In the 1930s, two controversies hindered Finnish aircraft acquisition. The first was the issue of whether fighters or bombers should have priority (the need for fighters seeming paramount). The second was the country from which to purchase aircraft. The head of the Defense Council, Carl Mannerheim, favored Germany, and the air force commander, Colonel Jarl Lundquist (later a lieutenant general), favored Britain. Mannerheim stressed the danger of air attacks on Finnish cities when arguing for more funds for the air force, but he gave priority to air support for ground forces when war came.
In September 1939, the Finnish Air Force (FAF) had only 36 modern interceptors (Dutch Fokker D-XXIs) and 21 bombers (14 Bristol Blenheims and 7 Junkers K430s). Lundquist deployed his limited fighter assets forward to protect the army and defend as much Finnish air space as possible. Following the Soviet invasion of Finland in November 1939, Finnish bombers attacked airfields and supported ground forces. In late December 1939, the FAF was able to purchase additional Fokker fighters, but its best aircraft came in the form of Morane-Saulnier MS-406s purchased from France. The Finns purchased additional Blenheims, U.S. Brewster F2A Buffalos (the Finns enjoyed considerable success with this much-maligned aircraft), Italian Fiat G-50s, and additional MS 406s. Most arrived too late for the war.
During this Finnish-Soviet War of 1939–1940, also called the Winter War, the FAF supposedly accounted for approximately 200 Soviet aircraft, and more than 300 others were destroyed by antiaircraft fire or on the ground. Finnish losses during the war amounted to 53 aircraft.
Finnish Air Force in the Winter War
At the beginning of the war, Finland had a very small air force, with only 114 combat airplanes fit for duty. Therefore, Finnish air missions were very limited and fighter aircraft were mainly used to repel Soviet bombers. Old-fashioned and few in numbers, Finnish aircraft could not offer support to the Finnish ground troops. In spite of aircraft losses throughout the war, the Finnish Air Force grew by 50 percent by the end of the war. Most new aircraft shipments arrived during January 1940.
Finnish fighter pilots often dove into Soviet formations that outnumbered them ten or even twenty times. Finnish fighters shot down 240 confirmed Soviet aircraft, against the Finnish loss of 53. A Finnish forward air base often consisted of only a frozen lake, a windsock, a telephone set and some tents. Air-raid warnings were given by Finnish women organized by the Lotta Svärd. Finnish antiaircraft gunners shot down between 314 to 444 Soviet aircraft.
At the start of hostilities, the Finnish Air Force had 146 aircraft of all types at its disposal. The primary fighter aircraft were 15 Bristol Bulldog IVs, which had entered service in 1935, and 41 of the more modern Fokker D.XXI. There were also 18 license-built Bristol Blenheim bombers. In 1939, an order had been placed in Italy for 25 Fiat G.50 fighters; two were being assembled in Sweden when the war broke out.
During the war, a number of aircraft were ordered from abroad:
30 Gloster Gladiator II biplane fighters from the United Kingdom
12 Bristol Blenheim IV bombers from the United Kingdom
30 Morane-Saulnier M.S.406 fighters from France
44 Brewster 239 fighters from the United States
22 Gloster Gauntlet trainers from the United Kingdom
10 Fiat G.50 fighters from Italy
In air combat, Finland used the “finger four” formation (four planes split into two pairs, one flying low and the other high, with each plane fighting independently of the others, yet supporting its wingman in combat), which was superior to the Soviet tactic of three fighters flying in a delta formation. This formation and the credo of Finnish pilots to always attack, no matter the odds, contributed to the failure of Soviet bombers to inflict substantial damage against Finnish positions and population centres.
In 1941, when Finland again went to war with the Soviet Union (the Finnish-Soviet War of 1941–1944, also called the Continuation War), Finland’s air force had increased substantially. It possessed 144 modern fighters (a mixture of U.S., British, French, Dutch, and Italian planes); 44 British and ex-Soviet bombers; and 63 mostly British and German reconnaissance planes. Once the Continuation War began, Finnish access to aircraft from other nations except Germany was cut off. The Finns did have their own aircraft industry, which produced limited numbers of aircraft including the VL Myrsky II fighter.
