Bombing of Helsinki in World War II
The capital of Finland, Helsinki
Helsinki is the capital and largest city in Finland. It is in the region of Uusimaa, located in southern Finland, on the shore of the Gulf of Finland, an arm of the Baltic Sea. The population of the city of Helsinki is , making it by far the most populous municipality in Finland. Helsinki is...

 was bombed several times during World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

. Between 1939–1945 Finland fought three wars, two against the Soviet Union
Soviet Union
The Soviet Union , officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics , was a constitutionally socialist state that existed in Eurasia between 1922 and 1991....

 and one against Germany
Nazi Germany
Nazi Germany , also known as the Third Reich , but officially called German Reich from 1933 to 1943 and Greater German Reich from 26 June 1943 onward, is the name commonly used to refer to the state of Germany from 1933 to 1945, when it was a totalitarian dictatorship ruled by...

. The largest raids were three raids in February 1944, which have been called the Great raids against Helsinki.

Helsinki's air defense

In the autumn of 1939, Helsinki was protected by the 1st Anti Aircraft Regiment consisting of four heavy anti-aircraft batteries of three to four guns each, one light AA battery and one AA machine gun company.
The air defense of Helsinki was significantly strengthened from spring 1943 onwards under the lead of Colonel Pekka Jokipaltio. During the Continuation War
Continuation War
The Continuation War was the second of two wars fought between Finland and the Soviet Union during World War II.At the time of the war, the Finnish side used the name to make clear its perceived relationship to the preceding Winter War...

 Germany provided two early warning radars
Freya radar
Freya was an early warning radar deployed by Germany during World War II, named after the Norse Goddess Freyja. During the war over a thousand stations were built. A naval version operating on a slightly different wavelength was also developed as Seetakt...

 and four gun laying radars
Würzburg radar
The Würzburg radar was the primary ground-based gun laying radar for both the Luftwaffe and the German Army during World War II. Initial development took place before the war, entering service in 1940. Eventually over 4,000 Würzburgs of various models were produced...

 to Helsinki, further, 18 very effective German heavy 88 mm AA guns
88 mm gun
The 88 mm gun was a German anti-aircraft and anti-tank artillery gun from World War II. It was widely used by Germany throughout the war, and was one of the most recognizable German weapons of the war...

 were also placed in Helsinki. The new six-gun batteries were grouped at Lauttasaari
Lauttasaari is an island and neighbourhood of Western Helsinki , about 3 kilometres west of the city centre....

, Käpylä
Käpylä is a neighbourhood of Helsinki with 7,600 inhabitants. Administratively speaking, Käpylä is a part of the Vanhakaupunki district.It is located between Kumpula, Oulunkylä and Koskela...

 and in Santahamina
Santahamina is an island and neighbourhood of Eastern Helsinki, Finland. At present it is a military base housing the Guard Jaeger Regiment, making access restricted...

. By February 1944 Helsinki was protected by 13 light and heavy AA-batteries. Air defenses included 77 heavy AA-guns, 41 light AA-guns, 36 search lights, 13 acoustic locators
Acoustic location
Acoustic location is the science of using sound to determine the distance and direction of something. Location can be done actively or passively, and can take place in gases , liquids , and in solids .* Active acoustic location involves the creation of sound in order to produce an echo, which is...

 and 6 radars in addition to visual spotters and the Finnish Navy's anti-aircraft. Germany also provided some night fighter support against the Soviet attacks.

The air defense command system was based on the German system and was quite effective – key personnel had trained in Germany. Due to manpower shortages, the air defense also used 16-year-old boy volunteers from Suojeluskunta to man the guns and young girls of the Lotta Svärd
Lotta Svärd
Lotta Svärd was a Finnish voluntary auxiliary paramilitary organisation for women. During the Finnish Civil War it was associated with the Suojeluskunta. After the war Lotta Svärd was founded as a separate organisation on September 9, 1920. The name comes from a poem by Johan Ludvig Runeberg...

 organization to man search lights.

