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An 88 mm AA-gun at the Finnish anti-aircraft museum
Search lights at the Finnish anti-aircraft museum

The capital of Finland, Helsinki was bombed several times during World War II. Between 1939–1945 Finland fought three wars, two against the Soviet Union and one against Germany. The largest raids were three raids in February 1944, which have been called the Great raids against Helsinki.

Contents

Helsinki's air defense

In the autumn of 1939, Helsinki was protected by the 1st Anti Aircraft Regiment consisting of four heavy anti-aircraft batteries of three to four guns each, one light AA battery and one AA machine gun company. The air defense of Helsinki was significantly strengthened from spring 1943 onwards under the lead of Colonel Pekka Jokipaltio. During the Continuation War Germany provided two early warning radars and four gun laying radars to Helsinki, further, 18 very effective German heavy 88 mm AA guns were also placed in Helsinki. The new six-gun batteries were grouped at Lauttasaari, Käpylä and in Santahamina. By February 1944 Helsinki was protected by 13 light and heavy AA-batteries. Air defenses included 77 heavy AA-guns, 41 light AA-guns, 36 search lights, 13 acoustic locators and 6 radars in addition to visual spotters and the Finnish Navy's anti-aircraft.

The air defense command system was based on the German system and was quite effective – key personnel had trained in Germany. Due to manpower shortages, the air defense also used 16-year-old boy volunteers from Suojeluskunta to man the guns and young girls of the Lotta Svärd organization to man search lights.

The Germans had also based a night fighter unit, consisting of 12 Bf 109G-6 nightfighters in Helsinki on 12 February 1944 and a German radar vessel cruised in the Gulf of Finland between Tallinn and Helsinki.

Helsinki's air defenses prioritized stopping bombs from reaching the city over the destruction of air targets. In a special type of barrage, several batteries would fire a wall of flak in front of the approaching bombers in an attempt to scare them into dropping their payloads too early and breaking away. AA shells had been jury-rigged by drilling the fuze-hole larger and filling the extra space with magnesium mixed with aluminium, turning their explosion from a dull red to a searing white [1].

The Soviet long distance bomb group (ADD)

An American B-25

The bombing of Finland was most of the time conducted by the long-range bombing and reconnaissance group of the Soviet Air Force (VVS), called the ADD - Aviatsiya Dalnego Deystviya. This group was directly subordinated the Soviet High Command. During the February bombings of 1944 the ADD was reinforced with other units. The ADD commander was Marshal Aleksandr Golovanov. Bombing raids were also sometimes done by the VVS and the BF (Baltic Fleet air group).

The Soviet bomber fleet was very diverse. The majority of the aircraft were twin-engined Ilyushin-4, Lisunov Li-2, North American B-25 and Douglas A-20 bombers. The B-25s and the A-20s had been supplied to the Soviet Union as Lend Lease material from the United States. The Lisunov Li-2 was a Soviet bomber version of the American C-47 Dakota. There were also some heavy quad-engine bombers participating in the bombings, e.g. the Pe-8.

Civil defense

Before the war, Helsinki had quite an extensive civil defense system. By a city decree of 1934, shelters were constructed in all high-rise building basements. These were merely basement rooms with reinforced walls in order to withstand nearby bomb impacts. All buildings were required to have an appointed civil protection supervisor who was not in the reserves or the armed forces, and as such was usually unfit for military service. This person was tasked to see that all occupants made it to the shelter in an orderly fashion.

There were a few larger shelters built into solid rock, but it was not possible to fit all the citizens of Helsinki into these. Some hospitals were also equipped with subterranean shelters where patients could be relocated during air raids. Others, such as the Children's hospital, were moved outside the city. One hospital was entirely underground, below the Finnish Red Cross building.

Winter War

Three hours after Soviet forces had crossed the border and started the Winter War, aerial bombardment of Helsinki began. The most intensive bomb raids were during the first few days.

Helsinki was bombed a total of eight times during the Winter War. Some 350 bombs fell on the city, resulting in the death of 97 people and the wounding of 260. In all, 55 buildings were destroyed.[2]

The Soviet bombings led to harsh reactions abroad. U.S. President Roosevelt asked the Soviets not to bomb Finnish cities. Molotov replied to Roosevelt: "Soviet aircraft has not been bombing cities, but airfields, you can't see that from 8,000 kilometers away in America."

Continuation War

Helsinki fared somewhat easier during the Continuation War since Soviet bombers mainly focused on German forces in the Baltic states. Helsinki was bombed 39 times during the Continuation War, 245 people were killed and 646 wounded, the majority in the three big raids of 1944.

Raids Bombs Dead Wounded
Winter War 8 about 350 971 260
1941 9 about 80 332 210
1942 17 about 70 683 167
1943 13 about 110 3 21
1 91 deaths on 30 November 1939
2 22 deaths on 9 July 1941
3 51 deaths on 8 November 1942
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The great raids of February 1944

A Finnish poster urging all citizens to participate in air raid precautions

In February 1944, the Soviet Union launched three massive bombing raids against Helsinki. The aim was to break the Finnish fighting spirit and force the Finns to the peace table. The raids were conducted on the nights of 6–7, 16-17 and 26-27 of February. Joseph Stalin had obtained British and American support for this measure at the Tehran conference in 1943. In this manner they hoped to force the Finns to break their ties with Germany and agree to a peace settlement with the Soviet Union.

Some 2,121 bomber approaches were counted in the three raids of February 1944, which dropped more than 16,000 bombs against Helsinki. Of the 34,200 shots fired against the bombers with heavy AA-artillery, 12,900 shots were with light AA-artillery. The Finns managed to lure the pathfinders by lighting fires on the islands outside the city, and only using the searchlights east of the city, thereby leading the pathfinders to believe that it was the city. Only 530 bombs fell within the city itself. The majority of the population of Helsinki had also left the city and the casualty figures were quite low compared to other cities of the period.

