We don’t know a lot about the participation of the northern indigenous peoples in the Second World War in the Arctic. At the same time, modern scientificresearch,archival searches, and the painstaking work of national associations and public organizations still open many new pages of history for us.
The cross-border Sami people were in the most difficult situation during the war. These people were living on the territory of four countries – Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. The Finish and German sides quickly realized the necessity to mobilize the indigenous people who were good navigators in the local vast expanses of tundra. In particular, the 21st Mountain Corps of the Wehrmacht used Sami as guides. TheFinnish Sami were in the 6th Division in the Finnish Army and helped the Finnish “long-ranged patrols”. However, after Finland changed the party in the 1944 and opposed Nazi Germany in the “Lapland War”the Finns and Finnish Sami paid a terrible price. The Third Reich used the tactics of scorched earth and mine warfare during the retreat, leavingno shelter for either the local population or the military.
At the same time, due to the capture of Norway in 1940, a large number of Norwegian Sami were recruited as forced laborers in the modernization of the Ore Railway from Sweden to Northern Norway and also ended up in Nazi concentration camps in Norway as prisoners.
On the side of the anti-Hitler coalition, it was known that during the war there were repeated cases of initiative and illegal assistance of the Sami as “border pilots” – guides who transferred prisoners of war who escaped from Norwegian concentration camps to the Swedish border and transferred back accompanying groups of Resistance Movement.
At the same time, the service of representatives of small nationalities as part of Soviet reindeer transports became truly large-scale, full of heroism and tragedy, affecting the fate of not only the Sami but also other indigenous peoples of the North. The unique units were formed 79 years ago and made a significant contribution to the defense of the Arctic and the liberation of Northern Norway.
“The Frozen Front”
The Arctic theater of operation is a special landmark in the history of the Second World War. The fighting here was very different from any other part of the front. The soldiers couldn’t fight with the usual methods and therefore they used non-standard approaches and solutions.
The difficult natural and geographical conditions of the Arctic were absolutely not suitable for conducting military operations: high differences, the abundance of hills and rocks, swamps, lakes and streams, open spaces in the tundra zone and a large extent of the same type of territories. Aside from this, winter added factors like polar night,low temperatures, changing weather, strong winds and snowstorms. At that time, in the 1940s, the region had small number of roads and facilities and sparely populated spaces. All these features made it unlikely that military equipment and heavy weapons familiar to other sectors of the front would be used here.
By the autumn of 1941, the line of contact in the so-called “Murmansk direction” in the Arctic had stabilized and changed little until the autumn of 1944, when the Petsamo-Kirkenes strategic offensive operation was carried out, which significantly changed the balance of forces in the Arctic. Paradoxically, in the era of maneuver warfare, the line of contact here was partially transformed into a “positional war” both sides made significant efforts to strengthen and create long-term positions and fortifications, and German units even stretched a cable car here to supply troops!
At the same time, the positionality of the contact line did not mean that the front was less important and that the fighting was not fierce. Hitler’s idea of Norway as a “fateful zone” with an excessive concentration of troops and the extraction of all strategic resources from the region (especially the nickel needed by the Reich from the Petsamo mines) increased the importance of the task for the Soviets to expel the Nazis from the North. The German General Staff knew the importance (especially in the first years of the war) of Murmansk Port as a year-round operating transport and logistics hub for the delivery of strategic cargo under the Lend-Lease program.
Since the beginning of hostilities in the Far North in June 1941, periodic attempts to inflict significant damage to the enemy here have become relevant for both sides. The battles in the North were characterized by the active use on both sides of aviation, sabotage (on the Soviet side – formally partisan) formations, intelligence means, information exchange with partners in the opposing bloc (for Germany – with Finland; for the USSR – with Great Britain and the United States). At the same time, the considerable length of the Soviet-German front in the Arctic required a non-standard solution of logistical problems.
One of the non-standard solutions was the use of unique units in the North during the war – the so-called “reindeer transport battalions” (in another interpretation – “reindeer-ski units”).
By the end of the hostilities in the Arctic, a little more than 1,000 deer survived from 7,000 herds. The rest, like soldiers at the front, laid down their heads on the battlefields.
In November 1941, the State Defense Committee of the USSR made a decision on the formation of reindeer transport units. The personnel of the detachments consisted mainly of natives of the Arkhangelsk and Murmansk regions, the Nenets Autonomous Okrug, as well as the Komi ASSR. At the same time, such units were recruited mainly from among the indigenous small–numbered peoples of the North – the Nenets, Komi, Khanty, Mansi, Karelians and Sami. Representatives of the small peoples of the North were mobilized to the front and served the country using their unique skills and knowledge, because they were experienced reindeer herders, could easily navigate the tundra, and could find yagel pastures and parking places. In the lexicon of the peoples of the North, reindeer drivers were called “kayuri”. However, it was customary to call the Red Army soldiers who drove reindeer sleds “sledding”. Deer transports were subordinate to the commanders of the formations and units to which they were attached. From the end of 1941, more than 1,400 reindeer herders and 10,000 sled deer went to the front. At the same time, the native reindeer-breeding collective farms continued to supply the front with deer, sleds, wool, meat, milk, fish, yagel (reindeer moss), berries and other important things so urgently needed by the Red Army. For example, during the war years, reindeer herders from Lovozero alone formed seven transports, handed over 5,900 transport deer, 1,700 sets of sleds to them and 1,119 sleds to the army.
