THE BATTLE OF FINLAND Chapter 1: “A Wild Day”


—The New York Times, November 30th, 1939

I remember everything quite clearly. My memories are so clear they still torture me sometimes. When it’s cold and snowy, I can picture myself in those trenches like it was yesterday.

—Dr. Eric Malm, who served as a platoon leader with the 10th Finnish Regiment on the Mannerheim Line

What do I remember the most from the war? It was the incompetence of our army, as it could not deal with a handful of Finns in a proper manner and in good time. They [the Finns] showed us how to fight a war.

—Georgi V. Prusakov, Soviet medic who fought the war with 100th Independent Volunteer Ski Battalion

INVADING ARMIES rarely signal their intentions with music, but something like that occurred on the afternoon of November 29th, 1939 at the border village of Alakurtti, in eastern Lapland. The Finnish frontier guards stationed there that day were astonished to see a Soviet military band, in full regalia, suddenly appear out of the gloaming on the forest road leading to the Russian and Finnish customs barriers. Marching right up to the gate, the khaki-adorned orchestra suddenly stood fast.

Then at a signal from the bandmaster, the musicians proceeded to play “The Internationale.” Uncertain how to respond, one of the perplexed Finnish frontier guards called up the commander of the area, Colonel Vila Villamo, a genial warrior who had been commander of the area since the Finnish Civil War twenty years before, and held the receiver out of the window so the former could hear the uninvited Red serenaders.

Upon hearing the old Communist call to arms, the alarmed officer ordered the head guard of the normally sleepy outposts to issue ammunition and stand ready for anything. And so the tense guards did, as the musical berserkers proceeded to play an entire program of Soviet military tunes for the wary guards, and the trees, before disappearing into the twilight once again.

Villamo’s instincts proved sound: the very next morning, the Finns suffered some of their first dead at Alakurtti. By then, the entire country was under attack.


THE LONGEST DAY in the history of modern Helsinki began quietly enough. Christian Ilmoni, a student at Helsinki University, was walking down Stenbackinkatu, a quiet residential street in the center of town, when he saw the first Soviet Tupolev SB-2 bombers plummet out of the low cloud covering the dark morning sky. The time was 9 a.m. The raid, the first of three conducted that day by the Red Air Force, marked the first time that Finns, no less anyone in that part of the world, had seen a hostile aircraft at least since the Civil War—let alone an entire squadron of bombing planes (as they were then quaintly called), flying in unison.

It was also the first inkling to Helsinkians that Finland was actually, irrevocably at war with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, something which—despite the rapidly increasing tensions between the two countries over the past few days, including an obviously trumped-up-border incident by the Soviets four days before—many of those, like Ilmoni, who were caught out by the surprise attack could not take in.

Ilmoni, who was on his way to class that morning, happened to be walking past the home of Juho Kusti Paasikivi, the Finnish minister to Sweden and former prime minister—and future president—when he spotted the first Red bomber flying parallel to the street. Seven weeks before, on October 7th, the twenty one year old university student had been amongst the large throng of anxious Helsinkians who had accompanied Paasikivi and his fellow negotiators, Colonel Aladar Paasonen and Minister Counsellor Johan Nykopp to the main Helsinki railway station, as they prepared to board the night train to Moscow, whence Joseph Stalin and Molotov had “invited” them in order to discuss “concrete political questions.” To prove to the Russians that they weren’t in a mood to jump to, the stubborn Finns had decided to take the slow, fifteen hour train to Moscow rather than fly, as their cowed counterparts from the other Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania had recently done in response to their respective summonses from the Kremlin.

Nineteen years before, Paasikivi had participated in the negotiations with the three year old Soviet Russian entity, then weary and impoverished after six continuous years of war and revolution, at the historic southern city of. The subsequent treaty—one of two the Bolsheviks grudgingly signed there, one with the triumphant Finns, the other with the no less ebullient Estonians, who had just won their own hard-fought war of independence from Moscow—confirmed the new sixteen hundred kilometer long Soviet-Fenno border, which, as the Finns insisted, mirrored the one they had shared with Russia during bygone Grand Duchy days.

