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Kuusamo at war 1939–1945

WWII was exceptionally harsh for the people of the border region  

As residents of the border region, the experience of WWII was particularly harsh for the Kuusamo inhabitants: young men fighting on the fronts, women in maintenance duties, people on the home front doing public works under emergency conditions. Civilians – children, the young, women, and the aged – became war refugees first after the outbreak of the Winter War in November 1939, and again in September 1944, at the beginning of the Lapland War. Returning home for the second time, the evacuees were faced with war-torn country where most of the housing had been destroyed, and one-fifth of the land had been ceded to the Soviet Union in the peace treaty. The parish war heroes’ memorial plaque has 448 names from the war years of 1939-1944, and a large number of children died on the evacuation journey. 

  • In autumn 1939, the German invasion of Poland and the Soviet pressure on Finland to cede its territories had an impact in Kuusamo, as the reservists were invited to an extra military refresher course in mid-October. 

    Pekka Tirkkonen, the head of the civil guard, brought call-up orders to Tavajärvi: 

    ”The faces of the recipients went grim. The women’s eyes turned watery. Ploughing and onion trimming had to be left unfinished. The weather was cool, Lake Tavajärvi was still open, although the shores were already crusted with ice. In Kuusamo, however, the general feeling was that there would be no war.”  


  • On the last day of November, the Soviet Army attacked North Finland with four divisions. The Finns lost the Suomussalmi parish village on 7 December. The Salla parish village was taken over by the Red Army on 8 December. No major battles were fought in Kuusamo. The Kuusamo men were transferred mainly to Alassalmi, Suomussalmi, to repel an enemy regiment attacking from the direction of Juntusranta. After heavy fighting, the Finns forced the Soviet troops to retreat to the border.

    Finnish soldiers examining war booty captured from the Red Army on the north side of Lake Kiantajärvi, Suomussalmi, in December 1940. 

    PHOTO SA-kuva 

  • As soon as the war began, the Soviets attacked the border stations of Kuusamo, which started the rapid evacuation of the inhabitants of the border villages. In some places there was such a rush to leave that loaves of bread were left baking in the ovens as the residents fled half-naked to the woods. 

    When the evacuations were complete, all the buildings in the border villages were burned down by retreating Finnish soldiers, in order to prevent the Soviets from using them as accommodation for their soldiers. 

    Lempi Nevala from Kiviranta, Heikkilä, recalled the first night of the evacuation journey: 

    “We had a new shed for ten cows. Dear me, then they were all burned down. On that same night we knew that there was our home in flames. During the same night, all the homes in that village were burned.” 

    Apart from the border areas, Kuusamo could be evacuated in fairly peaceful conditions. By mid-December, all the 8,900 people to be evacuated had been transferred to municipalities along the rivers Iijoki and Kiiminkijoki. Old farmers, young women, and boys drove the cattle along forest paths through the southern parts of Posio and following the direction of Ouluntie road to the evacuation destinations. 

    The people of village communities were evacuated to the same locations. “Just like a map of home it was, as we were together with the neighbours,” Toivo Murtovaara recalled. The placement of large families in particular was difficult. The living conditions were cramped and also dreary. There were not enough beds for everyone in the small bedrooms and farmhouse livingrooms, and many people had to sleep on the cold floors. Food was plentiful, as the summer of 1939 had been warm and productive in Finland, the evacuee families got meat and milk from their own cattle, and other necessities were traded from shops with cards provided by the authorities. The evacuees tended cattle, cut firewood, knitted wool socks for soldiers, and did other everyday chores. In the evenings, young people gathered to farmhouse livingrooms where they could listen to war reports on the radio. 

    Evacuees about to leave from Kuusamo in September 1944. Pictured in the yard of Pohjolan Osakepankki bank: Pentti, Martti, Liisa, Aarne and Kersti Alavuotunki.  

    PHOTO Wesa Rinne Photo Archive 

  • During the evacuations, a large number of evacuated children under the age of one became ill and died of the epidemic of measles and whooping cough that had spread to the north. In 1940, mothers from Kuusamo gave birth to 360 children, of whom 130 died in their first year of life. Due to the poor health of the children, the construction of a children’s hospital was started in Porkkatörmä after the Winter War. The hospital was completed in 1944. 

    Evacuees on the way from Kuusamo to Oulainen in September 1944. In the background the bell-tower of Vihanti. Pellervo Koivunen is riding a bike.  

    PHOTO Wesa Rinne Photo Archive 

  • The Winter War ended with the Moscow Peace Treaty signed on 12 March 1940. In accordance with the terms of the treaty, some areas from Kuusamo were ceded to the Soviet Union: Paanajärvi, Tavajärvi, Siikajärvi, Vatajärvi, Enojärvi, Pukari and Kenttijärvi. 1,638 square kilometres of land and the homes of 2,100 people were left on the Soviet side of the border. Due to the formation of a border zone between Finland and the Soviet Union, 900 other Kuusamo residents could not return to their homes. At the time, there were 13,472 inhabitants in the entire municipality of Kuusamo. 

    During the years of the Interim Peace 1940–1941, a defensive line stretching over the area Iijärvi–Vanttajankangas–Kuusamojärvi–Saapunki–Nissinjärvi was built in Kuusamo. The line was a part of the nationwide line of defence called the Salpa Line, constructed to protect the eastern border. The Salpa Line extended along Finland’s eastern border from Virolahti to Savukoski. In Finland, the Winter War and the terms of peace that ended it were perceived as a great injustice, and due to the political situation in the world, another offensive by the Soviet Union was dreaded. Finland turned to Germany for protection. 

