73 years ago, on September 15, 1942, the commanding officer of 8K/3Pr closed my father's service record:
Killed in action on 15.9.1942 in Krivi. Luutn. A. Kekkonen.
But this note was premature. My father, Armas Taipale, was almost, but not quite entirely dead. He was wounded badly, but he survived. After a hospital tour, he reported back to his unit and fought in the great battle of summer 1944, and was wounded again, but lived another 50 years after that September day. I was born almost a quarter of century later. Here's the story.
|Hospital pajamas, 1943|
Stalin's Soviet Union attacked Finland on 30.11.1939 in what was supposed to be a brief action to liberate the oppressed workers of Finland. It turned out to the humiliating episode for the Soviets in what is known as the Winter War. Soviet and post-1999 Russian history books don't really touch the subject. It demonstrated the vulnerability of Soviet Red Army, both to the Germans (who were contemplating an attack) and Stalin (who realised his fear of coup d'etat and decision to eliminate senior military commanders had been a bad mistake).
The Soviets were fighting to liberate a nation that definitely did not want to be liberated. At this time, my father was in the Defense Corps (Suojeluskunta). This was a militia performing home defense duties. My uncle, older than my father, was in his two years conscript service in the regular army.
The Western great powers, Britain and France, considered sending troops to help Finland against the Soviets who were in a pact with their closer enemies the Nazis. However, the Western allies were too powerless to actually commit themselves. Had they actually sent soldiers to fight the Soviet-Nazi pact, world history might have turned out very differently.
On March 11th 1940, two days before the end of war, Finnish frontlines were nearing collapse. My uncle was taken prisoner of war by Soviets in Uuras, near Viipuri. In captivity, he toured the Arkhangelsk Oblast where catering services of prisoners left something to hope for. He returned after a POW exchange months later, in summer 1940, so thin that his mother would not recognize him due to weight loss. He was starved, but alive. Finland was likewise made thinner. She would cede over the Karelian Isthmus, as well as areas north of Lagoda, hand over naval base in Hanko, and re-settle 400 000 refugees to make lebensraum for Soviet citizens. The most important facilities to hand over were actually cellulose factories in Karelia, useful for gunpowder production.
|Ceded territories (Wikipedia/J. Niemenmaa)|
My father entered regular service right after Winter War, in April 1940, so he was in the army to begin the Continuation War. My uncle was mobilized in June 1941 along with almost half a million reservists. He packed his things, among them a rifle cartridge, showing it to his parents and then putting into his shirt pocket: "I'll save this for myself. I won't be a prisoner a second time." His bitterness was deep.
Finns were out to get payback. The payback carried some punch, and the Soviets were mostly busy further in the south. My father participated in the reconquest of Finnish proper in Karelian Isthmus, pushing the frontline to Rajajoki, the pre-1939 border. Finns would stop the attack here, outside the suburbs of Leningrad.
North of Lake Lagoda, Finns attacked across the new border, then across the pre-1939 border, and pushed on to Lake Onega, conquering Petrozhavodsk, and continued further east to the Olonets Isthmus. The attack was halted along the river Svir which runs from Onega to Ladoga, between these two largest lakes of Europe.
Yet further up North, on the Maselga Isthmus between lakes Onega and Segozero (Seesjärvi), Finns advanced until late 1941, establishing positions along waterways. And here they stopped, because the blitzkrieg that was supposed to be quickly over was not so blitz. The Germans did not quite reach Moscow, and Finns cautiously took defensive positions on the three isthmuses: Karelia, Olonets and Maselga. Finnish army commander Marshall Mannerheim ordered the army to dig in. He declined to actively participate in the Siege of Leningrad, not even closing the winter-season service road, "Road of Life" to the city - this may be explained by sentiments because St. Petersburg was actually his old own home town when he served the Tsar Nicholas II.
East Karelia is very different from the affluent St. Petersburg region. North of Segozero, in White Karelia (Viena), the terrain is hopelessly swampy and practically impossible for military operations beyond some lightly equipped patrols. Any heavy equipment is tied to the few roads and easily surrounded and destroyed by mobile light troops, whether trying to go East or West. In Lapland the Germans were involved in a futile attempt to get to Murmansk and cut off the railway of Lend-Lease supply lines, but the land area between Germans and Segozero was mostly unoccupied and just patrolled occasionally. Therefore, the strip of land with miserable swamps and puny villages at Maselga was the very northern end of the mighty Eastern Front which extended all the way from Black Sea.
