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 Plate—the only story that would, briefly, take the world’s attention away from the Soviet-Fenno match-up that winter—and the occasional aerial skirmish between the Royal Air Force and the Luftwaffe over the English Channel, there was no war. There didn’t seem to be a war, just a Phony War, as people called it.

Colebaugh advised Gellhorn to go to Finland. “He thought something might happen there.” Like most Americans, Gellhorn knew as little about Finland as she did about Poland. She didn’t even know where Finland was, but had to look it up on a map. Apparently she hadn’t even heard of Paavo Nurmi, the Finnish track runner and multiple-Olympics hero of the 1920s, then the most famous Finn in the world, except perhaps for Sibelius, the great composer. Gellhorn did some more research. She liked what she found. In addition to being hard working and fiscally responsible and fleet on their feet (and skis), the Finns, she read, were highly literate and talented beyond their numbers, “a good democracy,”—a democracy worth saving.

And so on November 10th, armed with her Underwood typewriter, and a signed letter of introduction from her friend and fan Eleanor Roosevelt, Gellhorn boarded a Belgium-bound Dutch freighter. Pausing a few days in still neutral Belgium, Gellhorn crossed the North Sea again, this time by plane, bound for Stockholm, where she stopped for a day, before finally flying on to Helsinki, arriving on the afternoon of November 29th.

It was not yet three o’clock when Gellhorn’s cab rumbled to a stop in front of the venerable seventy year old hotel, a legacy from Grand Duchy days. As Helsinki is wont at that time of year, the capital was already cold and dark. There was no time to take a tour of the city or get an update from her fellow correspondents, a motley crew of Americans, Britons, and sundry Scandinavians who had been covering the off-again, on-again Soviet-Fenno negotiations for the past month, and who, she could see, were massed downstairs desultorily going through the day’s press communiqués. The storied old hotel and long-time center of Finnish society and watering hole for the Finnish intelligentsia, with its palm-bedecked café, had been requisitioned by the government for use as a press center. On the night of November 29th, perhaps a dozen or so correspondents were in residence there, and had been reduced to filing “local color” features about Finnish dress and cuisine.

Exhausted from her four thousand mile journey, Gellhorn trooped up the stately old hotel’s well-worn carpeted steps to her blackened-out room. Minutes later she was asleep. Then came the bombs. “I’ll be damned,” Gellhorn muttered, as she ran to her window overlooking Esplanadi. Her editor, Colebaugh, it turned out, had been right.

“I saw a huge trimotor [sic] bomber go over at about 1,000 meters,” she wrote Hemingway several days later. “Low and slow, just wandering around.” But this plane was not dropping bombs, but thousands of paper leaflets, which fell on the pavement or caught in the trees of the adjoining pocket park. As the reporter continued to peer outside, dozens of well-dressed Helsinkians, most of whom had been caught out by the raid, began making their way to the vaestosuoja, the crude, timber-lined air raid shelters which had been constructed in the center of the park. Several stooped to pick up the Soviet leaflets.


read one.

And another.


We come to you not as conquerors, but as liberators of the Finnish people from the oppression of capitalists and landlords. We must not shoot each other. At the behest of the imperialists Cajander, Mannerheim, etc. have broken off negotiations and transformed Finland into an armed camp, subjecting the Finnish people to terrible suffering.

Those Helsinkians who bothered to read the pamphlets were stupefied. The undernourished, downtrodden Finland referred to in the crudely written Soviet pamphlets had no relation to the comfortable, well-fed country that they knew. Indeed, the crude agit-prop falling from the skies would have been laughable, if it weren’t for those deadly serious bombs exploding near-by.

“Molotov’s breadbaskets,” an unknown wag had dubbed the explosives. The name stuck.


