'History is more interesting than politics,' Lennart Meri, president of Estonia 1992-2001, is reported to have said. History is, perhaps, sometimes more surprising than politics too.
It may come as a revelation that the first loss of life of an Estonian soldier in World War Two came not during the Soviet invasion of 1940, nor during the Soviet attack on Finland, nor indeed the invasion from the opposite direction, as Nazi Germany launched its Operation Barbarossa in July 1941.
The first Estonian to lose their life in combat during the war in fact fell in the unforgiving mountains outside Narvik, in Norway's far north, on May 20 1940.
Arnold Soinla, a 26-year-old store clerk and farmer from Kolga parish was killed in what we might nowadays call a "friendly fire" incident on the side of a mountain, the Lillebalak, at a latitude of 68 degrees north.
Soinla was one of 12 Estonian volunteers, average age: 23, who had found their way fighting for Norway and alongside French and British allies, against Nazi German forces.
While the episode had been covered in a few Estonian newspaper articles, plus a scholarly article by Norwegian historian Tor Hanseth, it remained largely unheard-of, even in Estonia and Norway, for decades.
It took a conference in 2018, organized by the Estonian Heritage Society, to tell the whole story.
The conference was held in Narvik itself – as the crow flies actually nearer to Tallinn, than it is to Oslo.
The ensuing publication, "Under the North Star: Estonian Volunteers in the Battle of Narvik", noted that the snow was falling even in early June – a couple of weeks later in the year than the Narvik battles took place – as the interested participants met, and later traced the steps the Estonian volunteers made in April to May 1940.
Peep Pillak of the heritage society, and one of the conference organizers, recently helped shed some light for ERR News on why the "Norra poisid" – the "Norwegian boys" – and their story had not yet reached a profile on a par with the "Soome poisid" ("Finnish boys" – Estonian volunteers serving in the Winter War (Talvisota), and from whose ranks the Norwegian boys emerged).
Pillak said that a lack of documentation, destroyed by the occupying Germans, was one of the main factors.
Documentation which did survive had been mostly retained by the families for decades.
As recently as just a couple of years ago, relatives of Arnold Soinla, the Estonian volunteer who fell in combat fighting for Norway, donated his letters to the Estonian War Museum in Viimsi, near Tallinn, while the diary of another participant, Gustav Adolf Lepik, is also in the museum's hands now.
This was the culmination of many years' work on the part of Pillak, who had scoured both the national archives in Finland and the Estonian National Archives, meaning predominantly the KGB files left over from the Soviet occupation, and now finally was able to make the story public to the Estonian and Norwegian people.
In Britain, Narvik has occasionally been used as a by-word for Neville Chamberlain's resignation as prime minister, which happened to take place in the same month, May 1940.*
An allied intervention which responded to Nazi Germany's Operation Weserübung – its invasion of Denmark and Norway – Narvik signaled the end of the so-called "phoney war" period, which started with France and Britain's declaration of war on Germany the preceding September.
Appropriately, given it was the German invasion of their country which prompted that declaration, Polish naval destroyers also took part in the Narvik campaign, while on the land Poland's Podhale Brigade had an important part to play.
That Nazi Germany had its eyes on Narvik relates to Norway's key strategic position and access to the Atlantic; thanks to its fjords, islands and many other indentations – Norway in fact has the second-longest coastline in the world – its fisheries and hydro-electric power stations, and most of all, due to iron ore, mined not in Norway itself but in neighboring, and strictly neutral, Sweden.
Iron ore was vital to German wartime production, and was generally brought by rail from Sweden, to Narvik, close to 70 degrees north but still ice-free, whence it was shipped overseas.
A series of naval engagements from April 8-13 1940 saw vessels on all sides sunk, starting with two Norwegian coastal defense vessels – the Eidsvold and the Norge, whose commanders simply refused to hand over control to the invading Germans – at a loss of hundreds of lives.
The following month saw the Norwegians, on their home soil, continuing a successful mountain campaign and soon joined by British and French troops, who took part in amphibious landings. The French on one side, and Germans on another, being alpine nations, had their own mountain troops, though even these struggled at times in the cold, snowy and harsh conditions.
German naval losses were high, and their mountain troops, while combat experienced in many cases, were not as well equipped for the cold as the Norwegians – and this could certainly be said of the British and French troops, several battalions strong, also.
Nonetheless, as is so often the case in wartime, the Narvik campaign, while militarily and tactically successful for the allies – who outnumbered the Germans – was politically unsuccessful, resulting in an evacuation the following month, one which foreshadowed the more famous Dunkirk evacuation just weeks later.
But what about the Estonians?
As noted there were 12 of them in Narvik; volunteers joining Norway's forces, where they in fact made up the second-largest contingent after the Belgians, and serving in the multi-national Alta Battalion, named after a nearby village.
Norway's attitude to Estonia prior to the war had been cautious. The country shared a border in the far north with the Soviet Union – as it does with the Russian Federation today – and was keen not to upset its neighbor, which had become increasingly a force to be reckoned with during the period of mass industrialization and collectivization through the 1930s.
