One of my finest sources of background information when researching my WW2 books (especially Early One Morning, The Last Sunrise and Dying Day) was John Debenham-Taylor who, over the years, has become a friend. This week I learned that he has just been awarded a medal, 75 years after the event. In fact, he now has two medals gained during the war and two awarded afterwards. Both of the post-war medals concern the Winter War in Finland when, in November 1939, Russia invaded.
This conflict is little remembered now in this country, but at the time (during the so-called ‘Phony War’) it was front-page news. Martha Gellhorn sent brilliant dispatches from a bombed Helsinki. An International Brigade, of the sort that fought in the Spanish Civil War, was raised across Europe, with some 12,000 volunteers, including the recently deceased Christopher Lee. Around 50 of these died, a low figure because the Finns (probably wisely) kept most of them from the front line. The Finns were fighting a new kind of war – hopelessly outnumbered, they opted for guerilla tactics. They were the first to mass-produce Molotov cocktails for use against tanks and their lethal, well-camouflaged skiers/snipers became a source of fear among Russian troops. Farmer and hunter Simo “Simuna” Häyhä, known as ‘White Death’ because of his snow camouflage suit, killed more than 500 Red Army Troops with a Mosin-Nagant rifle.
The British tried to help. It secretly sent obsolete WW1 guns to Finland, although there were no instruction manuals. Which is where John Debenham-Taylor, who was with the Royal Artillery, came in. I already knew his story but digging a little deeper I found an obit of a British pilot who had ferried Blenheim bombers, donated by the British, to the country and had been awarded the Talvisodan muistomitali (the Winter War commemorative medal). Surely John deserved recognition for his service there? So I wrote to the Finnish Embassy:
“John was just 19 and was a very good gunner of ‘instructor quality’ and a 2nd Lt. When asked if he would volunteer to help ‘a friendly nation’ under attack (he guessed Finland) he volunteered and along with seven others he was taken out of uniform and sent to Finland in civilian clothes via Sweden.
He stayed there for months, writing manuals for the guns that SOE had smuggled up (mainly 3 inch anti-aircraft guns). Then, with the diplomatic bag consisting of a briefcase plus great crates of Russian guns and bombs for the British to analyse, he went north to the Artic circle and caught a trawler back to Liverpool
The whole story is quite an adventure, and although he did not fight, his commitment to the Finns and his love of them and his time in Helsinki and the countryside shines through to this day. (He even introduced one fellow officer to his future Finnish wife). Because it was a secret mission and because he later became a full-blown SOE operative the story never came out. He believes that, as he was the youngest of the group, he is the sole survivor.”
The Finns acted with admirable speed. A new Winter War medal was struck and John was invited to the London Embassy to receive it from the Finnish Military Attaché.
But the story didn’t end there. John’s son-in-law discovered that anyone who had served north of the Arctic Circle was entitled to the Artic Star. John had commandeered that trawler, loaded with captured weapons, and sailed in it from the far north of Finland. He even passed Norway while it was being invaded by the Germans. I asked if he had witnessed any of it and, as laconic as ever, he said: ‘Actually, no. I was below. I was suffering from terrible constipation – living on reindeer for six months rather blocks you up, or so I found.’
And so, last week, the Arctic Star arrived through the post, almost 75 years to the day after that escape from Finland. Well deserved, and better late (John is 95 this year) than never.