Hjalmar Siilasvuo (originally Strömberg) was born in Helsinki on 18 March 1892 into the family of Frans and Hulda Strömberg. Hjalmar’s childhood was darkened by the deaths of his father and mother. He was orphaned at the age of only 12. However, his relatives provided for him, and after Hjalmar graduated from upper secondary school, he was accepted to the law school of the University of Helsinki.
In 1915, Hjalmar, who had enjoyed student life, suddenly set off to Germany with nine others whom he had known since upper secondary school. There, the group signed up for the second company of the Finnish Pfadfinder course in Lockstadt, Germany. Army suited Hjalmar well. He was promoted to group leader of the 27th Royal Prussian Jäger Battalion and he fought in several battles by the river Misa, Gulf of Riga and the river Lielupe (in Latvia). In February 1918, he arrived in Vaasa as a Jäger Captain, and was appointed commander of a company of the White Army of Finland.
After the civil war, Hjalmar (then Strömberg) was given command of the Finnish-speaking battalion of the Uusimaa Regiment in Hamina. During this assignment, he got acquainted with Salli, the daughter of a local pharmacist. They were married in 1920, and the couple had three children.
Hjalmar advanced in his military career. By 1934, he had already been promoted to the rank of colonel and was stationed in Oulu. A couple of years later, Hjalmar changed his surname Strömberg to Siilasvuo.
In Europe, political tension and the threat of war intensified in the late 1930s. In August 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union unexpectedly signed a non-aggression pact. Thereafter, events began to unfold rapidly. In accordance with a secret protocol of the pact, Europe was divided into spheres of influence, and Finland was left for the Soviet Union. Germany attacked Poland on 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.
Following the failed territorial negotiations, the Soviet Union invaded into Finland on the last day of November 1939. The Red Army opened fire on the Karelian Isthmus at 06:50, and bombers targeted Helsinki later the same morning. 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. This 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 Winter War broke out, a brigade was formed of Siilasvuo’s 25th Infantry Regiment in Oulu. It was placed in the North Finland Group under the command of General Wiljo Tuompo, and sent off to the Kuhmo region on 7 December. ”Group Siilasvuo shall be stationed in the Suomussalmi region in order to defeat the enemy that has advanced there”, Tuompo said in his order.
At first, Siilasvuo established his command post in Hyrynsalmi. The attacks of the Red Army had been repelled and it was known that the enemy had suffered great losses. Moreover, evacuees from the border villages had to be transported further away from the front lines. According to reconnaissance reports, they would be met by a Soviet division which was heading towards Hyrynsalmi and Taivalkoski. Siilasvuo was given some new reinforcements, which, for the most part, consisted of detachments that had suffered losses in the heavy defensive battles. He was not given any artillery or antitank weapons.
On 10 December, Siilasvuo’s troops were planning to drive a wedge between two groups of Russian soldiers. The enemy columns kept marching, unaware of the ambush, when Sillasvuo’s groups attacked them from the sides. Now, the Finnish forces started having success in the battles, and they accelerated the attacks. The Finns now had the ball in their court, and they started cutting off the enemy’s escape routes further up north. Meanwhile, Siilasvuo was given the reinforcements he had been after.
According to aerial reconnaissance, Raate Road was full of marching soldiers from the enemy’s 44th Division. Siilasvuo could only send two reconnaissance units of 50 men each to delay them. Soviet troops were planning to start their attack on 28 December and to destroy Siilasvuo’s troops stationed in the area. Quite the opposite happened: Siilasvuo was the first to attack, targeting the enemy division which had penetrated deeper into the area of Lake Kiantajärvi. However, most of the division managed to escape through a gap left between Siilasvuo’s troops and Lieutenant Colonel Paavo Susitaival’s unit Susi, stationed further up north. The escapees left behind considerable amounts of artillery, tanks, trucks and light weapons.
At the same time, the Ukrainian 44th Division was encircled on Raate Road. In the chilly temperature of -40 degrees Celsius, Siilasvuo launched an attack against the poorly equipped enemy, which was practically destroyed within three days. After the fighting subsided, a group of foreign reporters arrived at the site on Monday 8 January. Colonel Siilasvuo presented the military equipment obtained as spoils of war to the press. In addition to military vehicles, the gains included over a thousand horses. Russia had lost over 20 000 men on Raate Road and elsewhere in Suomussalmi. Siilasvuo had lost 900 soldiers from his own division, and 1200 were wounded.
The legend of Winter War was born!
See also the “Raatteentie nykypäivänä” [Raate Road today] video, produced for IS TV by Teemu Keskisarja and Simo Holopainen. It presents and illustrates the Winter War battles in Suomussalmi – and particularly on Raate Road. Watch the video (YouTube)