Jorma Kalevi Sarvanto “Zamba” and the Bomber Interception Tactics of the Finnish Air Force during the Winter War of 1939.

Jorma Sarvanto was the top scoring ace during the Finnish/Russian Winter War between the 30th November 1939 and the 13th March 1940. He scored a total of 13 victories using the Bristol Mercury powered Fokker D.XXI.

Jorma Kalevi Sarvanto
Jorma Kalevi Sarvanto

Understanding the political situation that existed at the time between the Soviet Union and Finland, the national mind-set and the military disposition of both nations engaged in The Winter War of 1939, gives an understanding to why Finland, with a modest Fighter Force of only 36 Fokker D.XXI’s and 10 Bristol Bulldog IVA biplane fighters were able to adequately defend their country against the Soviet Union, with vast resources at its disposal. The USSR committed 900 aircraft to the war; 375 of which were fighter types, demonstrating the asymmetric disposition of the protagonists at the beginning of the conflict.

The Finns were outnumbered 9-1 in the air and 3-1 on the ground. The Soviet Air Force was well aware of the strength of the Ilmavoimat (Finnish Air Force), they were also well aware of Finnish offensive limitations in that they possessed only 18 Bristol Blenheim bombers and some sixty mostly obsolescent close support and liaison aircraft. The principle types of which was the Fokker CX and Blackburn Rippon 2-seater biplanes. The Finnish Air Force through an astute procurement programme increased in size by 50% by the end of the Winter War on March 13th 1940.

Many factors contributed to the Finns forcing an armistice with the Soviet Union on the 13th March 1940. The Soviets had not anticipated a particularly stiff Finnish resistance. There was an unusually harsh winter in 1939. Stalin’s purge of the Officer Corps in the 1920’s and 1930’s had left the Soviet military with inexperienced leaders. Additionally his demanding nature and need to ‘micro-manage’ his senior staff meant that many officers were too afraid to make strategic decisions.

The Red Air Force command structure was disastrous. A ‘Dual Command’ or ‘Collegiate’ control system was introduced in 1937. Each fighter or bomber regiment was assigned a ‘Political Commissar’ with equal rank to the Regiment Commander, each tactical plan and decision had to be approved by the Commissar before it could be implemented.

These problems were further compounded by the fact that each Air Regiment operated as an autonomous ‘Air Army’. Air Regiments would regularly operate independently of each other, not share strategic information and in some cases not communicate with each other in the operational area at all.

Furthermore, the Soviets did not commit their best bombers in the initial stages of the campaign. Perhaps in the belief that the war would be quickly won by the USSR. The primary Soviet bombers of the Winter war were the Tupolev SB-2 and the Ilyushin DB-3. Both aircraft were relatively fast but possessed only 2 light machine guns covering the rear of the aircraft and one at the front. Moreover, there was only one gunner covering the rear positions whose job it was to scramble between the guns whilst attempting to anticipate from which direction the attacking fighter would come.

Tupolev SB-2
Tupolev SB-2
Ilyushin DB-3
Ilyushin DB-3

Finnish fighter tactics against Soviet bombers were relentless. They would tend to close to well within 100ft of the bomber concentrating on the single rear gunner first. Then they would attack the engines, then the fuel tanks.

To increase accuracy of bomber interceptions, the Finns harmonised their guns to approximately 150 yards. By harmonising their weapons the Finnish fighters tended to tightly group their hits increasing the effectiveness and the power of the attack. In addition, the Finns would load the right-hand cowl or wing machine gun entirely with tracers to assist in correcting the bullet stream, the remaining weapons were loaded with a mixture of incendiary and armour piercing ammunition to maximize the probability of success.

The extraordinary success of the Finns against the Soviets can also be explained in the good quality of the well trained Finnish pilots. The comparable performance of Soviet aircraft to the Fokker D.XXI was off-set in favour of the Finns by the adoption of Luftwaffe-style fighter tactics with the use of Schwarms. 4 aircraft in formation each sub-divided into 2 pairs called ‘elements’ with a flight leader covered by a wingman. Inexperienced pilots were paired with experienced pilots as opposed to Soviet air combat tactics being predictable with en-masse air regiments being deployed in ridged formations, allowing the Finns the opportunity to range above their opponents and choose their targets before attacking and disengaging.

