The Last Knight

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

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.

Tuomas Gerdt during the war. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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.

Infantry from JR 28 in combat somewhere in the area of Huhti-Saarijrävi, early September 1941. Source: SA-Kuva

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.

The Pacific Narrative

After the latest round of G7 talks, the leaders of the countries in this exclusive club declared that lifting the sanctions imposed upon Russia won’t happen unless Russia exits Ukraine, and that they are ready “to strengthen sanctions if the situation makes that necessary” [Guardian].

Sanctions are West’s preferred weapon to combat an increasingly aggressive Russia, while making sure that they won’t do anything that could escalate the situation into all-out war. Thus, we should all be able to sleep soundly in our beds, with the exception of the Ukrainians (and possibly Moldavians), right?

The war in the Pacific is far less known than it deserves to be here in the Northern Europe, and the narrative usually starts with a sudden Japanese strike on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor. Seldom is the Japanese reasoning behind why they decided to launch an all-out war with a global power developed. In light of recent development in Europe, I think a short recap of the events involving Japan stretching a further ten years back is in order1.

In 1931 a large number of incidents of various severities took place in China (which was rapidly disintegrating in what we today would call a failed state), culminating in what was effectively a Japanese occupation of Manchuria. Japan then declared Manchuria independent as the puppet state of Manchukuo.

Japan entered into the Anti-Comintern Pact in 1936, the fear of communism being one of the main reasons why Japan ventured into China to begin with. Another step towards more hostile relations with the west was the Japanese withdrawal from naval limitation treaties in the same year, and in particular the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, which many in Japan had felt was a “humiliation” by the USA and the United Kingdom, given that it only allowed Japan a ratio of 3:5 in capital ships and tonnage compared to the British Royal Navy and the US Navy (it should be noted though that both Italy and France had accepted a yet smaller ratio of capital ships of 1.75:5 compared to the RN and USN).

With Japanese-US relations in a slow but steady decline, the accidental (?) bombing of the US gunboat USS Panay in 1937 only made things worse. The same year the Japanese army had launched a full-scale invasion into China, and the US administration was not happy about it. For their part, the Japanese did not appreciate western aid to Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang.

Things then took another turn for the worse in 1938 when Japan concluded the occupation of Eastern China, and followed it up by declaring a “New Order in East Asia” (東亜新秩序 Tōa Shin Chitsujo). The major western powers of the day, USA, the United Kingdom, and France, all declared their opposition to this new order. In response to the aggressive Japanese foreign politics in general and towards China in particular, the US withdrew from a number of bilateral US-Japanese trade agreements in the summer of 1939. This came as a surprise and a serious bow for Japan, which with limited amounts of raw materials was reliant on foreign trade for its prosperity.

Still, this did not deter the Japanese, as events in Europe forced Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands to focus their attention closer to home. Thus, in June 1940, the Japanese Foreign Minister Arita declared the need for a “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” (大東亞共榮圏 Dai-tō-a Kyōeiken), and then Japan moved to implement it by invading French Indochina the same autumn in what was one of the least bloody wars South East Asia would experience during the 20th century.

Now things started to escalate quickly. In July 1941 USA declared an embargo on exports of scrap metal and oil, which lead to vocal Japanese protests. Unrelenting, Washington moved on, freezing Japanese assets in the country. A series of more or less sincere negotiations followed, in which Washington demanded that Japan withdraw from conquered territories, while the Japanese standpoint was that for an agreement to be reached, USA needed to “show understanding” regarding the national needs of Japan, and “see the realities” of the region such as they were. In November, USA officially demanded that Japan withdraw to the borders prior to the invasion of Manchuria ten years earlier (at least that was the Japanese interpretation, whether or not Washington meant Manchukuo to be included is debatable). Giving up ten years of land grabs was not on the Japanese agenda, and by that time a large force from the Imperial Japanese Navy had already set sail for Hawaii.

1The following account is largely based upon Albert Axell & Hideaki Kase: “Kamikaze – Japan’s Suicide Gods”, which is a book I’d not recommend in itself. It seems to be largely written to defend Japanese behaviour prior to and during the war in general and Kamikaze-tactics in particular, something it tries to do by e.g. comparing Kamikaze pilots with British CAM-pilots. Still, despite these less than impressive arguments, the book can provide some valuable insights.

