Soviet partisans’ attacks behind the front lines represent the darkest history of the Continuation War. Between 1941 and 1944, almost 50 partisan attacks took place near the eastern border, in the area reaching from Lieksa to Petsamo. More than 150 civilians were killed in the attacks.
This story describes how three female volunteers and two military escorts met their destiny in Murtovaara, Kuusamo.
On Saturday 4 July 1942, the chair of Suomen Sotilaskotiliitto [association for soldiers’ canteens, so-called Soldiers’ Homes] Toini Jännes, chief financial officer of Soldiers’ Homes in the north Faini Aflecht, and a female volunteer Greta Palojärvi were planning an inspection trip to Kiestinki [Kestenga]. The trio had been on an inspection round in soldiers’ canteens near the front already since Tuesday.
They were intending to embark on their journey by two German-built all-terrain vehicles. However, one of the vehicles had broken down the night before, and they swapped it with a black Ford passenger car. Private First Class Toimi Rossinen volunteered to drive them. He promised to join them despite the fact that he was meant to be discharged the following day. Private First Class Veikko Moilanen from Ristijärvi joined them as a watchman. Four soldiers travelled in the all-terrain vehicle: the driver and relief driver in the front, Corporal Into A. Salmi and Private Hannes Kontiainen at the back. They would drive ahead and the female volunteers would follow in their car towards their destination, Kiestinki.
The days of early July had been hot, so they did not embark on their journey until 23:00 in the evening of 4 July 1942. After midnight, the entourage crossed the old border in Juntusranta and stopped at a Soldiers’ Home for some coffee substitute.
After arriving in Kuusamo’s Kurvinen, the female volunteers asked if they could drive ahead, as the front window of the Ford was broken and so much dust was blowing in that it was difficult to be inside the car. A while later, the entourage was driving along an uphill road. Visibility was poor and a group of partisans, stationed on both sides of the road, managed to take them by surprise.
At the same time in Kiestinki, their destination. People were looking forward to the arrival of the female volunteers in the Soldiers’ Home of the 12th Infantry Regiment in Tappara, Lohilahti. The canteen had been decorated festively. Major General Väinö Palojärvi, Greta’s husband, was also present. As the visitors were late, concern was growing in the Soldiers’ Home.
The ambushed entourage was met with heavy fire from the right side of the road. The bullets mostly hit the first car, which started veering to the left. Palojärvi, the driver and the relief driver were killed immediately. The soldiers who were sitting on back seat of the all-terrain vehicle took cover and started firing at the enemy. An incendiary bomb, thrown into the first car, caused such destruction that Palojärvi could only be identified on the basis of the engraving on her watch, which had stopped at 3:40. Jännes and Aflecht managed to escape from the car, but they fell down dead next to the car in the gunfire.
The Soviet partisans’ heavy gunfire continued, forcing the soldiers to back off and look for reinforcements. After the Finns had gone, the partisans looted the dead bodies for valuables inside the car and eventually set fire to it.
The scene had already turned silent when a column of German troops arrived. They took the bodies of the dead female volunteers and the military escorts with them. The bodies, pulled out from the burning cars, were a terrible sight. None of the people in the first car survived. The men in the backup car escaped unscathed.
Later on, it was noticed that the Soviet partisans had also laid mines on the road. It was a miracle that the all-terrain vehicle had not hit a mine, which would have destroyed it.
10 July 1942. The funeral, held in the Old Church of Helsinki, turned into a ceremony of national mourning. Wreaths were laid by several generals. Many representatives of Germany, such as Colonel General Eduard Dietl, commander of the German troops stationed in Finland, also paid their respects to the victims.
Footage from the memorial service can be found in the Puolustusvoimain katsaus 78 [Review of the defence forces 78] (video in Finnish only; starts at 10 min 50 s) Puolustusvoimain katsaus 78 | Kansallinen audiovisuaalinen instituutti | Finna.fi
At the site of the partisan attack, there is a memorial erected by Sotilaskotiliitto, the association of Soldiers’ Homes. It was moved 150 m from its original place due to its inconvenient location (at an uphill turn). For the same reason, the Soviet partisans had picked this particular spot for the attack.
The story is based on various sources: “Kello 04 Moskovan aikaan: he tulevat joka yö” [At 04 Moscow time: they come every night], Veikko Erkkilä (Kirjarovio, 2021), ”Kolme sotilaskotisisarta ammuttiin korpitielle – partisaanien raaka isku järkytti suomalaisia” [Three female volunteers shot dead on a forest road – Finns shocked by brutal partisan attack], Tuomas Manninen (IS, 2018), ”Elämän valtasuonet – Wolf H. Halstin ja Marja-Maija Halstin kirjeet vuosilta 1929-1949” [Lifelines – Letters between Wolf H. Halsti and Marja-Maija Halsti 1929-1949], Lea Grönstrand (Otava, 1995), ”Jatkosodan katsaus 78/43 – Sotilaskoti” [Review: Continuation War 78/43 – Soldiers’ Homes], Puolustusvoimat (1943), ”78 vuotta sotilaskotisisarten kolmoismurhasta – Murtovaaran murhenäytelmä järkytti koko Suomea” [78 years after the triple murder of Soldiers’ Homes volunteers – the tragedy of Murtovaara shocked the entire Finland], Sotaveteraanit.fi (2020).