The Winter War started in Kuhmo on 30 November 1939, in the village of Laamasenvaara in Saunajärvi, when the Soviet troops invaded the Ala-Laamanen village. The enemy’s intention was to advance to the centre of Kuhmo and continue from there to Kajaani and Oulu.
This is a story about the events at the start of the war and about the destinies of residents of the border villages in the Kuhmo region.
In autumn 1939, the situation had become tense in Europe. Germany and the Soviet Union divided Poland, and the Western powers declared war on Germany. The Soviet Union exerted pressure on the Baltic countries, demanding to use their military bases. Meanwhile, in negotiations, territorial cessions were demanded from Finland, but the requests were denied.
The Soviet Union started preparing an attack into the Kuhmo region already around Midsummer. Sounds of explosions could be heard from the other side of the state borders, and they were getting gradually closer. At the logging site of Kuusijärvi and in houses in the area, such as in Laamasenvaara, people were listening to the sounds, wondering what was causing them. In July, the border guards found out that a road was being built towards the Finnish border. More and more frequently, the border guards saw Russian soldiers in the vicinity of the border. Although there were some threatening signs, people did not think that a war would break out.
Because of the situation, the Finnish Border Guard in Kainuu reinforced its surveillance measures and the military unit located in Riihivaara was reinforced by drafting reservists to service. When the Winter War broke out, there was already whole platoon of soldiers under the leadership of six border guards in this region.
The families of brothers Juho and Antti Malinen lived in Ala-Laamanen, Laamasenvaara. Pekka Korhonen and his family lived in Ylä-Laamanen, approximately one kilometre away. The field patrol of the border company was stationed further south in Hiilikko, only connected to Laamasenvaara by a narrow sleigh-road. In the morning of the last day of November, a guard was running from the border, announcing breathlessly that “a patrol of fourteen Russians crossed the border! It was headed towards Laamasenvaara!”
Events began to unfold in the border villages already before the official announcement.
When the border guard station in Riihivaara was informed about the outbreak of war, border guard officer Unto Kimpimäki and private Väinö Tauriainen were sent to inform people of the evacuation order.
However, things began to happen in the border villages already before the official announcement. The householder of Ylä-Laamanen Pekka Korhonen had heard gunshots from the border and headed off towards Hiilikko to find out what was going on. Along the way, he met Kimpimäki and Tauriainen who told him that they were on their way to take the evacuation notice to Laamasenvaara. Upon his arrival in Hiilikko, Korhonen was told to return immediately and evacuate his family.
In Laamasenvaara, people were taking their time with the evacuation. They stayed back to wait for the men to return from the mill with their horse in order to put the children and pack their things in the sleigh. As they were waiting for the men, the matron of the house, Sofi, started making coffee for the patrol. When her daughter Anna went to the porch to get some water for coffee, she was met by Russian soldiers. Anna rushed back into the kitchen with a Red Army soldier behind her. Taken off guard, Kimpimäki and Tauriainen were quick to react and managed to chase away the uninvited guests by waving their rifles in the air.
Angered by this, the Russians started throwing hand grenades in through the windows, but Kimpimäki and Tauriainen managed to fling them back out, landing right in the middle of the enemy. They were too slow to pick up one of the hand grenades, and it exploded in the corner of the kitchen. The children Anna and Erkki were hit by shrapnel. Kimpimäki took charge and told the family to find shelter behind the wood stove while they were trying to help the wounded.
Meanwhile Juho and Antti’s son Eino were approaching with their mill load, unaware of the situation. Unsuspectingly, they arrived at their front yard. When they were by their fence, the Soviet troops opened fire at them. Juho tried to turn the horse back in the direction where they had come from, but at that point, Eino, who had been sitting on the mill load, was hit. The boy fell dead to the ground. At first, Juho tried to find shelter from behind a tree stump, but then he started running towards the Yli-Laamanen house. Kimpimäki, who was watching the events from inside the house, opened fire at the enemy and helped Juho escape.
At that point, the yard was full of Russians, and soldiers lined the sides of the buildings, so Kimpimäki and Tauriainen decided to head to the border guard station for some backup. Kimpimäki was the first to jump out of the window and he managed to run into the forest to take shelter, but Tauriainen fell onto the field by enemy bullet. Eino Malinen, aged only 13, and private Tauriainen were the first victims of the Winter War in Kuhmo.
The Russians captured the Ala-Laamanen family from inside the cottage and transported them to Kontupohja. Hilkka and Eila, the one- and three-year-old daughters of Juho and Hanna Malinen, died on the way to prison. All others apart from Antti returned home in 1940 in connection with the exchange of war prisoners. Antti was sent all the way to Ural as a prisoner of war and released only later.
People heard sounds of the skirmish in Yli-Laamanen, located only about one kilometre away. Right then, the children of the family, Väinö and Esteri, were collecting wood from the Ala-Laamanen area with their horse. When they heard the gunshots, they rushed back to their home farm. The master of the house was visiting the guards to query about the situation and his wife Anni was alone at home with their nine children. They quickly put their horse in front of the sleigh and headed over to Riihivaara and then to Löytövaara, to escape the approaching enemy troops. They were in such a hurry that the mother had put her shoes on the wrong feet and left her glasses inside.
As the bullets were whizzing through the air, they rode their sleigh downhill to protect themselves from the gunfire.
The father, after running himself ragged, spotted his family from further afield. He only felt at ease when he noticed that everyone was inside the sleigh. As the bullets were whizzing through the alder bushes, the Korhonen’s rode their sleigh downhill to protect themselves from the gunfire. Juho continued to flee and managed to distract the Soviet patrol sent after him before his arrival in Kälkäs.
The Russians who turned up in Laamasenvaara were soldiers from a regiment of the 54th Division that lead the attack. Finnish troops tried to stop the overpowered attacker from advancing. They had some luck in Kuusijoki and Niskakoski – and finally, ten kilometres before the village centre in Jyrkänkoski. They halted the attack of a smaller enemy group in Tyrävaara in the Kiekinkoski area and fought back.
After the turn of the year, the Finnish troops stationed in the Kuhmo region were reinforced. This way, they managed to divide the enemy division that had invaded Finland in January and February into smaller sections or mottis. At first, the front lines were formed in Kuusijoki and from there, they had to retreat to the Löytövaara area. There, the defence line held until the end of the war.
The Winter War ended on 13 March 1940. Finland did not have to cede Kuhmo to the Soviet Union, and it became one of the few battle sites remaining completely under Finnish reign. Kuhmo remained a war zone until the end of April and the border villages until the summer, after which people were allowed to return to their homes.
This story is based on various sources: the archives of retired Border Guard Officer Henrik J. Vuokkola and an unpublished article submitted to the ‘Kansa taisteli’ magazine ”Epätavallinen lähitaistelu Laamasenvaaralla” [Unusual Close-Quarters Combat in Laamasenvaara]; archival sources of Hilkka Tampio, Director of the Winter War Museum in Kuhmo (HS 13.3.2000, Raija Forsström); the book ”Rajan kansan taistelu” [Battles of the Border Nation], Kauko Pulkkinen (Kuhmon kirjapaino, 1992); the speech of commanding officer, Colonel Mika Rytkönen at the event commemorating the 80th anniversary of the start of the Winter War in Kilpelänkangas, Kuhmo, published by Kainuun Rajavartioston Kilta ry.