The Winter War was a campaign fought in the early stages of World War II, between the Soviet Union and Finland. The war started with the Soviet invasion of Finland, and ended with the Moscow Peace Treaty, in which Finland lost some border areas to the Soviet Union. The Soviet invasion was deemed to be illegal by the League of Nations, and the USSR was expelled from that international forum.
In the beginning of the 19th century the War of Finland, fought between Sweden and the Russian Empire, ended with the Treaty of Fredrikshamn. At this time Finland become an Autonomous Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire. There followed a period of Russification. At the beginning of the 20th century a Finnish movement for national identity and independence began to grow. After the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, Finland declared its independence, which it attained after a short civil war. During the interwar period, relations with the Soviet Union remained tense.
In 1938 Soviet consulate staff approached the Finnish authorities and expressed their fears that Germany planned to attack the Soviet Union through Finland. They wanted Finland to agree to repel any German attack and to accept direct Soviet military intervention. No agreement was reached, but Finland promised to protect its sovereign territory. The Soviets were to reissue these demands twice more in 1939. Eventually their offer turned into a suggestion of trading the Repola and Porajärvi areas lost in the Tartu Treaty for the strategically important outer islands on the Gulf of Finland.
Both the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 and its coda in Moscow the following month gave Joseph Stalin a completely free hand in the north. He moved swiftly to capitalize on it. Hoping to protect Leningrad against any future German attack, he tried to turn the Gulf of Finland into a Soviet seaway, even though its northern shore was Finnish and most of its southern shore Estonian. Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were bullied into agreements that allowed the Red Army to be stationed at key points on their territory. In June 1940 their sovereignty was extinguished altogether by effective annexation.
Stalin summoned the Finns to Moscow to be presented with Soviet demands. They sent the leader of the Social Democrat Party, Väinö Tanner, who has been described as ‘tough, tactless, stubborn and frequently bloody-minded’. Meanwhile, they mobilized. Stalin and his foreign affairs minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, made a series of demands that would strengthen the Soviet strategic position against a potential German attack, but would severely weaken the Finns. In these conditions the Finnish representative refused the Soviets demands, and both sides prepared for war.
Stalin’s purging of the officer corps in 1937 had seriously weakened the Red Army. The former Chief of Staff Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky was shot. New thinking about the development of mass armored formations operating deep inside enemy territory died with him. General Konstantin Rokossovsky, one of those who were tortured during that time – though not shot despite his Polish origins – later said that purges were even worse for morale than when artillery fired on one’s own troops because it would have to be very accurate artillery fire to achieve such damage.
Despite the hastily drawn up war plans, the soldiers of the Red Army were in a confident mood. They had recently defeated the Japanese in Mongolia and had annexed Eastern Poland, Western Ukraine and Belarus. Their equipment was modern, and for the duration of the 1930s the army had remained undefeated.
The Finnish Army comprised ten divisions, with only thirty-six artillery pieces per division, all of pre-1918 vintage, and inadequate small arms (although they did have the excellent 9mm Suomi machine pistol), supported by few modern aircraft. The Russians, by contrast, came across the border with 1,500 tanks, 3,000 aircraft and a complete assumption of a quick victory, as in Poland. The world prepared to watch another small nation being crushed by a totalitarian monolith.
The Red Army divided its attack into four parts: the Seventh and Thirteenth Armies would smash through the Finnish defenses on the Karelian Isthmus known as the Mannerheim Line and capture Viipuri (Vyborg). Meanwhile the Eighth Army would march round the northern shore of Lake Ladoga to fall on Viipuri from the north. The Ninth Army would attack the waist of Finland, slicing it in two. In the far north the Fourteenth Army would capture Petsamo and Nautsi, cutting the country off from the Arctic Sea.
Finnish tactics were limited by the availability of equipment and ammunition. This meant avoiding fighting in open terrain where inferior Finnish firepower would likely spell disaster. To the Red Army’s great advantage, large-scale guerrilla tactics could not be employed on the Karelian Isthmus. There, a much more conventional war would have to be fought, with far superior Soviet forces attempting to weaken the heavily fortified Finnish Mannerheim line.
