Soldier of Three Armies – Pt. 1 The Soviet Menace
Lauri Allan Törni was born on May 28, 1919, in Viipuri, Finland, on the Karelian Isthmus. He had quite a calm childhood, but the older Lauri grew, the more he became aware of the troubled recent history of Viipuri and his country.
In 1917, the Russian Revolutions during the Great War had torn the Tsarist Russian Empire – which Finland had been a part of – apart. As civil war then exploded in Russia for its future, Finland took the opportunity to declare its independence. A bloody Finnish civil war also followed, but unlike in Russia, where Lenin’s Bolsheviks would eventually take control, in Finland they were defeated. Viipuri, and in fact, all of Karelia, still bore the scars of the war, and a border of watchtowers and barbed wire separated Finland from the Soviet Union. Beyond the border lay Soviet Karelia, part of the new “worker state”. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the gulf between the two Karelias grew.
Lauri’s father had served in the paramilitary Suojeluskunta, the right-wing Civil Guards, and had a deep-rooted hatred for communism, which Lauri shared. He had a strong constitution and was a natural athlete, spending his days swimming, cross-country skiing and boxing. But the tales of great warriors and soldiers fascinated young Lauri more than anything else. He wanted nothing more than to be a soldier, and spent his time following Viipuri’s garrison around, collecting casings and cartridges, to the point that his father even described him as “war crazy”.
As soon as he was old enough, he volunteered for the youth organisation of the paramilitary Civil Guards. They taught him things like camping, marching and marksmanship. At 17, he left the Civil Guards at the wishes of his parents to go to business school, but it was clear from the outset that school did not interest the stubborn young man in the slightest. Lauri knew he was destined to become a soldier, and in September 1938 at the age of 19, he volunteered for the Finnish army and was assigned to the 4th Jaeger Infantry Battalion, which was stationed close to his hometown. The Jaeger were light, mobile infantry, excelling in skirmishing and ambush, moving quickly on bicycles and skis through the countryside.
Lauri soon proved to be an exceptional soldier and was highly motivated and quick thinking. He was also a “typical Finn” in that he did not engage in “useless talk” and was all business on duty. He did, however, have a fiery temper and it got him into frequent fights, but after just a few months he had impressed his superiors enough to be sent to an NCO training course. Lauri Törni graduated first in his class.
A matter of time
While he was training, the political situation in Europe and the world was deteriorating rapidly. Nazi Germany had assembled a huge modern army, and after the Sudetenland Crisis and the occupation of Czechia it was clear that they were not shy about using it. That, and the reports of political terror in the Soviet Union, were of course of big concern to the Finns. The invasion of Poland in September 1939 by Germany and then the USSR confirmed Finland’s fears. Just after that, Josef Stalin demanded bases and concessions from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, all of which began to fall under Soviet control. Little Finland saw itself boxed in between the two giants and it seemed only a matter of time until hostile eyes would fall on them.
And inevitably they did. As the autumn of 1939 rolled on, the Soviet foreign office made repeated demands to the Finns, urging them to give up territory in Karelia and on the Baltic coast, the Rybachi Peninsula with the nickel mines in Petsamo, and to allow Soviet troops to cross Finnish territory.
The Finnish government staunchly refused, as this “pact of friendship” would involve giving up their entire line of defence against any Soviet attack, and it would also threaten the integrity of Finland as a whole.
All the politicians spoke of peace, while the Finnish defensive council around Field Marshal Carl Gustav Mannerheim was well aware that refusing Stalin was poking the bear. It was a race against time to prepare Finland against a possible Soviet attack. Mannerheim ordered Finland’s main defensive line on the Isthmus, from the coast to Lake Ladoga, to be reinforced as strongly as possible. Soon, tens of thousands of Finns were manning and building up the fortifications, which were called the “Mannerheim Line” by a French journalist. The name stuck.
