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Night Of The Bombers

Quick index: [ Background and the defense of Helsinki | To strike back | The night of the bombers | Summary, noticed and related reading | Credits]


The most daring mission of Finnish bombers in WW2
By Jukka O. Kauppinen aka "Grendel"

In the early months of 1944 the bombers of Finnish Air Force flew their most daring and unique missions during the course of World War II. The tactical attacks on Soviet bomber airfields served a strategic purpose and succeeded beyond all expectations. Infiltrating enemy bomber formations and attacking their airfields while the Soviet planes were landing achieved complete surprise, and helped to lessen the threat of enemy bombers to the Finnish cities - as well as assisting in defence of Estonia.


Background and the defense of Helsinki

In February 1944 the long-range Soviet bomber command ADD (Aviatsiya Dalnego Destviya) performed three massive air raids on the Finnish capital Helsinki. The enemy bombers came from airfields in the vicinity of Leningrad. The Finnish intelligence had observed and photographed dozens of aircraft in each of these fields. During the take offs and landings the runways were fully lit and thus offered an excellent bombing target.

Helsinki was well protected against the enemy bombers and the defenses had been very successful against the three major ADD bombing attacks. ADD flew over 2100 sorties and dropped 20 000 bombs against Helsinki.

But only 338 bombs (3 %) hit the city area. This was result from the heavy and skillful anti aircraft artillery. Helsinki was actually the heaviest protected capital at Europe, with largest number of heavy AA guns per protected square kilometer. The AA artillery was lead with excellent radar targeting and used special anti aircraft tactics.

The special tactics consisted of two elements. A) "Night grenades", basically AA shells that had a dash of magnesium/aluminum powder added to them for a flash bang effect B) The defense was based on a system of "blockade fire" rather than tracking individual planes with the hopes of shooting them down. Firing sectors, or "rings", that started 4 km from the city center and extended out every 2 km all the way to 16 km were created. All the batteries had pre-calculated coordinates for these rings, so that all the fire control HQ had to order was the number of firing sector & altitude. Each gun would fire 4 shots, and with 4 guns per battery and a few batteries firing at the same coordinates at the same time... Well, you can imagine what it looks like at the receiving end, ESPECIALLY with those night grenades.
The result was, that most of the Soviet bombers were forced to drop their bomb loads and turn away before reaching target area.

More information in Finnish: Torjuntavoitto 1944. Scroll below to see a map of the third ADD attack 26-27th February 44. Helsinki area is marked on the map with black. Notice how almost all of the Soviet bomber waves turn back before reaching the target.

This was not enough, though. Finland had no night fighters and no way to intercept the Soviet bombers before they were almost at the gates. The initiative was completely in the Russian hands. Something different was needed to protect Helsinki and other Finnish towns against the night bombers.

With only 3 % of the bomb loads hitting the target area the defense of Helsinki was a major success. To be fair, the whole picture isn't here. Much of the success can and must be attributed to the skillful leaders of Helsinki aerial defenses, the pilots of JG300 (German night fighter detachment sent for assist the defense of Helsinki) and the surprisingly low skill of the Soviet pilots. As one Air Force general of the Red Army Air Force later commented, "we should have had more political officers in those aircraft."

After the war the Soviet air force marshal, who had been awarded a medal for the destruction of Helsinki, arrived to the town and the legend tells, that after he had seen how the town was still largely intact and undamaged he tossed the medal out of the car's window.


To strike back

Nevertheless, even if the defense of Helsinki was successful, it was not enough. Finland did not have night fighters; hence no way to intercept the Soviet bombers. The Finnish defenses were reactionary, with no way to stop the enemy before they were crashing through the gates.

But.

Finland had something, in the end. Something that could be used to strike back. In strikes, that could prevent enemy from further attacks.

What was this weapon?
Bombers.
Bombers. The four small bomber squadrons, of Finnish Air Force.

But these four squadrons were all the Finnish Air Force had.

