Finnish Air Force

THE FINNISH AIR FORCE IN WORLD WAR II

BACKGROUND

         Ruled by Sweden from the 12th through the 19th century and by Russia from 1809, Finland, a country about the size of Montana, finally won it's independence in 1917 at the outset of the Bolshevik Revolution. With the exception of a few extraordinary weeks in the winter of 1939-40, Finland has maintained its position on the periphery of world events. To understand Finland's role in World War II it is necessary to identify the country's participation in three totally different wars during the period 1939-1945. They are generally referred to as the Winter War, November 1939-March 1940; the Continuation War, June 1941-September 1944; the Lapland War, September 1944-April 1945.

THE WINTER WAR

         For a few weeks in the winter of 1939-40, the spotlight of the world's attention shown brightly on the valiant efforts of the people of the small country of Finland to resist Soviet aggression. The underlying cause of the Winter War was Soviet concern about Nazi Germany's expansionist policies. The Rhineland, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland had made Hitler's intentions crystal clear. The 3.5 million inhabitants of Finland represented no threat to the Soviet Union. However the strategic location of the country was another matter. With the Finnish border barely 50 miles from Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), German naval bases in Finland could control access to the Gulf of Finland and restrict Soviet naval activities in the Baltic.

         Unknown to the rest of the world, the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, signed in August 1939 less than a month before the German Blitzkrieg in Poland, contained a secret protocol. This agreement gave the Soviet Union a sphere of influence that included, Finland, the Baltic states and parts of eastern Europe. In effect, Hitler had said to Stalin, "Finland is yours!" Following the rapid capitulation of Poland, the Soviets turned the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania into quasi-protectorates. The Soviet Union began to negotiate with Finland, proposing a swap of lands in the southeastern part of the country and the establishment of a Soviet naval base on the Gulf of Finland. The Finns, determined to maintain their neutrality, took a hard line position and rejected all Soviet demands. They reasoned that this would just be the first of many continuing demands by the Soviet Union. The Russians were concerned that Finland might well join Germany in a future war against the Soviet Union.

         The Soviet Union, with 23 divisions, 460,000 troops and 900 planes, attacked Finland along a 900 mile front on November 30, 1939, without a declaration of war. Most observers expected a quick and easy victory for the Red Army. Surprisingly, the Finns with barely 160,000 troops mobilized, fought a guerilla style war and managed to hold off the initial Soviet onslaught despite their overwhelming numerical superiority. By the end of December, the Finns had dealt the Soviet Union a series of humiliating defeats on the battlefield. The world was temporarily mesmerized by pictures of white-clad Finnish ski troops gliding ghostlike though the snow-covered forests of the Finnish winter. It was underdog David against mighty Goliath and David was winning! The Soviets quickly reorganized under a new commander with an additional 2000 planes and made plans for a massive offensive in a narrow region of the country against the stubborn Finns. The counterattack came on February 1, 1940, in the southeastern part of Finland, the Karelian Isthmus. By early March the Finnish military was on the verge of total collapse. Finland was saved by agreeing quickly to the Soviet peace terms which were encompassed in the Peace of Moscow, signed on March 13, 1940. Numbers tell the story. Finnish losses were 23,000 killed and 45,000 wounded. Soviet casualties totaled about 400,000 men!

         The immediate result of this armistice was that substantial portions of Finnish territory were ceded to the Soviet Union including the nickel-containing Petsamo area in the north and substantial portions of the southeastern part of the country. [One of the world's largest deposits of nickel was discovered in the Petsamo region of Northern Finland in 1935. Nickel was used to make alloys of steel (particularly stainless steel) which provide for improved corrosion resistance (shipbuilding) and outstanding high temperature performance (aircraft engines)]. The territories turned over to the Soviet Union containing one-eighth of the population of Finland were immediately evacuated by 400,000 Finns who gave up their homes and livelihoods. This did nothing to improve Finnish-Soviet relations. Anti-Soviet feelings were strong as the Winter War ended with an uneasy truce between David and Goliath.

THE CONTINUATION WAR

         The summer of 1940 saw the Soviet Union annex the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The Finns believed they were next on the list. Hitler realized the strategic importance of Finland in a war with the Soviet Union, and in August 1940 reached an agreement to transport German troops across Finnish territory (ostensibly to reinforce his positions in northern Norway). A subsequent German-Finnish agreement in December 1940 permitted the stationing of Nazi troops in Finland. By the spring of 1941, the Finnish military was cooperating with the German high command in planning for Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, scheduled for June 1941. Three days into the war, German positions in Finland were bombed by Russian pilots giving the Finns a pretext to declare war on the Soviet Union. Finland thus appeared to be defending itself against an act of Soviet aggression, a posture that helped unite the Finns for the war effort.