Additionally, in line with Helsinki’s wishes, the Peace of Tartu granted Suomi the valuable, ice-free Arctic port of Petsamo in exchange for a slice of the Karelian Isthmus, the 150 kilometer long, 100 kilometer wide neck of land joining southeastern Finland with northwestern Russia, just as the benevolent Tsar Alexander II had promised his Finnish subjects back in 1860. The steamer carrying Paasikivi and the other exultant Finnish delegates back to Helsinki following that successful conclave, which effectively sealed Finland’s century long quest for independence from Russia, returned to resounding dockside cheers.

That was in 1920. Now, nearly two decades later, the ruddy-faced, sixty nine year old Paasikivi—summoned back from what he had assumed would be his last posting in Stockholm, little thinking that he still had an entire political career ahead of him—prepared to leave to meet with Joseph Stalin, now all-powerful head of a resurgent Soviet Union intent on re-establishing Russian influence in the Baltic basin. Now, in the second month of what would ultimately erupt into the five year cataclysm known as the Second World War, it was, once again, the turn of the communist heirs of Peter the Great and Alexander I to redraw the Baltic map in their favor. Now, as Paasikivi and his anxious four million countrymen knew, as he and his colleagues solemnly boarded the train for Moscow, they held nothing less than the fate of the Finnish nation in his hands.

And yet, anxious though they were, the Finns who flocked to the great train station were not of a mood to appease the Kremlin. Then, as the fateful train pulled out and the avuncular Paasikivi doffed his homburg in farewell, the crowd spontaneously began to sing Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

As Max Jakobson, who witnessed the scene as a sixteen year old youth, would later recall in The Diplomacy of the Winter War, his authoritative account of the convoluted run-up to the warthe serenaders who came to see Paasikivi off, as well as the ones who met his train down the line as it chugged across Karelia, “showed an astonishing, almost unnatural lack of alarm, as if through an undirected, spontaneous, almost organic effort of self-discipline, [they] were silently bracing itself to face some force of nature…They did not sing patriotic songs on behalf of a policy of appeasement.” As Paasikivi told Stalin, “They won’t sing for us if we tell them that we have given away Hanko,” referring to the historic, strategically located Finnish fort-cum-spa situated on the southernmost tip of Finland which the Kremlin adamantly insisted on having back for itself.

Now, after seven weeks of on and off negotiations—which had ultimately foundered over the pivotal issue of Hanko—helped along by a fabricated incident at the border town of Mainila, where the Russians, stealing a page from the Germans, who had used a similar “provocation” as a pretext for their invasion of Poland, arranged for several of their own soldiers to be killed by what they insisted was Finnish artillery fire—Christian Ilmoni thought he saw Paasikivi look out the window, as the covey of bombers flew by. “I wonder what the Old Man must be thinking now?” he wondered, as he recounted that traumatic day, still crystal clear in retrospect, sixty five years later.

At first, the unusually low altitude of the Soviet planes—which had flown undetected across the Gulf of Finland from one of the Soviets’ new, forcibly acquired Estonian air bases—caused some unsuspecting pedestrians to mistake foe for friend. “The planes were flying absurdly low, less than a thousand feet,” Ilmoni recounted. “Some of the people walking near by actually thought they were our own.” “Our own?!” he shouted. “Can’t you see the Red star on the wing?”

Moments latercame several massive explosions, followed by the sound of strafing, mixed with the slow tom-tom of the 40 mm Bofors anti-aircraft guns which had recently been placed at strategic points around the city, belatedly coming into action to meet the surprise attack. Now, instantly, Helsinkians knew the terrible truth. Once again, as had occurred innumerable times over the centuries, through the Swedish-Novgorodian wars of the 1300s, 1400s, and 1500s, through the Lesser and Great Wraths of the eighteenth century, through the Finland War of 1808 by which Finland was severed from Sweden and became a Russian grand duchy, Suomi was under attack from the enemy from the East. Once again, the city’s ululating air raid sirens confirmed, the Russian “tyrant” had come—except that this time he had come from the air.


MAI-LIS TOIVONEN nee Paavola, a veteran Lotta Svard from the coastal town of Koivisto at the head of Viipuri Bay, who served in the main Finnish women’s auxiliary organization along with 130,000 other Finnish women during the Winter War, also remembered that epochal morning. The seventeen year old Toivonen like so many of her countrywomen, had joined the Lotta Svard in the upsurge of patriotism that swept the nation the prior summer, and she had worked in a canteen during the autumn. Now she was attending her first class of the day in Viipuri, (then Finland’s second largest city, located a mere fifty kilometers away from the border on the Karelian Isthmus,) when the town’s alarm began ringing, signifying the start of the Soviet attack.