Following direct orders from Leningrad, one battery from the Soviet 221st Artillery Regiment fired a salvo at their own comrades located in the village of Mainila in Russia. As this artillery battery was located north of the small Russian village, it appeared that the shells had come from Finland. This gave the Soviet Union an excuse to cut diplomatic relationships with Finland and to cast aside the mutual peace agreement. It was the casus belli Stalin had needed.
The USSR abrogated its non-aggression treaty with Finland and, without declaring war, the Russians bombed Helsinki and invaded Finland with 1.2 million men. Soviet troops not properly prepared for warfare in the Arctic weather and terrain of much of the front, untrained for serious combat, and led for the most part by terrified incompetents, launched major offensives on the Karelian Isthmus, north of Lake Ladoga, in central Finland, and at Petsamo in the north. Only the landing force at Petsamo succeeded in seizing the town and nickel mines and advancing some distance southward.
The Soviet military leaders thought that a decisive strike across the Karelian Isthmus would be the key to a swift victory. However, the Seventh Army could not break through the wilderness of barbed wire, gun emplacements, anti-tank ‘dragons’ teeth’ and well-camouflaged pillboxes of the Mannerheim Line, which was fiercely defended.
During the Winter War the world’s press adopted a new word: motti. It relates to a specific tactic the Finns developed when dealing with the much larger Soviet formations. This tactic, which contributed so greatly to the Soviet losses, is still taught in military academies around the world. A classic motti operation can be split into three parts: reconnoitering the enemy positions and ensuring that the operation begins when they are suitably constrained by the terrain. Afterwards fast, strong and concentrated attacks are directed where the enemy forces are pinned down. The goal is to cause the enemy forces to lose cohesion and isolate them into smaller, more manageable pockets. In the last stage the goal is destroying the pockets one at a time, starting with the weakest.
Corporal Simo ‘Simuna’ Häyhä, who served with the 6th Company, 34th Infantry Regiment, can lay claim to being the most lethal sniper ever to have lived. The troops nicknamed Häyhä ‘the White Death’. As news of his deeds spread beyond Finland, a Swedish businessman, Eugen Johansson, gave him a special rifle as a gift. Häyhä’s tally of 542 confirmed kills was achieved in a space of just 100 days. After the war, he returned to a life of farming and hunting. Häyhä passed away in 2002.
In the east of the Karelian Isthmus, on the shores of Lake Ladoga, the Finnish defenders proved to be less tenacious and the Soviet assault somewhat more effective. Based on the progress of their troops in this sector, the Russians soon focused the main efforts of the Seventh Army on the lakeside village of Taipale. Here the Finnish tactic of launching immediate counterattacks to regain lost positions failed, and Red Army forces were in a good position to launch an attack across the whole Taipale sector. However, by the end of December it was clear that the Soviets had failed in all of their efforts. These troops were ordered to dig in and to repel any possible Finnish counterattacks.
At the time war broke out, the region of Ladoga Karelia, comprising the lands to the north of Lake Ladoga, was defended by Major-General Juho H. Heiskanen’s IV Army Corps. There were neither time nor resources available to prepare fortified positions. The Finnish forces in Karelia faced the Soviet Eighth Army, under the command of Ivan Khabarov. Eighth Army’s operational goal was to advance eastwards into Finland and occupy a 90 km-long front between the towns of Joensuu and Sortavala. Although the Soviets had a massive advantage in numbers and war material, the mobile Finns managed to stop the Soviet advance in most sectors.
In Ladoga Karelia, the battle of Tolvajärvi had the distinction of being the first large-scale victory for the Finnish Army. The architect of this victory was Colonel Paavo Talvela, a member of Mannerheim’s inner circle. He realized the danger that the advancing Red Army posed in this sector of the front and proposed a counterattack in order to stem the tide of the Soviet advance, and boost the morale of the Finnish troops.
