World War 2 History: Finland Responds to Massive Soviet Air Raids Against Helsinki
Damage to Helsinki University
Three Wars in One
During World War Two, Finland fought in three wars. The Winter War (1939-1940) pitted Finland against the Soviets. In the Continuation War (1941-1944), Finland, now allied with Germany, again fought against the Soviet Union. Finally, the Lapland War (1944-1945) was fought against German troops in Finland. The wars against the Soviets were the most desperate. While the Soviet Union's population was more than 180 million in 1939, Finland had less than 4 million people. Despite being completely outnumbered and out-gunned, the Finns made more than a good show of themselves and had many successes against the Soviets.
Continuation War 1944
In 1944, three years into the Continuation War, Soviet leader Stalin wanted to defeat the troublesome Finns once and for all. Having obtained the blessings of America and Britain to launch massive air raids against Finland's capital Helsinki, he planned to bomb them to the negotiating table. Like the earlier German Blitz against Britain or the future US bombing of North Vietnam, things didn't quite go according to plan. The Finns mustered their meager resources, fought off the waves of Russian bombers and then returned the favor in their own way.
AA Artillery Memorial
Helsinki had been bombed by the Soviets before 1944, but only sporadically and relatively lightly. In the five years prior, the city had been attacked a total of 47 times. During all those raids the Soviets only managed to drop about 600 bombs in the city itself, killing about 200 people. From the outset the Finns had taken these raids very seriously. Having no night fighters in their small air force, they had built up formidable anti-aircraft (AA) defenses around the city. In fact, Helsinki was the most heavily protected capital city in Europe, with the largest number of heavy AA guns per square kilometer.
Instead of trying to catch individual bombers in search lights and shoot them down, their radar-equipped AA battery crews were trained to put up a wall of flak in front of the waves of bombers to force them to turn aside from their intended target and release their bombs over less-populated countryside. To increase the effect of these aerial barrages, the Finns added magnesium and aluminum powder to their AA shells, so, instead of dull red bursts, the enemy would see they were flying into a wall of brilliant, blinding white explosions.
Damaged Soviet Embassy in Helsinki
The First Raid
On the night of February 6, 1944, 730 Soviet bombers attacked the city over a ten hour period. Surprised by the scale of the raid, many people had not gone to their air raid shelters and some 100 were killed. It would have been much worse had the AA batteries not performed as they had been trained, setting up more than 120 barrages in the way of the incoming bombers and forcing many off course. Of the 7,000 bombs dropped, only 350 fell within the city.
Despite their relative success, the Finns were shaken by the ferocity and sheer number of bombers and were determined to improve their defenses. Finland requested and received the support of 12 German night-fighters. Additionally, they arranged searchlights and huge fires on the islands outside Helsinki to mimic the city's layout in hopes of luring the enemy into dropping their bombs on unpopulated countryside or into the sea.
The Second Raid
Ten days after the first raid, the Soviets returned with almost 400 bombers in two waves over a period of ten hours during the night of February 16-17. This time the citizenry heeded the alarms and sought shelter. The fires were lit, the searchlights were turned on, the German night-fighters took to the skies and the AA batteries lit up the night sky with more than 180 barrages. Their preparedness paid off. Of the 4,300 bombs dropped, only 100 landed inside the city killing 25 people.
The Third Raid
After another ten days of calm, the Soviets again approached Helsinki with their largest raid yet. This time 900 bombers (far more than the Germans ever threw against London during the Blitz) attacked in three waves over a period of 11 hours on the night of February 26-27. Again the Finns fought them off. Less than 300 of the 5,200 bombs dropped hit the city, resulting in 21 deaths.
Aftermath of the Helsinki Raids
More than 2,000 Soviet bombers participated in the three raids. Although losing only about 25 bombers to AA fire and night-fighters, only about 750 of the 16,000 bombs dropped actually landed on Helsinki, killing a total of 146 citizens. Soviet pilots, aware of the consequences of failure, reported a much rosier picture to their superiors.
Finland had a long-standing policy of not bombing Soviet territory, whether civilian or military. Finnish War Marshal Mannerheim had been a General in the Imperial Russian Army before it collapsed in 1917 and he still respected the people and power of the Soviet Union. Besides, the entire Finnish air force had less than 100 two-engine bombers available. Bombing Leningrad was out of the question, but it was time to act against the Soviet airbases launching the attacks against Helsinki.
