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What was the Operation Stella Polaris?

Operation Stella Polaris is a secret but spectacular intelligence operation in 1944. The historical and political value of Stella Polaris for Finland and Sweden during the post-war is still unexplored. More social scientific research is needed in that area.

It could be said that Stella Polaris was an evacuation of all the Finnish intelligence officers and their families from the territory of Finland to Sweden in the utmost secrecy, 23-24 September 1944, immediately after Finland achieved armistice with the Soviet. Among the tough conditions was to clear the whole of Lapland of German troops, what later became the Lapland War. The villages and cities in Finnish Lapland were burned to the ground and every bridge was blown up by the Germans while retreated.

Finnish signal intelligence had cooperated closely with the Swedes but also with many others such as Poles, Estonians, Germans, Japanese and even the British. The Finnish officers were a vulnerable group and therefore it was considered important that all the secrets that Finnish spies had caught in the air about the Russians, Americans, French and others would be protected. Many people expected the Soviet to occupy Finland as had happened f ex the Baltic countries. Moreover, there was a plan for the sigint to continue to spy from the Swedish soil as part of an exile government support. The figures vary but at least 750 people and 500 pack boxes of equipment, techniques, codes and documents was carried over to Sweden during a stormy autumn night. The trip went basically from Närpes in Finland to Härnösand and Gävle in Sweden. Those who got on the four cargo vessels had the code word Stella Polaris. There was also a secret truck transport northover to Haparanda as part of the operation.

Subsequently Operation Stella Polaris later was called by the Swedes as “Stella Polaris Affair. All turns are not yet clear but my book has shown that at the highest political level the knowledge was significantly greater of this operation than anyone previously wanted to admit. Stella Polaris was for long considered as a single military operation agreed on as a gentleman agreement. However, it appears that even ministers of the two countries have been briefed in before the operation.

It is a known fact that a number of Finnish sigint officers were employed by the Swedish FRA and they and their families got quickly Swedish citizenship. And it is also known that some others went over to the French, U.S. and British intelligence services, while most of the persons in this operation went back to Finland via Haparanda when they found out that they could not work from the Swedish soil. But Stella Polaris is also known as a process about the burnt archives from 1946 until the 1960s.

The material that was burned at least three times …

Anyone who reads about Stella Polaris gets confused about how many times the archives seem to have been burned… The first data about the burned codes and archives is from 1946 when the Finns had photographed everything in over 900 meters microfilm and developed it in Finland. The Soviet government called on Sweden to return any hidden Finnish signal intelligence officer who worked then at FRA, and it became a case of high-level diplomacy. According to one source, as late as 2008, it was Molotov himself who demanded to get the Stella Polaris personnel and material from Sweden.

According to some other second-hand information there also was an attempt by Soviet to bargain using Raoul Wallenberg to get the officers from FRA. The other archives burnings were in the 60s when President Kekkonen asked to get the archive material. While Kekkonen raised his voice against Sweden, he has according to sources close to him actually been very aware of all the officers in Sweden and throughout the operation considered it as a necessity. Sigint officer Einar Hänninen received as late as 1957 a medal from Kekkonen sent home (as ordinary mail) to Bromma in Stockholm which shows that the stellists where known of presidentkansliet in Helsinki.

But as recently as the 90s, it has flourished information that there are parts of the Stella Polaris archive either in the Military Archives in Stockholm, or at the National Archive of Sweden and at FRA, and in various locations in Finland. But the actual place where you really can see Stella content is neither in Finland nor Sweden, but the Web. It was in the 90s in the U.S. when the NSA started publishing secret spy telegrams which had been part of the secret spy system VENONA during the Cold War! Much of the material was already sold in 1944 and 1945 in Stockholm, which was the past global spy capital, by Japanese, French, English and Americans who later spread the material everywhere. It contained spy reports, but also knowledge of coding and more.

American access

Operation Stella Polaris architect and one of the highest officer in the intelligence of Finland during the war, Reino Hallamaa, had already in the early 1930s been in close contact with the American spies during his visits to Tallinn and Riga. He said in a radio program on Swedish National Radio in 1970s how he and Mannerheim 1943 began predict whether the war would turn or not and that it was necessary to start discussing with the Americans before a possible defeat in 1944.

“I said to Mannerheim that now it is almost over. We read of course American encrypted messages all the time. Would it not make sense that we warn them that we read the telegrams and Marshal said that it is absolutely wise to warn them. When I traveled to Stockholm and showed the Americans some of their telegrams in plain language they did not believe their eyes.
The person who the Americans had pointed as the head of counter intelligence against the Russians was a Finnish person, Wilhelm Tikander. We had very good relations with him and we helped him a lot in the work against the Russians. Espionage is a costly business and superpower like the U.S. can use money as ammunition. Americans shot with money. They used tremendous amounts”, Hallamaa told.

Daily the U.S. Allied ambassadors’ also reported to the U.S. embassy which had the responsibility to put together a report on the whole of Europe and send it to Washington. Finns followed those and other encrypted communications to the U.S., including lines from Stockholm, Lisbon, Cairo and Ankara and could therefore keep Finland well informed. The Americans became unpleasantly surprised when the Finns revealed that they could read their communications all the time. But Finland could achieve a good will of Americans which could be a benefit in the negotiations of a separate peace treaty with Russians without the Germans knowing about it. There were also practical reasons for the Finns to reveal themselves to Americans. It was clear that even the Germans forced the U.S. messages and there was the risk that Finland’s goal to reach peace with Russians would be revealed by mistake if Germans learned about it from the U.S. messages.

From Roosevelt’s desk Stella Polaris material has ended up on Stalin’s desk in Moscow. It is known because historians have found historical copies of messages there. Moreover, both Roosevelt and, for example, President Ryti of Finland were on the list of over 3000 information sources the Soviet Union had in the West during the Second World War. The significance of that information has not been analyzed yet in the depth. Perhaps the time is not right, yet.

Stella Polaris affair

Stella Polaris was an evacuation project of Finnish and Swedish sigint officers who planned and carried out it when the Second World War raged and nothing was safe or secure from one day to the next. Through their stories we can understand the logic of war and espionage little better, but also how the Swedish and Finnish history grow much closer together than we are accustomed to see. But Stella Polaris operation became after the war also “The Affair Stella Polaris” while different people due of various motives were trying to find out what had happened, while others tried to hide everything as fast as possible. In Finland the case was discussed in Parliament and the Finnish state police searched the stellists to be prosecuted for treason.

This ended, however, in the early 50’s when the Finnish Chancellor of Justice and Parliament came to the conclusion that any war crimes of the stellists could not be proved and prosecuted in connection with the operation.

Sweden struggled with Soviet demands for the extradition of both Baltic refugees and the Finnish stellists which culminated in 1946 when General Ehrensvärd presented his well written but empty explanation of what had happened without identifying any members of the government or other authorities. Minister Östen Undén´s role and his seemingly genuine sympathy for Stalin-Soviet should become a subject of more historical research in the future if we want to understand the tragic and complex events that happened in Sweden after the Second World War.

The quiet Per Albin Hansson who actually “fixed” with the Marshal Mannerheim so that no weapon conflict on Swedish soil incurred carried a heavy responsibility as the Prime who cooperated with the Germans. But if you change the perspective and look instead at two small countries that are trying the best they can balance between the three – not two but three – powers; Britain, Germany and the Soviet (and later the fourth; the United States) who all were interested in swallowing the Nordic countries without chewing – that leads to a completely new picture of historical events. Stella Polaris can also be seen as a lens that shows us to our countries’ shared history did not end two hundred years ago, when Sweden lost Finland to Russia, but there are many new opportunities to discover the Finnish-Swedish cooperation if you only want to look.

Finally Stella Polaris is the destiny of some Finnish people, who got to keep the secret more than 60 years, some to their final days. One of them is Aili Hänninen in Bromma, Sweden, the wife of late Einar Hänninen, sigint officer from Finland. Their son Pertti found out only four years ago about fathers life and about the secret his mom had kept. And he found out that he was one of the stellist – he was on the secret trip over the sea, as a baby of six weeks age!

Johanna Parikka Altenstedt

15th of January, 2009