Modifications, Colours and Markings of The Continuation War
By Brett Green and Pekka Toivonen
The original purpose of this piece was to provide a few paragraphs to accompany my Sturmi construction article. I wanted to achieve two objectives. Firstly, to place the Sturmgeschutz III and its Finnish service in a historical context; but also to explore the unique attributes of Finnish Sturmgeschutz - or "Sturmi". Before long it became clear that a more detailed examination of the subject was warranted. There are a number of sources that discuss Finnish armour in World War Two, some of which are obscure and long out of print. Very few documents in the English language have dealt specifically with the Sturmgeschutz III in Finnish Service.
This article would not have been possible without the contribution of a number of individuals. Pekka Toivonen has added a wealth of detail. He has also cheerfully reviewed the accuracy of the article on an ongoing basis. A number of misconceptions and misinterpretations in existing texts have been corrected, largely due to Pekka's thorough confirmation of facts via a number of Finnish sources. Juha Veijalainen and Andreas Larka have also generously given permission to use some of their photos from the Parola Armour Museum in Finland. These photos help illustrate some of the features described in the text. Thanks are also due to James Blackwell, John Corsair and Ron Puttee for digging out scarce Finnish armour information from their collections.
The article is structured to allow the reader to easily refer to their area of interest. Modellers may be drawn to the Camouflage, Markings and Modifications sections, while general readers may be interested in the story of Finland's stand against almost unbelievable odds. I trust that the resulting article will be interesting and a useful ongoing reference.
For detailed modelling notes on how to build a Finnish Sturmi please refer to Part Two of this article: Building a Finnish Sturmi.
The Sturmartillerie was the brainchild of German General von Manstein, whose idea it was to employ a mechanised artillery force to accompany and support infantry in the battlefield. Vehicles were to be deployed in small numbers; and employ "hit and run" tactics when eliminating enemy defensive positions and armour. Sturmartillerie units were intended to support infantry attacks; act as mobile anti-tank artillery; and perform the indirect fire role in rear positions. This was quite different from the German strategic view of the role for tanks. According to von Manstein, the Panzers were expected to fight as independent strike units against the flanks and rear areas of enemy forces; and as "breakthrough" units against the front lines. In summary, the Sturmartillerie supported the infantry; the Panzers performed the role of the "cavalry".
Designing a vehicle for such a diverse role was a challenging task. The vehicle needed the firepower to quickly deal with both tanks and heavily fortified defences; sufficient armour to survive contemporary anti-tank weapons; and the mobility to conduct individual surprise attacks. During the invasion of Poland in September 1939, the Panzer III was the most advanced tank that Germany could muster. It had entered front-line service a year earlier during the occupation of the Sudetenland. The Panzer III was equipped with a 37mm gun as main armament. Although the Panzer IV was more heavily armed, the design of the smaller and newer tank was in many ways more efficient than its larger cousin. By mounting the main armament in the lower hull of the Panzer III, the normal restrictions imposed by the size of the turret ring were eliminated. It was possible to built a very low profile vehicle with a much more powerful gun than the Panzer III, yet retain the benefits of its proven chassis. It was also simpler and less expensive to manufacture.
The Sturmgeschutz III was thus born. It was fully enclosed and heavily armoured by the standards of the day. Armament consisted of the short barreled 75mm L/24 gun. The Sturmgeschutz III first saw action in France during 1940.
Finland's role in World War Two is remarkable. It is the story of a tiny population resisting the might of the largest army on earth by local knowledge, high motivation, pragmatic decisions and an excellent sense of political timing.
The Winter War
By the time the first StuGs were entering service in France, Finland had already fought a short but desperate defensive war against the massive Soviet Army. 300,000 Soviet troops with 1,500 tanks had attacked the 1000km Finnish border in November 1939. The assault was concentrated on the Karelian Isthmus in South-Eastern Finland. The full strength of the Finnish army was 150,000. It had a total of 59 obsolete tanks and 112 Bofors 37mm anti-tank guns at its disposal. The stubborn and innovative Finns eventually succumbed to the intense Soviet attack. The Finnish Government negotiated an uneasy truce; conceding some Finnish territory to the Soviets in March 1940.