The story of the Finnish bomber command is long, and much too long to be repeated here. But let it be said, that even when the few squadrons were few in their numbers, their pilots were highly experienced pilots. Many of them were old cadre pilots, who had been bomber pilots already before the war. The rest of the pilots had learned their trade from these old pilots. And the youngsters? Most of them had been in flying schools for 2-3 years before being appointer to front line squadrons, and then they'd been taken good care by the older pilots.

Generally speaking, these four bomber squadrons consisted of very highly skilled personnel, who had even been in very active training for the last year. If there was any moment they were ready for some real action, it was now.

Finnish intelligence at work

Soviet night bombers were unstoppable. But their attacks had to be stopped. How?

Revenge attacks were out of question - Finnish bombers had been forbidden to fly over Leningrad for the whole duration of the war. Finnish Army had not participated on the siege of Leningrad, as the War Marshall Mannerheim - an old guard general of the Imperial Russian Army - a soldier of the Tsar - had commanded.

The War Marshall Mannerheim forbade any actions against his own old capital. A White-Finnish soldier, Mannerheim, had served his Russian imperator as his oath commanded - after the Russian empire collapsed he had returned to serve the Finns, his own people. But through the decades, ever since the independence of Finnish nation born in 1917, Mannerheim retained his respect for the Russian - and later Soviet - nation and its people. He knew the power of the huge eastern neighbour and never allowed the Finnish nation to "cross the limits".

Attacking Soviet civilian targets was out of the question. But what about attacking Soviet bombers on their own bases?
Finnish reconnaissance, combining information from radio intelligence, photographic recon missions and so on, had learned what fields the ADD used, had listened the Soviet radio communications and had inspected how the Soviet bombers operated. Therefore Finnish intelligence was fully aware on the Soviet tactics. This information would soon be passed to the Finnish bomber command and used to full extend...


The night of the bombers

Keskinen-Stenman:
"On 25th February the air force CO ordered bomber squadrons PLeLv 42 and 46 to attack these bases under suitable conditions. The Russians were to be mislead by the Finnish bombers joining the formations at night over the Gulf of Finland, when returning, say from a mission to Helsinki.

Bomber squadron 46 tested the new tactics on the night of 29th February. Four Dornier Do 17 bombers too off and joined a returning Russian bomber stream over the Gulf of Finland. The bombers flew to Levashovo airfield and invidually bombed the lit airfield at 2230. The bomb rows hit parked aircraft and shelters. Several fires were built up and a strong explosion shook the airfield. The flak opened fire when the Finns were already on their way home."

Each Dornier Do 17 was equipped with 20 x 50 kg bombs with 0,08 second delay. When the bombers took off and flew towards the Gulf of Finland own AA artillery at Kotka gave them a goodbye greeting, as they didn't seem to know the identity of these strange bombers flying in middle of the night.

The Finnish bombers navigated their way into middle of the Gulf of Finland, all lights off, looking for a suitable Soviet bomber formation...

Finding one, the Finnish Dornier pilots joined the enemy bombers unnoticed, slowly creeping their way inside the Soviet formation. It took a lot of skill and nerves (a lot of nerves, when thinking about it 60 years later) to stay in the formation, as the Soviet pilots might recognize the strange looking bombers at any moment. After all, the German built Dorniers had completely different outlooks to the Soviet bombers, consisting primarily of Li-2s, B-25s, IL-4s and A-20 Bostons, with two squadrons of heavy Pe-8s.

After crossing the front lines the Soviet planes suddenly turned their navigation lights on, feeling safe over their own side of the front lines. With sudden inspirations the Finnish pilots followed the example. With all lights on the huge bomber formation consisting of both Soviet and Finnish bombers flew eastwards, more and more inside the enemy territory, shining brightly in the dark sky.

The Soviet bombers arrived to their home field and readied themselves for landing. The Finnish pilots kept their nerves - and actually joined the Soviet night bombers in their landing circuit, still navigational lights on. One by one the Soviet bombers landed, with the rest - Finns included - approaching the field. The bombers circled the Soviet airfield, brightly lit in the winter night of the northern hemisphere, landing one by one. And finally - the last Soviet bomber had landed and the bright lights of the field welcomed the last four bombers seen circling in the landing pattern. But instead landing these bombers opened their bomb bays, throttled up and filled the field with 80 shrapnel bombs, filling it with destruction....

