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Old 29th December 2005, 04:13 PM   #1
LW
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The joys of accurate history books

I just finished reading a book by four Russian historians (V. Stepakov, S. Kononov, P. Petrov, and D. Frolov) about the partisan warfare between Finland and Soviet Union during WWII. I don't bother writing the title since it has been published only in Russian and Finnish.

The book is quite valuable source since it is one of the very few on the subject that uses old Soviet arhive data as its main source. In addition, there are some memoirs by old Soviet soldiers included.

The main problem with the book is that the Soviet data is often, how could I put it nicely, slightly unreliable. The reports by partisan detachments don't necessarily have much connection with Finnish reports about the operations. I'm not claiming that the Finnish versions are to be treated as Solid Truths, they contain their share of mistakes as well, but when the Partisan HQ of Karelian Front claims that the partisans killed 14,000 Finns and Germans during the war, there is something seriously wrong somewhere. (The total number of Finnish KIAs was 64,000 during the war in question and the great majority of them were artillery casualties. I don't know how many Germans died in Karelia but the number should be significantly less than the Finnish figure because there were much fewer of them participating in battles). A more realistic estimate would be around 1,000-2,000 killed.

One particularly telling example about Soviet reports is the report about destruction of the Petrovski Jam field hospital. The report tells reasonably accurately that a group of Finns (report claims 30, real figure is probably closer to 15) razed it to ground causing 28 Soviet KIA and 6 WIA.

The report makes a great deal about the beastly nature of the attack and claims that the hospital was clearly marked. I tend to agree with that part, if the Finns knowingly attacked the hospital, then I count it as a war crime (it is possible that the attackers didn't notice the hospital signs -- they attacked at night).

But there is one significant nugget of information that the report leaves out.

At no point do they mention that the Petrovski Jam field hospital was located in the middle of the Red Army Petrovski Jam supply depot. And while the 30 (or 15) Finns were attacking the hospital, five other groups (total of 100 men in the operation) were destroying the army barracks and supply stores. A total of 64 buildings were burned down that night. The hospital was only one of those. The total Soviet losses were counted in hundreds. (Finnish estimate was 500 men, I think this is probably too high).

But the other 63 destroyed buildings are not mentioned in the report. Only the hospital.

While the authors may be absolved from the errors that occur in their source material, there is no justification for their photo captioning: The book includes 17 Finnish photos where the captions claim that they depict either Finnish anti-partisan measures or Finnish sissi units that are operating in Soviet rear areas. It took me about 15 minutes to find 13 of them from Finnish books and I suspect that another 30 minutes would uncover the rest. And those finds confirmed what I already suspected: none of the pictures had anything to do with either partisans, anti-partisan operations or long-range recon patrols.

For random quantum fluctuation's sake, there was even a photo of an anti-tank rifle crew. Its caption stated: "Finnish ambush on a suspected partisan route". What on earth was the guy thinking who wrote that? It should have been clear for everybody involved that an ATR is not likely to be useful against enemy that is advancing through roadless wilderness of great forests and marshes. Numerous memoirs by Finnish soldiers who participated in those operations mention that the men grumbled already when they had to carry light machine guns through the forests, and they weighed less than 10 kg unloaded. The Lahti-Saloranta ATR that is in the photo weighed 49.5 kg empty -- nobody took them along unless there was a real possibility of facing Soviet armor, they were far too cumbersome for quick movement through forests. [In case someone wonders, the photo was actually taken during the Finnish advance towards the capital of Soviet Karelia, Petrozavosk.]
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Old 30th December 2005, 07:43 AM   #2
Garrette
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Indications that all history should be taken with at least one grain of salt.

And another reminder of why I should never debate you on WWII...

Interesting stuff, though. I think I've mentioned to you before how I've read up on the Winter War. My knowledge is not nearly so extensive as yours, though.
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Old 30th December 2005, 08:34 AM   #3
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Originally Posted by LW View Post
I don't bother writing the title since it has been published only in Russian and Finnish.

Please, patronize the others but be aware that Finnish, Russian, the language of the Qku! people and others are as familiar to me as Hindi and Ursqush.

