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
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
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
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,
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
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.