The Continuation War
Owing to their conviction that the Soviets would attack again at the first opportunity, Finland entered a military arrangement with Germany. Germany provided weapons and economic support; and Finland gave the German army access to Northern Finland as a staging post to attack the strategically important Murmansk railway. Finland clearly indicated its intention to advance only as far as its borders before the Winter War of 1939/40.
The Finnish and German armies advanced onto Soviet occupied soil on 26 June 1941. This signaled the beginning of the "Continuation War". By September 1941 Finland had regained all her lost territories and had established a strategic buffer zone in the USSR. By December, the Finnish Government had halted all advances and decided to stabilise the southern and central fronts. Indeed, the front lines remained almost unchanged for 18 months.
June 1944 saw a massive counter-attack by 500,000 Soviet troops. By this time, the Finnish army was larger and better equipped than during the Winter War. It also had the direct military assistance of a German Sturmgeschutz Brigade and Infantry Division. However, against the overwhelming Soviet forces even the highly motivated and innovative Finnish army was forced to fall back. By the end of 1944 Finland had concluded an alliance with the Soviet Union and the German Army was forced to withdraw from Finnish territory. Against all odds, due to her combination of dogged resistance and pragmatic politics, Finland had maintained her independence and avoided being absorbed into the Eastern Bloc.
The 59 tanks available during the Winter War were antiquated Vickers 6-ton and Renault FT-17s. These tanks saw little action during the Winter War. The Finnish army relied less on mechanised armour than their German counterparts, however it was clear that Finland needed better quality tanks and more of them. The Finnish Armoured Corps were boosted after the Winter War by the addition of captured Soviet vehicles. The most numerous tank to enter service were 62 T-26s of various sub-types. Although more modern than Finland's earlier armour, these vehicles were obsolescent by the beginning of the Continuation War.
During the course of the Continuation War, more modern Soviet armour was captured in small numbers. These consisted of five T-34/76 (of which three were purchased from Germany); six T-28 medium tanks (which were obsolescent in 1939, let alone 1944), one KV1E 1940 model, and one KV1 Model 1942. Finland also adapted some captured vehicles to perform more effectively. The BT-42 was an example of this level of innovation. A large calibre World War One howitzer was mounted in a new turret on the chassis of obsolete Soviet BT-7 tanks. This modest armoured force was clearly insufficient to deal with the impending flood of Soviet tanks and troops. To this end, Finland purchased 6 Landsverk self-propelled anti-aircraft guns from Sweden plus 59 Sturmgeschutz III (in two batches) and 15 Panzer IVs from Germany.
Following the Soviet counter-attack, the Finnish Armoured Division was strengthened by the capture of two ISU-152 Self-Propelled Guns during the June fighting; and seven T-34/85s later at Tali-lhantala. One of the ISU-152s and three intact T-34/85s were committed to battle at once. The ISU-152 was lost in subsequent fighting.
Since its introduction in 1940 the role of the Sturmgeschutz III had migrated toward anti-tank duties. In line with the general trend toward heavier armour and armament, the StuG III had been up-gunned and so the first batch of 30 Sturmgeschutz III Ausf. G purchased by Finland in mid 1943 were armed with the long barreled 75mm StuK 40 L/48. This was an excellent anti-tank weapon, capable of penetrating all but the heaviest Soviet armour. These first vehicles were a mix of early and mid production variants and some had bolted nose armour while some did not. One of these initial vehicles, "Ps.531-17", was a StuG built on a Panzer III Ausf. M chassis. This entire first batch was delivered with the block mantelet, early machine gun arrangement and rubber-tyred return rollers. None of this first batch of vehicles had Zimmerit applied. Armoured side skirts were fitted to all of these vehicles on delivery. Photographs show a number of these vehicles with three colour Finnish camouflage and Schurzen attached; but the side skirts including the mounts were removed shortly afterwards.
