At noon on the 6th January 1940, in the skies above Kymenlaakso, Luutnantti ( Lieutenant) Jorma Kalevi Sarvanto set a world record by shooting down six Soviet Ilyushin DB-3 bombers in four minutes. This record captured the attention of the international press and remains a feat of unrivaled air combat.
His Early Years
Jorma Kalevi Sarvanto was born in the southwestern coastal city of Turku on the 22nd February 1912. He grew up surrounded by stories of the ‘Red Baron’, Albert Ball and other flying aces from the First World War. These tales would guide his path towards the air force. His father was a patriot and encouraged his son to participate in local Civil Guard activities. Jorma found a passion for the military within the voluntary organisation. The young teen learnt the values of patriotism, how to handle a firearm, take pride in his appearance and self discipline. He was now determined to make a career in the military. Jorma graduated high school in 1933, three years after his peers, but he needed the diploma in order to join the military. He started his compulsory military service in June of that year and was called to the Pori Regiment. However he cut his army career short upon seeing a notice for air force trainees.
He applied and was accepted to the Reserve Officer Pilot Course at Kauhava Air Base. He graduated in 1935 and set his sights upon the Military Academy. While waiting, his compulsory service came to an end and he was discharged back to civilian life. Luckily in the autumn of 1935, he was accepted into the Military Academy and went on to qualify as both a pilot and navigator. He passed the 19th Cadet Course at the top of his class and was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant in the Air Force.
His first assignment was to Air Base 1 at Utti flying the Bristol Bulldog. He then was assigned to Flying Regiment 4, a bomber unit. He was placed as a navigator of a Bristol Blenheim Mk.1. However, he wanted to become a fighter pilot and soon after his promotion to lieutenant on the he was transferred to Flying Squadron 24.
Flying Squadron 24 was equipped with the latest acquisition of the Finnish Air Force, the Fokker D.XXI. This fixed undercarriage Dutch fighter was very respectable when introduced in 1936, but by 1939 its rugged design was showing its age. Jorma took to the Fokker well, achieving excellence grades in his assessments. During firing tests, he frequently scored above 90%.
His life wasn’t all focused upon the military. He fell in love with Eine Elisabet Artemo and they married in Turku Cathedral in August 1939. Unfortunately though, their honeymoon was cut short due to the outbreak of the Second World War and the increasing tensions between Finland and the Soviet Union.
Winter War and World Record
When the Winter War came to Finland, there were only two fighter squadrons for the defence of the whole nation. Out of these, only one was equipped with the relatively modern Fokker D.XXI. Jorma was part of Flying Squadron’s 4th Flight. Due to the cumbersome nature of the Fokker, orders were given to avoid dogfights with superior Soviet fighters and to concentrate upon the bombers. Jorma’s baptism of fire came on the 19th December and was soon followed by his first two kills. These were a pair of SB bombers from the 44th SBAP (high-speed bomber regiment).
His next kills would amaze the world.
On the morning of the 6th January 1940, 17 Ilyushin DB-3 bombers of the 6th Long-Range Bomber Regiment (DBAP) took off from bases in Estonia. Their target was the eastern city of Kuopio. The bombers were split into two formations. The first formation of nine reached their target without any incident and dropped their payloads upon the city. The second formation became confused in cloud and ended up flying near Utti. Yliluutnantti (1st Lieutenant) Sovelius was on patrol and directed to intercept. He located the formation and proceed to engaged, claiming one of the DB-3s. However, he was unable to continue his pursuit and returned back to Utti.
The remaining seven bombers appeared over the city and proceed to drop their payloads. They then started their long journey back to Estonia, following the same route as they came. Jarmo was scrambled to intercept the formation, alongside other Fokkers from Utti Air Base. Jarmo was the first in the air and it appeared that his fellow pilots were stalled on the ground. He saw the formation and decided to go ahead with his attack.
In his post-war memoir ‘Havittajalentajana Karjalan Taivaalla’ (Fighter Pilot in the Karelian Sky), he described his encounter.
“The clouds over Utti had disappeared and the sun gleamed from the light bellies of the marvellous looking row of bombers. I counted them to be seven. On the left flew an echelon of three and to the right four almost in a row. The distance between the planes was hardly one aircraft.
I banked to the right and headed south, continuing to climb. For a moment I was in the sights of the nose gunners, but facing the sun, they obviously didn’t see me. When I reached the altitude of the bombers, I was already 500 meters behind them. At full power, I started the chase and selected the one at the extreme left of the formation, although the bomber third from the left was further behind the others, and the fire from its gunner felt dangerous. At a distance of 300 meters it banged unpleasantly into my plane – I had flown into a stream of bullets.