Lauri Törni was part of a 21,000-man strong covering force spread out between the Mannerheim Line and the border. They were to harass and delay the enemy as long as possible, scorching the earth of everything useful. The Finns had a well-trained and well-motivated army, but only a few things like anti-tank guns and artillery pieces. The only tanks in their service were 32 obsolete Renault FT tanks from 1919 and a few unarmed Vickers-Armstrong 6 tonners – nothing that would even come close to what the Soviets could throw at them. Aware of the disparity of force, and of course the amount of manpower each side could raise, Soviet Red Army command didn’t concern itself with Finnish preparations and planned to simply steamroll across the isthmus in one huge offensive and into the Finnish heartland.
War came on November 30. After a forced incident on the border, the Soviet Union attacked Finland. All along the Isthmus, the Soviet artillery opened up. Törni’s unit was having breakfast as heavy shells began falling all around their camp. The 8,000 men of Törni’s unit were suddenly facing the advancing 120,000 men and 1,400 tanks of the Soviet 7th army, and this was just a part of the Soviet attacking force.
Törni and his unit made a fighting retreat. The Finns mined the streets and sniped at the enemy, as they fell back. They really had the terrain advantage on their side. Along the entire border with the USSR lies some of the densest forest on earth, and the only part of it where an enemy could attack in large force with things like tanks was pretty much on the Isthmus of Karelia, but even the Karelian terrain, with its own forests and marshes, offered only a few good roads for the Soviet armoured columns, and that basically funneled them into killing zones.
The weather was now getting worse by the day. It was one of the “harshest winters in history” – the type you hear about in almost every war that ever happened in winter. But in the winter of 1939-1940, temperatures soon dropped dozens of degrees below zero, and snow drifts could be as high as 2 or 3 metres in the forests, where the Soviets for the most part had no skis and where the Finns were at home.
In such conditions, the Red Army’s overwhelming numbers meant little, and Törni’s Jaeger were able to delay their advance for a whole week before joining the main line. Defensive fighting continued all December long, as the Finns tried to hold back the waves of Soviet troops.
Finnish casualties were surprisingly low, as their enemy was constantly prevented from concentrating force, but as the new year began, tens of thousands of Soviet troops were starving and freezing to death in snow and ice-covered trenches. Once halted, a Soviet column was forced to dig into the frozen ground, waiting for supplies and reinforcements to come in. In many parts of Finland, supplies could not come in though, and Soviet soldiers starved to death.
In their white snowsuits, the Finns were like ghosts, moving unseen through the snow-covered ridges and forests. Törni lived for the excitement of sneaking up close to a Soviet position and attacking with hand-grenades and molotov cocktails. Bit by bit, such quick hit and run attacks, with submachine guns and satchel-charges, whittled down and destroyed the Soviet positions. Törni soon made a name for himself as a daredevil, who did not shy away from danger. He embraced it. He loved the adrenaline rush and the chaos of combat. Instead of being stressed or shaken, Törni remained totally calm and focused. He soon commanded his own squad as he rose to “alikersantti”, under-sergeant, and led his men like wolves on the prowl, overrunning enemy trenches and dragging prisoners back to their own lines.
Over the course of the winter the Soviets suffered dearly for every inch of Finnish territory they took, but their casualties and their ammunition could be replaced. The Finns had only a small pool of manpower and resources, and no allies other than international volunteers on which to call. A peace treaty between Finland and the Soviet Union was signed on March 12, 1940.
Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov read out the peace terms. The Soviets will move the Finnish border and take the whole Karelian Isthmus including Viipuri – this region was home to 12% of the Finnish population; the Soviets will lease Hanko Peninsula, take the Rybachi Peninsula, several islands off the coast, and some land near Salla. This is all roughly 25,000 square miles of land, but perhaps more importantly, every naturally occurring defensive line Finland has.
Finns in the ceded land had two weeks to evacuate. They could choose to remain in their homes and become part of the Soviet Union, but not a single one did. Over 400,000 Finns were rendered homeless, and Törni’s family was among the long trail of refugees that made their way across the new border.
Törni, however, had not fought his last battles. He was sent to officer school, graduating as Second Lieutenant. The world, however, was descending further and further into war. Törni had not seen the end of it by a long shot. He was a soldier of three armies, and the Finnish Army was just one of them.
