The Junkers of Aakenustunturi

Today Ylläs is known as one of the larger tourist destinations in Northern Finland. The twin villages of Äkäslompolo and Ylläsjärvi play host to a number of visitors coming there to ski cross-country and alpine in winter, and to hike, mountainbike, and pick cloudberries in the summer. Those wanting to experience the wilderness usually strikes out to the northeast, where the landscape is dominated by the seven fells that have become the hallmark of the region. Furthest away is the mighty Aakenustunturi. While not among the highest, it still reaches well above the treeline, and stretches in a long horseshoe-shaped pattern with three distinct peaks – Vareslaki (north), Moloslaki (east), and Totovaara (south). In the summer hiking routes starting from the nearby Ylläs-Kittilä road makes ascents relatively easy provided you have the proper footwear, while a more demanding alternative is to hike or ski from Äkäslompolo. This blog usually doesn’t deal with outdoors life, but studying the maps you might notice the somewhat unusual name Lentokonejänkkä (Fi. the aircraft fen) for a small marsh just below Moloslaki.

In the early days of 1944 the region was very different. Neither Äkäslompolo nor Ylläs had a road connection (which was a blessing in disguise as the villages were spared destruction during the German retreat the following fall). And on the first of February that year, Aakenustunturi would see one of the many small tragedies that the war was full of.

The remains of ‘P4+CH’. Note the radiator belonging to a Bf 110 in the foreground, part of the fateful cargo. Source: Own picture

Germany was handling the northernmost part of the Finnish frontline, leading to a supply line stretching over the Baltic Sea and through Finland up to the Norwegian coastline and the Barents Sea. The main Finnish city in the region, Rovaniemi, became a logistics hub with its own transport aircraft unit. This was the Transportstaffel/Fliegerführer Nord (Ost) sorting directly under Luftflotte 5, and sporting the unwieldy abbreviation Tr.St.Fl.Fü.Nord (Ost). Further to the east and close to the frontline in White Sea Karelia (Fi. Vienan Karjala, Ru. Belomorskaja Kareliya), the airfield of Pontsalenjoki was found. Little more than a clearing in the forest, the field spent the war seeing small detachments of fighters, ground support, and reconnaissance aircraft rotate in and out according to need. It was from here that Junker Ju 52/3m ‘P4+CH’ from Tr.St.Fl.Fü.Nord (Ost) took off loaded with a cargo that included spares for Messerschmitt Bf 110 heavy fighters and mail. The crew of four was made up of oberfeldwebel Kurt Rochna (pilot), unteroffizier Karl Meyer (radio), unteroffizier Stephan Kulin (mechanic), and unteroffizier Willi Brade (rear-gunner), and the plane set course towards Rovaniemi. Someone from the crew also brought along a dog.

A Spanish-built Junker Ju 52 (locally designated CASA 352) warbird showing how the typical ‘Tante Ju’ looked like above the Eastern Front during WWII. Note the gunner’s position towards the rear of the aircraft. Source: Mike Freer – Touchdown-aviation via Wikimedia Commons

We don’t know at what point the crew realised that something was wrong, but the weather over western Lapland was poor that day, and what should have been a routine 250 km trip ended on the eastern slopes of Aakenustunturi 140 km north of their intended destination. It is possible that Ofw. Rochna made a desperate attempt to ditch the aircraft having run out of fuel and options. The large open wetlands west of the fell would have been a better option in that case, but with poor weather and most likely little to no daylight he might have misjudged the white silhouette of the fell until it was too late to change their course of action. In any case the aircraft came to a stop in the snow on the eastern slopes of Moloslaki relatively intact, with bent propellers and the fixed undercarriage torn away. However, the force of the crash was still hard enough that part of the cargo broke loose and came forward, crashing through the thin cockpit wall and instantly killing everyone except Uffz. Brade who was seated further back in the aircraft.

The story about what happened next is a mixture of deduction by those that eventually found the wreck, rumours, and local legends with a hint of horror stories, making it difficult to piece together for certain what actually happened. What seems to clear is that Brade was seriously injured, and could not leave the wreck. In February the snow can easily be more than a meter deep, and trekking through the wilderness without proper equipment is difficult even for a fit and healthy individual. It is also unclear if he knew where the aircraft had crashed. Brade did have a signal gun and during the night he fired an unknown number of flares. The crash location was above the treeline, and with both the village of Kittilä and, crucially, the German air observation post at Levi within 20 km one would be forgiven to think that he might have had some luck with his distress signals. That was however not to be the case. Reportedly some locals in Kittilä saw the signals, but are said to have chalked the lights down to stormy weather coming in over the fell. In any case no one felt the need to report the observation onward to the authorities.

A piece of the wreck still showing traces of the paint layers despite eight decades of the sun and snow having taken their toll. Source: Own picture

At Levi the situation was none the better, and despite there being a clear line of sight between the two fells none of the signals were observed. According to the most likely explanation the air observation post was simply unmanned due to the poor weather convincing the crew there that no air traffic would take place. In the more grim version told by the locals, the soldiers had started partying, and in the alcohol-fuelled excitement they hadn’t noticed the signals. According to the same tale, they had all been executed afterwards.