Unlike her Helsinki kinsmen, Toivonen had no difficulty identifying the Red bombers. She had already seen plenty of Stalin’s “falcons” (or “eagles”) over the past summer as they engaged in arrant—and unchallenged—overflights of Finnish airspace. “I remember seeing how the Russian planes were flying so arrogantly over our skies. They flew so low one could see the faces of the pilots and the Red stars on their wings. It was very odd. Nevertheless we carried on with our lives as best we could.”

War tensions and Soviet overflights aside, Toivonen remembers, as do so many other of her generation, the summer of ’39, the summer avant les deluge, as being a good summer. Perhaps a bit hot. “It was very hot that summer,” said Toivenen. “I remember swimming a lot.”

The following day, as war clouds continued to gather over northern Europe, and the mobilization continued, Mai-lis redonned the curiously sex-less smock of the Lotta Svard and returned to her canteen work at the Koivisto Civil Guards house. Still, despite the proximity of war, including those “arrogant” Red fighters, Mai-lis, like so many Finns of her sheltered generation who had been fortunate enough to grow up during the peaceful, prosperous Thirties, the attractive teenager couldn’t quite believe that war would actually come.

Then came the morning of November 30th, the Finnish Pearl Harbour and that clanging school alarm, and those droning Red airplanes. Moreover, these Red intruders were dropping bombs.

Moments later, as Viipuri was enshrouded in geysers of smoke and debris thrown up by the Russian bombs, her frightened teacher led Mai-lis and her schoolmates for cover in a stone house across the street.


TWENTY FOUR KILOMETERS and a windswept world away, in the middle of the Gulf of Finland, Mai-lis’s fellow auxiliary worker, Anna-Liisa Veijalainen, a member of the Society for the Care of Coastal Soldiers (RSHY), a women’s organization which provided food and entertainment for the thousands of Finnish troops manning the dozens of fortresses along Finland’s southern coast, was asleepin the upstairs room of the canteen hall of Tuppura, a small fortified island at the mouth of the Viipuri archipelago, on the morning of the Russian invasion.

A year before, Anna-Liisa, then a twenty one year old “domestic science” (as home economics was then called) student in Viipuri, had bravely, if somewhat reluctantly, accepted an invitation from the RSHY—whose five thousand odd volunteer workers labored in the shadows of the far better known lottas—to be hostess of Tuppura canteen. Evidently the prior holder of the post, a flighty type, had fled in a panic after the Czechoslovak crisis of 1938 had prompted the increasingly nervous Helsinki government to augment its garrisons on many of its island outposts.

Although the job took some getting used to, Anna-Liisa found that she enjoyed her duties, which entailed making large quantities of coffee and doughnuts for the soldiers and coastguardsmen assigned to Tuppura, as well as otherwise making them comfortable. “Work at the canteen started to feel meaningful,” she wrote in her moving privately-printed 2007 memoir, A Woman at the Front: 1938-45. “We tried as best as we could to create some coziness for the boys, who at that time rarely got leaves, so the ‘war nest’ was the only place they could spend their free time.”

Anna-Liisa also grew fond of the relatively large “war nest” itself, a converted officer’s club, which featured a spacious kitchen, parquet floors, a recreation room with a working gramophone and a relatively au courant pile of records, a quiet room where “her boys” could write letters home before flopping on the couch, and floor to ceiling windows that looked out on the restive, green-blue sea.

Too, she fell in love with Tuppura itself, with its yellow expanse of stonecrop, chives pushing up from every crack, and wild pansies. “And no place,” she adds, “had bigger lilies of the valley than that island. We carried huge bouquets of them and pansies to the tables of our canteen for the boys to admire.”

The main island was connected to Kuningassaari, King Island, so called because Gustavus III, the absolutist (and ultimately assassinated) eighteenth century Swedish sovereign, had once alighted there to survey his rampageous domain. On the rocky tip of the islet there was a lighthouse which guided the large cruise ships that called on Viipuri, which also boasted Finland’s second largest port, as they navigated the treacherous reefs of the surrounding archipelago. To her delight, Anna-Liisa discovered that the adjoining islet also housed a small, elm-enclosed tennis court where she could relax in solitude for a while before crossing the little white bridge that connected Kuningassaari with the main island to return to the cozy canteen, and her appreciative charges.

