by Tapani Kossila

Background and motivation for the volunteer movement

When the Soviet Union invaded Finland in 1939 the assault was condemned widely. In many countries the general opinion was very favourable to the Finnish cause but since none of the western democratic governments was ready to send regular troops to assist Finland, spontaneous volunteer movements started organizing volunteers to help the Finnish David against the Soviet Goliath.

In December 1939 the Finnish government decided that volunteers would be accepted only from countries definitely friendly to the Finnish cause. This included e.g. Scandinavians, Hungarians, British and French volunteers. German and Russian volunteers were not permitted. Since the Finnish army lacked arms and equipment, the volunteers were to accepted only if they came with their own arms and basic military gear. Also, the volunteers were to be come as organized, trained units with own officers. In January 1940 after heavy losses among Finnish troops this decision was modified so that basically all able-bodied men were to be accepted at the discretion of Finnish embassies. Russian emigrants and Jewish refugees were, however, still excluded.

The French and the British were planning to send an official expeditionary force, but the war ended before these plans could be realized. In fact, the expeditionary force probably would have had as its main task ensuring the supplies of Swedish iron ore and helping Finland would have been merely an excuse to send a military force to Scandinavia. The French policy was to discourage any potential volunteers since it was thought that all able-bodied men were needed in the French army. The Polish refugees who had joined the French army would have been anxious to fight against the Soviet Union in Finland but here, too, the French thought it more prudent not to let them go.

Since Germany was allied with the Soviet Union at the time, the official German  line forbade enlistment of German volunteers. Italy, another dictatorship, felt it had to toe a cautious line and forbade enlistment although Mussolini felt great sympathy for Finland. There were about 5000 Italian volunteers willing to come to Finland but the government denied them passports for leaving the country.

Detachment Sisu

When it was decided that also men without previous military training were to be accepted, a training system was created. According to this plan, a special unit for foreign volunteers was set up in Lapua. This unit was called Detachment Sisu, in Finnish Osasto Sisu. Sisu is a Finnish word for a national characteristic deemed unique for us Finns; it refers to something that might be called stubbornness in a negative context but we Finns prefer to think this characteristic as something positive: determination and pervasiveness.
The unit's commander was a Finnish officer, Captain Bertil Nordlund.

Detachment Sisu grew very slowly and when the peace treaty was signed and the war ended in March 13th there were only 153 volunteers from different countries. This figure excludes the Hungarians, who joined the detachment as a unit of their own. Even after March 13th the trickle of men continued so that at its peak in February 20th the unit consisted of 212 men.


About 60 foreign volunteer pilots volunteered and were sent to Lentorykmentti 19 (Flight Regiment 19) in Parola. Many of these pilots needed further training. Some pilots also flew with Finnish units. Foreign pilot casualties were three Swedes, four Danes, one Italian and one Hungarian.

Swedish volunteers

Swedes were the largest single nationality group. Around 8000 men served in different formations. The most important formation was the Swedish Volunteer Corps (Svenska Frivilligkåren) with three battalions and other units. The Volunteer Corps was formed in Finland, since the Swedish government felt they could not send volunteers over as a unit. In spite of this, it was made easy for active officers to get leave for volunteering in Finland. This policy suited well for the Swedish government since it would remain officially neutral but the general opinion willing to help Finland would also be taken to account. The Corps' commander was General Lieutenant Linder, a Swedish general born in Finland. General Linder, all three battalion commanders of the Corps and some other senior officers  had experience from war in Finland after having fought as volunteers in 1918 in the Finnish Civil War.

The Volunteer Corps took over the front-line in the northern part of the front in Salla area on February 28th 1940 and thus saw two weeks of action. Since this part of the front was quiet the Swedes were given purely defensive orders. Losses for the Corps were 28 KIA, ca. 50 wounded and 140 with frostbite.

Another unit was the Flight Regiment 19 (Lentorykmentti 19, LeR19; 19. flygflottilj, F19). This unit flew with aircraft from the Swedish Air Force: Gladiators, Harts, Bulldogs and others. Altogether there were 25 planes. The unit was stationed in the north of Finland with the task of protecting the largest towns and communications network in the area. There were also Swedish anti-aircraft units in the area.

Apart from the Volunteer Corps and LeR 19 there were Swedes in an anti-aircraft unit defending the city of Turku, coastal artillery units, navy, field artillery and in a construction unit with the task of building fortifications.

After the war the Corps and other Swedes returned back home. In 1941, when the Finns were again in war against Soviet Union some of these men volunteered again to Finland.

Norwegian volunteers

About 700 hundred Norwegians volunteered, but since their government would not release any senior officers, they were enrolled within the Swedish Volunteer Corps. When the Corps was disbanded, the Norwegians returned home and probably most of these men saw action against the invading Germans.