For a more visual interpretation of the above story, watch our Sabaton History episode, Soldier of Three Armies Pt. 1 – Winter War:
Pt. 2 Revenge of the Finns
The Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union concluded in March 1940. It had ended with the Finns successfully preserving their independence, but they still found themselves between a rock and a hard place. Many Finns found it hard to believe that Josef Stalin would keep his word, and that this was closer to a temporary ceasefire than a lasting peace.
In the west, the German war-machine was on the move, taking Denmark and Norway. Sweden had kept its neutrality but had to allow German troops transit rights through its territory. How long could Finland remain independent?
Assisting the German war effort
In January 1941, Finnish Army Chief of Staff Erik Heinrichs visited Germany to get a clear answer. German High Command assured him that an invasion of Finland was not in their interest, but Adolf Hitler did have a role for Finland to play; it was a role in a new endeavour – the invasion of the Soviet Union. Thinking that they barely had a choice, they agreed to assist the German war effort, but only under certain conditions. Finland was to be a co-belligerent, not an actual ally. They would not join the Tripartite Pact, seeing war against the Soviets as “separate” from World War II, and would only open hostilities to achieve Finnish interests and revenge. For the moment, this was good enough for Hitler.
Lauri Törni had remained in the Finnish army after the Winter War. Word came that this new cooperation offered Finnish veterans the opportunity to train and serve in the German military. To many, that was reminiscent of the Great War, when Finnish volunteers had trained in the Imperial German army, which later founded the Finnish Jaeger Movement. Those Jaegers had served as the backbone of the victorious Whites in the Finnish Civil War. Many of those veterans were now part of the higher officer corps and organised the transfer of young volunteers to do the same thing.
German High Command, however, insisted that the Finns not be trained by the regular German army, but by the Waffen-SS. The Waffen-SS had evolved as the militarised arm of the regular SS, the notorious instrument of Nazi power. The Nazis saw the Waffen-SS as not only the most elite military force, but also the bearer of Germanic and Nordic culture in concert with National Socialist ideology. So, it welcomed men from the Nordic countries into its ranks.
Lauri Törni, now a first officer, was among the 1,400 volunteers that made their way to Germany. What motivated Törni was not Nazi ideology or the prospect of fighting for Germany. He was a soldier, not a politician nor an idealist. He hated communism and the Soviets that invaded his homeland and took his family home, but there is no evidence that he endorsed fascism of any kind.
It was an opportunity for him to train alongside what many saw as the elite of Europe, a cadre full of highly motivated and determined young men, equipped with the best weapons and trained by the best commanders – or so he thought.
He reached Germany in mid-June 1941 and was then sent to Vienna. Now wearing the death-head and the black uniform of a Untersturmführer, he began a brutal training regimen that honed his skills as a light infantry leader. But when Germany invaded the Soviet Union and Finland reopened the northern front against the Soviets, Törni wanted to join the fight, not for Germany, but for Finland.
Taking back Karelia
After seven weeks of harsh training, his contingent was sent back to the Baltic coast to await its deployment on the Eastern Front. Here the stories differ; one source says that Törni was too problematic and was sent back to Finland, while another says that he smuggled himself on board a ship. Either way, by late July, Lauri Törni found himself back in Finland and immediately headed for Karelia.
The Finnish Army was advancing deep into Soviet Karelia, taking back the territory Finland had lost in the Winter War. Törni now joined up with the 8th Light Infantry of the 1st Division. He made good use of his Waffen-SS training and was even assigned to lead a unit of captured Soviet tanks. Soon, he was seen driving far ahead, throwing grenades into the Soviet lines.
The first 6 months of the Continuation War, as it would be called, went well for the Finns. Viipuri, Törni’s hometown, was liberated and his family returned to their old home. By then, the Finnish army had pushed far into Soviet territory. Many hailed them as liberators from the communist yoke, but there was also the realisation that they were the aggressors now. The Germans urged them on further, to close the siege of Leningrad, but Finnish Commander in Chief, Mannerheim, refused. They had advanced enough and would instead create a new defensive line.
