Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Weapons of War: De Bange 155 mm long cannon model 1877 - 155 K/77

When the Soviet Union invaded Finland in November 1939, the Finnish military was severely under equipped in many areas. Artillery was one of these areas and Finland set about buying and deploying any artillery piece it could get. This meant getting many old, outdated pieces from the armouries of European countries like France and Britain.

One of these older pieces was the French de Bange 155mm Long modèle 1877.

The 155 L de Bange was a result of a French artillery committee meeting held in the aftermath on the Franco-Prussian War. The committee discussed new Fortress and Seige artillery models and on the 16 April 1874 settled upon the 15.5cm caliber as the new standard piece. In 1876 three competing prototypes were tested at Calais but it was the design by French Artillery Colonel Charles Ragon de Bange that won the day (it probably helped that he was Director of the "Atelier-de-précision" (Paris arsenal's precision workshop) in the Central Depot in Paris.

Like with all De Bange’s cannons, it used the De Bange breech obturator system, which basically used the force of the firing charge to push back an asbestos pad that sealed the rear breech and thus directing all the pressure forward, increasing velocity and reducing danger. It was inspired by the rubber o-rings in use on the Chassepot rifle.

(The de Bange system and how it works)
The French Government placed an initial order in 1877 for 300 pieces and by the turn of the 20th Century about 1,400 were produced. The vast majority were posted to the fortresses of the Séré de Rivières system but 200 were reserved as offensive siege artillery.

The biggest downside to the 155 L de Bange, and by extension all de Bange guns, was they had no recoil system and as such needed to be realigned after every shot. The gun could jump back a metre or two after firing and thus presented a problem in terms of accuracy and rate of fire. While obsolete, the French military used them throughout the First World War and even in the early stages of the Second World War (France still had 305 pieces at various locations, including the Maginot Line).

The Finnish overlooked the downsides of recoil issues due to the desperateness of the situation they now found themselves in. French was unwilling to sell large amounts of modern artillery (the number amount to less than 30 field guns with a modern recoil system) but happily parted with older, more obsolete models such as the 155 L de Bange. The Finns preferred the French 19th century guns over the similar Russian models as they were of better quality and had more reliable ammunition.

These guns developed an exaggerated reputation within the Finnish military. Due to their ability to ‘jump’ and need to be realigned after every shot, the earned the nicknames "Hyppyheikki" ("Jumping Henry") and "Hyppyjaakko" ("Jumping Jack") and jokes such as, "Why does "hyppyheikki" need two observers?…The first observer will keep track of where the projectile lands while the second observer will check where the gun goes". While not totally undeserving, they are exaggerated. With proper preparation of positions, the use of earth slopes and wedges, the guns recoil could be reduced greatly and the need to realign is not as great. Luckily for the Finns, they were on the defensive and thus having prepared positions was something they could do.

48 155 L de Bange and 48,000 shots were sent to Finland, taking a route from France to Narvik, Norway by ship, then the guns were transported by rail to the Swedish/Finnish border town of Tornio. They would then need to be offloaded and reloaded onto Finnish trains as Finland used a narrower gauge. Then they would go from Tornio to various depots in the South for inspection and issue. Due to the long, arduous journey, none of the guns reached front lines during the Winter War. However they were still issued.

They were given the designation 155 K/77 and 44 were assigned to Fortification Artillery Battalions of the heavily fortified Salpa-line and the other 4 were were given to the Coastal Artillery, where they were fitted with special mounts and designated 155/27 BaMk. They were assigned to Fort Herrö in Ahvenanmaa (Åland) Islands until end of the Continuation War. Due to their good range (12.3 km), high degree of accuracy (produced by the gain-twist rifling) and reliability, the Finns used them mainly in a counter-battery role. The first use of these heavy pieces in action was at the Siege of Hanko (an area leased to the Soviet Union as part of the Winter War Peace terms, designated as a Naval Base, it had a contingent of mainly Red Army troops numbering abour 26,000). They saw most use in the Svir River area, with 36 guns assigned there. When the Soviets pushed their grand offensive in 1944, the Finnish forces started to withdraw, as the 155 K/77 were old and heavy, they were lower on the priority list for pulling back and eventually 24 guns were destroyed to prevent the Soviets from gaining them.

With the remaining 12 guns, they were assigned to the newly established Syväri Fortification Battalion 1 and were used in the defence of Koirinoja, firing their last shots on the 13th July 1944. It is quite possible that these were the last shots fired from 19th century canons with no recoil systems anywhere in the world.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Weapons of War: Berdan Rifle II

When the nine Rifle Battalions of the newly created Army of the Grand Duchy of Finland were raised in 1881 the most obvious choice for arming them was the Berdan II (Model 1870) which had been adopted by the Russian army in 1870's. The rifle was designed by famous American firearms inventor Hiram Berdan in 1868. The rifles (both the Berdan I and II) became the standard Russian small arm from 1870 to 1891, where it saw itself replace by the Mosin-Nagant line of rifles. However, despite this, it still saw service in the Russian army up to the Revolution of 1917.

The Model 1870 was a single shot, bolt action rifle that was characterised by a distinctive short, pear shaped, bolt handle. This handle also represented the only locking lug (it holds the bolt in place when the weapon is fired) and when closed, stood up at a 30 degree angle, instead of the normal horizontal. All the rifles  as well as their accompaniments (cartridges, bayonets etc) came from Russia, mainly from the famous Izhevskii ordnance factory.

It weighed 4.3 kg without its bayonet (4.8 kg with bayonet) and was 1.35 m long without its bayonet (1.85 m with bayonet). It used a 10.75x58 mmR Cartridge which had a 5 gram charge of black powder, which were issued in blue paper packets of 6 rounds each. The round was also developed by Hiram Berden in conjunction with Russian Colonel Gorloff. There was also 'half-cartridges' which were used for training purposes and contained only 0.5 grams of powder. These cartridges were breechloaded and a well trained unit could fire 6-8 rounds a minute. It had a muzzle velocity of 437m/sec and was sighted to 1500 paces (1065 m) but its effective range was 450 paces (630 m). It became known for its ruggedness, reliability and simplicity. 

