Sunday 28 June 2020

The life and times of Finnish fighter ace Veikko Karu by Jukka Juutinen

by Jukka Juutinen

In his original post on Kari Stenman’s book “Mersu” blog author Neil Page made mention of the case involving Veikko Karu and his post-war criminal conviction. For non-Finnish speakers not familiar with the background of the comment (that was originally due to my instigation), a more comprehensive explanation is perhaps appropriate.

To people used to a more complete treatment of fighter aces, their lives and personalities, it may come as a great surprise to find that the Finnish historiography on Finnish fighter aces tends to be of "Battler Britain" heroic style with perfect heroes having perfect lives. To date, not a single ace biography meeting the basic requirements for a serious historical study has been published in Finland. Most have no proper referencing and even feature dialogue that cannot be verified with any trustworthy source (Franz Kurowski-style).

As most Finnish AF history enthusiasts know, Kari Stenman has written numerous key books on the topic. One of these books is “Lentävät ritarit” (Flying Knights), a book with short biographies on all FAF Mannerheim Cross awardees. One of the awardees was Veikko Karu. Veikko Karu was a very brave and courageous soldier with an  impeccable service record. However, in the early 1960s he was convicted of killing his wife and disposing of her corpse by incinerating it. He received a sentence of 10 years in prison.

This incident has never been mentioned in any of Stenman’s books or articles, nor in any standard literature on Finnish fighter aces. The topic is still a sore one in some Finnish circles, as I discovered to my great astonishment last year. I wrote a book review for the prestigious Finnish military journal Sotilasaikakauslehti who published it in their April 2018 issue. I made a mention of the Karu case in the review. Some time after the review was published, I received a phone call from a person of military background. While neutral in tone, one got the feeling that my text had angered some people who feel that any such negative publicity is akin to “defaming the veterans”. I wonder does similar atmosphere exist in the U.S. or U.K.?

As for the crime Karu committed, the latest information (although coming from several sources, the intel is based on hearsay, though I am inclined to believe it is true) suggests that Veikko Karu’s only crime was the disposition of his wife’s corpse after discovering that one of his sons had actually killed her. That son was apparently mentally “slow” and Karu believed that he could not cope with imprisonment and decided to take the blame instead. He did his time and after release continued his life. Apparently, his closest family knew the truth but decided to keep it to themselves.

If it is indeed true that Karu took the blame for his son’s crime, one has to wonder why to tiptoe about it? After all, what can be a higher demonstration of highest character of a war hero than to make a huge sacrifice for his own family in civilian life as well?

Summary of video interview by Jukka Juutinen.

The interview begins with the question when did Karu first see an aeroplane. Karu responds that he was about 10 years old. Then Karu explains that his original plan was to study electric engineering after his Abitur as his family (he uses the expression “we had”) owned an automobile dealership representing e.g. General Motors. The firm had an auto repair shop with some 10 mechanics. I.e. Karu intended to become employed by that firm. At that time aeroplanes and “their droning” did not much interest Karu.

In 1936 he had his Abitur exam and then entered AF Reserve Officer’s Course. He states that he was very lucky as there were over 1000 applicants and only 30 were approved. He then describes the selection process. At the first stage over one half were rejected on the basis of application papers.

Then he notes that when he for the first time climbed onboard an aeroplane and took controls, he made up his mind: this was to be his life career. Then he had struggle to get approval from his mother who at first resisted his plans. Veikko was his mother’s “support and security” as he had a significant share in running the auto business already. He then says “That much I can confess you that had my mother not given in, I would have given up my flying career”. “I am eternally grateful for her approval.” “Flying has been everything for me in my life.”

Then he is asked that was the AF cadet school the only way to become an airman. Karu responds that it would have been possible to become a civilian pilot for Aero (Finnish airliner), but he adds that driving Aero’s aeroplanes is akin to driving a bus and “it is not flying until you get a plane under you and can do whatever you want”.

He then describes when he was caught stunting over his then girlfriend’s home. His CO first held a loud sermon over the incident but then added that such stunting is what makes a pilot and the case is closed for good. Then Karu describes his first aerial combat on 20.2.1940. He describes how he climbed to 7000 metres without an oxygen mask. He shot down/at 2 enemy aircraft and then had dive vertically to get away. He was so weary that he wonders how he got back to home base.

The Continuation War began with Fokker D.XXI for him. Then he was ordered to begin training night fighter pilots. That was when the friendly fire incident occurred. He was flying at night at about midnight when he spotted a black shape flying over a field. He asked on radio whether own aircraft were in their air. Negative was the response. He radioed “I’ll go after it.”

He then pursued the black form and says that he recognized it as a He 111. He notes that also Soviets were known to use (captured) He 111s. He kept asking on the radio that are there friendlies in the air. “Negative”. He then radioed that hurry up, the frontline is approaching, what should I do. He asked for permission to shoot. He shot one engine on fire. The aircraft kept going on. Then he asked can he shoot the other engine. “Posotie”. Then he shot that too on fire and then the aircraft turned away from the enemy lines. Right at that moment he hear on the radio “It is friendly!”.