Like her junior land-based colleague Mai-lis, Anna-Liisa remembers the summer of 1939, by which time she had been serving doughnuts and coffee to the men of Tuppura for nearly a year, as being hot and hectic, as Finland prepared for a possible war with her increasingly bellicose neighbor.

All was relatively quiet until the morning of November 30th, when the storm cloud of Red fighters arrived at Tuppura. It was, she later recalled, Anna-Liisa’s co-worker Hertta Turunen’s turn to go downstairs to heat the stove and boil the coffee for “the boys” that morning. “She barely had time to get downstairs before the kitchen telephone rang, when simultaneously several airplanes roared above the fortress almost at rooftop altitude.

Even under the hair-raising circumstances, however, her co-worker was careful of her manners:

As a girl of good upbringing Hertta took the time to knock on the door before shouting in shock: ‘The aide-de-camp called, we are at war, and Major von Behr [the commander of Tuppura] ordered us to get to the pier in less than an hour and to leave the island.’

Quickly throwing on her clothes, the formidable auxiliary worker promptly called the major back. “I explained to [him] that I simply could not depart in an hour without leaving the entire stock of canteen possessions unguarded. I was responsible for them!”

Shortly afterwards, after throwing the canteen cashbox into a suitcase and otherwise doing her best to secure the premises, as the furious officer stormed down the pier, Anna-Liisa and her two co-workers were physically shoved into a small tug boat for the ride back to Uuraa, the largest of the islands in Viipuri Bay, where the Finns had greater forces and the women would presumably be better protected. Just in case, the self-serious major had told the skipper to make evasive maneuvers if and when the Russian planes returned, “although we found it difficult to see how a small tugboat could manage to evade airplanes on the open sea.” Somehow they did.14


EEVA KILPI, the noted Finnish writer, then eleven years of age, and living with her family in the hamlet of Hiitola, two hundred kilometers north of Viipuri in Karelia with her family, was another one of those who experienced the initial attack. “Our house was on the shore of a small lake,” she recalled, “and if I close my eyes I can imagine it is still summer. In Karelia it was always warm and sunny, it seems.”

Like many of her fellow Karelian schoolchildren, Kilpi had heard about the possibility of war, and worried about it. “I used to pray to God to prevent the war. And I remember that I carried the fear of the war inside my child’s heart. We didn’t quite believe it would come, that it would come to Hiitola.”

“But then, when we were eating lunch [that day], suddenly we saw planes coming straight toward our house and father shouted that he should go immediately back to the cellar. And then the bombs started dropping.”


MARTHA GELLHORN, the well-known American correspondent had just arrived in Helsinki the previous day to report on the growing tension between Finland and Russia, little suspecting that those tensions were about to explode into full-fledged war. She was getting ready for breakfast in her room on the second floor of the venerable Hotel Kamp, where the foreign press was headquartered, when she heard the first bombs.

The glamorous 36-year-old journalist had already gained international repute for her reports for her home publication, Collier’s from the Spanish Civil where she had met her current paramour novelist Ernest Hemingway, with whom she was then living in Cuba. In November, with German and Russia’s joint annexation of Poland a fait accompli, Gelhorn, desirous of re-establishing her journalistic bona fides, wired her editor, Charles Colebaugh, in New York for a front-line assignment.

To the idealistic Bryn Mawr graduate, whose vivid dispatches about the American depression for the Federal Relief Emergency Administration had brought her to the attention of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the stakes were even higher than they had been in Spain, now that, as a result of the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, the world’s two greatest totalitarian states were on the same anti-democratic side. “This was the war to save our skins,” Gellhorn wrote. “Now one could only ally one’s mind and heart with the innocents—the various unknown peoples who would be paying for with all they had to love and lose.”

But where were these new innocents? Poland, divvied up between the Germans and the Russians after its valiant, but futile, five week fight was lost. The Western front was tense but quiet, as the French Army, hunkered down in comfort behind the purportedly impregnable Maginot Line. Except for the war at sea, which was beginning to heat up, culminating in the dramatic Battle of the River P