1. The beginning
- Captain Karhila, here is a copy of your introduction in an old magazine "Suomen Siivet" from the year 1971. The article states that "Kossi" is such a well-known person that he does not need any introduction" Unfortunately the situation is not so anymore... You were born in Rauma in the year 1921?
Yes, but the family moved to Pori the next year, and it was there that I grew up.
Can you tell something about your family background?
My father was a very patriotic man, he had fought in the Liberation War as sergeant, and he created the spirit in the family. Patriotism was self-evident to me since my young days.
When did you get interested in aviation?
I received the impulse at the age of 10 years. There is a meadow by the Kokemaenjoki river flowing through Pori, which was flooded and frozen smooth every winter. Finnish Air Force would send an air show team that was based on the meadow. I watched the aerial stunts between the boards of the fence and feared for the pilots.
I started by building and flying model aircraft, then I became interested in gliders. At that time the local Civil Guard created an aero club, and all of my friends joined it. The leader of the club, Mr. Pentti Lipsanen, was one of the first in the country who had been in glider training in Poland. The National Aviation Association donated German glider kits to local Aero Clubs. Our club, too, assembled those kits. Everyone's hours spent in building the gliders were recorded, and if you had logged enough hours, you could apply for glider training. I was admitted in training in summer 1937 to Jamijarvi. During the one-month course I managed to get the A and B licences.
What did your parents say about your hobby, did they think it was too dangerous for a boy?
I had lost my mother as I was six, and my father died in summer 1938. As a patriotic man he would not have objected to his son becoming a pilot. My stepmother did not object, either. Flying was my own choice.
What types of gliders did you build?
Grunau 9 was the more primitive type, but Grunau Baby had a real faired-over fuselage with open cockpit.
Ltm. Kepsu and VL Smolik at Joroinen summer 1939
How did you become a real pilot?
When I had logged enough hours in building gliders, I was entitled to apply for a real pilot course that took place in Joroinen in Summer 1939. The trainees were civilian schoolboys, but the aircraft, trainers, aircraft and management were provided by the Air Force. We flew Letov Smoliks, which were very good primary trainers, and VL Viimas., I logged 35 hours. The course was free, except a nominal charge for food and you had to pay for your trip from home. The trainees had to sign a contract of doing their compulsory military service in the Air Force.
Training in Air Force
I completed my first course in flying in summer 1939, and in autumn Russia began to apply pressure on Finland. In early November I was asked whether I was prepared to volunteer for military service if needed, of course I was.
Did you like school?
Definitely not! I already had to repeat one class. When the reservists were mobilised, we Civil Guard soldiers were ordered to sentry duty. While I was doing sentry duty, my friends went to lessons on the other side of the fence. I thought that was quite funny.
After the war broke out on the 30th November 1939, I was drafted and commanded to Kauhava Air Base for training. I started my military service in the Independence Day of Finland, the 6th December 1939.
So it was the War Pilot Course no. 1?
Yes, we were 84 trainees, each of us had already received some training in power flying, and the course went on through the Winter War and was completed as the war ended. We started from the very beginning again, in some respect this double primary training was good for us. We flew such types as Viima, Tuisku, Saaski, Smolik etc. and some introductory flights with Klemm and Taylorcraft.
In the first days of March 1940 thirty-five of us were selected for a secret mission: we were to be sent in Great Britain for more training and then ferrying Hawker Hurricanes to Finland. But the mission was aborted by the armistice on the 13th March. Everything was ready, we even had our civilian clothing sent from home.
Then our course was distributed for further training to fighter, bomber and reconnaisance squadrons. I was selected to become a fighter pilot .
On what basis were the trainees divided into those groups ?
Mainly by their own wishes, and also the instructors appraised our potential and skills in flying.
Was anybody "washed out"?
None from our course, because we all had some experience in flying , we had a good basis.
How did the instructors treat you, was there any bullying?
They had a very positive attitude. Afterwards they said our course had the best material of all courses : we had had initial training, we were volunteers, we were eager and idealistic. There was virtually no military training, just some rifle drill. Most of us had been in the Civil Guard, and so also had received a rudimentary infantry training
When we arrived at Parola to Training Squadron 35, the base was so congested. The flight I was posted to was transferred to Tyrvanto which was an airstrip on the ice of a lake. We operated from there until the ice began to melt. We were further trained , we flew Bristol Bulldogs for shooting at ground targets and towed flying target. I did well in shooting, I got 96 % hits on the ground target and 40% in the air target. That opened me the way to reserve officer training.
The odd thing was that we pilots were posted to a five-month infantry officer course, because the Air Force had no reserve officer training. The airmen started the course without basic infantry training, and felt ourselves fools in the terrain. The assistant instructors gave me a hard time as they found out my ignorance.
What was the idea to post pilots to infantry officer training?
There was no choice! The Air Force had no resources, no trainers. All those who could have been used to train us, were either flying in the front line squadrons or in Kauhava as instructors.
Was that officer course of any use to you?
My fitness improved thanks to skiing with bad military issue skis, also I learned to give commands and we were imbued with the spirit that we needed later. I barely completed the course, I did not think it was important to get good grades. I was not going to become a professional officer.
Fokkers at Siikakangas spring 1941
Then you returned to the training squadron?
Yes, we had been posted to officer training before our pilot's training had been completed. We flew the missing training flights, then we were considered ready for first line service.
You were posted to Squadron 34?