By January 1942, Finns were in Karhumäki (Medvezhegorsk) at the northern tip of Lake Onega, and beyond, somewhat across Sandarmokh which is now known to be the burial site of thousands of victims of the Greate Purge. Soviets made a counter-offensive in a puny village called Krivi in January 1942; this was repelled, but the defensive positions north of Karhumäki were not considered good. Finnish high command wanted to straighten out the frontline in Maselga. A combined arms unit, 3rd Brigade, was formed -- it contained four infantry battalions, heavy and light artillery, signal and engineer troops, anti-tank and anti-aircraft companies, and logistics units. It was commanded by Lt. Col. Kai Savonjousi, a competent professional soldier. His mission was to take Krivi.
My father was a lance-corporal, and transferred to this new brigade, which was somewhat an elite unit, consisting of experienced conscripts and young reservists. He was moved to 8K (Eighth Company) which was the machine-gun company of II P (Second Battalion) -- each infantry battalion had three rifle companies and the fourth company was a machine gun company. The platoons of this company were typically attached to support the rifle companies. Companies were numbered from 1 to 16, with 1K-4K belonging to I P, 5K-8K belonging to II P, and so on.
|Carnage of 7 Feb, 1942, Krivi (SA-kuva)|
In the battle of February 6-12, Finns suffered losses of 121 men killed in action, 547 wounded, and 41 with such frostbites that count as casualty.
The Russian death toll was 2417 men killed in action in pockets that were completely destroyed, and 62 were taken prisoners. An estimated 800 Soviet soldiers were killed at the new front-line when repelling counter-attacks, but the exact number could not be confirmed. This ratio of about 30 Soviet soldiers killed per one Finnish man was definitely in the high side but not unprecedented in the early part of Continuation War where Finnish troops were well motivated and trained and knew how to utilize the terrain, while the Soviets where tenacious, would not surrender, and threw living force into battle with not much regard for losses - the men had to choose between bullets from the front and bullets from the back. Hundreds were killed in their dug-outs and huts in each surrounded pocket.
|A house at Krivi. (Album)|
The attack had carried the frontline a bit too far away, to an unfavourable tactical defense position in low ground, but the contemporary doctrine was not to give back any territorial achievements, so trench lines were established there.
Finns dug in at Krivi, as they did in all of the front lines when 1941 turned to 1942.
|Trench and a distance-measurement periscope at Krivi. |
|Constructing a log road in swamp, Apr 1942. |
Krivi was one of the most dangerous front-line segments, as the commanders on Russian side tended to be rather active. This was because a connecting railway ran from here to the Murmansk railway, which in turn was the lifeline of Soviets because a large part of their equipment and materials came as American and British aid through Murmansk. Here the railway was most vulnerable, and the defeat in February was not received well by Soviet commanders. Hence the activity.
Food was scarce; Finland had lost much of the crops of 1941 and there was little to provide to soldiers. If they got to kill or capture a Russian patrolman, the first thing to do was to prowl his pockets for any bread. Human blood was removed with a knife, otherwise any bread would be eaten promptly. In POW camps, the rations were not enough because prisoners did not have the freedom to forage for food.
3rd Brigade had its reserve troops constantly trained behind the lines, to avoid complacency. The training was hard; it used live ammo and involved things like cleaning trenches or performing assaults; even fatalities would occur occasionally due to intensity of infantry weapon fire used in training.
|A Maxim gun at Krivi. |
My father was the gun operator, which was the most dangerous job -- obviously, the enemy would particularly want to take him out, and the position was often exposed. He had an assistant to help feeding ammunition. Their personal weapons were 9 mm pistols, if the army happened to have any to give. The rest of the squad were equipped with ordinary rifles, with tasks assigned to supply ammunition and carry various parts of the heavy machine gun when in mobile operations. In stationary warfare, this was the easy part.
|Half-platoon of IJ/8K/3Pr in Spring 1942. |
My father is 4th in 2nd row from back. (Album)
Despite training, complacency did creep in. There were losses to snipers. The night raids forced troops to keep a strong guard in the night, so the day shift was quite thinly manned. In the morning of September 15, 1942, the Red Army struck. The attack came in the morning, at a time when the day shift had just been switched and night shift had went to sleep. The regiment-sized attacking force (Russian IR1046) came at my father's II P, while another regiment (IR1048) with a reinforcement battalion attacked I P to its east, in the exposed forward position.
The surprise artillery barrage, using howitzers and Katyusha rocket launchers whose warheads had a oxygen-sucking property that was new to Finns, started at 7:55. Then an assault with overwhelming manpower - the first wave of which had crept across no-mans land in the dark - took the Soviet attackers to Finnish trenches and beyond. Some accommodation dug-outs and the command post of my father's company were overrun and the company's war diary was lost. However, the Finnish artillery had had good time to prepare shooting patterns to hit the no-mans-land area forward of positions, and firing commanding systems where extremely efficient, so a concentrated artillery strike was in place in 5 minutes and caused devastating losses to the second wave of attacking Russians. The Finnish reserve company was ordered to counter-attack. My father was there, now assigned to trench work.
