The Buzz

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

The next day, the Soviets made more infantry probes at Kallioniemi and the Finns tried again at Möhkö. By day’s end, the Ilomantsi front was a stalemate. The Finns lacked the power to throw the Soviets back, and the Soviet 155th Infantry Division lacked the skis—and therefore the mobility—to flank the Finns. The temperature dropped to 25 degrees below zero, and the endlessly falling snow was more than a foot deep. The Soviets could not budge the Finns.

However, the Finns had skis and the training to use them, and Ekholm waged an active defense, staging raids and probing attacks against the 155th Infantry. As December dragged on, the Soviets tried to defeat Ekholm with little success. At one point, they slipped a battalion through Finnish lines and menaced his headquarters. Ekholm rallied his rear-echelon troops, counterattacked vigorously, and drove the Soviets off. The area remained quiet for most of the war.

Not so at Tolvajärvi, where PPP-7 began moving forward to Ristisalmi on December 13, while the rest of Pajari’s troops took a day off to reorganize. Pajari was not happy with that. He recognized that the best way to deal with the opposing Soviet 139th Infantry Division, as any other Soviet unit, was to attack relentlessly. After the 13th, Pajari drove his men to do just that.

Meanwhile, the Soviets were determined not to give up at Tolvajärvi. They reinforced the battered 139th Division with the 75th Infantry Division. Pajari learned of this development on December 16 as Finnish air reconnaissance saw exhausted and wounded men of the 139th heading back to Russia while vehicles and men of the 75th headed forward.

Pajari moved swiftly. He continued his attack on December 14, with ErP-9 leading the assault. The Finns were stopped when two Russian tanks appeared, driving back and forth, hurling shells and machine-gun fire at the Finns, who could fire back nothing but colorful invective. They did not even have Molotov cocktails. When word of this holdup reached ErP-9’s headquarters and its sole antitank gun crew, one of its gunners, Corporal Mutka, hitched up the 37mm gun to a farm horse, mounted it, and rode the horse bareback to the front. Once there, Mutka unlimbered the gun, aimed at the tanks, and blasted them open with three or four shots.

When the Soviet tanks exploded into the usual balls of fire and smoke, the infantry they were operating with were demoralized and began to flee. The Finnish troops charged forward a mile before being stopped at Metsanvaara Ridge.

Talvela sent Pajari 350 replacements on December 15, all overage reservists. They were ready to fight but poorly trained, poorly armed, and not as physically resilient as the young men who had died or were wounded.

Pajari ordered his men forward, and on December 16 they pushed past Metsanvaara and made good progress until hitting a determined group of Soviet troops at a roadblock just west of Lake Hietajärvi. The defenders were 200 men from a Russian officer candidate school, well trained, physically fit, highly motivated, and properly dug in. The Finns who fought in this battle later said they were the toughest troops they faced. The officer candidates inflicted heavy casualties on the attacking Finns. The 6th Company of ErP-9 lost six of 20, including its commanding officer, in the first hour of fighting. The officer candidates fought to the death. Only two are known to have survived.

Pajari could not afford such engagements and their attendant losses. He tried to outflank the main road, relying on skis and surprise. He sent an ErP-10 company on a wide end run to the south through Vieksinki and launched guerrilla strikes on the Ägläjärvi Road. Two companies of ErP-10 did the same from the north.

Seeing that Pajari was making great gains, Talvela gave him control of all Finnish reserves in the Tolvajärvi sector on December 17, with an order of the day that read: “The last energies of the troops must be used.” Talvela also promoted Pajari to full colonel in recognition of his achievements.

On December 18, the Soviet Air Force finally intervened with attack planes swooping down on the forests. The bombs were more annoying than destructive, but Pajari’s attacks on Ägläjärvi made no headway against Soviet roadblocks.

On December 19, Mannerheim promoted Talvela to major general but was on the edge of calling off the whole Tolvajärvi counteroffensive due to the lengthening casualty lists and the men’s exhaustion. The newly promoted Talvela persuaded Mannerheim that his men had enough drive to break through the Soviet defenses and stabilize the situation. Mannerheim agreed to give Talvela more time.

In the predawn darkness, the Soviet 75th Division hurled a battalion of infantry and nine tanks against the Finns from Ägläjärvi, going straight for the Finnish antitank platoon and ramming the first gun. Corporal Mutka, still in the battle, closed with the tank as it crunched over the Bofors gun and blew it up with a satchel charge, blocking the road for the rest of the Soviet armor.

At daylight, Mutka bore-sighted his remaining Bofors gun and hit the rear Soviet tank in the column, trapping the whole force. He worked forward with his gun and hit two more vehicles. The crews of the surviving tanks got the point. They bailed out of their vehicles, and the Finns captured them intact with their engines running. The Soviet attack was done. The Finns tried to counterattack themselves, but the Soviets held them off.

The same day, Pajari hit his own personal limit. Physically exhausted from the ordeal and personally leading attacks, he was sent to the rear by Talvela and replaced by Lt. Col. Kaarlo Viljanen, another 27th Jaeger veteran, who proved to have plenty of determination himself.