Finnish Ski Troops – Finland’s Elite Light Infantry

Sissi Unit Emblem.
Sissi Unit Emblem.

Finnish Ski Troops or “Sissi” are light infantry which conducted reconnaissance, sabotage and guerrilla warfare operations behind enemy lines. The word sissi, first attested in the modern meaning “patrolman, partisan, spy” in 1787, comes to Finnish from Slavic and refers either to a forest bandit or his yew bow.

The Finnish Army Sissi units are trained to conduct long range reconnaissance patrols, gather intelligence from concealed observation posts, raid enemy installations (especially supply depots), conduct road side ambushes and pursue and destroy enemy special forces units.

A Finnish Ski patrol with reindeer.
A Finnish Ski patrol with reindeer.

In Finland, long-range patrols (kaukopartio) were especially notable during World War II. For example, Erillinen Pataljoona 4 (4th Detached Battalion), a command of four different long-range patrol detachments; Detachment Paatsalo, Detachment Kuismanen, Detachment Vehniäinen and Detachment Marttina operated throughout the Continuation War phase of the war. These units penetrated Soviet lines and conducted recon and destroy missions. During the trench warfare period of the Continuation War, long-range patrols were often conducted by special Finnish sissi troops. Former President of Finland, Mauno Koivisto, served in Lauri Törni‘s specially designed Jäger Company (called ‘Detachment Törni’) in the Finnish 1st Infantry Division. Lauri Törni became a US citizen and entered the US Army Special Forces. He gave important knowledge in long-range patrolling and was declared MIA during the Vietnam War in 1965, until his remains were found and were buried in Arlington on 26 June 2003.

In wartime, the unknown number of reservists assigned to Sissi battalions would deploy and operate as small groups up to company size. They are meant to stay behind and covertly operate against enemy forces in their area of responsibility even if regular friendly troops have been forced to retreat. Sissi battalions are part of Finnish Army local troops, unlike the jäger and armored brigades meant for operational use. Sissi units are considered as the elites of the Army conscripts, and many of the units, such as the Paratroopers or Border Jaegers, are formed of volunteers.

A Finnish Patrol skiing two-abreast to hide their numbers.
A Finnish Patrol skiing two-abreast to hide their numbers.

History

Before the hostilities of Winter War, the Finnish Army formed 25 Independent Battalions (Erillinen Pataljoona) from local reservists along the border area. After the outbreak out of hostilities, a further five Sissi Battalions (Sissipataljoona) were formed from “auxiliary personnel”. These battalions especially those of the latter type, were below their nominal strength in both men and weaponry. These units proved to be effective in using “motti” tactics of surrounding the enemy before attacking in their native area with light infantry weapons and skis.

In the Continuation War the ad hoc Sissi Battalions were discontinued, but Independent Battalions were raised, 4th Independent Battalion was directly under the command of Supreme Headquarters doing LRRP and raiding missions deep inside Soviet area. In the Battle of Ilomantsi, soldiers of the 4th harassed supply lines of the Soviet artillery preventing effective fire support. In the Ladoga Karelia front the length of the front, absence roads and lack of troops prevented continuous front lines during the trench warfare period. Both armies used a chain of fortified field bases separated by the wilderness, monitoring and controlling the gaps with patrols. Both Finns and Soviets launched raids and recon patrols into enemy territory. Battles were short clashes of lightly armed infantry groups from squadron to battalion in size, with little chance of support or reinforcements.

After the Second World War, Sissi units were de-commissioned and officially Sissi training was discontinued, although many units gave Sissi training for their reconnaissance units. In the beginning of the 1960s, Paratrooper School was established at Utti, infantry and border guard established Sissi training companies thereafter.

Weaponry

The main weapon of the Sissi were their Ski’s. These enabled them to be extremely mobile, to react quickly to potential threats and move quickly when inserted on a long-range patrol by a Heinkel He-59 or Heinkel He-115B aircraft. Finnish Ski troops were notable for fighting with their skis on, whereas their Soviet counterparts removed their skis before combat, thus rendering their mobile advantage ineffectual.

