From my childhood, I can remember a photograph on the wall of a farmhouse, depicting a young man. The text on the photograph said “Died in Salla, 31 July 1941” and under the photograph, there was a framed letter of condolences from Mannerheim regarding the death of my grandfather Aarne Henrik Kulju, who died for his homeland. The first name engraved in the gravestone in the Alatornio war cemetery is Heikki, the name that his family and friends knew him by.
This is the story of Heikki Kulju as I have heard it from people who knew him, and read in war diaries and letters he wrote to his wife Valva from the front between 1939 and 1941.
Heikki was born to the farming family of Artturi and Eevi Kulju on 2 February 1915. He had three brothers and three sisters. There is very little information available on Heikki’s early years. Although his family sometimes regarded him as slightly impatient, Heikki was nevertheless described as a nice man. Sports were important to him, particularly endurance sports. This interest led him to the activities of the Finnish White Guard of Alatornio, where people skied in winter and ran in summer. As a good skier, Heikki was a member of the White Guards’ team when they won the regional relay championships in Lapland twice in the 1930s.
Heikki’s first son was born on 22 August 1939. The very following day, things started happening at an accelerating pace in the world – Germany and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact. In a secret additional protocol, Europe was divided into spheres of interest, with Finland being left for the Soviet Union. Germany attacked Poland on the 1 September and the Soviet Union intensified its demands for territories in the Baltic area and Finland. Finland did not comply with the demands, but started mobilising its troops and prepared for defensive war. The first stage of the mobilisation included organising additional training all around the country, and also Heikki was drafted to Kemi. Corporal Heikki Kulju was placed in command of a machine gun section of the 27th Regiment of Infantry established in Kemi.
Following the failure of the territorial negotiations, the Soviet Union attacked Finland on the last day of November 1939. The Red Army artillery opened fire on the Karelian Isthmus at 6:50 and later in the morning, there was an air attack in Helsinki. The Winter War had started. The Soviet Union attacked on a wide front also further up north in the region of Lieksa, Kuhmo, Suomussalmi, Salla and Petsamo [Pechenga]. One of its strategic goals was to proceed to the Bothnian Bay along the shortest overland route via Suomussalmi. It would have broken off the land connections to the west. Finland had strengthened its defence particularly on the Isthmus and in Ladoga, Karelia, so the attack in the north caught the Finns completely off guard.
When the war started, Finland had a very light formation of forces in the north: an army of only 16 000 men were responsible for defending the 800 km borderline reaching from the south of Lieksa to the Arctic Ocean. It soon became obvious that the Red Army invested more in the north than anticipated and additional forces were sent into battle. The men of the 27th Regiment of Infantry, Heikki Kulju included, headed to war from Kemi to Hyrynsalmi via Oulu and Kontiomäki. From there, they continued by car and on skis. The machine gun company arrived in the combat zone in Haukiperä, Suomussalmi on 10 December.
The machine guns were transported straight from the trucks to the front line, as the day before, enemy troops had managed to gain a bridgehead on the southern shore of Haukiperä. Right at the same spot, a monument with the following text now stands: “This is where the enemy’s advance was stopped during the Winter War on 9 December 1939.” Heikki’s Winter War started in the same area.
The ruthless reality of war soon hit him. The attacks of the Red Army were destructive mainly for the attackers themselves. Piles and piles of corpses with budenovkas on their heads were left on the ice of Lake Haukiperä, resembling an army of ragamuffins. Heikki also had his baptism of fire in the battles of Haukiperä.
On 13 December, Heikki had a chance to write home for the first time. In addition to homesickness, his short letter reflects his concern over the wellbeing of his wife and young child, but also optimism regarding the upcoming battles. The letters sent from the front line also indicate that the enemy was largely fuelled by alcohol during the battles.
