Urho Lehtovaara

Urho Sakari Lehtovaara was born in Pyhäjärvi, northern Finland on 17 October 1917. He lived there until the family moved to Salo in 1934. There the young man became interested in the activities of the local aero club. The club was building a glider, and soon Urho was the most enthusiastic member of the club. Lehtovaara volunteered for military service in the Air Force in 1937. He liked flying so much that he decided to earn his living on it, remaining in service as enlisted NCO (Lance Corporal) in LeLv 26, flying old Bulldog fighters.

Physically Lehtovaara was a short man, that is why his nickname was "Pikku-Jätti" (Little Giant) or later plain "Jätti" ("Giant") when he had proven his real size.. His character was introverted, he did not talk much, and usually he was calm and pensive, but if sufficiently provoked he could suddenly lose his temper. Obviously he disliked the attention when photographed, he always looks sullen in the photos. When he was decorated with the Mannerheim Cross on the 9th of July 1944 he was characterized: "as fighter pilot Sergeant Major Lehtovaara has displayed exemplary courage combined with great calmness and judgment".

As the war broke out in 1939, the squadron still was equipped with its obsolete Bulldogs. Morane-Saulnier MS-406 fighters donated by the French government became operational in late January 1940 and a new squadron, no.28, was created. Sgt. Lehtovaara was transferred to the new unit. The flight in which he served was based on Lake Pyhäjärvi near Turku. Unfortunately the Moranes were very inefficient interceptors due to total lack of radio equipment and the weak armament of only three 7,5 mm MG's. (Very few planes had a 20mm Hispano cannon, which was even less reliable than the MAC machine guns). Moreover, the MS-406 was unstable, she used to oscillate vertically after a turn, making accurate longer-range shooting impossible.

On 2nd March 1940 the flight commander received a report of a lone enemy bomber over the town of Salo. He sent out Lehtovaara with MS-326, of all eager volunteers, since the pilot knew the "lie of the land". The Morane reached Salo in less than ten minutes but of course the enemy was not there any more. Lehtovaara decided to fly around before returning, and after a minute he saw a two-engine plane. He flew closer and saw that it was a SB-2 with red stars. Lehtovaara decided to play safe, considering that he had a chance of making his first kill and the fact that the guns of his fighter were unreliable. He approached the bomber staying behind the enemy tailplane to prevent the rear gunner from shooting at him, and fired at the enemy's engines at a range of 30m. The bomber crashed on the ground, taking its crew with her. Lehtovaara had scored his first victory, his only one during the whole of the Winter War. He was promoted in the rank of Sergeant on the 23rd of March 1940.

In June 1941 the war broke out again as the Soviet bombers crossed the border, without any declaration of war. On the 25th June as the Fiat and Brewster pilots caused heavy losses on the enemy bombers trying to attack the Finnish air bases, the Morane pilots failed - the enemy attacked at lunchtime! The Morane-equipped Squadron 28 was not in a good shape. The Moranes had been upgraded with radio equipment, rollover bar and seat armour, but the pilots were inexperienced. Lehtovaara was the only experienced pilot, the others were novices. Due to the deficient pilot training the squadron was used mainly to assist the infantry - reconnaissance, ground strafing, even artillery fire control. Also the tactics of the squadron was not well thought out: the Morane pilots flew in scattered two plane patrols to search for the enemy, unable to concentrate fighting power when necessary.

But Lehtovaara was successful. He was mostly flying the MS-327, with which he intercepted three DB-3's on 3 July 1941 at Ilomantsi. He shot down two and damaged the third. Six days later (on 9 July) he shot down two SB-2 and after a long dogfight a MiG-1. Later he told that his first dogfight taught him more than all the training he had been given. Lehtovaara received Senior Sergeant's stripes on 23 July 1940. An air battle on the 9 September 1941 (see details in another "Jätti" story) increased his score to 11 and got him promoted as Sergeant Major.

Fighter Squadron 28 was transferred to Eastern Carelia (Olonez) in late 1941. During most of the year 1942 there were just a few encounters with the enemy aircraft. Lehtovaara scored just one victory during the whole year - a DB-3. He became an expert in "train-busting" attacks on the enemy freight trains on the Murmansk railway. The steam locomotives were disabled by shooting holes in the boiler, but the pilot had to defy the train's AA.

On 12 January 1943 Lehtovaara and another Morane pilot were bounced by several Soviet Hurricane Mk.II's near Segezha. The other Morane pilot managed to retreat, but Lehtovaara (with MS-627) had to fight it out with a Hurricane Mk.II. The Finnish pilot shot down his adversary while the other inactive enemy Hurricanes were watching "the show". The enemy pilots even allowed the victorious Morane escape. Obviously they were inexperienced trainees, who lost their instructor.

On 5 March 1943 Lehtovaara managed to intercept a Pe-2 at 7000 m with the MS-641 - without oxygen mask. He fired at the photographing bomber from below, the Morane "hanging" on its propeller until the engine stopped. The Finnish pilot managed to restart his engine before the two escorting I-16 attacked him. In the ensuing dogfight Lehtovaara shot down one of them.