I opened fire at 20 meters with a short burst to the fuselage of the machine on the left. The tracers seemed to hit the target, and I quickly silenced the bomber’s rear gunner. I took aim again at the right engines of both bombers in the formation, and with light touches on the trigger, both enemies went down in flames. I cheered, and then aligned my Fokker up with the bombers on the opposite side of the formation. Attacking as I had before, I set the engines of one bombers alight, before turning to the next aircraft in the formation, hitting it with gun fire at very close range. This plane too burst into flames soon after I had hit it with two or three very short bursts. On the right, I saw the first aircraft that I had attacked on this side of the formation diving as a fireball towards the ground.
I now set myself the goal of destroying all the remaining bomber in the formation. Some fell away like burning pages of a book after I had fired at them, while others pulled up steeply following the incapacitation of their pilot. The reddish January sun shone through the haze towards me throughout the engagement, except when the fark smoke of the burning planes cast a shadow across it.
The penultimate bomber was much tougher than the other to shoot down, for my wing guns were probably empty by then. It did, however, finally catch fire, and I in turn went after the last one. Its rear gunner had been silent for quite some time, and I went in very close. I aimed at the engine and pulled the trigger. The guns were quiet! I made a couple of charging attempts but without any result. I had ran out of ammunition, and the only thing to do was to return home.”
Jorma frustratingly landed at Utti, his aircraft running on fumes. He climbed out of the cockpit and inspected his machine, twenty three bullet holes were counted, some in the propeller blades and engine.
The final bomber didn’t get away though. Yliluutnantti Per-Erik Sovelius and Kersantti (Sergeant) Ikonen had seen the achievement and had chased after the final bomber. Sovelius claiming the kill, bringing it down at Suursaari.
From take off to landing, the entire adventure had taken 5 minutes. The crashed bombers had all fallen within 30 kilometers of each other between Utti and Tavastila. It wasn’t long before the press got hold of the story. Not only had Jorma taken out six bombers in four minutes, but he also became the first ace of the Second World War. Soon his feat was being reported across the globe, along with a picture of him holding up a large aluminum panel with the number 5, a trophy from one of the bombers.
He continued his combat sorties. The Fokkers were in high demand to intercept the neverending waves of Soviet bombers. However, due to the increasing losses, the bombers flew escorted forcing the Finns to change their tactics. Now Jorma and the rest of Flying Squadron 24 would dive on to the bomber formations, using the increased speed to shoot past and escape from the Soviet fighters. Although this meant less time to engage the bombers.
Jorma’s next kill came on the 17th January during a ‘lone wolf’ patrol. He received a message that a formation of bombers were returning from their run on the city of Lappeenranta. He gained altitude and soon saw nine SB-2’s of the 54th SBAP. Diving upon them, he brought down the last plane of the group and set his sights upon another. The bombers slowed and tightened their formation to allow the gunners to fire upon the lone fighter. The hail of bullets was too intense and Jorma was forced to break away leaving the second bomber smoking.
Jorma would continue to intercept bomber formations as they unrelentlessly came to drop their deadly payloads upon Finland. His marksmanship allowing him to claim more kills. He became the first European pilot of the new war to reach 10 kills on the 3rd February 1940. On the 1st of February he was promoted to Yliluutnantti and made second in command of 1st flight. However the situation was dire for the Finns. Specialised ammunition was running low, spare parts were becoming sparse and the extreme winter was stifling their effectiveness. These factors meant less kills by the Finns. Sometimes a Fokker’s entire load of ammunition was needed to bring down the bombers.
Even though conditions were massively stacked against the Finns, they continued to fight ferociously. In the closing days of the war, most of the Air Force was switched to target the vast swathes of Soviet columns advancing across the Karelian Isthmus. Flying Squadron 24 flew constant sorties from the 4th to the 11th March over the frozen bay surrounding Viipuri. Jorma recounted that he fired some ten thousand rounds during the strafing runs. It wasn’t without risk though and more than once, as the Fokkers swooped unto the enemy positions, they were chased by the nimble Soviet fighters. As peace came over the frontlines on the morning of the 13th March 1940, Jorma stood at 13 confirmed kills, the highest scoring ace of the Winter War.
Interim Peace and Continuation War
Soon after the Winter War ended, Flying Squadron 24 was reequipped with Brewster F2A Buffalos. Jorma was awarded the Cross of Liberty, 3rd Class, with swords, of the Order of the Cross of Liberty for his actions during the Winter War.
He learned how to handle the Brewster as deputy flight leader of 2nd flight. He passed his experience on those those new pilots coming into the squadron, earning a reputation for his humbleness and caring nature.