The Germans had also based a night fighter unit, consisting of 12 Bf 109G-6 nightfighters in Helsinki on 12 February 1944 and the German night fighter direction vessel Togo
German night fighter direction vessel Togo
Launched in 1938, the MS Togo was a German merchant ship. At the outbreak of World War II in early September 1939, she was in the French port of Douala in Africa, but avoiding internment and running the Allied blockade, she successfully returned to Hamburg...

 cruised in the Gulf of Finland
Gulf of Finland
The Gulf of Finland is the easternmost arm of the Baltic Sea. It extends between Finland and Estonia all the way to Saint Petersburg in Russia, where the river Neva drains into it. Other major cities around the gulf include Helsinki and Tallinn...

 between Tallinn and Helsinki.

Helsinki's air defenses prioritized stopping bombs from reaching the city over the destruction of air targets. In a special type of barrage, several batteries would fire a wall of flak in front of the approaching bombers in an attempt to scare them into dropping their payloads too early and breaking away. AA shells had been jury-rigged by drilling the fuze-hole larger and filling the extra space with magnesium
Magnesium is a chemical element with the symbol Mg, atomic number 12, and common oxidation number +2. It is an alkaline earth metal and the eighth most abundant element in the Earth's crust and ninth in the known universe as a whole...

 mixed with aluminium
Aluminium or aluminum is a silvery white member of the boron group of chemical elements. It has the symbol Al, and its atomic number is 13. It is not soluble in water under normal circumstances....

, turning their explosion from a dull red to a searing white.

The Soviet long distance bomb group (ADD)

The bombing of Finland was generally conducted by the long-range bombing and reconnaissance group of the Soviet Air Force (VVS), the Aviatsiya Dalnego Deystviya (ADD). This group was directly subordinated to the Soviet High Command. During the February bombings of 1944 the ADD was reinforced with other units. The ADD commander was Marshal Aleksandr Golovanov
Alexander Golovanov
Alexander Yevgeniyevich Golovanov was a Soviet pilot. On August 3, 1943 he became a Marshal of Aviation and on 19 August 1944 he was promoted to the rank of Chief Marshal of Aviation .-World War II:From the start of the German-Soviet War, he was the commander of an air...

. Bombing raids were also sometimes done by the VVS and the BF (Baltic Fleet air group).

The Soviet bomber fleet was very diverse. The majority of the aircraft were twin-engined Ilyushin-4
Ilyushin DB-3
The Ilyushin DB-3 was a Soviet bomber aircraft of World War II. It was a twin-engined, low-wing monoplane that first flew in 1935. It was the precursor of the Ilyushin Il-4...

, Lisunov Li-2
Lisunov Li-2
The Lisunov Li-2, originally designated PS-84 , was a license-built version of the Douglas DC-3. It was produced by the GAZ-84 works at Moscow-Khimki, and subsequently at GAZ-33 at Tashkent-Vostochn. The project was directed by aeronautical engineer Boris Pavlovich Lisunov.-Design and...

, North American B-25 Mitchell and Douglas A-20 bombers. The B-25s and the A-20s had been supplied to the Soviet Union as Lend Lease materiel from the United States. The Lisunov Li-2 was a Soviet bomber version of the American Douglas DC-3
Douglas DC-3
The Douglas DC-3 is an American fixed-wing propeller-driven aircraft whose speed and range revolutionized air transport in the 1930s and 1940s. Its lasting impact on the airline industry and World War II makes it one of the most significant transport aircraft ever made...

. There were also some heavy four-engined bombers participating in the bombings, e.g. the Petlyakov Pe-8
Petlyakov Pe-8
The Petlyakov Pe-8 was a Soviet heavy bomber designed before World War II, and the only four-engine bomber the USSR built during the war. Produced in limited numbers, it was used to bomb Berlin in August 1941. It was also used for so-called "morale raids" designed to raise the spirit of the Soviet...


Civil defense

Before the war, Helsinki had quite an extensive civil defense
Civil defense
Civil defense, civil defence or civil protection is an effort to protect the citizens of a state from military attack. It uses the principles of emergency operations: prevention, mitigation, preparation, response, or emergency evacuation, and recovery...

 system. By a city decree of 1934, shelters were constructed in all high-rise building basements. These were merely basement rooms with reinforced walls in order to withstand nearby bomb impacts. All buildings were required to have an appointed civil protection supervisor who was not in the reserves or the armed forces, and as such was usually unfit for military service. This person was tasked to see that all occupants made it to the shelter in an orderly fashion.