Heinkel He 59 Finnish Air Force.
Heinkel He 59 Finnish Air Force.

Suomi KP/-31

Suomi KP-31.
Suomi KP-31.

The Suomi KP/-31 (Suomi-konepistooli or “Submachine-gun Finland”) was a submachine gun (SMG) of Finnish design used during World War II. It was a descendant of the M-22 prototype and the KP/-26 production model, which was revealed to the public in 1925. The Suomi-konepistooli KP/-31 is often abbreviated to Suomi KP.

The Suomi KP/-31 is regarded by many as one of the most successful submachine guns of World War II, also the soon developed 71-round drum magazine was later copied and adopted by the Soviets for their PPD-40 and PPSh-41 submachine guns. The accuracy of the Suomi was superior to that of the mass-produced PPSh-41, thanks in part to a noticeably longer barrel, with the same rate of fire and the equally large magazine capacity. The major disadvantage of the Suomi KP/-31 was its high production cost.

The Suomi KP/-31 also incorporated a few new design features, including an arrangement whereby the spring was mounted inside the bolt in order to make the gun shorter. Its 50-round quad-column “Casket” box magazine was more reliable than the early 40-round “bullets loaded nose down” drum magazine, and similar applications were used on the Argentinian C-4 submachine gun and present-day 60-round 5.45x39mm AK-74 compatible magazines.

The M-22 and KP/-26 were made by Konepistooli Oy, founded by Master Armorer Aimo Lahti, Captain V. Korpela, Lieutenant Y. Koskinen and Lieutenant L. Boyer-Spoof. The Suomi KP/-31 was designed by Koskinen and Lahti.

The Suomi KP/-31 went into serial production in 1931 by Tikkakoski Oy and most of these weapons were bought by the Finnish Defence Forces. The Finnish Defence Forces were equipped with about 4000 Suomi KP/-31 submachine guns when the Winter War started. During the course of the war, the design was altered with the addition of a muzzle brake, which increased the submachine gun’s overall length by 55 mm. The revised version was designated KP/-31 SJR (suujarru, or “muzzle brake”). Aimo Lahti was displeased with this revision, believing that it decreased muzzle velocity and reduced the weapon’s reliability, and even sought in vain to have the muzzle brake’s designer court-martialed. Ultimately, roughly half of the KP/-31s in Finnish service were of the SJR version. Initially the KP/-31 was issued as a substitute for a light machine gun, and proved inadequate in this role. Instead, soldiers learned by trial and error how to use submachine guns to the best effect. By the time of the Continuation War, Finnish doctrine had been altered to include both a KP/-31 and a light machine gun (usually a captured Degtyaryov DP) in every infantry squad, and by 1943 this had been expanded to two KP/-31s per squad. KP/-31 production continued with the intention of adding a third submachine gun to each squad, but this plan was shelved in 1944 when the Continuation War ended.

Lahti-Saloranta M-26 Light Machine Gun

Lahti-Saloranta M26 Light Machine Gun.
Lahti-Saloranta M26 Light Machine Gun.

The Lahti-Saloranta M/26 (alternatively LS/26) is a light machine gun which was designed by Aimo Lahti and Arvo Saloranta in 1926. The weapon was able to fire in both full automatic and semi-automatic modes. Both 20-round box and 75-round drum magazines were produced, but the Finnish army seems to have only used the smaller 20-round magazine.

In the Winter War, there were two squads in each platoon that provided covering fire for two ten-man rifle squads. In each squad, there was one M/26 gunner, one assistant and the rest of the men carrying rifles.

Lahti-Saloranta M-26 LMG gunner.
Lahti-Saloranta M-26 LMG gunner.

