Winter War
Soviet invasion of Finland
30 November 1939 - 13 March 1940
author Paul Boșcu, March 2019
During the Winter War the Soviet Red Army invaded Finland. The Soviets did so because they wanted a part of the Finnish territory. The battle did not go well for the Soviets at first, as the Finns inflicted heavy loses on the Red Army, employing hit and run tactics. As the spring came the Soviets reorganized their army and finally managed to defeat the Finns. The battle ended with the Treaty of Moscow in which the Soviet leaders managed to gain a larger proportion of Finnish territory than they wanted before the conflict started.
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.

During the Winter War, the loss of two Russian divisions at Suomussalmi, compounded with reversals at the Mannerheim Line and the victory of Finnish General Paavo Talvela, who destroyed two enemy divisions at Tolvajärvi on Christmas Eve, sent a humiliating message around the globe for the USSR. However, the Finns could not follow up these successes due to lack of troops: they were conscripting fifteen-year-olds as it was.

When the truce was announced, flags flew at half-mast all over Finland. The Foreign Minister Väinö Tanner summed up the mixture of relief and resentment that many felt: ‘Peace has been restored, but what kind of peace? Henceforth our country will continue to live as a mutilated nation.’

The fighting retreat of the Finns cost the Soviets dearly. The Soviets’ situation was further exasperated by the difficult supply conditions. To guard this obvious vulnerability in their defenses, many of the tanks were held in reserve. Despite these precautions, the Finns did manage to sever Soviet supply routes in some sectors of the front.

The Finnish High Command did not expect to be able to hold the Petsamo region, in close proximity to Soviet bases, especially since they had no naval vessels of their own. In their view, the loss of the nickel ore mines would be unavoidable and would just have to be endured. From the Soviet side, once these mines had been captured, they would be content to leave most of their forces and artillery trained towards the open sea, while a reduced force continued to attack south.

Despite the Red Army’s daunting preponderance of force, despite the utter hopelessness of prolonged resistance, the Finns stopped the Russian steamroller in its tracks, inflicted staggering losses, won a couple of spectacular victories, and stirred the passionate admiration of the Western Democracies. Despite this, the war’s ultimate outcome was never really in doubt. But for 105 stirring days, as Winston Churchill expressed so eloquently: ‘Only Finland, superb, nay, sublime in the jaws of peril… shows what free men can do. They have exposed, for all the world to see, the military incapacity of the Red Army… Everyone can now see how Communism rots the soul of a nation, how it makes [that nation] abject and hungry in peace and proves it base and abominable in war.’

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.

During the early period of autonomy, Finland developed rapidly and became a model and an inspiration to the rest of the Russian states. Tsar Alexander II started a wave of reforms across the empire. These had a great positive impact on the development of the Finnish economy, culture and social structure.

The more conservative Alexander III slowed the modernization program started by his father. Things degenerated further when his son Nicholas II became Emperor. Nicholas soon realized that he would much prefer the Finns to conform to his autocratic rule and not be quite so independent and autonomous.

The period of Russification officially started when the Tsar appointed Nicholas Bobrikov as a special governor-general for Finland. Bobrikov’s main task was to remove any Finnish prerequisites that might facilitate autonomy or independence. This included having their own army, postal system and currency. Russian was now to become an official language in the duchy. In 1904 Bobrikov was assassinated, and for a few years the practice of Russification was relaxed. However, a second more robust period of this process was not long in coming.

Following the transfer of power to the Bolsheviks in Russia, the Senate of Finland ratified a new Finnish constitution and declared the nation independent. By the end of the year, Lenin’s Soviet government had officially recognized the fledgling country. Thus reassured, other governments soon followed and acknowledged Finland’s sovereignty. This move by Lenin was not made in haste. At the time, the Bolsheviks did not have sufficient control of Russia to quell a rebellion in Finland. Lenin also strongly believed that Finland would gladly come back to the fold of his socialist portfolio.

Lenin’s high hopes for a socialist Finland were soon to be dashed by Baron Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, a stern and experienced military commander from the Imperial Russian Army. Internal tensions between the Red and White factions of the Civil Guard and the nearly 40,000 Russian soldiers still stationed in Finland made for an uneasy start. Until the end of February 1918, the war consisted mostly of isolated clashes. By March 1918 the tide of battle had turned in favor of the White Guard. Following fierce fighting in April, the Whites conquered Tampere, the Red’s most important base, thus defeating them.