The sudden attack was immensely successful. With no warning given, the four Finnish bombers gained complete surprise and attacked the Soviet night bomber field with no opposition. The Soviet anti-aircraft artillery didn't have any time to react. The bombs hit the plane rows and plane shelters. Several fires and a large explosion were seen.

Keskinen-Stenman:
"Encouraged by the successes, all regiment squadrons were ordered on March 2nd to participate on large scale attack against Leningrad area airfields.

The opportunity came on March 9th when ADD bombers returned from the bombardment of Tallinn, Estonian's capital. Nineteen Finnish bombers from all four squadrons joined several formations between Seiskari and Kronstadt and followed ADD aircraft to Gorskaya, Levashovo and Kasimovo airfields."

After the huge success of these four bombers the whole bomber regiment was ordered to readiness. It took until March 9th until the weather and other conditions made new attack possible. The four bomber squadrons of Flying Regiment 4, the whole Finnish Air Force bomber command, sent total of 19 bombers (or 21, depending on source). 10 Blenheims, 5 Dornier Do 17s and 6 Junkers Ju 88s took off for their mission.

Once again the bombers infiltrated the Soviet bomber formations.
The Blenheims of PLeLv 42 (bomber squadron 42) followed ADD from north of Seiskari.
PLeLv 44 joined the Soviet bombers near Kronstadt fortress island with five Ju-88s.
PLeLv 46 joined the Soviet bombers near Kronstadt with five Dorniers.
And PLeLv 48s Blenheims followed the Soviet bombers from Kronstadt.

Tactics were similar to the previous mission. Either the bombers joined the Soviet formation and flew alongside them, with landing lights on and joining the landing pattern, or the Finns followed slightly behind. Surprise was total both ways, bombs started to rain on the Soviet airfields when the last bombers were still landing or taxiing on the field. Bombs and the shrapnel struck without warning, and the Soviet losses on material and personnel were high, as nobody was sheltered. On some occasions the Finnish bombers attacked while landing operation was still in progress, which must have caused extreme confusion when the airfield defenders saw aircraft still circling the field and couldn't know whether they are own bombers trying to land or if there are still more Finnish bombers ready to attack.

An example of the effectiveness of these attacks is the bombing of Gorskaja airfield by three Blenheims of PLeLv 48. The three bombers hit their target from 1400 meters, 2140-2145. The planes dropped 28 x 100 kg explosive and 16 x 15 kg firebombs. Hits were observed in the north side of the field with five planes burning. Two more planes were burning in southeast corner of the field, with one storehouse exploding.

Paavo Alava, a Blenheim pilot from Bomber Squadron 42, was on the BL-151 on the attack at March 9th. He describes the mission:

"Our five planes took off with bellies filled with shrapnel- and firebombs. The tension rose in the cockpit when we were over the Gulf of Finland looking for a suitable enemy formation. There they come! Several planes flying at 500 meters east of Seiskari island, flying eastwards. Quick turn and then as silent, as unnoticeably as we can...
I could see clearly how the neighbor's boy sat in his turret, carefree. A small light was on, he must have already dreamed of the coffee waiting on the ground. There they go! Li-2s and so close that I could shoot them with my machinegun. Sure hit! But I must restrain myself - the mission would fail if they recognize us. Another Soviet bomber formation comes towards us from east - they're going to bomb Tallinn...
Here we were - red stars over Gulf of Finland, with blue swastikas in middle of them.
We are over Kronstadt, when the Ruskie planes start flashing signals with red and white lights. We see responding signals from ground. I guess this is permission to come in and land...
The planes turn north towards Gorskaja. It was interesting situation - Soviet lead bomber navigates the formation to their home field, which would soon be bombed by enemy bombers flying in the same formation.
There is the field - all lights on. Large number of planes are in landing pattern and more in ground, when our four Blenheims dropped the bombers from 1200 meters. Best regards from the people of Helsinki, were the bombardiers thinking. I can see the explosions in the rows of bombers and plane shelters. A huge explosion - fuel storage tanks go up in flames and planes are burning on the ground.
This was one of the most successful and cunning missions in the history of our squadron, as everything worked perfectly from the beginning to the end."