The M/26 won a Finnish Army competition in 1925 where it was selected as the army’s main light machine gun. Production started in 1927 at the Valtion kivääritehdas (VKT), State Rifle Factory, and lasted until 1942. More than 5,000 weapons were produced during that time. China also placed an order for 30,000 M/26s chambered for 7.92x57mm Mauser in 1937, but only 1,200 of these weapons were actually delivered due to Japanese diplomatic pressure. In the summer of 1944, 3,400 M/26s were in use at the front.

The Mosin-Nagant M28/30 sniper rifle

The Mosin-Nagant M28-30 sniper rifle.
The Mosin-Nagant M28-30 sniper rifle.

M/28-30: An upgraded version of the M/28. The most noticeable modification is the new rear sight design. Same sight was used in following M39 rifle only exception being “1.5” marking for closest range to clarify it for users. According to micrometer measurements and comparison to modern Lapua D46/47 bullet radar trajectory data, markings are matched to Finnish Lapua D46/D46 bullet surprisingly accurately through whole adjustment range between 150 m and 2000 m.

The trigger was also improved by adding coil spring to minimize very long pre-travel. Following M39 does not have this improvement. The magazine was also modified to prevent jamming. Magazines were stamped with “HV” (Häiriö Vapaa = Jam Free) letters in right side of rifle. Later M39 uses identical design, but without “HV” -stamp. M/28-30 also have metal sleeve in fore-end of handguard, to reduce barrel harmonics change and to make barrel-stock contact more constant between shots and/or during environmental changes such as moisture and temperature. Later M39 does not have this upgrade.

In addition to its military usage, approximately 440 M/28-30 rifles were manufactured by SAKO for use in the 1937 World Shooting Championships in Helsinki.

M/28-30 model, serial number 60974, was also used by Simo Häyhä, the well-known Finnish sniper. The M28/30 was used as a Civil Guards competition rifle before World War II, as was the case with Simo Häyhä’s personal rifle too. Therefore these rifles were built very well, with the highest grade barrels available and carefully matched headspace. Häyhä’s rifle was still at PKarPr (Northern Karelia Brigade) museum in 2002, then moved to an unknown place by the Finnish Army.

Simo Häyhä the highest scoring sniper in history.
Simo Häyhä the highest scoring sniper in history.

Famous sissi troops

  • Lauri Törni a.k.a. Larry Thorne, a commander of “Detachment Törni”, the reconnaissance company of the 12th Infantry Regiment during the Continuation War, had a bounty on his head by the Soviets, joined Waffen-SS in 1940 and was sent back home before the Continuation war. After the Finno-Soviet ceasefire he returned to Waffen-SS because he did not believe that Soviets would actually follow the ceasefire agreement. After the war Törni joined US Army and volunteered for the US Army Special forces.
  • Mauno Koivisto, member of “Detachment Törni” during Continuation War, later the President of Finland.
  • Mikko Pöllä, most decorated member of the 4th Detached Battalion.

Term and use

In Finnish, “sissi” means guerrilla, but the term is somewhat misleading when referring to Finnish Defence Force Sissi troops. Sissi forces are not irregular guerrilla or militia forces; they are part of the regular FDF troops trained for operations behind enemy lines. Like most of the Finnish Defence Forces, Sissi battalions are composed of reservists. Their closest foreign equivalents are the Swedish Armed Forces Jägare troops.

Sissi as a description is a person of extraordinary stamina (or Sisu) – e.g. “Sissi weather” (Sissin sää) refers to the worst possible weather conditions, for sissi soldiers prefer these for their operations, since bad weather tends to distract enemy soldiers (any normal soldier tends to think about getting to shelter as soon as possible when bad weather strikes) and hide any noise caused by sissis.

In the Finnish Defence Forces, sissi is used as an umbrella term for all unconventional military applications, such as any improvised and/or temporary repair to any equipment is often called “sissiviritys”, literally “sissi fix” or “sissi patch”, in addition any improvised booby-trap, such as a firearm rigged to fire at doorway of a building once someone opens the door, may be called “sissijäynä”, literally “sissi prank”.

