The Bombings of Helsinki

As the border region became a battleground, the citizens of Helsinki started their day oblivious to that war had come to their small nation. The first indication they had that anything was amiss was the wail of the civil defence siren at 0920, followed shortly after by the rumble of aircraft engines. Many Helsinkians gazed in amazement as the low flying Soviet planes shot overhead, rather than dropping bombs, bits of paper came from their bomb bays. These leaflets addressed the people of Finland, informing them it was time to shake of the shackles of oppression and overthrow the Imperialist Government. That they would no longer be starving or forced into work camps. The stunned inhabitants of the capital chuckled at these propaganda pieces but they soon saw their smiles turned as the darkest day for Helsinki was just beginning.

Citizens heading towards a bomb shelter at the sound of the first air raid siren on the morning of the 30th November 1939. Source: SA-Kuva

30th November 1939 – Helsinki’s Darkest Day

A 6 strong flight of SB-2 bombers of the 35th Rapid Bomber Regiment took off from an airfield in Siverskaya. Its orders were to target the Helsinki railway station before continuing to Malmi airport. The clouds were very thick as the group approached Finland and eventually one part of the flight called off their attack and headed back to Severskaya. Now with only 3 machines left, Captain Saranchev carried on with his mission. They burst through the clouds only 400 metres above the Töölö neighbourhood, almost immediately they proceeded to drop their payload of leaflets urging to population to rise up against their evil oppressors. As the flew across Helsinki, Captain Saranchev released a handful of bombs intended to hit the railway station, they missed and luckily only caused superficial damage to downtown Helsinki. The flight continued on to Malmi airport, where things were as lucky, bombing the remainder of their payloads, the flight claimed the lives of 3 individuals and wounded another 9.

It wasn’t long before the next wave arrived. A squadron of the 57th Mixed Aviation Regiment of the Red Banner Baltic Fleet, under Major V.I. Rakova, soared over the Santahamina military base at just after 1030. They were to destroy the Santahamina hydro aerodrome. Coming in at 400 metres, the 10 strong unit unloaded over the military base, striking at several barracks and the hanger. The mission was a success, the hanger was essentially destroyed, several seaplanes were unrecoverable and several other military facilities were damaged. The war diary records 7 men wounded, a few of those seriously. But where was the base’s defences? The assigned heavy anti-aircraft battery only sprung into action as the last bombers dropped their payloads, rocking some of them but none were shot down.

Construction of air raid shelters underway in October 1939. Source: SA-Kuva

After the excitement of the morning, the people of Helsinki were in a state of shock, many civilians were caught in a daze, some grabbed brushes and began to help clear up the damage, others started to pack in order to get out of the capital. It was in this daze that Helsinki suffered its most devastating raid of not only the day, but of the entire war. Just after noon, a group of 8 DE-3 bombers of the 3rd Squadron, 1st Mine-Torpedo Air Regiment of the Red Banner Baltic Fleet, took off from Klopitsa with orders to sink the coastal defence ships Väinämöinen and Ilmarinen, which had been found off the coast of Hanko. The squadron arrived off the coast of Hanko and attempted to locate the vessels, after circling for some time, Major N. J. Tokarev gave the order for the squadron to reform. He had orders that if the ships couldn’t be located, then he was to target the harbour facilities at Helsinki. However, due to a combination of poor weather and lack of recognisable landmarks, the aircraft became disoriented and when they broke through the clouds over Helsinki, they were out of formation. The lead aircraft released its payload almost immediately, most of the bombs splashing harmlessly into the water off Hietalahti, the rest of the formation followed suit soon afterward. The resulting swath of destruction carved through the inner city. The Helsinki University of Technology was essentially erased, the bus station at Kamppi was badly hit, a Lutheran Church was smashed, and much to the satisfaction of the cityfolk, the Soviet Embassy was damaged. An oil storage facility at Hietalahti took 2 days to be extinguished. The city’s heavy AA guns blasted away at the aircraft but didn’t score any hits and a flight of 4 fighters were scrambled from Malmi but failed to catch up to the retreating bomber formation. As Major N. J. Tokarev reported his success to his superiors, the death toll of the attack was count as 91 with another 240 injured.

Major N. J. Tokarev. Source:

The Reaction

As the tensions increased between Finland and the Soviet Union, with the lack of action between the Anglo-French alliance and Nazi Germany, Finland was awash with international journalists. Martha Gellhorn, considered one of the great war correspondents, arrived at Helsinki’s Hotel Kamp on the 29th November completely oblivious that the following day would see the city bombed. After her almost 4,000 mile journey, that saw her across the Atlantic, fly over the North Sea, make a stop over in neutral Sweden before flying to Helsinki, she was exhausted and after several hours in the Hotel’s bar gathering ‘intelligence’ from the dozen or so other correspondents present, she retired for the evening. She was awoken the next morning to the sounds of bombs exploding, as she made her way outside, she picked up several of the leaflets that bombers had littered across the city. When the last raid came, Gellhorn was in the midst of grabbing a quick lunch, “I never felt such explosions. The whole place rocked. Must have been like March in Barcelona,” she wrote in a letter to her lover, Ernest Hemingway. After the all clear was sounded, she went outside to survey the damage, she was accompanied by two Italian journalists. Eventually the site of burning homes, smashed shops, and broken lives was too much for the seasoned journalist and she turned on her escort, reminding them of the Italian and German actions she had witnessed during the Spanish Civil War.