The Finnish army as a whole maintained a high standard of marksmanship with this rifle, better than the Russian army. The Rifle was still in many Battalions and Reserve companies armouries way after the introduction of the Mosin-Nagant in 1890s. When Civil War broke out in January 1918, there was still many Berdan II's in storage and it saw itself employed by 2nd Line troops during World War one. Both sides of the Civil War (Reds and Whites) obtained many Berdan IIs. Once the war was over, the newly created Finnish Defence force was not interested in the obsolete Berdan and stored most but gave around 2,500 to the Suojeluskunta (Civic Guard, a Militia unit that gained infamy as the White Guard during the Civil War). The Civic Guard soon upgraded to the more modern Mosin-Nagant rifle versions. When the Winter War broke out in 1939, the Finnish army was short on many small arms and so the Berdan II saw service again, over 3,000 were issued (mainly to rear echelon and reserve troops) but these were replaced as soon as possible by more modern firearms. When World War two ended in 1945, the Finnish military started to scrap its stores of Berdan IIs, in 1955 the remaining 1,029 were sold off, many to surplus dealers abroad.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Heroes of Finland: Baron Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim

Voted to be the Greatest Finn of all time during the Suuret Suomalaiset (Great Finns) TV show in 2004, Baron Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim has had a colourful history and a profound impart of Finland as a society. 

Mannerheim was born on June 4th 1867 in Askainen in what was then the Grand Duchy of Finland into a Swedish-speaking aristocratic family. His paternal line comes from Hamburg, Germany, whilst his maternal line is rooted in Södermanland, Sweden. His Great-Grandfather, Carl Erik Mannerheim, was one of the "founders of the Finnish Government", he was appointed the first Vice-Chairman of the Economic Division of the Senate of Finland, he was given the title of Count in 1825. Mannerheim's father, Count Carl Robert Mannerheim, was a playwright who was known for his radical and liberal political ideals, he was also a businessman and industrialist with varied success. His mother was Hedvig Charlotta Helena von Julin who was the daughter of industrialist Johan Jacob von Julin, owner of the Fiskars ironworks and the village of the same name.

Carl Gustaf was the third child of seven and so inherited the title of Baron (Only the eldest son could inherit the title of Count), he was born in the family home, Villnäs Manor in Askainen. Soon after Carl Gustafs birth, the family ran into financial difficulties and his father soon left his mother to move to Paris and live in the Bohemian Paris Commune (He later returned and founded.the Systema company in 1887). Countess Helena was so badly shaken by this turn of events that she died of a heart attack a year after moving the family to her aunts estate in Sällvik.

Carl Gustaf soon started to develop discipline problems and so his guardian, Albert von Julin, thought it was best to send him to the Finnish Cadet Corps School in Hamina in 1882. His thinking was it would help the boy get some self-discipline and get a profession. However the school didn't seem to solve his problems, he became disliked the school and didn't like the small social circles in Hamina. In 1886, his final year of the school he went absent without leave, it was this final act of disobedience he was expelled. He still wanted to serve in the military, whilst in Hamina he had wanted to join the Imperial Page School in St. Petersburg. The report from the Cadet school, coupled with his behaviour problem, meant this option was now closed.

After a small stint in Kharkov, Ukraine with relatives  he attended the Helsinki Private Lyceum (A school designed to prepare students for University) where he passed his University entrance exams. He then asked his godmother, Baroness Alfhild Scalon de Coligny for help to enter the Nicholas Calvary School. In July 1887 he gained entrance to the Calvary School, he passed and took the Soldier's Oath in September of that same year. He graduated in 1889, originally he was second in his class but was dropped down to tenth after a drunken argument with a superior officer about Finnish autonomy. After this incident he swore never to get drunk again. He originally wanted to join the elite Chevalier Guard (A Russian Heavy Calvary Regiment) but he and his relatives couldn't afford the costs, so he was commissioned as a Cornet in the 15th Alexandriyski Dragoons. This was to be the start of an illustrious military career. 

Mannerheim (Right) with an unknown student at the Nicolas Calvary School.
After only two years he was transferred to the regiment he originally wanted to join, the Chevalier Guard. It was in this posting that he was made responsible for the Guards at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. He saw himself daily within the court of the Tsars. During the coronation of the last Romanov, Nicholas II, in 1886 he had the honour of being in the guard that flanked the stairs leading to the throne. For four and a half hours he stood completely motionless, in full dress uniform, whilst the grand ceremony went on. The lavish event burned itself into Mannerheim's mind, he would later recall in his memoirs that it was "indescribably magnificent". He served with the Chevalier Guard until 1904. He had various positions, including being posted to the Imperial Court Stables administration from 1897 to 1903, in charge of a display squadron and being a member of the equestrian training board of cavalry regiments. He became an expert on horses, buying studs for breeding and special duty horses. It was whilst he was serving in this regiment that his godmother arranged for Mannerheim to be married to Anastasia Arapova , who was a daughter of a Major-General, in 1892. They had two daughters, Anastasie and Sophie, and a son who was stillborn. The marriage did only lasted ten years when the two separated, they were officially divorced in 1917.

Mannerheim in the full dress uniform of Her Majesty's Maria Feodorovna's Chevalier Guard

When Russian and Japan went to war in 1904, Mannerheim was suffering from depression, as well as suffering from financial problems, which wasn't helped by gambling. So he decided a change of environment will help with his depression, this saw him transferred to the 52nd Nezhin Dragoon Regiment in Manchuria with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He gained a reputation for bravery and sternness. He participated in the battles of Sandepu, Inkou and Mukden. He became adept at reconnaissance missions even though his horse was shot out from under him on one of these scouting patrols.He briefly commanded a local militia unit with which he scouted Inner Mongolia.  During the Battle of Mukden, which was the last major land battle of the war, he was wounded in the left ear which later got infected. For his bravery at Mukden he was promoted to Colonel by the Emperor. For his actions he was later awarded the 2nd Class decorations of the Orders of Stanislai and Anna, and the 4th Class decoration of the Order of Vladimir by the Commander of the 3rd Manchurian Army, General Bildering. 