“We’ve already had a couple of baptisms of fire and managed well”
– Heikki Kulju in his letter from Suomussalmi 13 December 1939
After ten days on the front line, Heikki wrote his second letter home. He was hoping to receive some sugar and writing paper in return, as there was a lack of both in the dugout conditions. At the same time, the machine gun company was placed under the command of a battalion in Suomussalmi and stationed in an old people’s home in Kurimo, where it was possible to write letters again.
“The Russians are doing their best to stand their ground. Otherwise things would be pretty good here, but I don’t seem to have much time to sleep or shave my beard”
– Heikki Kulju in his letter from Suomussalmi 19 December 1939
The reinforced Finnish troops started their counter-attack in Suomussalmi; at first in the village centre and later in Hulkonniemi. Resistance was fierce. Heikki had an opportunity to write home on Christmas Day. A soft parcel he had received from home warmed his heart. Things had not gone the best possible way before Christmas. Heikki had lost his gloves and wedding ring in the terrain, and he was very upset about the latter.
The events at the end of December were one of the turning points of the Winter War. Soviet troops withdrew from the area after a terrible defeat so fast that the Finns did not even have time to chase them. The greatest triumphs were achieved in December, along the Kuusamontie Road north of the village. However, Heikki does not mention these victories in his New Year’s letter. He had more important, personal, matters in mind, as the field mail had finally delivered some letters from the home front. In his letter, Heikki advised people at home not send any more money, as he had no use for it. There was, however, a shortage of butter and sugar.
After the Battle of Suomussalmi, the company was stationed along the Kuomanjoki River. The artillery and aeroplanes of the Red Army made sure that it was sometimes hard to know “where to keep your head”, as Heikki wrote. From these stations, the company started their journey towards Haukila on 4 January. At the same time, two men from Heikki’s home village were killed in the war, and he was deeply saddened by the loss. It was not the last time he experienced the loss of a friend.
Colonel Hjalmar Siilasvuo launched the Finnish troops’ main attack to the Haukila area on 5 January. The attack started poorly, but the frozen temperatures and the motti tactics, that is, cutting the enemy units into smaller groups and encircling them with light and agile forces, had served their purpose: the Ukrainian Division of the Red Army started withdrawing eastwards along the road. After being informed about the enemy’s attempt to escape, the Finns started a new attack the following day. Now the attackers managed to break through the enemy positions, encircling them from the south and the north. In the freezing temperatures, the enemy forces were practically entirely destroyed. According to those present, the Raate Road was an icy hell that day.
As a commander of a machine gun section, Heikki Kulju witnessed the events from a prime spot in Haukila. The letter he wrote the following day oozes optimism about the outcome of the war. A couple of days later, he described his moods further as he had an opportunity to “rest a little after the great victory” and enough time to wash himself and get rid of all parasites “smaller than a squirrel”. However, the death of his acquaintances and the ruthless events on the Raate Road made him think about his own survival: “well, it’s up to God to decide and there’s nothing I can do about it”. In his letters, he started repeating his dream of living a quiet family life at home. He also made attempts to use humour to lighten the hard reality.
The Soviet Union also attacked into the Kuhmo area at the very beginning of the Winter War. The advance of the 54th Mountain Division led by Brigade Commander Gusevski was soon halted. Finns’ efficient guerrilla activities brought the attack to a complete halt and Red Army soldiers were forced to crawl into their stations near Riihivaara along Saunajärventie Road. Finnish forces were reinforced by the 27th Infantry Regiment, which arrived in Kuhmo on the night of the 20 January. Heikki described the journey on the back of the truck in the freezing temperature as the coldest in his entire life.
Upon their arrival, they found a lakeside cottage with a sauna where the men had a chance to bathe. There were also some nice surprises waiting for them in the cottage: they baked some doughnuts and had a coffee after the sauna. Later, Heikki mentioned in his letter home that he was not as skilled as his wife in the baking of doughnuts. In his following letters, he was again pondering on the future. He had even visited a fortune-teller before the war, asking what the future might hold.