In any case, Brade was out of luck, and would not leave the wreck alive. The German search effort was hampered by the poor weather, and failed to locate the Junkers. The next confirmed information is that a Finnish anti-partisan unit based in Kittilä encountered the wreck by chance when out on a trip in April the same year. According to the local horror stories, Brade would have struggled for days, keeping a diary written in his own blood, until eventually succumbing to a combination of his injuries and the harsh conditions. Local reindeer herders would have found the wreck, but as there was a sizeable amount of cash in it they made off with the money and kept their mouths shut. However, staff sergeant Armas Salovirta, second in command of the Finnish company stationed in Kittilä and leader of the group that found the wreck, wrote about the event in the late 80’s to try and kill some of the more spectacular rumours.

Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-382-0211-22, Flugzeug Messerschmitt Me 110.jpg
A Bf 110 at the Western Front. Note the underwing radiator just outside of the engine. Source: Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia Commons

According to him, the unit was out as part of a physical education drive when they from far away spotted a dark spot on the eastern slope of the fell. Having nothing better to do, they decided to head over there to check what it was. Seeing it was an aircraft, they approached and peered into the rear compartment through one of the intact windows. There they saw Brade’s body, and a “hairy thing” that they figured was a wolverine. Equipped with an axe, Salovirta then opened the door to the cargo space, and was greeted by a rather aggressive long-haired puppy. The dog was however quickly won over by a piece of bread. After this, Salovirta and his men checked the cockpit and found two mutilated bodies described as the pilot and co-pilot crushed by the crates of aircraft spares. Apparently they did not notice the body of the fourth crew member, probably belonging to the radio operator Uffz. Meyer and seated immediately behind the cockpit. It is likely that at this point he was buried under the same crates that had killed Rochna and Kulin.

Having not expected to find an aircraft wreck, the patrol was poorly equipped to retrieve anything larger than what went into their backpacks. As such, the mail and puppy was packed into their bags, together with a pair of meal packages (one of which was opened and eaten on the return trip). The fact that these were still left in the aircraft shows that Brade most likely didn’t have time to starve before a combination of his injuries and the cold weather got the better of him. Salovirta noted that he indeed seemed to have survived for several days, but denied there being any kind of diary markings (in blood or otherwise) at the crash site. After Brade’s death, the dog had started to eat him, which explained how it had survived alone for over two months. Back in Kittilä the findings were reported up the Finnish chain of command, and the message about the lost aircraft finally reached the Germans. The thankful Germans gifted the puppy to Salovirta, who named it Junkers after the aircraft. Whether the aircraft had been visited before Salovirta’s patrol will likely remain a mystery, but the presence of the dog inside the wreck would indicate that the story of the herders is a myth.

About a week after the wreck had been located a group of German mountain troops, probably either of the 2.Gebirgs-Division or 6. SS-Gebirgs-Division “Nord”, arrived in Kittilä and requested to be shown the wreck. Salovirta accompanied them to the crash site, but the skiers didn’t do much else than observe the location. A short while later German troops came to recover the bodies together with some radio and navigational equipment, before they blew the aircraft to bits.

The trail is well marked, but the trailhead isn’t one you stumble upon by accident. Source: Own picture

Thus ended the sad story of ‘P4+CH’ (WNr. 5049) and its crew. Despite the destruction wrought by the German charges, the wreck is one of the few WWII crash sites in Finland where one can still find sizeable aircraft remains to this day. In the summer, the wreck is a short hike from the Totovaara parking spot, with signs helpfully showing the way towards the “Junkers”. On older maps you will encounter a goahti named Lentokonekota (Fi. the aircraft goahti), but it was burned down by the authorities in 2016 due to it being in poor shape. Continuing onwards past the spot of the former goahti you will encounter the wreck, well visible strewn across the trail. As everything not bolted down has a tendency to wander down the slopes with the melting snow in springtime, I would expect the original crash site to have been higher up on the fell. The hike is approximately 10 km to the wreck and back, but for a truly spectacular walk I would recommend doing the whole Moloslaenkierros which continues onward to the stunning ravine Valokuru, where the trail turns up the fell, before heading back along the ridgeline, passing over the peak Moloslaki before descending back towards the parking spot at the Totovaaran pirtti cabin. From the trail it is possible to see Levi to the north-east, from where Brade’s countrymen failed to spot his flares. Also visible to the east is Kittilä airport built in the late 70’s.

Levi in the distance seen from a spot on Aakenustunturi close to the crash site. Source: Own picture

Remember if you do visit the spot to only take pictures and only leave footprints to ensure that the site remain intact for future. It is also prudent to remember that this is the site where the lives of four young men ended in a foreign land almost eighty years ago. The nature of the war means that their fate largely became just another number in the statistics, but if you find yourself standing at the site of their demise, I ask you to take a moment to remember them.

This retelling is mainly based on Hannu Valtonen’s book “Hylkyretkiä Pohjolaan“, with some additional details added from other sources.

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