After the war he returned to Finland and was present as a member of nobility during the last session of the Diet of Finland. On his return to St. Peterburg he was asked by General Palitsyn, Chief of the General Staff, if he wanted to join a two year expedition as a secret intelligence officer for the Tsar. He was disguised as a ethnographic collector and joined Paul Pelliot's Expedition. They travelled from Turkestan to Beijing on horseback, a distance of roughly 5,000 miles (8,046 km), with a Cossack escort. Mannerheim's mission was to be very important for Russian, gathering up to date intelligence on the modernisation of the Qing Dynasty. On his expedition he was to catalogue many things that had been hidden by the vast distances and mountains that covers most of Central Asia. He was to be the person to conduct a proper ethnographic investigation of the Yugur tribe, he was stoned by xenophobic Tibetan monks in Labrang, he took over 1,500 photographs of the region, collected about 1,200 artefacts for the National Museum of Finland, mapped over 1,2000 miles (2,000 km) of roads and published a 27 part article in the Finno-Ugric Societies periodical. Probably one of his crowning achievements of his journey was meeting the 13th Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso, in Utaishan. This really showed off his diplomatic skills as Utaishan was a place very few outsiders had seen and to also have an audience with the most sacred and least accessible ruler in Asia. They exchanged gifts, Mannerheim receiving some white silk to present to the Tsar and the Dalai Lhama being given Mannerheim's Browning pistol, including a lesson in the principals of pistol shooting. He returned to St. Petersburg after two years and travelling a distance of nearly 9,000 miles (14,000 km) with two massive volumes of detailed observations. His report included how Xinjiang could be invaded by Russia and its use as a bargaining chip with China.

Mannerheim taking notes during his 1906-1908 Asia Expedition
In 1909 Mannerheim was appointed commander of the 13th Vladimir Uhlan Regiment, which was based in Poland. He had achieved his dream of command and soon turned the 13th into the best regiment in the district. His performance came up in all the audits and soon he came to the attention of the Tsar who personally appointed him commander of the Life Guard Uhlan Regiment of His Majesty and soon after was promoted to Major General. In 1912 whilst the Tsar was at his hunting lodge in Spala he appointed Mannerheim 'a general of the Imperial entourage'. At the beginning of 1914 Mannerheim was awarded command of the Seperate Guards Cavalry Brigade based in Warsaw. The Poles and Russians didn't always get along and after a series of uprisings in the mid and late 1800s, relations with the local populace was stretched at the best of times. Mannerheim, who had one relative in Poland, started to mix with Polish social circles and soon through his love of horse racing bridged the gap between the Russia soldiers and Polish people. The friendships he made in Poland would stay with him throughout his life.

When the First World War broke out, Mannerheim and his Cavalry Brigade were involved in the campaign to secure Galicia from Austrian-Hungry attack. The brigade was present at many major battles during the campaign, from the opening battle at Krasnik through to Opole, Annopolis and Sloptov-Klimonotvi to name just a few. For his bravery at Krasnik he was awarded the Sword of St.George, he later said he could now die in peace. By the end of the first year of the War (1914) Mannerheim had also been awarded Order of Saint Vladimir 3rd Class and the Order of Saint Stanislaus 1st Class and the Cross of Saint George 4th Class. In February 1915 he was given command of the 12th Cavalry Division and participated in the Battles of Opolje and Hajworonkan, as well as numerous smaller battles throughout Southern Ukraine. The next year saw him taking part in the famous Brusilov Offensive, which he did with distinction. In the final months of 1915 Mannerheim and his Division were moved to Romania where a new front was opening. The march was 350 miles (560km) and ended in Odobesti without the loss of a single horse. From 1916 to 1917 saw the 12th Cavalry Division fighting some tough battles in the mighty Transylvania Carpathian Mountains. On May 8th he was promoted to Lieutenant-General and in June he was given command of the 6th Cavalry Corps which was responsible for the entire Northern Bukovina front. He unfortunately fell from his horse in September and sprained his ankle by the time of the infamous October Revolution, this probably saved his life as he was away from the front line recovering in Odessa where many Tsarist Officers were being executed by their troops. He also received a telegram from the last Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces Nikolay Dukhonin placing him on reserve as Mannerheim was 'not adaptable to present circumstances'. 

Mannerheim's Sword of St.George
At the outbreak of the Russian Civil War, Mannerheim made his way back to Petrograd (St. Petersburg). Now many officers of the Imperial Russian Forces would have made the journey as inconspicuous as possible but not Mannerheim, true to his form, he acquired a private sleeping car and in full Dress Uniform arrived to scenes of dismay at Petrograds main station. He later commented in his autobiography "It disgusted me to see generals carrying their own kit. However, I found two soldiers who quite willingly took charge of mine", Mannerheim arrived on December 18th 1917, 12 days after Finland declared its independence. After thirty five years of service in the Imperial Army, Mannerheim was the most experienced officer Finland had and as such the Chairman of the Finnish Senate, Pehr Svinhufvud, asked him to become Commander in Chief of Finland's army. Mannerheim pursued his new appoint with zeal, he was a fierce opponent to Bolshevism and led the handful of White Guard in its mission to defend Finland and its independence. Finland broke out into Civil War on January 27th 1918, as both sides of the political spectrum decided they had the right to lead Finland. During the Civil War the White Government took a pro-German stance (something that worried Mannerheim) and soon received support for Germany. Mannerheim ruthlessly pursued the Reds, he inspired the White Guard, his order of the day for March 14th, 1918 sums up his devotion to the cause: "The hour has come, the hour for which the whole nation is waiting. your starving and martyred brothers and sisters in southern Finland fix their last hope on you. The mutilated bodies of the murdered citizens and the ruins of the burnt down villages call to Heaven: vengeance upon the traitors! Break down all obstacles! Advance, White army of White Finland!". Mannerheim believed that his White Guard could defeat the Red Guard without any foreign assistance but the Senate (now relocated to Vaasa) looked to Germany. The Germans formed the Baltic Sea Division which arrived on the Åland Islands in March and landed on mainland Finland on April 3rd at Hanko. With the professional German forces leading the attack on the main strongholds of Red Finland, the Reds soon capitulated, with the battle for Helsinki being the final nail in the coffin of the Communist Dreams of the Red Guard. Many Reds fled to the Soviet Union. During the Civil War and soon after, Mannerheim became known as 'The Bloody Baron' for the treatment of the Red, this became known as the 'White Terror' and has become one of the most shameful parts of Finnish History. Over 80,000 Red Finns (woman and children were not exempt) were put into numerous makeshift concentration camps, around 8,000 saw their lives lost to executions and a further 13,500 died from disease and starvation (indeed there were even rumours of cannibalism from some districts). 

