THE BATTLE OF FINLAND Chapter 9, “Tears in Helsinki”

March 13, 1940

“It was the darkest day in our history, I think.”

—Harry Matso1

IF THE FIRST DAY of the Winter War was for Finns the longest day of the 105 day conflict, the last day was easily the second. If anything, peace, when it came, in the form of Vaino Tanner’s radio speech that day, March 13, 1940, announcing the terms of the armistice, was as traumatic, if not more so, than the incendiary bombs that had suddenly fallen out of the sky the previous November 30th.

It had been only two days since the Finnish people, who had been shielded so long from the truth, had first learned that negotiations with the Russians were underway. Still, no one could have imagined that the war, into which the entire nation had thrown itself, in which it had suffered so much and fought so hard, as well as experienced such everlasting glory, would end the way it did.

No journalist who was in Helsinki that dark day would ever forget it. Of all the passages in the droves of books and articles they would write about their experiences during the Talvisota, the most affecting are the ones dealing with what they saw and felt as they walked the streets of Helsinki and looked at the faces of the stunned, grief-stricken Finns around then. The experience was all the more vivid—and painful—for the newsman because, unlike the people around them, they knew what was coming. This was one scoop most wished they rather hadn’t have.

***

VIRGINIA COWLES, who had been in Stockholm to cover the peace talks along with her colleague, Eddie Ward of the BBC—her second trip to Sweden of the war—was one of the first to get the scoop, thanks to a last minute question Ward happened to ask Eljas Erkko, the Finnish minister to Stockholm, during a hurried phone conversation, as she recalls:

The following day [the 11th] there were peace rumors. I ran into a Danish journalist who told me he was positive an agreement had been reached in Moscow, but was unable to get official confirmation of it. Eddie and I had decided to return to Helsinki that night and rang up Mr. Erkko to arrange for airplane seats. Not expecting a reply, Eddie said to him:

‘Is it true that an agreement has been reached in Moscow?’2

To Cowles’ and Ward’s astonishment, Erkko replied in the affirmative. Ward then sent a telegram to BBC, which was read over the six o’clock news, the first semi-official report that the war was over. Erkko spent the rest of the evening trying to deny the peace rumors. When Cowles arrived at the Stockholm airport shortly afterwards, a number of people who had heard the report, including an irate Finnish colonel who refused to believe it, were discussing it.3

“Did you hear the report that the BBC is putting out?” the colonel asked the two reporters, unaware that he was speaking to the party—Ward—who was responsible for the BBC report. “That fellow must be crazy,” the officer exclaimed. “Peace!” he exclaimed. “We’ll make peace when the Russians withdraw every last soldier!” he continued, as the other passengers nodded in agreement. Ward sheepishly agreed and moved away, and waited with Cowles to board their flight.4

“When we took off from the aerodrome the lights of Stockholm sparkled like diamonds against the snow,” Cowles mused, “and we wondered what price Sweden had paid to keep them blazing.” She remained in a pensive mood for the remainder of the flight. “It was a sad trip. Eddie and I were apparently the only passengers who knew what we were returning to, and it somehow it seemed to make it worse.” “I looked at the faces around me, strong, confident faces, and dared not to think what the following day would bring.”5

Arriving in Turku, Cowles boarded the bus to return to Helsinki. Turku, its quietude long ago sundered, was still very much a city at war:

The Turku morning paper carried headlines of the number of Russian planes shot down the previous day. The only item referring to the negotiations was a small box in the corner of the front page announcing that foreign radio stations were reporting a solution had been reached in Moscow. And this was encircled by a large question mark.6

The notice didn’t attract the attention of the other passengers, mostly farm girls and road workers wearing white capes over their clothes to camouflage them from the Russian fighters who were still raising havoc around the country.

***

BACK AT THE KAMP, Cox, like the rest of the resident press corps had spent the night in a state of suspended animation, waiting for confirmation of the dread news that the peace treaty had been signed.

That night of the 12th of March I walked around in the black out, past the heaps of snow piled by the footpaths, to the Press Room. Every correspondent knew that tonight we would probably hear something definite.

I looked round the Press Room that night, at the green-covered tables with files of translations from the Finnish Press, the photos of Suomussalmi on the walls, the heavy curtains drawn for the blackout. Here I had heard the first communiqué of the war read out; here I had seen Miss Helsinkis, the pretty Finnish girl who acted as chief secretary, looking every night for the figures of Russian planes brought down.7

Cox asked Helsinkis how she felt now. “I live in Viipuri,” she responded, sadly. “Last week I saw on a newsreel my flat, smashed to pieces by a bomb. But I don’t mind that so much as stopping the fight now when we have suffered so much.”8

Later that agonizing evening, Cox’s fellow scribe, Leland Stowe, was sitting upstairs in the room of Walter Kerr, the popular reporter for The New York Herald Tribune (and future celebrated theater critic of The New York Times) along with a number of other journalists—including Cox, who had since decided to take out his anxieties on the typewriter:

We tried to cover the heartbreak of it all with feeble jokes. They fell as flat as when poor ashen-faced [Laurin] Zilliacus, commenting on Walter’s futile struggles with the telephone, had remarked: ‘Probably you forgot to put the nickel in the slot.’ We kept writing stories we couldn’t file.9

Pressed for news, all that the visibly depressed Finnish press officer Laurin Zilliacus could say was that it was possible that peace terms had been signed in Moscow, however he assumed that the eduskunta hadn’t voted on them. Otherwise he would have heard.