The official Finnish designation for these vehicles was Stu-40, but they were widely referred to as "Sturmi". The Finns customised their Sturmis, continuing their tradition of adapting vehicles to local conditions. These modifications were mainly concerned with improving crew and vehicle survivability by the use of strategically placed armour. Other modifications provided additional stowage. This was important to ensure self-sufficiency during long periods of action at the front. Consequently the Finnish Sturmi displayed a very different appearance from German StuGs of the same period when these modifications were combined with the unique three-coloured camouflage schemes.
Large wooden stowage boxes were installed on all but four of the first batch Sturmis. These four were used as reserve vehicles which were rotated to an active unit in March 1944. However, unfortunately for the units that adopted these Sturmis, they had been stored outdoors during the harsh Finnish winter without maintenance and had rusted significantly. Four in-service vehicles took their place as reserve vehicles.
The Sturmis arrived in Finland without spare parts. One further Sturmi, "unlucky" "Ps.531-13", was therefore dismantled and used as a source of maintenance spares.
The second batch of 29 StuGs from Germany were delivered in mid 1944. These were later production types, mainly equipped with Saukopf mantelet and Zimmerit. These were not all from the final production batch. This was indicated by rubber-tyred return rollers and lack of pilsen mounts on some examples. These later Sturmis were delivered in two shipments. The first fifteen were shipped from Danzig around the beginning of July 1944 and due to their late arrival, these Sturmis were rushed into action with few, if any, modifications. The remaining fourteen followed a month later. It is unlikely that any of the vehicles in this August shipment saw action against the Soviets. At least one of this later batch had the block style mantelet with a coaxial machine gun. One example of this configuration was "Ps.531-48", although the German coaxial machine gun was removed before the vehicle was issued to the Sturmi Battalion.
Following the Soviet truce both early and late model vehicles received a number of further modifications. In contrast with the first batch of vehicles, however, these modifications were restricted to stowage and fitting details. It is also likely that Sturmis were cannibalised for parts after the war. This may explain post-war photographs of vehicles such as "Ps.531-59" equipped with the early style block mantelet.
A Panssaridivisioona (Armoured Division) was organised in August 1943. This Division was composed of two Tank Brigades; a Jager Brigade organised into four battalions; a single Assault Gun Battalion (Panssaripataljoona) equipped with Sturmis and an Independent Assault Gun Company armed with BT-42s.
The Assault Gun Battalion comprised three Companies. Each Company had three Platoons; although the third Platoon remained without vehicles until the second batch of Sturmis arrived in mid-1944. The Company Commander used one Sturmi and a further vehicle was reserved as a spare. The Platoons included three Sturmis. Each Platoon was supplemented by one BA-20m or BA-20v Soviet Armoured Car. The BA-20 armoured car dated from the early 1930's, and was a four wheeled, rear wheel drive car powered by a V-8 motor. It was a development of the Ford Model "A" chassis. The BA-20v was introduced in 1931 and was easily distinguished by its prominent Frame antenna surrounding the upper body of the car. The BA-20m was an improved model of welded construction and using a conventional radio antenna on the port side of the hull. One Kubelwagen completed each Platoon. Following the delivery of the later Sturmis, the third Platoon of each Company was equipped with three Sturmis. Later still, Platoon strength was increased to four Sturmis each. Battalion Headquarters were also allocated one Sturmi.
A mobile repair unit serviced the Battalion. This unit was equipped with two massive 18 ton Famo half-tracks and a Bussing-NAG with three ton crane. Miscellaneous vehicles in the Battalion included several Ford Maultiers; a Steyr radio car; Ford 3-ton lorries and 350cc motor cycles.