Fokker D.XXI 'Element'
Fokker D.XXI ‘Element’

Much as the Royal Air Force did in the Battle of Britain, the Finns dispersed their aircraft to auxiliary camouflaged airfields which regularly changed or rotated, enabling the Finns to effectively manage their smaller force. The units flew between 6-8 sorties per day, their aircraft were covered and kept warm with the use of electric radiators when not flying and maintained on ‘alert’ status for rapid deployment in the event of an attack. Similarly, they were operating over home territory, thus a damaged aircraft or downed pilot could be retrieved to fight another day.

Fokker D.XXI Dispersed
Fokker D.XXI Dispersed

The Soviets were also disadvantaged in having to waste time transiting to and from the combat area. Finnish Anti-Aircraft batteries shot down 300 Soviet aircraft; Finnish fighters claimed 200 confirmed kills, whilst losing only 62 of their own.

Finnish Anti-Aircraft Battery
Finnish Anti-Aircraft Battery

The Mercury VIII powered Fokker D.XXI had a maximum speed of 460km/h (286mph), a cruising speed of 429km/h (267mph) and a maximum ceiling of 11,350m (37,238ft.). Time to an altitude of 6000m (19,685ft) was 7 minutes and 30 seconds.

Fokker D.XXI Bristol Mercury VIII Engine
Fokker D.XXI Bristol Mercury VIII Engine

Whilst this performance was by no means remarkable, the Fokker was rugged, reliable and ideally suited to the cold climate experienced at the outbreak of hostilities between Finland and the Soviet Union on the 30th November 1939. In addition, the Fokker D.XXI was well matched against its principle Soviet fighter opponent the Polikarpov I-16.

The Mercury VIII Fokker D.XXI’s were armed with two 7.7mm Vickers machine guns in the forward fuselage and one in each wing. These weapons as previously mentioned were synchronized and when used in combination with the Goertz optical tube-sight Revi 3C or D gunsight, proved a good arrangement against the three 7.62mm ShKAS machine guns of the Tupolev SB-2 and the Ilyushin DB-3. Nevertheless, Finnish tactics dictated that their fighter aircraft would principally be facing the two rear-mounted 7.62mm ShKAS machine guns.

Finnish command and control was an additional asset. Pilots could communicate with each other and the ground via P-12-17/1 radios, whereas the Soviets had to rely upon outdated hand-signals to communicate between aircraft.

It was the Finnish Pilot’s and their determination to defend their home which was the most decisive factor in the Soviet Union not overrunning Finland during the Winter War. There were many acts of courage from these brave men, however the exploits of Luutnantti Jorma Kalevi Sarvanto (August 22, 1912 – October 16, 1963). On the 6th of January 1940 deserves a special mention.

Fokker D.XXI with Pilots posing for a rare photograph
Fokker D.XXI with Pilots posing for a rare photograph

Luutnantti Sarvanto Flew Fokker D.XXI FR-97 with the 4th flight of Squadron 24 (4/LLv 24) from Utti Airfield during the Winter War. Maj. Magnusson was in command at Utti. The site was chosen to protect the towns of Jyväskylä and Kuopio from Soviet bomber attacks. This information was obtained from intercepted Russian radio traffic. There were four Fokker D.XXI Fighters equipped with skis located at Utti Air base on the 6th January 1940.

Luutnantti Sarvanto in Fokker D.XXI FR-97
Luutnantti Sarvanto in Fokker D.XXI FR-97

At 09:30 Air Surveillance reported enemy aircraft heading due west. The two flights of four Fokker D.XXI’s from Utti took off heading east in search of the reported Soviet planes. Visibility was poor with the Finns being unable to locate their targets. They returned to Utti to be prepared to stand ready for further intercepts.

Whilst the four Fokker D.XXI’s from 4/LLv 24 were searching for the reported enemy aircraft, Luutnantti Pehr-Erik “Pelle” Sovelius (Himself an ‘Ace’ with 5.5 kills with the Fokker D.XXI and 7 with the Brewster BW.239), was ferrying Fokker D.XXI FR-92 to Utti from Lappeenranta, where it had been undergoing maintenance, when at 10:10hrs Ground Surveillance reported “Enemy planes north of Hamina at 3000m”. Fortunately, all Finnish military aircraft at this time were fully armed if airworthy.

