Monday, April 9, 2018

What were the Red Army Losses during the Winter War?

Since the end of the Russo-Finnish Winter War in March 1940, there have been numerous attempts at calculating the number of those lost from the Soviet Armed Forces. Numbers ranging from as low as 45,000 to as high as 1 million.

So what has Russia claimed

As is known to many people, the Soviet Union was a tightly controlled society, in which information was highly guarded and only relevant and doctored pieces were released to the general public. To question the officially stated information was liable to lead someone to trouble. Soon after the conclusion of the war, Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov reported that the losses of the glorious Red Army were only 48,745 dead and 158,863 wounded while the enemy had lost over 300,000 (reported as at least 60,000 dead and 250,000 wounded). However a special session of the Supreme Soviet was held on 26th March 1940 and gave the numbers as 48,475 dead and 158,863 wounded.

The Main Directorate of Personnel of the Ministry of Defense of the USSR collected raw data from the several sources and published the overall ‘irretrievable losses’ as 126,875, which was broken down into those killed in action, died during sanitary evacuation, died of accidents and wound, and missing in action. It also put the sanitary losses, these are those who suffered wounds, frostbite, disease and had to be evacuated and treated, 264, 904. These numbers were not made public until a research team, headed by Lieutenant General Grigori Krivosheev, published them in a 1993 report titled Гриф секретности снят: Потери Вооруженных Сил СССР в войнах, боевых действиях и военных конфликтах (Soviet Armed Forces Losses in Wars, Combat Operations and Military Conflicts).

Generally Krivosheev’s numbers are the ones that are typically used by many historians, both within and outside of Russia. However, his report has garnered criticism. This is mainly down to Russian historians claiming that he underestimates the number of PoWs and Missing in Action, but also by those outside of Russia. For example in the report, he mentions the Finnish losses as 48,243 dead and 43,000 wounded. His numbers for the enemy losses at Khalkhin-Gol are also way off, claiming 61,000 in overall losses (with 25,000 being KIA), when the Japanese only had a force of 38,000 at peak strength.

The wounded being flown out of the Karelian Isthmus. Source:

The next attempt at giving the numbers was a team headed by Vladimir Zolotaryov under decrees from the Russian Federation Government. Between 1999-2005 they published ten volumes detailing the names of all those who lost their lives in combat between 1929-1940 and 1946-1982. Volumes 2-9 focused on the Winter War. This project used previously unknown and new data from Military and Medical archives and rose the figure to over 130,000.

There were also some individual estimates given by various historians, such as 53,800 killed by Mikhail Semiryaga, about 72,500 of all losses by the Russian Historian A Noskov, and up to around 400,000 total losses by PA Aptekarya.

Why such trouble with the numbers

The problems with getting the exact numbers for Soviet losses during the Winter War comes from the lack of formal identification carried by Soviet Soldiers. While there was meant to be a form of dog tag (a locker type device worn around the neck), it was either not worn correctly or the information contained was incorrect/lost.

Another problem, and probably the biggest, is the from the shortcommings of the military clerks serving in the units at the time. While literacy rates were fairly high (about 75%), it did not mean that the clerks had a sufficient grasp of the language, and so we can see numerous incorrect spellings, which has lead to difficulty in identifying the dead. Also the poor training of military clerks meant that there could be duplicates of a soldier within the records. Then with the dual toponym (Finnish and Karelian) of the theatre of operations, the Clerks had a hard job. When the region saw Russification in the late 40’s, all the names were changed and so causing masses of confusion to many trying to track down possible grave sites.

A Field Hospital somewhere near of the front in December 1939. Source:
Yuri Kilin, a Russian historian who has specialised in Russian-Finnish conflicts, has attempted to get a clearer picture of the losses of the Soviet Union for the Winter War. He started a project, Russo-Finnish War 1939-1940, alongside Veronika Kilina, with the main aim of helping relatives find their lost. Starting with an initial 168,024 irretrievable losses, they managed to correct the number down to 138,551 dead. They also matched up the places names and corrected those that had been misidentified. Adding these to the sanitary losses of 264,904, we are given a total casualty figure of 403,455.

So how does this break down

This means that the Red Military suffered an almost 95% loss rate from their initial forces. This breaks down to a daily casualty rate of 3,842, with 1,320 of those being irretrievable. Obviously though not all the divisions saw an equal split of casualties. 60 Soviet Divisions were committed to the war before its conclusion, out of these the 18th Rifle Division of the 56th Corps suffered the highest losses. Becoming encircled in Lemetti in January, by the end of the war it had suffered 7,677 dead, another 5,223 were wounded or lost, from an initial force of 15,000. The 44th Rifle Division suffered the biggest single daily loss during the Battle of Suomussalmi with 1,001 dead, 2,243 missing, 1,000 captured and 1,430 wounded from an initial strength of 13,962. This gives a daily loss of 811 (the battle lasted 7 days).

A photo showing some of the Soviet dead from the 'Regiment Motti' in Feburary 1940. There is about 400 in this photo. Source: SA Kuva

Overall, the losses suffered by the Soviet Army, in comparison to the Finns, are massive. The Finns set up their own database in the early 90’s to help get a solid number of their dead. Their conclusion came to 26,662 irretrievable losses and 44,557 sanitary losses. This translates to a daily loss of 678 men or only 21% of that suffered by the Red Forces. This helps to push the idea that the Red Army was ineffective in the Winter War and was part of the reason why the Soviet Armed Forces went through such reforms in the early 40s.

So do we now have the exact number?

Despite Kilin’s brilliant work, and the praise he has received from his peers, he does go on to warn us that the figures should now be seen “as the very precise figure”. The oppurtunity afforded through the use of the internet to interact with relatives and more access to archives means he can adjust the data accordingly. He clarifies though that will the number will inevitable change in the future, it would be more along the lines of hundreds rather than thousands.