Stalin promised that he would deal with Finland as soon the Western Allies landed in France. He made good on that promise on 9 June, 1944 with a massive attack designed to quickly overwhelm Finland's fighting forces. The Soviet attack concentrated on southern Finland. The assault force comprised of 500,000 seasoned troops, including prestigious Guards Divisions. 800 tanks joined the attack. These would have mainly comprised of T-34 tanks and also a quantity of the powerful IS-2 tanks. This compared to the total strength of the Finnish Armoured Brigades of less than 200 AFVs. Well over half of these were obsolete types such as the T-26 - totally outclassed in every area by the Soviet armour. The magnitude of the attack was a shock to Finnish troops. They were forced to fall back to a poorly prepared defensive position known as the VT-line (Vammelsuu-Taipale line). During this fighting, the Finnish city of Viipuri was captured by the Soviets. The Finns then withdrew to the VKT-line (Viipuri-Kuparsaari-Taipale line). This position was held until the truce.
There were no German troops or armour in this region to support the Finnish defence when the Soviets launched their attack. However, Luftwaffe Stukas successfully combined with Finnish artillery under the direction of Colonel Kuhlmey. Together with the Finnish Air Force, they played an important part in the destruction of Soviet forces at Tali-lhantala. As a result of Finnish requests for reinforcement, on 23 June German Sturmgeschutz-brigade 303 arrived at Lappeenranta. It immediately moved into action. Although its role was not decisive, StuG Brigade 303 took part in the fighting at Tali-lhantala and later at Vuosalmi.
Sturmis played a notable role in these final campaigns. They were involved in the Finnish counter attack at Kuuterselka from 14 to 16 June 1944. Five Sturmis were lost. These were Ps.531-29, Ps.531-17, Ps.531-23, Ps.531-24 and Ps.531-1. Sturmi Ps.531-17 was lost before it could fire a single shot. This vehicle was based on the chassis of the Panzer III Ausf. M. It featured the "snorkel" style exhaust with the non-return valve; long, hinged front fender flaps; and one piece transmission cover with hidden hinges. The Sturmi was disabled by a hit to the transmission, and the gun was dislodged by a further hit to the gun cradle. The crippled vehicle was in the open and exposed to a hail of Soviet small arms and artillery fire. The crew grabbed their Suomi machine pistol, scuttled their Sturmi and escaped from the vehicle in the bright twilight of a Finnish summer night. Miraculously, they all survived.
In addition to Soviet ground forces, Il-2 Stormovik ground-attack aircraft were also a constant threat to Finnish armour and troops. No Sturmis were lost, but German Sturmgeschutzbrigade 303 lost a number of trucks and StuGs to these rugged Russian aircraft.
Further heavy fighting took place at Tali-lhantala between 25 and 30 June. Two more Sturmis - Ps.531-2 and Ps.531-3 - were lost. As a result of these experiences against the Soviets, a number of modifications were recommended. Lieutenant Talvitie, Commander of 2nd Company, suggested the following:
All recommendations were accepted and immediately implemented. A number of these modifications had already been introduced some time earlier by German Sturmgeschutzbrigade 303. Following these modifications, another Finnish counter-attack was launched in Vuosalmi in July. Sturmi Ps.531-5 was destroyed in this fighting. By now, however, the Soviet attack had stalled. Guards Divisions were withdrawn from Southern Finland and redeployed against German forces at Narva. Tentative peace negotiations began between the Finns and the Soviets resulting in a treaty with Moscow by the end of August 1944.
Sturmis served with distinction during the summer campaign. Ps.531-19, commanded by LT. Sartio, knocked out five enemy tanks during the summer campaign. This impressive tally was exceeded by at least five other Sturmi crews. The top "Sturmi Ace" destroyed 11 Soviet tanks; while other notable scores were nine, eight and two different Sturmis knocking out seven tanks each. The Sturmi had proven to be a key weapon in Finland's desperate defence against the massive Soviet invasion force. Finnish Sturmis destroyed a total of 87 Soviet tanks in June and July 1944, while losing only eight of their own vehicles.