         German troops immediately occupied the nickel-producing Petsamo area in the north (and managed to ship 70,000 tons of nickel to Germany in 1941). The Finnish Army began an offensive in the Karelian Isthmus area in southeastern Finland and by August 1941 had regained their pre-war boundaries. By December 1941, the Finns had reached the outskirts of Leningrad. The Germans maintained total control of the Baltic since the Soviet fleet was bottled up in the Gulf of Finland. This provided unlimited submarine training and unchallenged shipping of essential war materials including nickel from Finland and, most importantly, a continuous supply of iron ore from Sweden. Notwithstanding Finland's declaration of war against the Soviet Union, American and British attitudes toward the Finns were generally sympathetic due in no small part to the fact that Hitler's anti-Jewish policies were not tolerated. Many Jewish refugees made their way to Finland and ironically, joined in the fight with Germany against the Soviet Union.

         The German defeat at Stalingrad in January-February 1943 was the turning point in the war for Finland. Negotiations to switch sides continued sporadically and unsuccessfully for a year. Soviet air raids on Finland's capital Helsinki in February 1944 were designed to encourage the Finns to sue for peace. A massive Soviet offensive in the summer of 1944 finally persuaded the Finnish government that the time had come to end their role in the conflict. An armistice was signed in September 1944 and the war the Finns call the Continuation War had come to an end. Besides enormous war reparations, one of the conditions of the treaty was that Finland expel all German troops from the country. The 1940 borders were re-established with the Petsamo area nickel mines turned back over to the Soviet Union (although controlled and heavily defended by the Germans).

THE LAPLAND WAR

         The Germans had anticipated a separate Finnish peace with the Soviets and had made plans to protect their key interests in the country including the Petsamo nickel mines in the north. Improved roads into the northern part of the country and vast stores of supplies, arms and munitions were in place when the surrender came. The Finns were placed in a situation not substantially different from the Italians and Romanians where, after surrendering to the Allies, they were required to fight to drive the Germans out of their country. The northern part of Finland, Lapland, was the scene of heavy fighting during the final months of 1944. As they retreated, the Germans burned everything in their path and mined the entire area. Sporadic fighting lingered until April 1945 when the book was closed on the third chapter of Finland in World War II, the Lapland War.

THE PLANES OF THE FINNISH AIR FORCE (FAF)


Fokker D.XXI
Image courtesy of FAF Aircraft in WW2
Copyright Pentti Perttula

Brewster Buffalo
Image courtesy of FAF Aircraft in WW2
Copyright Pentti Perttula

Bristol Blenheim
Image courtesy of FAF Aircraft in WW2
Copyright Pentti Perttula
         The Finnish Air Force at the beginning of World War II was a potpourri with as many as 67 different airplanes including 13 different fighters, 11 different bombers, 21 different transport & reconnaissance aircraft, 4 types of seaplanes and 18 different types of training aircraft along with 25 captured Soviet planes. The spare parts supply situation was a nightmare for the FAF. The interested reader is directed to http://www.sci.fi/~ambush/faf/aircraft.html for a detailed look at this collection of planes. At the onset of the Winter War, the Finnish Air Force was made up of approximately 300 aircraft in 28 squadrons of which 114 were combat-ready. It is interesting to note that the blue swastika on the Finnish planes is completely unrelated to the Nazi swastika. Historically the blue swastika was a symbol of good fortune in Finland dating back to 1918 when the Finnish Air Force was presented with its first aircraft as a gift from Swedish Court Eric von Rosen. Following the armistice in September 1944, the Soviets insisted on replacing the Finnish swastika on planes with a blue and white bullseye-type symbol. The black swastika on pilot badges was replaced with a set of golden wings. Because of the terrain and climate (a third of Finland is north or the Arctic Circle), it was not unusual to see skis permanently attached to Finnish planes.

         Ninety-seven Dutch-built Fokker D.XXIs formed the nucleus of the fighter group. This single seat fighter was powered by a 825 HP Pratt & Whitney engine which produced a top speed of 280 mph, a ceiling of 32,000 ft and a range of 590 miles. The plane was armed with four 7.7 mm Browning machine guns configured with either 4 in the wings or 2 in the wings and 2 on the fuselage.