A monument in St.Petersburg, devoted to the victims of the Soviet–Finnish War 1939–1940. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Maryanna Nesina


Turtola, Martti, Perspective on the Finnish Winter War: Winter War-seminar in Helsinki 11 March 2010 (Edita Prima Oy, Helsinki 2010)

Monday, April 2, 2018

Heroes of Finland- Viljam Pylkäs

In 1954 the book Tuntematon Sotilas (Unknown Solider in English) appeared on the shelves of Finnish bookstores. By the end of 1955 over 161,000 copies had been sold nationwide. Since then the book has been adapted into three films, several theater additions, as well as having over 60 additions and translated into 20 languages. The book has sold over 800,000 copies and despite it being a fictional account, it is seen as an ‘excellent sociological document’ and a important part of Finnish culture.

While the characters of the book are fictional, they are based upon real individuals, and the settings do reflect the experiences of the author, who served as a NCO in a machine gun company during the Continuation War (1941-44).

During the novel, and films, there is a scene where the strong willed Winter War veteran Corporal Rokka ambushes a platoon of Soviets trying to outflank the Finnish line and single handledly kills all 50 of them. While to many it seems to be an overkill, unbelievable, the reality behind it is a whole lot more badass.

Viljam Pylkäs

Born to a farming family in the Karelian county of Valkjärvi in February 1912, Viljam Pylkäs followed the route of many of his peers and was conscripted into the Finnish Army in 1933. He served for a year, receiving training in the usage of the Maxim Machine Gun, as well as being assigned to the Karelian garrison. After being discharged in 1934, he went back to his farm in Sakkola and likely would have remained a nameless farmer if events had gone differently.

Viljam Pylkäs taken sometime in 1944/45 displaying his awards. Source:SA Kuva

Due to the increased aggression from the Soviet Union and the worry of invasion, Finland prepared itself with a mobilisation in October 1939 under the guise of extraordinary refresher training. During this mobilisation, the Separate Battalion 6 was raised from troops of the Coastal areas of northern part of the Ishtmus, and Pylkäs was assigned to the battalion’s machine gun company. His battalion became well known due to participating in the Battle of Kelja. Here 2 Finnish battalions fought off an assault by the Soviet 4th Rifle Division, however the Soviet bridgehead threatened the Finnish defensive line as more men and equipment were building up. The 6th were then ordered to attack the bridgehead and force the Soviets back to the other side of the Suvanto lake, after making preparation, the Finns attacked on the morning of the 27th December. The Soviets had dug in, with machine guns covering their flanks, and so the attack stalled against this heavy resistance. But the Finns were not deterred and launched a second strike only an hour after the first, this time they broke through, forcing the Soviets to flea across the iced Suvanto and at the mercy of the Finnish artillery that proceeded to smash the thin ice and swallow who squads of Soviet soldiers. Despite a victory, the battalion suffered 100 wounded and 52 killed.

The battalion saw action in the Taipale sector for the rest of the war, being subjected to heavy Soviet artillery and tank attacks. The unit did not break but was massively reduced in number and by the declaration of the armistice on the 13th March 1940, only 341 men were still able to fight out of an original strength of 1055.

Pylkäs was demobilised after the Winter War, and with his family, moved from the village of Sakkola, which was now inside Soviet territory, towards the interior of Finland and established a small farm. At the outbreak of the Continuation War in June 1941, Pylkäs was once again called up. This time he was assigned to the Machine Gun Company of Infantry Regiment 8.

During the advance into East Karelia, Pylkäs’ company participated in numerous battles and he performed with distinction. On one occasion he single-handedly captured a mortar position. Before the ceasing of offensive operations in December 1941, Pylkäs had been awarded the Medal of Liberty in both 2nd and 1st class and promoted to the rank of Corporal. Throughout the war he participated in several skirmishes, helped to established the frontline, went on leave to bring in the harvest and did the things that his comrades did. Despite being a well liked soldier by his peers, his attitude was not very military like and got him in to trouble with his superiors. During one event, a captain of another company demanded that he be saluted but Pylkäs replied that he came to fight, not to honour.

Pylkäs keeping watch. Source:

When the Soviet’s launched their Summer Offensive in June 1944, he was at his reclaimed home in Sakkola and after helping his wife and children pack, he returned to the front. He then participated in the fighting withdrawal from East Karelia until 4th July 1944 when he was gravely wounded crossing the Tulemajärvi. This ended his war but he was rewarded for his service by receiving a small farm in Punkalaidun. When Väinö Linna published his book, Tuntematon Sotilas, in 1955, he wrote to Pylkäs explaining how he was the model for Rokka.

He had 4 children and lived a relatively modest life as a farmer and forestry worker until he passed away in 1999.

The Ambush

On 12th April 1942, the frontline has been relatively static in the Pertjärvi region. However, the lines were not solid dug in trenches as would appear later but more fluidly placed defensive points by both sides. Infantry Regiment 8 and Infantry Regiment 61 (a Swedish speaking Finnish regiment of some fame) were assigned to the sector and had set about creating a defensive line. The Soviets had decided to launch an attack that day and a fierce firefight erupted along the forests and fields of Pertijärvi. The flank of the 61st was being pushed hard and so Pylkäs was ordered to go assist with another soldier. As they made their way through the deep snow covered terrain, they came across a Soviet platoon attempting to move through the gap between the regiments.

Map of the disposition of 11th Division's forces on the 11th and 12th April 1942. Source: Kansallisarkisto 

Here Pylkäs set himself up on a slight hill and ordered the other soldier, by the name of Kärkkäinen, to help with the reloading. Allowing for the gap to close, Pylkäs aimed his Suomi SMG and pulled the trigger. The Soviets were completely taken by surprise, attempting to scatter in the deep snow and return fire. One of these panicked shots hit Pylkäs in the head but luckily it was a graze and only stunned him for a few seconds, enough though that Kärkkäinen considered retreating. The firefight didn’t last long and the Soviets were soon forced to retreat, leaving many behind in their wake. The firing from the SMG left the snow black and melted, Pylkäs had used over 680 rounds as well as change the barrel of his weapon.

After everything had calmed down, the dead were counted and it was discovered that the field contained 83 dead Soviets. Pylkäs’ ambushed is credited with being the decisive factor that stopped the Soviets from achieving a breakthrough. He was awarded the Cross of Liberty 4th Class for his actions. His deeds reached the ears of the Germans and upon inspecting the sight, they awarded Pylkäs with the Iron Cross 2nd Class in August 1943.