There were a few larger shelters built into solid rock, but it was not possible to fit all the citizens of Helsinki into these. Some hospitals were also equipped with subterranean shelters where patients could be relocated during air raids. Others, such as the Children's hospital, were moved outside the city. One hospital was entirely underground, below the Finnish Red Cross building.

Winter War

Three hours after Soviet forces had crossed the border and started the Winter War
Winter War
The Winter War was a military conflict between the Soviet Union and Finland. It began with a Soviet offensive on 30 November 1939 – three months after the start of World War II and the Soviet invasion of Poland – and ended on 13 March 1940 with the Moscow Peace Treaty...

, aerial bombardment of Helsinki began. The most intensive bomb raids were during the first few days.

Helsinki was bombed a total of eight times during the Winter War. Some 350 bombs fell on the city, resulting in the death of 97 people and the wounding of 260. In all, 55 buildings were destroyed.

The Soviet bombings led to harsh reactions abroad. U.S. President Roosevelt asked the Soviets not to bomb Finnish cities. Molotov replied to Roosevelt: "Soviet aircraft has not been bombing cities, but airfields, you can't see that from 8,000 kilometers away in America."

Continuation War

Helsinki fared somewhat easier during the Continuation War
Continuation War
The Continuation War was the second of two wars fought between Finland and the Soviet Union during World War II.At the time of the war, the Finnish side used the name to make clear its perceived relationship to the preceding Winter War...

 since Soviet bombers mainly focused on German forces in the Baltic states. Helsinki was bombed 39 times during the Continuation War, 245 people were killed and 646 wounded, the majority in the three big raids of 1944.
Raids Bombs Dead Wounded
Winter War 8 about 350 971 260
1941 9 about 80 332 210
1942 17 about 70 683 167
1943 13 about 110 3 21
1 91 deaths on 30 November 1939
2 22 deaths on 9 July 1941
3 51 deaths on 8 November 1942

The great raids of February 1944

In February 1944, the Soviet Union launched three massive bombing raids against Helsinki. The aim was to break the Finnish fighting spirit and force the Finns to the peace table. The raids were conducted on the nights of 6–7, 16-17 and 26-27 of February. Joseph Stalin
Joseph Stalin
Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin was the Premier of the Soviet Union from 6 May 1941 to 5 March 1953. He was among the Bolshevik revolutionaries who brought about the October Revolution and had held the position of first General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union's Central Committee...

 had obtained British
United Kingdom
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandIn the United Kingdom and Dependencies, other languages have been officially recognised as legitimate autochthonous languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages...

 and American
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 support for this measure at the Tehran conference
Tehran Conference
The Tehran Conference was the meeting of Joseph Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill between November 28 and December 1, 1943, most of which was held at the Soviet Embassy in Tehran, Iran. It was the first World War II conference amongst the Big Three in which Stalin was present...

 in 1943. In this manner they hoped to force the Finns to break their ties with Germany and agree to a peace settlement with the Soviet Union.

Some 2,121 bomber approaches were counted in the three raids of February 1944, which dropped more than 16,000 bombs against Helsinki. Of the 34,200 shots fired against the bombers with heavy AA-artillery, 12,900 shots were with light AA-artillery. The Finns managed to lure the pathfinders by lighting fires on the islands outside the city, and only using the searchlights east of the city, thereby leading the pathfinders to believe that it was the city. Only 530 bombs fell within the city itself. The majority of the population of Helsinki had also left the city and the casualty figures were quite low compared to other cities of the period.

Of the 22-25 bombers destroyed by AA fire, four were shot down by German night fighters.

The first great raid: 6–7 February

The first night saw the most destruction.

The first bombs fell at 19:23. Some 350 bombs fell within the city and approximately 2,500 bombs outside Helsinki. The total amount of bombs dropped (included the ones that fell into the sea) amounted to some 6,990. Approximately 730 bomber aircraft participated in the raid. The bombers arrived in two waves: 6 February 18.51–21:40 and 7 February 00.57–04.57.

The defense fired 122 barrages, the light AA-artillery 2 745 shots and the heavy AA-artillery 7 719 shots. The Finnish Air Force had no night fighters at this time.

