When the Soviet Air Force struck at Finnish targets on the opening of the Winter War it was an unstoppable force. Anti-Aircraft positions either failed to get into action soon enough or couldn’t score a hit. It was worse for the fighter wing, whose job it was to intercept bomber aircraft before they could drop their payloads, as few were scrambled in time and those that did failed to intercept.
This failure wasn’t entirely the fault of the Air Force as thick cloud cover and snow made interception hard. When the morning broke on the 1st of December, the skies were clear and the Air Force was ready. This would be the day of the first dogfight and first victory claim for the Finns.
Ylikersantti (Staff Sergeant) Toivo Antero Uuttu and his wingman of No. 26 Squadron were patrolling the skies near Lake Muolaa when they became separated. Uuttu attempted to find his wingman and was in the process of descending when three Polikarpov I-16 fighters pounced upon the Bristol Bulldog biplane. The young pilot later recalled the incident, “I flew southeast of Lake Muolaa but I did not see any movements so I descended lower. Suddenly I saw tracers flying all around me. When I looked over my shoulder, I saw three I-16s attacking me. I pulled up and left and as they overtook me, I was able to fire a short burst on passing I-16. I hit his engine and saw black smoke coming out of the engine. It started sliding downward smoking. Tracers were flying all around my plane. Suddenly my plane shuddered and when I pulled on stick, it did not move. I considered jumping, but, fearing that they might shoot me on parachute, I decided to fight it out to the last. I continued evading my attackers using only rudder and ailerons. We had descended to an altitude of 200m and when I looked behind, I saw one still shooting. I shut off my engine and tried to make a forced landing to forest. When landing, I pulled with all of my strength on the stick and it moved back a little bit, but then the Bulldog hit the woods and I passed out.”
He crashed near Muolaanjärvi (now known as Glubokoje) and suffered injuries as a result. The I-16 Uuttu had engaged was also reported to have crashed and so became the first aerial victory for the Finns over Finnish Soil, and indeed it was the first aerial engagement over Finland in history. The kill was recorded as probably though due to their being no witnesses to it.
The debate over the kill
There are some who question the validity of the kill.
We know from records that 7.IAP (Fighter Aviation Regiment) was operating in the area that day and that a patrol of six Polikarpov I-16s intercepted two Bristol Bulldog biplane fighters. The report continues by stating that one of the Bulldogs was shot down, the kill was shared between Starshiy Leytenant (Senior Lieutenant) Fedor Shinkarenko (Eskadrilya/Flight leader), Starshiy Politruk (Senior Political Commissar) Gabriel Didenko and Leytenant (Lieutenant) B. A. Grigoryev.
As to the loss of one of their own, Future two times Hero of the Soviet Union, Starshiy Leytenant Petr Pokryshev’s I-16 was recorded as having suffered an engine malfunction and thus being forced to land at Kerrola, Muolaa.
This record is seen to back up Uuttu’s claim that he did indeed shoot a I-16, even if it was forced to make a landing. However, others point to Pokryshev’s own words about the event, in which he claims that his engine was damaged by ground fire and that he had to pull out of the engagement with the Bulldog.
Regardless of the truth, it cannot be denied that this was Finland’s first aerial engagement and that it caused loss to both sides.
Stenman, Kari. and Keskinen,Kalevi. Ilmavoitot – Aerial victories vol 2 (Stenman, 2006)
Stenman, Kari.; Keskinen,Kalevi and Partonen, Kyösti. Suomen ilmavoimat – Finnish Air Force vol 2: 1928–40 (Stenman)
Stenman, Kari. Finnish Aces of World War 2. (Osprey Publishings, 1998)