The highest Finnish decoration for military service is the Mannerheim Cross, which was introduced as part of the Knighthood of the Cross of Liberty following the Winter War. A total of 191 servicemen received the order during the Second World War, of which only four received it twice. Of these, colonel Martti Aho spent the last years of his life in my hometown Kokkola, and it is here that he was laid to rest in 1968. The Mannerheim Cross is somewhat unusual in that it can be issued both for exceptional bravery, but also for the conduct of especially successful combat operations, meaning that it was found throughout the ranks of the Finnish Defence Forces, which also was the expressed purpose when the cross was created. Martti Aho’s both crosses belonged to the second category, but that is not to say that he would have been lacking in courage.
Aho was born in 1896 in the countryside outside of Kemi in the northern parts of the country. He begun his military career by volunteering as a rifleman in the Civil War of 1918, where he advanced to squad leader and fought in both his home region as well as in Karelia. Following the end of the war, he joined the unsuccessful Olonets Expedition serving in different battalion and regimental logistics functions, before he returned following the failure of the attempt to extend Finnish rule into Eastern Karelia. It wouldn’t however be the last time he visited the forests of Karelia. Back in Finland, he passed reserve officer training in 1921, and joined the Border Guards two years later. Steadily rising through the ranks, he was swiftly appointed battalion commander once the Winter War started and sent to the Olonets Ishmuts. He ended the war as the commander of Osasto Karpalo, part of the 13. Division, and was wounded twice during the fighting in January and February.
The interim peace saw Aho return to the Border Guards where he worked a number of different staff positions and a short stint as a commander of the Border Guard training unit, before he was transferred to the Defence Forces in 1941. When hostilities broke out, he served as the head of operations in the divisional staff of 11. Division, but quickly received command of infantry regiment JR 50, the unit which was to be most closely associated with him.
JR 50 would have an eventful war, and Aho would lead it throughout. Once the offensive east started, the regiment quickly became known for it’s speed and stamina. 19 August the foot infantry unit broke through the enemy positions at Ignoila, despite the Soviet’s having been supported by tanks and direct firing guns, Aho having personally led the offensive from the front of the unit. Having broken through, he pushed onward “skilfully and with ruthless speed”, to use the words of the citation of his first Mannerheim Cross, and captured the strategically important, and hence heavily defended, railway and road bridges over Suojoki before the enemy managed to blow them. Not stopping, he continued in the front, twice having to use his personal light machine gun (yes, that apparently was a thing in JR 50) to chase away enemies from their positions before capturing Suvilahti on the 21 of August. Having appeared in the flank and rear of the enemy position at Näätäjoki, these were forced to retreat with the Finnish forces causing significant losses to the escaping units.
Four days later JR 50 was on the move again, Aho’s regiment first encircling and then crushing the enemy positions at Kurmoila so swiftly that they after this managed to capture the prepared Soviet positions on the hilly Essoila isthmus before they had a chance to man these. This was followed by another short stop, before the unit in early September marched through the forests and swamps around Teru, charged into the position protecting the enemy’s southern flank, broke these, and continued with speed to capture another strategic bridge over Suojujoki before the enemy managed to blow it. He again personally led the first two platoons to cross over. In the end, the successful campaign of JR 50 played a key role in paving the way for the Finnish occupation of Petrozavodsk. This had not gone unnoticed, and Aho was promoted to lieutenant-colonel in October and received his first Mannerheim Cross in March the following year, becoming knight number 52.
The next few years saw limited movements along the front, and JR 50 spent much of the time along the Svir River. When the Soviet summer offensive of 1944 started steamrolling the Finnish positions on the Karelian Isthmus, JR 50 was sent south and met the enemy juggernaut at Portinhoikka during the battle of Tali-Ihantala. Here Aho was wounded the third time, and the regiment suffered devastating losses during the fighting 28 and 29 June. It was then pulled back and placed in reserve for just over a month, before it again was sent to the front in early August. Aho returned to again take command of his regiment on the first day of September, just three days before the armistice. The end of the Continuation War did not spell the end of fighting for the regiment, however.
As part of the armistice agreement, Finland was to ensure that the Germans left Finnish territory. The German’s weren’t about to go nicely though, and the Lapland War was the result. On 5 October the regiment landed in Röyttä, the outer port of Tornio, just a short distance from Aho’s childhood home. The fighting had already been going for a few days, and the Finnish forces were hard-pressed to defend themselves against the German counteroffensives. The pendulum was about to swing, however, as more and more Finnish forces arrived. And once again, JR 50 received the order to go on the offensive.
The counteroffensive by JR 50 is probably the second most well-known episode of the battle for Tornio (following the unfortunate episode with the alcohol depot in Little-Berlin). The regiment left much of it’s heavy equipment in Röyttä and marched into swamps and forests through a gap in the front to flank the main German force consisting of three battalions, and encircled them against the River Tornio. While post-war research has shown that significant parts of the encircled did manage to break out, the motti was a significant success and would play an important role in the political games surrounding the Lappland War. Just eight days after the last encircled Germans surrendered, both Aho and his superior major general Aaro Pajari received what in both cases was their second Mannerheim Crosses.
While it can be argued that political considerations weighed more heavily than usual in the decision to hand Aho his second Mannerheim Cross, there is little doubt that he had done more than his share in ensuring Finland’s independence through his participation in four wars. After the war, he spent six weeks arrested when the plans to hide weapons caches in anticipation of a Soviet invasion. Following a few more years in uniform, he retired from active service in 1949.
At this point, he moved to Kokkola and worked at the local stevedoring company until his retirement, also owning a share in it. Today, a commemorative plaque of the double-knight was unveiled at the offices of Rauanheimo, the company still continuing the same line of trade under the original name in the port of Kokkola. Considering his long and remarkable career, it does feel overdue to see him memorialised in his final home town.
As it happens, my grandmother worked at Rauanheimo during Aho’s final years in the company. She recalled that he was ever the gentleman, each morning making a point out of stopping at every desk and wishing everyone a good morning. The personality that had made him rank amongst Finland’s most decorated soldiers did shine through as well. Once the chain smoker occupying the desk opposite of Aho had left the room for a short break when the remnants in the ashtray set fire to the paperwork he had left on the desk. Aho calmly watched flames, until the smoker came rushing back and started putting out the flames, shouting at Aho why he didn’t do something? Aho, without moving from behind his desk, just answered “It isn’t my fire,” and continued to calmly watch the firefighting efforts. For someone who had faced hostile fire in five wars, some scorched paperwork didn’t qualify as a crisis.