Casualty figures were 100 persons killed, and 300 injured. More than 160 buildings were damaged. The AA defenses had issued some false alarms the previous days which had lowered people's readiness levels.

The second great raid: 16–17 February

Since Tallinn had been bombed heavily and intelligence pointed out that a raid might be directed at Helsinki, the Helsinki air defense took some active measures.

After the first raid, a German night fighter group of 12 Messerschmitt Bf 109G-6
Messerschmitt Bf 109
The Messerschmitt Bf 109, often called Me 109, was a German World War II fighter aircraft designed by Willy Messerschmitt and Robert Lusser during the early to mid 1930s...

 fighters with special night fighting equipment were transferred to the Helsinki-Malmi Airport
Helsinki-Malmi Airport
Helsinki-Malmi Airport is an airport in the city of Helsinki, Finland, located in the district of Malmi, north north-east of the city centre. Until the opening of the Helsinki-Vantaa Airport in 1952 it was the main airport of Helsinki and all Finland. Today, the airport is still actively used in...

 from the Estonian front. These managed to shoot down six bombers during the following two raids. The anti-aircraft batteries managed to down two bombers and fired 184 barrages. Heavy AA batteries fired 12,238 shots and light AAA 5,709 shots.

Most of the population of Helsinki had voluntarily evacuated to the countryside and the remaining ones were prepared to take shelter at first warning. This lowered casualties figures significantly.

This time 383 bombers participated. While 4,317 bombs fell on the city, the sea and in the surrounding area, only 100 bombs fell within the city. The warning was sounded at 20.12 and the bombers approached again in two waves: 16 February 20.12–23.10 and 23.45-05.49 on 17 February. The first wave tried to concentrate the bombing by approaching from different directions. In the second wave, the aircraft came in smaller groups from the east. Finnish intelligence had intercepted messages one hour and 40 minutes before the raid and warned the air defense, who had time to prepare. The air defense sounded the warning 49 minutes before the raid. Radar picked up the first aircraft 34 minutes before the beginning of the bombings.

This time casualty figures were much lower: 25 died and 29 were injured. 27 buildings were destroyed and 53 were damaged.

The third great raid: 26–27 February

On the evening of February 26, a single Soviet reconnaissance aircraft was spotted over the city. It was a sign of the coming attack. The weather was clear, which helped the attackers. Again the Finnish Radio Intelligence intercepted messages of the forthcoming raid, this time 1 hour and 28 minutes before the bombing would commence - although the Soviets tried to uphold radio silence.

Five minutes later, the air surveillance grid, manned by Lotta Svärd-auxiliaries reported approaching bomber craft. A silent alarm was sounded in the city in good time before the raid. Street lights were turned off, trams and trains were stopped and radio transmissions ended. In this manner, the enemy had more difficulty finding its target. All citizens knew that they had to take cover.

The first bombers were picked up by Finnish radar 25 minutes before they would arrive at approximately 18.30. A few minutes later, the night fighters took off and flew to their predesignated positions. The AA-artillery had also been alarmed. The air raid warning was sounded at 18.45. AA-batteries opened up fire at 18.53. At 19.07 the first bombs started to fall.

This last great raid differed from the two previous ones. The battle lasted for some 11 hours and was divided into three different phases: the first one was in the evening and lasted for four hours and concentrated the attacks against the city, the second one was mainly focusing on the defending AA-artillery, but to little success, the last wave hoped to finally flatten the city, but the majority of the aircraft turned away when met with fierce anti-aircraft barrages and night fighters. The all clear signal was finally sounded at about 6.30 in the morning of February 27.

Despite that this had been the most massive raid, the damages were again quite limited: 21 people were killed and 35 wounded; 59 buildings were destroyed and 135 damaged.

The heavy anti-aircraft artillery fired 14,240 shots and the light AA-artillery 4,432 shots. Nine Soviet bombers were downed.

This time 896 bombers participated in the raid on Helsinki. They dropped 5,182 bombs of which only 290 fell on the city itself.