Another angel of the famous bus burning photo. Source: SA-Kuva

Another journalist, Herbert Elliston of the Christian Science Monitor, was in the Kamp’s press room frantically making calls to contacts to either receive or pass along information. A former soldier in the Royal Horse Artillery, he was not fazed by the destruction. He later wrote “This was a Blitzkrieg designed to overcome and conquer the Finns from the air. I watched intently, because victory or defeat in this type of diplomacy-war depend upon the behavior of the panic.” What he also recorded though was something that would cause even more outrage than just the bombings, “All this time noise continued without cease – the dull detonation of exploding bombs breaking through a continual screech of air raid alarms and the rat-tat-tat of machine gun.” The machine gunning of the streets was recorded by numerous others that day. The official press statement by the Finnish military headquarters read ‘Enemy pilots shot civilians with machine-gun fire.’ and this was reprinted across many papers worldwide.
It wasn’t long before citizens across the globe were holding protests outside the embassies of the Soviet Union or in the capitals demanding something be done. An emergency session of the League of Nations was held, in which many delegates openly condemned the actions of the Soviet Union. It wasn’t soon after that Soviet Foreign Minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, made a radio speech declaring that the Soviet Union was not bombing Finland, certainly not killing the poor civilians, but were in fact dropping bread for the starving citizens (this would later earn the RRAB-3 “rotationally dispersing aviation bomb” the nickname Molotov bread basket and has been a possible source for the Molotov Cocktail’s name).

But what of the general population of Helsinki?

Elliston pointed out that this type of war rested upon the reaction of the people, he continued by saying “There was no panic. The people in the park below stayed at the entrance of the bomb shelters and gazed skyward at the Soviet apparition.” 15 year old Harry Matso had been assigned to assist his teachers with getting the rest of his school to the cover of Hietaniemi cemetery. As the planes flew overhead, all the students and teachers ducked behind gravestones and took cover against the thick stone walls surrounding the cemetery. They stayed put as the street opposite them turned into an inferno and after the all-clear was sounded, they teenager was relieved to find all his classmates and teachers were unharmed. Unfortunately though, an apartment opposite the cemetery wasn’t so lucky and Harry later recalled the sight of a bereaved man emerging from the devastated building carrying the limp body of his daughter. This wasn’t the only child to fall victim that day, the most well known is Armi Metsäpelto, who was being taken to the bus station by her mother. After the raids in the morning, the family decided that it would be safer if their daughter stayed with relatives in Lapland. They were caught in the second raid, a bombs landing near the bus station killed Armi instantly. She would later become a symbol for the war.

Armi Metsäpelto, this picture would become a rally symbol for many throughout Finland and even today its image is powerful. Source:

Despite all the devastation and pain, the bombings did have a positive effect upon one of Helsinki’s most prominent citizens. As the bombs first hit Helsinki, the sound disrupted the breakfast of a venerable soldier. Immediately he dismissed himself from the table ,got dressed into his uniform and marched off to the Ministry of Defence. The 72 year old Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, one of Finland’s founding fathers, had mere days before resigned from his position on the defence council and was looking towards his retirement. However, as he strode unobstructed into Defence Minister Juho Niukkanen’s office, he was a man determined to serve his nation. He didn’t ask or beg for a position but told the defence minister that he is assuming his position as commander-in-chief, no arguments were held and Niukkanen relayed the information he knew to the old Marshal. By the end of the day, posters, newspapers and radios across the nation were proclaiming that Mannerheim was now in charge of the defence of Finland. Ellison noted how this news spread quickly through the population of the devastated capital, “I can vouch for the fact that no proclamation ever geared a nation into fighting mood more successfully than the proclamation making Mannerheim commander-in-chief.”

Other bombings

While those bombings on the first day were the worst Helsinki would expereince during the war, they were unfortunately not the last. Already on the 1st December aircraft returned to bomb the city, but had less of an effect as the surprise raids of the first day. The city would be bombed twice more in December, 9th and 25th; twice in January, 13th and 14th, and the final bombing came on the 2nd of February.

The bombing of that first day of war was devastating to many, as stores were obliterated. Source: SA-Kuva

The entire loss for the city was 96 dead, 38 seriously wounded and another 236 wounded. Despite this, the city still functioned, albeit in a war-time state. Many non-essential civilians were evacuated to less populated areas of the country, with weeks the approximately 250,000 inhabitants of Helsinki Had reduced to about 65,000. The Red Air Force had attempted to cut off the head of the Finnish state with their bombings on Helsinki but thanks to poor weather and the less than stellar performance of the aircrew, the overall damage to the capital was mainly superficial.

Sander, Gordon F. The Hundred Day Winter War: Finland’s Gallant Stand against the Soviet Army. (University Press of Kansas, 2013)

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