The taking and re-taking of a trench is brutal business: get into the corridor, keep your head down, throw a hand grenade behind a corner, let it explode, step forward, shoot blindly a burst from your submachine gun, kill anything that wiggles on the ground, proceed to the next corner. Hand-to-hand combat would ensue, and it would be done with bayonets, knives and spades.
My father met a hand grenade in this combat. He heard the Russians coming, took cover laying low, but unluckily the grenade exploded right next to his right leg, breaking bones, tearing flesh and severing arteries. But he was saved from the Russian wielding his PPSh-41 by a Finnish comrade who was quicker with his Suomi KP/-31. The battle raged on.
At noon, after four hours of fighting, II P had re-taken its position. It lost 19 men as killed, the Russian losses were about 150 killed. My father was in a bad way, and was taken to the first aid station.
In the neighbouring section of I P, the counter-attack was not going so well. Wounded men were pouring in. The process of sorting the wounded at war was similar to what it has been in wars since Napoleonic times, and what it still is in natural disasters. The process is called triage. Details vary slightly, but in Finland the process is to sort the wounded to categories:
At the first aid station, the "cannot wait" wounded were loaded into a lorry that would ride the crude log road across swamps and eventually reach Karhumäki (Medvezhyegorsk) at the northern tip of Onega where Finns had a military hospital. The lorry was almost full but there was room for one more. "Hey, take this lad", the medic said, and my father got a ride.
A torniquet was applied. In Karhumäki, my father got a blood transfusion of O- type blood - he was O- like I am: the one who can donate blood to anyone but who cannot accept a transfusion of any type except his own. Miraculously there was enough of this "generic donor" blood available. The severed arteries were sewn to not bleed any more - the biggest blood vessels had been saved. The wounds were sealed.
|My father in the middle of two comrades, Spring 1943. |
My father recovered well enough to go to a home vacation and meet his parents and sisters; then he reported back to service in his unit in October 1943.
While my father was being cared for in first aid in the days of September 1942, his neighbouring battalion had been fighting for three days, until September 18th, and eventually decided not to try to take back all the lost positions but take up a new defensive line at a more favourable location, a few hundred meters back on a one-kilometer stretch of front line. The toll of battle was calculated. The Finnish brigade lost 63 men as killed in action and 262 as wounded; 23 men went missing in action, presumably captured. The Russian losses were estimated at 1571 in the actual battlefield, with unknown losses due to artillery fire behind the frontline. Number of men killed was not really possible to calculate accurately, because so many bodies were blasted to smitherens by artillery fire and there were probably many wounded who would die later behind lines.
After the battle, the XO of the brigade would note, based on what he saw as well as interviews of prisoners taken: "The Russians have changed completely. They have practised the attack; they have selected the best men and equipment, and they are no longer throwing living force to battle without regard for human life." This was his notion, despite the huge numbers of enemy who were killed - again, almost 30 Soviet soldiers died per one Finnish loss.
Later, while my father was in his hospital tour, 3.Pr was moved to Salla in Northern Finland, where it served in the front-line in 1943 and in early 1944 was in reserve, behind German troops which were carrying the front line responsibility, while Finland conducted secret peace negotiations with Soviet Union. These talks of winter 1944 would fail. Russians were convinced that they need not negotiate much and can demand complete surrender. They thought a bombing campaign had leveled Helsinki and the Finns were already breaking. In reality, the Russian spies who sent reports over radio had been captured by Finnish counter-espionage and they sent wildly exaggerated reports about the impact of Russian aerial bombing. Finnish flak and deceptive fires had sent Russian planes to bomb the hell out of Vuosaari, which was a practically uninhabited island to the east of Helsinki, with a decoy town built to attract night bombers.
But the tide of war had turned and Germany was losing. Leningrad Siege was broken. The Russians prepared the great strategic offensive against Finland, again intending to push through the Karelian Isthmus.
This attack came on June 9, 1944, coordinated with the D-Day in Normandy. USSR sent 400 000 troops against the 75 000 that Finns had on the narrow isthmus, with large number of tanks, artillery and air support. This ratio of men was not new to Finns, but the amount of material was. The Finnish front lines were quickly overwhelmed and counter-attacks were not successful. Reserve troops were urgently called from the North.
Thus my father and his comrades started the two-day train trip, and at the end they came almost straight out of carriages to combat on June 12th.
In less than a week, the unit was exhausted. By June 18th, the company was in Summa, an old, poorly prepared defensive position where Finns had already been fighting in Winter War. The company had gone three days without food supplies, because the enemy had superior airpower and logistics was limited to supplying ammunition.