WHILE THE ASTONISHED newspaperwoman was observing the surreal scene outside her window at the Kamp, Herbert Berridge Elliston, the British-born correspondent for the Boston-based The Christian Science Monitor, ran to his. The prior day, the forty four year old Elliston, a veteran of The First World War who had fought in the Royal Horse Artillery, had trooped up to his room, just across from Gellhorn’s, after investigating the contrived frontier incident at Mainila. “I scrambled from bed and looked out,” Elliston wrote in his book, Finland Fights! about the Winter War, which his publisher, Little Brown, rushed to print in late January, 1940 while the Soviet-Fenno conflict was still raging, in response to the passionate interest in the conflict in the U.S.

“…It was a perfect winter morning, with the sun coming out of a blue sky, unflecked save for one cotton wooly ball cloud,” Elliston wrote. “Inside that cloud were Russian planes. Through the trailing steamer of the cloud a couple of planes could be seen in nebulous outline. With its destructive freight, the solitary cloud moved across the heavens like a Spanish galleon in full sail.”

After the two month lull in the West following the fall of Poland, something was finally happening, and Elliston and his excited fellow reporters were right there for the action. “You got the illusion, indeed,” Elliston gushed,

That the clouds must have borne the machines all the way across the Gulf of Finland. Presently the cloud arrived overhead a little to my right. All this time noise continued without cease—the dull detonation of exploding bombs breaking through a continual screech of air raid alarms and the rat-tat-tat of machine guns.

At least the newsman was under no illusions about the objective of the raid. “This was a Blitzkrieg designed to overcome and conquer the Finns from the air. I watched intently,” Elliston continued, “because victory or defeat in this type of diplomacy-war [sic] depends upon the behavior of the people.” Evidently the raid was not having its intended effect. “There was no panic. The people in the park below stayed at the entrance of the bomb shelters and gazed skyward at the Soviet apparition.”

In the Kamp press room, Elliston began making calls, trying to find out more about the surprise Soviet attack. His first impulse was to ring Risto Ryti, the long-time chairman of the Bank of Finland. Elliston had already met Ryti two years before, during a pre-war fact-finding mission to Northern Europe in his capacity as financial editor and columnist for the Monitor. He had been told beforehand that the central banker—who ran unsuccessfully for president that year against the grandfatherly Kyosti Kallio—was one of the best informed men in Europe.

Not that Ryti was of much help. When the reporter reached “Finland’s Alexander Hamilton,” as he admiringly described him, he was just as stumped as anyone by the Soviet attack. The perplexed financier told his journalistic acquaintance that he had heard a rumor that Norway had been given an ultimatum by Moscow to hand over the Arctic port of Narvik.* Had he heard anything about this? Ryti asked the equally puzzled reporter, as bombs crashed and sirens wailed in the background. Well, if he did, asked the polite Ryti, who, unbeknownst to him, would be appointed the following day to steer Finland through the crisis—would Elliston be so kind as to give him a ring?

“Of course,” Elliston said, putting down the phone and shaking his head. “Storm over Europe!” he thought to himself, “What on earth had Stalin started in [this] part of the world? It was the beginning of a wild day.”


FOR HIS PART, fifteen year old Harry Matso was too busy shepherding his schoolmates to safety to be afraid. He, too, had been singing his morning prayers—Jewish prayers—when the first Russian raiders dropped their mixed payload of incendiary bombs and propaganda.

As it happened, the school was located five hundred meters away from Hietaniemi, Helsinki’s main cemetery, where the two hundred pupils were quickly evacuated under the supervision of a gymnastics teacher. “Harry,” the teacher told Matso, who was assisting him, after the orderly procession reached its destination, “pull all the children under the trees and behind the tombstones.” The teacher, quite rightly, was concerned that the childrens’ colorful clothing would make them easy targets for the strafing Soviet planes. Then, as a raider whizzed by a few hundred meters overhead, the teacher dove for cover himself, as Matso followed.

When Matso carefully got to his feet, after the all clear sounded a half hour or so later, the youth saw that a house bordering the cemetery had been bombed to bits. A bereaved looking man emerged, carrying the limp body of a young girl, apparently his daughter, one of the ninety six Helsinkians who died on that horrific day.


