the elements of the Soviet JR 364 off the island after a series of vicious fights, capturing lots of infantry weapons and two field gun batteries.

(The Er.P 112, which had in the first days of the war displayed only little courage, fought now with dedication, and without any sign of cowardice ).

 

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"The center"

 

The II/JR 16, Capt. H.Laakso as the commander, was assigned to launch the attack across the Hevossalmi strait, and to the tourist Hotel.

Some mistakes had been done in the timetable calculations, and while the battalion was ready at the ordered time, the artillery support was still moving into positions. While still waiting, the Soviet JR 609 launched an attack, which was repelled with the timely help of the Finnish artillery now ready in position.

The artillery support proved to be extremely weak, and the few shells fired didn't provide any visible results. The attack got underway around 1000 hrs, faced with heavy defensive fire.
The Finnish battalion attacked with two companies abreast, 2nd company on the southern side and the 6th company on the northern side.

From the platoon, spearheading the attack, only 8 men reached the eastern side of Hevossalmi strait, but the determined assault forced the nearest Soviet defenders to retreat. The companies went through this gap into the Soviet defenses, and started their advance to the tourist hotel.

 

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A photo of the tourist hotel
Picture source: "Talvisodan Historia 3", p.152

The hectic battle continued as the Finnish companies had lost cohesion, and were fighting in small units.
They slowly advanced towards the hotel, which had been turned into a little fortress bristling with mg's and lmg's (wouldn't have been a problem if the Finns had had any air support or medium sized artillery), offering good protection to the men inside (the two story building was atop a 18 meters high hill, the bottom story had granite walls, and the second massive logs, and when the windows had been sandbagged and the walls loopholed, it truly was an impressive defensive position).

Around noon, Capt. Laakso reported to Lt.Col Pajari, that the attack had lost it's momentum, and the casualties were rising.

Lt.Col Pajari, had a difficult choice to make. The situations on the flanks were unclear at best (runners were practically the only way to communicate!), and from the few bits of information, the situation in the north was reported as bad, and in the south alarming.
The original plan suggested that the reserves should've been sent to the north (at this point with the mission to neutralize the threat of a new Soviet flanking attack), but since the only place where some success had been gained was in the center, Pajari decided to commit his reserves there.

 

The 3./Er.P 10 was sent to strengthen the attack, by the southern side of the road. This was enough to give the Finns enough strength to continue the attack, and the battle near the hotel resumed at around 1330 hrs.
Pajari decided to commit more troops, and sent the 2./Er.P 10 eventually followed by the PPP 7, decided the battle of the hotel. The hotel was brought under fire from three directions, and after a very vicious fight (one proposal of torching the place was denied, and the hotel had to be taken with a conventional assault), in where commander of the 3./Er.P 10 Lt. Haapokari was killed and another company leader wounded, the tourist hotel was finally taken.

After the PPP 7 came, the battle continued, and by nightfall, the Finns had taken the whole peninsula under control.(This was greatly assisted by the Er.P 112 preventing Soviet reinforcements to cross the Kivisalmi strait). This cut the supply lines of the Soviet JR 718, which retreated east, through the woods.
The Finns had now 3 battalions in a relatively small area, and it's still uncertain why the Red Air Force or the Soviet artillery didn't bombard them.

The platoon sized patrol, sent by the 1./Er.P 10 (the company was located on the southern end of Lake Ylä-Tolvajärvi, some 5 km south of the road) made a successful ambush near the given area and withdrew after completing it's mission.

In the evening, almost all Finnish units withdrew to their tents, around Tolvajärvi village, and the PPP 7 was left to defend the Kivisalmi strait and the area in the vicinity, some small elements from the Er.P 10 were located north, and the 1./Er.P 9 (which was rallied after the Hirvasvaara battle) defended Kotisaari island.

 

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The results

The victory was the first "big" Finnish victory in Winter War. The importance as a morale booster can't be underestimated. The threat of a Soviet division getting behind the IV Corps was neutralized, and the Soviet 139th division was hit hard.

The losses of the 139th division were, at least over a thousand dead (bodycount, with a unknown number of Soviet soldiers perished in the woods), hundreds of rifles, over 60 mg's, two artillery batteries, AT-guns and some 20 tanks.

The Finnish losses were also relatively high, as the number of wounded was almost 200.

But after a one day pause, the Task Force Pajari resumed the active role, and remained on the offensive. In the next following days, contact were made with the elements of a fresh Soviet division, the 75th division, which had arrived to assist the 139th division.

The Finnish advance from Tolvajärvi to River Aittojoki

 

Between December 20th and 22nd, the Battle of Lake Ägläjärvi (some 20 km east of Tolvajärvi) was fought, where most of the 139th division was destroyed. The Finns continued to push the two Soviet divisions further east, and by December 24th, Task Force Pajari reached the River Aittojoki (some 30 km east of Tolvajärvi) where it deployed on defense and held it's positions until the war ended.

 


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