Mannerheim at the head of the victory parade in Helsinki, May 16th 1918

Historians are still divided by how much Mannerheim knew about these atrocities. Some hold him responsible for every death, whilst others claim that he didn't know how bad the butchery was. Mannerheim's avowed policy for dealing with the Reds was simple: Execute the ringleaders and get the workers back to work as soon as possible. There is nothing in his writings or in any record of his life that suggest he was doing this out of pure cruelty. His hatred was for Bolshevism itself, not for his fellow Finns who followed its impractical and wishful ideals. Whether he was responsible for the White Terror or not, there is no denying that he had secured Finland's Independence and put to bed any hope of a further Communist insurrection. Kaiser Wilhelm awarded Mannerheim the Iron Cross 1st and 2nd Class, this made Mannerheim the only person to have fought against Germany to receive these coveted decorations.

After the victory of White Finland, Mannerheim resigned as Commander in Chief. He travelled to Sweden to visit relatives and also stated his opposition to the pro-German stance that Finland's government had taken and support of the Allied cause with several Diplomats in Stockholm. He was travelled to France and Britain on behalf of the Finnish Government to gain recognition for Finland, it was whilst in Paris that Pehr Svinhufvud resigned as Regent and the Parliment had voted Mannerheim their new Regent. Mannerheim took to the official business of running Finland and soon employed Gallen-Kallela, the famous Finnish painter, to design the regalia and symbols of Independent Finland. There were several Monarchists who wanted to make Mannerheim the first King of Finland. Soon after King Fredrick Charles of Hesse renounced the throne of Finland, Mannerheim finally got recognition from the Allied states and then supervised the transition of a new republic constitution. He then ran to be the first president of Finland but was completely trounced by Kaarlo Stahlberg, 143 votes to 50.

From 1919 Mannerheim had become a shadowy figure with Finnish politics. No party wanted to touch him for fear of his outspoken and controversial views. He instead dabbled in domestic affairs, he founded the Mannerheim Child Welfare Association in 1920 and was chairman for the Finnish Red Cross for a staggering  32 years. He was elected chairman of the supervisory board for the Bank of Finland and a member of the board for that famous Finnish electronics company, Nokia. He also travelled to Asia twice meeting up with friends and acquaintances he had made through his years. He was even invited on a hunting trip with the King of Nepal and killed a 3.23 meter long tiger that had previously killed two men. During this time he also had an attachment with the Lapua movement. The Lapua Movement was a far-right political movement that was more akin to Germany's Brown Shirts than to a political party. Mannerheim saw the movement not as a bunch of street brawlers but as a "expression of the Finnish people's reaction to the abuse of freedom and democracy" and thought that the violent tactics of the Lapuans would soon subside when the status quo was restored. However he soon distanced himself from the movement as it become more extreme and to his eyes was more of a terrorist movement than the patriotic voice of the people he first saw it as. He lived in his big house in Kaivopuisto, Helsinki with a handful of servants, the place was decorated in true form to his character- hunting trophies, weapons, certificates of honour, plaques, dark mahogany furniture etc. One of his most favoured piece, that was displayed in a place of honour in his living room, was a autographed portrait of Tsar Nicholas II. Whenever any visitor questioned him about its inappropriateness, Mannerheim would just reply "He was my Emperor".

In 1931, Pehr Svinhufvud was elected to be Finland's third President and one of his first acts was to recall Mannerheim to public service and make him chairman of the Defence Council. He became increasingly worried by the state of European affairs (namely the dictatorships) and commissioned a secret report on how Finland would prepare and fair if it was invaded. He struggled for every markka of his budget, he advocated a defence union with Sweden and started construction of the soon to be notorious Mannerheim Line. In 1933 he became Finland's first and to date, only Field Marshal. He soon became fed up of the red tape that surrounded his efforts to build up Finland's defences and so he resigned his post in 1937 only to be reinstated by President-elect Kyösti Kallio.

When the Soviet demands for Finnish territory first reached Mannerheim's ears he advised that the Government make a policy of conciliation but also suggested a quiet mobilisation of the armed forces under the guise of refresher training  He later became irate when funds were diverted for the preparations of the 1940 Summer Olympics and a request for a loan from the United States were turned down. He was being openly criticise by numerous parliament members for many things, these included being too old, too afraid of the Russians and not being trustworthy. This was the final straw for the Proud Baron, he penned a resignation and handed it over to the offices of the President but before the President could accept his resignation bombs fell on Helsinki and troops had crossed the border.So at 72 Field Marshal Mannerheim was made Commander in Chief of the Finnish Defence Forces, no one, not even his worst political opponents could deny he was Finland's best and only hope in the conflict. In a letter to his youngest daughter, Sophie, he wrote: "I had not wanted to undertake the responsibility of commander in chief, as my age and health entitled me, but I had to yield to appeals from the President of the Republic and the government, and now for the fourth time I am at war." His first order of the day, given on the 30th November, went: "The President of the Republic has appointed me on 30 November 1939 as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces of the country. Brave soldiers of Finland! I enter on this task at a time when our hereditary enemy is once again attacking our country. Confidence in one's commander is the first condition for success. You know me and I know you and know that everyone in the ranks is ready to do his duty even to death. This war is nothing other than the continuation and final act of our War of Independence. We are fighting for our homes, our faith, and our country".

One of his first acts was to move his headquarters to the town of Mikkeli and appointed a general staff. He spent most of his time during the Winter War at his headquarters but he did make frequent trips to the front. These trips held solidify the image of the Field Marshal as a officer who lead from the front and was a big morale boost for the troops. With what merge resources he had, Mannerheim manage to stall to Russian advance, he was fortunate for his history in the Russian armed forces meant he had a unique insight into the Russian war machine, for even though it now flew a different flag, the tactics stayed mainly the same as they had during the late 1800's. 