Finland and Soviet Russia signed the Treaty of Tartu after the Finnish Civil War, defining the border between the two countries. With this peace, Finland regained the contested Petsamo region and parts of the Rybachi Peninsula with an important access to the Arctic Sea, but had to give up both the Repola and Porajärvi areas in return. Many Finnish nationals saw this accord as a humiliating defeat, as not all of the Finnic peoples in Karelia gained their independence. What they failed to take into account was that Russia remained a world power while Finland was a small, newly formed nation.

Following the Treaty of Tartu, Finno-Russian relations remained cool. In the following decades Finland put its faith in the League of Nations and its ability to protect smaller nations. The League even made a favorable decision for Finland when it granted it sovereignty over the Åland archipelago. By the mid-1930s, however, public faith in the League was rapidly diminishing.

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.

Mannerheim himself found the terms favorable, especially as he could not see how Finland would be able to defend the isles, and supported this exchange. However the Finnish government wanted to make it absolutely clear that Finland was not for sale and would continue to remain independent and impartial, and so the offer was declined.

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.

Surrounded on three sides by mighty Russia, the Baltic states had no real choice but to acquiesce. Finland was another matter, even though its population was a fraction of Russia’s, and the two countries shared an 1,300-km border.

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.

In 1938 and 1939, the Soviet Union had repeatedly discussed with the Finnish government the possibility of territorial adjustments in favor of the Soviet Union which would, it was asserted, facilitate the defense of Leningrad. No settlement had been reached in these talks. Now that the Soviets had assured themselves of German agreement that Finland, like East Poland and all three Baltic States, was in their sphere, Moscow moved in regard to Finland.

Stalin wanted a thirty-year lease on the naval base of Cape Hanko, the cession of the Arctic port of Petsamo and three small islands in the Gulf, as well as the moving back of the frontier on the Karelian Isthmus, which was presently only 24 km from Leningrad. In return for these 1,715 square km of territory, the Russians were willing to give Finland 3,343 square km of Russian Karelia around Repola and Porajorpi.

On the face of it, the deal did not look unreasonable, but when considered strategically, the key nodal points the Bolshevik leaders were demanding made it clear that Finnish sovereignty would be hopelessly compromised. The Finns decided to fight rather than submit. Matters were not helped when Tanner mentioned his and Stalin’s supposedly shared Menshevik past, a libel on the Bolshevik leader.

In the negotiations which followed during the rest of October and the first days of November 1939, the Finns slightly enlarged their original offer of territorial concessions to the Soviets. The Soviets agreed to drop the demand for a treaty of mutual assistance and somewhat reduced their territorial demands. The Soviet leaders clearly expected an agreement to be reached, and the Finnish negotiators also thought it possible. When the talks were broken off without agreement, however, the Finns may have thought that new negotiations might be possible, but the Soviets quickly moved in other directions.

While the negotiations were in progress, Molotov had included an account of Soviet demands in his speech of October 31, hailing the agreement with Germany, welcoming the territorial acquisitions from Poland, and calling on Britain and France to end their war against Germany. The Soviet government had engaged itself in public; it expected prompt agreement; it was not about to let the opportunity slip by.

As early as the 13th of November the Moscow government was taking steps to organize a puppet government of Finnish Communist exiles, and military preparations appear to have begun at about the same time.

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.

When Rokossovsky, who had been beaten so badly in prison that he lost eight teeth and had three ribs broken, reported to Stalin for duty after being reinstated, Stalin asked him where he had been. Rokossovsky told him, whereupon Stalin laughed and said, ‘A fine time you chose to go to prison!’ before getting down to business.

Three out of the five Soviet marshals were purged in 1937-8, thirteen of the fifteen army commanders, fifty-seven of the eighty-five corps commanders, 110 of the 195 divisional commanders and 220 of the 406 brigade commanders. In total, around 43,000 officers were killed or imprisoned, although 20,000 were later released. Yet no fewer than seventy-one out of the original eighty-five senior members of the USSR’s Military Council were dead by 1941.

By 1939 the USSR was also embroiled in a border conflict with the Empire of Japan. Despite the victory that the Soviet General Georgy Zhukov achieved at the decisive engagement of Khalkhin Gol in late August, Stalin was worried about the state of Soviet forces. He realized that more time was needed to reorganize the decimated officer corps.

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.