FINNISH PRIME MINISTER A.K. Cajander, the same man who several days before Pravda denounced as “a small beast of prey without sharp teeth and strength but having a cunning lust”—actually a mild-mannered sixty year old botanist who had headed Finland’s Forest and Park Service prior to assuming office in 1937—was preparing to chair an executive session of the Finnish Cabinet in its large, mirror-lined room on the second floor of the main government building, when the first flight of Soviet bombers entered Finnish air space at nine o’clock. In fact, the flight had been timed to coincide with the meeting—one of the few things about the Soviet attack plan that went right.

The purpose of the emergency conclave was to discuss the meaning of the Kremlin’s sudden and surprising decision to break off diplomatic relations the night before, which had been conveyed in a somewhat confusing note that the long-time Finnish minister to Moscow and former Finnish foreign minister Aarno Yrjo-Koskinen, had abruptly been handed ten hours before.* “The only aim of our nation is to safeguard the security of the Soviet Union,” the baffling communiqué, signed by Molotov, stated, “and in particular Leningrad with its population of 3,500,000.”

To be sure, the issue of Leningrad’s vulnerability to the west—the concern which had triggered that call from Boris Yartsev at the Russian embassy asking for consulations with Helsinki the year before—was not an unreasonable concern. After all, the Soviet Union’s second largest city was located very close to the border between the two nations—and the Finns had very close relations with the Kaiser Wilhelm, who had sent an expedition of troops to Helsinki that secured the Whites’ victory during the Civil War, and reasonably good ones with his eventual successor, Adolf Hitler in the past. The Finns could understand that concern—which would be validated in June, 1941 when the Germans used the “Karelian gateway” to invade northwestern Russia. What was confusing was the next part of Molotov’s note.

After accusing the Finnish government of bad faith, the blunt-talking apparatchik—who had replaced his more emollient predecessor, Maxim Litvinov, in May—continued: “We can no longer tolerate the present situation, for which the Finnish government bears full responsibility. Our government has decided it can no longer maintain normal relations with Finland.”

It certainly sounded like a declaration of war. The reports from the border confirmed that Finland was under an attack. On the other hand, Molotov seemed to leave some hope that the rapidly deteriorating situation between the two countries could still be resolved through negotiation, mysteriously stating that his country remained ready to meet Finland “more than halfway about territorial questions,” including the Karelian peninsula, now half-divided between Finland and the U.S.S.R. He also thought he would even be ready to consider the question of “uniting the entire Karelian people and Karelia with their brotherly people, the Finns” (an outcome Molotov wound up ultimately achieving following the cession of Finnish Karelia, and the evacuation westward of virtually the entire population, though doubtless not in the way he envisioned).

To further confuse matters, the démarche reiterated the Soviet’s utmost respect for Finland’s sovereignty and independence.

Did Moscow want war or not? It was hard to figure. The Cabinet debate went back and forth. Then came the explosions of the first Soviet bombs. Now the confusion was over. Now, Cajander and his fellow politicians knew, as they rushed to the window and saw smoke billowing from the city center, Finland was at war.


ACTUALLY, THE CABINET was slightly behind the times. In point of fact, Finland and the Soviet Union had been in a state of belligerency since 6:50 that morning, when a goodly proportion of the nearly 2,000 field guns the Soviets had at the start of the war, which they had managed to wheel up to the border without being detected by the laggard Finnish intelligence, unleashed a huge cannonade. The massive barrage, the largest such bombardment since the end of the First World War, was punctuated by the booming reports of the long-range guns of the naval fortress island at Kronstadt, thirty kilometers west of Leningrad, at the head of the Gulf of Finland.

Seconds later, the still, snow-laden frontier became a roiling, roaring, white cauldron, as giant birch trees suddenly turned into twigs. Boulders went flying. The scattered farms and buildings within the fire zone, which had already been hastily evacuated by the government, disintegrated in a cloud of snow and dust. Unfortunately, neither Finnish intelligence, then overseen by an incompetent by the name of Col. Lars Rafael Melander, nor the equally blind civil authorities, who were still not willing to believe that war would actually come, had done a very careful job of the evacuation, resulting in the capture of over 4,000 Finnish civilians.