    Funeral of major Bror Kurt Breitholtz in Kuusamo’s church on the 29th of November 1941. Breitholtz served as the commander of Kuusamo’s border troops during the peacetime. He fell at Lohivaara, Kiestinki on 21st of November 1941.


    Still a boy, but doing a man’s work during the war. Poussu village, Kuusamo, 1942.  

    PHOTO Aukusti Tuhka 

  • Finland found itself at war with the Soviet Union, when Soviet planes bombed Finnish airports and ports on 25 June 1941. This had been preceded by Finland’s close co-operation with the German Army, and an invasion of the Soviet Union launched by Germany on 22 June 1941. The first German soldiers arrived in Kuusamo in early June and were accommodated in tents in the parish village. 

    Across the border from Kuusamo, the Finnish armed forces started an offensive against the Soviet Union on 1 July 1941 and advanced in three weeks to River Sohjananjoki, an important Soviet line of defence. Supported by German dive bombers and reinforcement troops, the Finns crossed River Sohjananjoki and advanced to Kiestinki, from where the attack continued along the railway line towards the Murman Railway in the direction of Louhi. The offensive was stalled by heavy resistance, and the Finnish troops were encircled in late August. Many soldiers from Kuusamo died in these battles. By the end of November, the offensive on this front turned into stabilized war that lasted until the end of the Continuation War. Frontal responsibility was transferred to the Germans, and Finnish troops were transported further south to fight near Uhtua. In spring 1944, the troops were transferred to the major battles of the Karelia Isthmus. 

    By the end of 1941, the territories that had been ceded to the Soviet Union after the Winter War were reattached to Finland. Some of the population of the ceded areas returned to rebuild their destroyed homes during the Continuation War, until the evacuations started again in September 1944. The civilian population of Kuusamo endured numerous attacks by Soviet desants [paratroopers] during the Continuation War. The attacks were mostly targeted at remote houses whose inhabitants were killed by the desants. 

    In addition to Finns, some 20,000 German soldiers took part in the Kiestinki offensive. For maintenance purposes, several large barracks, service buildings, a military hospital, and prison camps were erected in Kuusamo parish village. The area along Kitkantie road leading from the parish village to Rantalahti was called Little Berlin. The civil guard house had an office for the German commandant, a canteen, and an assembly hall where German propaganda films were shown. In 1942–44, the Germans built a narrow-gauge railway called Kenttärata (Field Railway) from Hyrynsalmi via Suomussalmi and Taivalkoski to Kuusamo. The work was done mainly as forced labour by Soviet and other prisoners of war. Today, the mass graves of dead prisoners can still be seen along the line of the track. 

    Finnish troops advancing east near Kiestinki in late autumn 1941.  

    PHOTO SA-kuva 

  • The residents were ordered to leave Kuusamo for the second time when Finland withdrew from the Continuation War. On 19 September 1944, a Finnish delegation signed the Moscow Armistice with the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom in Moscow. The separate peace with the Soviet Union led to a war in Lapland between Finland and Germany, because the terms of the armistice demanded that the Finns expel the remaining German troops, approximately 200,000 soldiers, from northern Finland. The residents of northern Finland had to be relocated south of the Oulu–River Oulujoki line. 

    On 8 September 1944, an order to evacuate the entire Kuusamo area was received. In about two weeks, the residents were transferred to safety to municipalities south of Oulu. On 17 September, having completed its mission, the evacuation company left Kuusamo and saw the blazes of fires started by the Germans in the east and northeast. At that time, Soviet troops had already crossed the border settled in the Moscow Peace Treaty. 

    On 9 October 1944, the Finnish border guards on securing duty encountered a Soviet patrol in the village of Kuolio, where a barrier was erected. It served as a “temporary border post” between the Finns and the Soviets that occupied Kuusamo. Civilians from Kuusamo were allowed to explore the situation in their home area while the Soviets were still in Kuusamo. The last Soviet troops left Kuusamo on 17 November 1944, after blowing up, among other things, the concrete bunkers of the Salpa Line fortifications. 

    Evacuees in Ouluntie road, on the journey away from Kuusamo. 

    PHOTO Wesa Rinne Photo Archive 

  • During the war, the Kuusamo parish village in its entirety and the majority of the whole municipality had been destroyed and, due to cessions of territory, a significant part of the population had been left homeless. The residents were able to return to Kuusamo in the summer of 1945 at the latest. Field work awaited at home. The country was in dire need of food. The parish village residents who had lost their homes in the devastation of the war initially lived in dugouts built by the Soviets, and the people of remote villages lived in various temporary dwellings. Some of the displaced people from the ceded border villages remained permanently living in the evacuation locations. 

    As a young man, Sulo Nissi from Nissinvaara returned from evacuation in a horse-drawn sleigh: 

    I remember when we came to Toranginaho, on Christmas Eve and a beautiful moonshine it was. I was looking around and thought that Kuusamo had become all flat. I asked the driver where we can go for the night, and the old man said that we’ll find lodging for sure, we’ll just ride along this sleigh road. We rode through the Four-way Crossroads. There was no one out. The village was all empty, there were only chimneys and the cold wind blowing.”  

    Kuusamo military cemetery in 1945. The ruins of the church in the background. 

    PHOTO Aukusti Tuhka 

Kari Kantola, MA
Riina Puurunen, Writer

Jonna Lohi, Pivot Translations