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

little slower.


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

missions throughout.


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

September 1944

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.