Spitfire vs. Messerschmitt Bf 109

And now for some out-of-schedule aviation geekiness:

Yesterday I encoutnered an off-hand comment about whether the Spitfire or the Messerschmitt (understood to be the Bf 109) was the superior fighter. This is a matter of debate that arises any time aircraft aficionados gather, but it’s Saturday, and I’m slightly bored, so I feel for writing something lighter.

The aircraft that came to be the Supermarine Spitfire was the brainchild of R. J. Mitchell, a talented engineer that had designed some of the most iconic racing seaplanes of the interwar years. Willy Messerschmitt’s bird had a rather different background, with Messerschmitt learning the trade by designing sailplanes. Much (too much) has been made of these different pedigrees, and how they shaped the fighters that came to be. Still, both designs had much in common, being powered by large liquid-cooled V-12 piston engines, relying on all-metal monocoque structures, and having a single low-slung set of wings. In fact, the Spitfire and the Bf 109 were amongst the first mature fighters to discard the biplane design in favor of the single low-mounted wing that has since dominated the world of fighter aircraft.

Spitfire Mk I being rearmed during the height of the Battle of Britain. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The engines of the aircrafts deserve a closer study, as these played an integral part in the development of both series. The Messerschmitt prototype flew with a rather unlikely powersource, namely a British-made Rolls-Royce Kestrel. In the early pre-war versions of the Bf 109 this was then replaced with a Jumo 210 V-12 engine (Jumo standing for Junkers Motoren), but by the time the war broke out the E-version of the Bf 109 had introduced the excellent Daimler-Benz DB 601. By mid-42 a further upgraded version of the DB 600-series had been launched in the form of the DB 605. This would then power the two final versions of the Bf 109, namely the Bf 109G ‘Gustav’ and the Bf 109K ‘Kurfürst’.

The Bf 109E ‘Emil’ of Battle of Britain-fame, here in Swiss colours. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Sandstein

Compared to the Bf 109, the Spitfire had a more straightforward development, with the engine forever associated with the aircraft being the Rolls-Royce Merlin. This powered the prototype (as well as the early Spitfire Mk I in the Battle of Britain), and in refined form it powered the Mk VIII that roamed the skies of Burma in 1945. In parallel, a number of late-war Spitfire variants were also powered by the markedly bigger Rolls-Royce Griffon.

It is easy to overlook exactly how huge these improvements were. The Spitfire Mk I that went to war in 1939 featured a Merlin II, giving it 775 kW of power for a top speed of 580 km/h. The aircraft was armed with eight light machine guns in the form of the 0.303 Browning (7,7 mm). Only four years later, the Merlin 60-series (61, 63 and 66) gave Spitfires of the marks VIII, IX and XVI some 1280 kW of power, for a top speed in excess of 650 km/h. The armament consisted of two 20 mm cannons backed up by two heavy .50 calibre machine guns (12,7 mm), and for ground attack up to 450 kg of bombs could be carried. This remarkable increase in power and speed was taken even further by the late- and post-war Griffon-engined versions, in which the final version of the Spitfire, a carrier-based version named Seafire F.Mk 47 mounted a 1752 kW Rolls-Royce Griffon 88 driving a contra-rotating prop, propelling the aircraft to a top-speed of almost 730 km/h! In the meantime, the Bf 109 had progressed from the pre-war Bf 109A ‘Anton’ with its 493 kW Jumo 210D to the Bf 109K-4 ‘Kurfürst’ featuring a Daimler-Benz DB 605DC with a boosted output of 1470 kW.

The sleek lines of the Griffon -powered Seafire F.Mk XVII, one of the last variants of Mitchell’s classic fighter. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Adrian Pingstone

Herein lays the true remarkability of the aircrafts, the fact that they could take on ever larger amounts of power, and still maintain their fighting capability. Extremely few front-line aircraft stayed in production throughout the Second World War, and both the Spitfire and the Bf 109 belong to this exclusive club.