At least one Finn couldn’t wait.

Then the phone rang and a Finnish friend was called. He laid down the receiver and said in a dull voice: ‘The first of our friends has just committed suicide.’ It was a young woman, a writer by profession.10

Shortly afterward, the journalists were summoned again to the Press Room. Zilliacus was standing mutely in front of the room with a slip in his hand. “Fighting will stop at eleven tomorrow,” the dazed man said, forgetting that “tomorrow” was actually that day.

His voice was that of a man at a funeral. For a moment no one spoke. Then slowly the room emptied, as correspondent after correspondent went to type out his message telling the world that Russia had won.

Foreign minister Tanner, Zillacus added bleakly, was to speak to the Finnish people at mid-day, detailing the terms of the peace.11

***

SEVERAL HUNDRED KILOMETERS to the east, on the bomb-gutted Karelian Isthmus, astonished Finnish officers began receiving word of the imminent ceasefire, which they in turn began to pass on to their equally shocked men. Eric Malm was one of those men. “When our regiment [the 10th]—or what was left of it—went to Miehikkala [a town near Viipuri], on March 13th that morning,” he recalled, “an officer from the regiment command post came and said there would be a ceasefire.”12

“It came out of the blue. When I was on leave, I had heard rumors of some negotiations, but I had no idea that it would be so soon.”13

Malm’s first thought was to get himself to a safe place, especially since Marshal Voronov’s hundreds of artillerists, still parked wheel to wheel, seemed intent on shelling Finnish positions until the very last minute—and possibly beyond that as well:

Still the Russian artillery kept shooting, so I made sure I was in the safest place possible, knowing this would stop in just two hours. It would have been too ironic to get killed during the last hours of fighting. Still, the Russian artillery kept pounding us until noon. They had to put in that extra hour.14

To be sure, a number of Finnish troops and volunteers were killed after the official ceasefire time of 11 a.m. by the vindictive Soviets. In the north of Finland, just such a tragedy took place near Salla, when the Russians deliberately bombed a group of Swedish and Norwegian volunteers, who had recently taken over the fighting for their Finnish brothers there, causing numerous casualties.15

One of those who were wounded in that horrific incident was Orvar Nillson. Earlier that morning Nillson’s men had been told of the ceasefire. “We were disappointed, most of us, I think. We had wanted to do more fighting. After all, that’s what we had come for. But we accepted the ceasefire.

Then, around noon, an hour after the ceasefire went into effect, two Russian fighters came out of the clouds and dropped several bombs near our encampment.16

Nillson was fortunate to survive the incident with a broken arm. Nine of his Swedish comrades—the largest group of volunteers to die at one time—weren’t so lucky.17

***

FOR HIS PART, Nikolai Bavin, the fighting Soviet marine stationed at iced-up Saunasaari, was thrilled that the war was over. “I heard about the armistice over the radio. I was happy that it was over. I had nothing against the Finns.”18

Eric Malm felt much the same way once the Russian artillery stopped firing. “I was happy that I had survived,” said the future doctor, who, like most of his colleagues who survived the Winter War with body and mind intact, also served during the Continuation War, “and sad that so many of my comrades had not.”19

***

PERHAPS UNSURPRISINGLY, there were a lot of Finns who wanted to keep on fighting, too—and did so, as Geoffrey Cox, who would go on to become one of Great Britain’s most distinguished news broadcasters after the war, wrote in The Red Army Moves the following year:

At Kuhmo one company, warned that they must stop fighting at 11 o’clock Finnish time, had hurled themselves against a Russian position at dawn in their anger, and had fought till almost every man was wiped out. At Viipuri, a Finnish icebreaker, sent in to try and crack the ice of the bay and cut off the Russians on the western shore—a brilliant strategic move—kept moving after eleven o’clock. Russian guns fired on it, killing
seventy men.20

At Taipale, on the Isthmus, where Finnish troops had held their positions since the beginning of the war, and had continued to repulse Timoshenko’s men until the bitter end, some of the men actually stood and cheered the news of the ceasefire, thinking that it was the Russians who had succumbed, not them. That was how little they knew what was going on.

