This is the war story of Paavo Katilainen, who was sent to the front lines at the age of 16. The story starts from the Winter War in Kuhmo and continues through the Continuation War, all the way to the Lapland War. I will recount his story as he told it to me, his nephew.
Paavo was born in 1923 as the middle son of my grandparents Niilo and Maria Katilainen. Later, the family moved to Lahti, where the young man was involved with the activities of the local White Guard. At the same time, tension arose in the world and the Soviet Union demanded territories from Finland. When the demand was rejected, Soviet troops attacked Finland on 30 November 1939. The Winter War had started.
“In the middle of Winter War, I was sent from the White Guards in Lahti to Kajaani to attend a course for NCO students in the medical corps. In late February, early March 1940, there were three boys of my age (16 yrs) on the course. All three of us were informed that we would be taken to the front lines. We were not asked any questions – we didn’t even have time to take the military oath”, Paavo described the early stages of his time at war.
“In the beginning of March, we arrived at the Jämäs barracks in Kuhmo. There, we were given our equipment. For a while, we stayed in the Lammasperä elementary school, and I won a skiing competition organised on the ice nearby. Then we were told that we would be taken to the front the following night. We could not be transported during daylight because of the threat of air strikes. We threw our things onto the back of a truck and were told not to get up at any point during the transportation. I was very surprised at the command, as there was still a long way to go before we would get to the front lines. They said it was because we didn’t know the password which meant that there was a danger that we would be shot by our own side – at this point, there were various Soviet soldiers from defeated troops walking in the background.
I arrived at the front line in Kiekinkoski on 9 or 10 March – and was immediately surprised at the limited number of men. There was only a small group of tired-looking, bearded men there”.
I remember hearing them say “looks like they’re running out of men so they’re sending out boys to war”.
Paavo has a particularly clear memory of how the shifts for guard duty were assigned. If you were on guard duty alone, the shift lasted for two hours, but if there were two guards simultaneously, the shift lasted for four hours. Paavo chose to be on guard duty alone. For the night watch, he was given the ground forces’ basic rifle and a pistol, the purpose of which still puzzled him afterwards.
In the night watch, I was listening to the swoosh of skis getting louder and louder on the other side of the river…
“There was a river between our positions and the enemy positions. In the night watch, I was listening to the swoosh of skis getting louder and louder on the other side of the river. It seemed like there were more and more men arriving in the area. It was absolutely forbidden to reveal the place of the guard post – and you were allowed to open fire as a warning only if the enemy was approaching you. That night I thought to myself that if I survive this, I will never again in my life be afraid of anything or anyone! And I haven’t been scared since. It was like a lesson for a young man”, Paavo said, reminiscing on what had happened. He continued: “In the morning, I was told that one of us three boys had died after being shot in the head with an explosive bullet. As far as I can remember, we had spent three nights on the front lines when we were informed about the ceasefire. Soon we were transported back from the front lines to the barracks in Jämäs. There, we handed in our weapons and equipment before being sent home. My Winter War had ended!”
However, he had to go back to war in just over a year’s time. At the start of the Continuation War, Paavo was stationed in the Savukoski area of Salla and later, in a separate unit for resisting partisans (in Finnish: Er.Os. Sau). The unit was called in to the Lapland War in order to expel the Germans from Finland. Paavo survived and came back home from Ivalo in November 1944.
After the war, Paavo worked as a policeman first in Yivieska and later in Salla, Sodankylä and Karunki, where he also settled with his family in the 1970s after retiring from the criminal investigation department in Tornio.
At the turn of the millennium, Paavo told me about his Winter War experiences in Kuhmo and about his dream of visiting the location one more time. Since I am interested in war history, Paavo’s words stayed with me. In Midsummer 2005, we travelled to Kuhmo and Kuusamo together.
After arriving in the centre of Kuhmo, we continued towards the Kiekinkoski rapids. First, we missed the place by accident. When we turned back, we met a local resident, who, after hearing our story, joined us and took us to the sites located on the Finnish side. We found the trenches where the tents and dugouts had been along the shore of the Kiekinkoski rapids. “I never thought I would return to this place in my lifetime”, Paavo said quietly, with tears in his eyes.
The story is based on the archives and interviews recorded by Seppo Katilainen, Paavo Katilainen’s nephew.