First Batch Sturmis
The first batch of Sturmis were probably delivered in standard German Dark Yellow camouflage. However, they were promptly painted in the standard Finnish three-colour camouflage more suited to the densely wooded terrain of southern and central Finland. The colours used were Moss Green, Sand Brown and Light Grey. Despite the colour descriptions, Sand Brown was actually a red-brown colour; and Light Grey was a buff shade. Perhaps surprisingly, Moss Green was actually a light-medium green. The table below provides approximate FS colour equivalents. It should be noted that these colours are based on existing documentation, examination of wartime photographs and a reasonable degree of guesswork. Harsh climatic conditions and heavy weathering would also cause major variations from the colours quoted below:
There were two styles of Camouflage. The more common was applied in a hard-edged pattern of bold, curved stripes. The brown and green colours covered approximately 80% of the Sturmi, with thinner Light Grey stripes covering the remaining 20%. The camouflage pattern extended to the lower hull sides. Even the drive sprocket and roadwheels sported multicoloured camouflage. Paint finish on wartime vehicles was completely flat. Even when the vehicles were cleaned for parades, there was no evidence of gloss. The less common pattern was similar, but used larger, irregular patches. These guidelines were universally applied to the first batch of 30 Sturmis. However the specific pattern of the camouflage scheme varied from vehicle to vehicle.
It was quite usual to see Sturmis in the field covered in dust. This sometimes obscured or softened sections of the hard-edged camouflage scheme. For an example of the extreme effects of dust on the three-colour camouflage see the photograph of a Finnish T-26 on page 71 of The Eastern Front by Zaloga and Grandsen (see references below). Streaks of water or oil also marred the finish of Sturmis. Foliage was often used as additional camouflage by Finnish Sturmis and by Sturmgeschutzbrigade 303 during the summer of 1944.
Final Delivery Sturmis
The 29 Sturmis delivered in mid 1944 were delivered in overall Dark Yellow. There is some evidence to suggest that some of these Sturmis received a thin overspray of Green before being sent into action. They remained in this finish at least until the final truce with the Soviets.
Miscellaneous Platoon Vehicles
The BA-20 armoured cars of the Sturmi Platoons wore the standard Finnish three colour camouflage scheme. The Kubelwagens most likely retained their delivery finish of overall German Dark Yellow.
Post War Sturmis
Post war Sturmis reverted to a finish of overall Green. However, this Green is not the same as the Moss Green on wartime vehicles. It was known as kimmo-kenttavihrea, roughly translated as universal field green.
Sturmi markings were fairly simple. The national marking was the Hakaristi. In Finnish this stands for hook (haka) cross (risti). The Hakaristi had been in use since 1918 and was unrelated to the similar German national marking, the Swastika. The Hakaristi was painted in black, with a shadow-style background of white. All Finnish Sturmis carried the Hakaristi on each mid side superstructure. Some Sturmis carried additional Hakaristi on the centre of the lower hull front, the upper hull rear and the top of the block mantelet as an air identification sign. White-blue-white roundels replaced the Hakaristi on post-war Sturmis.
The only other marking on Sturmis were the serial number and, sometimes, a vehicle name. The serial numbers were neatly hand-painted in white, conforming to the standard Finnish serial scheme. All Finnish armoured vehicle serial numbers commenced with "Ps." which stands for panssarivanaunu (tank - although the abbreviation was used in the serials of all Finnish AFVs). The following three numbers (531) identified the type as a Sturmi, and the final two numbers represented the individual vehicle (1 through 59). The letters and numbers were applied using a sans-serif style. The serial was frequently painted on the forward superstructure armour, but more often on the driver's side of the rear hull. It was also possible for the serial to appear in both positions
Where vehicle names were used, they were usually the names of wives and girlfriends, hand-painted in various styles of lettering using white paint. The vehicle names were applied to the top of the driver's visor, or the driver's visor armoured splashguard where fitted.
