The Buzz

This Battle in the Winter War Had Far Reaching Consequences for Russia—and Beyond

Talvela sketched out a broad scheme for a strong raid against enemy troops, going across the frozen Lake Tolvajärvi and hitting the Soviet troops bivouacked on the road to Ägläjärvi. Talvela wanted to lead the raid himself, but his staff talked him out of it. Pajari, despite having had a tough, long day, volunteered to lead the raid.

The raiders were drawn from 2nd/JR-16, which had not been engaged yet. Just before midnight, two companies—the 9th and 4th—moved across the ice south of Kottisaari Island. An hour later, PPP-7, under its new commander, Major Ericsson, launched a feint against Kottisaari itself. The diversion did not fare too well. Ericsson was killed early—the second PPP-7 battalion commander lost in five days—and the battalion withdrew.

But 2nd/JR-16 moved across the ice beneath a moonless and empty sky, the only sound the scrape of its skis and the occasional whisper and crackle of ice responding to pressure. For all the Finnish troops, the move was terrifying —the utter darkness, the cold, the fear that a Soviet patrol might spot them at any minute. Logically, under these conditions the two companies got lost. The 9th Company hit a patch of open water, headed south to avoid it, and lost touch with 4th Company. Eventually, the 9th crossed the lake but met some Russian pockets, which led to a firefight in the dark.

But 4th Company held to its route, headed by Lieutenant Urho Isotalo and Pajari. An hour after crossing the lake, Finnish scouts saw large bonfires in a gully near the Kivisalmi Bridge. The Finns had met up with a small Russian security patrol and killed the lot soundlessly.

Beyond that stood a long, low, heavily timbered ridge, and farther beyond was more firelight. The raiders fanned out at the base of the ridge and advanced up it simultaneously so that the entire force would reach the crest at the same time. When Pajari crawled the last few meters to the top, he whipped out his binoculars to peer through the evergreens. He saw a vast encampment 100 meters away, holding a full Soviet battalion, all asleep or keeping warm at their campfires, and no sentries posted. In the distance, Pajari saw two more encampments for two more battalions. Pajari’s one company was about to ambush an entire Soviet regiment.

While the Soviets continued to doze, Pajari moved his men into position. They heard PPP-7 making its diversion in the distance, but the Soviets before them were uninterested as a few men looked up at the sound, shrugged, and returned to their fires.

By 2 am, 140 riflemen and 16 automatic weapons were posted in a semicircle along the ridge crest concealed in bushes, snow, and brush. All the men had targets acquired. Talvela fired the first shot himself, and the Finns opened up with everything they had into the gully beneath them.

The Soviets were so shocked by the force and violence of the Finnish ambush that they did not fire back. In three to four minutes, there were no standing targets—only heaps of dead Soviet soldiers lying in rings around their still blazing fires.

The Soviet battalions in the distance reacted to the noise and destruction by opening fire in all directions. Pajari led his men out through a gully near one of the encampments to confuse pursuers. The Finns slithered away while the Soviets waged a fierce firefight with each other  that went on for two hours.

Pajari and his men found the return march more tiring than the approach. Pajari himself, suffering from a heart condition, needed to be transported in an improvised litter. But everyone made it back, some with badly needed Soviet felt boots, and the victory was complete.

Finnish morale was boosted by the feat. It was the first large-scale victory on the IV Corps front. More importantly, the raid knocked the Soviets off balance. They made no further major attacks in the area for two days, limiting themselves to patrols, artillery duels, and sniping.

With Tolvajärvi in hand, Talvela went up to Ilomantsi, where the Soviet 155th Infantry Division was still plodding along slowly, only 12 miles from the Ilomantsi-Korpiselka road junction. The Finnish ErP-11, under Major Nikoskelainen, was trying to stop the Soviets at the Möhkö Hill. Talvela ordered the heights held at all costs, and his troops did so until being forced to pull back to Oinaansalmi on December 9.

Talvela put all Finnish troops in the Ilomantsi sector under Colonel Per Ekholm and named the command Task Force E. This consisted of four infantry battalions, but two of them were poorly trained ex-quartermaster troops. On December 8, the Ilomantsi defenders were reinforced by a battery of mortars, and a day and a half later by two old French 75mm field pieces, one of which proved inoperable. Task Force E already had five antique light field guns. This force would face the fully equipped Soviet 155th Infantry Division.

However, Ekholm proved ferocious. One of his patrols found an understrength Soviet battalion of 350 men wandering behind the Finnish left flank about five miles northeast of Ilomantsi, in a bog named Tetrilampi. Ekholm ordered the Soviets attacked by a strike force equipped with automatic weapons, and the Finnish group quickly surrounded the Soviets. During the night, Ekholm set up an ambush. At dawn the Finns opened a murderous crossfire on the Soviets. Not one Russian survived.

The 155th’s commander, baffled at the disappearance of an entire infantry battalion, became even more cautious.

Talvela was impressed. His men were not just holding ground; they were taking action, throwing the Soviets off balance, and building up their own morale. It was time to attack on both fronts. He finished his plans on December 10 and ordered the attack to go in the next day.