The Northern Flank D+8 (17 July, 1987) Part I

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The Soviet 54th Motor Rifle Division’s advance into Finnish Lapland was contending with many of the same problems that its sister division dealt with when it crossed into Norwegian territory earlier in the war. The terrain in the area of Lapland where Soviet motor rifle troops were on the move was low. The fact that it was summer meant water usually frozen in the winter months was now liquefied. Off-road trafficability was severely restricted. The number of paved roads linking towns in Lapland was low. The ones that were in place were mainly narrow, two lane roads built to accommodate sparse civilian traffic, not heavy trucks, and armored vehicles in large numbers.

Then there was the near-constant harassment by Finnish jaegers. In the weeks leading up to the outbreak of war when global tensions were soaring, Finland’s military prepared Lapland for possible hostilities. Barricades were established on the roads most likely to be used by Soviet forces in the event of war. Bunkers were built, mines laid, and ambush sites established. From the minute the advance guard of the 54th MRD crossed into Finland it began encountering jaegers and their prepared traps. As more of the division snaked its way into Finnish territory more attacks occurred.

These harassment raids, and obstructions continued to agitate and delay the Soviet motor-rifle troops through much of D+8. The 54th MRD was 20 kilometers behind schedule by the afternoon. Even with attack helicopters and fixed-wing air support backing it up no significant headway was made. The Finnish troops were making their presence felt already, and the main line of resistance was still thirty to forty kilometers ahead. Within the Soviet ranks, some soldiers were beginning to remember stories from their grandfathers about the hardships endured by them and their fellow troops during the Winter War. To a man, they wondered if history was starting to repeat itself now, seasons notwithstanding.

Even though the Soviets had a distinct advantage in the air, control of the airspace above Lapland was nowhere near complete. With the main Finnish airbase in the region out of action for the time being, Finnish Drakens continued to operate from reinforced roadways around Lapland. More than once throughout the day, Drakens made their presence felt at the most inopportune times, breaking up Soviet air formations and bouncing Su-24 Fencers inbound to provide close air support for troops on the ground. The Finns were relying on the stream of spare aircraft coming in from Sweden. When this pipeline inexplicably closed off in the late afternoon, the Finnish Air Force made the decision not to commit any further aircraft to the north until the political situation resolved itself.

Helsinki and the southern half of Finland were quiet on D+8. The Soviets did not make further attacks on military targets in the south and informed the Finnish government it would not do so unless additional Finnish ground forces were seen moving north to reinforce Lapland. With Swedish assistance inexplicably paused at the moment, Finnish President Mauno Koivisto was reluctant to invite more Soviet attacks against his country. The order was sent out to halt reinforcements from going north until Stockholm’s intentions could be determined.

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