A bounty on his head
In December 1941, two years after fighting the Winter War, Törni once again led infiltration and reconnaissance missions deep into the enemy lines. Crossing frozen lakes and skiing through the snowy countryside, they bypassed Soviet outposts, trying to locate their supply depots instead. Törni led a team of highly skilled veterans: demolitionists, sharpshooters and hand-to-hand combat specialists. His men proudly sewed an orange T on their uniforms, identifying themselves as part of Detachment Törni. Törni himself was becoming a living legend. He was already widely respected as an unconventional but highly capable leader, and stories abounded, like how he once stumbled across a position of Soviet soldiers and killed all 30 of them with only his Suomi submachine gun. The gun, it was said, was as unpredictable as its wielder. Even the enemy knew his name. Soviet propaganda frequently broadcast that they wanted Lauri Törni dead or alive. The bounty on his head was soon raised to three million Finnish Marks.
By March 1944 though, it had become clear that the German Army was facing collapse on the Eastern Front, and even the siege of Leningrad had been lifted. It was only a matter of time, and Finland needed a way out. For months Finnish politicians tried to get Stalin to agree to a new peace treaty, but they had no luck. Now, the Soviets were becoming more aggressive. The more ground the Germans lost, the more the pressure on the Finnish front increased.
Then, in June 1944, Finland once more found itself against overwhelming odds, as a huge Soviet offensive began to knock the Finns out of the war. Over 10,000 pieces of Soviet artillery opened up on Finnish positions all over the Karelian Isthmus. Törni was in the thick of fighting. Moving from division to division, his unit served as a fire brigade, counter-attacking the Soviets wherever they broke through. Despite irreplaceable casualties, the Fins held once more. However, this was not sustainable.
Finland gains its independence again
But after Finnish chief diplomat in Moscow, Juho Paasikivi, openly warned that: “We will shoot from behind every stone and tree, we will go on shooting for fifty years. We are not Czechs. We are not Dutchmen. We will fight tooth and nail behind every rock and over the ice of every lake,” the Soviets were finally willing to speak of peace – on the condition that Finland would immediately break any relations with Germany and extradite all German personal from Finland at once. The other conditions for peace were about as harsh as the terms after the Winter War, but unconditional surrender was averted. On September 7, the treaty was signed and Finland gained its independence once more.
In the middle of all this, Lauri Törni had learned that he was to be honoured as a Knight of the Mannerheim Cross for his “natural and resourceful leadership” during the war. This was Finland’s highest military honour for valour and gallantry.
Hitler, of course, took Finland’s separate peace with scorn, and ordered the German soldiers retreating through Lapland towards Norway to scorch the earth behind them, but this was not the end of the cooperation between Finland and Germany. The Gestapo, the German secret police, was already starting a new operation called Sonderkommando Nord. This was to assist the Finnish underground that was forming among Finnish veterans. With a secret radio network and weapons deliveries, Finland was to be prepared for guerrilla operations against any Soviet takeover. And while many Finns distrusted the peace, communist influence was growing rapidly in Finland, and Soviet agents and spies were everywhere. It seemed like only a matter of time until Finland would need its soldiers once again.
Although Nazi Germany was on the verge of collapse, the Gestapo offered to train Finnish veterans for secret operations. Törni, always restless, agreed, and by the beginning of January 1945, boarded a German submarine that would take him to the secret training camp.
From January to March, Finnish SS and German Gestapo officers taught the volunteers secret communication-techniques, coding and encryption, and advanced sabotage and demolition techniques. Training, though, was interrupted by the rapid Soviet advance and was relocated to the Danish border. Törni stayed there until April, and once again, the stories differ. One tale goes that to escape the Soviets, he made contact with one of Felix Steiner’s detachments that were unable to break through to Berlin and instead surrendered to the British. Later, he escaped imprisonment and made his way back to Finland. Another story goes that he grew disillusioned with the Germans and felt deceived. He then escaped the training camp and with false papers made his way through Denmark and Sweden to Finland. Either way, by late 1945, Törni was back in Finland and back to civilian life. The warrior was home, for now.
But his story does not end here, for he was a soldier of three armies, and this was but the second.