Dispute over the number of killed

Over the years the official kill count of 83 has been disputed, mainly within Finland. The citation for the German Iron Cross only puts the kill count at 15. In Pylkäs’ own book, Rokka: Kertomus konekiväärimiehen sodasta, he only states that his comrades informed him they counted 80 dead Soviets. Numbers from other sources have given 13, 20 and 53 as the number that fell before Pylkäs’ sub-machine gun. Regardless of the exact number, even if as low as 13, the feat achieved is impressive. It also cannot be denied that Pylkäs did contribute to blunting the assault of the Soviets upon the positions of Infantry Regiment 61.

Pylkäs Iron Cross citiation. Source:


Monday, March 19, 2018

Tampere 1918 Exhibition– A Town in the Civil War

Recently I was visiting the city of Tampere, a few friends brought to my attention an interesting exhibition at a local museum. It was titled Tampere 1918 and held in Tampere’s main museum, Vapriiki.

A Poster for the exhibition. Source: Vapriiki
As Finland looks at the centennial of the start of the Battle of Tampere (15th March 1918), I thought it would be a good topic to look at this eye opening and wonderful exhibit.


The Battle of Tampere holds the dubious distinction of being the largest, longest and bloodiest battle of the Finnish Civil War. It was one of the most decisive engagements of the war, it saw the Reds forced unto the defensive and give the initiative to the White forces. It saw large scale urban fighting, as well as uncontrolled violence in the form of executions and fierce beatings. By the time the battle ended on the 6th April, some 820 Whites, 1,000 Reds and 71 civilians had been killed in the fighting but by the end of the war, an additional 1,000 or so Reds were summarily executed.

Today, despite the White victory, the scars of the battle are still visible both physically (bullet holes on buildings and graves) and mentally (protests and vandalized of memorials). However though, with the passage of time and a more open minded and willing generation of historians, the treatment of this conflict and processing the trauma associated with it has become ‘easier’ and allowed many to come to terms with it.

One of the many posts around the exhibition that help give information and ask fundamental questions. Source: Personal Collection

Behind the Exhibit

When the 90th anniversary of the Finnish Civil War was commemorated in 2008, discussions were held in Tampere about how the city could remember, reconcile and commemorate the War, and specifically their City’s central point.

Luckily, thanks to the efforts of those who came before, especially the artist Gabriel Engberg, who collected numerous objects and documents relating to the battle and which had been stored in the various Tampere museums collections. It was decided by the Museum heads that Vapriikki would host a new exhibition and research project based around the collections, entitled ‘Tampere 1918’. With the help of Tampere University’s Department of History and Philsophy, a whole host of researchers and Museum workers came together to produce the exhibit as well as various associated materials. The main architect of the exhibition was Taina Väisänen.

Source: Vapriiki
The exhibition was opened in April 2008, to coincided with the 90th anniversary of the ending of the Battle of Tampere. The main goal it was to show the conflict from numerous angles, as well as presenting as unbiased and fair viewpoint to the audience as possible. A book, ‘Tampere 1918 – A Town in the Civil War’ was also released alongside the exhibit, filled with numerous articles by various historians to help paint a bigger and clearer picture of the Battle.

The Exhibition overall attempts to give people a better understanding of the times and situation surrounding such a sore point and to give people, of all backgrounds, an opportunity to come to terms with what had happened.

The Exhibition

Put on the first floor of the Museum, you are first presented with numerous banners of the various workers’ groups of the city, artifacts of the Russian Empire and a opening question ‘Why Tampere 1918?’. The exhibition is divided into roughly 4 rooms and in that first room the visitor is subjected to the background of the Civil War. The precarious position Finland occupied in the Russian Empire, the geopolitical situation of the First World War and how it was affected the Finnish people. From stories of the frustrated Finnish worker to the uniforms of the local Russian garrison, it struck me with how divided Finland was at the turn of the 20th Century. One of the highlights of that first section was the giant timeline of the far wall, displaying all the events relating to the First World War, Finland and Tampere respectively between 1914 to 1918.

A collection of banners used by various trade unions in protests during the run up to the First World War. Source: personal collection
Walking into the next room, you are drawn to a little hole in the floor, within it is a bag and a knife. A guidebook soon explains that there are 26 floor showcases and each one contains recovered artifacts from the battle, with the majority being recovered by Gabriel Engberg during the Spring of 1918. This room seems to mainly focus upon the two opposing forces, how they were made up, their equipment. On walls there are pictures displaying members of the Red Guard and the White Guard, to look at these youthful men, you wouldn’t have thought they were fighting against one another, how similar they looked. A few display cases show uniforms of White volunteers from Sweden, German infantry, Red Guards and White Guards. We see various Russian equipment, showing how the two sides mainly scavenged what they could from the collapsing Empire’s military stores. Soon you are subjected to the loud boom of a canon and in the corner you can see a Russian 76.2 mm divisional gun model 1902. These guns made up the vast majority of the artillery forces for both sides during the conflict.

One of the 26 floor showcases. This one shows a Finnish produced steel helmet that was to be issued to Russian forces but ended up in the hands of both sides. Alongside it are other various artifacts found upon the former battlefields of Tampere. Source: Personal collection

The next room presents the battle, its aftermath and the atrocities committed. The various artifacts show how the battle affected all present, Reds, Whites and especially Civilians. There are a few interactive displays dotted across the room, giving a deeper story. One picture shows a lifeless child who had been caught in the crossfire between Reds and Whites and really drives home the horror of Civil Wars, especially those fought in urban areas. Photos showing surrendered Reds, executions, wounded in hospitals all drive home the disaster of war.

The last section has a sitting area and a book shelf with various reference materials for someone to look deeper into the war. It displays the aftermath of the war, the numerous orphans that occurred, the attempts at rebuilding Finnish society as a unified state, the memorials built to commemorate both sides, as well as personal stories for us to get a feel of how it was to be there.


It is easy to see why the Tampere 1918 exhibition has won awards. It is full of objects and displays to help the individual look at the Battle and the circumstances surrounding it. The fact that the exhibition doesn’t pick sides and sticks to facts helps it come off as an impartial observer. The many interactive displays, overlaying authentic sounds and highlighted displays really helps mark the exhibit as a unique look at the chaos of Civil War.