Keskinen-Stenman:
"At around 2130 they released the bombs on landing airplanes, parked aircraft and runways, causing huge explosions and numerous fires on all airfields. The attacks came as total surprises and only at Levashovo airfield the AA was on alert, though did not inflict any damage.

The airfield strikes continued. On April 4th 34 bombers attacked Kähy airfield north-east from Leningrad, where aerial reconnaissance had observed 57 aircraft. Bombs were dropped at 2030 causing huge explosions. 23 large fires were counted by the retreating bombers. Further strikes were flown during May."

Aarno Ylennysmäki was bombardier in PLeLv 48's Blenheims and flew a mission in 3rd May against yet another Soviet airfield. He describes the mission:

"Vector 270 degrees, five minutes to target, I heard on headphones.
The pilot turned and matched altitude to ordered 2900 meters. Then he pushed throttles forward and accelerated to over 300 km/h. At that speed they'd stay shorter time at the target area at AA fire. We would be the 2nd last wave. Behind us follows only the big Stukas, Ju-88s, with their 1000 kg bombs. Now I saw the first bomb explosions ahead, from the first bomber wave. I took them as my target and then continued to give more exact commands to the pilot as we approached.
Two degrees left, straight, one right, here we go, straight ahead. I could see a plane row in the light from the other burning planes and the row was running straight on the aiming line of the mechanical bombsight. Then the line, aiming dot and the beginning of the plane row connected and I released the bombs.
The plane wavered as it got lighter and the signal lights came on showing all the bombs had been released successfully. Only now I had time to watch out and noticed the anti-aircraft fire cloudlets around our plane.
Aki, in his turret behind us, was watching downwards when he noticed that a searchlight was trying to find us. He called suddenly "DIVE!". The pilot pushed his stick almost to the instrument panel and the plane dropped quickly almost thousand meters lower. Then he pulled back and leveled the plane at 1500 meters. The G forces pushed us to our chairs at almost three times our normal weight.
A moment later Aki called that a night fighter had flashed past us, just lower. We kept sharp lookout but didn't see it anymore.
The whole regiment returned without losses and also the planes from Onttola base had landed to Immola. The chatter of almost 30 pilots filled the field and it was found out, that an enemy night fighter had followed the bombers to almost Immola. Next day the Commander of the Air Force arrived to the base and awarded number of men"

Virtuaalilentäjät ry Photo: Mr. Kauko Aho, Blenheim pilot (left) and mr. Torsten Sannamo, gunner & radio operator (right), participated in the attack to Kähy, 3rd May. The gentlemen are photographed at a meeting of Finnish Virtual Pilots Association 2003.

Mr. Torsten Sannamo was radio operator / gunner at Bomber Squadron 42 in the time of these attacks. He participated in the bombing of Kähy airfield May 3rd 1944. Mr. Sannamo describes his attack:
"Our squadron was the first to arrive to the target. Our bombing altitude was 3100 meters. The enemy AA fire did not reach our altitude, at least on my case, and my pilot Akke dropped the bomb load on the barracks of the enemy base. From my turret I saw several fires coming up.
Our squadron had two groups, both with five planes. Any attacking fighter would have been met with machine gun fire from five guns, but we didn't see any fighters and we landed to our base Värtsilä at 2200."

The night of May 18th saw the largest attack against any single target. 42 bombers took off, 41 bombed Mergino airfield right after midnight. The attack was lead by PleLv 44 with their 8 Junkers Ju 88s, with 2 firebomb torpedoes, 1 x 500 kg, 26 x 250 kg and 80 x 50 kg bombs. Next in the target was PleLv 46 with 9 Dornier Do 17s, altitude 1500 meters, 120 x 50 kg and 30 x 100 kg bombs. Then came the Blenheims, first PleLv 42 with 13 Blenheims, then PleLv 48 with 12 Blenheims. 42 bombed from 1800 meters, PleLv 48 from 1600 meters.


