It may surprise modern admirers of Finland that the Nordic country did not fight against the Axis during World War II. But their alignment with Hitler wasn’t for territory, ideology, or the persecution of certain ethnicities.
The Finns had one reason for siding with Germany: killing Russians.
And as the war dragged on and the eventual Soviet advance into the Baltics took its toll, the Finns developed a daring strategy of shadowing Russian bombers that had a devastating effect on Moscow’s ability to swallow its western neighbor.
In 1939, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact – the nonaggression agreement between the Nazis and the Soviet Union – contained a secret clause that put Finland in the Soviet sphere of influence. Shortly after, the USSR started negotiating for critical pieces of Finnish territory. A month later, the Russians shelled its own village to make it look like the Finns escalated the conflict.
The Russians then invaded Finland, sparking the so-called “Winter War.”
While the Finns fought the Red Army with tenacity, it was simply too much for the small country. When Russian Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov demanded huge concessions of land and surrender to the exhausted Finnish Army, they had to capitulate.
Finland didn’t stop during the interim peace from March 1940 to June 1941. The Nazis knew what was coming and sent troops to Finland to help them rearm and prepare. When Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of Russia, the Finns moved with German forces. Stalin counterattacked with air raids on Finnish cities, but the Finns were on the offensive.
After the German defeat at Stalingrad, Finland was rebuffed by the Red Army and pushed back to its 1940 positions. In February 1944, the Russians launched an air raid against Helsinki, the most heavily defended capital at the time (which is saying a lot).
In three waves, Russian bombing runs dropped 20,000 explosives on the capital. Only 3 percent of those actually hit the city. Finland had no night fighters and couldn’t intercept the bombers, even though they knew the Russians were coming.
The Finns had four squadrons of bombers with older, experienced pilots. Finland’s intelligence knew where the Russian bombers were flying from, their radio communication, how Red Army pilots operated, and all their tactics.
With that intel, the Finnish Air Forces designed a daring scheme.
In February 1944, Finnish aircraft covertly slipped into Russian bomber formations flying under blackout conditions over the Gulf of Finland. The Finns had very different planes than the Russians, but even when the Russians turned on their navigation lights when they entered friendly airspace, the Finns just played along.
No one noticed.
A Finnish Air Force Dornier DO-17 Bomber from the era. Finland fielded 5 of these during WWII.
One by one, the returning Soviet bombers landed at Levashovo airfield. As the last squadron – the Finns – approached, they opened their bomb bays instead of their landing gear and dropped 80 bombs on the unsuspecting Russians.
The attack was such a success that the tactic was repeated on subsequent Soviet bombing runs. Finland’s pilots joined returning Russian formations and right before landing, hit the airfield with everything they could. For months, these attacks decimated the Russian airfields along the Finnish border and night raids slowly began to dwindle as the tactic took its toll.
While the RAF was known to attempt this tactic with single fighters, no one in World War II ever attempted to join enemy bomber formations in such numbers or with such access as Finland had against the Soviet Union.