Hungarians volunteers

Only Hungarians sent volunteers as an organized unit according to the initial Finnish requirements. The unit consisted of 346 officers and men with one month of training in Hungary. These men reached Finland in March 2nd and were stationed to Lapua for further training in Detachment Sisu. Their commander was Captain Imre Keméri-Nagy, a right-wing activist with experience from the fighting that ensued when Hungary occupied parts of Slovakia in 1938.

Apart from this battalion there were about twenty Hungarians who had volunteered on individual basis. Most of these men were sent to Detachment Sisu and some of these later joined the Hungarian company when the company arrived in Lapua.     

After the war the Hungarians were sent for a while to the Lappeenranta garrison and finally returned home in May 1940.

British volunteers

When the war ended there were only 13 British volunteers in Finland although many more had volunteered, including 214 men who reached Finland and Lapua one week after the war had ended.  There were further 750 volunteers waiting to be shipped to Finland, but with the armistice in March 13th, they never came to Finland. The Britons were also stationed in Lapua and formed the British company of Detachment Sisu. Among the Britons there were other nationalities, too: e.g. Irish, Portuguese and at least one man of Estonian birth. According to the initial British plan all the British volunteers were to fight in a single unit. Command of the unit was to be given to Colonel Kermit Roosevelt, son of Theodore Roosevelt.

Some of the British volunteers travelled home throught Sweden immediately after the war, but the majority were stationed for some time in Savonlinna. Some of the men were forced to return home via difficult routes, e.g.Palestine or Vladivostok in the Soviet far east. There were still some British volunteers in Finland in 1941 when Finland was again in war with the Soviet Union. This time there were German troops stationed in the northern part of Finland and some of the former British volunteers were employed by their embassy to monitor German troop movements.

Estonian volunteers

Apart from Hungarians and British, the largest group by nationality in Detachment Sisu were the Estonians, officially 56 men. These men had volunteered in spite of the official friendly line of their government towards the Soviet Union. There were probably some more Estonians fighting in purely Finnish units at the front.

After the war about a dozen of Estonians deserted from Lapua for Norway and fought there against the invading Germans. Some Estonians stayed in Finland and later, in 1941 volunteered again for the Finnish army. Some of these men were sent to Estonia in the summer of 1941 to the rear of the Soviet forces there.

Danish volunteers

About 1000 Danish volunteers came and were sent to training in Oulu. These men also, were not ready for front-line duties when the war ended. The Danes were commanded by Colonel V. Tretow-Loof.

American volunteers

About 350 Americans, mainly of Finnish birth, were also sent for training in Oulu. One company of he Americans reached the front in March 12th and were supposed to take charge of the trenches in 13th, but the order was reversed when the war ended on the very same day. A group of about 30 Americans managed to get posted at the front in December. This group fought as a unit of its own and suffered some casualties.

Karelians, Ingrians and other Finnic groups

In Kemi was formed the Detachment H, which consisted of men from Finnic ethnic groups living in the Soviet Union. After the training period these men were formed into Sissipataljoona 5 (basically a light infantry battalion). This unit saw action beginning from mid-February on the Kuhmo front. Some Estonians probably also served in this unit.

Other volunteers

Apart from the above-mentioned groups, there were volunteers from several other countries and nationalities. Also, there were e.g. a British fire brigade unit in Helsinki and a Swedish veterinary ambulance.

According to official Finnish figures there were following numbers of volunteers by nationality on March 13th.
Austria 2
Belgium 51
Czechoslovakia 1
Estonia 56
France 2
Germany 18
Italy 7
Latvia 4
Lithuania 2
Luxembourg 3
Netherlands 17
Poland 6
Portugal 1
Switzerland 6
United Kingdom 13
Yugoslavia 1
Without nationality 15

In conclusion

In spite of the great publicity, Finland received little effective military help. The Swedish unit with Norwegians thrown in was the only significant foreign unit to see action. The volunteer movement made greater impact on psychological front: the Finnish people felt that they had not been totally abandoned although the sympathy without action generated some sombre comments among Finns. The fact that little effective military help managed to reach Finland was in turn proof that the Western democracies could not give any guarantees for Finland's freedom. This was even more evident when soon after the Winter War Germany occupied Denmark and Norway thus effectively cutting any routes from Finland to the West. This in turn was one factor in forcing Finland to accept German help against the Soviet threat.

Sources used

Lars Ericson - Svenska Frivilliga
-a study of Swedish military volunteers in the 19th and 20th centuries
Justin Brooke - Talvisodan kanarialinnut
-a study of British volunteers written by a volunteer
Jorma Mutanen - Jalkaväkirykmentti 200
-a study of Estonian volunteers in Finland during WWII
Antti Juutilainen - Talvisodan ulkomaiset vapaaehtoiset
-an article on foreign volunteers in the Winter War
Talvisodan historia, volume 4
-an "official" Finnish history of the Winter War by the Department of Military Science
Lauri Haataja - Kun kansa kokosi itsensä
-a one-volume history of the Winter War from other than purely military perspective
Gabor Richly - Unkari ja Suomen talvisota
-an article on Hungary and the Winter War, published in the 1996 issue of the Finnish Military Historical Journal