German stronghold and allied bombing
The Eastern parts of Finnmark played a vital role as the staging area for Nazi Germany’s front line to Russia and had more Wehrmacht soldiers than any other county in Norway. Kirkenes was the main base for supplies to the Murmansk front.
The towns of Vardø, Vadsø and Kirkenes and several other villages suffered heavy bombing from allied forces during the occupation. Especially Kirkenes, with its important harbor, airport and German troops and units, was a natural target. Reportedly, Kirkenes is second after Malta on a list of European places experiencing air-raid alarms and attacks, with more than 1,000 alarms and 320 air attacks. The worst attack of all took place on July 4th 1944, when 140 houses were left in flames following a comprehensive Soviet assault.
During the heaviest bombings people had been hiding in bomb shelters in Kirkenes and in the mining shafts of Sydvaranger mining company in Bjørnevatn. In mid-October large masses of people started moving into the shafts. More than 3500 people were living in the tunnels when the first Red Army soldiers arrived.
Liberation of Kirkenes
The Petsamo-Kirkenes offensive started October 7th 1944, when Soviet forces started a counter-offensive against the German strongpoint line just 70 kilometers northwest of Murmansk. The German forces were driven back from Petsamo (Pechenga today) into Norway, and the first Red Army troops crossed the border to Norway on October 18th. On October 25th 1944, Kirkenes became the first town in Norway to be liberated from German occupation, more than six months before the end of the war in Europe.
The Soviet forces continued driving the German troops westwards to Tana. The Red Army stopped their advance in the settlement of Rustefjelbma on November 8th, after order from Moscow.
Forced evacuation of local population
On October 28th Adolf Hitler ordered that the local population in Finnmark and the northern parts of Troms county should be evacuated southwards.
50,000 people from Finnmark and North-Troms were sent away on boats, buses and trucks. 25,000 people denied to follow the order to evacuate and spent the autumn of 1944 hiding in huts and caves in the hills.
It is uncertain how many people lost their lives during the forced evacuation. The official number after the war was 33, but some historians believe the number is ten times higher. Only on the transport vessel “Karl Arp”, which transported more than 1800 people from Porsanger in Finnmark to Narvik in Nordland, more than 20 people died of exhaustion and diseases.
At the same time as the local population was forced to evacuate, Hitler ordered that the troops should effectuate a scorched earth tactics. In the period October 1944 to May 1945 the troops ruined practically everything that the onrushing Red Army could make use of, from Eastern Finnmark to Lyngen in Troms. 11,000 private homes, 4700 farm buildings, 106 schools, 230 buildings for industry and trade, 420 shops, 27 churches, 350 bridges and most other infrastructure were burnt or demolished.
Soviet troops leave Norway
The Norwegian exile Government in London sent some 300 troops from London via Murmansk to Kirkenes a few weeks after the Soviet liberation. They gathered volunteers and by the time of the German capitulation there were nearly 3000 Norwegian soldiers in Finnmark.
The last Red Army troops left Finnmark on September 25th 1945.