The title please.
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Old 30th December 2005, 11:36 AM   #4
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Originally Posted by LW View Post
The book is quite valuable source since it is one of the very few on the subject that uses old Soviet arhive data as its main source.
Did you just contradict yourself?
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Old 2nd January 2006, 01:42 PM   #5
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Originally Posted by Giz View Post
Did you just contradict yourself?
Soviet archieves contain lots of important historic data. The problem is that is quality is very variable (this hold true for some extent to all archival data but Soviet sources are more extreme in this respect than most).

In the context of the book, the data about the Soviet "anti-diversant" operations against Finnish patrolmen seems to be mostly good. Particularly valuable are the orginal reports that solve the long-standing mystery of the "vanished patrol" of 13 Estonians who were paradropped near Archangelsk on August 31, 1942. That was the only long-range patrol mission organized by Finns with no survivors returning to Finland. It was long believed that the Soviets captured the Estonians almost immediately and persuaded the two radists to feed incorrect information back. The documents now show that it was not the case and the patrol managed to evade capture about two months. The first group of 6 men even managed to board the German Heinkel-115 that had come to pick them up but the plane was shot down on takeoff. The second half of the patrol was surprised on November 2 when they were sleeping without a guard in an isolated logger barracks.

On the other hand, the data about Soviet partisan operations contains both reliable and completely out of this world reports. For example, the reports by Captain Zurih, commander of the Krasnyi Partisan detachment ("Red Partisan") are about as reliable as possible. (The book contains only a couple of snippets but his complete report on the June 9 -- July 4, 1942 operation is published in another book that I have). Just about the only fault there is that he is a bit optimistic about inflicted casualties (using plural when talking about Finnish casualties on the skirmish on 18 June when only one Finn died and claiming "three certain KIAs" on the 22 June combat where a Finnish patrol ambushed the partisans when there were actually none (Soviet losses were 4 KIA and 5 WIA)). He even admits executing one captured Finn after interrogation.

One example from the far side that is included in the book is from Commander Alexandr Smirnov, the leader of Bolshevik Zapolarnia partisan detachment ("Polar Bolsheviks"). On July 4, 1943 his men made two attacks at Laanila where they ambushed a post bus and attacked an inn that housed men of a labor batallion [some men who couldn't serve in the army were drafted into civilian labor batallions who did tasks like road and airfield construction]. The casualties of the attacks were 6 dead (4 men, 2 women) and 14 wounded (5 men, 7 women, 2 children), all civilians. I don't fault the partisans for attacking the civilians in this case; they could reasonably expect the persons in the bus and in the inn to be soldiers. In fact, the very next car following the post bus belonged to German army and was driven by a soldier and one of the 19 passengers of the bus was a soldier.

But what is inexcusable is Smirnov's report on the attack: he claimed to have attacked a German military home for recuperating officers. He claimed that his men counted the dead after the attack and found 57 dead officers (42 German, 15 Finnish) and 89 dead enlisted men. In his memoirs he upped that to 58 officers and 97 men. In reality, the partisans didn't stay to count the dead but they retreated after firing from the forest for a couple of minutes. (This is the main reason why 15 of the passengers of the bus survived).

It seems that the main reason why some partisan units deliberately lied on their reports was that some high-ranking partisan leaders in the Belomorsk Partisan HQ didn't have a realistic view on what could be reasonably expected from the partisan detachments. They expected that the partisans would routinely attack and destroy Finnish and German military targets far beyond the front line. But that just wasn't possible: a force that is strong enough to do it can't reach its target undetected even through the vast Karelian forests.

In the first post I managed the successful Finnish attack on Petrovski Jam. That was actually the only really successful large-scale raid by Finnish long-range troops in the war. A couple of others were qualifed successes but the losses were greater than the benefits and after that the Finnish patrols were predominantly for recon with the orders to do "little mischief" where possible (ambushing road traffic, mining railways, and like).
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Old 2nd January 2006, 02:57 PM   #6
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Originally Posted by Ed View Post
The title please.
Partisaaneja, desantteja, sissejä rintaman molemmilla puolilla.
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Old 3rd January 2006, 02:19 AM   #7
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Originally Posted by LW View Post
The Lahti-Saloranta ATR that is in the photo weighed 49.5 kg empty [...]
At first I thought that was a typo. Then I looked the thing up.
It's a two and half meter long 20mm cannon! How many men did it take to haul that mother around?