A classic picture of a Bf 109G-2 ‘Gustav’ in Finnish service. Source: Wikimedia Commons/SA-kuva

This puts the question of greatness into perspective. Both planes evolved continuously during their long careers, and any attempt at an answer will have to include a reference to the timeframe in question. There is no doubt that the post-war Griffon-powered Spitfires in the form of the land-based F.Mk. 24 and the carrier-based F.Mk 47 were the all-out finest fighters, as the development of the Messerschmitt had (almost) ended by that time. During the late-war years the Spitfire also held the edge, with the Mk IX being a finer plane than the Bf 109G/K, which were starting to show signs of the airframe not being able to absorb the vast increases in power while maintaining the fine handling in the same way the Spitfire could. During the early war years, the question is harder to answer. The Bf 109F ‘Fredrich’ probably held a slight edge over contemporary Spitfires when it came out, especially over the North African desert, were the Messerschmitt’s dust covers hampered its performance less than the corresponding items on the Spitfire. During the battle of Britain, it is impossible to pick one over the other. The Bf 109E had heavier armament, and a slightly higher top speed, but the thin wing discouraged pilots from taking the aircraft ‘to the limit’ in dogfights, as overstressing the wings could have fatal consequences. In capable hands, both aircraft could more than hold their own against any aerial adversaries.

Still, the final word would go to the Messerschmitt, and in a very unlikely way.

After the war, the Czechoslovak aircraft industry had to find a way to supply the country’s reborn air force with fighters. As the Bf 109G had been produced in the country during the German occupation, it was a natural choice. The ‘new’ fighter was named Avia S-99, but after only a minor batch had been delivered, a warehouse fire destroyed the stored stocks of DB 605 engines. A new engine had to be found if production was to continue. This was solved when it was decided to mate the Jumo 211F engine and propeller used by the Heinkel He 111 to the airframe of the Bf 109G, a decision based more on availability than any finer points of engineering.

The resulting aircraft, dubbed the Avia S-199, was probably the worst version of the whole Bf 109-family to reach production. The large paddle-bladed propeller caused a huge amount of torque, making the aircraft extremely difficult to handle on take-off and landing. The layout of the Jumo-engine also meant that the fearsome 30 mm cannon that had been firing through the propeller hub on the Bf 109 G/K had to be discarded. All in all, it would most probably have slipped off into the pages of aviation history largely unnoticed, if not for developments in the middle east.

An Israeli S-199 showing its huge propeller and redesigned engine cowl. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Upon Israel’s declaration of independence in May 1948, the country faced a massive attack from all sides by neighboring Arab states. One of the major problems was that the young state lacked any kind of combat aircraft, and due to an arms embargo, acquiring them proved difficult. Czechoslovakia was eager for any influx of dollars it could find, and was willing to part with a number of S-199’s. The aircrafts enjoyed a brief but eventful career in Israeli service, sporting an extremely high accident rate, but also scoring the first kills of the new air force when Mordechai “Modi” Alon, squadron commander of the sole Israeli fighter unit at that time, managed to shoot down two converted C-47 transport planes that were bombing Tel Aviv (Alon would later die in a non-combat accident with the S-199). However, of the (circa) seven kills attributed to the Avia in Israeli hands, at least one is confirmed as being a Royal Egyptian Air Force Spitfire. In a weird twist of irony, the Messerschmitt won the last of countless of duels. And it did this flown by a Jewish pilot, who had shot down two Bf 109’s while flying for the US Army Air Force during the Second World War.


There was yet another chapter in the story of the Bf 109. During the latter part of the war, Spain had secured license production rights of the Bf 109G from Germany, but they too found that the DB 605 where not available. In this case, the Germans desperately needed all available engines for themselves. For their homebuilt HA-1109 they therefore used French-made Hispano-Suiza 12Z, but soon a need for more power (and less torque) was evident. Although the plane was outdated as a fighter by this time, the Spanish Air Force decided that an improved version could be useful in counter-insurgency operations in their North African colonies. Thus was born the final version of the Bf 109, the dedicated ground-attack HA-1112-M1L “Buchon” of 1954-vintage, fitted with a, you guessed it, Rolls-Royce Merlin engine.