Watch our second Sabaton History episode in this series, Soldier of Three Armies Pt. 2 – Continuation War:
Pt. 2 Rise of Thorne
By the beginning of 1946 the world appeared to finally be at peace. But in reality, it was no safer place than before. The Second World War was over but the fragile alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union had fallen apart. Now, an Iron Curtain descended over Europe and soon separated the whole world into opposing ideological camps.
Although Finland had once again preserved its independence, the Soviet Union was slowly clenching Finland tighter and tighter in its grip. The Finnish communist party, now heavily funded by the USSR, was growing in strength, and Soviet agents operated freely throughout Finland.
In the sights of the Valpo
Lauri Törni was now 27 years old, a well-known and well respected war-hero from two wars, but that put him in the sights of the Valpo, the Finnish Political Secret Police. The Valpo was firmly under communist control by now. There had been several roundups targeting decorated veterans, high ranking officers and politicians. They found themselves under investigation for “war crimes” on orders from Moscow. 1,500 Finns were found guilty in show trials.
In April, the Valpo arrested Törni. His cooperation with the German secret police was the only thing the Valpo could actually pin on him, but they accused him of planning to overthrow the Finnish government. He was sentenced to six years in prison for treason.
It was not until December 1948 that Finland’s then president, Juho Paasikivi, finally had the power to call off the witch hunts and pardon those who had suffered under them. Lauri Törni was a free man, but the country for which he risked his life so many times had no place for him anymore. He was an ex-SS man, an ex-resistance fighter, and now, an ex-convict.
Many of his old comrades had escaped the Valpo by fleeing to Sweden, and from there across the world, towards South America or the United States. Soon, there were little Finnish communities abroad that helped other Finns escape. In the first half of 1949, Törni wrangled with the decision to leave. Finally, he packed his bags, took a friend’s passport and made for the Swedish border. There, he forced a taxi driver at gunpoint to drive over the border and then Lauri Törni made a straight line for the Swedish immigration office.
Leaving the love of his life behind
Once in Stockholm, he kept a low profile and even fell in love, with a woman named Marja Palm. They were soon engaged and even planned their marriage. Marja actually travelled to Finland to get Törni’s uniform and medals for the wedding ceremony. But Lauri Törni could not offer Marja a future, not in Sweden, where Soviet agents were still on his heels. He decided that he would make his way to the US, but his borrowed passport would not allow him entry there, so he would head for Venezuela first. In March 1950, Törni boarded a ship to Caracas, leaving behind the love of his life.
In Venezuela, Törni met one of his old Winter War commanders, who got him aboard a ship bound for the US. Off the coast of Alabama, Törni jumped into the sea and swam to the shore. He was in the US illegally, but at least he was there. With barely enough English to make himself understood, he made his way to New York where the Finnish-American community helped him with the Immigration Services.
However, this was 1951 and “Cold War America” starring Senator Joe McCarthy. The fear of communist spy rings and double agents in all walks of life was a hallmark of an age of deep paranoia. Once more, Törni’s past caught up with him. In July 1951, the FBI arrested and interrogated Lauri Törni about his service in the Winter War, about the SS, about his prison sentence. Deportation seemed imminent, but at the last moment, a bill associated with the Lodge Act was pushed through Congress, allowing Törni and other persecuted foreign veterans to apply for citizenship through service in the US Army.
Lauri Törni filled out his “declaration of Intent” and was sworn into the American Army. Since most Americans had problems handling the name Lauri Törni, and as a way to make a fresh start, Lauri Törni became Larry Thorne.
Now, the US Army was specifically interested in Winter War veterans, and the reason for that was that they were experimenting with a new branch of service: the Special Forces. It was expected that if the Cold War with the Soviet Union suddenly got hot, large parts of Europe would be overrun by the Soviet Red Army. So, battles would be fought behind the enemy’s lines, through espionage, reconnaissance and sabotage. For that, they needed veterans who already had experience with such methods.
By 1954, Thorne was now 35, nearly twice the age of most other recruits but he was still in excellent shape. The hardest thing in bootcamp was learning the English language. After cold weather and mountain climbing training in Colorado, he was then sent to airborne school. By September, Thorne had passed all of the required tests and was accepted into the special forces at Fort Bragg. It was the beginning of the elite units known as the “Green Berets”, which we all know of, but whose existence then was still kept a secret.
