First Finnish Victory in the Winter War

The Coast Brigade cherishes the traditions of several forces operating along the coast. Preserving traditions is a complex task. In order to honor the work of former coastal defenders and to preserve traditions, we will publish a few articles during the year from the anniversary of the Coast Brigade on 30 August 2021 on the activities of our traditional forces or events in the Gulf of Finland, mainly during World War II.

Already on the second day of the Winter War, the Finnish Coastal Artillery achieved its first victory in combat. The pride of the Red-flagged Baltic Fleet cruiser Kirov accompanied by Gnevnei-class fighters Stremitelnyi and Smetlivyi approached Hanko after dawn on December 1, 1939. Hanko is represented by the fortress of Russarö with its main fleet of sturdy 234 mm Bethlehem sea cannons.

The department of the ship, led by the cruiser Kirov, approached the fort island from the south-east just as the Bethlehem radiator was training. Approaching ships were identified and a battle alert was given to the fort. Russarö’s rugged battery fired the first shot at 9:55 a.m. while cruiser Kirov was 24 miles away. The effect of the first grenades in the ship’s compartment was disruptive, and Kirov responded to the fire with his own artillery.

After the first grenades were fired, the fire in the coastal battery was repaired to cover it. The Coastal Radar began impact shooting from a distance of 20 kilometers. After five minutes of shooting, Kirov was spotted receiving several hits and caught fire. The department lowered the smoke curtain and headed away from the murderous artillery fire. The armored ships Ilmarinen and Väinämöinen, which belonged to the coastal fleet, were also alerted and pushed towards Hanko, but due to the immediate withdrawal of the enemy division, they had not had the opportunity to take part in the battle.

After the break-up of the Soviet Union, archives were opened to scholars and the fate of Kirov was further illuminated. According to information found in the Russian archives – albeit unconfirmed – the Soviet naval unit did not lose a single ship in the battle, but both Kirov and Stremitelnyi were badly damaged. In addition, the department lost 17 men in the fight, crashed and about 30 wounded. Kirov and Stremitelnyi each limped, severely damaged off the coast of Hanko, following the Baltic coast to the Liepaja shipyard. The cruiser Kirov was only partially repaired and served as the flagship of the evacuation of Tallinn in 1941. The destroyer Smetlivyi, the only ship to survive the battle of Russarö,

The Finns did not suffer any casualties in the battle of Russarö. The 180 mm grenades fired by Kirov had first hit the coastal water south of Russarö and killed a large number of fish. Subsequent grenades entered the northbound terrain of the pier. The damage caused by the grenades was small. The lighthouse guard’s empty cottage was destroyed and the fort’s pier and canteen were damaged. After the battle, Russarö’s fort had “molo torsk” and “herring like Kirov” on the menu the following week.

Why the Soviet Navy dared to carry Russarö’s heavy cannons is partly a mystery. It is suspected that the Soviet navy intended to bomb the important port of Hanko and the munitions factories in Hanko from the sea. Apparently, the Soviet navy did not know that the Finns in the 1930s modified Bethlehem cannons that had previously served in the coastal defense of Imperial Russia. As a result of the changes, the angle of elevation of the cannons had been increased and their maximum range had increased from 18 kilometers to 25.5 kilometers. The commander of the cruiser Kirov may have assumed that he was out of reach of Finnish artillery.

The brief artillery battle between the fortress of Russarö and the Soviet cruiser Kirov was of great significance. It showed that a tiny Finland struggling against great power is capable of delivering such attacks that happen. The first victory in combat created a will in the field army that became known as the spirit of the Winter War and made the miracle of the Winter War possible: Finland repulsed – perhaps contrary to public expectations – the attack of a great power and maintained its independence. On the other hand, the Finnish coastal artillery showed its ability to strike and the Finnish coast was allowed to be quite calm as the Winter War continued.

Marshal Mannerheim, who has been appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Defense Forces, takes note of the artillery work of the Coastal Artillery off Hanko and a couple of weeks later in Utö by e-mail to General Väinö Valvee.

The article was written by Ville Vänskä, Commander of the Coast Guard Brigade of the Suomenlinna Coast Brigade.

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