For Finland, the 26 July 1941 Battle of Bengtskar was akin to the Alamo in the United States—a victory with both military and moral significance. For Russia, it was the beginning of the end of its brief occupation of the port of Hanko and its attempts to move westward into the Baltic.
In 1939, two ports dominated the entrance to the Gulf of Finland: Hanko, in Finland, and Paldiski, in Estonia. Though on good terms, each country had gun batteries capable of reaching the shores of the other. Neither was a friend of Russia, which always had feared the closure of the Gulf of Finland, one contributing factor to the Russian attack on Finland that year. In April 1940, under the Treaty of Moscow, which ended the "Winter War" (from 30 November 1939 to 13 March 1940), Soviet troops took over Hanko as a base for seaplanes and small naval craft.
Bengtskar, a tiny island (about 120 meters by 250 meters) in the Gulf of Finland, lies about 25 kilometers west southwest of Hanko. Surrounding waters were so dangerous that the Finns erected a 52-meter lighthouse on the island in 1906. In 1914, when Finland was still a province of Russia, two German cruisers fired a 30-shell bombardment, which did no more than superficial damage to the building, the walls of which are about 2.5 meters thick at the base.
Once in Hanko, the Russians re-equipped former Finnish artillery positions on the islands of Russaro and HastoBuso with 130-mm batteries. In June 1940, Russia invaded Estonia, an operation that enabled its troops to dominate the Gulf of Finland from both sides. In September 1940, three 305-mm railway guns supplemented the Hanko batteries, thus securing the longed-for gates to Leningrad. Only one problem remained.
Natural features and Finnish presence in the surrounding islands restricted Russian naval access to Hanko to a north-south course, which brought all traffic into sight of several Finnish-held islands and within range of the island of Oro, where the Finns had a battery of two 305mm and four 152-mm guns.
On 25 June 1941, Finland joined in Nazi Germany's Operation Barbarossa as "co-belligerents," rather than as allies. For the first month of the "Continuation War"—as the period from Barbarossa to the cessation of hostilities on 19 September 1944 is known—the Russians drove the Finns out of the inshore islands. Then they turned their attention to two islands in the open sea: Morgonland and Bengtskar. Unless these could be cleared, the gates to Leningrad were vulnerable.
Morgonland is a small flat island close to the agreed boundary between the Finnish and Russian sea areas. In 1941 undersea telephone lines ran to the battery on Oro and to headquarters in Rosala, and a small observation party was stationed there. On 16 June, anticipating Barbarossa, the Finns withdrew their troops and mined the surrounding waters. On 25 June, the Russians shelled Morgonland and other Finnish positions on the mainland, setting several forest and scrub-brush fires; smoke from these fires played a part in the subsequent battles.
The local Finnish commander, a major named Moring, decided to re-occupy Morgonland, and on 6 July, First Lieutenant Fred Luther landed alone to assess the situation. Three days later, five men under command of First Lieutenant Per-Erik Ahlbad replaced Luther. On the night of 15 to 16 July, following a prolonged bombardment, the Russians attacked. From two MO (Malyi Ochotnik, or Small Hunter) boats, 60 marines came ashore and after a brief battle captured the six Finns. Only Private Arvi Nyman, the communications operator, survived captivity. Official records are fragmentary, contradictory, and confused. What follows is based principally on Lieutenant Luther's testimony and signals records from Oro.
Following the loss of Morgonland, the Finns decided that Bengtskar, the only remaining observation post, should be reinforced. On 20 July, Luther and 26 men of the 2d Rannikkoiskukompania (Coastal Shock Company) arrived to garrison the island armed with old Swedish Mauser rifles, machine-pistols, heavy machine guns, hand grenades, and kasapanos, a form of "satchel charge" that played a decisive role in the subsequent battle. They put a lookout in the tower and two sentries on patrol at night. On 23 July, a 20-mm Madsen antiaircraft cannon crew reinforced them. Their closest artillery support was in Oro, 13 kilometers away, which, with a second battery on Granholm, had prearranged fire plans for the island.
Encouraged by the interrogation of Ahlblad and his men, which suggested that Bengtskir was only lightly guarded, the Russians decided to attack. In fine weather and daylight—in July, night on Bengtskar lasts only from about 2300 to 0230—the island is almost impossible to approach unseen. Consequently, the Russians' plans called for a night attack in poor weather. In this they were lucky: the nights were quite misty, a condition made worse by smoke from the fires.
