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:


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