The 1931 Military Review: The 5 year plan that prepared Finland for war
In 1920 to 1926 Arne Somersalo transferred from the Finnish Army and was promoted to commander of the Suomen Ilmavoimat (Finnish Air Force) by the Finnish Military Command. This gave him direct and unfettered access to Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, the Commander-in-Chief of the Finnish armed Forces. This too gave Somersalo an almost free hand in the future direction of the ilmavoimat that would ultimately lead to the 1931 Military Review which began an unprecedented modernisation programme and procurement initiative that would ultimately prepare the Finnish Air Force for war with the Soviet Union when it came in 1939.
The military budget was increased and Somersalo’s views were taken into account during 1931 when an acquisition programme was initiated for the 1932 financial year. A five year plan was initiated in 1931 where the Ilmavoimat would be strengthened through the re-organisation of the physical structure of the establishment. Strategic and tactical doctrine was introduced with a strong emphasis placed upon an expected attack by the Soviet Union.
The Military Review included the overhaul of the IVL Factory (Finnish Air Force Factory). On the 23rd of February 1928, the Finnish Aircraft Manufacturing Company was formed from the IVL Factory and re-named Valtion lentokonetehdas (State Aircraft Factory).
The new establishment was transferred from the Finnish Air Force to the Ministry of Defence and moved to Tampere to new facilities which included an airport, manufacturing and storage hangars. The new facility gave work to hundreds of people during the depression of the 1930’s. The move to Härmälä, near Tampere in 1936 was potentially risky. Tampere was Finland’s largest industrial city during the Second World War which made it a potential bombing target.
The company and its products were named with the prefix VL. The contribution to the Finnish war effort by Valtion lentokonetehdas cannot be under-estimated. In 1936 it employed 636 people. By 1941 this had increased to 1,697 reflecting the increased capacity required to manufacture, license build and repair aircraft for the ilmavoimat in its conflict with Soviet Russia.
VL licence built the Blackburn Rippon, Bristol Blenheim, Fokker C.X, Fokker D.XXI and Gloster Gamecock to name just a few. These types played a pivotal role during the defense of Finland during the Winter War of 1939-40.
Between 1932 and 1934 VL produced primary trainers for the ilmavoimat. This often overlooked atribute of military aviation is a vital aspect in the prosecution of War. Well trained pilots and crews were provided to the Finnish Air Force. The VL Pyry for example trained 700 pilots at the Air Force School in Kauhava.
In 1932 the ilmavoimat and Valtion lentokonetehdas put in place a joint procurement program in an effort to homogenize aircraft acquisition. Manufacturers from Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland and the United States were evaluated. Where a suitable aircraft was identified, a small evaluation team would be sent to the country to test-fly and assess the aircraft’s suitability for the Finnish Air Force.
In addition to the combined ilmavoimat and Valtion lentokonetehdas procurement program, a policy institute was set up comprising members of the Finnish General Staff, members of the ilmavoimat and Valtion lentokonetehdas as well as members of the Maavoimat (Finnish Army), Merivoimat (Finnish Navy) and civilian members with technical and strategic expertise were employed to investigate the strategic circumstances of the Soviet Army, Soviet weapons development, procurement and political policy of the Russians particularly with emphasis on a possible war with the Soviet Union.
Between 1936 and 1939 Josef Stalin initiated the ‘Great Purge’. The best of the officer corps were ‘disposed of’ including 5 marshals. This left the Soviet military devoid of competent leadership. In addition during the 1920s and 1930s the Soviets did not modernize their armed forces, they relied solely upon vast numbers of materials, men and equipment to win wars at the expense of military technology development and adequate planning at the strategic level. 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, all tactical plans and decisions had to be approved by the Commissar before they 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.
Therefore, despite the Finns seemingly hopeless situation when the Soviets invaded, they used their small forces in an extremely efficient manner both tactically and strategically. The details of how the Finns forced the Soviet Union to an armistice can be read in my article: Jorma Kalevi Sarvanto “Zamba” and the Bomber Interception Tactics of the Finnish Air Force during the Winter War of 1939.
