Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
3 Dec. 2021
Review by James R. Smither, Grand Valley State University
Arctic Front: The Advance of Mountain Corps Norway on Murmansk, 1941
By Wilhelm Hess
Trans. Linden Lyons. Havertown, PA: Casemate, 2021. Pp. xxviii, 212. ISBN 978–1–61200–972–8.
Descriptors: Volume 2021, 20th Century, World War II, Arctic Front Print Version

Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union that begin in June 1941, was launched along a front stretching from the Black Sea to the Arctic Ocean. The northernmost thrust targeted the port of Murmansk, the principal destination of Allied convoys bringing essential supplies to the Soviet Union. The campaign was relatively small in scale and ended in failure, and consequently has received little attention from historians. Arctic Front, originally published in German in 1956 and now very ably translated by Linden Lyons, is a welcome addition to the literature on Barbarossa in English, as well as a useful corrective to assumptions about German military superiority in 1941.

Wilhelm Hess served in the German army as chief quartermaster for Mountain Corps Norway, the unit that conducted the Murmansk campaign, and remained in similar posts among the different German forces stationed in the Arctic through 1944, making him a particularly well-informed witness, especially with regard to the logistical nightmares of campaigning in that region. He worked closely with the corps commander, Gen. Eduard Dietl, sat in on many high-level meetings, and witnessed much of what he reports on, while also making extensive use of German records of the campaigns and recollections of their participants.

The campaign itself, launched in conjunction with the rest of the offensive in late June, made limited progress initially and soon bogged down due to a lack of manpower and firepower, difficult terrain, and stubborn Soviet resistance. The combination of soggy tundra and taiga, interspersed with rivers and steep, rocky hills, all largely devoid of usable roads and bridges, forced the Germans to fight on foot; their inability to amass sufficient air and artillery support so far north further hindered their attacks. Unlike most other sectors of the front, here the Soviets enjoyed air and naval superiority, superior numbers, and better logistical systems. The attacking Germans, especially the combat soldiers in the 2nd and 3rd Mountain Divisions, the bulk of the attacking force, were better trained and disciplined than their opponents at the outset, but even these men, many of them Austrians, were unused to the Arctic climate. Conventional units sent to reinforce them were even less well adapted, and had difficulty even holding positions, let alone attacking. In the fall, Soviet counterattacks pushed the Germans back nearly to their starting positions in Finland, and things remained stalemated until the Finnish withdrawal from the war in late 1944.

Hess views the offensive as overly ambitions with unattainable goals, given its available resources. Most of its planners did not understand the situation, and those who did, including General Dietl, were ill-informed about the terrain and enemy forces facing them.

Hour after hour, it was hoped that the road to Motovsky could be reached. In the late morning, our ground and aerial reconnaissance had to report that there existed neither a road to Motovsky nor a road linking Motovsky with Zapadaya Litsa. Given the fact that weather had cleared by this time, we could regard these observations as accurate. A Lapp trail was the only thing that seemed to lead to Motovsky. We had once again misinterpreted the maps available to us. The main problem for the German map analysts was that the broken double lines so frequently marked on Scandinavian maps indicated not just roads, as would be the case with central European maps, but also winter trails. Despite the fact that the mountain corps had suspected the worst, it had nevertheless, perhaps for the sake of wanting to be able to exploit any ideal situation, held on to the hope that the roads actually existed. (58)

This sort of optimism extended to the highest levels of command. Hess reports on a meeting between Dietl and Hitler's representatives, generals Walter Warlimont and Alfred Jodl. The latter seemed unconcerned by Dietl's cautions, and simply ordered attacks to continue without providing the necessary resources.

The actual fighting during the campaign was at times bloody and intense, but the actions themselves were often quite small, with a few hundred men engaged on each side. Hess describes these engagements effectively, but his real insights have more to do with logistics. He explains at length the challenges of transporting men and various supplies and equipment from Germany to the Arctic sector via ports in Norway or Finnish railheads up to the front. These involved everything from mules to snowblowers to a cable car system originally used in the Austrian Alps that had been dismantled and shipped to Finland as a means of moving men and supplies without having to slog through snow and mud. Hess takes some pride in presenting the Germans doing the best they could with the resources at hand, but harbors no illusions that their ingenuity alone would enable them to take Murmansk.

While this translation of Hess's work is a welcome addition to the Anglophone literature on Barbarossa, it has its limitations. He scrupulously avoids discussing Nazi ideology and policies, and skirts around issues relating to the mistreatment of civilians, especially in Norway, where he acknowledges the presence of a resistance movement. He concentrates on narrowly military issues or matters relating to German cooperation with the Finns. Writing in West Germany in 1956, he also lacked access to Soviet documents or sources, and had to cover the Soviet side of the campaign using what could be gleaned from German intelligence reports. Given that this sector was one of the few where the Soviets were successful early on, we may hope that at some point someone will use Soviet records to fill in the rest of the story.

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