A pride of place in the exhibit. The 76mm canon; 179 of these were acquired by the end of the Civil War and were the basis of the Finnish Artillery Corps. These type of guns were also the first to fire shots during the Battle of Oulu in Feburary 1918. Source: Personal collection

The goals laid out by the team are really met, it helps one make sense of the Battle, why things went the way they did and how we can move forward. It presents the individual with a question, What would you have done in the situation?, and really drives home how things are easy in hindsight but at the time it isn’t as easy as picking a side.

It is well worth a visit, the information is presented in Finnish, English, Swedish and Russian, so it is inclusive of a wide range of people.

For information on Vapriiki’s openings and prices:


Haapala, Pertti, Tampere 1918: A Town in the Civil War (Tampere Museums, Museum Centre Vapriikki, 2010)

Monday, March 12, 2018

100 Years of the Finnish Air Force – The Knights of the Sky

Last week, on the 6th March, the Finnish Air Force celebrated 100 years since their foundation. Part of the celebrations included a fly past by the Air Force aerobatic team, the Midnight Hawks, over the cities of Helsinki, Vantaa and Espoo.

So in honour of the 100th year of the Finnish Air Force protecting Finland’s airspace, I thought I would do this post on an overview of the Air Force, its past, its present and its future.

The Beginning

At the time that Finland’s Parliament accepted the Declaration of Independence, 6th December 1917, there were several aircraft of the Imperial Russian Air Service dotted around Finland. Due to chaos of the Russian revolution and subsequent civil war, the aircraft were stuck in limbo. As tensions in Finland grew between the left leaning Reds and the central and right leaning Whites, some of these aircraft were seized by the sides.

General Baron Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, commander of the White Forces, recognised the need for aircraft especially in reconnaissance and set about setting up an air contingent for his forces. Any White soldier who had experience with aircraft was asked to help and soon a small corps was founded, all that was needed were aircraft and experienced pilots. Finnish pilots, who had either served in the IRAS or similar, like Valfrid Nykänen and Emil Skogberg, as well as sympathetic foreigners like John-Allan Hügerth and Carl Seber, made up those early pioneers of the Finnish Air Force.

The first aircraft of the Finnish Air Force was the Swedish produced NAB Type 9 Albatros, a reconnaissance and training plane which was also a licensed copy of the German Albatros B.II, which was bought using collected funds of the Friends of Finland Association. However, its ferry flight to Vaasa was cut short at Pietarsaari by engine failure. On the 6th March, a Thulin typ D reconnaissance plane (a Swedish copy of the Morane-Saulnier Parasol), landed at Vaasa with Lieutenant Nils Kindberg and the plane’s donor, Count Eric von Rosen. Mannerheim’s Order of the Day called it ‘Airplane Number 1’ and so it was marked as F.1 to signify it as the first official aircraft of an Independent Finland’s Air Force. The plane also had the Count’s personal good luck charm painted upon it, a Blue Swastika, and on 18th March the symbol was adopted as the official symbol of the Finnish Air Force.

The first aircraft of the Finnish Air Force, a Thulin typ D. Seen here in the city of Vaasa soon after it arrived in March 1918. Source: Finnish Air Force

For the rest of the Civil War, White Aircraft supported the ground forces in providing reconnaissance, as well as conducting small scale bombing. By the end of the Civil War, the Air Force stood at 40 various types of aircraft and in the post-war reorganization the Air Force was divided into 5 air stations, 4 of which were equipped to handle seaplanes. The main task of the Air Force was now concentrated around surveillance of their borders, especially the Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga areas.

The Inter War Years

During the rebuilding of Finland in the wake of a brutal Civil War, the Air Force was looked at in comparison to its contempories , especially France and Britain. Soon French instructors were teaching Finnish pilots and British aviation experts were offering their opinions to the Air Force staff. To meet the new challenges of international military aviation, Finland adopted a policy to use its limited resources, coupled with its vast number of lakes, and concentrated mainly on procuring floatplanes like the Hansa-Brandenburg W.33 (Which the Finns then built under license as the IVL A.22 Hansa).

However, due to the lack of funds, small amounts of experience, conflicting schools of thought, political interference, the Finnish Air Force between 1919-1930 saw itself acquire a mass of various differing aircraft (up to 14/15 different types in service at any one time), as well as not adopting one long term strategy. This all changed when General Mannerheim was appointed Chairman of the Defence Committee and he promptly set up an investigatory commission to look at the status of the Finnish Military. After this investigation, the Finnish Air Force took on a program that was heavily influenced by a offensive fight arm, which was mainly land based and pushed more towards the East (as the Soviet Union was seen as the main threat to Finland’s sovereignty). Training, both of pilots and maintenance crews as well as their cooperation, was streamlined.

Pilots in front of a Breguet 14 A 2 Reconnaissance plane. These were in service from 1919-1927. Source: Finnish Air Force

With the chaos that was breaking out in Europe in the mid-30s, Finland knew it would be only a matter of time before a new war would break out and that in order to do its best to safeguard its sovereignty, it would need a strong military arm. Negotiations with the other Nordic countries to form a joint defence pact came to naught, declarations of neutrality could only go so far, and nonaggression pacts were only pieces of paper.

1937 saw a five-year programme that included 11 squadrons comprising 81 fighters, 27 bombers, 52 reconnaissance and light ground attack planes for liaison with the army and 13 maritime
reconnaissance aircraft. Fighter pilots developed a 2 and 2 plane formation, dropping the more popular 1 lead aircraft and 2 wingmen formations of the other air forces. This allowed for more flexible use of numbers, and when put together with an emphasis upon individual precision of air to air gunnery, it allowed Finnish pilots to substitute their lack of numbers with skill.

The War Years

On the Morning of 30th November 1939, Soviet forces crossed the Soviet-Finnish border without a declaration of war. The Finns weren’t completely ignorant to the situation, the Soviets had been aggressive in their attempts to gain Finnish territory during the previous months negotiations and their actions in Poland and the Baltic states, as well as the obvious military build up in the Karelian Ishtmus, all pointed towards the possibility of war. With this knowledge, Mannerheim had called for mobilisation under the guise of extraordinary maneuvers in October, reserves were called up, formations were sent to advanced positions, the Air Force was put at combat readiness from 7th October with its reserves arriving from the 14th.

