Cunning Deception Tactics Saved Helsinki from Soviet Bombings in 1944

Photo Credit: 1. Unknown Author / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain (Colorized) 2. U.S. Air Force / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

While often overshadowed by larger combatants, Finland was involved in World War II almost from day one. Just a few months after Germany invaded Poland, the Soviet Union rushed Finland’s borders. While the Red Army thought their superior military strength would make for a quick victory, they were shocked to find Finland put up a substantial resistance.

The Soviets rethink their strategy

The USSR‘s progress in Finland was so poor that it forced Soviet forces to halt, regroup and rethink their strategy. They came back with renewed strength in February 1940 and finished Finland off. The following month, the Moscow Peace Treaty was signed, handing over significant portions of the country to the Soviets and bringing the Winter War to a close.

Two Finnish soldiers sitting in the snow with an anti-aircraft machine gun
Finnish soldiers with an anti-aircraft machine gun during the Winter War, January 1940. (Photo Credit: Keystone-France / Gamma-Keystone / Getty Images)

Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. Finland realized this was its opportunity to gain back its lost land and decided to join the invasion, marking the beginning of the Continuation War. As an ally of Germany, the country received aid, arms and supplies.

However, by 1944, the writing was on the wall on the Eastern Front.

Germany was beaten into a pulp and clearly wasn’t going to defeat the Soviets. This put Finland in a precarious position. After stopping the Vyborg-Petrozavodsk Offensive in the summer of 1944, it knew it couldn’t hold out much longer. The USSR, too, knew that Finland was on the brink of defeat and began a bombing campaign to push the Finnish forces to the edge. Stalin hoped he could get between Finland and Germany’s relationship and take at least one of them out of the war.

The art of deception

When the bombings started, Finland once again proved that you should never underestimate your opponent, no matter how small they are. The country set up a complex defensive network of decoys and anti-aircraft batteries to keep their capital safe, and despite the Red Army deploying over 2,000 bombers and dropping 16,000 bombs, the plan was largely successful.

Two Finnish soldiers standing beside an anti-aircraft searchlight
Anti-aircraft searchlight on Pitkänkallionmäki, February 1940. (Photo Credit: SA-kuva / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Just like during the Winter War, the Finns used their environment to their advantage.

Helsinki is located on the coast of the Baltic Sea and surrounded by many small, uninhabited islands. As the Soviet raids were conducted at night, their accuracy was poor and aircraft had little way of knowing what they were dropping their bombs on. Knowing this, the Finns used the nearby islands as decoys, luring bombers to drop their cargo over them and think they were hitting the city.

This was a brave plan, as the entire area had to be controlled in order to keep the city hidden. Searchlights were only active on Helsinki’s eastern outskirts to make its position unclear, while fires were lit on the surrounding islands in a way that made them resemble streets from the air.

Aerial view of a building damaged during a Russian air raid
Aftermath of a Soviet air raid on Helsinki, February 1944. (Photo Credit: Keystone / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

To ensure the bombers were lured to the islands, Helsinki itself lived under rigorous blackouts, and there was the addition of a defensive anti-aircraft network.

Helsinki air raids

The first air raid in early February 1944 saw 730 Soviet bombers drop 350 bombs on Helsinki. While this caused some damage, the surrounding islands suffered the brunt of the attack, being hit with over 2,500 bombs. Clearly the Finn’s plan had merit, but there was room for improvement, as over 100 Helsinki residents were killed and nearly 200 buildings were damaged or destroyed.

This was in part because the city had several false alarms before the raid, meaning many didn’t respond as they should have when the Soviet bombers arrived. When the next raid occurred 10 days later, Helsinki’s population fared much better. As Finnish intelligence had intercepted messages about the raid, much of the population was able to quickly evacuate. Those who remained sought shelter and strictly adhered to blackout rules.

In addition to these passive methods, a squadron of 12 Messerschmitt Bf 109s equipped with night fighting equipment hunted the bombers from the sky. 380 bombers arrived, but only 100 bombs were dropped on the city, while over 4,000 landed in the sea and on the islands. 25 people were killed and 70 buildings were destroyed.

Building on fire during the night
Bombing destruction in Helsinki, February 6-7, 1944. (Photo Credit: Finnish Armed Forces / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

A third and final raid occurred 10 days later and was carried out by a large force of almost 900 Soviet bombers. Once again, the Finns learned of the raid through intercepted messages and sounded the air raid sirens. Helsinki’s population immediately sought shelter, all lights were switched off and machinery was stopped.

When the bombers were 25 minutes away, the night fighters took off to await their arrival. When they arrived, they were unable to determine the exact location of the city and were met with fierce anti-aircraft fire. The attack came in three waves over nearly 12 hours. The first aimed for the city; the second targeted its defenses; and the third was intended to destroy whatever remained.

At 6:30 AM on the morning on February 27, 1944, Helsinki’s all-clear alarm rang. Its citizens emerged to find a city that had received relatively light damage, as just 290 bombs had hit.

In total, these three air raids killed 146 people, significantly less than those of similar sizes over other European cities.

Car and apartment building on fire due to a Soviet air raid
Aftermath of a Soviet bombing campaign over Helsinki, 1944. (Photo Credit: Photo12 / Universal Images Group / Getty Images)

A ceasefire was called between Finland and the USSR in September 1944, putting an end to the Continuation War. When Soviet officials visited the city following the war, they were in complete shock over its condition – they’d thought it had been flattened.