Then, as green rockets fired up into the black sky, signaling the start of the assault, thousands of Soviet troops, many of them screaming and singing, plunged into the Rajajoki River (the river separating then Finnish Karelia and Russian Karelia, now called the Sestra) holding their weapons over their heads. They were followed by something that most Finns, or Finnish troops, had never seen before: tanks. Evidently the Kremlin meant business.


AS HARRY BERNER, then a corporal stationed in the medieval border town of Terijokirecalled: “On November 28th, we had returned to the central barracks in Terijoki from a one week reconnaissance of the area. Then the next morning we were awakened by this gigantic artillery barrage, through which we could hear the big guns at Kronstadt. None of us had ever experienced, or even imagined, anything like it.”

Berner’s unit, like most of the Finnish units that experienced the brunt of the Soviet attack, recovered from its shock soon enough and went into fighting retreat mode. “We were ordered out into the streets to delay the enemy as much as possible,” he says. “I was posted by the general store. Then we saw Russian troops appear on the outskirts of town, as they poured out of the Rajajoki. We exchanged fire. Those were our orders: fight, delay, retreat. Of course, we didn’t have much choice.”


THE ATTACK made for inspiring copy by Nikolai Virta, a well-known Soviet writer who had signed on with Pravda as a combat correspondent. Except in tone, Virta’s breathless account essentially squares with Berner’s:

On the stroke of 8 a.m. the signal was flashed and from the south the air was suddenly filled with the whistle of shells, the echo of their detonation, the deeper boom of howitzers and the muffled roar of the heavies. From Kronstadt one heard the distant echo of the great fortress guns. Thirty seconds later the horizon became a sheet of flame. The whole Finnish frontier was ablaze. Then began the rattle of machine guns, answered by those of the Finns. The cannonade continued for thirty minutes along the front of 140 kilometers, eighteen kilometers deep.

Then green rockets shot up, signaling the Red infantry to attack and the troops charged, cheering, toward the frontier. Plunging into the icy waters of [Rajajoki] river, they started work on pontoon bridges. At 9:15 the section’s first battalion crossed the frontier on bridges and entered Finnish territory. The forests, so silent an hour ago before the attack, suddenly filled with the roaring of the motors of tanks, the clank of caterpillar links and the sirens of the machines along the snow-covered roads.

Interestingly, Virta was sporting enough to give Berner and his fellow defenders credit: “The enemy resists with determination.” The tone of Virta’s reportage would become more vituperative and less charitable towards the enemy as the Soviet advance bogged down, and his comrades began being blown up by the scores of mines and booby traps Finnish sappers had left behind in Terijoki, but for the moment he was all gung ho.


WHILE HARRY BERNER and his colleagues were retreating before the onrushing Red hordes at the Rajajoki, two hundred kilometers to the northeast, a mortarman by the name of Reino Oksanen was busy trying to stay warm. Like most of the men of his battalion, Oksanen hailed from the town of Messukyla near the southern central industrial city of Tampere. One of the strengths of the Finnish Army was that most of its men were drawn from the same area. “It was a good thing as we knew each other well when the fighting began. We knew each others’ qualities.”

Oksanen completed his compulsory military training in 1935. It was then that he received instruction in the use of the light, 81 mm mortar, one of nine such weapons assigned to each company. Not that he expected to put that training to use anytime soon. After all, Finland and Russia were at peace, or supposed to be. That all had changed in the fall of 1939. “Trouble had been brewing for a long time. But when they [the Army] started handing out calls for special training in October, we knew that this was serious. We were told to bring winter clothing. And guns. We were supposed to have submachine guns, but in reality they were quite rare. I was given a standard Pystykorva rifle, as were we all.”

Oksanen and his fellow soldiers from Messukyla were first assembled in a Tampere linen factory along with the rest of the 16th Regiment, which was led by Lt. Aaro Pajari, who would later distinguish himself in the pivotal battle of Talvajarvi. Oksanen slept side by side with his comrades on the floor of the factory. The next day, November 15th, they were dispatched by train to the Luumaki-Taavetti area of Ladoga-Karelia, where the entire division dug in.

Still, like the great majority of Finns, the men from Messukyia were skeptical that war would actually come: “Even then we debated amongst ourselves whether Finland would have to go to war.” Still, the general mood was very defiant. “We took turns in bragging how we would annihilate the ‘Russkies’—or at least some of us did,” Oksanen said, using the common pejorative Finns then used—and Finns of a certain age still use—to describe their almost universally loathed eastern neighbors. “There was this one man from Tampere who was full of enthusiasm when the negotiations were underway. He said he would be disappointed if peace endured. He was eager, he said, for Russky blood. Of course, when the fighting began in earnest he amounted to nothing.”


MARSHAL Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim was having breakfast with his niece’s husband, Bjorn Weckmann, at his mansion in Kaivopuisto, Helsinki’s fashionable diplomatic district, when they were startled by the sound of bombs.

It was a sound, one suspects, the venerable Finnish general, who at 72 retained the ramrod posture of the imperial chevalier he had once been, at once dreaded and welcomed. Dreaded because it signaled the start of a costly war which he knew, as chairman of Finland’s defense council, a post which he had repeatedly resigned in frustration, Finland was not properly prepared to fight and couldn’t possibly win.

Once again, as it had twenty years before, the country of his birth needed him. First, in 1918, following Finland’s declaration of independence from Bolshevik Russia, the Finnish government had turned to Mannerheim, asking him to take command of the disparate White counterrevolutionary forces and quash the nascent Red rebellion that Lenin had engineered. Additionally, he had to disarm the Russian troops still stationed in Finland. Few generals have ever been handed a more difficult set of tasks. But Mannerheim, who had spent the greater part of his adult life in Russia and was a member of Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority and hitherto a virtual unknown in his own country, succeeded in bringing the brutal civil war, which cost an estimated thirty seven thousand lives and included atrocities on both sides, to an end, securing the republic’s independence.

Following that, Mannerheim, who later that year left Finland out of disgust for its increasingly pro-German inclinations, was asked by the Finnish Cabinet to turn around and help batten down Finnish sovereignty, by obtaining recognition from the skeptical Allies. Assenting, the versatile soldier-diplomat proceeded to wow both London and Paris with his dashing looks and courtly manners, as well as his manifest love and passion for his native land. “From capital to capital he went, pleading the cause for Finland,” wrote Herbert Elliston, “He not only won recognition for Finland; he won friends for her.”

Befriending, or even understanding the enigmatic former imperial officer, was a different matter. No man could be curter, as Henry Bell, Great Britain’s first consul to Helsinki, discovered when he came to call on Mannerheim one day at the London residence of the aloof former Russian general. Mannerheim had generally been genial to him, Bell wrote.

“One day, however,” Bell continued, “Mannerheim was more brusque. He addressed me in Swedish instead of the usual English. He hardly acknowledged my formal greeting, and he would not listen to what I had come to say. Sitting behind his great table, with a map of Finland and another of Russia in front of him, he said severely, ‘Herr Consul, do you bring me good news today?’”

“I blushed and stammered: ‘I regret, Your Excellency…’”

“‘Herr Consul,’ Mannerheim interjected, ‘if you do not soon bring me good news that Britain has recognized the independence of Finland, your visits will no longer be welcome. Good day.’”


IN THE EVENT, the inscrutable Mannerheim succeeded so well at his diplomatic mission that in December, 1918, he was summoned back to Helsinki and named Regent. There was talk of making him king; certainly he had the ingredients of one. However, like George Washington, a figure to whom he was frequentlycompared, Mannerheim refused.

Instead, he preferred to run for president. However, Mannerheim, still bearing the bloody stigma of the excesses of the White forces during the recent civil war, in which scores of Finnish Communists had been summarily executed (and for which he seems to have been at least indirectly responsible), lost to the more homely, down-to-earth Kaarlo Juho Stahlberg. For most Finns, the distant, haughty, outspokenly anti-communist general was, in the final analysis, too charged, too complicated a figure for them to entrust the peacetime destiny of their fragile young republic.

And so “The Liberator,

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