During 1932 the ilmavoimat introduced a fighter aircraft upgrade program. 40 Bristol Bulldog Mk.IVa’s were bought from the British to form the backbone of the new fighter fleet. Modern aircraft types were necessary in order to train pilots and form the basis of a long-term development plan.
The Finns gained experience of combat using the Bristol Bulldog. In 1937 20 aircraft were sold as ‘surplus’ by the British to a German arms-dealer, they were bought by the Finns and fought in the Spanish Civil War. These aircraft were flown by a Finnish Volunteer unit attached to Franco’s Nationalist forces and were known as ‘Pohjan Pojat’ – ‘The boys from the north’. They achieved remarkable successes against their republican opponents flying Soviet Polikarpov I-152, I-153 and I-16 fighters, the same aircraft that they would face in the Winter War. Therefore the experience can be considered invaluable.
The very first aerial victory of the Winter War was achieved by a Bristol Bulldog on the 1st December 1939 by SSgt Toivo Uuttu. The type shot down four Tupolev SB-2s and two Polikarpov I-16s during the conflict. The Bulldog was relegated to the advanced training role towards the end of the Winter War in 1940. Nevertheless, its contribution in educating Finnish pilots in fighter tactics during the Spanish Civil War cannot be underestimated. By the time the Winter War began in 1939, the Bristol Bulldog fleet had been reduced in number to 10 tactical fighters. Most airframes had been cannibalised to keep these in the air and the rest retired through long service and wear and tear.
During the Finnish Air Force’s 5 year plan it was recognized that through combined operations in tactical warfare between all elements of the armed forces, victory or at least in the case of the Finns, forcing the enemy to the negotiating table could be achieved.
This concept relied upon The Air Force supporting the Army and the Navy, the Navy supporting the Army and a strong emphasis on mobile warfare was integral to Army doctrine. The Finnish army were at times outnumbered by a staggering 100-1. To counter this, they would use highly trained ski-troops and fly them by floatplane to one of Finland’s many lakes to assault Soviet divisions, withdraw and fly to another ‘hotspot’ to deal with the enemy. Often when aircraft were unavailable, they would use reindeer and sleds to move quickly to combat zones to engage the enemy and again withdraw.
The Soviets by contrast would commit vast numbers of troops in massed ranks and continue to assault a position despite appalling casualties until either the position had been taken or they had run out of troops.
The disparate range of Finnish aircraft can be explained by an enforced policy of continued procurement by the government. The Finns acquired what they could, because most countries were involved in the wider conflict of World War II, they would tend to keep the best aircraft for themselves. This is why the modest Finnish Air Force contained an incongruous assortment of aircraft and were able to muster fewer than 50 operational fighters at the beginning of the Winter War in 1939, (36 Fokker D.XXI and 10 Bulldog biplane fighters), 18 Bristol Blenheim bombers and an assortment of some 60 close-support, reconnaissance and liaison aircraft. As the war progressed, 30 Gloster Gladiator, 24 Gloster Gauntlet, 12 Hawker Hurricane, 30 Morane Saulnier MS.406, 6 Caudron-Renault CR. 714, 35 Fiat G.50 and 44 Brewster Model 239 fighters were acquired, although the latter arrived too late to participate in the Winter War.
The Fokker D.XXI was another example of an already obsolete aircraft at the beginning of the war, designed and operated by the Dutch and used in small numbers by the Danish but bought by the Finns; license produced at VL and because they understood Soviet strategy was used in a tactically superior manner against their opponents. It wasn’t until 1943 when the Finnish Air Force took delivery of the Messerschmitt Bf 109G-2 that they purchased their first genuinely modern front-line fighter aircraft.
