Kautla (pronounced Cow-tla to us Brits) is a marshy forested area in the middle of Estonia, some 60kms south east of Tallinn. Heavily wooded and in an area of many lakes, it has a serene feel to those who manage to drive the many miles down the track from nearby Ardu.
What is at Kautla farm today are the ruins of a building on a meadow, the ubiquitous forest to the side. It is a quiet place, but was the scene of a massacre and the greatest triumph of an army unit of Estonian nationals in world war two.
After the first Soviet invasion, the country was brought to heel. Ten thousand people had already been deported to Siberia and Destroyer units roamed the land. These were irregulars, special units formed to root out any opposition or threat. They had leave to summarily execute anyone deemed a threat or ‘suspicious’. Consequently, they were involved in many acts of cruelty, torture, killings and burning of properties. Thousands of people were murdered. The closest that the UK has in its history to this (as far as Europe is concerned) is the Black and Tans.
Destruction batallions were formed from local volunteers, but also forces were used from Latvia. The general idea being that being an outsider made you more effective, with no emotional ties to the land.
Many Estonians had escaped the occupation and enough had reached Finland for a battalion to be formed in the Finnish Army, which the Germans called ‘Erna’ and the Estonians ‘Finnish Boys’. They were under the command of two German liaison officers. The Germans wanted the men to swear allegiance to Hitler, but they refused. They however, agreed to swear allegiance to Finland. This made sense to Estonians; during their war of independence, 2000 Finnish volunteers had assisted Estonia. The nations were linked by very similar language and culture and to many, it seemed honourable to ‘repay the debt’. The motto of the battallion became “For the freedom of Finland and the honor of Estonia”.
In July 1941, the Nazi war machine moved on the Soviet Union, under Operation Barbarossa. They began to push the Soviet invaders out of the Baltic. Erna became a long range reconnaisance group and plans were made for the unit to land in Estonia and provide sabotage and information from behind enemy lines. The planned sea landings mostly failed and only 42 men reached shore. A further 17 were parachuted in to different parts of Estonia. The German liaisons were among many who fell back and the command fell to the Estonian General Kurg. Having not been kept in the loop as to their plans, Kurg found himself without a remit, and had to derive his own plans. He elected to use the forest of Kautla as its base, calling in all the Erna men.
As word got around, many Estonians began to go to Kautla Wald as refugees. Suddenly, the Erna group found itself minding over 2,000 of its citizens. Kõrvemaa county became a beacon of hope, enough for people to begin flying the blue, black and white of Estonia again. Erna had a serious issue with lack of ammunition and the guns they had were not all the same, all needing different calibre bullets. The Germans did not drop any supplies to alleviate this. They were on their own.
This naturally attracted the attention of the Soviets. Five destruction battallions were quickly despatched – in spite of the German Army literally breathing down their necks. The destroyers set aboutthe local population, attacking the farms and murdering the occupants, whilst surrounding Erna in the forest. At Kautla farm, all twenty of the Lindemann family and their workers were burned alive in the farmhouse. Johannes Lindemann was thrown into a trench full of petrol which was set alight.
On hearing the news of the Soviet movements, and with sightings of an incoming convoy of military ordinance, the Erna group rushed out to meet the force and succeeded in beating off the attack. Knowing that their position (and those of the refugees) were now compromised, the men then fought a rear-guard action to harass the Soviet forces. It allowed the 2,000 refugees to escape and averted a bloodbath, whilst Erna fought its way in retreat to the German lines.
The unit was reformed and was sent to Saaremaa and Muhu islands to engage the Soviet forces there. Afterwards the force was disbanded. Like many of his men, Kurg himself became a Forest Brother when the Soviets returned in 1944.
Kautla was a place of tragedy and triumph. A memorial to defence against the odds.