Errrr, topic. Yeah, it's remarkable how the opening of the Soviet-era archives has shed some much needed light on many issues of second world war history, and resulted in some books which are significantly better than many produced during the Cold War, even though it was less long after WWII. Access to the Sov archives showed that the sniper duel between Vassily Zaitsev and top German sniper Koenig (or Thorvald, depending on whom you believe), which formed the climax of Enemy at the Gates, most likely never took place. For if it had, it is nigh on inexplicable that, at a time when "sniperism" was all the rage and the name of Zaitsev known throughout the Soviet Union, no mention of the duel can be found in the unit diaries of the 284th Division or 62nd Army.

But valuable as the Sov archive material is, I'm of the opinion that you don't want to rely on Russian historians to interpret the material for you. There's too much national pride involved there.
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Old 3rd January 2006, 12:30 PM   #8
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Originally Posted by Euromutt View Post
How many men did it take to haul that mother around?
This many:
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Old 3rd January 2006, 01:30 PM   #9
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Originally Posted by Euromutt View Post
But valuable as the Sov archive material is, I'm of the opinion that you don't want to rely on Russian historians to interpret the material for you. There's too much national pride involved there.
Well, that problem is not limited to Russians. It is quite natural for people to believe that the sources produced by their own country are inherently more reliable than those of the enemy.

In the case of Finnish military writers the blind spot seems to be undue trust in the enemy casualty estimates reported by the military units as well as a belief that in almost every combat Soviets suffered significantly heavier losses than Finns. It is quite rare to see a Finnish popular history author writing about a combat where an inferior number of Soviets inflicted heavy losses on Finns, especially the cases where Soviets were attacking.
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Old 4th January 2006, 11:12 AM   #10
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Originally Posted by LW View Post
Particularly valuable are the orginal reports that solve the long-standing mystery of the "vanished patrol" of 13 Estonians who were paradropped near Archangelsk on August 31, 1942. That was the only long-range patrol mission organized by Finns with no survivors returning to Finland.
Correcting myself: the only large patrol organized by the recon department of the general HQ. There were a couple of small patrols (2-3 men) early in the war where no one returned and there may have been destroyed patrols organized in divisional level.

BTW, when I earlier mentioned that there were numerous good Finnish photos about patrol warfare, I meant photos like this one that I attach to this post.

It was taken on on noon September 29, 1942 in the backyard of the laundry building of the Medvedozero ("Bear lake") field hospital. I don't know was the official Soviet designation for it, Medvedozero is the name of a small lake and adjacent village in Karelia (the lake is at the midpoint of
this map from Google maps.) The three men in the photo are sneaking towards a careless Soviet sentry. He stood about five meters behind the last clothesline.

The point man is Lieutenant Eino Penttilä, the commander of the long-range recon detachment of the Finnish 14th Division. He had already won the Mannerheim's Cross, the highest Finnish military decoration, and this photo gives good insight on how he got it: he is personally leading a capture operation in broad daylight in the HQ area of a Red Navy marine brigade, one kilometer away from an important supply road with heavy traffic. And about 30 km away as crow flies from the nearest Finnish outposts.

He is being covered by Staff Sergeant Toivo Korhonen and Lieutenant Martti G.A. Salonen. Korhonen later won his own Mannerheim's Cross as a platoon leader in the same detachment. Salonen, who was originally an artillery forward observer, was killed on another patrol about a year later. The photo was taken by a military reporter (can't remember his name) who had been allowed to tag along for a patrol. (This was against security regulations, of course).

What happened was that when Penttilä went under the last clothesline, a spare SMG clip that he carried on his belt hit something metallic making a sharp noise. This noise awoke the Soviet guard from his stupor and he reached for his rifle that he had hung from a branch. Penttilä ordered the guard to surrender but he instead grabbed the gun and loaded it so Penttilä had to shoot him.

Realizing that the two fired shots had revealed the presence of the patrol to Soviets, the six Finns made a hasty retreat to the cover of forest. There they made a rendezvous with the second half of the patrol and quickly moved to another area to escape from the extended hunt that resulted from the failed prisoner capture.
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Old 5th January 2006, 02:22 PM   #11
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I think the word “partisan” is being used in a different sense here than in most contexts. Usually, a partisan is a civilian fighter, a guerilla if you like. It’s apparent than on the Northern or Finnish Front the term was used to mean soldiers operating in enemy territory. On the larger Eastern Front (to use the term that’s become customary in the West), partisans were supposed to be heroic workers and peasants.