It was only later when they realized their mistake that the Finns got angry. By then, of course it was too late to keep on fighting, but how they wanted to, as Leland Stowe observes:

At eleven o’clock the order to cease firing was given along the entire front. Finnish soldiers who could scarcely stand received it first with astonished disbelief and then with bitter cries of protest.

‘To hell with it all! It would be better to go on.’ Without munitions, without artillery, without airplanes, the Finns asked nothing except to fight on.

“In their hearts, they were never defeated.”21

***

NOW, IN HELSINKI, and elsewhere, the country was about to experience the supreme shock of Tanner’s armistice speech.

That morning of the 13th, Stowe had tried to brace his Finnish assistant, Clara, for the traumatic news.

I had warned Clara that peace was coming and she had cried ‘No, no!’ And then fiercely [after he told her what he suspected would be the final terms]: ‘But we’ll fight if we have nothing but our knives. …Hanko? They will take Hanko? I tell you our children and our grandchildren would fight to take Hanko back.

“No,” Clara had insisted, “they can never do that to us.”22

***

BUT, AS THE ADDRESS that Tanner bravely made that day to the country, surely one of the most painful addresses any politician has had to make to his own people, confirmed, “they” had done it. Instinctively, journalists Langdon-Davies, Stowe, and Cox, who had been stationed in Helsinki for most of the Talvisota, decided that they did not want to hear Tanner’s speech at the Kamp.

“I cast about in my mind for a suitable spot in which to listen to the news,” Langdon-Davies recalled. “The last place in the world for such a moment was obviously the press room in the Hotel Kamp. The irrepressible minority of journalists, and especially of cameramen, who had proved themselves incapable of realizing that they were the paid spectators of a national tragedy, would at such a moment be beyond bearing.”23

Instead, Langdon-Davies made for a nearby canteen operated by Elanto, the large Social Democratic-owned restaurant and grocery cooperative—

which I knew to have a wireless, and which would be full, I supposed, of the usual crowd of black-coated workers, shop girls, typists, clerks, soldiers, skilled workmen and the rest. I went there and sat down at a little table. It was early still, and for the next quarter of an hour people came in and took their places at different tables.24

Stowe had decided to do the same. Cox decided to listen to the listen to the speech in the dining hall of the Hotel Seurahuone.

Here are excerpts of what the three heard and saw that memorable, sorrowful afternoon:

First Langdon-Davies:

The wireless had been playing some non-committal light music, the sort of semi-classical frippery which always seems to appear in the morning and mid-day programmes the world over. A woman announcer stated that in a few minutes the Foreign Minister would speak. The wireless orchestra played Martin Luther’s hymn.

Luther’s hymn came to an end. It had been the same hymn that the otherwise silent crowd had sung spontaneously at Helsinki railway station when last year the negotiators had gone to meet Molotov in Moscow. Without further announcement Foreign Tanner began to speak. He spoke, of course, in Finnish, though the bilingual etiquette of Finland demanded that immediately after there should be a Swedish translation. Scarcely a word had been spoken, and now there was absolute silence. People stared at their plates: the Foreign Minister read out the terms of peace.

Every now and then as the true tragedy unfolded itself my eye was caught by a quick, short movement from one table and then another. It was the movement of a man or a woman suddenly brushing away tears, which could never be allowed to reach their cheeks. Twice there was another movement. Of course, I could not understand anything that was being said, except the proper names. It was the words, Viipuri and Hanko that produced this movement. A spasmodic stifled cry, which seemed to come from almost everyone in the room, as if in response to a physical blow from an unseen weapon.

The mother and sister at my own table were now sitting with closed eyes. The girl at the next table was staring at the young man in uniform, as if something incomprehensible had frightened her. Only once there was the slightest interruption. Somewhere down the room, like a pistol shot, a man’s voice snapped out, ‘Never!…’25

Cox, at the Seurahuone, watching an equally traumatic tableau, thought about some of the Finns he had met and come to admire, and yes, love, during the three months he had spent covering the war:

Every name came as a blow. ‘Viipuri.’ Gone. I thought of the fair girl on the ski jump in Rovaniemi, who had fought so willingly because she wanted to get back to Viipuri. ‘You should see the sea there in the evenings in the summer,’ she had said.

‘Sortavala, Kakisalmi, Hango [sic]…On and, on went the names. Suddenly the Lotta [seated next to him] burst into tears, her shoulders heaving…26*

Stowe, for his part, was impressed with Tanner’s self-discipline:

Tanner’s voice was steady and emotionless, supremely Finnish in its self-control. ‘We were compelled to accept peace,’ he said. A dark-haired young woman began to weep silently, hiding her face with her hands.
On all sides of me other faces stared, never registering so much as a twitch of their features. Tanner’s voice went steadily on. He was enumerating the Soviet conditions. ‘My God!’ exclaimed an English-speaking girl across the table.

