When I was nineteen, I returned to the country of my birth, Finland. My parents were going back to visit and, as I was still deciding about uni, I thought I’d tag along as I hadn’t been there since I was eight. However, on arrival, I was informed that I had an obligation to undertake national service and thus commenced one of the most interesting years of my life. I started with a somewhat passable ability with the language, but when that was all that you heard, you picked it up fairly quickly. It’s said that adversity and uncertainty are character building, and never have truer words been spoken. I took as many photographs as I could while there and the following are copies from slides taken in that year (if there’s dust and hairs, so be it, I think it adds to the character).
Out of the three services, I had a choice of joining the army, the army or the army, so I chose the army, but at least I was able to choose a location close to where my relatives lived at Koitsanlahti, on the eastern side of Finland near the Russian border. I was stationed at Lappeenranta, which was the base for the tykistö (artillery), rakuunat (light cavalry) and viesti (signals). I ended up in signals and that may sound like I spent the ‘war’ sitting around yakking into a radio; however, that was nothing like what our job entailed. I think we ended up with the hardest job in the Finnish Army, well, second hardest next to the Pioneer Engineers (those guys were the toughest bunch I’ve ever encountered). What I ended up doing was working in a small team that roamed the countryside, mainly on foot or skis (and the occasional bicycle), directing artillery fire.
While the drop shorts (as the Australian Army calls the artillery), finally reached their destinations in the backs of their vehicles, rested after an arduous journey and eventually set up, we would have already been running or skiing (depending on time of year) for many hours and kilometres carrying our full regular packs and weapons, as well as radios, telephone cables (500m per roll, two per person), theodolites and an assortment of other gear by which we’d work out our precise location as we headed towards the ‘enemy’ targets. On arrival, we would have laid anywhere up to five kilometres of telephone cable (which also had to be rolled back up) so that we could communicate with the artillery (without using revealing radio signals) and direct their fire. We would usually be within half a kilometre of where the shells landed, provided the artillery were following our coordinates correctly or had loaded a proper charge (sometimes they didn’t, on both counts).
Basically it was training day after day, week after week, month after month. Sometimes training occurred near Lappeenranta and other times we’d be above the Arctic Circle (Summer and Winter), as the firepower exercises were mainly conducted above the Arctic Circle. Our team got so good at our job and precise with our coordinates, that if the artillery were doing their job, they often didn’t get much opportunity at firing, as the targets were usually hit on the second round. However, training wasn’t just relegated to artillery direction, but other things took place as well, including first aid, regular arms training (on all sort of weaponry) as well as design and placement of fortified positions. You needed to understand a lot of things being such a very small country, with a small population, positioned in a very precarious location.
We must have trained on just about everything in the Finnish armoury at one stage or another. Our first firearms training came with 1942 vintage rifles, where all the barrels were curved like bananas, and hitting the target would have been easier by just throwing the rounds. Later we were given our own assault rifles (a Finnish version of the AK47), which we ‘owned’ and took everywhere with us for the remainder of our time in the army. I learned to disassemble and reassemble my rifle blindfolded in 13 sec, and shoot bullseyes at 900m lying down (I still have my marksman’s medal and I think that skill has helped with my photography as well). On a short stint at the Pioneer Engineer school, we also learned to use some of the stuff these guys played with every day; hard work is an understatement.
As always, there were brief periods where we could reflect on what we were doing and what we’d rather be doing and, more often than not, it’d be about what we’d rather be doing while counting down the days when we were once again free. Though it wasn’t all bad; there were many enjoyable times while on exercise and the like but, similarly, there were times that you thought you couldn’t go on anymore. I remember coming late to an artillery camp one night and falling asleep in a tent, curled around a large boulder that was the only spot left (I slept like the dead that night). And when nearing the end of our time, we were sent out for three solid weeks in the middle of Winter where we just moved from one place to another with barely a night’s sleep, probably to make sure we’d never forgot our time in the army, it worked.
But however things went, it was always a team effort, in the good times and the bad. You’d have warm Summer days above the Arctic Circle, but be eaten alive by the mosquitoes or gnats; or in Winter the temperature gauge would drop below -32C and you’d sweat while moving, and then freeze when you stopped. Then you’d be hungry as anything waiting somewhere in the wilderness for the chow cart to come by and find it near empty and the food cold, with nothing but hard tack in abundance (you never, ever, ran out of hard tack). Once we set up camp in two metre deep snow, digging down to the permafrost, and woke up during the night in a pool of water as the wood heater had melted the surface of the ice. It wasn’t a good sleep that night. I can truly understand, in part, what some of the ‘real’ Winter War was like.
Summer was without a doubt the better time of year, despite the mosquitoes and gnats (in the north), as that meant long days, very light nights and a bit of warmth. But there was rarely time for rest, as we always had something to do, either setting up or dismantling camp, or off on another long run so that the artillery could fire a few more rounds. I still remember a lot of the faces, but the names elude me like they always do, I don’t know why (though some names linger but I can’t put names to faces in the photos). I’ve often wondered what’s become of those with whom I shared the good and the bad times so many years ago.
There’s much more that I could write about my experiences, but that would require a book. However, I’ve looked back on that year in the Finnish army so many times over the years, always remembering it as one of the greatest times in my life. I didn’t realise it at the time of course but, as I said at the start, adversity and uncertainty builds character. It’s difficult to describe, but the experience completely changed me; it made me more confident, capable, always ready to tackle anything new and to never give up. There were so many times that I wanted to give up but I never did, nor did any of the others.