As the Finns advanced, the Infantry Regiment’s journey continued towards Lehtovaara in Kuhmo. Amid the battles, Heikki wrote a letter home on his birthday, 2 February. The atmosphere was sad after Heikki’s brother Leo, whom he had met again in Kuhmo, was injured.
“You write that you’re looking forward to me coming home on leave. My darling Valva, I cannot get anywhere from this place. There are so many Russians on this front too.”
– Heikki Kulju, Kuhmo 2 February 1940
They managed to break into the enemy positions on 6 February, but they had to pay a high price for their success. The heavy fighting is increasingly visible in Heikki’s letters. He was not in an upbeat mood in any way, and he was even suffering from a persistent cough. On the other hand, only a few days later, Heikki had an exceptionally cheerful disposition in his letter as Valva had sent him some photos from home. Yet in a letter signed 26 February, the atmosphere was yet again fairly gloomy. Heikki’s writing conveys his tiredness of fighting, which had continued since the start of December. He estimated that the battles would not end for the next three months or so, and that he would only have a chance to go on leave if he had his own funeral to attend.
In his letter dated March 1940, Heikki dreams of being on leave with his wife and son. In his second letter from March, he expressed his wish that Valva would not donate her engagement ring to the state’s gold collection, as he wanted his wife to have at least something to remember her husband by, should his road come to an end in Kuhmo. However, Heikki ended up surviving the Winter War.
“Peace was made, but the terms of peace were heavy, in my opinion at least. But this was all right, since we never got the help we were promised”.
– Heikki Kulju, Kuhmo 19 March 1940
The military expedition of Heikki Kulju and many other forestland warriors did not end as soon as peace was made, but some of the troops remained close to the border. The last one of Heikki’s letters from Kuhmo (dated 16 March) describes the battalion’s skiing competition in which he did not have much success after being sick during the winter. More than anything, he was upset and bitter about the fact that he had not been allowed to go home on leave. In the closing remark of his letter, he states “by the way, I am now a sergeant”. Heikki was one of the last ones to go on leave on 3 April 1940. It was his first and last leave during the war years.
As soon as peace was made, the family man started wondering where to find work for the following summer. After he had survived the battles, his thoughts shifted to different kinds of everyday worries, although the memories of the fighting stayed with him.
Both Finland and the Soviet Union were dissatisfied with the outcomes of the Winter War. Despite the peace treaty which Finland had been forced to sign, the state of war was not actually revoked. Finland started a massive fortification project by constructing the Salpa Line of defence along the eastern border. At the same time, military service was extended to two years, financial resources were allocated to defence and queries were made about the possibility of gaining military support from abroad. The outcome of the war significantly changed Germany’s attitude towards Finland. Germany was interested in the nickel from Petsamo [Pechenga] which was important for the war economy, and in cutting the Murman railway which was essential for the Red Army’s logistics. Germany had already started preparations for Operation Barbarossa, that is, a war of aggression against the Soviet Union – and believed that Finland would fight side by side with Germany up north.
The changed situation was leading Finland towards a new war. The events kicked off in June 1941 with a mobilisation that was implemented in stages. The White Guards were ordered to attend additional training and Heikki was drafted, too. In the Continuation War, he served as the second-in-command of the second platoon of the first company of the first battalion of the 54th Infantry Regiment. Heikki was not excited about going to war, particularly since their second child was due in autumn. Before visiting his parents, he knew that the visit could be the last one.
Soldiers set off for the war from the local adult learning centre. They were transported to Kemijärvi by train, and from there, they crossed Lake Kemijärvi and marched along the road leading from Jousijärvi to Kuusamo. From there, they continued to the terrain of Käylä Road and organised themselves as an attack group. They were ready for combat on 26 June 1941. Heikki writes home for the first time on 21 June from Aholanvaara, approximately 60 km south of the village of Salla. He had just finished marching with a heavy load of baggage in the heat of summer. Heikki had made a speedy exit from home and he expresses his longing in the letter. The highlight of his letter, written on Midsummer’s Day, was a mention of a cup of real coffee: “That was really something”.
