At 0650 on the morning of the 30th November 1939, the entire Russo-Finnish border along the Karelian Isthmus erupted in a devastating shower of artillery. Stated to be the largest bombardment since the First World War, around 2,000 artillery guns, alongside the massive navals guns of the Kronstadt fortress, fired at the Finnish side of the border. The freshly fallen snow was soon turned black with soot and mud, natural rock formations which had stood for centuries were scattered, and the farms which were unlucky enough to be in reach were crushed under the weight of the barrage.
This opening move by the Soviet Union was followed at 0800 by the sound of whistles and streaks of green flares, the Soviet juggernaut moved to cross the border. With their distinct battle cry, ‘Urra!’, on their lips, hundreds of Red Infantry charged into Finnish territory, confident of their victory. This is how many people understand the opening assault of the Winter War, but the first Soviet troops actually crossed the border earlier that morning and it wasn’t on the Karelian Isthmus but further north.
Inari Border Post
Sitting in the Province of Kuopio (now part of the North Karelia region) is the small border guard post of Inari Road. This small building in the middle of nowhere may seem unremarkable but 80 years ago it was the site of the first clash between Soviet and Finnish troops in the opening day of the Winter War.
The main task of the post was to monitor the border in the area for smugglers but it wasn’t unusual for it to be a place of crossing for trading. It had performed this duty peacefully for many years before the outbreak of the Winter War. As Finnish and Soviet politicians ‘negotiated’ in Moscow, the men at the Inari Border Post heard the noise of construction, the men and machines on the Soviet side of the border increased as fall started to turn to winter. The call up of reserves in October boosted the manpower of the tiny outpost to 20, with patrols increasing along the border. Sometimes the patrols would report their Soviet counterparts of tossing rocks and ice over the line, to prevent any diplomatic incident the guards were ordered not to touch any of the debris or reply in kind. Every action of the ‘neighbour’ was to be reported and recorded.
The First Shots and First Deaths
The morning of the 30th November didn’t hold any indication that it would become the hell it turned into. Vääpeli (roughly equivalent to Sergeant 1st Class) Sajanto had arrived the previous day to pay the staff of the station and was to return to Lieksa early that morning. Alikersantti (Corporal) Tauno Oinonen and Reservisotamies (Reserve Private) Pekka Nevalainen had been out on patrol near the border when just before 0600 they spotted Soviet soldiers crossing the border. They made it back to the Border Post and informed the men that the Soviets had crossed. As Vääpeli Sajanto was the highest rank present, command fell to him, he quickly ordered the men into two groups, armed and ready to fight.
Sajanto led half of the men on the left side of the road leading to the border, while Ylikersantti (Staff Sergeant) Konttinen led the other half on the right side. They had advanced about 700 metres towards the border when Sajanto heard the snapping of twigs and ordered his group prone. 4 metres straight ahead of Sajanto was a Soviet soldier leaning against a tree, using a torch, the soldier was looking at a map. Standing orders at the time was for no discharging of weapons to avoid any incidents in the border regions, so Sajanto held off on the command to fire, for all he knew this was a deserter or a lost Soviet border guard. However this notion was soon dispersed when he saw another soldier near the first and then about 100 metres behind them he saw a large group of soldiers marching. It was now 0630 but it was still dark, fresh snow was on the ground, war was about to come.
Sajanto took aim and fired, ordering the group to do the same. Mikko Kallionpää saw a Soviet soldier charging towards the group, the soldier took aim but Kallionpää shot him. Officially this is the first soldier to be killed in the Winter War. The main body of Soviet soldiers charged the group of border guards with their famous ‘Ura!’ war cry, they were trying to capture the Finns but were soon dissuaded of such a foolish endeavor by the weight of accurate Finnish fire. After ten minutes of fighting, Sajanto ordered the group back to the Border Post. Upon arriving, they attempted to set fire to the building to deny its use to the enemy, however despite the best efforts of the guards, with the help of lamp oil, no fire lit would take hold. Another issue was present, as the Border Post also housed the family of Ylikersantti Konttinen, his daughter Hely had a friend, Venla Nuutinen, staying over and now they were in grave danger.
It was decided that the girl would be evacuated to a nearby family and the Guards would perform a fighting retreat towards Pappilanlampi. Soon after Konnttinen’s daughter and friend left by horse sled, the border post was attacked in force by a large group of infantry and 5 tanks. The Border Guards had no choice but to abandon their outpost and make a delaying retreat.
Kalle Matias Rajala
After the engagement it was discovered that Reservisotamies Rajala had been killed and another was wounded. Kalle Matias Rajala was born in Alavus on 31st August 1907. During his compulsory military service he had served with the Kainuu Border Guard in Kuhmo. After leaving the service, he moved to Lieksa where he worked as a labourer. He married Helena Oinonen sometime in the late 1930s but unfortunately she passed away in June 1939. Rajala was called up as part of the Extraordinary Reservist Maneuvers and was assigned to the Lieska Training Centre. He was sent to the Inari Border Post during the reinforcement of the post in November. He became the first Finnish soldier to fall to the Soviet invasion.
Today, near the new Border Guard Post, is a memorial to Kalle Matias Rajala.
Krohn, Aarni: 30.11.1939 talvisodan ensimmäiset tunnit (Karisto Oy:n kirjapaino, 1999)