In the warm predawn darkness of June 22, 1941, three million men waited along a front hundreds of miles long, stretching from the Baltic coast of Poland to the Balkans. Ahead of them in the darkness lay the Soviet Union, its border guarded by millions of Red Army troops echeloned deep throughout the huge spaces of Russia. This massive gathering of Wehrmacht soldiers from Adolf Hitler's Third Reich and his allied states - notably Hungary and Romania - stood poised to carry out Operation Barbarossa, Hitler's surprise attack against the country of his putative ally, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
Today, everyone remembers the most famous consequences of Hitler's choice, particularly the fighting at Leningrad and Stalingrad, but the invasion was so comprehensive that it also involved fighting in the barren lands near the Arctic Circle, bringing fierce combat to the taiga and tundra. In fact, Arctic combat occurred in both the Pacific and European theaters of the war, and in both cases the operations were related in some measure to external lines of supply to the USSR.
In the Pacific Theater, the Americans and Japanese met in the little-known but savagely contested Aleutian Islands campaign. During this campaign IJA troops invaded North American territory for the only time in the war, setting off a months-long struggle on the remote island chain and in the frigid seas around it, culminating in a desperate tundra banzai charge in the harsh subarctic landscape of the distant north.
Meanwhile, the Wehrmacht and the Red Army also met in the boreal pine forests, bogs, and tundra of Lapland and far northern Russia during the Barbarossa campaign of 1941. Fighting separately from the other Army Groups of the Third Reich, elite German Gebirgs (mountain) division soldiers and tough, resourceful Finns clashed with determined and experienced Red Army soldiers in the forbidding terrain east of Finland's border. This campaign bore the elegant operational tile of Silberfuchs, or "Silver Fox". Aiming for Murmansk, a key Soviet port, or at least to sever the rail lines connecting it to points south and east, the Germans found themselves contending with the rugged, unfamiliar landscape, tough Soviet resistance, and as all too frequently occurred, the half-baked strategic meddling of Adolf Hitler, Fuhrer of the Third Reich.
The Finns, for their part, had joined the Third Reich as military but not political allies to counterbalance the looming threat of the Soviet Union. The Soviets had already attacked Finland in late 1939 to early 1940, wresting the province of Karelia from their Scandinavian neighbor. Only the dauntless martial skill of the heavily outnumbered but indomitable Finns, coupled with Stalin's shift to securing his conquests in Poland, dissuaded the Soviets from attempting a full conquest of Finland.
The Finns participated in Operation Silver Fox, albeit as a separate, independent command. The menace of the Soviets still loomed on Finland's eastern border, and the Finnish people wanted to win Karelia back in any case. Accordingly, Finn and German fought side by side, though their divergent goals contributed to Silver Fox's failure, and the Finns later turned on the Nazis near the end of the war to help bolster their territorial claims ahead of V-E Day.
Operation Silver Fox: The History of Nazi Germany's Arctic Invasion of the Soviet Union During World War II chronicles one of the most unheralded aspects of Nazi Germany's invasion of the USSR.
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