Today is Finland’s Independence Day, celebrating the fact that our country declared its independence from a rapidly dissolving Russian Empire on the 6th of December, 1917. The traditional apex of these festivities is the yearly reception at the Presidential Palace, which is followed via TV by over 2 million of Finland’s 5,5 million citizens.
Ever since 1994, the first to arrive at the palace and shake hands with the President have been the surviving recipients of the Mannerheim Cross, Finland’s highest military decoration. The Mannerheim Cross was awarded for feats of extraordinary bravery to soldiers in combat position, or to higher officers for extraordinarily well conducted operations. The recipients are referred to as Knights of the Mannerheim Cross, despite Finland not featuring any legally defined nobility. As no single decoration have been awarded since the end of the Second World War, the number of living recipients have been in a slow but steady decline, and today, out of the original 191 soldiers, only a single knight survives: Captain (Res.) Tuomas Gerdt, Mannerheim Knight No. 95.
Tuomas Gerdt was born in Heinävesi, Savonia, in 1922. During the Winter War he served in different positions on guard duty, and after the war he was promoted to Lance Corporal. Just before the outbreak of the Continuation War he was promoted again, this time to full Corporal, and in this position he began the war with Infantry Regiment JR 28. He served as a runner, delivering messages and checking out units during the sometimes chaotic combat of the early stages of the Continuation War, a task that required both bravery, a cool head, and the ability to make fast decisions independently.
At one point, the company he was attached to was the target of a surprise attack by enemy forces. The young corporal decided that they needed additional support, and dashed away. To get his message through, he had to cross terrain covered by fire from 10 heavy machine guns, more than 10 light machine guns, other infantry weapons, as well as heavy mortar fire. Getting through to the own forces, he was then able to call in artillery support to save his company.
A year later the Soviet Union attacked and captured a Finnish strongpoint codenamed ‘Sevastopol’. Gerdt volunteered to take part in the counterattack to recapture it, and according to the records charged forward as the first man. Armed with a sub-machine gun and hand grenades, he took out tens of enemies, always heading for where the fighting was the fiercest. He also dragged the mortally wounded captain Toffer, another Mannerheim Knight, back to the Finnish lines, after which he swiftly returned to the battlefield. His example is quoted as playing an important role in ensuring that the counterattack succeeded.
Shortly after this he was decorated with the Mannerheim Cross, and in 1943 promoted to officer in the reserve, taking part in course number 57. He was wounded three times, including during the fighting at Sevastopol, before he was discharged after the end of the war in November 1944.
After the war he played an active role in several different organizations, both related to the military as a veteran and as an active reserve, as well as to his civilian hobbies. He worked on a number of different positions in the Finnish forestry industry, before retiring in 1987. That he now gets to be the first guest at the independence day celebrations is a fitting acknowledgment to his own achievements, as well as those of the generation of young men who served throughout the harsh years of the Second World War.