Review: Tornio ’44

The sheer scope of the Second World War means that there is a vast number of less-known operations. Amongst these, the amphibious landing and following battle between the Finnish and German forces in the Tornio area in the autumn of 1944 is amongst the most obscure. The battle was the single most important part of the so called Lapland War, during which Finnish forces drove out the German units from Finnish territory in accordance with the requirements of the Finnish-Soviet armistice signed during the late summer of that year.

The iconic picture of two Finnish soldiers with their Panzerschreck along the Kemi-Tornio road. Source: SA-Kuva

The battle wasn’t particularly large, none of the individual skirmishes it was made up of numbered more than a few battalions, and was characterised by poor intelligence, a lack of communication, and the general confusion which followed these. The close proximity to the (neutral) Swedish border and the fact that the two sides up until recently had been brothers in arms and good friends also added to the flavour.

A Finnish-Swedish company called Mikugames has created a boardgame to represent the battle. The hex-and-counter style game covers the whole battle from 1 to 8 of October, with the map stretching from Ajos up to Ylivojakkala. The counters are company-sized units, the being printed on both sides, with the second side representing the unit at half-strength.

At first glance, the game looks like your standard run-of-the-mill wargame, with attack factors being summed and ratios being compared, before the dice resolve the outcome. Upon closer inspection it becomes clear that this is only partly correct, and that the game in fact feature a number of novel approaches to capture the unique nature of the Tornio campaign. While ‘flavour’ has a tendency to mean ‘complexity’ in many wargames, in Tornio ’44 the opposite is in fact true, and they instead make the game highly suitable for beginners. This is mainly due to two factors: the pace at which the battle develops, and the fact that this was almost exclusively an infantry affair.

A German counterattack from the direction of Kemi has managed to recapture parts of Tornio, including the vital supply depot in ‘Little Berlin’. Visible is the sole German tank company, 2. Panzer-Abteilung 211.

When the battle kicks off, very few units are actually on the map, meaning that the first few turns are rather straightforward and let the players build confidence and become familiar with the sequence of play. After this, the scope of the game gradually increases as more Finnish reinforcements are landed and the German command dispatches more units to the area.

The gameplay itself boil down to a few simple mechanics. Each unit is either motorised or not, which affect the cost of it moving through different kinds of terrain. For the combat value, each unit has an attack and a defence value, reflecting that defence is usually stronger than attack. For the supporting units (i.e. artillery and mortars), they instead get a range and support value (representing how hard they hit), as well as a close-defence value, representing how good they are at defending themselves if they get attacked. While all units are correct according to the historical order of battle, you don’t have to worry about whether you are commanding a Waffen-SS mountain company, a bunch of Finnish light tanks, or a second-rate Ersatz unit if you don’t like. For practical purposes, the only differences actually making a difference is their different mobility and combat values. The few exceptions to this rule are the special abilities of engineers to support river crossings (and blow bridges in the case of the Germans), as well as some simple optional rules dealing with antitank and antiaircraft units.

The engineers of the Gebirgsjäger-Brigade 139’s 17. company tries to blow the large combined rail and road bridge over the Kemijoki river.

Where the game really shines is in the asymmetric nature of the fighting. To reflect the differing goals of the Finnish and German forces, a single point-track is used, where the Finnish player score their victory points, and the German player tries to subtract the Finnish points. The Finnish player gains their points by capturing key areas, inflicting losses to the Germans (preferably after encircling them in a motti), and for any Finnish units exiting the map along the roads heading north. Reversely, the German player subtracts points by recapturing objectives, destroying the bridges over Torniojoki and Kemijoki rivers (with more points being awarded the longer they can wait before blowing the charges), and for any units exiting the board northward during the last two turns.

This creates a set of extremely interesting tactical dilemmas. How long will the German player try and maintain control of the Kemijoki bridge before retreating northwards? The German player will initially have more troops on the board, with the initiative slowly transferring to the Finnish player, so trying to score a few early victories might be tempting. However, as all German losses are scored, being overly aggressive will soon come back to haunt the point-track. The Finnish player in turn has a major choice in deciding whether the troops will land in Kemi (as per the original plan), on Ajos, or at Röyttä south of Tornio (where the landing historically happened). Of these, Kemi is the most centrally located, followed by Ajos, and then Röyttä. This is turn influences how quickly the German command in Lapland reacts to the threat, with the German forces arriving significantly faster if the first two landing spots are used. The Finnish player can thereby determine the pace of the game by controlling the alert level. This can also be changed mid-game, by diverting some of the later waves of Finnish landings to a landing spot with a higher alert level.

