Fighting With the Nazis
It did not take long after the Continuation War broke out for Lauri Torni to get promoted to captain. He was put in charge of a unit of snow skiers, who literally skied into battle against the Red Army. In 1942, Torni was awarded a German Iron Cross for leading a machine gun unit into a firefight, on skis with guns blazing, while displaying sundry heroics, including the rescue of a wounded officer. Torni was severely injured when he skied over a landmine, but recovered and was soon back in the thick of action.
In 1943, his unit became informally known as “Detachment Torni”, and he turned it into a Finnish legend. In addition to his tactical skills and instinctive feel for the terrain, Torni inspired his men and earned their respect by sharing their hardships. Mauno Koivisto, who later became Finland’s president, was one of his men, and he described his commanding officer thus: “Torni, as a leader, was liked. In many ways he emphasized that we were all the same bunch, and he bore his share just like the others… He did not ask anyone to do something he did not do himself. He carried his own load, marched at the lead, and was one of us.”
Torni forged the men under his command into an elite reconnaissance and raiding formation, which he led on dangerous missions behind enemy lines. His exploits inspired his own side, while instilling fear into the hearts of the enemy. Indeed, Torni was such an effective guerrilla fighter, and inflicted such damage and casualties upon the Red Army, that the Soviets put up a bounty of 3 million Finnish marks for his capture – the equivalent of about $650,000. He is the only Finnish soldier for whom the Soviets offered a bounty. Needless to say, the bounty went uncollected.
The wider war, however, went against Finland, and in September of 1944, the Finns sued for peace and dropped out of the war. The Finnish army was largely disbanded and Torni was discharged, but he still wanted a go at the Soviets. So in early 1945, he joined a pro-Nazi Finnish resistance movement, and hitched a ride on a U-boat to Germany for clandestine guerrilla and sabotage training. By then, however, the writing was already on the wall for the Nazi regime, which was reeling on its last legs.
Torni’s training ended prematurely in March of 1945, and he found himself stuck in a collapsing Third Reich, without a means of transportation back to Finland. However, by then Germany did have plenty of Soviets to fight, so Torni joined a German unit to fight the advancing Red Army. In the war’s final days, he made it to the Western Allies’ lines, where he surrendered to British troops. Sent to a POW camp, he escaped and made it back to Finland in June of 1945.
Torni had been a national hero when Finland had been formally at war, but his subsequent actions fighting for the Nazis after his country had concluded a peace treaty made him a political liability. Back home in Finland, he was arrested, escaped, then rearrested in 1946 and tried for treason. He was convicted and sentenced to six years in January of 1947. He escaped, was recaptured and returned to lockup, before he was eventually pardoned in late 1948.