Up until 1933 the ilmavoimat had been largely made up of reservists. After 1933 the Air Force was re-formed around a corps of permanent personnel. This has the advantage of retaining experienced pilots and crews who are able in turn to pass that knowledge onto recruits. In addition, a permanent training cadre was introduced and the reservists would be required to commit to at least 18 months with the ilmavoimat. The active reserve had to remain available for ten years and were required to maintain annual training status in order to keep skills current.
The most radical change to the ilmavoimat introduced during the 5 year plan was that Women were permitted to join in all capacities during 1933. By the late 1930’s approximately one third of the ilmavoimat were Women. They were even permitted to fly, not in the front line but in transport aircraft and on ferry flights. They filled administrative positions, packed parachutes, operated anti-aircraft guns protecting airfields, were bomb-fitters and performed many other tasks.
Gliding clubs and civilian flying clubs were positively encouraged by the ilmavoimat providing a potential source of pilots. This was endorsed by the Suomen Ilmapuolustusliitto or SIPL (Air Defence League). Training aircraft and instructors were supplied by the ilmavoimat to the Air Defence League, the aim was to train reserve pilots and the scheme was funded by the Ministry of Defence.
Viewing warfare purely from the perspective of statistics will only give a small fraction of the picture of the wider conflict. During the Winter War for example, the Finnish Army was able to mobilize 337,000-346,500 men. The Soviets had amassed 998,100. The Finns had 32 tanks and 114 aircraft. The Soviets fielded 2,514-6,541 tanks and 3,880 aircraft. Yet the casualty figures for this war were 70,000 Finns dead compared with 323,000 Soviets. The Finns lost 62 aircraft, the Soviets 515. 3,543 Soviet tanks were destroyed, the Finns lost 20-30.
The Finnish people had been preparing for conflict with the Soviet Union since the 1920s. Perhaps even as far back as Finnish Independence from the Soviets in 1917. The Mannerheim Line (Finnish: Mannerheim-linja, Swedish: Mannerheimlinjen) was a defensive fortification line on the Karelian Isthmus built by Finland against the Soviet Union. The line was constructed in two phases: 1920–1924 and 1932–1939. The best overland route for Soviet forces to attack Finland was through the Karelian Isthmus. Therefore the Finns built a series of fortified bunkers running from the coast of the Gulf of Finland in the west, through Summa to the Vuoksi River and ended at Taipale in the east. It consisted of 157 machine gun positions and eight artillery positions built of concrete.
The Finnish Air Force employed superior fighter tactics which is explored in detail in: Jorma Kalevi Sarvanto “Zamba” and the Bomber Interception Tactics of the Finnish Air Force during the Winter War of 1939 on this website, which denied the Soviets air superiority. The Finnish Army was well trained and equipped for the harsh winter conditions. It was fast and mobile and able to respond quickly to Soviet attacks using innovative ‘Hit and Run’ tactics. The Soviet Baltic Fleet limited it’s activities to shelling Finnish coastal batteries until it’s operations came to a close with the freezing of the Gulf of Finland during the exceptionally cold winter of late 1939 to 1940.
Finally, and possibly most importantly, The Finnish people were fighting for their homeland. They had only been a free and independent nation for 22 years when the Soviets attacked on the 10th November 1939. The Soviet soldiers by contrast were fighting for a regime that cared little for the individual fighting man; the Government had underestimated their opponent and committed their forces to war during a period of great social upheaval in their country.
Ironically had the Soviet Union incorporated the lessons learned from fighting the Finnish during the 1939-1940 Winter War, they may not have suffered such appalling losses at the hands of the German army in the early stages of the German’s attack on Russia Beginning on 22 June 1941.
- Valtion Lentokonetehdas, by Jesse Russell (Editor), Ronald Cohn (Editor), 2012.
- “The Battles of the Winter War” by Sami Korhonen, 2004: http://www.winterwar.com/
- The Mannerheim Line 1920-39, Finnish Fortifications of the Winter War by Bair Irincheev, Osprey publications, 2009.
- VVS Research Page by Massimo Tessitori, 2012: http://mig3.sovietwarplanes.com/