Soviet tanks would run rampant in front of the position, firing at will, but could not get through because the infantry dared not come too close, and without infantry, the tanks were one by one destroyed by using satchel charges. 7.5 cm anti-tank guns were useless against a Klim Voroshilov tank, but a determined man who sneaked close with 10 or 20 kg of TNT could still blow them up.
My father was wounded again on the 18th, receiving shell fragments to his right arm. He was sent back to be tended for, but the company still held their positions against overwhelming odds. Three days later, on June 21st, the company commander Aito Kekkonen was killed in action when he was leading a counter-attack against enemy who had broke in to his flank. The company lost all its officers and was led by a sergeant but kept fighting, and was eventually moved back to continue near Viipuri. The company battle diary of 18.6. tells of desperation:
18.6. 03:30 Company entered village of Summa, where we took positions. I Platoon with 6K and III Platoon with 5K. II Platoon behind in reserve. After 3 days of no food supplies, we received dry rations and some soup. In the afternoon, the enemy started an attack using ground attack aircraft, tanks, and direct fire cannons. Retreated at about 20:30, which went better than expected, despite the open ground. Meal, after which we marched through Huumola towards Viipuri.
Losses: KIA: Cpl Haanpää, L. Cpl Hiiva, V. Pvt Vallinoja K. Pvt Pirsto, V. Wounded: L.Cpl Ristola E, Pvt Toivonen, V. L.Cpl Taipale, A. Pvt Alajääskö, T.
Weather: Half cloudy.
My father was not away for long, as the arm wound was not very bad and the army needed all men fit for fighting. He returned in a week.
|Preparing to kill a tank|
The Panzerfausts were easy to use and very effective.
|A KV heavy assault tank - a big target for Panzerfaust|
So the storm was over. Soviet attacking troops were withdrawn and war became again stationary. North of Lake Lagoda, battle raged yet in August, but also there the attacking Soviet formations were surrounded and became pockets in Ilomantsi.
In the Karelian isthmus, fighting ceased. 3.Pr was in reserve, behind lines. Men started to help in agricultural work, trying to salvage the crops of the summer because everyone remembered what lost crops of 1941 had meant for the hunger winter of 1942. After mid-August, there was not much happening in war. In the political scene, Risto Ryti had resigned as president, effectively sacrificing himself so that the country could reach peace with Mannerheim as president. The war diary of 8K/3Pr has not much to note, and suddenly it has a laconic record:
1.9. Nothing to report in military activities. Weather: Clear.
2.9. Nothing to report in military activities. Weather: Clear. NCO course students came back.
3.9. Nothing to report in military activities. Weather: Rainy.
4.9. At 8:00, hostilities were ended. Armistice! It's peaceful, nothing to report. Weather: Rainy.
Finland agreed to cede over all the land it had already ceded after Winter War, resettle the refugees once again -- the 400 000 people of Karelia had gone back to their homes after the reconquest, and those who had not yet lef tdue to fighting, now had to leave again -- and pay war reparations to USSR, drive out Germans from Lapland, and hand over to Soviets a military base in Porkkala near Helsinki. But independence was saved.
The field army was discharged, except for youngest classes who had to go at Germans in Lapland, the last of whom would leave Kilpisjärvi in April 1945. My father was discharged in Helsinki on November 1st, 1944. I was to be born 22 years later.
Also my uncle survived the war. He did not need the bullet he had saved for himself. But he would never sleep well; he had an ear for unusual noises, and if something alerted him, he'd jump out of his bed, looking for his rifle, and frightening his wife who would never understand.
My father slept well, as far as I know, and got married in 1952. He worked the farm and forests, fished, was involved in local politics, had children and saw five of his grandchildren before he died in 1992.
1. Taistelukertomus Krivin 1. taistelusta 6.-12.2.1942 (Battle report, National Archives)
2. Taistelukertomus Krivin 2. taistelusta 15.-18.9.1942 (Battle report, National Archives)
3. 3.Pr, sotapäiväkirja 26.7.1942-22.1.1943 (War diary, National Archives)
4. 8K/3.Pr sotapäiväkirja, 1.1.1944-23.8.1944 (War diary, National Archives)
5. 8K/3.Pr sotapäiväkirja, 23.8.1944-28.11.1944 (War diary, National Archives)
6. Sininen Prikaati. (Saarentaus et al, Helsinki 1967)
The pictures in this post are from
1. Facsimiles of service record of Armas Taipale
2. Personal album of Armas Taipale
3. SA-Kuva (where indicated; the pictures are of 3.Pr or of locations mentioned)
4. Facsimiles of drawings in