Sovelius reported seeing 8 DB-3 bombers flying directly towards him as he received the radio report.

Ilyushin DB-3 'White 5'
Ilyushin DB-3 ‘White 5’

Below is Sovelus’ battle report of the engagement:

Place of the aerial battle: “Northern edge of the Utti airfield.”

Enemy a/c: “ DB”

Fate of the enemy a/c: “Dived burning to the ground between Utti and Kaipiainen, North of the railway line.”

Course of the aerial battle: “On a ferrying flight Lappeenranta-Utti I was informed by radio about the movement of enemy a/c at the Southern fringe of the Haukkasuo swamp, eight a/c, on a course to North from Kotka, flying altitude 3000 m. I intercepted the formation on “collision course”. Having climbed above the enemy I half-rolled my Fokker at the left wing a/c. I shot the gunner at 300m and then approached to a distance of 100m. At that moment the third a/c from the left fired at me, so I gave her a brief burst and the gunner fell silent.

Then I fired brief bursts (at the bomber) and the a/c caught fire. The left engine and wing were burning. The a/c crashed.”

Ammunition consumption: “500 pcs.”

Eventual evidence: “A/c found between Utti and Kaipiainen near the railway line.”

Other obervations: “The enemy a/c supported each other by flanking fire. My fighter took 8 hits.”

Signed by : Lt. P.-E. Sovelius Aircraft: FR-92.

The seven remaining bombers then continued northwards where due to their similar speed to the Fokker D.XXI and to the increasing cloud cover, they made their escape.

The Soviet bombers made for Kuopio, a town with a population of 22,000. The air raid alert was sounded at 10:52hrs, unfortunately the town lacked Anti-Aircraft defences. 7 High Explosive bombs were dropped, however no damage was caused. Almost as soon as the first attack was over a second attack began. Reports are unclear as to whether these were the same DB-3 bombers that Sorvelius had intercepted that had turned back or whether it was a new flight of aircraft.

The mist had now unfortunately cleared, the DB-3’s approached at an altitude of 1000m and dropped 54 incendiary bombs. 35 houses were damaged but incredibly only one person died from a heart attack.

The Fokker pilots at Utti were already in their flying gear and the aircraft engines had been warmed up. The message was received at 11.50 that 7 bombers were flying south using the northern railway for navigation. Lt. Sarvanto mounted Fokker D.XXI FR-97 and took off with his wingman in the direction of the enemy aircraft.

As they were climbing to height, Lt. Sarvanto’s wingman’s Fokker D.XXI began experiencing engine difficulties. Snow had clogged the air intake during take-off so he had to return to base. Jorma Sarvanto continued on alone, climbing northwards towards the Soviet bombers.

The second pair of aircraft based at Utti would ordinarily have been required to remain at the base in the event of further Soviet incursions. However, upon seeing Lt. Sarvanto’s wingman return, the decision was taken to launch the flight. Lt. Sovelius and Sgt. Ikonen took off in pursuit of Lt. Sarvanto. Nonetheless, he had a good head start.

Sarvanto climbed steadily to an altitude of 3000m, turning slowly right to the south to position himself behind the bombers. At one point he was directly in front of them but their view was obscured by the glare of the sun. Once he was 500m behind the DB-3’s he opened the throttle and pursued the enemy at full power.

As he approached his aircraft vibrated at a distance of 300m from the bombers as he was caught in the cross-fire from the rear gunners. He opened fire on his first bomber at an incredible 20m, strafing the rear gunner and fuselage before turning in to hit the right engine. As the engine caught fire, he was already repeating the process on the second aircraft in the formation. Two DB-3 bombers were on fire and heading down.

He engaged each bomber at very close range, firing at the engines with two-three bursts until they caught fire and left the formation. Sarvanto reported that he had resolved to take down every one of the bombers. Whilst under fire, he methodically fired at the engines and when the opportunity presented itself, the rear gunner of each of the seven aircraft. Bomber six continued to fly. Lt. Sarvanto was now out of ammunition. Despite this he had used the last of his rounds on the aircraft killing its rear gunner. The aircraft eventually caught fire and crashed. Aircraft number 7 had long since made its escape despite damage.

Sarvanto noted that columns of black smoke from the wrecks of the aircraft could be seen on the ground below him.

DB-3M Reported as shot down over Finland.
DB-3M Reported as shot down over Finland.

