Knight no. 52 – No Bridges Burning

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.

JR. 50:n komentaja majuri Aho neuvottelee saksalaisten upseerien kanssa.
Then-major Aho (second from right closest to the camera) discussing with some German officers in Suvilahti in August 1941. Source: SA-Kuva

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.

JR. 50 etenee kahlaten vetelällä suolla n. 15km.
Soldiers of JR 50 marching 15 km through the swamps as the operations near Teru commences in the first days of September 1941. Source: SA-kuva

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.

Everstiluutnantti Aho ja luutnantti Toivonen (JR 50) ovat saaneet rautaristin.
Aho’s achievments weren’t just noticed by the Finnish command. Here he, together with lt Toivonen, has received the German Iron Cross in Kuuttilahti in 1942. Two years later Aho would earn his last victories fighting his former brothers in arms. Source: SA-Kuva

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.

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Heavy equipment left behind by the fleeing Germans in the motti north of Tornio. All surviving equipment was sent to the Soviet Union in accordance with the armistice treaty. Source: SA-Kuva

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.

Mayor Mattila unveiled the commemorative plaque. Source: own picture

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.

The English Grave

In Finland (and Sweden) All Saint’s Day is celebrated on the first Saturday in November each year. While sharing its roots with Halloween, it is a markedly different holiday, still retaining its Christian importance and celebrated mainly by remembering the deceased by lighting candles at the graves of relatives. One of the graves in Kokkola, however, has a very different story.

When the (first) Crimean War broke out in 1854, Finland was a Grand Duchy in the Russian Empire. As such, a joint British-French squadron was quickly sent to the Baltic Sea to open up a second front by conducting raiding. Receiving basing rights from neutral Sweden, they quickly overran the Russian fortifications in Åland (giving the war its Finnish name: the ‘Åland War’), before starting to methodically raid Finnish ports. The weak defenses made it possible for the raiders to simply send detachments ashore and inform the local population that their merchant ships would be sunk and their stores burnt, after which this was carried out.

While this kind of warfighting certainly was fit for a gentleman and resulted in very little bloodshed, it did cause significant economic damages to the coastal communities hit, many of which relied heavily on foreign trade using ships owned and crewed by local merchants.

In Kokkola, the squadron was first sighted when it passed by in the early summer of 1854. The ships were heading north, and stayed well clear of the rocky shores of the city. News from the northern parts of Ostrobothnia soon confirmed that the Englishmen were making short work of any port they entered, and that they had turned around and were heading south, slowly pillaging their way home again.

The leading merchant families of the city did not look happily upon the prospects of having the port, including considerable stocks of tar, burnt. It also seems like a feeling of being treated unjustly had spread throughout the town. Much of the trade from Kokkola was with English ports, and many ships from the town had been interned with their crews being held in poor conditions in the UK. This was hard for the local inhabitants to accept, that their sons, fathers, and husbands were being held as prisoners of war by their trading partners, due to some unrelated quarrel in the Black Sea!

Regardless of the exact reasoning, the citizens of Kokkola decided to fight back, and sent a message to the Russian authorities that they were forming a militia, and now requested support from the Russian army. The Russian forces in the area were weak and spread out, but a small number of soldiers and a few light guns were sent to Kokkola.

On the 7 June, HMS Odin and HMS Vulture were again sighted outside of the city. The large vessels held considerable firepower compared to what the defenders could muster, but due to the cluttered archipelago, they were unable to find the sea lane leading into the port, meaning they had to be anchored outside of firing range. Instead, a number of launches were sent in, the first of which carried a delegation under parliamentary flag, which came ashore with the usual set of demands. They were greeted by the city mayor and the leading merchant, who refused to accept the British terms. The officers then got back to their boat, and everyone prepared for battle.

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The captured launch today in the English Park in Kokkola. Locally it is often said to be the only Royal Navy vessel still in ‘enemy’ hands, a notion that is false. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Jukka Kolppanen
The skirmish which followed was decidedly one-sided. The Finns had built a fake wall between some of the warehouses at the waterfront, and when the British vessels came close enough, this fell down and a hail of gunfire met the approaching boats. Out in the open, the British soldiers started to suffer losses, and eventually had to pull back before reaching shore. While retreating, one of the vessels got stuck on a rock, and was forced to surrender to the Finnish forces. The sole loss on the Finnish-Russian side was a dead horse and some material damage. It is my understanding that the British casualties came from both the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines. Some were on the boats retrieved by the steam frigates, and at least one of the POW’s later died in captivity. But some found their final resting place in Kokkola.

Next to one of the rear gates in the local cemetery today a tall stone can be found. Local stories tell that the British Admiralty still pay a small annual sum for the upkeep of the grave, though I am not certain if that claim would survive a closer inspection. The stone feature a long text in golden letters, written in Swedish, with the last part in verse.

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Here rests nine of the Englishmen fallen in battle at Halkokari and Beckbruket on the 7 June 1854. Namely

NATHANAEL MORPHY, Officer

ROBERT THUELL, WILLIAM COLLINS

GEORGE WILSON, WILLIAM WEDGE

JAMES WESTAKE, WALTER CRUB

ROBERT RUNDELL, JAMES HIGGINS

Pray for the fallen! Humans they were

Friend or foe, is not asked here

Away from the battle and alarm they went

A foreign land carved them a memorial