Some 10 to 20 km before reaching the base the aircraft blew up in the air and debris hit Karu’s plane too. He flew back to base, he jumped into a car and drove to the crash site. He heard shouts “Wasser! Wasser!”. There were still two airmen alive. Afterwards Karu requested that he be informed at once when the Germans are buried. The Germans were buried in Helsinki and Karu acquired a wreath for the grave. The Germans were very adamant that Karu was not responsible, it was their own fault.

When Fuhrer’s wreath was lowered, a gun salute was fired. Karu says that Germans fired only such salute when something very important was happening. “I was wondering that what is this ceremony. Then a German whispered it was my turn. When I lowered my wreath, didn’t those cursed Germans just fire a gun salute! I felt that I now should sink under the ground, so pissed up I was. When I got back, I asked the German that why the hell did they do that? The German responded “Don’t you realize that we did this to emphasize that shooting down the plane was not your fault.”

Then the interviewer cites from the official Mannerheim Cross award document. Then Karu describes how he was shot down. He and one another spotted a Russian truck column. Karu attacked and on the first run set 9 of the 10 trucks on fire. Then he made a mistake: he did not leave that one alone and attacked again. And so the flak got him.

Then he describes how he was able to escape from the enemy territory. He says he was extremely lucky. He was able to cross an old barbed fire fence over a fallen pine tree. He was able to steal a rifle by knocking out a Russian who had come out of a bunker for urges of nature. He was then able to cross a minefield probably due to thick snow over the area, or “the guy up in the sky helped”. Then he faced a problem when the Finns guarding the line did not originally believe he was Finnish.

At the end Karu sends his greetings to his comrades, who after his long absence (which is presumably a reference to his incarceration) welcomed him with heartwarming comradeship.

”Ylipäällikkö on pvm:llä 6.11.42 nimittänyt Vapaudenristin 2. luokan Mannerheim-ristin ritariksi kapteeni Veikko Johannes Karun. Kapteeni Karu on johtanut erittäin tarmokkaasti ja ansiokkaasti hävittäjälaivuetta. Itse taitavana ja aina taisteluihin valmiina sekä rauhallista harkintaa osoittaen on hän esimerkillään kannustanut alaisensa ohjaajat erinomaisiin tuloksiin. Hänen henkilökohtaisella tilillään on useita ilmavoittoja, jotka hän on suurimmaksi osaksi saanut meririntamalla taistelussa vihollisen lentoveneitä vastaan. Hänen johtamansa partiot ovat menestyksellisesti toimineet erikoisesti vihollisen keveitä merivoimia vastaan upottaen lukuisia aluksia. Kerran hyökkäsi kapteeni Karu partioineen kolmea vihollisen moottoritorpeedovenettä vastaan. Alukset syttyivät vuorotellen tuleen, räjähtivät ja upposivat. Taistelun aikana oli vihollisen ilmatorjuntatuli hyvin kiivasta ja sai kapteeni Karu omaan koneeseensa useita räjähtäviä luodinosumia, mutta jatkoi siitä huolimatta taistelua loppuun saakka. Kapteeni Karun tuhotessa erään toisen kerran rintaman takana toistakymmentä autoa, sai hänen koneensa ilmatorjuntatulesta niin pahoja osumia, että hänen oli tehtävä pakkolasku vihollisen puolelle. Pelastettuaan koneesta kaikki tärkeät paperit ja kartat lähti hän pyrkimään omalle puolelle ja onnistuikin siinä kahakoituaan kiivaasti vihollisen kanssa. Kapteeni Karu on suorittanut kaikkiaan 146 sotalentoa ja on hänen johtamansa osasto upottanut 22 vihollisalusta sekä ampunut alas lukuisia viholliskoneita.” Translation: The Supreme Commander has awarded Captain Veikko Johannes Karu on the date 6.11.1941 the Mannerheim Cross of the 2. Class of the Cross of Freedom.” [literally it says “has nominated as a knight of the…]. Captain Karu has led with great vigour and merit a fighter squadron. Displaying great skill, readiness for combat and calm thinking he has encouraged his subordinate pilots to great results through his personal example. His personal victory list has several victories, most of which have been cored over the seafront against enemy flying boats. Patrols led by him have successfully engaged especially enemy’s light naval forces sinking numerous vessels. On one occasion Karu and his patrol attacked 3 enemy torpeedo [intentional error as in original text!] boats. One by one the vessels caught fire, exploded and sank. Duringt the fight the enemy AA fire was very heavy and Captain Karu’s plane received several hits by HE bullets, but still he kept fighting on till the end. On another occasion, Kaptain Karu destroyed behing enemy lines over a 10 enemy vehicles, his plane took so severe hits that he had to force-land on the enemy side. After saving all important papers [documents] and maps from the plane he began his journey to own side [of the front] and succeeded in doing so despite heavy skirmishes with the enemy. Captain Karu has performed 146 combat missions all in all, and the unit under his command has sank 22 enemy vessels and shot down numerous enemy aircraft.”