Norway – herself only independent since 1905 – did recognize Estonian independence, as did most European nations, and hosted Estonian consuls in various locations, while Estonia reciprocated in Tallinn and Pärnu.
At the same time, the Norwegian left was particularly significant in politics and had some ties with the Soviets.
Foreign minister Havdan Koht had had to pay a visit to placate the Soviet ambassador, none other than famed revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai, who was based in Stockholm, after he had made a visit to Estonia and Finland, a visit which upset her.1
In Estonia, Norway remained a popular, fellow-Nordic land with its literary figures and composers offering a particular appeal.
Even closer relations existed between Estonia and Finland, for cultural, linguistic and geographic reasons, and it was to this land that the Alta volunteers had first set out for, along with a few dozen of their compatriots, upon the advent of the Winter War.
An invasion of Finland by the Soviet Union started in November 1939, right in the middle of the "phoney war". Finland had declined to enter into any "mutual assistance" agreements with the eastern neighbor, who had its eye on the Karelian Isthmus and other pieces of Finland's sovereign territory.
A situation all-too familiar in today's world, this assault was met with almost universal global revulsion even in a Europe already riven with conflict, and the Soviet Union was expelled from the League of Nations, the UN's more insipid forbear.
Perhaps mindful of Finnish volunteers who had served in Estonia's 1918-1920 War of Independence, and with no options to defend their home country any more, over 100 Estonian volunteers made their way north, to join the 12,000 foreign volunteers – British actor Christopher Lee among them – who came to Finland's aid.
Estonia's "Soome poisid" made their way across the Gulf of Finland, which was frozen at the time, as only Nordic peoples can – by kick sledge or ski, save for one volunteer, Artur Veebel, who traveled from Stockholm.
Fifty-seven of the volunteers were assigned to Finland's equivalent of the Alta Battalion, the Sisu units. The title was particularly poignant for the Estonians since one translation of the word "sisu" in Estonian is practically identical to its Finnish meaning – a difficult-to-translate term, into English at least, but roughly equating to guts, substance or grit.
However, the "Soome poisid" (see cover image) did not see frontline action, much to their disappointment. A ceasefire was declared in mid-March, ending the Winter War.
Rather than simply drifting away, however, with the beginning of the Narvik battles in late April, 12 of the 57 Sisu volunteers decided to make their way north, this time to help the Norwegians.
"Made their way" is perhaps a euphemism, however. The journey from Lapua, in the west of Finland to Alta, Norway, is some 1,700 km, a vast distance which they covered in a little over a week.
This started with a train journey (to the northern coastal town of Oulu), and continued for much of the way, particularly once in the sparsely populated wilds of Lapland, on foot, on ski or even while being hauled by reindeer.
Being young men in a stressful situation in unfamiliar surroundings, it is perhaps not surprising that at least one or two romantic attachments were formed with local women en route, and the Estonians were very well received by all the local populace, often hosted in farmsteads or guest houses.
Similar ad hoc ways of reaching the zone of engagement were also employed on the German side – nearly 300 specialists traveled via neutral Sweden, posing as health-care workers.
While the naval dimension to Narvik was mostly concluded by the time the Estonians arrived, connecting with the Alta HQ on May 12, just a week after that they were involved in mountain warfare at the Battle of Lillebalak, a 520-meter mountain on the edge of a plateau held by the Germans and which the Norwegians and their foreign volunteer allies were to take, supported by French artillery.
In the small hours of May 20 the assault began, and while the attackers successfully took the mountain's north slope, a "friendly-fire" incident from the French gunners below took the life of the first Estonian to die in combat in World War Two – 26-year-old Arnold Soinla.
Suffering from a serious head wound, Soinla was stretchered down the mountainside, but it was too late, and he passed away, according to the records on the following day, May 21 1940 (a date of May 20 is also sometimes given).
The attack Soinla gave his life for was far from in vain, however – the action preceded victory for the allied side in the mountains of northern Norway which, even though British and French forces soon had to pull out of Narvik due to the military situation closer to home, represented Hitler's first major military setback of the war and proved that his armies were not invincible, despite what the Nazi propaganda would have.
Around 8,500 lives were lost in Narvik, more than two-thirds of them from the 64 vessels, from all sides, which had been sunk during the 62-day campaign.
The surviving Estonians made their way from Narvik to Finland by car, reaching the border on June 10 and heading straight for the sauna once they arrived.2
Both Estonia and Norway were now occupied – the latter by Nazi Germany, whose forces were also to occupy Estonia summer 1941-autumn 1944.
Fearing another allied attack, the Nazis built up their occupying forces in Norway into the hundreds of thousands, set up forced labor camps there and even attempted the beginnings of an atomic weapons program there.
However, whereas the end of World War Two brought liberation for Norway, for Estonia it was just the beginning, as the country labored under the Soviet yoke for nearly another half-century.
Norway recalled all its diplomats from all three Baltic States in August 1940, but relations between the two countries were maintained as far as was possible – the Estonian government-in-exile was constituted in Oslo in 1953.
