BOMBARDMENT OF HELSINKI

Finland, which against its will had become involved in first one, and then a second war against its neighbor the Soviet Union, eventually became the victim of the strategic interests of the world’s great powers. At a meeting between the Allied leaders Joseph Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in Teheran in November 1943, Stalin was authorized to carry out extensive bomb attacks on Helsinki in order to force Finland to enter peace on Soviet conditions. Since 1941, Finland, lacking other alternatives, had been forced to accept German help in terms of both military contributions and material aid to civilians.

Helsinki had been severely bombed earlier, too, first during the Winter War (between November 30, 1939 and March 13, 1940), and during the Continuation War (from Midsummer 1941 onward). The Soviets bombed other Finnish cities as well, and even smaller communities.

In February 1944, the Avyatsya Dalnevo Deystviya ADD (aviation for remote raids), an elite aircraft formation under Stalin’s direct command, carried out three huge terror bombings against the Finnish capital, at ten-day intervals. The operation was led by Air Marshall A. Golovanov and involved over 2,000 aircraft, among which some were part of the US arms assistance to the Soviet Union. Stalin intended to destroy Helsinki, but in this attempt he failed.

Helsinki’s defense was prepared. The air defense under the direction of Lieutenant Colonel Pekka Jokipaltio had energetically been improved throughout the war. Some of the munitions represented the very best that anti-aircraft technology could offer at the time. Besides 88 mm anti-aircraft guns, six air radar systems had been procured from Germany. The latter, especially, played an important role in the battle. A total of over 70 heavy anti-aircraft guns and around 40 lighter anti-aircraft weapons were involved. In just a short time, the staff had become familiar with the new equipment, and the "we-spirit", the sense of solidarity, was strong. A barrage fire system had been developed that would create a fire wall deterring the enemy pilots. Direct firing against aircraft was included in the strategy. Furthermore, improvised diversion tactics were also used. For example, firewood depots east of the city were set on fire while search lights in the city’s western flank were switched off.

The system worked beyond expectation. The great majority of bombs were dropped outside Helsinki, and the aircraft turned back eastwards. Using radar data, the air defense command center recorded the route of each attacking aircraft on a map. Some of the Soviet aircraft regiments came from as far as Kratovo beyond Moscow.

During the last two bombings, twelve Messerschmitt 109 night-time fighters on urgent command from Germany also contributed to the defense of Helsinki.

In the protection of civilians, Helsinki was a pioneer in Finland. Already in autumn 1939, a modern alarm system had been installed. By the time of the massive bombings in 1944, air raid shelters for 50,000 people had been excavated into the bedrock, including underground hospitals. When the bombings started, 120,000 people were voluntarily evacuated from the city (almost half of the city’s population at the time), mostly children under 16 and elderly people. Schools were closed, and thousands of children under school age were sent to Sweden as so-called war children.

In spite of efficent defense, damage and losses could not be avoided altogether. The first bombings (6 and 7 February 1944) had the worst consequences. Due to false alarms occasionally occuring during the preceding years of war, some people did not take the alarms seriously enough. Over 100 died and 300 were injured that night, when over 160 buildings were destroyed or damaged. The civic defense authorities drew up maps of the damages sustained during each bomb raid, with accurate data on the location, type of bomb and damage of the impacts, such as the effects of a mine bomb going off in a building and the fires caused by incendiary bombs. The most most severely damaged was the wooden Vallila workers’ district just north of the city center, which sustained many hits during the night between 26 and 27 February.

Among prominent buildings damaged were the University of Helsinki, the Government Building, the Bank of Finland, the House of the Estates, the National Archives and the Presidential Palace. Stockmann, the biggest department store in Helsinki, was also damaged.

A dozen schools in Helsinki suffered badly during the bomb raids. Officially, the Soviet Union only bombed military targets, but the only military target hit and partly destroyed was the Kaartin kasarmi, the old Guards Barracks. However, Soviet bombs destroyed the local Soviet Embassy totally during the first bombings.

Thanks to efficient air defense only 670 of the 16, 490 bombs dropped ever hit Helsinki, while the rest fell on the frozen sea or on mostly uninhabited areas outside the city. After the three massive bombings, the Soviet Union assumed Helsinki was devastated, and never bombed the city again. But in March 1944, Stalin’s ADD command bombed Talinn, the Estonian capital, which had no air defense. The damage sustained was many times greater than that in Helsinki.

If the Soviets had managed to drop, for example, 50 percent of their bombs on Helsinki — instead of 4 percent as they did — the consequences could have been as disastrous as when Dresden was bombed by the Allied Forces one year later. Whereas the three massive Helsinki bombardments resulted in 150 killed and 350 injured in all and six percent of buildings destroyed or damaged, casualties in Dresden totalled over 40,000, with 80 percent of the buildings devastated.

The Battle of Helsinki during February 1944 bombardments became a veritable defensive victory. The city was saved. In summer 1944, the Finnish Army warded off an enormous offensive launched by the Red Army, the aim of which was to destroy the Finnish defense and force Finland to enter peace on Soviet conditions. The defensive victory won by the Finnish Defense Forces annihilated Stalin’s intentions. The conditions of the peace treaty subsequently signed were very severe, but not impossible, and Finland retained its independence.

Some scars of the war on buildings, statues and monuments in Helsinki have deliberately been left uncovered. The granite plinth of Finnish statesman J. V. Snellman’s statue, for example, still bears the marks of the days when Finland and its capital had to fight for their existence.

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Helsingin suurpommitukset helmikuussa 1944
(Sent by Fredrik Forsberg to June Pelo)

 

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