Finnish Bristol Blenheim Bomber
On the night of February 29, 1944, two days after the third Soviet raid ended, four Finnish bombers spotted a Soviet formation flying east over the Gulf of Finland. The four two-engine Dornier Do 17s carefully closed in and managed to join the enemy bombers as they headed home-- this despite the fact that the Dorniers displayed their usual insignias of blue swastikas. Once over friendly territory, the Soviets turned on their navigation lights, so the Finns turned theirs on. Finally, the Soviet air base was in view, brightly lit up to receive the returning bombers. The four Finnish bombers lagged behind as, one by one, the enemy bombers landed. As the Soviets waited for the last four bombers to land, they instead saw them open their bomb bay doors, throttle up and release 80 bombs on the clearly illuminated rows of bombers and hangers. By the time the stunned Soviets manned their AA artillery, the Finns were long gone.
Finnish Junkers J88 Bomber
Finnish Bombers Pay Another Visit
The Finns decided to press their luck and use similar tactics the next time weather and conditions were favorable. On March 9, about twenty bombers from all four Finnish bomber squadrons searched for Soviet formations returning home over the Gulf of Finland. Eventually, they picked up streams of Soviet bombers returning from bombing Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. Three groups of Finnish bombers actually joined the enemy formations in the same manner as the first attack, while the fourth simply trailed at a distance. The Soviet bombers led them all to three different airfields.
Again the Soviet airfields were taken by surprise. In some instances, the Finns lagged behind and waited until all the Soviet bombers had landed before dropping their bombs on the well-lit, crowded airfields. In a variation of that tactic, other Finnish bombers dropped their bombs while Soviet bombers were attempting to land. With enemies and friendlies filling the night sky, Soviet AA batteries were unable to distinguish friend from foe.
This second raid was a huge success. Every Finnish bomber returned safely and serious damage was inflicted.
Finnish Ilyushin Il-4 Bomber
Finnish Raids Continue
Additional raids on Soviet airbases continued through May. Although infiltrating Soviet bomber formations had been successful, the Finns did not press their luck. Instead, they used fairly reliable intelligence to determine their airfield targets and sent their bombers on conventional night-bombing missions. On the night of May 18, 1944, the Finns launched their largest raid ever when a total of 42 bombers attacked the Soviet airfield at Mergino, 100 miles east of Leningrad. In all the airfield raids the Finns never lost a single bomber.
Aftermath of the Finnish Raids
It's unclear whether Finland's retaliation was the sole reason the massive raids against Helsinki ended. Perhaps the Soviet leaders believed the city had been laid waste based on their pilots' exaggerated claims and additional raids were not needed. What is known is that, after the first few attacks on their airbases, the Soviets withdrew their long-distance strategic bombers from the airfields outside the range of the Finns two-engine bombers.
Swastika-- For Luck!
Finns Used Swastika Before Nazis
Two years before the Nazis thought to use the swastika as their party symbol, the Finnish air force had adopted it for their insignia as a symbol of the sun and good luck. The blue swastika on a circular white background was officially adopted on March 18, 1918. The Allies forced them to change it in 1945 because of its resemblance to the Nazi swastika.
Eventually, the Soviet Red Army, ascendant against the Germans, threatened to occupy Estonia on the other side of the Gulf of Finland. This would enable them to mount an amphibious invasion by sea from the south, bypassing the static Finn-Soviet front in the east. Exhausted by years of war, the Finns finally signed a cease-fire on September 4, 1944. One of the conditions was that the Finns would declare war on Germany and expel German troops stationed in northern Finland. About 63,000 Finnish soldiers died during the Continuation War. Soviet dead numbered about 300,000.
When Soviet General Andrei Zhdanov arrived in Helsinki to observe Finnish compliance with the cease-fire terms, he was astounded to see how little damage had been inflicted on the city. Stalin was enraged when he heard this and the only reason Air Marshal Aleksandr Golovanov got to keep his head was because he was still needed in the fight against Germany. He was, however, demoted after the war.
Great Raids on Helsinki (in Finnish but with English subtitles)
© 2016 David Hunt