At the outbreak of the war, the Air Force had only two fighter squadrons (Lentolaivue 24 and 26) which had only 55 aircraft between them (and only 46 were airworthy at the time). There was also two bomber squadrons with 15 Blenheims between them, as well as 56 other various aircraft which former Air Force commander, Major General Heikki Nikunen, said “would
have belonged better in a museum than on a battlefield”. Their Anti-Aircraft defences (which were subordinated under Air Force control in 1938) weren’t much better, with only 11 heavy
and 7 light batteries and even these lacked weaponry. The only branch of the Air Force that seemed to be sufficient was the surveillance section, but even this suffered from a poor telecommunications network that meant that fighter control and air defence coordination suffered.

What they lack in equipment, ammunition and numbers, were more than made up for in training and motivation to defend their fatherland. Individual pilots were trained to hold their fire until within 50 metres of their target, they were given freedom of action and had a first see, first shoot doctrine. From the first days of operations, the Finns showed their superior ability, and despite being vastly outnumbered by the Soviets (who deployed around 3,000 aircraft of various types), by racking up kills in numbers of great proportions. The Finnish Government also scrabbled to secure any fighter aircraft they could, from any source, and soon a ragtag air force consisting of Fiat G.50s, Gloster
Gladiator IIs, Morane-Saulnier M.S. 406 types and others were operating day and night against the waves of Soviet aircraft.

The Finnish determination paid off as when the Winter War ended on the morning of 13th March 1940, the Finnish Air Force had a confirmed 218 kills for a lost of only 47 (a further 15 aircraft were written off during the course of the war) and the Anti-Aircraft defences claimed a further 314 Soviet kills.

During the Interim Peace period, the Finnish Air Force set about assessing its performance during the war and expanding and reorganising itself (The Finns didn’t put much faith in the terms of peace holding out). The State Aircraft Factory repaired damaged aircraft and built new ones under licences, also new aircraft were ordered from abroad. Improvements were also taken in the fields of command and control, anti-air defences, airfield equipment, as these areas were sorely lacking in the Winter War. Germany also built up closer relations with Finland, selling captured aircraft (like the Curtiss Hawk) and anti-aircraft guns (like the Skoda 7.5cm PL vz. 37)

The Continuation War started soon after the commencement of the German invasion of the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa, 21st June 1941). German aircraft, returning from missions against the Leningrad area, refueled at Utti, and this prompted a response from the Soviets during the early hours of the 22nd. 7 Bombers launched a strike against Finnish naval units and then on the 25th a strikeforce of 460 aircraft hit several targets (including the cities of Helsinki, Turku and Porvoo). This then allowed Finland to declare war and work openly with the Germans.

Pilots ready for scrambling. Behind them are Messerschmitt Bf 109s, bought from Germany, they allowed Finland to keep up with the USSR. Source: Finnish Air Force

The Air Force supported the initial offensives on the Karelian Isthmus, Syväri and the Maaselkä Isthmus. This greatly contributed to troop morale and a more effective combined arms military. Within a short time the Finns had achieve air superiority and the Soviet Air Force was forced to take up a very defensive and limited posture. Once the offensives had ceased in December 1941, the Air Force took on the important role of long range reconnaissance, front line air superiority and support, as well as protecting the home front from Soviet bombing. The Gulf of Finland became the main battlespace for the Finnish Air Force, as they attempted to stop Soviet bomber formations before they reach Finland. The advantage though of this ‘Trench War’ phase of the Continuation War meant that the Air Force could improve at a gradual pace, train pilots better, increase command and control and streamline their performance. The friendly relations with Germany allowed for more modern aircraft to be adopted, like the Dornier Do 17 and Junkers Ju 88 bombers and the Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters.

The tides of war turned on Finland when the Soviets launched their ‘Summer Offensives’ in 1944, ending the mostly static ‘Trench’ phase of the Finnish front. As the Finnish ground forces retreated, the Air Force was there, providing 24 hour cover, accounting themselves very well, even in more obsolete aircraft like the Fiat G.50 and the Curtiss Hawk. After the defensive victories at Tali-Ihantala and Vuosalmi, an armistice was signed in September between Finland and the Soviet Union, bringing the Continuation War to an end. The Air Force achieved amazing results, with 1,621 aerial victories confirmed for a loss of only 182 aircraft. 87 pilots achieved ace status which, in proportion to national population, means the number of Finnish flying aces is a world record.

Finland’s wars didn’t end here however, part of the terms of the armistice means that Finland had to expelled the previously friend German forces from their land. A special detachment, under Colonel Olavi Sarko, of 60 aircraft of various types were to support the Finnish operations in Lapland. These aircraft saw themselves being used in gathering intelligence on the whereabouts of German forces, gaining air superiority and bombing missions. However, due to the conditions in Lapland, the Finnish Air Force suffered greatly, loosing 10 aircraft and 16 crew members.

Post-War and the Cold War Years

The Paris Peace Treaty of 1947 saw restrictions placed upon Finland, and the Air Force was no exception. It was to have no more than 60 combat aircraft and a maximum strength of 3,000 persons. It couldn’t have any offensive weapons, internal bomb bays, weaponry of German origin or guided missiles. These restrictions, as well as the natural inevitability of peace time, meant that the Air Force saw itself greatly reduced in strength. It saw itself in a sort of limbo until a reorganizationin 1952, where its traditional structure was turned into a more centralised but flexible Air Command structure. This allowed the lessons from the Wars to be used more effectively, each command had access to fighter, training, reconnaissance and intelligence, and these could be quickly redeployed as and when needed.