In turn, most of the sledge units called up from the depths of the Arkhangelsk region, the Nenets Land and the Komi Republic had to master the road to the front on their own: newly formed deer formations had to overcome several thousand kilometers in the conditions of the polar night on the way to the front on the Kola Land. By January to February, echelons of people and deer arrived to replenish the active units of the Karelian Front. In March 1942, the 5th and 6th reindeer-ski tactical units were formed on the Karelian Front. And by September 1942, the next coordination of the newly formed units took place the 31st separate reindeer-ski tactical unit was formed on the Karelian Front and, separate so-called “reindeer transports” (companies) were created. Reindeer transports made it possible to deliver weapons and ammunition, food and uniforms, medicines, and messages to the defense line in a timely manner, as well as to evacuate the wounded from the front line and make a quick transfer of fighters and detachments. In the difficult natural and geographical conditions of the North, where the use of cargo transport and military equipment was simply impossible, the work of such units was priceless, and sometimes there were no alternatives.
The use of other methods was ineffective. Thus, limited attempts to use equestrian units in the North and in winter showed that the horses literally buried themselves in deep snow and could not withstand extremely low temperatures and conditions of the Arctic. In this regard, horses were used in winter for transportation only on rolled roads. In turn, dog sled teams in the polar zone were used only for medical support tasks, such as evacuation of the wounded. At the same time, the phenomenal speed and patency of deer in winter conditions, plus their frost resistance and unpretentiousness made the animals indispensable assistants in the war in the North. At the same time, deer are characterized by a special psychology: they are very loyal to their drivers; they are silent when moving, getting foot food, communicating with a person; in case of danger, they do not run away to the sides, but gather together; they run silently and steadfastly to the end, even after receiving wounds and bruises; they are very patient and show restraint.
Rides (reindeer sleds, which are harnessed to three or four animals) were able to pass an average of up to 35 km off-road per day. The deer were able to cover up to 80 km per day by forced march. In the impassable conditions of the Arctic, these were unprecedented distances. At the same time, the riders still freely transported up to 300 kg of payload. This circumstance allowed them to be used to solve a whole complex of acute problems of wartime, when any delay could be critical. Studies claim that each battalion consisted of 1,015 deer, 15 reindeer dogs, 237 cargo and 76 passenger sleds. The transport was serviced by 154 people, including 77 soldiers-reindeer herders. The standard carrying capacity of deer transport (companies) was 40.5 tons, platoons was 13.5 tons each.
According to official data, during the years of the Great Patriotic War, more than 10 thousand wounded were taken from the battlefield by reindeer transports of the Karelian Front. One of the soldiers of the deer transports recalled how the evacuation took place: “Our deer saved many wounded in the war. A wounded person lost a lot of blood, heat came out of him. A person got cold, died. But the deer skin kept the heat very well. You wrapped the wounded man in a skin, put him on the sled and took him. If you took him to the hospital, the person was warm and alive.”
Deer transports were able to deliver about 17 thousand tons of ammunition and military equipment to the front line. There are archival photographs showing the use of detachments in the transportation of food, ammunition, uniforms, aviation bombs and the delivery of artillery ammunition, and even during the evacuation of downed aircraft from the front line. During the war, 162 aircraft were taken out in this way. As one of the commanders of the reindeer transport units, Semyon Sherstobitov, recalled (in the post-war years, he headed the Tundra state farm in the village of Lovozero): “… they hurried to the fallen plane on reindeer sleds, helped the wounded pilots, took them to the medical unit. Planes were disassembled, and valuable metal, undamaged parts were taken to the highway to workshops. There were cases when, after air battles due to a lack of fuel, planes landed outside the airfield, fuel was urgently brought to them on reindeer, and they again rose into the sky to smash the enemy.”
During the war years, reindeer transports made it possible to transfer more than eight thousand soldiers and officers of the Red Army, as well as partisan groups, to the enemy’s rear. Single light sleds were also used by messengers to deliver urgent correspondence. There are also cases of using sleds as mobile machine-gun points (sleds were used as wheelbarrows) and means of delivering light artillery.
After blizzards and snow drifts, the roads became impassable not only for motorists, but also for other transport. Reindeer sleds helped out. They carried cargo, communications and commanders.