Yes, to Siikakangas, but that squadron was not the same in which I flew Messerschmitts some years later. The squadron was equipped with Fokker D.XXI's that had been used in the Winter War by Squadron 24. New pilots were given more training: formation flying, wingtip to wingtip until you really could do that. Aerobatics was practised, too. Shooting was the only thing missing we did aiming training only. Then my 18 months of compulsory service were fulfilled, the war had ended in March. I was promoted to Ensign and sent home the same day, 4th June 1941.
Did you have the Pilot's Emblem ("wings") already?
No, I got that not until the war had started again. You needed 150 flying hours, and I had not logged more than 100 hours.
What did you do from the5th to the19th June 1941?
I was at home for a couple of weeks and then I was called up again. I was posted again to Squadron 32 at Siikakangas on the 20th June 1941
3. War starts
On what basis were you posted to Squadron 32, or replacement pilots in general?
In my case it was clear, I was trained in that unit.
The next day after my arrival we flew our Fokkers to Hyvinkaa, which became our first wartime base. Our task was to defend Helsinki, although it was far away, and Riihimaki railway crossing
But we did not spend a full fortnight in Hyvinkaa, we were transferred to Utti. I did fly some interception missions before that, but I did not see a single enemy. One of our flights shot down a couple of bombers east of Helsinki, however.
What was your task?
What was your task?
Our task was to defend the town of Kotka and its harbour, and also the railway crossing at Kouvola. However, we found that our Fokkers were slow and totally obsolete. Even though we were sitting in our planes and took off in less than one minute after a scramble order, we were always late. The distance from Utti to Kotka (50km) is a long one for slow fighters. Our Squadron Leader was Major Ehrnrooth, a very popular commander. In the Winter War he had been the commander of the State Aircraft Factory test pilots in Tampere, and he had shot down two bombers using fighters that had been sent to Tampere for repairs. Ehrnrooth began to complain to the Air Force Headquarters that his squadron had equipment that did not allow him to fulfill his task. The result was that in mid-July we were re-equipped. Reconnaisance Squadrons 14 and 16 gave their Curtiss 75A Hawks to us and took our Fokkers.
Why were the better equipment first given to Reconnaisance Squadrons?
Fokker D.XXI - FR-114
A good question! The new equipment was not immensely better, but the CU (Curtiss 75A) was 50km/h faster, having retractable undercarriage and it was better armed. The general performance agility, climb was better, we were satisfied. The Curtiss was manouverable and it was technically at the state of the art in those days, in our opinion. These fighters were German war booty from France and Norway, some were used, others had been captured in their packing cases. Initially some planes had Wasp engines (P&W Twin Wasp R-1830-S, 1065 hp) and some had Cyclone engines (Wright R1820-G205A, 1200 hp). Unfortunately the more powerful engine wore out extremely fast and they had to be replaced with Wasps.
You fought your first battle with the CU, I believe?
That's right, my first battle was on the 31st July 1941. Major Ehrnrooth came to the hut where on-duty pilots were in alert readiness, and asked for a volunteer wingman. He was going sight-seeing. He selected me, for some reason. We took off and crossed the front line, then the major took course to the air base of Suur-Merijoki, now in enemy hands, where he had served before the war. We were shot at by heavy AA, it was the first time I saw how large gray "barns" appeared in the sky. The oil temperature of my leader's engine went up (the very problem with the Cyclone engine!) and he had to decrease power. I wondered why he flew so slowly, and kept a sharp lookout around the horizon. Then I spotted two dots behind us, they were approaching. I kept watching, and then I found they were Russians. Since our radios were not working yet, I pushed the power lever and flew on the major's wing and made him the follow me -sign. Then I turned against the enemy: they were two Tchaikas, I-153's.
They were coming at us from higher altitude, we turned against them from lower altitude, heads-on and then everybody fired. That is the most unpleasant situation, because neither pilot knows beforehand which direction to dodge. If you do not dodge, you are going to be rammed, if you dodge too early, the enemy is going to get a chance to shoot at you. We approached each other, fired and of course the Russian did not dodge. I had to evade, the Tchaika nearly rammed me. Then I banked, the enemy banked, too, and again we shot at each other.
The Tchaika was a quite manouverable fighter, wasn't it?
It was very manouverable, and that is why that we made the second pass heads-on, but after the third turn it was already gaining on me. I realised that I was going to be in trouble, but I knew that when a CU dives, it accelerates faster and a Tchaika is not able to follow.
You had enough altitude?
About 2000 m. I pushed the stick and dived, then I looked behind to see if anybody was following. The Tchaika tried to follow, it even fired "salute shots" but was left behind. Then I returned to find my leader.
What had happened to him?
The major had engaged the second Tchaika and shot it down, thanks to his experience. I saw him coming and joined him on the wing. I began to think: this is serious, I have abandoned my leader in the face of enemy. We landed, I approached the major and attempted to report. He came to me with his arms outstretched and slapped me on shoulders, saying: "That's the way, you saved us both!" He said that he had no idea about those Russians, and he praised me to heaven.
Do you feel you had been sufficiently trained when the war started?
Yes, training was well thought of and executed. For me flying was like riding a bike, it was easy to learn. My flying style was "elastic", for example in a curve the FR easily went into a fast uncontrolled horizontal spin (due to asymmetric wingtip stall) if you pulled the stick too hard. I never did that by accident. Also estimating deflection when shooting, landing and so on were as if "built in". I must say that in a battle I never thought that now I am shooting at a pilot, I always fired at the aircraft. What happened to the pilot is another matter. But I never felt blind hate to the Russians, even though my slogan was " Dead Russian is the best Russian". My actions were considerate, not blind raging...
Squadron 32 moved to Lappeenranta on the 31st July 1942. The Army had launched the offensive to retake the area ceded to Soviet Union in the Winter War. The Carelian Isthmus was covered by smoke, there were forest fires and the Russians burned everything they could before retreating.
4. First victory
Squadron 32 moved to Lappeenranta 31.7.
After my first victory.
Here is the copy of my combat report for my first victory:
Date: 10.8. (1941) Time 17.40. 17.45
Location: South of Kirvu Altitude: 200 m (about)
Destroyed/damaged aircraft, number of them:
One I-16, I lost sight of the plane as I recovered from dive at very low altitude
On a patrol mission we met 2x I-16. In the following situation I fired at the other enemy heads-on, whereby he turned to the right. I slipped easily behind his tail, whereby he dived. I followed and shot at him. I saw my tracers hit him. I lost sight of the enemy when recovering from the dive, I pulled so hard that I blacked out. After recovery I did not see that plane again. When diving, it was puffing smoke.
Witnesses: Lt. Nurminen, Lance Cprl. Kajanto, Lance Cprl. Kirjonen
Remark: I-16 is prone to fast uncontrolled horizontal roll
Aircraft: CU-560 Signature: Ensign Karhila
I have a clear recollection of this incident. To begin with we met a two plane I-16 patrol, and the enemy leader opened fire already as he turned toward us. He had 20mm cannons, and the muzzle flashes were tremendous. After heads-on shooting we both turned for another heads-on pass. After that I managed to get behind his tail. The I-16 dived vertically, I followed. I got a chance to shoot and at the same moment saw that we were about to fly in the ground. I pulled the stick as hard as I could. Having recovered I did not see the I-16 anywhere. It was likely that he crashed on the ground, but I did not see that.
CU-560 was my personal plane. I shot down 8 enemies with her, her total score was 18. The I-16 mentioned above was found later as our troops occupied the Isthmus. Ath the operational area of our squadron were found 40 enemy aircraft that had been shot down by fighters but not confirmed as victories. They were later either confirmed as victories basing on battle reports to the pilots who had shot at them or added to the Squadron's list.
There was another memorable incident on the 17th September 1941. Our flight approached Kronstadt, the flight commander Capt. Berg used to tease the AA gunners. This time we came too close: as the enemy opened fire, the very first heavy AA shell exploded between me and my leader. I was briefly blinded by the flash and the pressure wave buffeted my fighter upside down. When I recovered, I had been separated from our formation. I tried to turn to join them, but the AA fired a barrage in front of me. I had to dodge to the East and fly toward Leningrad in heavy AA fire. Finally I got out of their range and saw a lone aircraft approach from the direction of Leningrad. When it got closer I recognised it as a MiG-3. The pilot must have believed I was one of theirs, because I was approaching from the West and alone. I got close, attacked and shot him down at Siestarjoki (Syestroretsk). I returned to the base but I did not have a witness to my victory. Then we were informed that an Army observation post had seen an aircraft crash at Siestarjoki at the time I had reported...
Our squadron moved to Suulajarvi on the 23rd September 1941. The base had been built in 1940 by Russians, and it was sand-covered and terribly dusty. The pilots took over the single surviving private farmhouse near the airfield, and the owners of the house moved in the sauna. We had a prisoner of war as our servant. He swept the floor, chopped the firewood and heated the oven. He was an Ingermanlandian (ethnic Finn) and we trusted him completely. Our pistol holsters were hanging on pegs on the wall of the house, but nothing happened.
Aligning the weapons of Curtiss Hawk 75
On the 31st of May 1942 the squadron moved to Nurmoila, in Olonez (eastern coast of Lake Ladoga).
In Nurmoila we were at first lodged in Russian-built dugouts that leaked during rain, then most of us built our own dugouts of logs in a hillside. Our dugout was fine, we even had an open fireplace and not only the standard stove.
On the 21st August 1942 a four-plane CU division was escorting a Fokker C.X (FK) photo-reconnoitring at the mouth of the river Svir. I was one of the escorts, I was flying behind the FK somewhat higher. I saw a single I-16 dive at the FK from a high altitude. I turned at him and fired at a long range so that he would not disturb the FK, and managed to get behind his tail. We were flying at 20m as I fired again and the I-16 caught fire. The pilot bailed out and disappeared in the forest, his parachute did not open. His fighter crashed at the edge of a bog and exploded into a ball of fire.
The enemy used to send Pe-2 bombers to reconnoitre the Eastern coast of Lake Ladoga so that the Pe would fly to NW over the lake on the inbound leg. Our air surveillance could report only buzzing. Then the enemy turned right and flew over the coast road, making observations, and finally examined our base at Nurmoila. The Pe-2 was such a fast plane that the CU could not catch it in level flight.
Our tactic was to send a couple of CU's to a high altitude as buzzing was observed over the Ladoga, and the pilots waited for the recce Pe-2. With luck, a CU attacking from above could catch up with a Pe-2 thanks to diving speed and had a chance to shoot at him twice: once when approaching from above and the second time when pulling up. In this way I managed to surprise a lone Pe-2 on the 9th February 1943. My bullets hit a fuel line in the cockpit area, a fire broke out in the bomber cockpit and two men bailed out. The Pe-2 crashed in a bog. I circled the enemy airmen descending down in their parachutes and saw how one of them descended faster than the other. A smouldering fire consumed the dome of his chute, the opening in the top grew bigger and bigger. There were flames in his clothing, too, and he tried to put the fire out by slapping with his hands until he went limp and sagged against his harness. There was an Army depot nearby, and the soldiers had seen the shooting. They took the surviving man prisoner.
Soon I was asked whether I was interested in meeting the man I shot down, of course I wanted to see what he looked like. I was taken to a command post where the prisoner was being interrogated, a colonel-lieutenant was the interpreter. As we were introduced to each other, the Russian, whose name I do not remember, refused to believe that he had been shot down by a schoolboy... I was given a piece of silk from the dead airman's chute. We cut it up into scarves for the flight's pilots, although we usually did not wear them.
5. Flying Messerschmitt 109
You had problems in getting posted as a Messerschmitt pilot, I have learned?
Messerschmitt 109 G-2 - MT-201
Yes indeed. I was ferrying a CU after major overhaul from the Aircraft Factory to Nurmoila in March 1943 as I stopped at Utti to visit some friends. One flight of the new Squadron 34 was based there, and the Squadron Leader, Major Luukkanen told me that he had received orders of my transfer to his squadron. He wished me welcome and wanted to know when I would come.
I was excited as I continued my flight to Nurmoila. I was waiting for the transfer order, but none was received: the new Squadron Leader, Major Bremer refused to give up me and Lt. Ruotsila. Then a friend send an angry teletype message posing as the Air Force H.Q., enquring why the two pilots were delaying: the training schedule would be upset. Major Bremer was startled by the message and did not verify it. The same day we travelled to Utti, arriving there in a morning. We read the pilot's manual while eating our breakfast, then we flew the introductory flight as soon as possible. The reason was this: If Bremer had demanded us back to his squadron, Luukkanen could have told him that the training is so far advanced that it is too late to interrupt.
Did you have any problems with the Me 109?
In his memoir Luukkanen told that Ehrnrooth was the best man to lead the Squadron 34, but he was killed in a flying accident , can you comment on that?
If Major O.Ehrnrooth had been destined to survive, he would have one day been the Commander of the Air Force. But on the 27th March 1943 he and Major Larjo, famous for his aerobatics, got into an argument about flying. Ehrnrooth took off in a VL Pyry (advanced trainer) to show some aerobatics, and flying at treetops an accident took place... It was a totally needless death. Even though the Pyry was difficult to fly, Ehrnrooth was perfectly familiar with it, having himself test-flown the prototype.
You were posted in the Squdron no. 30 on the 15th March 1944?
The entire 2nd flight of our squadron, men and planes, was transferred to Squadron 30 to Malmi to defend Helsinki. Up to that date I had been writing in my diary daily, but now nothing happened, it was only: on duty or: bad weather. I quit writing and after things started happening in June 1944 I did not have any time over for writing.
You returned to the squadron 34 on the 15th June 1944?
The Russian offensive had begun and the entire flight was transferred to Lappeenranta to join the old squadron. In the beginning I had problems with my weapons. My guns jammed in battle after a few shots, that was most annoying. Others, too, had similar problems but I had more of them than anybody because I mostly flew the same fighter. Finally it was found out that my guns were loaded with ammunition that had electric primers and the 20mm belt links were of a wrong type.
You were posted to Squadron 24 on the 30th June 1944?
I had just returned from mission as Major Luukkanen sent for me. He told me that Hasse Wind had been wounded and I was to replace him as the commander of the 3rd Flight of Squadron 24. I wondered why me, because there were cadre officers available. So I packed my kit and went to report to Major Karhunen , the Squadron leader of the 24th.
I was waiting for him in the Flight control building as I saw a lost-looking mechanic coming my way. I asked him what the matter was. He told me that the 3rd flight had received replacement Messerschmitts, one of which had 20mm wing-mounted cannons. Because the flight had lost the commander, nobody could decide whether to remove the guns or leave them on. I told the mechanic to wait for a moment, soon things would be settled.
As soon as Major Karhunen had finished his business, I reported to him for my new command. Then I told him that there was a mechanic worrying about a MT's wing cannons, and that I wanted to have that MT as it was as my personal plane. Karhunen took a long look at me and asked whether I was aware that such a MT was heavier, slower and worse in climb and turn? I admitted that I knew all that, but I wanted the three cannons nevertheless. I got my way. Now I had firepower and my flight stayed in formation because I had the slowest plane.
I learned to fly with the "Cannon-Mersu" (MT-461). I found that when fighter pilots got in a battle, they usually applied full power and then began to turn. In the same situation I used to decrease power, and with lower speed was able to turn equally well. I shot down at least one Mustang (on 4th July 1944) in turning fight. I was hanging behind one, but I could not get enough deflection. Then the pilot made an error: he pulled too much, and stalling, had to loosen his turn. That gave me the chance of getting deflection and shooting him down. It was not impossible to dogfight flying a three-cannon Messerschmitt.
Major Karhunen was not flying any more then?
No, he wasn't. He had quit flying soon after receiving the Mannerheim Cross and becoming the leader of the 24th Squadron after Col.-Lt. Magnusson. A Squadron Leader did not have to fly, though Major Luukkanen flew as much as he could.
Did this have any effect on his pilots?
Maybe at the time he quit flying, because his men did not know the reasons for this, they probably do not know it today. Karhunen was a good commander, who got well along with his men, regardless their rank.
As I was posted to Squadron 24 I was surprised to find out how unified a team the pilots were. Many of the men had been flying together since the Winter War, whereas Squadron 34 had been created with pilots selected from the squadrons 24, 26, 28 and 32. The result was that the squadron initially was not uniform, but consisted of groups of pilots there were CU-men, Fiat-men, BW-men... Yet we were striving for unity.
You were once more posted to Squadron 30 to protect Helsinki on the 21st July 1944?
That is right, all of a sudden I was just posted back to Malmi. That was idiotic in my opinion: the battle was going on. But I had to leave, and that was the end of fighting for me. Nothing was going on in Helsinki. Also my last victory (no.34) remained unconfirmed because I was not there to look after the paperwork. That is the reason why my official score is 33.
What is the strongest image in your mind from Summer 1944?
Our fighting spirit which was strong. Some times I saw hundreds of enemy planes in the air at one time, bombers and escort fighters. I felt that even if all the fighters of the Finnish Air Force were sent against them in one formation, we would have been overwhelmed. Also the escort missions covering our bombers remain clear in my memory, because our success rate was 100%.
6. After the war
You were demobilised as the war ended?
It was the 14th November 1944 as we flew our fighters from Malmi to Hyvinkaa, then we left for home.
You did not have a profession, did you have a job to go to?
None whatsovere. I had not finished my school, and I did not feel like continuing studies. I found a job as a foreman in a timber company, but soon I found that it was not for me. But in 1945 I found that the government was going to train flight controllers and applicants for the course were sought. I was admitted, I had flying experience and some language skills: German and Swedish, which was quite shaky, however. My first location after the course was in Pori, and after the flight control was handed over to military, I was posted to Turku. There I was for more than one year in the flight control. By coincidence, my old commander Olli Puhakka had become a pilot for Finnair (called Aero in the 1940's). When he flew to Turku in the evening, he would continue for Pori to stay there overnight and to return next morning. I took rides with him and he let me steer the Junkers 52 /3m. I found that flying an airliner was a simple thing. When Finnair sought new pilots to fly the newly acquired DC-3's I applied.
7. Airline pilot
The applicants had to prove their skill by flying a Ju-52/3m and a DC-2 on a regular route with the instructor. I was among the accepted men and reported the 1st of March 1947 at the Finnair main office. The very first thing they wanted to know was about my language skill, and specially Swedish? College Swedish, I said, German and some English. I was hired, and I stayed in the company for 26 years 2 months 11 days.
The new men started their career as co-pilots of DC-3's, but I was surprised as I became a Captain one year later. The old instructors were posted to new duties, and I was one of the new instructors. I had never instructed, but soon learned and trained young pilots
In early 50's Finnair purchased Convair Metropolitans, and I was trained in the U.S. to fly them.
Did you have any problems with the language?
No more then. I picked up the "aviation English" fairly soon. We did the examination in American style and flew the planes home Puhakka, Siirila and me.
The next new type was the Caravelle at the end of the 50's. I was posted to fly as "observer" in Caravelles of the SAS, then train the Finnair pilots. When the Caravelle 3 was replaced with Caravelle 10, I was trained in France. Finally I was trained for DC-8 as it was purchased in the 60's.
In the year 1973 I had flown the years needed to retire from Finnair. I calculated that if I resign and start flying for a charter company, I have a chance to fly longer. So I left for Spearair, but the company went bankrupt some years later. After that I flew as charter pilot several business jets and kept flying up to the age of 65 years. I had been granted four extra years of flying by the governmental Psycho-Physiological Institute, I was very fit. But then the doctor said: "Look, the other pilots are pestering me and asking why you are getting extra flying years and they are not. Could you not retire?"
That is what happened in 1986. That was the career of a pilot. I had flown 50 years of my life for 24 000 flight hours.
8. General matters
Do you have a hobby?
I used to coach a model aircraft club for the young for 20 years, I also play golf and tennis. The Harmon Trophy I received for my flying career.
What about your family?
I married after the war only, as I was working as flight controller in Turku . I have five children, my son is a pilot in Air Botnia.
What do you think, why did the enemy not attack the Kymi air base in 1943-1944?
I don't know. The Kymi air base was just a runway in the forest, it was difficult to see. Maybe the enemy believed we were operating from Utti? Our bases were attacked a few times.
For example Utti in early July 1941. A flight of six Fokker D.XXI came to the base and the flight commander was told to locate his planes in the eastern side of the airfield. But there was a deep ditch between the field and the forest, so that they could not disperse their aircraft among the trees. So the planes were left on the edge of the field in a perfectly straight row, even the propellers were turned one blade pointing up. We woke up at three o'clock next morning at a strange engine sound. Two MiG-1's were about and they strafed the Fokkers. Two burned down and the rest were full of holes. The result was that our squadron leader was replaced by Major Ehrnrooth.
Some days later the Soviet Air Force visited Utti with a bigger force, one nine-plane I-153 escadrille strafed and another escadrille covered them. Three CU's took off, but the enemy attacked them even before they were airborne. Two were damaged and managed to return, but the third, piloted by Sgt. Kirjonen, engaged the enemy. Kirjonen got into heads-on shooting with a Tchaika. His fighter was hit, the engine cowling was ripped off, but he kept on fighting. The Tchaika was hit and crashed into a lake, but Kirjonen's fighter was in flames, too. He bailed out at 200m and the moment the dome of the chute opened, his feet hit the ground. The enemy fighter was recovered from the lake. The cloth covering of the I-153 had been ripped off, it was just a ball of scrap with a dead pilot inside. There is a photo, published in newspapers, of Kirjonen looking at the wreck. Kirjonen was much praised for his courage.
Nurmoila was regularly bombed in the night by single R-5's. The idea was to rob us of sleep. Our AA tried to shoot toward the engine sound, but they never hit anything.
Lappeenranta and Immola bases were attacked with great force on the evening of the2nd of July 1944. Our radio intelligence had found out about the objective and the time, then they found that the raid had been delayed by 24 hours. My flight took off to intercept them en route to the East of Viipuri, because that was their usual route. But this time the enemy came West of Viipuri and without resistance to Lappeenranta. At first 35 Pe-2's dive-bombed the base, then 40 Il-2's strafed. Two Me-109's were destroyed and our two war-booty Pe-2's burned down. Luftwaffe Task Force Kuhlmey was based in Immola, and they had been warned about the coming raid, but the Germans refused to believe Finnish intelligence information. They suffered heavy losses: the enemy bounced Focke-Wulfs at takeoff. Also the 70 German planes (Ju-87 Stukas and F-W 190 Jabos ) were placed at the edges of the airfield, the Russians had no problems in hitting them.
What about the food ?
I think we were eating wholesome food in general. It was not too sweet, and there was not too much of it in general...We survived with our rations, but we were never short of food,either. Mostly we ate dried thin rye bread with margarine, it was enough for us. The flying personnell received a weekly special ration of butter, sugar, chocolate bar, coffee...
A propos food, in spring 1942 there was an unpleasant incident in Nurmoila. The pilots of our flight had pooled their hoarded wheat flour (a rare item those days) and decided to make pancakes. We made the dough in a pail, but we found that more eggs and milk were needed. I and Lt. Ruotsila volunteered to go and barter some with bread from the local people in the village. We made the others promise that they would not begin before we got back, else nothing would be left for us.
As we were coming back with our merchandise, we heard the siren of an ambulance. We joked that the lads must have started the feast without us and they have eaten themselves sick. When we came back to our lodgings, we learned what had happened. The lads had fried one test pancake, cut it up and tasted it. The taste had been odd. Soon some tasters began to feel sick and their hands and legs were paralysed for a while. The paralysed ones were transported to the nearest hospital. One pilot was so ill that an ambulance plane was sent for from Helsinki, but he died during the transport.
There was a strict police investigation. The dough pail was analysed and found to contain rat poison. It was not a case of sabotage, but an accident. A bag of rat poison had been mixed with the wheat flour. Some of the poisoned men recovered, some remained invalids. The odd thing is that some Lottas (volunteer women assisting logistics, communications etc.) who also had tasted the pancake suffered no damage. The poison had been in small lumps, probably. All kinds of things can happen...
What about the use of alcohol ? I believe the RAF and the Luftwaffe had clubs and messes with liberal availability of drinks for the pilots, how about the Finnish Air Force ?
Each man purchased his drinks himself, when on leave or someone was sent to the nearest government liquor store. I did not drink, I had sworn that in case I should be decorated with the Mannerheim Cross, then I shall, if not, I shall abstain until the end of the war. No Mannerheim cross for me, so... Some pilots did drink at times, though.
That did not affect the fighting, did it?
It did not. The ones with a hangover stayed in their bunks, the sober ones flew. There were those who were teetotallers. Liquor was expensive and hard to get, a reservist's daily allowance (in 1943: for all reservists in service, regardless their rank or task, 12 FIM a day, less than the average industrial hourly wages ) was not enough for it. I remember once as the flight commander took off the next morning with quite a hangover, and against all expectations, shot something down. It was customary that after a victory you made a dive at the base. But the flight commander had not fastened his belts, and as he pushed the stick he was flung against the canopy top! Fortunately it did not break. I was witnessing the incident, and as the fighter vanished behind the forest line I thought he was gone for good. But the fighter pulled up and landed, a very pale man climbed out of the cockpit, saying: "Nevermore!"
Was physical exercise organised or up to everyone himself?
It was up to everyone himself. There was, however, organised games between the squadrons: track and field sport, swimming, cross-country skiing, shooting etc. Every pilot participated in some sport.
For me, flying and fighting was a sport in itself. I remember cases when some pilots "experienced engine problem" and they aborted their missions. But especially in Squadron 32 every pilot hung to his flying turn, they did not want to give it to anybody. I think that proves good fighting spirit and patriotism. I stuck to my own turns in flying and if anybody left for leave, I was ready to fly instead. When I was flying instead of somebody else, I always found action and shot down something. This happened at least ten times!
Did you participate in the Suursaari operation? ( A Finnish Army division took the island of Suursaari which was occupied by Red Army in spring 1942).
I was not. The air battles and their results have been controversial afterwards. The Finnish aviation historians have searched Soviet archives and found that according to them the Soviet Air Force lost no planes, but shot down 6 Finnish fighters. ( Finnish version: 12 CU-fighters intercepted 29 pcs I-153 and I-16, which were flying in three waves. In the ensuing dogfight 10 I-153 and 6 I-16 were shot down by the CU pilots without any losses of their own.)
But General Pajari, the commander of the division, organised a parade on the ice after the land battle and the air battles were fought during the parade in view of the men participating in it. The wrecks of the Soviet fighters were found on the ice. Now it also claimed that if the Soviet Air Force had lost this many fighters, they could not have continued their activities in that sector. I think it is likely that the fighters shot down belonged to more than one unit.
When the enemy became superior to our air force?
The enemy actually never was superior to us but in their massive numbers. Let us consider the Soviet offensive starting on the 9th June 1944. We had about 30 airworthy Messerschmitts and about 60 airworthy bombers, whereas Russians concentrated to the Isthmus 1585 aircraft plus 200 Navy Air Force aircraft. With this mass of aircraft the enemy had his way, nothing else.
What was your opinion about the training level of the enemy pilots?
In 1941-1942 I think it was poor. Then their quality improved, but the younger enemy pilots were easier to shoot down than the older ones. The enemy skill never attained the highest level, and I do not think they were superior to us.
Was the Me109G equal to the enemy aircraft in summer 1944?
The Me could be a little better in climb, which could be some kind of last resort, you knew that if you start climbing the enemy is left behind in the end. But I used that trick seldom only.
Which was the more dangerous opponent, La-5 or Yak-9?
There were more of the La's, that is why I thought it was the more dangerous one.
Do you know of cases when a parachuted pilot would have been strafed?
Russians did do that.
Were those single cases or was that systematic?
Well, I know of several cases. Especially those Finnish airmen who had been in a reconnaisance mission and had the bad fortune of having to bail out, they were in the risk of being shot in their parachute harness. I find that quite disgusting.
As to me, I can say that the La-5 pilot who nearly got me parachuted in the middle of the Gulf of Finland. He was rescued by a speedboat from Lavansaari, and I did not have any idea of going to strafe the boat. I must admit that my hands and feet were shaking at that moment.
What was the absolutely worst you experienced?
It was on the 20th August 1943 as four of us took off at Kymi. Puhakka led us, there had been an alert: bombers approaching Kotka. Puhakka had a wingman and he ordered me and Flt.Mstr. Tuominen as top cover, but Tuominen did not manage to start his engine in time. The three of us took off, and as we turned our radio on, we heard that the enemy had retreated. Puhakka flew straight to the area between Seiskari and Lavansaari islands. Enemy aircraft could always be found there, and we did. Puhakka announced that he is going to engage, and I stayed behind to see to it that they should not be surprised. Puhakka and his wingman dived, soon I heard over the radio that they were in a dogfight. I checked the horizon, the weather was clear and sunny, nothing was seen. I looked down for targets to attack. I was just about to dive as there was a tap on my shoulder: it is true. As I looked back, there was a big white spinner at the distance of 20 or 30 meters behind my tail.
That is the worst situation you can find yourself in, but I was prepared for it. Should I ever be surprised, I should engage evasive action at the same moment. I kicked my right foot down and shoved the stick ahead and to the right, resulting in outside barrel manouver. At the same moment the La fired, tracers flew all over my fighter.
Do you hear the sound of passing enemy projectiles?
No, it is masked by the sound of your engine and the airflow, but I heard the tac-tac-tac of the enemy guns. As I manouvered, the sand in the bottom of the fuselage was thrown about by the negative G force. Since I did not have my goggles on, some of the sand got in my eyes. I did some external barrel rolls, it is an uncomfortable manouver because you are hanging by your belt and straps. In the same time I tried to see where the La was, but I did not see anything. I recovered, but immediately dived again and looked back: there he was, a little farther behind already. I tried to think what the heck to do now, I thought of the situations I had experienced, of the standing orders, but in vain. I decided to keep on diving. If the enemy is going to shoot, it is more difficult for him to hit me because he has to dive deeper to get a lead on me. The La did not shoot, I continued the dive and thought that I really must do something.
I recollected my teacher of Finnish in the school, he was a Home Guard officer and he used to say: " Remember, lads, attack is the best defense!" I never found out why he kept repeating this phrase, but now for some reason I remembered it. I thought: how to get to attack ? I must do something! I pulled the stick and climbed, I saw the La follow, but then I ran out of speed. I turned and kept watching the Russian. Due to my turn he was climbing higher than I was, I saw that now I have a chance to attack him although I am below. I picked some speed, then I gave the La some lead and fired. It was a good shot because the La pulled a turn immediately. Again I took deflection and fired, and he changed his turn. This manouvering enabled me to get behind his tail fairly easily. Then I just waited for a chance to get a good deflection. When I had a chance to shoot, the salvo hit the La and the plywood fuselage broke behind the cockpit. The front part dived, the rear part fell slowly and the red star was flashing as the rudder kept going. The pilot bailed out immediately and opened his chute. I may have flown around the man, making a gesture to him, and he may have shaken his fist at me, but I cannot swear what happened really... I often used to hope that I could meet with this pilot and learn what he was thinking as he had had the winning hand and yet he lost.
When I think that the La-5 was right behind me and at the last possible moment I looked back and still had time to evade...I had looked around, I had seen nothing, I was sure nobody would surprise me and yet... I had a protective angel, there is no denying. That could be my late mother, who looked after me, especially during the Russian offensive in Summer 1944. When I laid down in the night, I used to fall asleep fast. At the very moment I was going through the battles of the coming day, it was as if I were being programmed for the next day. As I woke up I knew what was going to happen and what I had to do that day. When I took off for a sortie everything was clear for me and I did not have to hesitate. This is hard to believe, but it is a fact.
Thinking about it afterwards it is clear that I must have had some protection to survive. Even after the war I felt I was looked after.
I could as well tell about my easiest victory on the 28th of May 1944. I was basing at Malmi. Suursaari sent us a report: buzzing to the west. I was sent to identify. The coastline was covered by a thin veil of cloud, having climbed above it I saw a contrail. I began to climb to it, and when I reached the same altitude the contrail stopped. I kept a sharp lookout and saw a Pe-2. I caught it easily, and because the gunner shot at me, it was an enemy. Since it did not have any chance of escaping, I decided to play cat and mouse. I pulled a 360 degree turn, during which the bomber got about 2000 m away. As I approached again, the Pe went into a slightly left-turning glide. I took aim and estimated that the range was 1000 m. I further estimated that taking into account the range and the turn, the correct deflection would be 8 plane lengths. I decided to test my cannon and pushed the trigger with my thumb as briefly as ever possible. Some pieces flew off from the left wing of the Pe and it went into deeper dive. I thought the bomber is trying to escape, so I followed and more debris flew off from it. The dive became deeper and deeper, I could not follow because my speed was approaching the red line. I had to pull out, but I kept watching the Pe. It crashed near the village of Kuusalu, east of Tallinn.
At Malmi I told the armourers to check my guns. They found three spent 20mm cases.
Were you in Germany for training ?
Not in training, but I was there in April 1944 to ferry home new Messerschmitts. When we got to Berlin, on one of the air bases, no fighters were ready for us although they should have been. The Germans promised to deliver them, and they did arrive little by little in the course of days. We were idled in that German base for two weeks. Two fighters had been inspected and received, they were loaded with fuel and ammunition, but still in German markings. There was an air raid alert, American bombers were coming to raid Berlin. They used to approach Berlin either from the North above the Baltic and then turn to the South or from the South and then turn to the North, and return on the opposite direction.
Puhakka suggested that we take the two battle ready fighters and attack the Fortresses if they should be coming to us. But nothing was seen. I wonder what would have happened if we had attacked Allied bombers? We had orders to save the fighters if the base should be bombed.
There was a railway link to the base and there were hangars along the rails. Some big cloth.shrouded bundles were being unloaded from waggons to one of the buildings, which was closely guarded by a pair of armed sentries . When we by chance approached the hangar when taking our daily exercise, the sentries told us to keep out. But three of us, sergeants, had not been with us, and they too happened to get near the hangar and they saw that the door was open and the sentries nowhere! The men entered the building. They found wings and fuselages for an odd-looking miniature aircraft, which they measured with their arms and sketched on the cover of a cigarette box. They were out of the building before the sentries appeared. The sergeants discussed their discovery and wanted to check some measurements, but this time they were stopped by the sentries. The men told Capt. Puhakka what they had seen, and he put the story as an appendix to his own report on our trip when we finally got back to Finland. Later we were told that our men had seen parts of the V-1! The first ones were launced against Britain several weeks later. What would have happened if the lads had been caught in the storage?
How many men belonged to the ground crew and were the mechanics specialised to engine or to fuselage maintenance?
There were two mechanics: the responsible one and his assistant, who co-operated without being specialised. If one of them had worked late, for example replacing an engine, he stayed in bed while the other one began his daily service in the morning. There also was a team of armourers, servicing and repairing the guns of the flight, and a team of radio mechanics that looked after the radio transceivers.
At the outset of the war you were a reservist, did you become a cadre officer later?
No, I was a reserve officer to the last day. Even though I was at first Ensign and then Lieutenant, I was paid the daily allowance only. In addition we received clothing, food and tobacco, and an extra ration of food for flying personnell. At the end of the war snacks were made available for the pilots in readiness.
The ensigns of Fighter Squadron 32.
Did you have decent flying gear?
Not at the very beginning, but the situation was improved in the course of the time. The Messerschmitt pilot's suit was electrically heated from the system of the plane and it was warm. As to gloves, you had to have your own. The Air Force mitts could not be worn in the cockpit. The uniforms supplied could be anything, many pilots bought their own uniform with their own money. Underwear could often be changed only every two weeks, but that was not a big deal.
Did the fighter pilots always have the same task, I mean did you always fly in the same leader/wingman combination?
That is what we were trying to do, but sometimes duties had to be rotated. The pilots of one flight always flew together.
Did you have a briefing before mission?
That depended on mission. If it was a scramble to intercept, the flight commander had ordered in advance who are to take off first and if more planes are needed, who are to join them. If it was a patrol or escort mission, we were told what the target area was and what was our specific task. Experienced pilots knew what they had to do, they were just told what kind of a mission it was and they took off. The orders could be changed over the radio, but radio silence was a crucial thing especially in summer 1944. The enemy was listening on our frequencies and we on theirs, a lot of information could be had that way.
Did you take any trophies from destroyed enemy planes?
The pilots did not get any because the army men picked the wrecks clean. The only thing that I have is the clock of the MT-415 that Maj. Luukkanen removed from the wreck after he had been shot down. He gave it to me as a memory. Then I have scale models of Curtiss and Messerschmitts that I made of wood.
Did the war reporters interview you often?
A few times. Sulo Kolkka, who was a sports reporter, was interested in aviation and I thought he wrote good stories. He used to live in Nurmoila and he wrote the inofficial history of Squadron 32. It has not been published, however. In general very little has been written about the Curtiss squadron although only the Brewster squadron (LeLv24) had more victories than we did. Our squadron scored 190 victories and lost 8 planes in aerial battle. The exchange rate 23,7/1 is very good indeed.
Have you had any contact with Soviet veteran pilots?
None, although I hoped for some. I believe none of them are alive anymore. The Finnish Army veterans have some contacts to that direction, but the pilots don't.
You have a computer, do you have access to the Internet?
Yes, I do use the Internet, but actually the computer was purchased for writing down my diaries.
Captain Karhila, I thank you for this interesting interview.
Kyösti Karhila interviewed in Westend, Espoo, Finland the 29th November 1998 by Ossi Juntunen. Interview published at Finnish Virtual Pilots Association site by permission.
Copyright Ossi Juntunen 1998.
Photos: Kyösti Karhila.
Last modified: 2003-10-29 22:37