Mannerheim at his Headquarters in Mikkeli during the Winter War
After the Winter War, Mannerheim stayed commander in chief, even though the position should have returned to the president. He continued his work of rearmament and organising the Finnish forces. German and Finnish relations hit a high point soon after the Winter war and Mannerheim was offered command of over 80,000 German troops but he declined as he didn't want to be tied to the Nazi regime. He kept his relations with the third Reich as formal as possible but did oppose an Alliance between the two nations (Finland was only a co-belligerent in Germany's war against the Soviet Union). When Finland went to war again in what was called the Continuation War, Mannerheim's instructions were to reclaim the lost borders and a little buffer zone beyond that. Even against repeated calls for assistance Mannerheim refused to send troops into the meat grinder that was the Siege of Leningrad, the closet the Finns got to Leningrad was 12 miles (20km). On his 72nd Birthday, the Baron received the unique title 'Marshal of Finland'  and he was even surprised by a visit from Hitler. He did not want to meet Hitler at his headquarters or at Helsinki as it would appear to be an official visit, so he arranged for the two of them to meet at Imatra. Hitler, accompanied by President Ryti, arrived at the small town where Hitler gave a birthday speech to the Marshal, followed by a meal and some negotiations between the two giants. The two talked for five hours, mainly about the war and after the official business was over Hitler boarded a train to head back to Immola Airfield. From this event two astonishing events happened. Thor Damen, a YLE broadcasting Engineer, managed to set up microphones in a railway car he thought would contain the Baron and Hitler, however the two chose a different carriage. With quick thinking, Damen manage to set up one microphone directly above the pair and recorded the first 11 minutes of the conversation before Hitler's SS bodyguards spotted the wires. After demands for the reel to be destroyed, YLE managed to persuaded the SS to keep the reel in return for sealing it forever. This became the only known recording of Hitler speaking in an unofficial tone, it was released to the public in the late 50's and was even used by Bruno Ganz for his role as Hitler in 'Downfall'. You can listen to it here. The second event was Mannerheim lit up a cigar in the presence of Hitler, much to the astonishment of those present, Hitler's aversion to smoking was well known. The Nazi Government being the first government to back anti-smoking advertisements. Hitler continued his conversation without any comment, Mannerheim used this to judge that Hitler was speaking from a weakened position and so had even less respect for Hitler than he already had. 

Mannerheim with President Ryti and Hitler during Hitler's visit to Finland in 1942.
Mannerheim was a soldier through and through, after his failed run for President in 1918 he maintained as much distances as he could from politics  Sometimes this was not possible, like when arguing for funds for his military forces or when he thought the Third Reich were dictating Finnish policies and strategies. President Ryti resigned on the 1st of August 1944 and the responsibility for the country passed to Mannerheim who was voted by overwhelming parliamentary support. One of his first acts was to start suing for peace with the Soviet Union, Mannerheim was in a unique position thanks to the Finnish forces heroic efforts of stalling the Soviet advance and Germany's weakening grip on Eastern Europe. Soon he had agreed to a truce between the two nations but was forced into a war with Germany that saw much of Lapland wasted by the retreating German forces. Under the Moscow argument  Mannerheim was forced by article 21 to shut down the Civic Guard (of which he was closely associated too, he worn the 'S' patch on his uniform) and the Lotta Svärd (which he had first coined in a speech in May 1918). He was also forced to pay compensation amounting to $300,000,000 ($4 Billion today) in various commodities within six years, allow War Crime trails to be conducted and also lease the Soviets, Porkkala for use as a Naval base, amongst other things. However he had the support of many Finns and was seen by many throughout the world as the only man who could help Finland transit from war to peace.

When the Allied Control Commission started to prosecute members of the government for war crimes, Mannerheim was worried he would be called to stand trail, but even though many Communists called for him to stand, he was never called. The main reasoning behind this was that Stalin respect this man who had stood against him numerous times, who had halted the Red Army on every front even though the odds were in Stalin's favour. Stalin told the Finnish delegation in 1947 that the Finns had Mannerheim to thank for Finland's continued independence for he was the reasons why the Soviets didn't occupy the country. Even though he was elected for the full six year term, Mannerheim, who was by now in his late 70's was suffering from ill health and after two leaves of absence and a stay in Portugal, he resigned as President feeling he had done as much as he could for Finland.

Mannerheim leaving the Presidential residence on the day of his resignation, March 4th 1946

The Finnish Government originally planned to buy Borman Villa for Mannerheim but Karl Fazer (The origin of the famous chocolate makers) refused to sell it, so they gave him 12 million Markka with which he bought Kirkniemi Manor but after an operation on a ulcer he moved to Switzerland to recuperate and work on his memoirs. His residence was the private hospital of Val-Mont, where he purchased two floors. He also visited Sweden, France, Italy and Finland numerous times to meet relatives and friends. Unfortunately because of his increasing illness he was only able to write some of his memoirs personally but many assisted including General Erik Heinrichs and Colonel Aladar Paasonen. He personally proofread as much as he could, though most of his memoirs were about events in Finland, especially from 1917 to 1944, he did allow some rare glimpse into his very private, personal life.  

At 2330 on January 27th 1951 (It was already the 28th in Finland) Mannerheim passed away at Cantonal Hospital in Switzerland. He was returned to Finland where he was given a State Funeral with full military honours and interned in Hietaniemi Cemetery. He was and still is regarded as Finland's greatest Hero and Statesman. His birthday, June 4th, is the Flag Day for the Finnish Defence Forces and he has been honoured by having his portrait represented on the €10 Coin. Boman Villa was turned into his official Museum soon after his death and Aimo Tukiainen sculpted the Mannerheim Equestrian Statue that sits just down the road from the Finnish Parliament building. His effect on Finnish society has not and probably will never be overshadowed.

The Mannerheim Equestrian Statue outside the Museum of Modern Art in Helsinki, unveiled in 1960.

Mannerheim's State Funeral. Outside the Lutheran Cathedral in Helsinki, February 4th, 1951.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Finnish Swastika

I decided that it would be important to write about the Swastika that is presented on Finnish military equipment. I was prompted because there is a lot of hatred regarding the Swastika but also a lot of ignorance to it's application outside of the Third Reich. I read on a military history forum recently someone making the dubious claim that the Finnish Blue Swastika (known as Hakaristi) was actually used because the Finns were allied with Nazi Germany and thus needed something to be identified with them. This poster also didn't seem to believe others when they tried to correct him.