As Finland entered the larger war alongside Germany in June 1941, Jorma was ready. On the first day of the war, 25th June, Jorma claimed his first kill. A SB-2 from the 201st SBAP was caught in his sights as the bombers attempted to locate and destroy Finnish air bases. Overall, Flying Squadron 24 flew 77 sorties that day, claiming 10 bombers for no losses. Another kill was claimed on the 29th June as Jorma was flying a Combat Air Patrol (CAP) in support of the Finnish advance.
On the 4th August he was promoted to Captain and made flight leader of 2nd Flight but this assignment wouldn’t last long as he was moved to the Staff of the Air Force Headquarters in October. He remained on the Staff until the 8th May 1942 when he was put in charge of the Test Squadron. This was followed by secondment to the German Luftflotte 1 as a liaison officer in early August 1942.
He longed to return to the cockpit of a fighter. He wish was eventually granted and he was returned to his old squadron on the 16th January 1943 as commander of 1st Flight. With the increasing gap between the Finnish Brewsters and new Soviet designs, once again it became increasingly difficult for the Finns to score kills. After numerous sorties and several engagements, Jorma would claim his next kills on the 21st April and 9th May. These final kills, a Yak-1 and Yak-7 respectively, would bring his final tally to 17.
In July 1943 he would continue his studies in the military academy, allowing for advancement. He was promoted to Majuri (Major) and made commander of Supplement Squadron 35 on the 22nd June 1944.
In the wake of the September 1944 Moscow Armistice, Jorma was still leading his training unit. He would be made commander of Flying Regiment 2 and 3 in the years between 1945 and 1952 when both formations would be disbanded. In 1954 he would be assigned as military attaché in London. When he called back in 1958, he was made Lieutenant Colonel and put in charge of the Karelia Air Command.
He retired in 1960 and passed away on the 16th October 1963. He left behind his wife, Eine Elisabet Artemo and their four children.
The Secret of his Record
After he landed on the icy airfield at Utti on the 6th January he began recounting the encounter to the eager mechanics who had witnessed the event. Soon his accomplishment became the talk of everybody as the international press published it. But how did he achieve such an impressive feat.
While luck definitely factored into it, it cannot be solely written off as it.
The first factor was his natural ability as a pilot. From the moment he sat in the cockpit back in 1934 he had an affinity for flying. He continually trained and honed his skills and was regularly scoring high in the numerous tests needed to become and stay a pilot.
The second part is the overall training and tactics employed by the Finnish Air Force. From 1935, the air force had overhauled their training to make up for the small number of fighters. The traditional tight formation of a lead fighter and two wingmen was dropped for a more flexible pair formation. Marksmanship was taught, instructing pilots to target specific points on an aircraft to achieve maximum effect with the least amount of ammunition. This was also coupled with orders not to fire until 50 meters of a target. Unlike many air forces, the Finns adopted a ‘first see, first shoot’ system. This allowed individual pilots to make a decision based upon the situation and his abilities. Finally, the overall spirit of attack no matter the odds was instilled at every level. This fostered a high morale as well as an almost suicidal bravado, but it did allow the Finns to gain the initiative on many occasions and succeed in situations which should have been impossible.
Another element was from the armourers. For whatever reason, that day, they had loaded more armour piercing and tracer ammunition. When paired up with Jorma’s excellent marksmanship, it made a deadly combination for any aircraft he could get within his sights. In contrast, when Yliluutnantti Sovelius brought down the first bomber, it had taken almost his entire load of ammunition to do so.
The final factor came from the Soviet side. Initial Soviet doctrine emphasised fast, unescorted bomber formations. The method of attack was to come in at a higher altitude and once they unloaded their bombs, to skim almost at the treeline until home free. However this tactic made them very easy to be targeted by light anti-aircraft and Finnish fighters. Bomber crews were not taught to mutually support each other and this allowed the Finns to isolate and pick them off one by one. Even when fighter escort arrived, after the reorganisations in January 1940, there were still issues. The Red Air Force kept to the pre-war tight leader and two wingman formation. While the theory was it increased firepower, the reality was it made for an easier target as it was easier to spot. Also as the wingmen were focused upon maintaining formation, they were less likely to be watching for incoming fighters and more than once a formation fell prey to an ambush by a pair or even a single Finnish fighter.
Stenman, Kari and Keskinen, Kalevi. Aircraft of the Aces 23 – Finnish Aces of World War 2. (Osprey Publishing, 1998)
Sarvanto, Jorma. Hävittäjälentäjänä Karjalan taivaalla. (WSOY, 1941)
Sander, Gordon F. The Hundred Day Winter War: Finland’s Gallant Stand against the Soviet Army. (University Press of Kansas, 2013)