Finnish troops in the Kemi skijumping hill watches helplessly as the German troops blow the Kemijoki bridge in the distance, creating an impressive pillar of smoke. Source: SA-kuva

These differing objectives and the steady stream of troops trickling in from different corners of the battlefield create a surprisingly gripping game. There never seem to be quite enough troops to make that last decisive move, and reinforcements can suddenly alter the force balance on a certain part of the battlefield, while a sudden change in weather might delay the Finnish reinforcements for a crucial turn.

The largest single issue I have with the game is probably that in some places the wording of the manual isn’t completely clear, with key words being used before they have been explained. The map is nicely done, but isn’t mounted and feature a number of prominent folds which require some pressure to straighten out. Otherwise the cardboard counters risk sliding around. However, this is usually the case with games at this price point, and an unmounted rolled map (delivered in a tube) can be bought from the publisher for a reasonable price.

Tornio ’44 is highly recommended to anyone interested in the northern front of World War II or looking for a suitable first game to try hex-and-counter wargaming. While designed for two players, it does work well for single-player as well (with the player playing both sides), with only some minor features being absent. If boardgames doesn’t interest you, but the conflict itself does (and you read Finnish or Swedish), Mika Kulju’s book on the battle is probably the authoritative work on it, and is well worth a read.

Kevyen osaston polkupyöriä lastataan laivaan Tornioon vietäväksi.
The Finnish Light Detachment (Kevyt osasto) load their bicycles onto a Finnish steamer in the port of Toppila, Oulu. Ironically, next to Toppila is the Alppila district, named after the large depot the German mountain troops created there. No ‘real’ landing tonnage was available, and the Finnish troops were ferried by civilian merchant vessels. Source: SA-kuva

Air and Sea Traffic in the Gulf of Finland 6 October

It seems evident that 6 October was a day of heavy Russian military air traffic in the Gulf of Finland, reminiscent of certain episodes during the second half of 2014. Unfortunately, another episode also reminded of 2014, in that the Russians twice intruded on Finnish airspace. The first intruder was a single Su-27P, ‘red 42’ (RF-92414), which briefly entered Finnish airspace over the sea south of Porvoo 16:43 local time. It was intercepted by Finnish QRA, which duly photographed the armed Russian fighter.

The first intruder. Source: Puolustusvoimat

The Russians had time to deny this incident, before the next intrusion took place at exactly the same place a few hours later. Another Su-27P in the ‘Red 4x’ sequence flew the same route inside Finnish airspace, and was documented by Finnish QRA at 21:33.

The second intruder. Source: Puolustusvoimat

Both aircraft carry a mix of short-range highly manoeuvrable R-73 IR-missiles, mid-range R-27T IR-missiles, as well as long-range R-27ER semi-active radar-seeking missiles. This varied load-out is nothing new, and e.g. on this photo taken by US fighters during the Cold War the same missiles (though in older versions) are found on the same stations.

Su-27 with same variety of missiles, photographed in 1988. Source: US DoD

In theory the mix gives the Su-27 and unprecedented ability to target different airborne targets near and far, though in reality the different versions of the R-27 are starting to show their age. The lack of an active radar seeker on the R-27ER is also a significant handicap.

As noted, both intrusions took place at the same location, outside of Porvoo. A map released by the Finnish Border Guards leave little doubt that the intrusions were intentional, as both fighters flew the same track with a few hours in between. Both fighters entered Finnish airspace flying straight towards Kallbådagrund lighthouse (and in the general direction of Helsinki), and then turning parallel to the border just inside of it, before dashing out at the same location.

The flight path of the first intruder in red, the track of the second intruder in blue, and the extent of Finnish airspace in green. Source: Rajavartiolaitos

Notable is that while earlier intrusions have often been by cargo planes, and have often been blamed on the weather (in the cases where the Russians have conceded that they indeed have intruded on Finnish airspace), the weather during 6 October was good, with no reason to deviate. It is extremely rare that Russia have made these ‘visits’ with fighters, and the use of armed fighters to send a message like this is a step up in rhetoric.

An interesting question is related to the general state of readiness for the Finnish fighters. The closest permanent QRA is stationed at Kuopio-Rissala airbase in the central parts of Finland, from where the flight time would seem prohibitively long (especially as there has been no reports of supersonic flights by the Finnish Air Force).

A pair of armed F/A-18C Hornets parked at Kuopio-Rissala airport earlier this year. Source: own picture

The air force naturally refuses to give any details regarding the alert level and where the fighters that intercepted the Russian air traffic were based. During 2014 it was acknowledged that the air force temporarily based Hornets on civilian air fields in the southern parts of the country, including Helsinki-Vantaa international airport, to reduce intercept times. Finnish MoD Jussi Niinistö praised the reaction times of the Hornets, and noted that in addition to the two intruding Su-27P’s an unspecified number (‘several’) of identification flights were made. He also noted that this took place on the same day that Finland signed the bilateral defence cooperation deal with the US, and that the Russian behavior did not affect this in any way. It seems likely that the Finnish Air Force had some kind of prior knowledge, or that they were able to change their stance and react very quickly to the sudden increase in air traffic.