In November 1939 a prophetic conversation took place in the Kremlin. The Commander of the Leningrad Military District, Kirill Meretskov, was chairing the discussion about the plan for Finland; also present were the jubilant Deputy People’s Commissars for Defense, Gregory I. Kulik and Lev Z. Mekhlis, and the somewhat less enthusiastic Chief Marshal of Artillery Nicholas N. Voronov. What happened next is described in Voronov’s memoirs. Kulik said: ‘You have come in at a good time, do you know of the dangerous situation arising from Finland?’ Voronov nodded his acknowledgement. Kulik and Mekhlis then proceeded to ask how much ammunition Voronov needed for the forthcoming campaign. ‘That depends,’ replied Voronov. ‘Are you planning to attack or defend? … With which forces and on which sectors? … And by the way, how much time is allotted for the operation?’ The reply to the last point came quickly: ‘Between 10 and 12 days.’ Eyeing the map of Finland hanging on the wall, Voronov replied: ‘I will be happy if everything can be resolved within two to three months.’ Everybody laughed derisively. ‘Marshal Voronov,’ Kulik replied sternly. ‘You are ordered to base all your estimates on the assumption that the operation will last a maximum of 12 days.’

To subdue Finland’s small, poorly equipped army and minuscule air force, the Soviet Union eventually committed 21 divisions (approximately 450,000 infantry), 2,000 cannon, and 1,500 tanks. The disparity between the two sides is perhaps best illustrated with regard to armor – in November, 1939, Finland did not possess a single operational tank. Anti-tank training was performed using a handful of antique Renaults, circa 1918. When Finnish soldiers actually confronted masses of Russian T-26s, T-28s (and even a few of the monstrous KV-1 heavy tanks) the initial effect was widespread terror, even paralysis.

Stalin’s commanders did not expect their Finnish campaign to be much more than a large police action; the staggering amount of resources allocated for the attack was intended to shatter Finnish morale in the first seventy-two hours of the operation, not to batter down a ferocious and prolonged defense. On the eve of war, the mood in the Kremlin was one of relaxed optimism. As Nikita Khrushchev recalled, Stalin and his inner circle threw down extraordinary amounts of vodka, toasting a victory that hadn’t happened yet.

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.

Growing political pressure and the alarming developments in Poland and the Baltic States drove the Finns to commence their own deployment. All Finnish reservists were called up to take part in a joint operation and refresher training. The pretext of these additional military maneuvers justified the mobilization of the whole of the armed forces, allowing troops to move into their new wartime deployment zones and familiarize themselves with their assigned responsibilities and equipment.

At the beginning of the conflict, there were deep concerns about the reliability and trustworthiness of Finland’s own troops. Memories of the recent Civil War against the Soviet-supported Red Guard were still fresh in everyone’s mind. However, continuous military practice and the effects of several years of Western propaganda had helped unify the armed forces.

Soviet assumptions about the poor quality of their opponents’ equipment proved to be correct. The supply situation was so dire that some of the recently recalled Finnish reservists were given only a rifle, a national cockade, a soldier’s cap and a belt. For many, personal clothing and the uniforms kept from their time in the Civil Guard provided better protection from the cold than the available German-style uniforms.

Ever since Mannerheim had received his honorific post of Field Marshal in the early 30’s, he had been trying to heal the wounds between the Reds and Whites. One example of the conciliatory way forward that he sought, taken from one of his speeches, is provided here: ‘Where war is waged, life is trodden down and property devastated. The all-destroying strength of modern weapons confers on modern war its ghastly grandeur … Where chivalry and magnanimity are lacking and Hatred commands the sword, there is no room for a lasting peace. But we live in a troubled and threatening time … let us extend an open hand to everyone who wants to work and do his duty in this country. A patriotic spirit, expressed in the will to defend the country and to stand in the ranks like a man if some day it has to be defended, is all we ask. We do not need to ask any longer what position a man took fifteen years ago [during the Civil War]’.

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.

The Soviet Union had been planning and preparing an invasion of Finland since spring 1936. Stalin’s general staff had originally prepared a realistic and comprehensive plan for occupying Finland. This proposal took into account the true strengths of the defending forces, the terrain and other logistical considerations. The conservative pace of this plan did not please Stalin, who wanted a quick and decisive victory. Therefore, the operational responsibility for an invasion of Finland was handed over solely to the Leningrad Military District. Kirill Meretskov, who was the senior officer in charge, had to quickly devise new plans for the attack.

The key deadline for Finland’s capitulation was to be Stalin’s 60th birthday on 21 December. This left Meretskov with little room for error, and perhaps consequently his plan ended up being conservative and unimaginative. Convinced of its forthcoming success, Andrei Zhdanov, the Chairman of the highest legislative body in the Soviet Union, commissioned a celebratory piece of music by Dmitri Shostakovich to be played by the Red Army marching band in the streets of Helsinki.

