Aksel Fredrik Airo (formerly Johansson) was born on 14.2.1898 in Turku, where he spent his childhood and youth. The Finnish Civil War (28.1.-15.5.1918), in which he took part, was highly significant for Airo, since he gave up the idea of becoming an engineer and embarked on a military career. In the early 1920s he had the opportunity to complement his military education in France. Airo's career as an officer progressed rapidly: he was made a second lieutenant in 1918, lieutenant in 1919, captain in 1921, major in 1923, lieutenant colonel in 1927, colonel in 1933, major general in 1940 and lieutenant general in 1942.
In the 1930s Airo was Chief of the Operational Department of the General Staff and Secretary of the Defence Council. In this position he became thoroughly familiar with the operational side of the army, having also developed the army mobilization plan in 1928-29. Therefore, it was not surprising that Mannerheim appointed him Quartermaster-General at the beginning of the Winter War. The Quartermaster-General served directly under the Commander-in-Chief as the most closely involved of the headquarters generals in matters concerning operations and the disposition of troops. Responsibility for operations rested greatly with General Airo. The collaboration between Mannerheim and Airo that had begun in the early 1930s continued until the end of the war. Cooperation was not always easy, however, for they sometimes had major differences of opinion.
Quartermaster-General A.F. Airo in his office at the headquarters.
Photo: Military archives
Airo was Mannerheim's right-hand man in planning wartime operations and was a key figure at the headquarters in addition to General Heinrichs. Mannerheim's personality and style of leadership influenced the relationship between Airo and Heinrichs. While operational planning and the presentation of operations belonged to Quartermaster-General Airo, General Heinrichs, as Chief of the General Staff, dealt with matters concerning the general staff at the headquarters. Both Airo and Heinrichs were very reluctant to tell or write about their wartime activities. Indications of how the style of leadership affected them are to be found in the notes General Heinrichs wrote after the war in which he criticises this style of leadership.
Airo was Chief of the General Staff in 1944-49. On 18.11.1944 Mannerheim made Lieutenant General A.F. Airo a Knight of the Mannerheim Cross, Cross of Liberty, Second Class. But Airo never became a full general, although promotion was attempted during both President Kekkonen's and Koivisto's terms. Airo's military career came to an end on 1.4.1949, when the President of the Finnish Republic relieved him of the duties of Chief of the General Staff in the public interest.
After the war Airo was prosecuted in the weapons cache case. He was arrested on 29.6.1945 and released on 9.4.1948. He was never sentenced, although he remained in custody for over two years. Airo was reluctant to speak publicly about his wartime activities. This gave rise to the idea of the silent general. He did not write any memoirs, as many of the other wartime political and military leaders did. But he did present his own view of the weapons cache case in his book Puolustustaisteluni (My Defensive Action) published in 1947.
After his release, Airo settled on his home farm at Ristintaipale in the rural municipality of Heinola. Airo returned to public life in 1958, when he stood for parliament as a candidate for the National Coalition Party. Airo was a Member of Parliament until 1966. He lived on his home farm until his death and was buried there in 1985.