Two more women were crying, but without making a sound. Tanner was explaining how foreign help had failed to come in sufficient strength and in time; how the Scandinavian governments had refused passage for British and French troops.

My eyes were drawn back to the young woman by the window. Now she lay limp in her chair, her face averted toward the drawn curtains. Her shoulders were shaking slowly and ceaselessly.27
***

NORTH OF HELSINKI, in Lahti, Pekka Tiilikainen, the roving YLE reporter, was listening, half-asleep, to a portable radio when Tanner came on. “One program number flowed into another and we were half asleep,” he remembered. “Then it came. Out of our radio receiver, softly, came the news of the disaster, wrapped in cotton wool. It came with reasoned, serious phrases. It brought disappointment, bitterness, sorrow. It brought this,” he wrote, “even though there were pockets [of soldiers] at the front where this meant salvation from death.”28

***

AMONGST THOSE SHARING Tiilikainen’s sorrow and bitterness, along with her thunderstruck family, was Mai-Lis, the durable lotta and aircraft spotter from Koivisto. Two weeks before, Toivonen, like many of the lottas assigned to the areas overrun by the Soviets, had been honorably discharged. Mai-Lis had then joined her mother, Eva, and her three younger brothers, Reijo, Martti, and Eero, at a farmhouse in Korkeakoski, whence her family had been evacuated. As it happened, the farm where they were staying didn’t have a properly working radio, so the family had to hike down the road to find another place where they could hear the armistice speech.

While they were walking, Mai-lis later recalled, the five of them had to pass through a clearing in the woods. Looking up through the curtain of the ambient trees, they were greeted by the sight of another curtain, luminously hanging in the night sky: the Northern Lights. A suspicious sort, Eva Paovala took the supernatural sight as a portent. “The war does not end here,” she said aloud, for her children to hear. “There will be a new war.”29

***

TANNER WAS COMPLETING his speech now. “We must start our lives again,” he was saying into the microphone in his small, cell-like studio in downtown Helsinki, “We are going to rise again.” But few Finns were listening at that point. The cauterizing speech came to an end. Like an audial bookend, the familiar chords of Luther’s hymn A Mighty God is Our Fortress wafted out of the speaker. However they seemed hollow now.30

***

IN HELSINKI, at the Seurahuone, Geoffrey Cox watched as the last notes of Luther’s hymn floated disconsolately around the room. “Men and women stood until the last note died away. Not a soul spoke. Silently they walked out, carrying with them the numb, proud solitude of their grief. The war was over.”31

Virginia Cowles, who had arrived in town too late to hear Tanner’s historic speech, was inconsolable, even though she already knew its tragic gist. Desolate, she sat down in a cafe. A group of Finnish officers came in and took the next table. They had a copy of the morning edition of the Helsingin Sanomat containing the peace terms, outlined by a dark black band for mourning.

“They read it silently,” Cowles, who herself would go on to become one of the great (if now forgotten) correspondents of World War II, wrote, “then one of them crumpled it up angrily and threw it on the floor. No one spoke. They just sat there staring into space.” The dejected American correspondent exited the café into the quickly darkening Finnish winter’s afternoon and looked up: the flags of Suomi were flying at half mast.32

***

AT INKILA MANOR, where his headquarters had finally been moved, Gustaf Mannerheim, the Finnish commander-in-chief, was already thinking about the final message to his valiant troops he would deliver the next day. The oration, perhaps his greatest, in a sense, a continuation to the stirring message Mannerheim had issued fifteen weeks—and a seeming eternity—before, on the first night of the war, as the fires from the first Soviet bombs were still burning. “You did not want war,” he began, solemnly.

You loved peace, work, and progress, but the fight was forced upon you and in it you accomplished great exploits which for centuries to come will shine in the pages of history.

Soldiers! I have fought on many battlefields but I have never yet seen your equals as warriors. I am proud of you as if you were my own children, as proud of the man from the northern tundras as of the sons of the broad plains of Ostrobothnia, the forests of Karelia, the smiling tracts of Savo, the rich farms of Hame and Satakunta, the lands of Uusimaa and South West Finland with their whispering birches. I am as proud of the factory worker and the son of the poor cottage as I am of the rich man’s contribution of life and limb…

Nevertheless, the audibly exhausted Finnish commander-in-chief continued,

In spite of all the courage and self-sacrifice the government has been compelled to make peace on harsh terms. Our army was small, and both its reserves and regulars were insufficient. We were not equipped for a war with a great power.33

Two hundred kilometers to the east, the defenders of bomb-blackened Viipuri—which had after all been the principal objective of the Soviet offensive—received the news of the end of the war, their war, with anger and dismay. And yet if they had the heart to look up they would see that the flag of Finland was still flying atop Viipuri Castle.

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