So the first thing we need to establish is that the Swastika is not a modern symbol but in fact goes back thousands of years. The word Swastika comes from the Sanskrit (an ancient Indian language) svastika, which means lucky and is used to denote auspiciousness (good fortune, luck) upon on person or object.

Seals from the Indus Valley Civilisation (4,000-5,000 years ago)

Seen at a Buddhist Temple
So as we can see the swastika is not a modern symobl and not just associated in to Germany. The oldest known swastika is from 10,000 BCE and was uncovered by archaeologists in the Ukraine. The symbol has been found to be used in almost all countries and civilisations, from Indus Valley to the Sami Tribes, from Coptic Egyptian to the Native Americans. It is believed to have become so common because of its simplicity  and symmetry, which led to independent development by those countries who used it.

The second thing that needs to be cleared up is the Finland was using the swastika before Germany's Nazi Party adopted it. The National Socialist German Worker's Party (NSDAP, more commonly known as Nazi Party) adopted the symbol in 1920 due to the symbols increasing popularity across Europe as a symbol for Luck. Indeed the symbol has been used by pilots as a good luck charm.
American aviatrix Matilde Moisant seen with her Swastika lucky charm in 1912.
Raoul Lufbery, an American Ace serving in the French Lafayette Escadrille Squadron in World War 1.
 There is even a town in Canada named Swastika. It was founded in 1906 and became a Mining town in 1908 after Gold was discovered. The local Government tried to get the name changed in world war two because of the symbols now infamous association with the Nazi party. However the town refused and posted signs stating 'To Hell with Hitler. We came up with our name first'. The town has had to 'defend' its position numerous times since the Second World War and as yet has resisted every attempt at changing its name.

So now we have established the history and meaning of the Swastika, I think we can move onto the history and meaning behind the Swastika used by Finland on military equipment.

On March 6th 1918, Lieutenant Nils Kindberg landed at Vaasa in a Thulin Typ D carrying it's donor Swedish Count Eric von Rosen. This became the first aircraft of the newly created Finnish Air Force but incorrectly thought of as the first aircraft to fly for Finland. Finland at the time was gripped by Civil War (which started on 27th January and ran till May 15th 1918, only a month and a half after Finland declared its independence) and many Swedes decided to help 'White' Finland despite their Governments refusal (Kindberg was fined 100 Kronor for his flight as he left the country without permission). Von Rosen had his personal Good Luck symbol painted onto the aircraft, this was the Blue Swastika. The White Circle came about when the Finns painted over the Thulin Air Academy advertisement. On the 18th March 1918 the Swastika was formally adopted by the Finnish Air Force by decree of Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, who was Commander-in-Chief of the Finnish White Army.

From that moment in 1918, the Swastika became a official national symbol. It was used on the Medal of the War of Liberation, the Mannerheim Cross, Tanks, Aircraft and even a Women's auxiliary organisation. Also as you can see from the following pictures, the Finnish Swastika comes in two varieties, the Full Cross which is normally represented parallel to the ground and the Short Fylfot Cross.

Finland never was a Fascist country and even though it was allied to Germany during the second world war it did not support its goals entirely (this is seen by Mannerheim's refusal to allow Finnish Troops to march on Leningrad). There seem to be many people out there that like to tell stories that Finland was a supporter of Nazism but with a bit of research it can be easily disproved. After the Second World War, the Allied Control Commission forced that symbol be dropped because of it's association with the Third Reich. However the Swastika has survived in Finnish culture, being seen on textiles and art in association with the age old belief that it is an Nordic symbol for Happiness. Also it is still used by the Finnish Defence Forces, the Air Force uses it on its colours as well as shoulder insignia. Some Army units use the symbol too, most notably the Utti Jaeger Regiment (Finland's Special Forces). It still appears in various medals and decorations, the most famous being the Order of the Cross of Liberty. The collar of The Order of the White Rose of Finland originally had 9 Swastikas on it but these were replaces by Fir crosses in 1963 by order of President Urho Kekkonen when he learnt of President Charles De Gaulle's discomfort of wearing Swastikas. 

It also appears on the Presidential Standard of Finland. The fact of the continual use of the Swastika in Finnish culture sparked a debate within European media in 2005.  So I think it is safe to end this article. We have covered many areas and have firmly established Finland's use of the Swastika and it's detachment from the Third Reich and Facist use.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Finnish Democratic Republic

One day after the war started an unknown radio broadcast was heard announcing that the Finnish Communist Party (which was set up in Moscow by the 'exiled' leaders of the Social Democratic Party of Finland, it was illegal in Finland until 1944) had set up a Democratic Republic and appointed Otto Kuusinen as its Chairman. Kuusinen was an exiled Finn, who had fled to Moscow when the Red Guard was defeated during the Finnish Civil War. He had been Commissar of Education in the short lived Finnish Socialist Workers' Republic which was set up at the outbreak of the January 1918 revolution. The government was made up entirely of exiled Red Guard Finns.

The place where this Republic had been set up was the beach resort town of Terijoki (today known as Zelenogorsk), it was the first 'major' population centre to be 'liberated' by the Soviet Union. The Red Army was greeted at Terijoki by hundreds of booby traps and snipers' bullets (the local population had been evacuated). 2 battalions of Group U were assigned to the area on the orders to delay and harass the enemy, they placed snipers in the church tower and the higher buildings of the town, prepared ambushes at street level. Soon tanks were scattered and left without infantry support, unable to attack what it couldn't see, communications broke down between units as fighting descended to a level of barbarity akin to Stalingrad several years in the future; knives, grenades, submachine guns and even fists. The Soviet Baltic fleet made things worse for the Red Army by offering inaccurate fire support that landed amongst their own units, doing less damage to the defending Finns than themselves. This group held up the 70th Rifle Division for over 24 hours and only withdrew after setting up pipebombs, mines and improvised explosives that would hinder the Soviets for many days after, they even blew up the tactically important Leningrad-Viipuri railway bridge. Thanks to the efforts of these units, they dented Kuusinen's plans and the radio broacast asking for urgent Soviet help was made a day after the Soviet invasion, it was a policical embarrassment for the Soviet Government. It is a wonder how any Government was formed so quickly under such chaos. Many modern historians believe that Kuusinen never held Government in Terijoki and that it was impossible to set it up on the 1st December due to the heavy fighting except on paper.

