Thursday, February 12, 2009

February 6 - Dad's war service

It's my Dad's 90th birthday this July and my sister and I have decided to make him a scrapbook of his life, as we did for our mother when she was 80. We've each chosen the aspects of his life to make pages for and one of the things I'm doing is his war service.

We originally came to Australia from Finland, where military service is compulsory, so Dad was drafted into the army when he was just 20 years old. He was trained as a gunnery sergent and sent to the Russian front for three long years.

When I was growing up Dad never talked about his experience in the war. He just said that he'd rather not have to remember that time. I knew nothing about what he did or where he went. It was only fairly recently that he was able to start talking about it and now he's given me a full explanation, in the form of 12 handwritten pages, about what happened to him all those years ago. He also has a number of photographs that I've been able to copy and enlarge for the scrapbook. This is the first time I've seen them and it's touching just how young he was. I guess this is true for all of the young men sent to war for their country. So sad and pointless.

The exercise of making this scrapbook for Dad has sent me on a trail of research about Finlnd's history. From extracts from Virtual Finland by Dr. Seppo Zetterberg, professor of history, University of Jyväskylä, I've learned the following -

"Until the middle of the 12th century the country was a political vacuum with both Sweden (and the Catholic church) and Russia (and the Greek Orthodox church) interested in taking control. Sweden won and took over most of the country in 1323, with the eastern edge being under Russian rule.

Under Swedish rule the Finns retained their personal freedom. The Reformation started by Luther in the early 16th century also reached Sweden and Finland, and the Catholic Church consequently lost out to the Lutheran faith.

The Reformation set in motion a great rise in Finnish-language culture. The New Testament was translated into Finnish in 1548 by the Bishop of Turku, Mikael Agricola (1510-1557), who brought the Reformation to Finland and created written Finnish. The entire Bible appeared in Finnish in 1642.

During its period as a great power (1617-1721), Sweden extended its realm around the Baltic and managed, due to the weakness of Russia, to push the Finnish border further east. With consolidation of the administration in Stockholm, uniform Swedish rule was extended to Finland in the 17th century. Swedes were often appointed to high offices in Finland, which strengthened the position of the Swedish language in Finland.

When Sweden lost its position as a great power in the early 18th century, Russian pressure on Finland increased, and Russia conquered Finland in the 1808-1809 war with Sweden. The country became The Grand Duchy of Finland. The enlightened Russian Emperor Alexander I, who was Grand Duke of Finland in 1809-1825, gave Finland extensive autonomy thereby creating the Finnish state. The Lutheran Church retained its position in Finland, and so did Swedish as the official language of the country.

The Finnish national movement gained momentum during the Russian period. The Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, created by Elias Lönnrot, was published in 1835. J.V. Snellman (1806-1881), who was a senator and professor at the University of Helsinki during the reign of Alexander II in 1855-1881, worked to promote the Finnish language and to make it an official language alongside Swedish."

Years of to-ing and fro-ing and struggles for control ensued and it's interesting to note that part of the restructuring of government and legislture meant that Finnish women were the first in Europe to gain the right to vote in parliamentary elections.

"On December 6, 1917, Parliament approved the declaration of independence drawn up by the Senate under the leadership of P.E Svinhufvud (1861-1944).

At the same time, the breach between the parties of the left and the right had become irreconcilable. At the end of January 1918, the leftwing parties staged a coup, and the government was forced to flee Helsinki. The ensuing Civil War ended in May with victory for the government troops, led by General Gustaf Mannerheim (1867-1951). Finland became a republic in the summer of 1919, and K.J. Ståhlberg (1865-1952) was elected the first president."

My Dad was born in 1919, the year that Finland became a Republic. The years of his childhood were a time of much change and growth for the country. When he was just 20 Russia hit back.

"In August 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union signed a non aggression pact, which included a secret protocol relegating Finland to the Soviet sphere of interest. When Finland refused to allow the Soviet Union to build military bases on its territory, the latter revoked the nonaggression pact of 1932 and attacked Finland on November 30, 1939. The "Winter War" ended in a peace treaty drawn up in Moscow on March 13, 1940, giving southeastern Finland to the Soviet Union.

In the Winter War Finland stood alone; only sympathy and modest assistance was offered by other countries. During the War Finnish ski troops, their white uniforms blending ghostlike in the snow, inflicted heavy casualties on the Russian army. Finland's survival against overwhelming Russian forces became legendary all over the world. Unlike all other states on the European continent that were involved in the Second World War, Finland was never occupied by foreign forces."

When Dad was still at the training camp, preparing to join the troops fighting the Russians, the Winter War ended (13/3/1940) and he was not involved in that conflict. When his artillery section was mobilised on 21.6.41 they were ordered to march to the Russian front and reclaim the lands taken in the Winter War. They had to bunker down at the front and hold position there. They did this for three years.

It's interesting for me to read the account of his time at the front. And sad too. At the end of their time they were forced to retreat under massive bombardment from the Russians. There were 110 men in Dad's section and during their time at the front 10 were killed and 21 wounded. When I read the account I'm surprised that anyone survived. I guess war is like that. Sometimes the soldiers make it home.

Dad's closest call happened exactly a year after he was drafted into the army. On the morning of that day the Russians decided to obliterate them by heavy bombardment with 150mm shells. The bombing was so heavy that all they could do was retreat into the bunker and wait it out. A 40kg shell came through the window of their bunker, missed all of the 8 men hiding there and exploded in the sand on the other side. Dad caught some wood splinters in the back of his legs and couldn't stand for several minutes but that was the extent of injuries sustained. When they excavated the shell the next day they found the cone and discovered that it had been set to 0.4secs. This meant that it was set to explode 0.4 seconds after impact, rather than on impact. This meant that they had survived the shelling by a mere 0.4 seconds. I guess Dad and his team were not meant to die on that day.

After the war the Russians claimed reparations for their losses and annexed Karelia as payment. The residents from that part of Finland had to leave their country and homes and it has been a sore point ever since.

Dad's motivation for fighting in this particular war was to keep the Russians out of the country that had fought so hard and so long for its independence. He gets angry whenever anyone speaks of Finland as "that part of Russia". I can understand and I feel the same myself, even though I've only gained this feeling by osmosis.

Page to follow

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