Of the 22-25 bombers destroyed by AA fire, four were shot down by German night fighters.

The first great raid: 6–7 February

The first night saw the most destruction.

The first bombs fell at 19:23. Some 350 bombs fell within the city and approximately 2,500 bombs outside Helsinki. The total amount of bombs dropped (included the ones that fell into the sea) amounted to some 6,990. Approximately 730 bomber aircraft participated in the raid. The bombers arrived in two waves: 6 February 18.51–21:40 and 7 February 00.57–04.57.

The defense fired 122 barrages, the light AA-artillery 2 745 shots and the heavy AA-artillery 7 719 shots. The Finnish Air Force had no night fighters at this time.

Casualty figures were 100 persons killed, and 300 injured. More than 160 buildings were damaged. The AA defenses had issued some false alarms the previous days which had lowered people's readiness levels.

The second great raid: 16–17 February

Since Tallinn had been bombed heavily and intelligence pointed out that a raid might be directed at Helsinki, the Helsinki air defense took some active measures.

After the first raid, a German night fighter group of 12 Messerschmitt Bf 109G-6 fighters with special night fighting equipment were transferred to the Helsinki-Malmi Airport from the Estonian front. These managed to shoot down six bombers during the following two raids. The anti-aircraft batteries managed to down two bombers and fired 184 barrages. Heavy AA batteries fired 12,238 shots and light AAA 5,709 shots.

Most of the population of Helsinki had voluntarily evacuated to the countryside and the remaining ones were prepared to take shelter at first warning. This lowered casualties figures significantly.

This time 383 bombers participated. While 4,317 bombs fell on the city, the sea and in the surrounding area, only 100 bombs fell within the city. The warning was sounded at 20.12 and the bombers approached again in two waves: 16 February 20.12–23.10 and 23.45-05.49 on 17 February. The first wave tried to concentrate the bombing by approaching from different directions. In the second wave, the aircraft came in smaller groups from the east. Finnish intelligence had intercepted messages one hour and 40 minutes before the raid and warned the air defense, who had time to prepare. The air defense sounded the warning 49 minutes before the raid. Radar picked up the first aircraft 34 minutes before the beginning of the bombings.

This time casualty figures were much lower: 25 died and 29 were injured. 27 buildings were destroyed and 53 were damaged.

The third great raid: 26–27 February

On the evening of February 26, a single Soviet reconnaissance aircraft was spotted over the city. It was a sign of the coming attack. The weather was clear, which helped the attackers. Again the Finnish Radio Intelligence intercepted messages of the forthcoming raid, this time 1 hour and 28 minutes before the bombing would commence - although the Soviets tried to uphold radio silence.

Five minutes later, the air surveillance grid, manned by Lotta Svärd-auxiliaries reported approaching bomber craft. A silent alarm was sounded in the city in good time before the raid. Street lights were turned off, trams and trains were stopped and radio transmissions ended. In this manner, the enemy had more difficulty finding its target. All citizens knew that they had to take cover.

The first bombers were picked up by Finnish radar 25 minutes before they would arrive at approximately 18.30. A few minutes later, the night fighters took off and flew to their predesignated positions. The AA-artillery had also been alarmed. The air raid warning was sounded at 18.45. AA-batteries opened up fire at 18.53. At 19.07 the first bombs started to fall.

This last great raid differed from the two previous ones. The battle lasted for some 11 hours and was divided into three different phases: the first one was in the evening and lasted for four hours and concentrated the attacks against the city, the second one was mainly focusing on the defending AA-artillery, but to little success, the last wave hoped to finally flatten the city, but the majority of the aircraft turned away when met with fierce anti-aircraft barrages and night fighters. The all clear signal was finally sounded at about 6.30 in the morning of February 27.

Despite that this had been the most massive raid, the damages were again quite limited: 21 people were killed and 35 wounded; 59 buildings were destroyed and 135 damaged.

The heavy anti-aircraft artillery fired 14,240 shots and the light AA-artillery 4,432 shots. Nine Soviet bombers were downed.

This time 896 bombers participated in the raid on Helsinki. They dropped 5,182 bombs of which only 290 fell on the city itself.

The damage of the great raids

Thanks to the efficiency of the anti-aircraft and bluffing measures, damage was limited. Only 5 % of the bombs fell on the city and some of these in parks. Some 2,000 bombers participated in the three great raids on Helsinki and dropped some 2,600 tons of bombs. Of the 146 who died, six were soldiers; 356 were wounded. 109 buildings were destroyed, 300 were damaged by shrapnel and 111 were ignited by the bombs. The Soviets lost 25 aircraft.

By comparison, Dresden was bombed on 13-15 February 1945 by 1,320 bombers, which dropped 3,900 tons of bombs. This force was roughly equal to that attacking Helsinki, but the Dresden raid killed about 25,000 to 35,000 people and the city was almost completely destroyed.

After the war, the Allied Control Commission led by general Andrei Zhdanov arrived in Helsinki. He was perplexed by the limited damage the city had sustained. The Soviet leadership had believed that they had destroyed the city completely and that it was these bombings that had forced the Finns to the peace table.

References

  1. ^ Mäkelä, Jukka (1967), Helsinki liekeissä, Helsinki: Werner Söderström osakeyhtiö, pp. 20  
  2. ^ Helsingin suurpommitukset Helmikuussa 1944, p. 22

See also

Sources

  • Martti Helminen, Aslak Lukander: Helsingin suurpommitukset helmikuussa 1944, 2004, WSOY, ISBN 951-0-28823-3

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