The Officers Club of the 1 Bicycle Battalion in Terijoki, it would become the  'Government' Building which the Finnish Democratic Government was ran from.

The first action by this new Republic was to enter into talks with the Soviet Union. Molotov and Kuusinen must have had a pleasant meetings because the Soviet Union got all the things they wanted from the pre-war negotiations with the Finnish Government. Soon Broadcasts and Leaflets dropped by Soviet Bombers informed the Finnish people that all great Landowner Estates would be broken up and that an eight hour day would be instituted. The main problem with this promise was that an eight hour work day had been brought into Finnish law in over 20 years earlier and the land reform program was such that only a few hundred estates were left with over 300 acres of land. Many of the leaflets dropped on Finnish lines had the message "Let us not shoot each other; let us turn our guns on the common enemy: the White Guard government of Tanner and Mannerheim" or similar. 

The general opinion of the Finnish People of this 'People's' Government was the opposite of what the Soviets thought would happen. Finns thought it laughable and it united them even more no matter their political alignment (There were still some old wounds from the Civil War). They had seen what had happened to the Baltic states and knew that if the Soviets won, then they would no longer be an independent country but a puppet of the Soviet Union. The Democratic Republic was used as the excuse by the Soviet Union to invade Finland, Pravda's front page read "Only the Soviet Union, which rejects the principle of violent seizure of territory and enslavement of nations, would agree to place its armed might at disposal, not for the purpose of attacking Finland or enslaving her people, but securing Finland's independence." When a League of Nations council was called to discuss the conflict, the Soviet representative rejected all attacks on his countries character by stating Russia was not at war with Finland, that's absurd! On the contrary, its relations with the legitimate Kuusinen government were, verifiably, the last word in cordiality and mutual trust! The League did the only thing it could do, it expelled the Soviet Union, not that Stalin would lose any sleep over it. The Winter War would be the final blow to the League of Nations and soon after it would dissolve. 

The crowning achievement for this charade was the formation of the Finnish National Army or as it appeared on the Red Army order of battle, The First Finnish Corps. Not much it known about this short lived unit or how seriously it was taken by the Red Army high command. The propaganda never claimed more that 6,000 men in strength and witnesses only counted 1,000 on display. The majority of its number were of East Karelia and exiled Red Guardsmen (who would be a bit grey by now), however there were probably some turncoats in their ranks but it is not possible to say on exact numbers and as only 1,000 Finns were POWs during the whole war, it can be assumed the number was small. The biggest POW camp held 600 Finns and during a recruitment drive in December only 16 men signed up, so this small percentage shows what the Finnish soldiers thought of it. It was reported, very mockingly, by Finnish sources that the armies first assignment was guarding the headquarters of Kuusinens government dressed in Swedish Royal Army uniforms of the Great Northern War (1700-21) that had been looted from a nearby museum. 

The Finnish National Army first paraded in Terijoki in uniforms similar to this, taken from a local museum.

The Army was effectively a Red Army unit under the jurisdiction of the Leningrad Military District, who provided the line officers. It also had numerous NKVD troops to fill out its ranks. It would fall under the command of Akseli Antilla who was a Red Army officer of Finnish origin and was made Kuusinen's 'minister of defence'. The corps would not be used in any battles but was used more as a militia force behind the lines acting as a recruiting tool, enforcing Popular Front activities that would soon infest the captured territories and helping in the interrogations of prisoners (Kuusinen was at many interrogations).

One of the few photos of the First Finnish Corps, Finnish National Army.
Even though the Government never received any official recognition (except from the Soviet Union), many leftist writers and activists voiced their support, these included John Steinbeck, George Bernard Shaw and Jawaharlal Nehru. State ran newspapers in Nazi Germany also showed support for the Government, this was down to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

The ploy never worked but became an obstacle as it stood in the way of any negotiations, it definitely prolonged the war and caused the deaths of thousands of men on both sides, even if indirectly. The Finnish Democratic Republic saw itself disestablished on the 12th March (one day before the end of the War) and merged with Karelian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic to form the Karelo-Finnish Soviet Socialist Republic which was made up of territory ceded to the Soviet Union at the end of the Winter War.

Friday, November 30, 2012

The Start of the Winter War

Today (November 30th) marks the 73rd Anniversary of the start of the Winter War.

As I wrote in a previous post, one of the background causes of this conflict was the Soviet false flag which is now called the Shelling of Mainila, as well as demands for Finnish territory. The Soviet Union very confidently thought they could bowl over the small Republic within a matter of days. N.N. Voronov, who was in charge of logisitcs for the artillery arm of the invasion was asked what was the state of the ammunition stocks that could be drawn for the invasion. "That depends, Are you planning to attack or defend... and by the way, how much time is allotted for the operation?" he record saying to two officers at Meretskov's HQ.           "Between ten and twelve days," was the reply from the men.
Voronov, who had been studying the plans and maps of Finland replied "I'll be happy if everything can be resolved in two or three months". This answer did not sit well with the officers and Voronov was mocked. Commissar Kulik then ordered Voronov that all his estimates were to be based on the assumption that the entire Finnish operation would last no longer than twelve days.

The Red Army possessed three times the amount of soldiers, thirty times more aircraft and hundred more times of tanks (Finland only had 2 companies of FT-17 Renault light Tanks and 2 companies of Vickers 6-ton Medium Tanks). Soviet Propaganda portrayed the Red Army as invincible, the righteous liberators of the oppressed peoples of Finland from the hand of the bourgeois Mannerheim-Cajander Gang.

The first day of the conflict saw a singular plane fly over Helsinki and drop leaflets urging the citizens to overthrow the Government, then in a twist dropped five light bombs in the area of Malmi Airport. Then about an hour later 9 SB-2 Medium Bombers from Estonia bombed Helsinki, first aiming for the harbour (which all bombs fell into the water) and than banked to head towards the heart of the city. Bombs dropped around the architecturally brilliant Helsinki Railway Station but missed, however they did hit the public building in front of the station, killing forty civilians and injuring many more. The entire raid damaged one hanger at the airport, hit the Helsinki Technical Institute (killed several staff and students), several houses of the working class population and ironically, the Soviet Legation Building.

