They fought side by side with the Germans during World War II, but Finnish war veterans say they were no enemies of the west - they simply wanted land back from the Russians.
Ninety-two-year-old Tauno Viiri still has vivid memories of the first day of what would be known as the Finnish Winter War. The Finns had been expecting a Russian attack, but the Russian artillery assault that occurred November 20, 1939 was devastating.
"The whole southern sky was ablaze, like thunderballs all over it," said Viiri, who immigrated to Canada in the 1950s and now lives in Vancouver. "An awful din. I've never seen anything like that - I've seen thunderstorms, alright, but this was quite different."
The Russians, whose army outnumbered the Finns by two to one, thought Finland would be a pushover and expected to be marching through the streets of Helsinki in two weeks' time. But the Finns, though lacking supplies and dependent on outdated equipment, held fast.
Their ally was one of the coldest winters on record, with temperatures of minus 40 degrees Celsius. Two Russian divisions that pushed across the "waist" of Finland toward the town of Suomussalmi were outmaneuvered by Finnish ski troops and annihilated - or, as the Finns would later put it, cut into "motti" (cordwood).
"The Russians were not prepared for the cold winter," said Finnish veteran Eric Peura, who lives in Surrey, a suburb of Vancouver. "They froze to death. We have no fixed numbers of the dead, because when the war ended, there was still snow. Lots of these dead were covered with the snow."
Eventually, however, the Russians' greater numbers and arms prevailed and the Finns were forced to sue for peace, signing a treaty March 12, 1940 that ceded the district of Karelia and other Finnish territory to Russia.
Little more than a year later, the two countries went to war for the second time, when Finland followed Germany's lead and attacked Russia in an effort to regain the lost territory. Known as the Continuation War, this second struggle lasted until September 1944 and saw Finns fight side by side in the north side with German troops against the Russians.
In December 1941, Britain declared war against Finland, prompting Finnish nationals in Canada to be branded "enemy aliens." Finns were not incarcerated, as the Japanese were, but were monitored by the Canadian government and had property confiscated = a ham radio, in one instance, was taken from a Finn who had lived in Canada since the age of three.
But Finns who fought in the Continuation War and who now live in Canada say Finland's role was misunderstood The country fought against one of the Allies and utilized German assistance, but was no enemy of the west - they simply wanted their land back.
This old wound still flares up when the approximately loo Finnish veterans of the Finnish House Society get together.
"We Finlanders, we never felt that we were enemies
to the western nations," said veteran Eino Kyynarainen, who fought
in the Continuation War. "The British Commonwealth said we were fighting
on the same side as the Germans, and that made us enemy. But we had our
individual war to fight only. We were not enemy to anybody else except
the Soviet Union, who attacked us."
The Finnish attitude toward Nazi Germany is riddled with contradictions. Finnish troops participated in the attack on the Russian city of Murmansk, but refused to join in the German attack on Leningrad.
"Finnish commander Gustaf Mannerheirn said we would
go only to the border of Russia and no further," said Peura. "Our
interest was to take the land back which was lost after the Winter War."
By the time the truce between the Soviet Union and Finland was signed in 1944, it was clear that Germany was losing the war. Pressured by Russia, Finland attacked the Germans. But the gesture was seen by the allies as too little, too late.
"We didn't have a choice," said Peura, one of the troops sent north to fight the Germans. "When we had peace with Russia, part of that peace agreement was that we had to have German troops out from northern Finland in a period of time. We had to start pushing them and that's what started the war against the Germans."
When World War II at last ended, Finland was forced to pay heavy reparations to Russia, a country it saw as the aggressor. Not only had Russia started the Winter War, it had stolen and retained a large chunk of Finnish territory. Yet the Allies blamed Finland.
The Winter War was prompted by the Finnish refusal to allow the Russians to build military bases on a number of islands along the south coast of Finland. The Russians wanted to protect the sea approach to Leningrad, but the Finns believed the bases would be a fast step toward losing sovereignty, as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania had.
The Russians' excuse for attacking Finland was that the Finns had shelled the Russian town of Mainila, killing four Soviet soldiers. Years after the war, witnesses said the shells appeared to have been fired from the Russian side of the border.
Viiri was a captain - later a major - in command of an infantry company during the 105-day Winter War. In the south of Finland, Viiri and his men held the Karelian Isthmus, a narrow strip of land connecting Finland and Russia, just north of Leningrad.
"For a couple of months, the Russians couldn't break through - they were beaten off," said Viiri. "Then they started to break our defences, and succeeded finally, too. We managed to stop them, but it was eleventh hour. In my company by the end of the Winter War, one-fourth of it was left, out of 205 men. A neighbouring company, smaller still, only 19 men left. Even so, the spirit was very strong. We felt that we were unjustly attacked. We were better soldiers and fighters than Russians. The will to defend was unbroken."