Battle of Ilomantsi

Finnish Ski Troops were heavily involved in the Battle of Ilomantsi, which was the last major engagement of the Continuation War, and after nine victories in just a few weeks forced the Soviet Stavka to retract its demands for Finland’s unconditional surrender, due to fears that the Finnish armed forces remained a capable fighting force.

Finnish Sissi LMG crew at Ilomantsi.
Finnish Sissi LMG crew at Ilomantsi.

The Battle of Ilomantsi was a part of the Continuation War (1941–1944). It was fought from July 26 to August 13, 1944, between Finland and the Soviet Union in area roughly 40 kilometers wide and 30 kilometers deep, near the Finnish-Soviet border, close to a small Finnish town of Ilomantsi, in North Karelia. The battle ended with a Finnish victory, as the last major Soviet attack against Finland was stopped here. Of 7000 Finnish soldiers 400 were killed or missing, 1,300 were wounded. The 16,000 (later rising to 20,000) Soviet Forces suffered 13,050 casualties.

Order of battle

Finnish

Finnish forces in the area before the battle consisted of only the 21st Brigade under Colonel Ekman but they were reinforced with Cavalry Brigade and three other battalions—3rd Border Jaeger Battalion and 2 battalion strong detachment P (Os. P). All Finnish forces were subordinated to a temporary formation named Group R (Group Raappana) after its commanding officer Major General Erkki Raappana and was tasked with defeating the advancing Soviet units and recapturing crossroads at Kuolismaa village. During the initial Soviet push the sole unit defending and delaying it was the Finnish 21st Brigade (roughly 7,000 men). As the front in the Karelian Isthmus had been stabilized the Cavalry Brigade was rushed to the Ilomantsi to reinforce the 21st Brigade bringing the Finnish strength at July 31 when the counterattack began roughly to 13,000.

Soviet

General Meretskov’s Karelian Front’s forces advancing towards Ilomantsi consisted of two divisions of Soviet 32nd Army under Lieutenant General Filip D. Garelenko – 176th (Colonel Zolotarjov) and 289th (Major General Tsernuha) divisions. Later as the battle progressed and the advancing divisions were encircled, Soviet forces in the area were reinforced with 3rd, 69th and 70th Naval Infantry Brigades and other formations.

According to Soviet archives, at the beginning of the Karelian Front’s offensive at June 21, 1944 Soviet 176th and 289th Rifle Divisions of the 32nd Army had combined strength of roughly 16,000 men. By the time (June 31) the Finnish counterattack in Ilomantsi started the combined strength of the 176th and 289th division had dropped to 11,000 men. After the soviet 3rd Naval Infantry (ru. Morskaya Pekhota) Brigade and 69th and 70th Naval Rifle (ru. Morskaya Strelkovy) Brigades were brought to support the encircled 176th and 289th Divisions the combined Soviet infantry strength in Ilomantsi was slightly higher than 20,000 men.

The Battle

Parts of Karelia, as they are traditionally divided.
Parts of Karelia, as they are traditionally divided.

At first, the Soviet offensive seemed to be successful as on July 21, 1944, the Red Army units were able to reach the Finnish-Soviet border of 1940, the only time during the entire Soviet offensive of 1944, and—in fact—ever since 1941. Finnish reinforcements arrived on July 28 and on July 31 Raappana started the counterattack. Already on August 1 Finns cut the sole road leading to Soviet 176th division and by August 3 both Soviet divisions were encircled as the Finnish forces utilized envelopment tactics (Encirclement tactics were known as “motti” in Finnish) that drew upon the ancient methods of warfare and those already used by them in the Winter War (1939–1940).

Finnish Ski Troops in action at Ilomantsi.
Finnish Ski Troops in action at Ilomantsi.