The damage of the great raids

Thanks to the efficiency of the anti-aircraft and bluffing measures, damage was limited. Only 5 % of the bombs fell on the city, and some of these fell in the large uninhabited park areas causing no damage. Some 2,000 bombers participated in the three great raids on Helsinki and dropped some 2,600 tons of bombs. Of the 146 who died, six were soldiers; 356 were wounded. 109 buildings were destroyed, 300 were damaged by shrapnel and 111 were ignited by the bombs. The Soviets lost 25 aircraft.

By comparison, Dresden
Dresden is the capital city of the Free State of Saxony in Germany. It is situated in a valley on the River Elbe, near the Czech border. The Dresden conurbation is part of the Saxon Triangle metropolitan area....

 was bombed on 13–15 February 1945 by 1,320 bombers, which dropped 3,900 tons of bombs. This force was roughly equal to that attacking Helsinki, but the Dresden raid killed about 25,000 to 35,000 people and the city was almost completely destroyed.

After the war, the Allied Control Commission led by general Andrei Zhdanov
Andrei Zhdanov
Andrei Alexandrovich Zhdanov was a Soviet politician.-Life:Zhdanov enlisted with the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1915 and was promoted through the party ranks, becoming the All-Union Communist Party manager in Leningrad after the assassination of Sergei Kirov in 1934...

 arrived in Helsinki. He was perplexed by the limited damage the city had sustained. The Soviet leadership had believed that they had destroyed the city completely and that it was these bombings that had forced the Finns to the peace table.

Finnish response

The Finnish Air Force responded to the air raids with series of night infiltration bombings of ADD airfields near to Saint Petersburg
Saint Petersburg
Saint Petersburg is a city and a federal subject of Russia located on the Neva River at the head of the Gulf of Finland on the Baltic Sea...

. Finnish bombers - Junkers Ju 88
Junkers Ju 88
The Junkers Ju 88 was a World War II German Luftwaffe twin-engine, multi-role aircraft. Designed by Hugo Junkers' company through the services of two American aviation engineers in the mid-1930s, it suffered from a number of technical problems during the later stages of its development and early...

s, Bristol Blenheim
Bristol Blenheim
The Bristol Blenheim was a British light bomber aircraft designed and built by the Bristol Aeroplane Company that was used extensively in the early days of the Second World War. It was adapted as an interim long-range and night fighter, pending the availability of the Beaufighter...

s, and Dornier Do 17
Dornier Do 17
The Dornier Do 17, sometimes referred to as the Fliegender Bleistift , was a World War II German light bomber produced by Claudius Dornier's company, Dornier Flugzeugwerke...

s - either tailed or in some cases even joined formation with returning Soviet bombers over the Gulf of Finland
Gulf of Finland
The Gulf of Finland is the easternmost arm of the Baltic Sea. It extends between Finland and Estonia all the way to Saint Petersburg in Russia, where the river Neva drains into it. Other major cities around the gulf include Helsinki and Tallinn...

 and followed these to their bases. Once most Soviet bombers had landed the Finnish bombers approached to bomb both the landed and still landing Soviet bombers and then escaped in the ensuing confusion. The first major night infiltration bombing took place on 9 March 1944 and they lasted until May 1944. However Soviet casualties from these raids could not be estimated reliably.

See also

  • German night fighter direction vessel Togo
    German night fighter direction vessel Togo
    Launched in 1938, the MS Togo was a German merchant ship. At the outbreak of World War II in early September 1939, she was in the French port of Douala in Africa, but avoiding internment and running the Allied blockade, she successfully returned to Hamburg...

  • Molotov bread basket
    Molotov bread basket
    The RRAB-3, nicknamed the Molotov bread basket , was a Soviet-made droppable bomb dispenser that combined a large high-explosive charge with a cluster of incendiary bombs. It was used against the cities of Finland during the Winter War of 1939–1940...

  • 14th Searchlight Battery
    14th Searchlight Battery (Finland)
    14th Searchlight Battery was a Finnish anti-aircraft searchlight battery formed from women of the Lotta Svärd organization at the end of the Continuation War. The battery was formed to free men for other tasks and was used in the air-defence of Helsinki...


  • Martti Helminen, Aslak Lukander: Helsingin suurpommitukset helmikuussa 1944, 2004, WSOY, ISBN 951-0-28823-3
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