World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                          Monica Hills 

Memories of the "Winter War" and the "Continuation War" between Finland and the Soviet Union 1939-1944

By actiondesksheffield

People in story: Monica Hills
Location of story: Finland, Norway
Background to story: Civilian


This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Roger Marsh of the ‘Action Desk – Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Monica Hills,.

Memories of the "Winter War" and the "Continuation War" between Finland and the
Soviet Union 1939-1944
Monica Hills

On November 30th 1939, the Soviet Union declared war on Finland by unexpectedly dropping bombs on the capital, Helsinki. I was three years old at the time and within a few hours, my whole life was thrown into chaos. Life suddenly became dangerous. My family had close friends in Oslo and as my father had been called up, and my mother was seven months pregnant, it was decided that it would be safer for us to go to Norway and my mother to give birth in Oslo rather than in Helsinki. I remember little of the journey but we must have travelled by boat to Stockholm and then by train to Oslo.

Norway was not yet involved in the war, but food must have been in short supply and I remember being made to eat boiled cod and potatoes. We were not the only people staying with this wonderful family. There were some Polish relatives who had fled Poland when the communists invaded their country on September 17th 1939. My little sister arrived safely on February 3rd 1940. We lived high up on Holmenkollen with a wonderful view over a snow-covered Oslo, and I remember trying out my first skis.

On March 12th 1940 the peace agreement between the Soviet Union and Finland was signed and the so-called "Winter War" was at an end. As soon as it was safe, my mother, sister and I flew back to Finland. My father and grandfather met us at the airport. This I remember clearly and also my delight in being able to show off my little baby sister. We must have left just in time because a few weeks later, the Germans invaded Norway and the family we had stayed with were tortured and interrogated because they had been part of the resistance movement.

We then had a few months of a fairly settled existence before war broke out again in June 1940. The family lived in a flat in Helsinki at this time and certainly for the first few months of the war, life carried on much as it did before the war. But as time went on, life became more and more dangerous. The sirens would sound several times a day and also at night, and we had to run into the large bomb shelters together with hundreds of other people from the neighbourhood. I remember on several occasions, shopping in town with my mother when the sirens sounded and we had to run fast into the nearest shelter. These were all large underground shelters, unheated of course, but there must have been some sort of lighting because I don't remember sitting in darkness. Maybe we had candles or torches when the electricity failed.

In the block of flats where we lived, there was a large basement, in which each flat had its own storeroom, which could also act as a larder. Each storeroom was padlocked and had the name of the owner printed on the door. As the war progressed and the sirens continued to sound, both during the day and at night, it became too tiring and impractical to rush out into the freezing temperatures (sometimes minus 20 degrees C) to reach the safer, communal underground shelters. Therefore we began to use the basement of the block of flats more and more.

The first time I remember being really frightened was an occasion when we were all down in this basement and a bomb tell only a few yards away. The air pressure was such that the padlocked doors to the storerooms flew open and we were all suddenly plunged into darkness. Then there was complete silence until the all clear sounded. It was the terrific loud sound of the bomb falling and the sudden darkness that were so frightening, coupled with not knowing what was going to happen next.

When we eventually came back upstairs we found that all the windows had been shattered with glass everywhere and the flat was freezing cold. As children, we of course went out the following day to have a look round and I remember a large crater and a lot of rubble. People had been killed but fortunately no one that we knew.

My next memory is of going to visit my mother and a second little sister in hospital whilst the bombs were falling all around us. I had a new winter coat made from my grandfather's old dressing gown. This was in late March 1943 and it was still very cold, and I remember walking through drifts of snow in the streets. The streets had not been cleared for several days. There was no one to do it. All the men were fighting in the war and the women were driving the trams and trains. There was no bus service as such, as all the buses were needed in the war.

The bombing became more and more intense and with three small children, it became too
dangerous to remain in the city. The family had a country estate situated a few kilometres northwest of Helsinki, where my grandfather lived with his second wife (my grandmother having died many years earlier). The bakery on the estate, that was no longer in use, was converted to a little house and we moved in. I have a vivid memory of my father suddenly turning up in the early hours of the morning unexpectedly, unshaven and in his uniform, having walked all night as there was no reliable public transport. He was able to stay for only a few hours and when he left saw him give my mother a gun.

These were dangerous times and Finland's situation was becoming increasingly more precarious. By this time, Poland and the Baltic States had been invaded by the Soviet Union and many felt it was only a question of time before Finland would suffer the same fate. In the peace agreement after the winter war in March 1940, Russia had already received 16,000 square miles of Finnish territory.

There has always been a close link between the Nordic countries and now, in the face of war, Sweden and Denmark offered to help. This was particularly true of Sweden.
Finland was part of Sweden until 1809 when the entire country was lost to Russia as part of the Napoleonic wars. Finland then became a Grand Duchy of Russia. My grandfather,
together with many Finnish officers served in the army of Tsar Alexander I, until Finland
gained its independence from Russia on December 6th 1917.

Throughout the war, Finnish children had been evacuated to Sweden and Denmark. With the political situation worsening and Finland's future becoming more and more uncertain, the decision to send us to Sweden was taken. In June 1944 my mother with the three of us boarded a boat headed for Stockholm, where we were met by the families who were going to look after us. I stayed with a family who my parents had met on a skiing holiday before the war. My younger sister stayed with the grandparents of this family and my youngest sister, who was only fifteen months old, stayed with an elderly paediatrician and his wife. I was very unhappy and I can still remember the utter despair I felt when I began to realise the full implications of what had happened.

The family I was with could not have been nicer or more caring but I had said "good-bye" to my mother and I knew full well that I might never see my parents or my country again.
We were some of the 70,000 children who were evacuated during the war. Looking back
now I feel an immense gratitude towards these hospitable and loving families who looked after us for eight months.

The Soviet-Finnish armistice was signed on December 19th 1944.

We eventually returned home again by boat, but this time with both our parents on board.
The date was March 1945. We came back to a different country; Finland had lost large areas to Russia along its eastern border and Russia had also annexed an area northwest of Helsinki, giving them access to the Gulf of Finland. The farm where we had grown up was in this area. It had gone and everything else with it There was nothing in the shops apart from paper shoes, suitcases made from cardboard and sweets consisting of dried pieces of carrot flavoured with saccharine.

As far as food went, we returned yet again to a diet of herring and potatoes. Until our life
became more settled we lived to begin with in a tiny one-bed roomed cottage deep in the
countryside. The washing facilities were primitive and the lavatory was outside - but we
were happy.

Of course the war years had left scars but we had been fortunate in many ways. We returned to a country that remained free and independent in spite of having lost the war, and most important of all, we had all survived and were together again as a family.