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Author, film researcher and member of the Swedish Military History Commission.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Soviet General Who Knew About Swedes

So, according to the Soviet Union´s most legendary paratrooper, General Vasily Margelov, he took six Swedish general staff officers prisoner during the Finnish Winter War (see previous posting). Let us now examine how Swedish sources match with the general´s statements.

Could the whole story be the result of misunderstandings? Mainly: not being aware of the Swedish minority in Finland, the Swedish Finns? No, that can actually be ruled out. Because it says "the sector adjacent to Kandalaksha" and we know that Margelov´s recon battalion belonged to the 122nd Rifle Division. That division indeed fought against the Swedish Volunteer Corps (abbreviated SFK) during the Winter War. There were several firefights between this division and the SFK. In fact, the Swedes took a number of war trophies from this division, some of which still today are on display within the Swedish Army.

A Soviet Degtyaryov light machine gun (DP) captured in Finnish Lapland by the 4th Ranger Company ("Grafström Company") of the 2nd Combat Group of SFK. Most of the soldiers in this company were volunteers from the Swedish Army´s K 4 Cavalry Regiment. The DP is preserved by K 4:s successor, the Swedish Army Ranger Battalion in Arvidsjaur.

Then there are six Swedish books with extensive accounts of the Swedes that were actually captured by the Soviets. There were three such incidents. Twice Swedish volunteer pilots were taken prisoner. Only once were Swedish infantrymen captured. This single incident, known as "Öjstad´s patrol", actually matches with Margelov´s account on several points. The three points where the accounts contradict can mostly be explained:

1. According to the Russian side six Swedes were taken prisoner. If one takes into account only the Öjstad patrol this is incorrect, as only four men from that patrol were captured alive (one of them soon died of wounds). But the two pilots that were captured were taken in the same area. Thus a total of six and, judging from the accounts of the pilots, the Soviet Captain that captured them may also have been Margelov.

2. Actually, only three of the captured were officers, one a 1st lieutenant and two were 2nd lieutenants. Considering the time lapse between 1940 and the occasion when the general was interviewed this can be simply an error of human nature.

3. None of the six Swedes belonged to the Swedish general staff. However, one of the captured officers, Arne Jung, was the nephew of Swedish Army Chief of Staff Helge Jung (later he became Sweden´s chief of defence). Margelov learned about the status of the Swedes from the NKVD (the later KGB). They may either have given Margelov the wrong idea or it may have evolved within Margelov through old age/vanity.

By a strange twist of fate I also stumbled upon the grave of one of the Swedes killed in the ambush. When the ambush started there were seven in the patrol. Soon three of them fell, one being Private Linus Johansson, a miner from Arjeplog who, like most of his comrades, had done his military service at the K 4 Cavalry Regiment. I had no idea who Johansson was when I noticed his gravestone in Arjeplog. I was there, in the Arjeplog cemetary, with not the slightest intention of searching for Swedish volunteers. In fact, I was there to take part in the burial of a Soviet soldier, an escaped POW who succumbed to nature during his attempt to reach freedom in Sweden. I wrote about this story for Armchair General some years ago and it can still be read online here.

The reason I noticed Johansson´s grave must have been the SFK symbol at the top. I stumbled upon it on my away from the fresh grave of Soviet POW escapee Aleksey Matveyev - the graves are just some meters apart. Incidentally, Matveyev and Johansson are as common names as Smith, typical for their nations.

From comparing Russian and Swedish sources I reckon the following could be considered as two new facts to have emerged, previously unknown outside Russia:

1. The Swedish estimates about the Soviet force that killed/captured the seven men strong Öjstad patrol were low. The surviving Swedes stated they thought they had fought against 60 Soviets or perhaps one company. Margelov makes it very clear that he used three companies for the ambush. Even if only one of these companies actually fired at the Swedes one can safely say that the Swedish survivors did not exaggerate about the opposing force...

2. We now know the identity of the unit that ambushed the Swedes: the Separate Reconnaissance Ski Battalion of the 596th Rifle Regiment of the 122nd Rifle Division.

The Russian statement that the fight was "fierce" (see previous posting) does not prove anything conclusively, but it makes the statement of the Swedish survivors that they fought till they expended their ammunition ring true.

There is to my knowledge nothing to support the Russian statements about how the incident is supposed to have affected Swedish government policy. But, at any rate, it is pretty interesting that there is such a view in Russia.

The fact that the Soviet battalion that the Swedes met was commanded by the later most legendary and long-serving Soviet airborne general might not just be considered a curiosity. According to the accounts about Magelov´s career he seems to have been fundamentally affected by his experiences in Finland. After the Winter War and until Gorbachev´s era virtually nothing was written or even said in the Soviet Union about the Winter War. Even less about Swedish participation in it. But, during most of the Cold War, the man in charge of the Soviet Union´s largest elite force, General Margelov, knew very well that Swedes too participated in the Winter War.

This all sounds like something one could make a TV documentary about, or even a movie. Well, there are already two relevant movies. In the Norwegian WWII blockbuster "Max Manus" all the winter fighting scenes depict the main character´s experience of fighting as a Norwegian volunteer in the SFK in Lapland. There were 727 Norwegian volunteers in the SFK. Here is a trailer with some of these scenes:

The same year "Max Manus" was released, 2008, Russian TV showed an 8-part TV-film about General Margelov called "Batya" (meaning Dad), also marketed as "Desantny batya" (Airborne Dad). I have not been able to watch it, but I did find this clip from it, depicting the young Margelov during the Winter War:

Swedish volunteers are not mentioned in this clip, which is mostly about NKVD-men harassing Margelov because of his respect for Finnish soldiers. But perhaps one of you readers has seen more of this series and can use the commentary function of this blog?


  1. Of Öjstad's patrol, only four men were captured alive, and one of them soon died of wounds.

    How about the three remaining survivors, were they returned to Sweden afterwards in the exchange of prisoners, like the two F19 pilots Per Sterner and Arne Jung? If yes, have they published their memoirs, and could their accounts cast any light on the "general staff officers" story?


    Hannu M, Helsinki

  2. Yes, the three rangers were returned in conjunction with the pilots. Sadly they wrote no memoirs but their statements to reporters can be read in the books "Umeås blå dragoner" (the regimental history of K 4) and "Det svenska vinterkriget" by Leif Björkman. See also "Från Salla till Hangöudd" by Anders Grafström.