Continuation War 1941–44
The Finnish Air Force was better prepared for the Continuation War. It had been considerably strengthened and consisted of some 550 aircraft, though many were considered second-rate and thus “exportable” by their countries of origin. Finland purchased a large number of aircraft during the Winter War, but few of those reached service during the short conflict. Politics also played a factor, since Hitler did not wish to antagonize the Soviet Union by allowing aircraft exports through German-controlled territory during the conflict. New aircraft types were in place by the time hostilities with Soviet Union resumed in 1941. Small numbers of Hawker Hurricanes arrived from the United Kingdom, Morane-Saulnier M.S.406s from France, Fiat G.50s from Italy, a few dozen Curtiss Hawk 75s captured by the Germans in France and Norway then sold to Finland, when Germany began warming up its ties with Finland, and numerous Brewster B239s from the neutral USA strengthened the FiAF. The FiAF proved capable of holding its own in the upcoming battles with the Red Air Force. Older models, like the Fokker D.XXI and Gloster Gladiator, were replaced in front-line combat units with the new aircraft.
The FiAF’s main mission was to achieve air superiority over Finland and prevent Soviet air power from reinforcing their front lines. The fighter squadrons were very successful in the Finnish offensive of 1941. A stripped-down, more maneuverable, and significantly lightened version of the American Brewster B239 “Buffalo” was the FiAF’s main fighter until 1943. Results with this fighter were very good, even though the type was considered to be a failure in the US Navy and with British Far East forces. In the Finnish use, the Brewster had a victory rate of 32:1 – 459 kills to 15 losses. German Bf 109s replaced the Brewster as the primary front-line fighter of the FiAF in 1943, though the Buffalos continued in secondary roles until the end of the wars. Other types, especially the Italian Fiat G.50 and Curtiss Hawk 75 also proved capable in the hands of well-trained Finnish pilots. Various Russian designs also saw action when lightly damaged “kills” were repaired and made airworthy.
Dornier Do 17s (received as a gift from Hermann Göring in 1942) and Junkers Ju 88s improved the bombing capability of the Finnish Air Force. The bomber force was also strengthened with a number of captured Soviet bombers, which had been taken in large numbers by the Germans during Operation Barbarossa. The bomber units flew assorted missions with varying results, but a large part of their time was spent in training, waiting to use their aircraft until the time required it. Thus the bomber squadrons of Flying Regiment 4 were ready for the summer battles of 1944, which included for example the Battle of Tali-Ihantala.
While the FiAF was successful in its mission, the conditions were not easy. Spare parts for the FiAF planes were scarce — parts from the US (Buffalo & Hawk), Britain (Hurricanes), and Italy (G.50) were unavailable for much of the war. Repairs took often a long time, and the State Aircraft Factory was burdened with restoration/repair of Soviet war booty planes, foreign aircraft with many hours of flight time, and the development of indigenous Finnish fighter types. Also, one damaged bomber took up workshop space equalling three fighters.
Finland was required to expel or intern remaining German forces as part of its peace agreement with the Soviets in mid-1944. As a result, the final air battles were against retreating Luftwaffe units.
The Finnish Air Force did not bomb any civilian targets during either war. Curiously, overflying Soviet towns and bases was also forbidden, as to avoid any unneeded provocations and to spare equipment.
According to Kalevi Keskinen’s and Kari Stenman’s book “Aerial Victories 1–2”, the Finnish Air Force shot down 1,621 Soviet aircraft while losing 210 own aircraft during the Continuation War 1941–44.
Finnish Air Force strategy stressed aggressiveness; isolated fighters usually attacked no matter the number of Soviet aircraft. The FAF employed a blue swastika marking (no relation to the Nazi version) for national identification. The Luftwaffe and FAF cooperated in this conflict, although neither could prevent Soviet air raids into Finnish territory nor completely screen the Finnish army from air attacks.
References Kirby, D. G. Finland in the Twentieth Century. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1979. Tillotson, H. M. Finland at Peace and War, 1918–1993. Wilby, UK: Michael Russell, 1993. Trotter, William R. A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish War of 1939–40. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 1991.