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.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Battle of Oulu: A forgotten liberation

Finland declared its independence from the Russian Empire on December 4th 1917, two days (6th) later the Finnish Senate adopted the declaration and thus taking its destiny into its own hands for the first time in its existence.

However like the birth of anything, there was to be pains in its coming. The Social Democrats and other left leaning groups refused to recognise the power of the slight majority held by Conservative and other right leaning groups.Soon both sides came to blows, each one claiming to be acting in defence, tearing the country apart along social, political and class lines. After a brief, 3 month conflict, the war ended with the Conservative and Right side (names the Whites) emerging victorious. But as the old adage says 'In war, whichever side may call itself the victor, there are no winners, but all are losers.' and Finland saw 1.2% of its population dead as a direct result of the war, its population growth took a -15, 608 nature change dive.

The Civil War saw several major battles between the Forces of the Whites and Reds, as well as numerous minor skirmishes throughout the Finnish landscape. One of these major, but often overlooked and forgotten, battles was for the City of Oulu.

Map of the division at the start of the Finnish Civil War.
Source: Wikipedia
Oulu occupied a strategic location for two reasons. Firstly it was a hub for the railway system (the lines on the map) and so whoever controlled the rails could transport troops and supplies rapidly to the major population centres of Finland. Secondly was that Oulu held a fairly large garrison of Russian troops who were now waiting around for orders. This meant that there was a large amount of military equipment ready to be appropriated for the cause.

As Oulu was a modest industrial city, it held more left leaning supporters than right and with this the local Red Guard  made their presence known. On the 30th January, the Oulun suojeluskunta (Oulu city’s White Civic Guard) went to the local Russian garrison to secure their arms in accordance with Mannerheim's orders to strip the Ostrobothnia are of all military equipment. However when the small contingent  arrived at the barracks they found themselves confronted by members of Oulu's  Workers Red Guard and a gunfight broke out between the two factions. Now the White Guard retreated to the Cathderal area of the City and entrenched themselves there, while also calling for support from nearby Suojeluskunta units. 

The Reds knowing they would soon need to repel an attack gathered as much firearms and munitions from the Russian Garrison and even took on volunteers from the soldiers. Soon the Red Guard ranks swelled from 700 to around a 1,000 and they fortified the area around the Garrison, train station and the fire house. They also laid siege to the defences of the local White Guard.

Upon hearing of the situation, Mannerheim ordered Colonel Alexander von Tunzelman Adlerflug, who had just taken control of the nearby town of Raahe (1st February). Colonel Adlerflug arrived with an advanced party by train and was met by a Workers Council led by Yrjö Henrik Kallinen. Kallinen was a pacifist and suggested that both sides throw their weapons into the Oulu river and go their separate ways but Colonel Adlerflug demanded unconditional surrender and the more militant members of the Red Guard wanted to fight. Mannerheim wanted quick results and so sent another column consisting of 200 men (including some veteran Jaegers, 14 machine guns and its only artillery guns, 2 76.2 mm divisional gun model 1902 captured on the 28th January from the 106th Field Artillery Brigade of Russian Army in Ilmajoki), he also gave command of the Oulu situation to Lieutenant Colonel Johannes (Hannes) Ferdinand Ignatius. 
The original two 76.2mm divisional guns used by Colonel Ignatius during the Battle of Oulu. They are sited at the positions they held that very day.
Source: Personal collection

Negoations broke down on the afternoon of the 2nd February and the Red Guards launched an assault upon the White Guards' position around the Cathedral. The local Russian commander had also given away the majority of his weapons to the Red Guards in exchange for protection. However the Reds could not remove the Whites from their stubborn positions and eventually returned to their positions in the city in the early hours of the 3rd. Colonel Ignatius' column meanwhile arrived and set about deploying his forces for an assault on the city.

Map of the Battle. Source: Own Work

Colonel Ignatius put his two artillery guns in the north, on the beach of the Laanila area of the city, with a direct line of sight of the barracks and the Red Guard positions there. The rest of his men were spread in the North shore of the Oulu river, East overlooking the barracks and train station and the main assault force coming from the south from the direction of the railway. At 0900 the artillery guns rang out with the first shots of the battle (and the first shots by an independent Finnish artillery) marking the start of the retaking of the city. One of the guns though encountered problems after the first shot and so only one canon was able to continue its fire support for the day. The assault from the South spread through the city, some heading to relieve the besieged White Guards, others tackling the positions around the train station and workers' hall. The heavily fortified cemetery and garrison area were assaulted from the East and by 1300 the cemetery and city hall were taken. Fighting still continued around the workers' hall and garrison area but the combined weight of machine gun and artillery fire soon saw the Reds call out for cease fire. At 1510 the surrender of the Red was officially taken and 900 Red Guards surrendered themselves to the victorious Whites. However some Reds and Russians still held on at the barracks and the Raati island maritime station and it wouldn't be until 2300 that all fighting stopped and the 1,100 strong Russian garrison surrendered itself to Finnish custody. 

Picture of 13 year old Onni Kokko. The youngest soldier present at the Battle of Oulu. This picture was taken soon after the disarming of the Liminka garrison. After this Onni went with an advance party to help the Oulu Civic Guard but was taken prisoner soon after arriving. He escaped and linked up with the incoming main force and being assigned as adjutant to Oskar Peltokangas and went out to fight in Tornio, Vilppula and Ruovesi before being morally wounded during the Battle of Tampere and dying of his wounds shortly after. He is the youngest recipient of the Order of the Cross of Liberty.
Source: Wikipedia

The end allowed for the taking account of the losses of the day. The White forces saw 33 killed and 34 wounded. Lieutenant Colonel Ignatius was given a promotion to full colonel for his excellent handling of the situation. The Reds had 26 dead and another 26 wounded. The Russia's also saw a few of their number killed or wounded but numbers vary on how many. 

The ultimate sacrifice. A funeral procession for the White dead.
Source: Pohjois-Pohjanmaan museum

The prisoners soon saw themselves interned at the local prison, the police station and a school house until March when a purpose built Prison camp was constructed. This camp was one of 13 big and 60 smaller prison camps set up at the end of the Civil War to hold Red prisoners and sympathizers until trial. The majority of the White Force went north to help take the town of Tornio from Red Forces, they took their war booty of over 500 rifles and 10 machine guns with them.  The town was liberated February 6th and thus secured the entire railway network in the North of Finland to the White cause. 
Memorial to the Prison camp at Raati Island, Oulu.
Source:Personal collection
The victory parade for the liberation of Oulu held at the seaside market place on February 4th.
Source: Wikipedia 

Today a memorial to the liberation of Oulu stands tall in Mannerheim Park and despite a memorial service held every 3rd Febuary, the battle has seemed to have been forgotten by the majority of citizens of this Nordic city. 

Memorial dedicated to the Liberation of Oulu, called the Statue of Freedom, it was erected in 1920 and sculpted by Into Saxelin.
Source: Wikipedia

Memorial to all the victims of the Finnish Civil with the interned remains of over 20 souls.
Source: Personal collection