Finnish Air Force – Suomen Ilmavoimat

Early Years

The Ilmailuvoimat, Finland’s air force, is one of the oldest official independent aviation forces in the world. During the revolution in 1917, the Finns saw a chance to break away from the Russian empire and become an independent country. Their war of independence began in December 1917 under General Gustaf Mannerheim. In February 1918, the first of two donated aircraft arrived to assist Finland’s White Army. The first aircraft was a Nordiska Aviatik-built Albatros two-seater. It arrived in Kokkola from Sweden on 25 February 1918. The second donated aircraft, a Thulin D, came from Count Eric Von Rosen, a Swedish explorer. His donation, flown by Lieutenant Nils Kindberg, arrived on 4 March 1918. Rosen had painted a blue swastika, his personal good-luck symbol, on the fuselage of the plane. This blue swastika became the Ilmailuvoimat’s official insignia, an unfortunate resemblance to Nazi Germany’s black swastika. By 10 March 1918, the Ilmailuvoimat was officially formed and given its own commander.

Shortly thereafter, the Ilmailuvoimat acquired a rather motley collection of aircraft, but enough to complete two flying divisions. These aircraft were Thulin Ds, Nodiska-built Albatros B. Is and C. IIIs, several captured Russian Nieuport 10 and 23s, as well as Shchetinin M5, M9, M15, and M16 hydroplanes-a total of 47 aircraft of 19 different types. During World War I, the aircraft were used for reconnaissance and limited bomb-dropping. Recruits went to Germany for training until June 1919, when a French military mission arrived with 12 pilots under the command of Major Raoul Etienne to initiate training at home.

The Finns spent 20 million Swiss francs to purchase 20 Breguet 14 B-2 reconnaissance planes and 12 Georges Levy hydroplanes, but they soon recognized the need for an indigenous aircraft factory. In 1920, the same year as the peace treaty with Russia, the Ilmailuvoimien Lentokonetehdas (Aviation Force Aircraft Factory) was created and concentrated on Hansa Brandenburg W 33 monoplane floatplanes. Floatplanes and hydroplanes predominated during the years between the wars, upon the advice of a British mission that arrived in 1924. Early in the 1920s, the Ilmailuvoimat was also tasked with aerial photographic survey duties, a mission it carries out today.

Towards War

Finland’s military commanders realised during the 1930`s that the deteriorating situation in Europe was putting a lasting peace in jeopardy and so it was necessary to draw up a series of arms purchasing plans in precaution against war. Aircraft used by the Finnish Air Force during its first few years of existence were of a wide variety and were unsuitable for joint operations.

After many years a basic 5-year plan was drawn up in 1937 to include 11 flying squadrons and 4 ground liaison squadrons totalling 52 aircraft. 1 sea liaison squadron with 13 aircraft, 3 long range squadrons totalling 27 aircraft and 3 fighter squadrons with 81 aircraft. Insufficient funds meant that even as late as the autumn of 1939 very few units had been equipped with new aircraft. Worst of were the fighter squadrons where one unit was fully equipped and the other two were only partially equipped.

After the fall of Poland the Soviet Union started to better its positions in the Baltic direction. Russia had already occupied half of Poland in accordance to a secret pact with Germany. Now the three Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania soon found themselves under Soviet control. By mid-October Soviet troops and part of the Baltic Red Banner Fleet had moved to the Southern coast of the Gulf of Finland. Finland’s military position with respect to the Soviet Union had taken severe setback.

On October 5th the Soviet Union proposed negotiations to the Finnish Government on questions relating to the defence of Leningrad. It was put to the Finns that the border be moved back a considerable distance towards the west on the Karelian Isthmus, four outlying island in the Gulf of Finland be surrendered and the Hanko Peninsula in Finland’s south western tip be leased to the Soviets. All this in exchange for territorial concessions offered in Petchenga and Eastern Karelia.

The negotiations held between the two countries proved fruitless and were discontinued on November 28th. The Soviet Union annulled the non-aggression pact signed between the two countries in 1932. Two days later on the 30th November 1939 the Soviet Union invaded. The Winter War was about to begin.

The Finnish Forces centred along the border with the Soviet Union was made up of three Army Corps stationed between the Gulf of Finland and Ilomantsi, while the area from Ilomantsi to the Arctic Ocean was covered only by small separate detachments. The armed forces were commanded by Marshall Mannerheim.

The Air Defence, commanded by Major General J F Lundqvist, included the Air Force together with the Anti-aircraft and the Air SurvellanceTroops. At the outbreak of the Winter War, the Air Defence was divided into two Flying Regiments.

Lentorykmentti 2 (2nd Flying Regiment, LentoR.2)

36 Fokker D.XXIs in Lentolaivue 24 (24th Flying Squadron, LLv.24)

10 Bristol Bulldogs in LLv.26.

LLv.24 was based at Immola and LLv.26 was based at Raulampi.


