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)

No comments:

Post a Comment