He assessed the damage to his own Fokker D.XXI. The instruments and control surfaces appeared to be working, as did the Bristol Mercury engine. The wings were heavily holed but the aircraft made it home to Utti. Whilst preparing to land Sarvanto noticed that the hydraulic pump for the landing flaps was no longer working. Despite this, he achieved a successful landing.

The flight had lasted 25 minutes. The Air Combat had lasted 5 minutes. Luutnantti Jorma Kalevi Sarvanto had shot down 6 Ilyushin DB-3 Bombers.

Fokker D.XXI FR-97 received 23 hits during the action.

The patrol containing Lt. Sovelius and Sgt. Ikonen, that had taken off in pursuit of Lt. Sarvanto located the surviving DB-3 bomber and engaged with it. The second battle report by Lt. Sorvelius states:

Date and time: 6.1. 1940 12.30 hrs

Place of the aerial battle: “Gulf of Finland South of Kotka between Suursaari and Lavansaari”

Enemy a/c: “DB”

Fate of the enemy a/c: “Left engine burning, dived in the sea. Air surveillance center reported 12.25 hrs at map square 32C6.”

Course of the aerial battle: “This a/c belonged to the formation of seven of which Sarvanto shot down 6. This a/c continued flying. I pursued her with Sgt. Ikonen. Sgt. Ikonen ran out of ammo South of Haapasaari (rem: he kept firing at a long range) and he turned back. I continued still for a while and finally reached the range of 200 m. I fired a long burst whereby the enemy left engine caught fire and the a/c began to descend toward the sea. Dense fog made pursuit difficult.”

Ammunition consumption: “1000 pcs”

Evidence : “Air surveillance center report.”

Other obervations:

Signed by : Lt. P.-E. Sovelius Aircraft: FR-92.

Luutnantti Sarvanto received a tremendous amount of attention from the world’s press, who at the time considered his actions a world record. Jorma Sarvanto was embarrassed by the sudden and unexpected fame. His picture appeared in many western newspapers showing him holding the tail of a DB-3 Bomber with the number ‘5’ on it. Typically modest for a Finn, Lt. Sarvanto said that “Any one of my fellow pilots could have shot down those bombers”.

Jorma Sarvanto Showing the tail of DB-3 'White 5'.
Jorma Sarvanto Showing the tail of DB-3 ‘White 5’.

The town council of Kuopio donated silver candlesticks for Sarvanto, Sovelius and Ikonen as a token of gratitude.

During the Winter War, the Soviets enjoyed an approximate 10-1 advantage in aircraft, but LOST aircraft in combat at roughly the same ratio. The Finnish Fokker D.XXI enjoyed a kill to loss ratio of 16:1.

Fokker D.XXI FR-110 on display at the Keski-Suomen Ilmailumuseo. Photo attributed to: Ruuhinen 11.8.2009.
Fokker D.XXI FR-110 on display at the Keski-Suomen Ilmailumuseo. Photo attributed to: Ruuhinen 11.8.2009.

Everstiluutnantti Överstelöjtnant (Lieutenant Colonel) Jorma Kalevi Sarvanto

Sarvanto was to become the top scoring Finnish ace of the Winter War with 13 victories. During the Continuation War he downed four more aircraft with Brewster Buffaloes, bringing his total score to 17. He flew a total of 255 combat missions during World War II.

Jorma Kalevi Sarvanto ended the war with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel as Commander of the Flight School in Kauhava where he served until 1954. From 1954 to 1960 he served as the Finnish military attaché in London.

Battle Honours:

  • Cross of Liberty, 2nd Class, with swords, of the order of the cross of liberty
  • Cross of Liberty, 3rd Class, with swords, of the order of the cross of liberty
  • Commander of the Order of the White Rose of Finland
  • Order of the German Eagle 3rd Class, with swords
  • Luftwaffe’s pilot badge honoris causa.




  • Stenman, Kari and Keskinen, Kalevi (1998). Aircraft of the Aces      23 – Finnish Aces of World War 2. Osprey Publishing. ISBN 1-85532-783-X.
  • Stenman, Kari, Keskinen, Kalevi and Niska, Klaus (1994). Hävittäjä-Ässät      – Suomen Ilmavoimien Historia 11 (in Finnish/English). Apali. ISBN 952-5026-00-0.

Richard Reynolds.


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