The Finnish authorities have asked the Russian ambassador to explain the intrusions.

In yet another twist, Estonian airspace was intruded upon a couple of hours after the second Porvoo-incident.

The QRA duty for the Estonian airspace is currently handled by a detachment of German Eurofighters, which, like their Finnish colleagues, had flown a number of identification flights during 6 October. If the intruder was photographed is not yet known. The Eurofighters currently operating out of Ämari air base are five aircraft from TaktLwG 74, homebased in Neuburg. The raw performance of the Eurofighter when it comes to climb rate and acceleration makes it right at home when it comes to these kinds of intercepts, and according to open sources the German fighters reached 848 knots (~1.3 Mach) during their missions, the highest speed noted in any intercept over the Gulf of Finland during 6 October.

An intercept from last month where German Eurofighters identified a Russian Su-27. Note drop tanks and air-to-air missiles on Eurofighter, as well as lighter missile load on Su-27 compared to what was carried this time. Source: Bundeswehr

Another part of the puzzle came on 7 October, when Estonian sources claimed that the ro-ro vessel Ambal then in transit was carrying Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad. The vessel is operated by Anrusstrans, which sports a small and varied fleet of cargo vessels and tugs. The vessel arrived in Baltiysk on the evening of 7 October. Crucially, she had been transiting the Gulf of Finland during 6 October, leading some to speculate that the Russian fighters had been escorting her. It is possible that the air and sea traffic was part of an exercise aimed at practising how to transfer reinforcements to Kaliningrad, an operation which would require air superiority over the Gulf of Finland and eastern parts of the Baltic Sea during the transit, though a traditional escort mission where fighters would follow a lumbering merchantman at (relatively) close range seems unlikely. It is also unclear if the Iskanders are the only units moved to the exclave during the last days, or if other units have been transferred as well.

Of further interest is the fact that on 5 October it was reported that two Buyan-M class corvettes that had transited the Bosphorus seemingly heading towards Syria, instead could be heading for the Baltic Sea. The introduction of these highly capable corvettes armed with Kalibr cruise missiles in the Baltic Sea would add significant fire power to the Russian Baltic Fleet.


The Navies of the Baltic Sea

This blog post started from the rather innocent sounding question whether an illustration used by a Finnish news source described the number of warships operated by the countries bordering the Baltic Sea correctly. The short answer is “For some countries, yes, for others, no.” However, this answer doesn’t really add too much to the discussion, so I felt a proper look into the issue was needed.

A few notes on my methodology: I have only counted warships featuring some kind of missile armament, be it anti-ship or air-defence missiles. The Parchim-class corvettes technically do not fit this description (as they feature anti-submarine rockets and torpedoes, but no missiles), but as they clearly are designed for combat and not patrol duties, they are still included. Germany and Russia base parts of their navies outside of the Baltic Sea, and in these cases I have tried to count only those that are homeported in the Baltic Sea. In the case of Denmark, all naval units are based in the Baltic Sea, but I have decided to exclude the Knud Rasmussen-class arctic patrol vessels, due to their main area of operation being outside of the Baltic Sea. In practice, large parts of the Danish navy would probably be operating in the North Atlantic as part of mixed NATO task forces in case of war, something which further underlines the problems of a comparison like this.

A third problem is that counting units skews the comparison in favour of smaller vessels. E.g. the ten small Finnish vessels rank higher than the eight Swedish (all of which are larger than the Finnish fast attack crafts). Generally, larger ship will have a greater “combat value”, so I have included the approximate total displacement of the surface vessels for each navy. While this is far from perfect, e.g. the Hämeenmaa-class scoring higher than it should, this gives a slightly more nuanced picture of the situation (compare e.g. the ten Finnish vessels to the five Danish). For submarines, the variations in size are not as dramatic, with all submarines based in the Baltic Sea being of roughly the same size. Midget submarines and/or diver delivery units are probably operated by Russia and potentially by some of the major NATO-countries (Germany, Poland,… ?), but these are highly secretive projects, and little to no information is available.

Finland: 10 surface units (3,800 t) + no submarines

The Finnish Navy is centred around the Hamina- and Rauma-classes of light fast attack crafts (FAC) with four units of each, supported by two Hämeenmaa-class minelayers that are able to fulfil secondary roles as surface combatants or tenders.

Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania: No missile armed surface units + no submarines

The Baltic States all operate small fleets of patrol crafts of various age and capabilities, including retired vessels from Finland, UK, and the Scandinavian countries. None of these are armed with surface-to-surface or air defence missiles. Compared to the Finnish vessels, the combat value of these naval vessels are closer to those of the Finnish Border Guards than the earlier mentioned fast attack crafts.