The Finns, led by Colonel Paavo Talvela, organized a devastating counterattack against the Red Army units in the area. Although in the northern part of the front the attack failed, the Finns managed to push back the Soviets in the other sectors, which suffered heavy losses. In the following days the Finns attacked the Soviet positions at Ägläjärvi village. The battle of Ägläjärvi was yet another success for the Finns. Talvela’s limited number of battalions had pushed back 36,000 Red Army troops, incalculably boosting the morale of the whole Finnish Army, and providing the victory Finland’s political leaders so sorely needed.
Further south, two Russian divisions were annihilated around the ashes of the village of Suomussalmi, in a brilliant Finnish operation that ranks with any of the Second World War. A logging, fishing and hunting community of 4,000 people before the war, the village was captured by the Russians, but was then cut off by the Finnish 9th Brigade under Colonel Hjalmar Siilasvuo. The Soviets were then constantly harassed by the Finns, which broke the Red Army’s soldiers morale. The final ambush at Raate road saw the remains of the two Soviet divisions being annihilated, and the Finns capturing a significant amount of war material.
The town of Kuhmo lies approximately 60 km west of the pre-war Finnish-Russian border. In the early stages of fighting the Finns managed to halt the advance of the elite Soviet 54th Mountain Rifle Division towards the town. The Finnish defenders had been ordered to conserve their troop numbers and to focus on conducting small-scale guerrilla attacks against the Soviet flanks. The Soviet units were encircled and separated into smaller pockets, which the Finns then proceeded to destroy. Fighting in this area continued until the signing of the Moscow Peace Treaty.
In northern Finland, the Soviet Fourteenth Army, led by Army Corps Commander Valerian A. Frolov, tried to cut off Finland’s only Arctic port, Petsamo. The Finns, although greatly outnumbered, managed to contain the Soviets. This was due to the extreme weather and bad terrain.
The bitter fighting, clearly going against the Russians, created an international situation no one had anticipated and produced a new series of policies which had their own repercussions. Some Swedes came to help their neighbor, but the Swedish government was not about to become involved in war with anyone if it could possibly help it. The Germans did nothing to aid them. The Finns also appealed to the League of Nations. There they received a lot of sympathy but very little practical help. Potentially more significant was the matter of British and French assistance to Finland. The two western powers debated the problem until it was too late.
Although the Soviet forces were staggeringly badly led at the outset of the Winter War, they learned quickly. A trusted member of the Supreme Soviet, General Semyon Timoshenko, was sent to take over. After four or five attacks a day he broke through the Mannerheim Line close to Summa, leading much of the Seventh Army through two days later. They then moved on to Viipuri.
With neutral Norway and Sweden denying access across their territory to the Allies, Petsamo in Russian hands and Hitler closing off the eastern Baltic, no significant help was likely from the West. Since by March as much as one-fifth of his army had become casualties, Mannerheim urged the government to negotiate. The Treaty of Moscow was signed while Russian and Finnish troops were still engaged in hand-to-hand combat in central Viipuri. Except for the loss of the whole Karelian Isthmus, the terms were not very much worse from those demanded by Stalin before the campaign.
A year later, Finland found a new comrade-in-arms in the German nation. This help was timely, as in the summer of 1941 war between Finland and the Soviet Union was renewed. The Continuation War was started by the Finns in order to regain the lost ground during the Soviet invasion of their country. With German help they managed to do so, and halted their offensive past the old border between Finland and the USSR. The tide of war turned in 1944 when the Soviets gained the initiative and crushed Finnish resistance. After the war, at the Paris Peace Conference, the border between the USSR and Finland was defined as the one established at the Moscow Peace Treaty of 1940.
In Finland the Soviets came to understand the importance of coordinating armor, infantry and artillery. However heavy the Russian losses, there were always fresh troops to fling into the struggle. As one Finn put it after the battle of Kuhmo, ‘There were more Russians than we had bullets.’ Hitler in particular believed he learned lessons about the performance of the Red Army that were to affect his decision to invade Russia. Yet they were substantially the wrong ones. The Red Army, although badly led at the start of the campaign, was not weak: rather the Finns were strong enough to defend against an enemy ill-prepared for winter warfare.