To the jet age. The de Havilland Vampire allowed Finland to enter the new era of international military aviation. Source: Finnish Air Force
1953 saw the first jet aircraft bought by the Air Force, a de Havilland Vampire. This was the start of Finland’s intergration into the modern arena of military aviation. Soon revisions in the treaties were seen, like the dropping of the ban on guided missiles in 1963. New radar systems, coupled with better jets, meant that by the end of the 1960s, the Finnish Air Force could defend its entire airspace more or less effectively. And by the end of the 70s, with the purchasing of the SAAB Draken, Finland had complete all-weather, all-seasonal defence, alongside modern surveillance systems and secure command and control facilities.

Fall of the USSR and Modern times

On 22 September 1990, a week before the unification of Germany, the Finnish Government declared that all parts of the Paris Peace Treaty were no longer valid. All the signatory states forwent objection and thus solidifying Finland’s declaration. This allowed the sourcing of materials from Germany, as well as allowing for offensive weaponry.

As the Soviet Union was also no longer present, Finland was more free to purchase a completely independent geopolictical policy. The Air Force set about modernising its aged fleet (made up of MiGs and SAABs) and purchased F/A-18 Hornets (of the C and D models). These were chosen over other models as the most efficient for Finland’s needs, meeting the requirements performance and cost. This broke down into all weather capability, ability to take off from improvised airstrips (roads), inception beyond visual range, life cycle, effectiveness of armaments and maintenance.

Finland’s joining of the European Union and NATO's Partnership for Peace programme allowed it to become more versed in international techniques and allowed for more diverse training.

Today and beyond

The main goal of the Finnish Air Force, has been and is, the defending and monitoring of Finnish Air Space. With investments in surveillance equipment, aircraft and other supports, the Finnish Air Force maintains a round the clock, all year monitoring on Finland’s sovereign territory.

As the Baltic has grown more crowded in terms of military traffic, the Air Force has been tested and shown itself more than capable. With multiple airspace violations every year, many by unidentified (with transponders off) aircraft, Hornets scrambled within seconds are able to close and identify the intruder and monitor the situation.

The F/A-18 C successfully firing the AGM-158 JASSM (Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Weapon) as part of the Mid-Life Upgrade (MLU) 2 programme. Source: Finnish Air Force
As with all departments of the Government, the Air Force is also part of Finland crisis response and so has worked closely with other branches of the Government to provide support in the case of a local or national emergency. In the case of conflict, the Air Force will defend important assets across the country and maintain air superiority over its territory in order to allow the Defence Forces freedom of operation. It also has air to ground capability and with training in interoperatbility, it can provide essentially support to other branches of the Defence Forces.

For more information on the Finnish Air Force check:

For the news of the Air Force 100 celebrations:


Nikunen, Heikki, Air Defence in Northern Europe (National Defence College Helsinki 1997)

Monday, March 5, 2018

The Nicolina Sisters – The Badass Karelian Women of the Military Medal

On the 6th September 1916, King George V presented the Military Medal to 6 women, The Lady Dorothie Mary Evelyn Feilding of the Munro British Red Cross Motor Ambulance Corps; Matron Miss Mabel Mary Tunley, Sister Miss Beatrice Alice Allsop, Sister Miss Norah Easeby, and Staff Nurse Miss Ethel Hutchinson, all of the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service; and Staff Nurse Miss Jean Strachan Whyte, of the Territorial Force Nursing Service. These became the first women to be awarded the newly established award (the Military Medal having been established on 25th March 1916 “for acts of gallantry and devotion to duty under fire”).

The 1st September 1916 supplement of The London Gazette, with the names of the first 6 females decorated with the Military Medal. Source: The London Gazette

Since then the award has officially been given to 146 women before it was discontinued in 1993 and all ranks could be awarded the Military Medal (previously only given to Commissioned Warrant Officers).

However, the Military Medal was also given in an ‘immediate’ form to foreigners serving under British control. Here is where we find the awarding of 2 Military Medals to a pair of Sisters serving under Major General Maynard, commander of the Murmansk Force, North Russian Expeditionary Force.

Kem in 1916 with the original Military Medal overlaid. Source: both Wikipedia, edited by myself through GIMP


After the collapse of the Tsarist Government of the Russian Empire in 1917, the Western Powers became more and more concerned about the withdrawal of the Russians from the war, thus allowing for a mass transfer of Forces from the Eastern Front to the Western Front. When the newly empowered Bolsheviks entered into what would become known as the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Allied Forces of the West knew that they had to secure their Eastern Allies (many Tsarist/anti-Communist groups ‘Whites’ were still fighting). A force made up of Imperial British, French, Italian, Serbian, Polish and American troops were sent to Murmansk and Archangel with the objective of securing Western given supplies in those areas to deny them to the Bolsheviks and Germans, to help the White Forces become more organised and better trained, and to deny those areas to the Germans (and their White Finnish allies) for use as U-Boat bases.

The SYREN Force (Murmansk) under command of Major General Maynard recruited several locals into ‘local’ regiments to help reinforce their small force. One of the most interesting is the Murmansk Legion (which I will look at in a future post), made up of Finnish Reds who had escaped Finland during the Finnish Civil War. Another, equally interesting but less well known, is the Karelian Regiment, also called the ‘Royal Irish Karelians’.

This unit was formed 7th July 1918 in Kem, Russia, under the command of Colonel Woods, of the Royal Ulster Rifles, who had been instructed by General Maynard to “do something with them [Karelians]”. The force started around a small cadre of British officers and NCOs and 65 Karelians (many were former soldiers in the Tsarist army) but soon grew to a peak of around 4,000 men and women.

A young member of the Karelian Regiment. Notice the Shamrock capbadge. Source: Imperial War Museum

The Karelian Women's Auxiliary 

Alongside the fighting males, a large number of women (unfortunately the exact number hasn’t been determined) also served under Woods in a Karelian Women's Auxiliary. The main tasks of these “healthy, capable and cheery,” women were to row the boats filled with fighting men, supplies and other materials to help keep the Regiment functions; they also performed the roles of cooks. Woods had much praise for these women, stating they were “quite at home in river craft, often rowing all day from seven o’clock in the morning until seven at night with only one rest of an hour’s duration and against a current of 2,5 to 3 knots. This they could and did maintain for days on end, and on landing it was their duty to cook the food”.

