Recalling a time of not-so-smart bombs
Photographic exhibition commemorating start of Winter War cleverly combines wartime photos with images of the same locations in present-day Helsinki
By Ilkka Malmberg
In the Helsingin Sanomat office building Sanomatalo, a photographic exhibition entitled Helsingin kahdet kasvot, "Two Faces of Helsinki", will open on November 30th to commemorate the start of the Winter War of 1939-40.
The exhibition organised by the Defence Command Public Information Division consists of nineteen World War II photographs of the bombed Helsinki, which by means of image manipulation have cleverly been morphed with present-day images from the same locations.
The manipulation of the images was done by conscripts carrying out their compulsory national service with the Public Information Division.
The project’s producer, First Lt. Tommi Kangasmaa, shows a photograph in which a bomb has fallen on Porthaninkatu.
Today, there is a metro station in the same location. In the image a wartime tram transforms seamlessly into its present-day counterpart.
Kangasmaa explains how the cameraman had to wait patiently for a long time for the modern tram to stop exactly in the same spot where the old tram was photographed more than 70 years earlier.
The collapsed building facades and broken windows cause one inevitably to think of today’s car bombs.
As if there had been a terror attack in Helsinki.
In today’s Helsinki there is so much more glass than in 1939. The windows are larger; entire facades are made out of glass. Does it not make the area unsafe?
“Glass is a risk factor”, admits forensic engineer Kai Sjöholm from the National Bureau of Investigation, Finland’s central criminal police.
“In an explosion, many pedestrians can be killed by falling glass.”
Fortunately tempered glass is normally used in the glazing of large buildings. It breaks down into round-edged grains.
“It is not as dangerous as ordinary window glass, which can form sharp edges.”
“If there is an explosion inside of a building, the pressure-wave sends normal glass outwards in almost dagger-like shards.”
Bombs dropped from the air normally exploded outside.
The shockwave advanced between the buildings in the same fashion as light: it could be reflected around corners and in T-junctions to the sides, Sjöholm explains.
In the timber-structure neighbourhoods, large fires broke out during the war, destroying entire city blocks.
The present-day wooden single-family houses would not catch fire as easily, but as lightweight structures their chances of surviving the blast-waves would be limited.
Lieutenant-Colonel Juha Kaitera from the Tactics Department of the National Defence University points out that the World War II type mass bombings are no longer in use in present-day conflicts.
“At least in the Western countries for the most part precision weapons have been adopted, the accuracy of which has been high.”
“For example in Libya everything was done to avoid taking out innocent civilians.”
There will always be accidental shots and stray bullets and collateral damage, and these can be very damaging, for they are always immediately and effectively exploited by the enemy's PR department.
Conflicts have turned into information wars to a greater and greater degree; a battle for hearts and minds at home and abroad.
Things were different during World War II, in which the aim of arbitrary bombings of cities was to terrorise and demoralise the civilian population of the enemy.
Continuing the bombings was possible because there were no international television companies to communicate the goings-on to the wider world.
“In Vietnam mass bombings still took place. In all, around seven million tonnes of explosives were dropped on the country, but for the most part the targets were militarily justified.”
Kaitera explains that today the hit ratio is so good that for example in Libya the NATO Air Forces were able to take out tanks in the middle of urban areas.
The underdog often seeks to hide among the civilian population.
The present-day weapons hit where they are aimed.
When a UN bunker was destroyed in Khiam in 2006 by a 500-kilo Israeli precision-guided aerial bomb, this was done on purpose.
“I reckon the Israelis hit what they wanted to hit. Either that or it was a very crude targeting error”, Kaitera says.
So, did Helsinki’s civilian population have more reason to be afraid back in 1944 than they would have today?
“You could say that. Back then there was nothing smart about the weaponry: dumb iron bombs were used.”
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 27.11.2011
The Exhibition will be on show in Sanomatalo from 30.11.-11.12.2011.
Winter War (Wikipedia)
Finnish Defence Forces press release in Finnish
ILKKA MALMBERG / Helsingin Sanomat