• Post category:Articles
  • Post published:27.1.2023

Aerial photos reveal the hidden past of Porkkala

Old aerial photos illustrate an area’s history. What can they tell us about Porkkala, an area occupied by the Soviet Union for more than ten years after the Continuation War?


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In the 1944 aerial photo (on the left), Friggesby was a quiet rural village with large open fields. The aerial photo taken after the Soviet occupation in 1956 (in the middle) reveals an airfield with its runways and concrete shelters. Since then, the airfield has been covered by vegetation, and it can no longer be identified in the aerial photo taken in 2019 (on the right). Photos: National Land Survey of Finland

The Moscow Armistice was signed in September 1944. It marked the end of the Continuation War and forced Finnish troops to move to the western side of the border defined in the Moscow Peace Treaty signed in 1940. Petsamo remained in the Soviet Union, causing Finland to lose its connection to the Arctic Ocean.

However, the heaviest demand was the obligation set for Finland to lease out Porkkala to the Soviet Union for 50 years as a naval base. If hardly anyone had heard anything of Porkkala before, now the situation had changed completely.

The total area of the leased area was some 1,000 square kilometres, with land covering roughly 388 square kilometres. Kirkkonummi and Siuntio suffered the biggest losses. Degerby was lost in its entirety. In addition, small parts of Inkoo and Espoo were lost.

Thousands were evacuated in ten days

A few days after signing the Moscow Armistice, a survey was conducted in the border between Finland and the Soviet Union to define accurate boundaries in the area. Originally, the borderline was drawn using a ruler. The border passed from the sea following Espoonlahti through Luoma, Hvitträsk and Humaljärvi to the Sjundby Manor, from where it returned back south to the sea through Päivölä and Ingarskila.

After the detailed boundaries had been defined, all 7,272 people living in the area were evacuated in ten days. The area had to be evacuated before midnight on 29 September 1944. All possible modes of transport were used: horse-drawn carriages, lorries, trains, boats and ships. Work was carried out practically non-stop.

First, all the residents’ personal belongings, including furniture, were moved to the other side of the borderline. At the same time, cereals and potatoes were harvested and firewood was gathered. Cattle was moved during the night to keep the roads free for transport vehicles during the day. Altogether, 20,000 people participated in the operation.

White area on Finnish maps

The new national border was located in the middle of Espoonlahti. The border was crossed through the Kivenlahti bridge. Even today, it remains a pedestrian bridge on the southern side of the new bridges built for a local road and a highway.

According to the Moscow Armistice, Soviet troops had free access from the eastern border to Porkkala by road and rail.

The leased area of Porkkala disappeared from Finnish maps. Finnish people did not know what was being done in the area. In particular, the eastern part of the leased area remained out of sight from the Finnish side. In the area around Siuntio station, Finnish people were able to watch across large open fields what was happening in the Soviet-occupied area.

In Espoo in 1954, flight activities were identified in Porkkalanniemi. An airfield had apparently been built in the area, in which Soviet troops operated MiG-15 jets, among others. In autumn 1955, the Soviet Union announced that the Porkkala base had become unnecessary. Missile technology had advanced significantly, and large coastal gun batteries were no longer required to shut down the Gulf of Finland.

The area was given back to Finland on 26 January 1956. It had been leased to the Soviet Union for eleven years and four months instead of the originally planned 50 years.

Aerial photos reveal all the secrets

Aerial photos of Porkkala were previously taken in 1944. A new project for aerial photography was immediately started in 1956.

Many old buildings had disappeared. Some had been burned, while some had been relocated to the Soviet Union. There is an area to the east of Tallinn, in which many of these buildings are now located. Many new buildings had also been built at the base, including the Upinniemi military harbour and Kantvik military hospital.

The fighter jets identified a few years previously had taken off from an airfield built in the village of Friggesby. Many who have visited Porkkalanniemi cannot have missed the sign standing on Porkkalantie that says Lentotie (Airfield road), which leads to the southern end of the airfield area. Currently, it is a private road.

When looking at the aerial photo taken in 1944, it is easy to imagine where the airfield would be built ten years later. There is a level field of roughly two square kilometres.

The aerial photo taken in 1956 shows a 1,500-metre-long runway and a number of concrete shelters for aircraft. The soil could not support heavy aircraft. Soil surveys revealed metal sheets that covered a 20-metre-wide area throughout the length of the runway.

A round, slightly tilted control tower can be seen in the middle of the field. In addition, there are 33 airfield structures that are in ruins.

In current aerial photos (taken in 2019), many parts of the airfield are covered by vegetation. 


The NLS opened its aerial photo archives

In June 2021, the NLS opened its archives of old aerial photos by making the photos available in the Paikkatietoikkuna service. The oldest photos date back to the 1930s.

The NLS aerial photo archives consist of some 1.5 million aerial photos, roughly half of which have been scanned in digital format. Scanning was started from the oldest films. Later, the aim has been to scan the largest possible areas from different decades. Currently, photos from the early 1970s are being scanned. The photos must be further processed after scanning to add them to the service for old aerial photos.

This is a laborious, but invaluable project.

‘Many researchers of history, in particular, have been interested, and we have received valuable positive feedback on the service. We are also constantly told about new applications. By comparing aerial photos taken in different decades, changes in beaver populations have, for example, been investigated by identifying their dams,’ says Heli Laaksonen, Head of Cartography at the NLS.

Aerial photos have recorded Finland’s history over roughly a hundred years. The impact of the war years can also be dramatically identified. For example, photos taken in the late 1940s show various traces of bombings, especially in the areas of Rovaniemi and Kemi–Tornio airports.

‘I have heard that old aerial photos of Porkkala show that structures were built on the border using sand to check every morning that no-one had tried to cross the border,’ says Laaksonen.

There is plenty to study for everyone interested in history, as the material added to Paikkatietoikkuna currently covers some 400,000 square kilometres. More photos will be added as the scanning project progresses.

Olli Pitkänen is a member of the board of the Porkkala Parenthesis association (www.porkkala.net). He works as a guide in the Porkkala area. Email: opitkane@gmail.com

Heli Laaksonen is the Head of Cartography at the NLS. She is responsible for aerial photo services. Email: firstname.lastname@nls.fi