The women were often young, unmarried, and had escaped the advance of the Finns into their territory. They were eager to do their part in helping to liberate it from the invaders. General Maynard records about the women, “They were excellent waterwomen, and had a fixed determination to assist their menfolk in driving out the Finns.” However, despite their young, innocent age, they were hardy and able to handle their own. Woods recounts that there was only one incident of ungentlemanly conduct from the men; his own batman (a soldier who acted as an officer's servant), Johnston, decided he would play the comedian and ‘help’ a cook. He approached the smiling cook and proceeded to encircle his arms around her waist. Woods continues with “His head rang for hours with the playful box on the ears he received for his pains from the blushing lady”.

Major General Maynard and his Chief of Staff, Colonel Lewin. Circa 1918. Source: The Murmansk Venture

The Nicolina Sisters

It wasn’t just in ‘defence’ of their personal space could these women show moxie.
Another case recorded by Woods is of Ackolina and Sasha Nicolina, two young sisters who were the sole crew of a small ration boat. During a convoy to bring much needed supplies to the Karelian Regiment in their summer 1918 Uhtua Campaign, they raced ahead of the other vessels “in order to attend to some private and domestic matter of their own in the next village”, it was whilst alone that their watercraft was spotted by three Finnish soldiers operating behind the front lines. They were hidden within the reeds of the banks and soon pushed out in the small boat and approached the girls. While two rowed, the third balanced himself at the bow and pointed his rifle at the Karelians demanding their stopping. The women refused the order and attempted to row to safety, prompting the reaction of the Finn firing his rifle. Lucky for the girls, the Finn's aim was poor (Woods states “his position and the movement of the boats caused him to miss his target”), and after several shots, of which the only casualty was a tin of biscuits and presumable the Finn’s pride, the women faltered and then turned their boat around and headed towards them.

Here the Finns must have thought they had won, Woods comments that the Finns stopped rowing and one even shouted “a list of many punishments about to be meted out to them”. But as they closed, the Finns started to give them directions and cursed them for not following commands, it was here that the girls suddenly swerved their vessel and smashed it directly amidship of the Finnish boat. The Finn who had fired at them, who was now disarmed and bent down ready to secure the Karelian supply boat, was thrust overboard with the impact. The two rowers got up and prepared themselves to fight. The first received a swift, but powerful jab which toppled him after his companion into the river, the second connected with a well aimed oar shot that snapped his neck, killing him instantly, and his corpse fell into the water. The convoy guards picked up the first man, the other two bodies were found later at the bottom of the rapids. The Finnish boat was added to the Karelian inventory.

General Maynard commented on this action, “The Karelian women had never heard of Nelson, but they acted as, in all probability, he would have done...the Karelian women proceeded to belabour them (The Finns) with their oars.” He continues “However unprecedented and irregular it might be, I felt that devotion such as this should not go unrewarded, and a little later I decorated both women with our Military Medal. There were, I think, no two prouder ladies in North Russia that day.”


The Times’ Murmansk correspondent, Andrew Soutar, wrote an article entitled ‘Royal Irish Karelians. A Tale of Two River Amazons’ which was published in April 1919. It spoke about the founding of the Regiment, its Shamrock badge, its victories against the White Finns and, erroneously, the awarding of the Military Cross to the two women.

Major-General Charles Maynard, later knighted, published the account in his memoirs, The Murmansk Venture, in 1928. The story was also included in Colonel Philip Woods’ unpublished memoirs, which were eventually published in a two volume transcript by Professor Nick Baron, The King of Karelia: Colonel P. J. Woods and the British Intervention in North Russia 1918-1919 : a Brief History and Memoir. Unfortunately their story is not in Norman Gooding’s book, Honours and Awards to Women The Military Medal.

Colonel Woods, Commanding Officer, The Karelian Regiment. Circa 1918. Source: Imperial War Museum
The Karelian Regiment, alongside their females auxiliaries, continued on their campaign, eventually expelling the German supported Finns from their land and then helping support the rest of the SYREN Force in securing a line at Lake Onega. In the end the Regiment was broken up and disbanded due to White Russian politics and distrust. After successfully breaking it up, they finally managed to get it downgraded from a fighting unit to a labour and outpost reinforcement unit – angering many of their number, who eventually quit or deserted.

Unfortunately, like many stories outside of the popular campaigns of Military History, this tale of extreme courage, of female ferocity, has largely been forgotten.  It is thought provoking to wonder what happened to these sisters and their medals after the evacuation of Allied forces in the area, the subsequent chaos of the Russian Civil War and the eventual turning of Karelia into a Soviet republic.

Baron, Nick, The King of Karelia: Colonel P. J. Woods and the British Intervention in North Russia 1918-1919 : a Brief History and Memoir (Francis Boutle Publishers, 2007)
Maynard, Major General Sir Charles, The Murmansk Venture (The Naval & Military Press, 2010)

Friday, May 26, 2017

100 years of the Hanging Tree

Just after midnight on the 3rd or 6th of October 1916 , a figure was escorted by soldiers to a wooded area outside of the city of Oulu and then hung from a tree. The next day his lifeless corpse was buried by the tree in an unmarked grave. He would become the last person hanged in Finland.

The man’s name was Taavetti Lukkarinen, a forestry foreman and his crime was high treason. But what were the details of his crime?

Finland in 1916 was part of the Russian Empire under the title of the Grand Duchy of Finland. While technically an autonomous region of the Empire, it was still ruled by the Tsar, Nicholas II, and his representative, the Governor-General Franz Albert Seyna, who were limiting the power of the Finnish Diet in a period know as the Russification.

When Russia went to war with the Central Powers in 1914, Finland was obviously in tow too, and many of Finland’s young men became part of the Russian war machine. Some, however, continued in their normal occupations and some others still supported the Central Powers.

Finland saw numerous Prisoner of War camps dotted across its landscape and became the ‘home’ of many German soldiers, captured on the Eastern Front until peace was declared. Like many POW camps, there were escape attempts, and one camp in the Oulu/Kemi area saw 3 German soldiers escape in December 1915. The harsh winter made it difficult for the Germans but they did find a sympathetic ear in the local population and soon found their way to Kemi (107km north of Oulu) with the intention of getting to the border city of Tornio and into neutral Sweden. Lukkarinen decided to help hide the Germans near the train station but all 4 were soon caught by the Russian authorities. On their way to a new holding facility, Lukkarinen managed to escape and cross the border into Sweden.