When Karelia was lost in the peace treaty, more than 400 000 people - 11 per cent of Finland's population - were evacuated and resettled elsewhere in the country.
Later, during the Continuation War, Miri was awarded the Mannerheim Cross, a medal equivalent in honor to the Victoria Cross, awarded to just 191 men. Twenty-one of those former soldiers are still alive today.
According to official reports, Viiri led his men behind enemy lines during the battle of Timoskala, holding his position until the main part of his regiment arrived, despite being attacked on both sides. On another occasion, he personally cut his way through a seven-layer barbed wire fence in a mined area while under enemy fire, then led his men to destroy two enemy bunkers. His battalion fought through the night to occupy the village of Kirjasalo.
Another time, while serving at battalion headquarters, he led an assault against an enemy patrol of 30 to 40, facing down submachine gun fire, grenades and mortars.
Viiri, however, is modest about his bravery under fire.
"I was lucky - a few scratches, and that's all. I believed at that time - and still believe - that fate is preordained. If you are to die, you will die. Therefore, it is no use to think of it." Viiri's modesty is typical, said Peura. "I had two older brothers in the war. We never spoke about it at home. We never knew what they did, and never wanted to talk about it."
Seventy-six-year-old Eino Kyynarainen was in northern Finland, working as a steelworker, when the Continuation War began.
"I had no place to go; I had lost my home and all
my relatives, I didn't know where they were." Joining the army at
age 17, he took part in the advance against the Russian city of Murmansk.
Kyynarainen was later transferred to the air force,
where he served as chief mechan-
The last Germans were driven out of Finland by April 1945. As they retreated, they blew up bridges and railways and burned entire towns. Seventy-five-year-old Eino Nenonen, who was sent north to fight the Germans in late September 1944, recalls retaking the town of Inari and finding that it had been completely burned - the only thing still standing was a church "I was thinking, what kind of war is this?" "They burned everything up," said Kyynarainen, pointing to a town near the middle of Finland. "Houses, hospitals, you name it. Everything."
Kyynarainen today is friends with a German who fought in Finland He asked his friend why the Germans destroyed so much, and was told they thought they were being pursued by the Russians.
"But it was Finnish army who was pushing them out, not the Russians," he says.
During the Winter War, the Finns were constantly short of ammunition. Viiri recalls being told to stop the Russian advance on the Finnish city of Viipuri (Vyborg). He asked his sergeant to call in artillery fire on the Russian positions, but the response was discouraging.
"My sergeant turned to me and said, `They promised
us six shells for the day."" Recalled Viiri. "What was
I to do? I said, `Let go, shoot them all.' The guns fired six times, and
that was it for that day.
Faced with a shortage of weapons, Viiri improvised. A photograph from the Winter War shows him standing onside a handcranked crossbow, taller than a man, that he built to launch hand grenades. The weapon is in the Finnish War Museum.
"It was one of our secret weapons," he joked. "There were only thirty meters between us and the Russians. I asked about rifle grenades, but we didn't have any, so we made a crossbow. It worked all right. It threw a hand grenade 60 meters. It was "voiceless" - just a small snap when it fired. Of course it was slows you couldn't get any continual fire."
Without assistance from the Germans during the Continuation
War in the form of arms and ammunition - including Panzerfaust and Panzerschreck
anti-tank guns - the war would have gone badly. Prior to that, the Finns
had only small-calibre Swedish anti-tank guns, Peura said.
Kyynarainen said the German arms were the only way to stop the Russians' push in 1944. "They gave us anti-tank guns so that we could stop the Russian tanks. They had thousands of those tanks coming in."
He said Russian propaganda during the war promised dire consequences for the Finnish people if they lost.
"It was beamed to Finland by radio, all the time. They said, `We are going to kill you all, every one of you Finns, or ship you into Siberia and let you starve to death."'
Viiri said the Winter War united the Finnish nation more than anything since. "Even one guy, was a communist, said, `You kick those hell Russians out of our country."'
Women also contributed to the war effort by joining the Lotta organization. Lotta volunteers served in canteens and field hospitals close to the front lines, and kept watch with binoculars in towers for Russian bombers.
"These ladies, they were helping wherever they could," said Kyynarainen. "They were 50 000 strong. Many of them, they were killed."
Today, Viiri and the other Finnish veterans sip strong black coffee and reminisce about the war in Viiri's house in Vancouver. Over the fireplace hangs a portrait of Gustaf Mannerheim, commander of the Finnish forces. "Many Westerners, they don't understand the Continuation War," said Kyynarainen. "Many of these books what has been written of the Finnish part in the Second World War, they are untrue."
"They tell us that we were on the German side fighting," added Peura. "But Russia was the only interest that we had Get the land back which had been taken three years earlier from us. That's all."
Scandinavian Press, Issue 2, 2001