“Roads of the War”
Sadly, by the end of the hostilities in the Arctic, a little more than 1,000 deer survived from 7,000 herds. The rest, like soldiers at the front, laid down their heads on the battlefields. One of the reasons was the death of deer due to the corral of animals and their use at the limit of their capabilities. However, this outcome was caused by the use of deer transports in more acute conditions both on the so-called “front line” and in the German-Finnish rear. According to the memoirs of Ivan Filatov, a veteran of the 31st separate reindeer-skiing unit, at the beginning of the war in the North, ” … the Germans did not take our reindeer trains seriously for transportation. But over time, they realized that here in the Arctic, the deer is the main transport, helping to deliver weapons and shells to their destination. Sometimes, if we needed to sneak behind enemy lines unnoticed, we would put on camouflage robes, catch a deer, and it would run through the snow. The deer is visible, but there are no people. So often, with a group of military deer, we quickly changed the place of deployment and transported our heavy machine guns. When the Nazis realized that deer were also fighting in the war, they started shooting our deer …”Taking care of the four-legged assistants, the riders began to specially sew white blankets to disguise the deer before carrying out raids on the borders.
The tasks of conducting short-range reconnaissance, transferring partisan detachments and sabotage groups, sudden raids on enemy bases, and capturing strong points and soldiers for interrogation have become extremely relevant for deer transport units since 1942 (in addition to the tasks of logistics, transport, logistics support and evacuation of the wounded). For example, the Sami Ivan Pyanov, a reindeer herder from Lovozero, received the Medal of Honor in December 1941 after the first combat exit. Being with a reindeer team behind enemy lines, he discovered an enemy ski track, dismounted and disguised himself, and then captured the German soldier in a noose (a traditional tool for indigenous peoples) for interrogation.
Deer transports rapidly crossed the front line, appeared suddenly in the rear, and transferred mobile detachments, destroy bridges and roads on the front line. Then, suddenly, disappeared like ghosts. In April 1942, the “Murmansk Offensive Operation” was carried out in the Arctic. Due to poor training, lack of superiority in forces and means, as well as some miscalculations in planning and command, the operation was not crowned with success and ended with significant losses for the Soviet and German sides in the area. The 5th and 6th reindeer-ski brigades were involved in the operation, which suffered serious losses of personnel and deer (more than half). Following the results of the Murmansk Offensive operation, the remnants of the 5th and 6th brigades were reorganized into the 31st separate reindeer-ski unit.
However, it was the help of deer transports in that Murmansk operation that was critical. As Fotiy Chemakov, a witness of the fighting and an assistant of veterinary medicine, recalled: “I remember that during the counteroffensive, when bloody battles continued on the Murmansk hills, a blizzard of unprecedented force broke out. All roads have become impassable. And only our ‘all-terrain vehicles’ could walk on such snow drifts.” According to the memoir of Semyon Sherstobitov, deer transports were also used in amphibious sorties during the Murmansk operation: “… At dawn on April 28, 1942, the 12th Marine Brigade landed on the shore of the Barents Sea, at Cape Pikshuev, behind enemy lines. The last to approach the landing site were two fishing minesweepers, on which there was a reindeer transport platoon – 200 deer and 75 sledges. We had to hurry, there was a battle going on on the shore. Any minute now, enemy aircraft could appear. The Nenets fighter Nikolai Khatanzei turned to me with a proposal: “Comrade commander, order the sledge to be tied with a chain, we will pull them to the shore. The reindeer will follow the sledge. A few minutes later, the chain-linked sledge was launched. They were pulled from the shore with a long rope and quickly picked up on dry land. The deer rushed after the sledge along the ladders lowered into the water and quickly swam to the shore, holding the body so that the head, back and tail did not plunge into the water. They, like gulls, easily rose on the crests of the wave and rolled out onto the land together with the wave. The people on the boats could barely keep up with them. Everyone got safely ashore. When the enemy aircraft arrived at the landing site, the coast was empty, and reindeer sleds were already carrying guns and ammunition along the mountain passes to the battlefield, among the gray rocks and thawed areas, they were not noticed by enemy aircraft…”.
Later, the reindeer transport units participated in the Petsamo-Kirkenes strategic offensive operation of 1944. According to the memoirs of Semyon Sherstobitov: “In the autumn of 1944, in the month of October, the decisive days came for the defeat and expulsion of the fascist invaders from the sacred old Russian Pechenga land. By the beginning of the fighting, there was no sledge route yet, and most of the personnel of the reindeer transport were in the battle formations of the advancing infantry. The most experienced, hardy fighters and hundreds of the best deer were transferred to the 126th corps of Colonel Solovyov’s compound. The corps secretly bypassed the right flank of the enemy’s defense. Significantly to the left of their winter routes. This time the deer were walking under a pack, with their horns cut off. The pack is an ordinary bag, it contains two boxes of artillery shells, thrown over the backs of animals, tied from below with a belt girth. People and animals covered with raincoats and tents were well camouflaged against the yellow-green autumn background of the tundra… the compound secretly approached the target – the main military airfield of the enemy Luostari.”