After Midsummer, Heikki wrote his second letter on 2 July, when Finland had already launched its attack across the eastern border. Heikki was again worried about his family’s financial situation. He had earlier managed to find a job that he liked in Kemi Oy, and now he was missing out on earnings altogether. His own company had not been in battle as yet, but he had heard the sad news about the death of Second Lieutenant Miettunen, whom he had met during his time as an army conscript.
A few days later, Sergeant Kulju was faced with war in Killuntaivaara. A Russian patrol attacked the platoon in charge of securing the eastern flanks, and it was his task as the second-in-command of the platoon to destroy the intruders with the power of one group. The second lieutenant in charge of the enemy patrol died, and the rest of the men surrendered. When the battle subsided, Heikki could not close his eyes to sleep although he had not slept for three days, and so, he wrote home. His letter made grim reading: his brother Martti had been injured and many acquaintances had died. It was also obvious that the war would continue for a long time, and poor supplies did not make things any better.
Heikki Kulju’s letters from the Continuation War do not express the same anger towards the Soviet Union as his letters from the Winter War. He does not mention a word about the Germans, and neither does he reveal anything about his own actions in combat.
In mid-July Heikki wrote that he had spent two days in the rain in wet clothes. He stated that he was going to write home every few days as he wanted his wife to know that her husband was still alive. He asked his wife to tell his son that father would be home soon. Many parts of his next letter, sent on 18 July, have been censored. It is likely that he wrote about his company’s losses and the deaths of his acquaintances. In the same letter, Heikki writes down his observations on the upcoming blueberry, lingonberry and cloudberry harvest – expecting better times ahead, “if we manage to survive”.
It was important for Heikki to take care of his responsibilities. In a letter dated 25 July, he still advises his family on financial matters, should he not return. A couple of days later, he was planning how to spend his daily allowance. He would buy a new wedding ring to replace the one he lost in Suomussalmi. However, Heikki never had the chance to buy a new ring.
The last days of July were beautiful in Polkuvaara, Salla. The soldiers knew that they would not be able to go home for the harvest. On Tuesday 29 July, they were notified of movement in the terrain near the front line, so the first company started preparing for combat. About four hours later, they heard heavy firing, soon followed by the enemy’s artillery bombardment in a fierce preparation to attack the entire company. However, the attack to the Finnish base after the artillery bombardment was prevented. The barrage continued through the night and all telephone connections were cut off.
The Red Army started a new attack in the early hours. The battle was fierce, but the Finnish forces managed to endure. When Thursday came, the combat started calming down after lasting continuously for 24 hours. It was the last day of July. At three o’clock at night, Finnish soldiers received rations in the front line and at the same time, new men were sent in to replace the fallen ones. There was infrequent firing from both sides through the night, as they did not want to give a moment’s rest to the enemy. At five in the morning, the Red Army started a heavy bombardment followed by an attack into the company’s area of responsibility. This attack, too, was halted.
The battle raged on for the entire day and started to calm down only after 23:00. When the fighting cased, there were sounds of the wounded crying and the wails of enemy soldiers left on the field. The Soviet troops had suffered great losses. Finnish soldiers were also running out of strength, yet they had to hold their positions.
One fallen soldier had been left in front of the lines. That day, Sergeant Heikki Kulju had run out of luck.
The story is based on archives and research conducted by Mika Kulju, Heikki Kulju’s grandson. The quotations are from Mika Kulju’s book ”Kirjeitä Raatteen tieltä – Suomalaisen kersantin sotapolku Suomussalmelta Sallaan” [Letters from the Raate Road – a Finnish Sergeant on a military mission from Suomussalmi to Salla](Gummerus, 2018).