Sergeant Major Lehtovaara was transferred to the new Messerschmitt Squadron No 34 in April 1943. He belonged to the 3rd Flight commanded by Capt. Puhakka. The first victory that the ex-Morane pilot scored was a Pe-2 on 19 April 1943 flying MT-216. The well-equipped squadron was involved in heavy battles against numerically superior enemy.

For example on 4 November 1943 Lehtovaara fought against unusually large odds. He had taken off at 12.40 hours from Kymi / Juurikorpi air base to test-fly the MT-209 after repair. At 12.47 the base was alerted: 15 Pe-2 bombers escorted by 19 La-5 fighters had been detected approaching Kotka. Major Luukkanen, the Squadron Leader, sent an order to Lehtovaara over the radio: "Attention Giant, fifteen bombers and nineteen fighters approaching Kotka from the South, intercept!"

At the very moment Lehtovaara was approaching the runway with gear down. Without hesitation he interrupted the approach and accelerated at full power above the runway until he had picked up enough speed. Then he began to take altitude to meet the enemy - two more Me's were just frantically being started on the base: Major Luukkanen himself and Sergeant Major Tani were coming to help. The defensive AA opened fire - the enemy bombers dived for attack. The leading bomber was his by the AA fire and continued her dive in the sea.

Lehtovaara wrote in his battle report: "I attacked the enemy formation but was engaged by enemy fighters that tied me in a dogfight lasting 20 minutes. I shot at three La-5's, each of which shed large pieces and disengaged immediately. A fourth caught fire but the fire was extinguished soon and the smoking plane was lost from my view before Someri Island. The pilot of the fifth enemy plane that I fired at in a turn was probably hit because enemy half-rolled and nose-dived in the sea about 15 km SE of Someri."

The battle ended as the enemy retreated. The ground crews and other personnel of the base were anxiously waiting. They could hardly believe their eyes as all three Me's returned. Lehtovaara parked the MT-209 and climbed out of the cockpit as the responsible mechanic Skogster run to see what the pilot had done to his fine aircraft.

Lehtovaara paced here and there, cursing aloud at the small ammunition magazine capacity of the Me, trying to calm down. To their surprise, the mechanics did not find a single hole in the MT-209, just the radio antenna had disappeared.

Major Luukkanen was grateful that it had been Lehtovaara who had been in the air as the alert was received. The man's courage and sense of duty had no limit: without hesitation he had single-handed attacked thirty-six enemies. Lehtovaara was the best pilot in the base to obey that order - and survive. Luukkanen had shot down a La-5's, but Tani failed to score.

However it was not this incident that Lehtovaara himself considered his toughest experience. (please check "Jätti's" two combat stories ). On 26. April 1944 he was promoted to the rank of Air Master Sergeant (the highest NCO rank).

The Soviet offensive in June/July 1944 was a tough period for the Finnish armed forces, also for the Air Force. On 9 June 1944 there were only twenty airworthy Bf 109 planes - Hitler had denied all material deliveries to Finland to punish the Finnish government for seeking peace in February 1944. The enemy flew often in 100-plane formations. It was enough light for flying for 24 hours per day up to mid-July, so fighter pilots of Squadron 34 often made 19-hour days.

Then as the Soviet offensive progressed, Germany again began to supply war material and even sent a Luftwaffe strike force to assist Finnish Air Force: Germany needed Finland as an ally.

In Summer 1944 Lehtovaara's most successful day was the 2nd of July. At 20.00 hours that day 35 Pe-2's dive-bombed the Lappeenranta Air base, followed by a strafing attack by 40 Il-2´s, covered by dozens of escort fighters. 11 Messerschmitts of the Squadron 24, whose base was attacked, managed to scramble. Squadron 34, based at Taipalsaari a dozen km to the north-west, was asked to help, and eight Me's took off at 20.10 hrs, led by Ltn. Myllylä. Lehtovaara, one of the pilots, chased the bombers with the MT-448 and managed to shoot down three Pe-2's in succession. The attackers lost eleven Il-2's, four Pe-2's and one escorting Yak-9. Two Me's were destroyed on the ground and one more battle damaged at landing. On the 25th July, flying the MT-405 Lehtovaara shot down one Airacobra which was his last victory of a total of 44 1/2. He had been awarded the Mannerheim Cross on the 9th of July 1944.

Lehtovaara retired from FAF service in November 1946. We can assume that "Jätti" was addicted to flying and in particular air battles. The thrill a fighter pilot gets when fighting for his life is a stimulant that peacetime service could not offer. Especially as the Messerschmitt squadrons 24 and 34 were grounded for months since September 1944 and both the pilots and the ground crews spent their time logging and chopping firewood.

Lehtovaara returned to his home district. He was the owner-operator of a movie theatre at Suomusjärvi near Salo when he suddenly died in 1949.

Morane Saulnier 406, MS-327, being reloaded for another mission. Note the MAC gun ammo drum on the wing and the wing guns tilted for reloading.  MS-406 demanded twice more labour for service than any other FAF fighter type.