Sweden: 8 surface units (4,220 t) + 4 submarines

The pride of the Swedish Navy is the five stealth-corvettes of the Visby-class. Of the earlier corvette-classes, two Stockholm-class and one Göteborg-class corvette are also in service. The Swedish submarine force with one Södermanland- and three Gotland-class AIP-submarines are amongst the most modern and lethal littoral submarine forces in the world. Current plans calls for conversion of two of the corvettes to patrol vessels, without missile or anti-submarine capability.

Poland: 6 surface units (7,640 t) + 5 submarines

Poland fields a mixed force of modernised material from the Cold War (one Kaszub-class corvette + three Orkan-class FAC’s) as well as two ex-US Navy Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates. The modern MEKO A-100 Gawron-class corvette program would have made the Polish Navy one of the most modern green-water navies in the world, but was cancelled a few years ago, with the sole completed hull slated to be commissioned as a patrol vessel. The mixed submarine fleet is made up of a sole Kilo-class submarine and four ex-Norwegian Kobben/Type 207-class submarines (a fifth hull serves as a spares source/moored training facility).

Germany: 14 surface units (12,320 t) + 4 submarines

The German Bundesmarine is divided between the Baltic and the North Sea. Naturally, units can be regrouped from one to the other with ease, but even the ones stationed permanently in the Baltic Sea make it a force to be reckoned with. The vessels all belong to Einsatzflottille 1, of which 1. Korvettengeschwader with its five Braunschweig-class corvettes constitutes NATO’s single most powerful surface strike unit in the Baltic Sea. These are backed up by eight Gepard-class FAC’s (and their two tenders, which lack any meaningful value as combat vessels). Four Type 212 A submarines are also based in the Baltic Sea, which makes up a submarine force to rival the Swedish one.

Denmark: 5 surface units (21,000 t) + no submarines

Denmark is a special case amongst these countries as they hold Greenland. Thus, the Danish fleet include two purpose-built arctic patrol vessels, but a number of other surface vessels also undertake regular patrols to Greenland and the Faroe Islands in the North Sea. All Danish units are large by standard of the Baltic Sea, with the lead ships being the three Iver Huitfeldt-class frigates. The Navy field two interesting hybrid frigates/tenders/transport ships in the form of the Absalon-class, as well as four StanFlex 3000/Thetis-class ocean patrol vessels/light frigates and the two (a third is on order) earlier mentioned Knud Rasmussen-class patrol vessels optimised for the North Atlantic. How many of the Danish warships should be counted as based in the Baltic is therefore an open question. Even if only the five ‘proper’ frigates are counted, leaving the patrol vessels free to prowl the North Atlantic, the Danish navy is one of the larger in the Baltic Sea. Denmark is currently without submarines, having retired the last ones during the last decade, but the possibility remains they will acquire new ones.

As a side-note, the Danish ice-reinforce patrol vessels/frigates have several of the features sought after in the Finnish MTA 2020 concept, and a developed version of these might have been the choice if an existing vessel had been chosen for the program.

Russia: 26 surface units (39,450 t) + 2 submarines

Russia fields four fleets (Northern, Baltic, Pacific, and the Black Sea Fleet), of which the Northern Fleet is the main one. The exact number of vessels operational at any given time requires a certain amount of guesswork, as vessel can be rebased, and the age of several important classes means that some vessels are in reserve and/or unavailable due to major overhauls.

Of the 50+ vessels of the Baltic Fleet, around 25 can be included in our comparison, with the rest being minehunters/-sweepers, landing ships, patrol crafts, or belonging to any one of numerous auxiliary vessel classes. The Baltic Fleet has two Sovremennyy-class destroyers, the largest surface combatants based in the Baltic Sea, and two large frigates of the Neustrashimy-class. Four smaller Steregushchy-class heavy corvettes/light frigates are also available, and are by far the most modern vessels of the Baltic Fleet’s major surface units. Considerable numbers of older vessels are still in use, including Parchim-class anti-submarine corvettes (six vessels), as well as Nanuchka- (four vessels) and Tarantul-class FAC’s (eight vessels, including the single heavily moderinzed Project 12421 Molniya). Two Kilo-class submarines are also in use, but in addition to these one or more new-built submarines may be conducting sea acceptance trials in the Baltic Sea at any given time. The midget submarines/diver delivery units may include the Triton in different versions (namely Triton 1, 2, and/or NN), the revived Losos/Pirhana-class, the Sirena-class, or something completely different. Here is a brief introduction to the different Russian/Soviet designs known to have been in service at some point.

Sources for this post include USNI’s Combat Fleet’s of the World (16th Ed.), the official homepages of Bundesmarine and Søværnet, Skipper’s well-timed post on the current status of the Swedish Navy, as well as this page, recommended by Jägarchefen.

…And Wikipedia, of course.