He would have remained safe there if not for homesickness. Getting passage to Finland on a forged passport, he made his way by train to Oulu but on getting jitters he jumped off shortly before the main station. His act would be witnessed by Russian soldiers who soon tracked him down and arrested him. His identity was discovered and he was taken to Oulu Prison to await trial. Finland, like all of the Russian Empire, was under Martial Law because of the war and so Taavetti’s trial was to be held in a secret court by the VI Corps. He was declared a traitor to the state and that he would be hanged for high treason. His execution was kept a secret and he saw himself moved in the dead of the night to a horse drawn cart surrounded by 40 Russian soldiers, the site chosen was a place known as Kontinkangas, part of the military area of the Oulu Garrison but outside of the city grid. The only Finns present at his hanging were the Prison Priest and 2 Finnish policemen.

However, the secrecy didn’t last long and despite orders to keep clear of the area, Finns started to visit the area on Sundays in an act of protest towards the hanging, they carved crosses into the hanging tree and the surrounding trees. Oulu’s Governor, Axel Enehjelm, was criticized for his lack of action to try and save Taavetti. Soon the Russian authorities became irate and orders were given to cut down the trees in the area and to deter Finns from visiting the area, forcibly if needed.

This did not deter the remembrance of the event and soon after Finland gained its independence the site became a sacred spot. In 1935 a memorial was erected in the area and given a very patriotic and moving ceremony, attended by Veterans of the Civil War and Lukkarinen’s widow and two children. The memorial is a iron fence on a red granite base surrounding a tree, obviously the tree isn’t the actual tree but its symbolism is what has become important. The tree became a symbol to many as a reminder of the harsh days of Russian rule. Until its closing down, the Oulu Garrson used to take the new recruits here as part of a three stop tour, it was used as evidence of what would happen to them if their motherland was ever taken by foreign troops.

As for the body of Taavetti, it was exhumed shortly after the independence of Finland and interned at the main Oulu cemetery. His memorial and grave are maintained by the Artillerymen guild of Northern Finland and the Oulu Chapter of the Lions Club. His memory is still remembered 100 years on and he has become a symbol for how important it is for Finland to remain independent and in charge of its own affairs.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Pudasjärvi Incident: A betrayal of Comrades?

If you head towards Kuusamo from Oulu you'll come across a lone M1938 152mm Howitzer just before you come into Pudasjärvi (about 70km from Oulu) For many people it is nothing more than just exactly that, an old piece of military equipment out on display for no particular reason. However for those interested in military history, the piece marks an important point in the Second World War and for Finnish-German relations.

Source:- Personal collection
The Finns started negotiating a separate peace with the Soviet Union from the end of 1943 to early 1944. Feeling the writing was on the wall for their cooperation, the Germans started to make plans for a withdrawal from Finland proper (with the exception of occupying the vital Petsamo nickel mines). However the negotiations broke down as the Soviets demanded too harsh a terms for the Finns to accept and so the Finnish-German military cooperation continued and in response the Soviet's launched a massive offensive on the Finnish positions in Karelia. From June the Finnish front started to collapse and a retreat through several defensive lines occurred in a short time. Soon the Finns found themselves in a precarious position, with the threat of their entire defence crumbling and allowing for a Soviet strike in the Finnish heartland. However, with the help of the Germans, they managed to stablelise the front by the end of July and reopened negotiations with the USSR.

A ceasefire was enacted by the Finns on September 4th (and curiously by the Soviets on the 5th). As part of the negotiations, the Finns were forced to demobilise their military to a peacetime footing within two and a half months and also expel all remaining German forces by the 15th September. The Finns had no desire to continue fighting, especially against their former brothers in arms, and so a period known as Syysmanööverit came into being. This basically was a secret agreement between the Finns and Germans for an orderly withdrawal, followed by Finns 'capturing' the lossed ground. The idea was to avoid any actual fighting and to save the kinship of the two nations. Coming into effect on the 14th September, the patomine helped save the city of Oulu from destruction (as it was evacuated on the 15th September and 'retaken' later in the same day by the 15th Brigade of the 6th Division). The Finns gathered their forces at Oulu (as well as other places like Kajaani and Suomussalmi) with the intention of slowly moving up behind the German retreat, however the soviet led Allied Control Commission arrived in Finland on the 22nd September and demanded that harsher and more rigorous action be used in the eviction of the Germans. Fearing 'help' from the Soviets in this task, Mannerheim assigned Lieutenant General Hjalmar Siilasvuo to the task and ordered that he take a more willing and prompt line.

Upon his arrival in Oulu, General Siilasvuo ordered the 5th Jaeger Battalion (of the Armoured Division) to advance to the town of Pudasjärvi to disarm the German contingent there and secure the bridge in the area. The Battalion's vanguard arrived, led by Major Veikko Lounila, at the crossroads just outside of the town and encountered a rearguard of the 7th Mountain Division. Major Lounila demanded their surrender but was refused and a firefight broke out. The short exchange of fire ended with no Finnish casualties but 2 dead Germans, 4 wounded and 2 prisoners. A ceasefire was called and Major Lounila again demanded the Germans in Pudasjärvi surrender. He was refused again but instead of launching an assault, he ordered his battalion to adopt defensive positions. Small exchanges of fire occurred for the next two days until the Germans withdrew across the Ii river and the 5th Jaeger Battalion occupied Pudasjärvi.

Source: Personal Collection

The incident was seen by the Germans as a betrayal of the secret withdrawal agreement. General Lothar Rendulic, commander of the 20th Mountain Army, gave permission to Lieutenant General August Krakau, commander of the 7th Mountain Division, to defend themselves from the Finns, by force is necessary. He also got in contact with General Siilasvuo and demanded that the agreement be held or that open hostilities would follow. This incident was soon followed up by similar in Kemi, Olhava and the Tornio landings.

The memorial stands as reminder of the price of forming alliances, of being forced to take actions that don't sit well in the moral consitution, of the first shots of the Lapland War, of the epilogue of Finland's Wars.