Stalin liked to hear how well this latter type of partisan was doing, especially since their real role in his eyes was political, not military: They were expected to maintain a Soviet presence in occupied territory. Claims of partisan effectiveness were exaggerated, partly in the usual wartime way (the first casualty is the truth), and partly – maybe mostly! – to please Stalin. (Dictators seldom get large helpings of the truth.) Not everyone kept two sets of records, and sometimes the inflated data became official, i.e., it’s now “history.” So it’s not surprising if similar exaggerations found their way into Russian reports (and memoirs) of the Karelian fighting.

I’m old enough to remember when you could buy surplus Lahti-Saloranta ATRs mail order in the U.S. I would love to watch somebody else fire one.
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Old 5th January 2006, 02:58 PM   #12
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Originally Posted by Euromutt View Post
At first I thought that was a typo. Then I looked the thing up.
It's a two and half meter long 20mm cannon! How many men did it take to haul that mother around?
As you can see, the Lahti 20mm had skis that allowed it to be dragged around when needed. The local gun show here usually has one on display every December.
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Old 8th January 2006, 01:05 PM   #13
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Originally Posted by sackett View Post
I think the word “partisan” is being used in a different sense here than in most contexts. Usually, a partisan is a civilian fighter, a guerilla if you like. It’s apparent than on the Northern or Finnish Front the term was used to mean soldiers operating in enemy territory. On the larger Eastern Front (to use the term that’s become customary in the West), partisans were supposed to be heroic workers and peasants.
It is not altogether different. The partisan units that served in Karelia were part of the general partisan organisation and they weren't integrated into Red Army. Their original manpower consisted mostly of volunteered civilians who came from areas that fell under Finnish or German control. Later they were reinforced by volunteer recruits who came from the Urals. [Or from Gulag: some of the units had up to 40% former convicts].

The essential difference is that their home bases were in areas under Soviet control. This was made necessary by the fact that the occupied Karelia simply could not provide secure bases: there weren't enough native population left to provide information and food and the enemy troop concentration was way too high for protracted operations. This means that the Karelian partisans had better equipment and training than partisans of other fronts.

Soviets tried to conduct traditional partisan warfare in Karelia in one occasion. In Summer 1942 they made the largest partisan operation of the war against Finland by sending a partisan brigade of 648 men and women behind Finnish lines with the orders establish a base there, to spend at least two months there distrupting traffic, and to detroy two Finnish Army Corps HQs. With hindsight we can see that this operation was doomed from start: Soviets simply didn't have resources to supply that large unit by airlifts. The brigade run out of food and had to turn back suffering heavy losses in four large combats. Soviet sources put the losses to 360-470 KIA and MIA. [The first figure is by G.N. Kuprjianov who certainly knew the correct figure since he was the third member of the Karelian Partisan War Soviet but he is not completely reliable in this case since he was partly responsible for the disasterous operation plan and had a motive to downplay the losses. The other extreme is computed from D. Gusarov's figures. Gusarov joined one of the partisan detachments a couple of months after the operation and he knew well many of the survivors of the operation and he also had access to the archives of the Karelian partisans. Gusarov gives exact losses for two of the six partisan detachments: Mstiteli ("Avengers") lost 93 men out of 96 (97%) and Boevye Druzja ("Comrades in Arms") lost 83 out of 103 (81%). Those two detachments had the heaviest losses.] The official Finnish casualty figures in the operation are 37 KIA, 81 WIA, and 1 MIA (Gusarov's book [1] reveals that the one MIA was actually shot in a combat), but these figures don't necessarily include casualties from all units that participated in the partisan hunt.

The loss of the partisan brigade finally convinced the partisan HQ that large-scale protracted operations behind Finnish lines were not possible and for the rest of the war they used 50-100 men units in operations that lasted several weeks.

[1] D. Gusarov, Za tsertoj miloserdija, 1977 (translated in Finnish as Korpi ei tunne armoa.

Last edited by LW; 8th January 2006 at 01:08 PM.
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