Fast forward to 1963, and postcolonial Vietnam was fought over between the communist north and the US supported south. North Vietnamese guerrilla fighters infiltrated the south, attacking both South Vietnamese and American forces. They transported their men and material along their major supply route, known as the Ho Chi Minh trail. However, most of the trail was hidden from the air, covered by thick canopies of jungle trees. For someone to destroy the trail, they’d need boots on the ground. Larry Thorne would be part of a specially schooled operational detachment, known as an “A-Team” to fight the insurgency. This was what he had trained and lived for. It didn’t matter if it was subarctic Karelia or the tropical jungles of Vietnam.
His first assignment brought him to a camp near the Cambodian border called Chau Lang. Far away from the eyes of the public and high command, Chau Lang was a lawless area. The camp had been attacked and nearly overrun 11 times in the last month alone. As Thorne looked around the camp, he spotted a North Vietnamese flag on a hill nearby and made it his first mission to tear it down, to make it clear that there was a new Sheriff in town. Officially, they were to respect the Cambodian border, but in reality, this was bandit country full of guerrilla fighters.
Thorne immediately reorganised the system and ordered an aggressive stance against the enemy. His mantra, that a good defence was a strong offense, meant that he would attack the enemy wherever he showed himself. Just like the winters in Karelia, the terrain dictated the battle in Vietnam. Brute force meant little inside the jungle, and once more, Thorne’s daring and unconventional thinking brought results. He ambushed the ambushers and booby trapped their supply routes.
After his 180-day tour in Vietnam had ended, he and everyone else in his team received the Purple Heart for wounds taken in battle, but they came back alive. Thorne was also awarded the Bronze Star for valour. This would not be Thorne’s only tour, though. American high command wanted to deal the Ho Chi Minh trail a crippling blow. This time they planned on using small reconnaissance teams to infiltrate Laos, to locate Vietcong supply depots and mark them for airstrikes. But since operations in Laos were political dynamite, they needed the best of the best, and Larry Thorne was top of their list.
On October 18, 1965, three Kingbee special forces helicopters made their way towards the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Larry Thorne was now 46 years old, and this time he was only there to make sure that the insertion would go as planned. The three helicopters moved forward, flying low above the treetops. But as they approached the landing zone, the weather turned. Rain clouds hung like steamy curtains over the surrounding mountain ridges. Thorne was about to call it all off, but then the weather cleared for a moment and the men were dropped into the zone. Thorne’s helicopter circled high above them. He chose to remain in place until the team leader gave the radio signal. But by then, the weather had turned again. A storm was approaching.
The Kingbee was an old model with outdated instruments. At first, they were heading due north. Another helicopter trying to follow their radio frequency noticed that they suddenly made a 180 degree turn, and then they were gone. The Kingbee had vanished. Reports that Thorne was missing reached headquarters soon after.
56 search and rescue missions were mounted, but they found nothing. No crash site, no radio contact, not a trace of what had happened, so Larry Thorne was listed as missing in action. It was assumed that the helicopter had crashed in the jungle and there were no survivors. A year later, on October 19, 1966, he was officially declared dead. He was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Rumours circulated. People could simply not believe that Larry Thorne, the legend, had disappeared. Many hoped that he was still alive somewhere, but they also feared that he might have been captured by the North Vietnamese or worse, turned over to the Russians. Others half-jokingly said that maybe he simply walked out of Laos and started a new life again somewhere else. He had done it before.
In the late 1990s, a task force finally found something, a crash site, not far from Thorne’s last known position. There, they found the remains of a crashed Kingbee. They located some bone fragments and teeth, but those were too old and too few for reliable DNA identification. They had also lost two other Kingbees in that area. Could this really have been the right crash site? On September 7, 1999, the remains were recovered and brought to the US. In 2003, the files were officially closed.
Over the years, friends and comrades met and remembered Lauri Törni, AKA Larry Thorne. A man who had excelled in combat like no one else. A soldier of three armies.
Watch our third Sabaton History episode in this series, Soldier of Three Armies Pt. 3 – Vietnam War: