General Heikki Nikunen
The Winter War, the Continuation War
and the Finnish Air Force.
The Winter War was the first real baptism of fire for the Finnish Air
Force. The situation was very difficult because the nation had not taken
care of the material readiness of her Air Force. Especially the number
of fighters was alarmingly small. However, the training and therefore
the combat readiness was fairly high. Actually, the Finnish Air Force
had adopted during 1934 and 1935, as the first in the world, the modern
formation tactics with a section of two fighters flying about 100 - 150
yards away from each other, and the division with 300 - 400 yards
between the two sections. Other two important skills were the shooting
accuracy and the ability to fly the fighters up to their performance
The Soviet order of battle enjoyed a tenfold superiority against the
Finnish Defence Forces. Finland had only about 40 Fokker D.XXI fighters,
15 Blenheim bombers and about 60 mainly obsolete reconnaisance aircraft.
The tactical goal for the limited Finnish fighter force was simply to
cause as big losses to the Soviet bombers as possible. The attacks were
concentrated on the rear parts of the bomber formations and the first
shots were fired at the rear gunners.
Because of the small number of fighters it was recommended to avoid the
commitments to the fighter combats. The rear bases were used as the main
bases and occasionally divisions and sections were located in the
forward bases, often on the ice of a lake. The pilots flew 6 - 8 sorties
The goal was to destroy the chosen enemy bomber formations completely.
For example Lieutenant Jorma Sarvanto shot on 6th January 1940 in four
minutes down 6 Soviet DB-3 bombers of the formation of 7 aircraft. The
last one was downed a little later by Lieutenant Pelle Sovelius.
During the first war month the fighters` main mission was to protect the
army troops, transportations and logistic centers in the Karelian
Isthmus. Also on the northern coast of the Lake Ladoga the army troops
were protected and in the addition to that the fighters had some ground
attack missions. Sixty enemy aircraft were shot down.
The few bombers were used for the long distance reconnaisence and to
disturb the enemy`s rear transportations. The slow reconnaisance
aircraft switched to the night tactics and those were also used to the
night strafing and bombing. Those missions were quite successful because
the Soviet troops were not used to the fighting in the winter forests
and kept on big numbers of open fires thus revealing themselves.
During the second war month the main mission of the fighters was to
protect the rear logistic centers, traffic intersections and industrial
centers. This had to be made on the cost of the protection of the front
line troops. A special mission was to protect the attacking own army
troops north of Lake Ladoga. There were about 800 intercept sorties and
about 53 enemy aircraft were shot down.
During the third war month the Soviet Air Force concentrated big bomber
formations on the front line area and also used large fighter escorts.
The Finnish fighters could intercept only part of those because they had
to protect the main logistic line to the Karelian Isthmus. In addition
to that there were continuous requests for protection from the various
cities and towns in the Southern Finland. The need for the fighters was
clearly illustrated by the fact that the fighter wing was occasionally
flying from nine different air bases which were located from the upper
eastern border to the west coast of South-West Finland. The Finnish
fighters flew about 2000 intercept sorties and fought about 300 air
combats. 71 enemy aircraft were shot down.
When the last war month started, the situation on the Karelian Isthmus
had become so critical that the entire fighter force was concentrated
there. The ground attacks became the main mission of the fighters and
the bombers for that period. The Soviet troops tried to make the flank
offensive over the sea ice and the aircraft played the decisive role in
repelling the Soviet attacks. During the ground attacks 23 enemy
aircraft were downed.
Finland was able to increase her fighter force during the war by
purchases and donations. New types like Morane M.S. 406, Fiat G.50, and
Gloster Gladiator were taken into the operations but mainly on the last
phase of the war. Because of the small losses ( for example only 9
Fokkers were lost) the Finnish fighter force was much stronger in the
end of the war than it had been in the beginning.
The war experiences proved both the tactics and the training to be right
and as a result, the main fighters Fokker D.XXIs were able to achieve an
exchange ratio (kills in air combat versus losses in air combat) of 16:1
against Soviet combat aircraft. This was spectacular considering that
the Fokkers had fixed undercarriages, making them slow for the bomber
interceptor missions and clumsy against fighters in aerial combat.
At the beginning of the Continuation War the Finnish Air Force had about
120 fighters in its flying units including Brewsters (BW), Fiats (FA),
Morane Saulniers (MS), Curtisses (CU) and some Hurricanes (HC), 21
bombers, mainly Blenheims (BL) and some war booty planes, and 58
reconnaissance and liaison planes of various types, mainly obsolete.
During this initial phase of the campaign the Finnish Air Force achieved
air superiority, and the Brewsters in particular excelled themselves,
achieving a remarkable exchange ratio of 32:1. They added to the Winter
War formation tactics and shooting accuracy a vertical energy-speed
maneuver which was very effective against their main adversaries of that
time, the I-153 Chaikas and I-16 Ratas, which were more agile but a
The Brewsters, along with the Morane, Fiat and Curtiss fighters,
although continuing successfully their operations, began to become
obsolete in terms of performance from 1943 on, and new fighters,
Messerschmitt 109 G (MT)s, were received, although once again only in
small numbers. The bomber force also got new aircraft like Dornier Do
17s and Junkers Ju 88s.
During the trench war period the most important air operations were
carried out in the Gulf of Finland. These were partly the outcome of
naval operations, and gradually the process evolved into the Battle of
the Gulf of Finland, which culminated in Soviet air raids on Kotka and
Helsinki. Finnish fighter pilots carried the main defensive burden in
this battle, and were quite successful in this. The Finnisf Air Force
strategy of concentrating on aerial combat instead of attacks on the
well-defended enemy bases proved correct. The numbers of enemy aircraft
destroyed on the ground didn't mean much because the Soviet superpower's
own aircraft production plus lend-lease support from Great Britain and
the United States meant that there was no shortage of aircraft. The
shortage of trained pilots, however, became a problem for the Soviets,
as became apparent in the final phase of the Battle of the Gulf of
After the major aerial engagements of May 1944, the People's
Commissar for the Navy, Admiral N. G. Kutznetsov, had to withdraw a
whole regiment from front line duties because of the lack of pilots.
When the tide of war changed and the German forces began to retreat
westwards, Soviet pressure on Finland increased. They amassed a tenfold
superiority in aircraft on the Karelian Isthmus and began their
strategic offensive on 9th June 1944. Despite the Soviet superiority in
numbers of aircraft, the Finnish Air Force was able to concentrate its
units and continue to achieve good results. When the Soviet offensive
began, the squadrons had about 40 Messerschmitts. Fortunately, the
Finnish Air Force was able to get 74 more fighters from Germany during
the campaign, so that despite the fierce battles, the number of
Messerschmitt fighters actually increased during the summer of 1944. The
number of bombers in the flying units at the beginning of June 1944 was
One good example of the ability to achieve local and temporal air
superiority was the fact that the Finnish bombers and a German support
unit known as Kuhlmey were able to continue their effective air raids,
which were vital contributions to the war effort, as the bombings could
be concentrated on Soviet massed troops just before their preplanned
attack times. Warnings of impending troop movements were usually
captured by radio intelligence. It is also significant that no bombers
in the formations escorted by the Messerschmitts were lost to enemy
fighters during this period. The Messerschmitt fighters achieved an
exchange ratio of 25:1.
Again the Finnish fighter force was stronger in the end of the war than
it had been in the beginning of that. Also, during the wars the number
of Finnish fighter aces had become a world record in relation to
population. And almost all the Finnish top aces were fighting at the end
of the war just as they had been at the beginning.
Also the bomber and reconnaissance units were able to carry on their
When it became obvious that the Soviets had failed in their plan to take
Finland, they began to move their troops from the Karelian front for the
race to Berlin. This failure on the Karelian Front was the only Soviet
strategic defeat during their advance westward.
The Soviets signed a temporary peace agreement with the Finns on 4th
with the stipulation that the Finns push the cooperative German forces
out of Lapland. Furthermore, the Finns ceded certain areas in Karelia
and Petsamo and retired to the 1940 border. Nevertheless, the results of
both the Winter War and the Continuation War were considered major
victories for Finland. From the opening shots of the Winter War to the
end of the Continuation War the Finnish objective was to save Finland
and guarantee her independence. This was done and also one interesting
point was made. Of all the countries in the European theater
participating the Second World War there were only two which never were
occupied: Finland and Great Britain.