Because of these machinations, the 12 Estonian volunteers were not decorated by Norway, unlike some other foreign volunteers. The fortunes of war also saw Finland, and with it Estonian volunteers in the Continuation War (Jatkosota) with the Soviet Union, aligned with Nazi Germany, Norway's occupiers, another reason for the lack of decoration by the Norwegian government.
The destinies of our 11 surviving volunteers varied widely, as follows:
Private Eduard Kalda stayed in Finland and was awarded the Winter Wwar memorial medal by Finnish leader Marshal Mannerheim. Kalda went missing while skiing back to Norway to visit a paramour, in December 1940, at the age of 22.
Staff Sergeant Leonhard Kenk returned to Estonian briefly, then went back to Finland to serve in the Continuation War. He emigrated to Canada, passing away in 1999, just a week after his 90th birthday.
Private Helmut Valentin Kohal returned Estonia briefly, also going back to Finland for the Continuation War. After the war, he spent much of rest of his life in Finland, and passed away there in 1978 at age of 63.
Private Arseni Kristal was only 18 when crossing the Gulf of Finland, destined for Lapua. He returned to Estonia after Narvik, and was later deported to Siberia 1947 on trumped-up charges, returning in 1955. He died in 1974 at age of 53, and is buried in the Liiva cemetery in Tallinn.
Corporal Gustav Adolf Lepik, after a spell of a few months in Finland, headed to his native country, now under Soviet occupation. On arrival, he was shot to death by Soviet border guards on February 3 1941, aged 27.
Private Artur Mäehands went on to be involved in reconnaissance and anti-soviet resistance movements in Estonia, before emigrating to Canada, where he worked as an electrician. He died in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada, on October 10 2003, aged 87.
Corporal Helmut Pedanik joined the anti-soviet resistance in 1941 after returning to Estonia via Finland. He was captured in November 1944 along with another man, Tarmo Meritsu, in an NKVD raid in Rimmu parish. Sentenced to death, he was executed in Leningrad on May 11 1945, aged 28.
Sergeant Artur Rägastik was a well-known distance runner who joined the Erna long-range reconnaissance group in June 1941, returning to Estonia from Finland, later fighting on the Syväri front. Taking part in a parachute drop near Arkhangelsk in the Russian arctic, he was killed in combat in the Konosha district in October 1942, aged 29.
Private Elmar Gustav Suits was another Estonian decorated by Marshal Mannerheim with the Winter War medal after returning to Finland in August, and was sent on to Estonia after Gustav Adolf Lepik (see above) was killed. Captured by border guards trying to return to Estonia, he was sentenced to 10 years in Gulag, where died, in May 1943, in Lesnoi prison camp, Kirov Oblast, aged 29.
Private Meinhard Adolf Valdson returned to Estonia, then also went back to Finland, this time with his wife, Aine Miranda. He was apparently ordered to leave FInland by German authorities at a time when the two countries ended up on the same side due to having a common enemy, the Soviet Union. Returning to Estonia, Valdson served in German army, and was killed on eastern front in April 1943, at the age of 23.
Sergeant Artur Veebel was the only "Norra pois" to make his way from Stockholm rather than directly from Estonia. He was also awarded the Winter War memorial medal and was involved in same parachute drop as Artur Rägastik (see above). He fell in combat in September 1942, aged 28.
What motivated the "Norra poisid" to do what they did? Only each man would have known the real answer to that question of course, but some clues are offered in Arnold Soinla's letter to his family, which he sent from Finland.
He wrote: "You must know I've dedicated myself to justice. In case there will be consequences, you must know – I have done this for an honest and right cause and you should never be ashamed of me. Any serious man would defend his fatherland and our fatherland, in its literal sense, is the land I am in now."
In 1940, the small, northern nations of Estonia, Finland and Norway faced the same existential threat from not one, but two totalitarian regimes; fighting for any one of them seemed natural to any liberty-lover, just as the defense of smaller countries against today's major totalitarian regime in Europe remains very much relevant in our world today.
Arnold Soinla was buried in the Lenvik cemetery in Evenes, on the other side of the Ofotfjord from Narvik. A metal plate marking the final resting place, and installed at the end of the 1970s thanks him for his service to Norway.
To return to the words of Lennart Meri: "The notion that the time of Stalins and Hitlers is over is dangerous." Soinla and the "Norra poisid" had lives which coincided with those of both dictators and could hardly help but get caught up in the turmoil of the day. In our present time we can perhaps now understand more about what motivated the 12 volunteers, than ever before.
*The House of Commons debate of May 7-9 1940, which was followed by Chamberlain's resignation, is known as the 'Norway debate'.
1. 'Under the North Star: Estonian Volunteers in the Battle of Narvik 1940', (2020) Gaute Lund Ronnebu, Peep Pillak, p.16.
2. ibid p. 49.
With special thanks to Peep Pillak and the Estonian Heritage Society, the Norwegian Embassy in Tallinn, Ambassador of Norway to Estonia H.E. Else Berit Eikeland and the Estonian War Museum for their help in compiling this piece.
A Facebook page about the "Finnish Boys" (in Estonian) is here.
Editor: Andrew Whyte