Summary

Especially the first attacks at Soviet bomber bases were surprisingly successful. The inventive tactic of joining the formation of the enemy night bombers was unheard of, and the Finnish bombers were not recognized in any mission. The bombers flew in same formation, behind or in middle of enemy bombers, even with the navigational lights on, and at times joined their landing pattern. This allowed the bombers to aim at will and made sure the targets are visible - and plentiful. Good intelligence on Soviet numbers and plane positions on the fields helped much.

Soon after the initial missions the aerial reconnaissance noticed, that the Soviet long range bombers, ADD, are moving away from the front fields, either further to the rear or completely disappearing. If ADD was planning further strikes against Finnish targets they never materialized. Perhaps this resulted, at least partly, from the destruction of ADD bombers in their home bases and the possibility of further attacks. Therefore the raids not only caused a tactical victory, they perhaps were a strategic victory as well.

Whatever the results were in larger strategic scale, on tactical level the Finnish bombers performed very well. The disciplined aircrews from the four Finnish bomber squadrons managed to perform their mission, which was very challenging. The idea of infiltrating enemy bomber formation with your own bombers and attack the airfield while the enemy was landing is quite unique even in the scale of World War II, and definitely the most daring mission in the history of Finnish bomber command during the war.

Three different types of bombers participated in the missions, flown by all 4 Finnish bomber squadrons: Blenheims, Dornier Do 17s and Junkers Ju 88s. Below Jouni Rönkkö's fine drawings of Blenheim and Ju-88.

Drawing by Jouni Rönkkö
Drawing by Jouni Rönkkö
Notice 1:

Claim: The Luftwaffe, RAF and USAAF Air Forces performed similar interceptor missions against enemy airfields during the war.

Answer: Not really. The Luftwaffe performed interceptor attacks against British airfields 1940-1941. The RAF performed similar missions against Luftwaffe bases later. These missions were not similar to the Finnish attacks, though. These were performed usually by single aircraft, that stalked either near the known return routes or known bases of enemy air force, and bombed the located enemy fields or attacked enemy night bombers, that were seen landing. Difference is, that the Finnish bombers actually joined the enemy bomber formation or bombed the enemy airfield with large number of bombers in the same time. With whole squadrons, or on other words, with the whole FiAF bomber regiment strenght. So the tactics and actual operation were completely different. The intruder missions had small tactical purpose, while these Finnish raids were large scale tactical missions with strategic purpose and results.

Notice 2:

The Luftwaffe wreaked havoc on the USAAF "shuttle bombing" effort, by destroying large number of American bombers and escort fighters on a Soviet airfield. The tactics Luftwaffe used in this attack were not similar to the Finnish attack. Luftwaffe had one recon plane shadowing the USAAF bombers and made note of the fields they landed to. After that the bombers came, in daylight. It was more like a normal airfield attack, just in way massive scale, against very vulnerable target. The bombers themselves didn't shadow the USAAF bomber formation. The results are howewar somewhat similar: the German attacks resulted in strategic victory, much like the Finnish ones.

Related reading:

Air Defence in Northern Europe
Air raids on Helsinki in Feb. 1944
Kunnia pääkaupungin pelastajille, torjuntavoitto 1944
Soviet air raids on Helsinki in February 1944
The Soviet terror air raid to Tallinn on March 9/10, 1944


Credits

Article written by Jukka O. Kauppinen, aka Grendel,
with Matti Rönkkö writing the part about the defences of Helsinki.
Drawings by Jouni Rönkkö

Sources used:
Keskinen-Stenman: Suomen Ilmavoimien historia 4 - LeR4
Torsten A. Sannamo: Kundina hesassa flygaajana krigussa
Jukka Piipponen: Onttolan punaiset pirut
P. Hirvonen: Raskaan sarjan laivueet

Copyright VLeLv Icebreakers / Virtuaalilentäjät r.y. / Finnish Virtual Pilots Association 2004.

Viimeksi muokattu: 2006-02-27 23:18