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Cannibalism and Survival: The Harrowing Tale of a Soviet Infiltrator Patrol in World War II


Finnish soldiers displaying the skins of Soviet soldiers near Maaselkä, on the strand of lake Seesjärvi during Continuation War on the 15th of December in 1942. Original caption: "An enemy recon patrol that was cut out of food supplies had butchered a few members of their own patrol group, and had eaten most of them."

During the tumultuous days of World War II, numerous stories of survival and desperation emerged from the front lines. One such story is that of a Soviet infiltrator patrol, consisting of four men, who found themselves trapped in the Olonets region in Autumn 1942. This patrol’s ordeal exemplifies the extreme measures taken by soldiers caught in the direst circumstances and highlights the broader context of cannibalism during the war.


The Soviet Patrol’s Desperate Situation

The patrol was composed of four men: Jaakko Anttila, a Finnish defector; Milton Sevander, an American Finn who had migrated to the USSR during the Great Depression; and two Soviet soldiers, Aleksandr Gerasimov and Gennadi Timofeyev. Their mission, like many others, was fraught with danger and the risk of isolation behind enemy lines. As the Lake Onega began to freeze, cutting off their retreat, their situation grew increasingly dire.


Without regular supply lines, the patrol requested food replenishment by air, but none came. As their rations dwindled, the men faced the grim reality of starvation. The onset of hunger led to a rapid deterioration in their physical and mental states.



Acts of Cannibalism

The first tragic event occurred when Gennadi Timofeyev broke his ankle in an accident. Unable to move and becoming a liability to the group, the patrol’s leader, Jaakko Anttila, made a horrific decision. He slaughtered Timofeyev with an axe, and the remaining members prepared and ate him. This act of cannibalism, while shocking, was driven by the primal instinct to survive in the face of certain death from starvation.


A week later, the men were again facing the specter of starvation. This time, Anttila took the life of Aleksandr Gerasimov, shooting him in the back of the head while he was shaving. Gerasimov was then flayed, prepared, and eaten by the survivors. The sound of the gunshot that killed Gerasimov alerted a nearby Finnish patrol, leading to the capture of Anttila and Sevander on November 11, 1942.


The Aftermath

Following their capture, Anttila and Sevander were court-martialed. Both were charged with espionage and high treason. Anttila, the leader and instigator of the cannibalistic acts, was sentenced to death and executed by firing squad on December 12, 1942. Sevander, due to his American citizenship, was shown leniency and sentenced to a prison camp instead.


A Finnish medical officer examined the remains of Timofeyev and Gerasimov, documenting the extent of their consumption. The report provided gruesome evidence of the lengths to which the patrol had gone to survive.


Cannibalism During World War II

The story of this Soviet patrol is not an isolated incident. Cannibalism during World War II occurred in several contexts, driven by extreme hunger and the breakdown of societal norms in besieged or isolated areas.



One of the most infamous instances of cannibalism during the war occurred during the Siege of Leningrad, where severe food shortages led to widespread starvation and reports of cannibalism among the city’s residents. Similarly, in the Pacific Theater, some Japanese soldiers resorted to cannibalism when supplies were cut off by Allied forces.


These instances of cannibalism were not driven by barbarism but by a desperate struggle for survival. Soldiers and civilians alike, trapped in environments where food was scarce and hope was dwindling, faced impossible choices. The moral and ethical implications of such acts have been the subject of much debate, but they serve as a stark reminder of the brutal realities of war.

 


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