Soviets deployed three brigades with armor support to open the road connections to the encircled divisions but Finnish efforts prevented it. Renewed attacks distracted the Finns enough to allow the encircled Soviet forces escape through the dense forests by abandoning their heavy equipment. Given the element of surprise and due to superior numbers of the Soviets the Finnish troops guarding the encircled divisions had little hope of containing organized breakouts especially in forests and so many of the encircled Soviets managed to escape to their own side with last escaping at August 10.

Destroyed Soviet T-26 Tank
Destroyed Soviet T-26 Tank

Source: SA-Kuva

Outcome

Two attacking Red Army divisions were decimated in this last major engagement on the Finnish front, before the armistice was concluded in early September, 1944. Command of the Finnish forces at the Battle of Ilomantsi was carried out by the famed Finnish General—and a Knight of the Mannerheim CrossErkki Raappana.

Military historians note that the two Red Army divisions were completely routed after a week and a half of fighting, leaving behind over 3,200 Red Army soldiers dead, thousands wounded and missing, and over 100 pieces of heavy artillery, approximately 100 mortars and the rest of the Soviet ordnance for the Finns to capture.

Osasto Partinen (Detachment Partinen) in forest of Ilomantsi.
Osasto Partinen (Detachment Partinen) in forest of Ilomantsi.

General Raappana’s men—the so-called Group Raappana (“Ryhmä Raappana” in Finnish)—had fired within ten days over 36,000 artillery shells, aimed at the Soviet forces in Ilomantsi. The Soviet artillery participating in Ilomantsi were able to fire only 10,000 shells during the same period. The main reason for the lower Soviet artillery successes were the Finnish disturbance tactics. For instance, a Finnish guerrilla detachment led by the Knight of the Mannerheim Cross, Lieutenant Heikki Nykänen, destroyed a Soviet convoy of 30 trucks carrying artillery rounds to the battle scene.

Ski Trooper with weapon at the ready on Skis.
Ski Trooper with weapon at the ready on Skis.

Impact

The Finns had achieved victory, and the remnants of the two Red Army divisions had barely escaped destruction, by breaking out from the encirclements. After the battle, Stavka (Soviet Armed Forces Headquarters) brought its offensive to a halt and gave up the demand of Finland’s unconditional surrender.

The Finnish President Mauno Koivisto spoke at a seminar held in August, 1994, in the North Karelian city of Joensuu, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Finnish victory in the crucial Battle of Ilomantsi. The future President of Finland witnessed this battle as a soldier in a reconnaissance company commanded by Finnish war hero and Knight of the Mannerheim Cross recipient, Captain Lauri Törni (who later served in USA as a Green Beret under the name Larry Thorne):

In the summer of 1944, when the Red Army launched an all-out offensive, aimed at eliminating Finland, the Finns were “extremely hard-pressed”, President Koivisto itenerated, but they “did not capitulate”.

“We succeeded in stopping the enemy cold at key points,” the President said, “and in the final battle at Ilomantsi even in pushing him back.”

In a speech on September 4, 1994, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the signing of the armistice ending the Finnish-Soviet hostilities, the Prime Minister of Finland Esko Aho declared:

“I do not see a defeat in the summer’s battles, but the victory of a small nation over a major power, whose forces were stopped far short of the objectives of the Soviet leadership. Finland was not beaten militarily …”

“Finland preserved her autonomy and her democratic social system …”

“Finland … won the peace.”

The Utrio area played a central role in General Erkki Raappana’s—the leader of the 1944 Ilomantsi operation—plan of defence. Fast-moving battalions from the Cavalry Brigade, experienced in forest warfare, were driven through this area between lakes, as a wedge between the attacking Soviet 289th and 176th Divisions. The opening battles fell on the Finnish Light Infantry Battalion 6. When it turned against the encirclements at Leminaho and the Lutikkavaara hill, the Uudenmaa Cavalry Regiment attacked through Utrio and the River Ruukinpohja, with flanking from the Light Infantry Battalion 1.

Wolf

References

 

 

 

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