Steamy sisu: How Finland’s incredible WWII soldiers built war zone saunas


The official archives of the Finnish Defense Forces are home to thousands of photos taken during the Finnish WWII era. We’ve highlighted some particularly striking color photos of Finnish soldiers from their collection before, but this time, we thought we’d feature something that remains an icon of Finnish culture: the sauna.

In Finland, which remained a poor and rugged place until post-war industrialization, the sauna played a central part in society. Not only were they were important in maintaining personal hygiene in the dark times before showers, but life often began and ended in the sauna. Childbirths took place in their cleanly environments, and the deceased were sometimes prepared for burial in them. Finns have been socializing, cleaning, and even cooking in saunas for centuries, so it’s easy to see why the sauna is such a huge part of Finnish culture even today.

Naturally, Finnish soldiers during the WWII era needed access to the sauna. Soldiers were known to light up any usable sauna they happened across in the field. When there were no usable saunas in sight, the soldiers would do what any sensible Finn would do—they built their own sauna. Sometimes using logs, and sometimes using only the terrain, Finnish soldiers could have a working sauna up and smoking in a matter of hours. In order not to give away their position with tell-tale sauna smoke, Finnish soldiers on the front lines would usually only light it up at night, getting in and out as quickly as possible. Soldiers in more remote locations had the luxury of enjoying their steams a bit longer.

We could go on and on about the wonders of the sauna, but don’t just take our word for it. Take a look at these amazing photos with translations of the original Finnish captions. They depict the Finnish soldiers of WWII who built and used saunas, even during wartime—one drop of sweat at a time.

Finnish soldiers at a sauna at a lake in Ponkalahti. July 7th, 1941.

Engineers (“Pioneers” in Finnish terminology) built a sauna in the wilderness of Pajarinjärvi on the shore of Mustajoki. The sauna, where the sooty soldiers cleaned, is available from morning to evening. August 13th, 1941.

Finnish sauna in WW2

Finns still need sauna while at war. “Wilderness saunas” were common in the Karelian wilderness. This one was located approximately 15 km east of Nurmijärvi. September 18th, 1941.


The sauna’s heat was too much, and this guy went for a roll in the snow. Karhumäki. December 24th, 1941.


Bringing water to the sauna with a sled. Rukajärvi. March 5th, 1942.

Sunday sauna on the shore of Pieni Karmanlampi. October 12th, 1941.

”Showering” after sauna in the waves of Kellokoski. Petsamo, Luttojoki. July 12, 1942.

Saunassa Kemijärvellä.

In the sauna at Kemijärvi. February 7th, 1940.

Sauna built in the terrain at engineer camp 10 km east of Tiiksjärvi. The crew started building the sauna at 10pm and used it for the first time around 4am. August 9th, 1941.

Saunaa rakennetaan.

Building the sauna. August 23rd, 1941.

Without access to a sauna, life would be too much to handle. Especially during wartime. This is one of the frontline wilderness saunas. Valkeasaari. October 6th, 1941.

The sauna got built in an hour, and was heated and ready to use within two hours. Karhumäki February 7th, 1942.

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20 replies

  1. I had to live without a sauna for a couple of years and it was horrible, so I totally understand why they do this. Probably same with most Finns 🙂

  2. Also got to remember that lice and other annoying parasites were very common in the front lines (and probably everywhere else too, in the old times). Saunas were very effective in getting rid of those.

  3. Great collection of historical photos! The people look so happy…maybe because it was sauna time.

  4. My father was stationed at Karhumaki. The photos from Karhumaki make me wonder if he enjoyed a sauna in one of them.

  5. Finns sure do love saunas. Always remember legendary Stanley Cup champion Teemu Selanne celebrating with the cup in a sauna

  6. Wow, cool article. Really interesting how some things can be of such importance depending on your culture. If I were ever deployed at war the last thing I would think about would be “this place could use a sauna”.

  7. A sauna might be basically a very simple thing, used for bathing for centuries. But At war knowing you’ll have a chance to get warm and clean must have been a very big deal.

  8. Ah the Sauna (mispronounced by many as a Sonna) It is practiced by many Canadians influenced by Finns who emigrated to Canada (especially to Ontario where the terrain mimics Finland). Here, it is not uncommon to find Saunas in homes of people whose heritage is in countries far away from Finland. And yes…., with the arrival of snow, one often sees the amazing site of almost naked (and sometimes naked) people rolling around it it.

  9. I still remember feeling how remarkable it was when I first visited Finland (I am 50% Finn) and was up at the arctic circle. At the hotel a stranger invited me to join he and his wife in the nearby sauna, if I would bring orange soda to mix with his vodka. He was a reindeer herder bringing his herd south. He was a colonel in the Finnish Army reserve. A great time and great memory.

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