This was not the only raid that day, another raid hit Helsinki at 1430 (Helsinki saw 200 civilians dead at the end of the day), as well as similar raids on Turku, Viipuri (now known as Vyborg), a hydroelectric plant at Imatra and a gas mask factory in Lahti.

The Soviet Baltic Fleet landed marine parties on the islands of Sieksari, Lavanssari, Tytarsaari and Suursaari with little resistance  These islands had been part of the demands made by the Soviet Government in the run up to the war.

Luckily the Finnish army was well trained  despite its lack of munitions. They knew the area, were fighting for their homes and family. The entire conflict would touch everyone in Finland, over 340,000 men were serve on the various fronts along the border. They would account for nearly 127,000 dead Russians and injury another 188,000. They would suffer over 25,000 dead and 43,000 wounded, as well 1,000 becoming POWs.

The war would last 3 months, 1 week and 5 days. It would see the Red Army being given a massive bloody nose, with the Finnish forces winning on almost every front (Only on the Karelian Isthmus would the Finns retreat to their last line of defence).

This is just a small overview of the beginning of the Winter War. I am planning to write more articles over the next 3 months to coincide with various battles, important dates and interesting facts of this very obscure conflict of what became known as The Second World War.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The First Shots of War

On November the 26th 1939, tensions were high with all the negotiations between the Soviet Union and Finland and the mobilisation of the military on both sides. Near the Village of Mainila, on the boarder between the two countries, three Finnish Observation posts and several other Boarder Guards on patrol heard and witnessed 7 shells, and there subsequent denotations, within Soviet territory. Within hours of this incident, the Finnish delegation was informed by Soviet Authorities that due to Finnish Aggression that the Non-aggression pact that was signed in 1932 and also in 1934 were null and void and all diplomatic avenues between the countries were to cease. The incident was possible inspired by the Gleiwitz incident that had taken place earlier that year, this was used by the Third Reich as an excuse for it to withdraw from its non-aggression pact with Poland.

Why did this False Flag incident happen?

The Soviet Union had been negotiating with Finland for several bits of territory in an attempt to expand its influence. It had succeeded in incorporating several other Baltic states using a similar tactic and thought Finland would be its next victim. However Finland refused the Soviet Union in its demands for the Finnish Border to be pulled back 25 miles from its current position which would mean it would lose its defences on the Karelian Isthmus, the lensing of the peninsula of Hanko which would be the site of a Naval Base for the Baltic Fleet and in conjunction with Coastal Artillery in Estonian would effectively seal of the Gulf of Finland, as well as other demands. In return Finland would receive 3,450 square miles of Soviet Karelia but the exchange was not advantageous to Finland. Finland gave two counter offers, respectively on 23 October and 3 November and would mean the cedeing of only Terijoki to the USSR. These were flatly refused and the Finnish delegation in Moscow returned to Finland on the 13th November, hoping the negotiations would continue.

The Set-up

It was a Sunday afternoon and Finnish Border Guards did what they normally did, patrolled the border, played cards, listened to the radio, chatted about things back home mainly of the female variety and maintained their weapons. All knew about the recent negotiations and how high the tension was (from the 9th of October the Finnish Army had been slowly mobilised under the guise of refresher training), they also knew they were be the first line of defence against the tidal wave of the Red Army. At about 1440 the Border Guards heard 7 successive artillery shots being fired, soon it was worked out that the shots hand landed 800 meters behind the border and that the weapon used was a high trajectory Trench Mortar. The Guards thought it was training exercise and recorded a smoke screen going up soon after the shots, which thus blocked all observation. Three Guards saw a officer on Horseback approach their Russian counterparts who were standing about the nearest building in Mainila, soon all 12 men marched off in an easterly direction and within ten minutes 7 shells landed on that very same spot. The guards also reported six men coming back to inspect the damage and saw no sign of dead or injured people.

At 2100 Moscow Time (2200 in Helsinki) Baron Yrjö-Koskinen received a call asking him to report to the Kremlin. He was informed by Molotov that Soviet Border Guards stationed at Mainila had been fired upon resulting in the deaths of three privates and one NCO, two officers and seven privates were also wounded. The Finnish Government attempted to deal with this incident in the diplomatic way and drafted a letter which stated that the shots had come from the Russian side of the border and that to put in place protocols relating to border incidents that were part of the 1932 non-aggression Pact (which was extended in 1934) and that both sides should withdraw their forces to the same distances. It was impossible for Finnish Artillery to have fired the shots because on the orders of Field Marshal Mannerheim, all Finnish guns were withdrawn from range of the border for several weeks before the shots were fired.
The Soviet government was unwilling to accept such an answer stating that “the deep hostility of the Finnish government towards the Soviet Union” was forcing the tensions to boiling point and “The fact that the Finnish government denies that Finnish forces fired upon Soviet forces with artillery and inflicted casualties, can only be explained as a device to mislead public opinion”, and so Molotov informed the small Republic of Finland that the Soviet government was no longer bound by the non-aggression pact. Within four days of this announcement Helsinki was on fire from Soviet Bombs and troops had crossed the border in several locations.


When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 hundreds of documents were declassified and Russian Historian Pavel Aptekar analysed the dairies and reports of the units who were posted in the area and found no record of any losses on the day of the 26th or in the immediate dates surrounding it. Nikita Khrushchev (who at the time was a Commissar and served as an intermediary between Stalin and the Generals of the Red Army) claimed in his memoirs that the incident was set up by Marshal of Artillery Grigory Kulik, an infamous NKVD General who would contribute to the failure of the Soviet defence during the first weeks of the German invasion. However he very coy about who fired the first shots and is quoted as saying “It's always like that when people start a war. They say, 'You fired the first shot,' or 'You slapped me first and I'm only hitting back.' There was once a ritual which you sometimes see in opera: someone throws down a glove to challenge someone else to a duel; if the glove is picked up, that means the challenge is accepted. Perhaps that's how it was done in the old days, but in our time it's not always so clear who starts a war.” Boris Yeltsin, the First President of the Russian Federation (which followed the Soviet Union) made a statement in 1994 denouncing the Winter War as a War of Aggression.