8 Bristol Blenheim Mk.Is in LLv.44

8 Bristol Blenheim Mk.Is in LLv.46 both based at Luonetjarvi.

The two fighter squadrons were to be used for mainly intercept missions behind the front lines on the Karelian Isthmus.

LentoR.l was the main reconnaissance regiment and consisted of LLv.12 with 13 Fokker C.Xs based at Suur-Merijoki and LLv.14 with 4 Fokker C.Xs and 7 Fokker C.Vs based at Laikko.

LLv.12 was to be used to support the 2nd Army Corps on the western side of the Karilean Isthmus while LLv.14 supported the 3rd Army on the eastern side. LLv.10, which had received dive-bomber training, was placed at disposal and was equipped with 12 Fokker C.Vs.

The 4th Army Corps was entrusted to defend the area between Lake Ladoga and Ilomantsi with a total of 2 infantry divisions. Five separate battalions were placed along the border in front of these as front line protection.

LLv.16 from LentoR.1 was subordinated to the 4th Army Corps. Two of the squadron’s flights were based at Varssila and were equipped with a total of 8 Blackburn Ripons. Another flight with 4 Junkers K-43s was subordinated to Ladoga Sea Defence based at Lahdenpohja, from where it moved to northern Finland in late December.

The area from Ilomantsi and the Arctic Ocean was defended by a few separate detachments only. These consisted of two battalions east of Lieksa, one battalion in the Kuhmo-Suomussalmi-Kuusamo-Salle area and a strengthened company at Petsamo. There were no Air Force units in these areas.

LLv.36 was subordinated to the Navy and operated in the Gulf of Finland from its base at Kallvik, east of Helsinki equipped with 6 Ripons. Additionally the Navy had 2 Junkers K-435 based at Marichamn inland.

At the outbreak of the Winter War the Finnish Air Force possessed some 301 aircraft of all types, of these about 114 were war worthy aircraft. Against them the Soviet Union could call upon well over 3,500 aircraft most of which were far superior to anything the Finns operated. The principal aircraft types used by the Soviet Air Force in the Winter War were, Polikarpov 1-15, 1-153 and 1-16 fighters, Tupolev SB, TB-3 and Ilyushin DB-3 bombers, Polikarpov R-5 and U-2 reconnaissance, with Beriev MBR-2 for maritime reconnaissance.

At the outbreak of the war on 30th November 1939, the Soviet ground forces launched an offensive along the whole of the eastern border between the two countries. The Soviets attacked in three main areas, the first was in the south on the Karelian Isthmus but their advance was soon stopped by Finland’s Isthmus Army. The second line of attack was in Eastern Karelia, N of Lake Ladoga. The Soviet troops had driven as far as Kollaa and Tolvajarvi but were forced back to Aittojoki, where the front line was to remain unchanged for the rest of the war. The third push was intended to cut the country in half at its narrowest point. The offensive by the Soviet 9th Army in the Kuhmo, Suomussalmi and Salla areas soon ground to a halt after fierce defensive battles by the Finns.


Why did the Finnish Air Force use the swastika as the national marking between 1918 and 1945?

Why is the swastika still part of badges of Air Force units?

The swastika has been used since ancient times both as an ornament and a motif. It is known to appear, among other applications, in the sewing works of the Finno-Ugric peoples until the modern days. The swastika is very often construed as a symbol of good luck.

The first publicly displayed swastika motif in Finland is probably the swastika ornament around Akseli Gallen-Kallela s Aino triptych from 1891. This painting is currently hung in the stateroom of the Bank of Finland in Helsinki. The armed forces of Finland adopted the swastika during the Civil War in 1918. Swedish Count Eric von Rosen donated the White Army a Thulin type D airplane in Vaasa on March 6, 1918. On the wings he had painted blue swastikas, his personal motif of good luck, in Umee on March 2, before the airplane took off for the crossing of Gulf of Bothnia. After landing in Vaasa the airplane was incorporated as Aircraft Number 1 in the parc d avions of Finland, later to be renamed the Aviation Force. It was therefore decided to adopt the blue swastika on a white circular background as the national marking, and this was retained until 1945 when it was superseded by the current roundel due to a directive issued by the Allied Control Commission. The directive, however, did not require that the symbol be replaced in other Air Force symbols and flags where it remains in use.

Students of interwar (1920-30s) period air units probably know that Latvia also used a similar version of the svastika as a marking on aircraft of the Latvian air-service from ca. 1918-1934. The Letts referred to the swastika as both the Thunder Cross and Fire Cross (Perkonkrusts, and Urgunskrusts), the former also the name of an indigenous Latvian fascist movement before the Second World War. During the tumultuous period of the Russian Civil War, and the Finnish and Latvian Wars of Independence, many Finns, joined by Swedes, Letts, Estonians, and German Freikorps volunteers, fought the Red Bolsheviks all across the Baltikum, some with flags and unit crests emblazoned with the *lucky* swastika as a symbol of independence rather than the racist genocidal aryanism it later assumed under the Nazis.

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