         Forty-four American-made Brewster B-239 Buffalos were sold to Finland in December 1939 for $54,000 each (plus delivery). With a 950 HP Wright engine and carrying three 50 caliber machine guns, the plane had a top speed of 340 mph, a ceiling of 31,000 ft and a range of 940 miles. The Buffalo is credited with destroying 496 enemy aircraft during World War II at a cost of only 19 FAF planes lost, an astonishing 26:1 ratio. One hundred and sixty-two German-made Messerschmitt Bf-109s were added to the Finnish Air Force starting in February 1943.

         The Bristol Blenheim formed the core of the bomber division (97 planes). The British-manufactured bomber carried a crew of 3 and was powered by two Bristol Mercury 840 HP engines and protected with three 7.7 mm machine guns. With a top speed of 300 mph and a range of 600 miles it was able to deliver 2000 pounds of bombs to a target. The Blenheim was hindered by its requirement for 100 octane gasoline, a fuel not routinely available in Finland during this period.

         By the onset of the Continuation War, an additional 150 aircraft including 44 Brewster B-239 Buffaloes from the US and 35 Fiat Cr-50s from Italy as well as planes from France, Sweden, Britain and South Africa were purchased by, donated or loaned to the Finnish Air Force.

OPERATIONS OF THE FINNISH AIR FORCE (FAF) IN WORLD WAR II

         Finnish Air Force operations in the Winter War are fairly well documented. The FAF flew 5900 combat missions during the Winter War including 3900 interceptor missions, 800 bombing runs, 70 aerial photography flights and 1100 supply/transport missions. Depending on whose figures one uses, the FAF shot down 190-280 enemy planes while losing only 35-62 of their aircraft. The consensus is that the Finns were vastly superior pilots compared to the Soviets particularly in air-to-air combat situations. This was due in no small measure to the fact that the training of FAF pilots focused on air-to-air combat. Historians credit Finnish innovations in loose formation flying, aerial acrobatics skills and improved combat tactics for their enormous successes. The FAF fighter pilots consistently used the element of surprise as a major weapon.

         The role of the Finnish Air Force during the Continuation War is less clear. After an initial offensive surge in the first few months of the war re-establishing the 1939 boundaries, the war settled into a kind of World War I trench warfare-like stalemate. The front didn't move much in either direction. There would have been regular interception missions of attacking Soviet bombers and their escorts, ground support operations and reconnaissance/transport flights mainly in the southeastern part of Finland. At the onset of the Continuation War, the Finns were able to muster 6 squadrons of fighters, 126 planes to do battle with the Red Air Force. Their focus was principally on air-to-air combat. We have some statistics for the period which illustrate the superior air combat abilities of the Finnish fighter pilots as well as the variety of planes they flew. No clear information is readily available on FAF or Soviet losses during this period.

FAF AIRCRAFT PERFORMANCE IN THE CONTINUATION WAR 1941-44
SOURCE NUMBER IN SERVICE FIGHTER PLANE # OF KILLS
Holland 97 Fokker D-XXI 61
Italy 35 Fiat G-50 Arrow 88
France 87 Morane-Saulnier MS-406 121
USA 44 Brewster B-239 Buffalo 478
USA 44 Curtiss Hawk-75A 190
Germany 162 Messerschmitt Bf-109 663

         The role played by bombers in the Continuation War is less well documented. Presumably there were relatively few strategic targets available and with the shortage of 100 octane gasoline for the Blenheims, bombing activities would have been minimal.

         By September 1944 at the onset of the Lapland War, the FAF had only 70 operational planes remaining. They were able to do little more than harass the retreating Germans as they carried out their scorched earth policy. Given the Allied landings in Normandy and their penetration into the heart of the rapidly collapsing German Reich, there was minimal opposition from the Luftwaffe at this stage of the war. Ironically, more Finnish bombers were lost to German antiaircraft fire in the final months of the conflict than were lost in the previous 3 years of war against the Soviets.

LINKS

http://www.uta.fi/FAST/FIN/HIST/kh-ww2.html   History of Finland in WWII-an overview

http://www.saunalahti.fi/~fta/FAFhist.htm    Historical development of the Finnish Air Force

http://hkkk.fi/~yrjola/war/finland/summary.html   Military role of Finland in World War II

http://www.winterwar.com/mainpage.htm   Excellent discussion of the details of the Winter War

http://www.sci.fi/~ambush/faf/faf.html   Role of the Finnish Air Force in World War II

http://www.geocities.com/CapeCanaveral/Runway/9601/finland.html   Story of a Finnish bomber pilot