The following table summarises the modifications made to Finnish Sturmis before the September, 1944 truce with the Soviet Union:
The Sturmi remained in service for over a decade after the 1944 truce with the Soviet Union. As time passed, many unusual combinations of Sturmi components were observed. Several examples of these unusual combinations may be seen in the excellent StuG reference Achtung Panzer No. 5 - Sturmgeschutz III, StuG. IV and SIG. 33, published by Dai Nippon Kaiga (reference below). Page 34 has several photos of a late production Sturmi with block mantelet and rubber return rollers; and on page 70 a late Sturmi with an early style roof can be seen.
Some of the modifications made to the first batch of vehicles were removed post-war. Details of stowage and fittings were also altered. These removals and modifications took place over a long period of time. These modifications are summarised in the table below:
Finnish armoured troops wore a diverse range of uniform items. During the summer of 1944 Sturmi crews wore dark grey trousers with braces, a white shirt and a short, light grey tunic. The m38 light grey tunic varied in shade, with some taking on almost a light green appearance. It was of a shorter cut than the German equivalent and had two breast pockets only (German tunics had two additional pockets below the belt line). The m38 summer tunic was usually referred to as kesapusero.
In cooler weather crews wore a dark grey tunic from the m36 line of garments. This tunic featured four pockets and was made from serge fabric. The m36 tunic bore a strong resemblance to its German equivalent, but the Finnish uniforms were worn with less webbing and straps. Sturmi crews commonly wore overalls of various shades. Footwear consisted of either riding boots (over or under trousers); or short lace-up boots.
Finnish officers often wore riding breeches, they also wore Sam Brown belts. The only exception to this rule was the Commander of the Panssaridivisioona who adopted the German style belt minus the shoulder strap. There are some pictures showing a Sturmi commander wearing a leather jacket and trousers. The jacket is a similar cut to the Finnish m36 tunic. Leather garments were popular in the Armoured Division because of their prestige and fire resisting qualities, but they were not as widely adopted by Sturmi crews.
Crews wore either a side cap or the m36 field cap with cloth visor. The side cap could be seen in at least three different styles, and were mainly worn by officers. The more universal field cap was similar to the German pattern but the Finnish visor was much shorter. The m36 field cap was nicknamed verikauha (blood ladle). The side cap of Sturmi crew featured black piping. This black piping was present only on the caps of the crews of the tank battalions, the StuG battalion and the Independent Assault Gun Company (which was equipped with the BT-42). Fur caps were widely used by tank troops in winter, but black fur caps were in short supply.
Captured Soviet leather tank helmets were widely used by Finnish armoured troops. However, it would seem that Sturmi crews were an exception. There is little photographic evidence to suggest that Sturmi crews wore Soviet helmets. It is possible that late-style Soviet helmets were issued to Sturmi crews, but this has yet to be confirmed.
The field cap and the side cap both featured the white-blue-white national cockade on the front just above centre. Officers often wore the Finnish Officer Cockade below the national cockade. This was a gold lion on a red background, nicknamed mansikka or strawberry. (Some sources claim that NCOs wore a similar cockade with a silver lion but it seems that this was not the case; certainly not during the Continuation War. However, before the Winter War a grey button bearing the Lion of Finland was often worn below the National Cockade.)
Finnish tunics featured black collar boards with a white outline. Officers and Regular Army NCOs wore their gold rank insignia on the collar boards, while conscripted NCOs displayed their rank by white ribbon on the shoulder straps. Officers and Regular Army NCOs often wore the Panssaripataljoona (Tank Battalion) emblem on their shoulder straps.
Most members of the Sturmi battalions wore the Panssaridivisioona Lagus insignia on the left side of the cap and on the right upper arm of m36 tunics. The Lagus insignia was also commonly seen on the upper right arm of the tanker's overalls. This insignia consisted of a green wedge with three arrows surrounded by a yellow outline.
Due to space considerations, the following is not complete set of references
Written by Brett Green and
Pekka Toivonen, copyright © 1997.