The task was given to First Lieutenant P. Kurilov and senior politruk (political commissar) A. I. Rumjantsev, each of whom commanded two groups of 30 men of a Border Guard (not a regular army unit, hence its unusual structure) detachment, transported in an MO boat. A third boat carried a demolition squad to destroy the lighthouse. In all, seven boats were involved.
The Russians made various preparations for the assault, which surprisingly did not alert the Finns. First, they laid mines around Bengtskar. Second, they made repeated air attacks on two Finnish gunboats, the Vainamoinen and the Ilmarinen—thought by the Russians to present a real threat to the operation-together with two older vessels, the Uusimaa and the Hameenmaa, which formed Task Force Auvinen, named after the commander of the Hameenmaa. The Finns also had a number of 32-ton wooden craft, known as VMV boats, capable of 20 knots and with excellent seagoing characteristics, but they were armed only with 20-mm cannon and considered no match for the Russian MO boats.
On 25 July, 3 lighthouse keepers and 37 men guarded Bengtskar. Just before midnight, the Russians, armed with light automatic weapons and grenades, embarked in the PK238 and PK312, followed shortly after by the PK311, which carried supplies and a demolition squad. They went due south by Rossaro, then headed west to approach Bengtskar from the south. The PK238 reached the southern promontory first, landing immediately below the terrace in front of the accommodation building.
A lance corporal named Ryhanen was on guard in the tower at about 0100 (Finnish local time, three hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time in summer), when he saw movement on the water and challenged the boats by signal lamp. Instead of returning the correct response, the Russians simply repeated his signal. Unfortunately, Ryhanen's Morse Code was not good, and he tried twice before raising the alarm.
Simultaneously, the Russians reached the shore and spread out for a three-pronged attack. One group secured the western flank. The center group, commanded by Kurilov and his intelligence officer, First Lieutenant M. Belikov, had the lighthouse as their objective. The eastern group under Rumjantsev probably had the Madsen cannon as its objective.
On the southern side of the island, a private named Nystrand was on patrol. He saw nothing of the advancing Russians until the last moment, when he ran to the tower screaming: "Ryssat! Ryssat!" ("Russkies! Russkies!") He then hid in the lighthouse cellar, where he was later discovered and killed.
Corporal Esko Nurmi, together with privates named Virtanen and Kajander, ran to the 20mm Madsen in its sandbagged emplacement. Nurmi and Virtanen began firing on the Russian boats, but Kajander panicked and hid among the rocks, where he was later killed. Corporal Bjelke, with privates named Eriksson, Gustafsson, and Aberg, ran out toward the outhouses and from there fired on the Russians' flank for about 30 minutes until Aberg was killed. They were forced to withdraw through the north door of the lighthouse, where Eriksson also was killed. (Some accounts have Bjelke firing from outhouses to the south of the lighthouse, which was most unlikely. Others have outhouses to the west of the lighthouse. This was possible, but they would have restricted the fire of the Madsen. No traces exist of foundations to the south or west, so Bjelke and his men must have been to the east.)
Lieutenant Luther and three men—Corporal Sandberg, Private Einar Holmstrom (a machine-gunner), and a Private Gerkman—ran out onto the terrace in front of the Russians. Gerkman died after killing a Russian in hand-to-hand combat. Sandberg died beside Gerkman, and Holmstrom went down when his machine-gun jammed. According to more highly colored accounts, he fell back into Luther's arms, murmuring: "Fulltriff, pojkar!" ("Direct hit, lads!"). Luther, wounded severely in the arm and mouth by a grenade, withdrew into the south door of the tower.
Rumjantsev's group began taking fire immediately on the flank—which could have come only from the area of the sauna and fuel stores—and Rumjantsev was killed. This supports the contention that Bjelke and his men fired from that area, since no other sources of fire existed.
The Russians were not in a good tactical position. While the rocks and the dead ground below the terrace wall afforded some protection, they needed to climb the 1.5meter-high wall and cross at least 30 meters of open ground to the foot of the tower. The Finns, on the second and upper floors of the building, had a strong defensive position. Luther made his way to the dressing station in the radio room on the third floor, where he found Private Anjalin—by all accounts, a tall, powerful man—with one of the kasapanos, which he asked permission to throw into the dead ground below the terrace wall. Anjalin threw the charge, killing or wounding about ten Russians, including Kurilov, their leader. Anjalin was killed shortly afterward.