In total, deer transports were involved in the battles for Petsamo, Nickel, Mines, and Kirkenes. After re-forming, the 31st reindeer-skiing Brigade reached Prague via Poland. And in 1945, after the end of the war in Europe, the brigade was sent to Chukotka.
In 1942, the famous military photojournalist Yevgeny Khaldei captured how the British allies viewed a reindeer team that delivered ammunition to the airfield.
The contribution of the Sami and other indigenous peoples of the North is always remembered during the traditional annual Holiday of the North. Although the competition itself was launched in 1934, and the first reindeer sledding races within the framework of the competition began in 1937, the competition did not stop during the Great Patriotic War and the ability to manage a reindeer sled standing was included in the set of TRP standards on the Kola Peninsula.
In memory of the feat of the reindeer transport units, the basis of which was also the Nenets, a memorial sign was installed in Naryan-Mar in 2010. In February 2012, a monument was opened to the “Feat of the participants of the deer transport battalions during the Great Patriotic War” in honor of the residents of the Nenets Autonomous Okrug who took part in the Great Patriotic War as fighters of these unique units. Volunteers from among the Nenets formed five deer transport echelons numbering more than 600 people and more than 7,000 heads of sled deer.
In December 2020, the opening of the memorial “To the Feat of the soldiers of the reindeer transport battalions” was also held in Murmansk. Representatives of the Sami organizations of Russia and Fennoscandia were engaged for several yearsin the search for a place to install the attraction and implement the project. They managed to develop a concept of the monument and raise funds for its production. The grand opening was held with the support of representatives of the Sami communities, the Sami Council, the Norwegian Barents Secretariat, the Consulate General of the Kingdom of Norway in Murmansk and the Murmansk branch of the Consulate General of Finland in St. Petersburg. The opening of the monument was also supported by Russian and foreign representatives of academic circles and business and non-profit organizations. The international partners positively assessed the opening of the monument as an important historical step in preserving and popularizing the culture of the indigenous peoples of the Barents region and shared the news about the installation of the monument on their official resources.
In recent years, public organizations and Russian institutions have paid considerable attention to the preservation and popularization of the topic of deer transport units. They hope to maintain the memory of the unique units that served in the Arctic, the heroic contribution of the indigenous small peoples of the Far North, the tragic and self-sacrificing human destinies of the participants of the detachments, and the important help of animals called up in a dark moment.
In 2016, the Murmansk Regional Museum of Local Lore opened an exhibition about deer transport on the Karelian front during the Great Patriotic War. Materials from the Museum’s funds were collected and presented for the exhibition, including documents photos, and personal belongings of people who served in the deer transport battalions. In 2020, in connection with the transition of cultural institutions to a remote format of work, the Museum opened a virtual exhibition available to everyone with internet access. In the development of the situation, an agreement was reached with the Norwegian partners to open at the end of 2021. The Center for War and Peace in Narvik will dedicate an exhibition to animals in the war in the North. The planned exhibition will include previously unpublished materials dedicated to both reindeer transport battalions and sanitary dog sleds, which were actively used by the Soviet side in the war in the Arctic.
The Monument in honor of the reindeer transport battalions in Murmansk, opened in December 2020.
In the middle of 2020,the chairman of the Sami Assembly Sam Sobbar Polina Kharybina, with the support of the Federal Youth Agency, initiated a project to create a virtual museum of military transport battalions. The digital platform will accumulate all materials devoted to the topic: scientific and popular science literature and periodicals, electronic images of historical documents and photographs, biographical descriptions and memories of participants, and photos of documents of personal origin. This resource will help preserve the memory about those dramatic events of wartime. Its launch in 2021 was announced by the initiators of the project at a conference held on the eve of the International Sami Day and dedicated to the memory of military transport units. Now private individuals, researchers scientists, and public activists will be able to touch historical materials and use them in the preservation and popularization of the unique heritage.
We believe that the precious knowledge about the tragic and heroic history of the unique units, about the contribution of the indigenous peoples of the North,and about the invaluable assistance of reindeer will be reliably preserved and passed on to descendants.
About the Author: Роман Мовчан
Currently, Roman works in the public organization “Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs of the Murmansk Region”. In 2012, he graduated from the Baltic State University (Kaliningrad) with a degree in linguistics and Cultural communications. He is interested in the Arctic environment, sustainable business development, the activities of the Arctic Council and the Barents Euro-Arctic Council, as well as the history of the Arctic and indigenous communities.
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