The duty watch in Oro received an alarm from the Bengtskar radio operator at 0106 and sent out a general alert. (Bengtskar's call sign was "Farao 4," literally "Pharaoh 4." But it was a short step from "Pharaoh" to "Pharos"—lighthouse-a badly chosen code name indeed.) From Rosala, Major Moring ordered the batteries in Oro and Granholm to fire on the waters around Bengtskar, alerted the gunboats in Hogsfra, and called for air support. Oro opened fire at 0126; Granholm at 0141. In contact with Rosala, Luther directed the fire onto his own positions using no more than a marching compass. The MO boats, which had been circling the island, firing at the lighthouse with their 45-mm cannons and antiaircraft artillery, were forced to withdraw.
At about 0200, three Finnish patrol boats, with a force of rannikkojaakari (loosely translated, "coastal light infantry"), came inshore under heavy Russian fire and attempted to land. This was unsuccessful, and at about 0230, two of the boats withdrew into the mist, while one remained. The Uusimaa and the Hameenmaa, which were in transit to Oro, were ordered to divert to Bengtskar.
Finally, a few Russians close to the tower made a desperate attempt to enter and succeeded. The defenders retreated to the upper floors, leaving much of their ammunition and grenades behind. Surprisingly, the Russians made only one attempt to rush the staircase and were repelled by the defenders' last grenade, thrown by Corporal Bjelke. Had the Russians made further attempts, they probably would have succeeded, for the Finns had no more grenades and were running low on ammunition.
At around 0345, the Uusimaa and the Hameenmaa, together with the patrol boat VMV13, arrived and began to drive the Russian boats away. At about the same time, Russian batteries on the island of Russaro opened fire on Bengtskar but were countered by fire from the 305-mm battery on Oro. The Hameenmaa took some hits. Her chief engineer was killed, and the firing system on one of the 102-mm guns was damaged; undaunted, the gunners continued to fire using a marlin spike and hammer to ignite the primer.
Meanwhile, the two Madsen gunners continued their lonely battle, having prevented the Russian demolition squad in the PK311 from landing. With ammunition running low and no hope of reaching the lighthouse, Private Virtanen suggested taking to the sea and swimming to the uninhabited islet of Dormanskar, about 2 kilometers away. Nurmi had never before swum more than 20 meters, so he advised Virtanen, a strong swimmer, to go by himself. Virtanen jumped in, swam around the cape, and was rescued by one of the VMV boats. Shortly afterward, Nurmi noticed three green helmets behind a nearby rock. This greatly increased his confidence in himself as a swimmer. Stripping off, Nurmi jumped into the sea and, despite being fired upon, made it to Dormanskar.
At about 0400, Luther was wounded for the second time, and Corporal Bjelke took command of the survivors, who retreated to the third and fourth floors. At about 0430, the VMV13 approached the island, and 12 men under command of 2nd Lieutenant P. Asvig attempted a landing by rowboat. Asvig and a matros (usually translated as "able seaman") were killed, and the others were pinned down in the water. Though this group had little immediate practical effect on the battle, and its subsequent role in the battle never has been explained satisfactorily, its effect on the morale of the men in the tower was enormous. Another matros, R. Soderblom, came out bravely from the VMV13 by rowboat to take off the wounded, himself being wounded in the process.
Between 0400 and 0500, two Finnish groups left Rosala and Oro to mount a counterattack on Bengtskar. The first, from the 4th Coastal Company in Rosala, under First Lieutenant M. Kaikkonen, comprised at least 35 men (or a maximum of 60, depending upon which official account is accurate) in four converted fishing craft. The second, under a Lieutenant Backlund, consisted of 41 (or as few as 23) volunteers from the Oro garrison, in three minesweepers.
Shortly before 0600, three Russian MO boats arrived, with the apparent intention of evacuating survivors, but were driven back. One, the PK238, succeeded in coming close inshore, but the Uusimaa scored a direct hit from 4,000 meters, and the Russian vessel exploded. The VMV13 rescued 16 survivors.
At 0603, Kaikkonen's force, protected on the flanks by the minesweepers Lahna and Muikku, landed on the eastern side of Bengtskir. The attack proved much slower than expected, but after about an hour the relievers reached the lighthouse, 30 meters from their landing point. On reaching the tower, Kaikkonen and his men had to subdue the remaining Russians on the ground floor with grenades and the ever-effective kasapanos.
By 0915, the rescuers reached the third floor, the whole of the tower was back in Finnish hands, and the wounded were brought down to the first floor for treatment. Those Russians who failed to surrender were grenaded where they lay among the rocks, and some chose to die by their own hands. Around midday, the first major group of Russians, all badly wounded, surrendered.
At 1300, two Russian boats approached the island, firing at the lighthouse as if preparing for a fresh landing. Again, the Finnish vessels drove them away. One of the Russian railway batteries in Hanko fired ten rounds at the island, of which only one hit the lighthouse, doing superficial damage. The last pocket of resistance succumbed at 1405.
At 1325, 18 Russian "SB" bombers attacked the Ilmarinen and the Vainamoinen, causing slight damage to the former. Throughout the day, Russian fighter bombers attacked the Finnish vessels on 32 occasions, with little effect. In late afternoon, further VMV craft arrived, and the larger vessels returned to Oro to refuel and rearm. At about 0330, the naval staff ordered the Ilmarinen and the Vainamoinen to withdraw toward Hogsara, where they would be placed better to intercept any major Russian vessels—a threat that never materialized.
Clearing began at about 0600 on 27 July. Since it was impossible to bury the dead in the solid rock of Bengtskar, Russian bodies were taken back to the mainland and buried in cemeteries on Dragsfjard and Oro, though many continue to maintain that the dead Russians were wrapped in barbed wire and pushed into the sea. But the fight was not yet over.
At mid-day, two Russian bombers appeared, with an escort of three fighters that first strafed the island. One bomb hit the accommodation block, passing through the roof and four floors before exploding on the first floor, where the wounded were being tended. Corporal Bjelke, who had fought so heroically, was wounded badly, losing his right hand and an eye. A second bomb hit the oil store, which caught fire, creating heavy smoke. With the Russians enjoying temporary air superiority, the Finns urgently requested air cover from Turku, 80 kilometers to the north.
The Finns began rescue operations but were hampered when the wind changed, fanning the flames and blowing smoke into the accommodation block. Eventually, the building was cleared, and 13 of the wounded were found dead. The battle had been costly, and the defenders' temper did not improve when fighter cover took three hours to be organized from Turku. At about 2000, the gunboat Karjala arrived, adding some protection from her own antiaircraft artillery batteries.
On the following day, 28 July, more reinforcements arrived from Oro, bringing with them a 40-mm Bofors gun. At around 1400, two Russian flying boats approached. The first was shot down, and the second was hit and disappeared, trailing smoke.
Although the fight seemed to be over, the Finns expected the Russians to try again and prepared further defensive measures. But the attack never came, and within six months the Russians, being pushed ever further back on the mainland by the advancing Germans, abandoned Hanko as untenable.
The official Finnish figures for killed and wounded were 16 rannikkojddkdri, 3 able seamen, and Lieutenant Asvig killed, and 17 wounded. Official Finnish estimates of Russians killed were: 39 soldiers, plus Lieutenant Kurilov and politruk Rumjantsev. Taken prisoner were 13 Russians, all wounded. These figures seem to be a considerable underestimate and take no account of those who were killed when the Uusimaa scored a direct hit on the PK238, from which the VMV13 rescued 13 survivors. Nor do they take account of wounded Russians who slid from the rocks into the sea and drowned.
The lighthouse reopened in 1950. In 1966, a memorial plaque to the Finnish dead was unveiled; it stands today at the entrance to the tower. Since 1990, the island has been maintained as a memorial, museum, and conference center. Visitors may reach the island by boat, either from Hanko or Kasnas, a journey of about two hours.
Mr. Whetton is a technical writer, journalist, and military historian based in Tampere, Finland. For this article, he acknowledges his wife Eija for logistical support, translations, and assistance in obtaining photographs and other material; the Wilson family, for their hospitality on Bengtskar and for access to archive material; and Jarto Niemi, for invaluable comments, explanations, and references.