While the Finnish delegation was still negotiating in Moscow, the Soviets started to assemble troops along the border. Stalin also ordered the propaganda war to start, and youths from all over the Leningrad district were being press-ganged into service. ‘Visit Finland before Finland visits you’ ran one propaganda slogan.

The Soviet war doctrine of the time remained rigid, regardless of the front on which its troops were fighting. The officers tried to focus on retaining control and discipline, while trying not to get shot in the process. The problem was that Finnish terrain distinctly lacked the roads, junctions, railways and villages that were the norm in much of the rest of Europe. Therefore retaining this kind of order, and bringing massed artillery and armor to bear, became very difficult.

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.

The Karelian Isthmus had always been the weak point in the Finnish defenses, and conversely one of the biggest threats to the USSR, as enemy forces could easily threaten Leningrad through this corridor. In order to plug this gap in their defenses, the Finns had fortified defensive positions across the isthmus on a main line – the so-called Mannerheim Line. The total length of the line was around 150 km. There were virtually no defenses at all along the remaining 1,300 km-long border with Russia.

The Soviets’ inflexible doctrine was designed for all-out frontal assaults supported by massed artillery and armor. This tactical rigidity meant that the Red Army would often repeat the same failed attack with the same formations again and again. As the Finns became aware of this, they attempted to strike deep into enemy lines using the cover of terrain to their advantage.

When the fighting started, not all sections of the main defensive line were heavily fortified, and most of the strongholds were already obsolete against modern artillery. Contrary to the propaganda that both the Finns and Soviets published, none of the defenses bore much comparison with the famous Maginot Line in France.

The strongest points of the defenses of the Mannerheim Line were located at its two ends: on the Gulf of Finland in the west, and on Lake Ladoga in the east. In these locations coastal artillery could be used to break up any massed enemy formations. The weakest point was near the village of Summa towards the western end of the line, where water could not be integrated as a natural defensive element and where the open terrain was ideally suited to Soviet tanks.

The approaches to the Mannerheim Line were protected by vast areas of barbed-wire entanglements, tank barricades and minefields. In places where the banks of the Vuoksi River did not offer any natural obstacles, a steep-sided anti-tank ditch had been excavated just in front of the Finnish dugouts. The major weakness of the defensive lines lay in the number of bunkers and emplacements, which were too few and far between to give mutual fire support to each other.

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 Finnish government received a furious note of protest from Molotov. Four Red Army border guards had been killed, he claimed, in this reckless act of provocation; if Finland did not cease such aggressive acts at once, there would be dire consequences.

From Helsinki, Foreign Minister Eljas Erkko wired back that if Russian troops had been killed, it was not by Finnish shells. Indeed, it was impossible, because all Finnish artillery had been pulled back beyond range of Soviet territory days before, precisely to avoid even an accidental shot from crossing the border. Molotov did not deign to reply; the cover story was on record, now, and Radio Moscow was filling the airwaves with outraged indignation. These broadcasts continued for two days, claiming that numerous unspecified border violations were continuing.

The Soviets quickly tried to escalate the conflict further. In the Murmansk area they kidnapped a couple of Finnish soldiers, and all along the border they attempted to provoke the Finns by launching feints. However, Finnish troops were under strict orders not to return fire until Soviet troops had actually crossed the national border. This would not be long in coming.

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.

A puppet government of Finnish Communists under the leadership of Otto W. Kuusinen was established, nominally in the little town of Terijoki just occupied by the Red Army. The Soviet government signed with this new government a treaty of mutual assistance and friendship, which provided for a border between the two countries along the lines proposed by Stalin in the Moscow negotiations.

New appeals for peace negotiations from the government in Helsinki were turned away by Moscow with reference to the fact that the real government of Finland was not at war with the Soviet Union; only the Kuusinen government counted, and it enjoyed excellent relations with its neighbor.

Stalin was evidently deluded by his own ideology and the dated and misleading assessments of Finnish Communist exiles into believing that a few blasts on the trumpets from Moscow, accompanied by some air raids on the Finnish capital and a substantial display of force on the border, would suffice to install the Kuusinen regime in Helsinki and bring the walls of Finnish resistance tumbling down. In this estimation, he was to be horrendously mistaken.

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.

The defense of this critical sector was the responsibility of Lieutenant-General Hugo Österman’s Army of the Isthmus. During peacetime, Österman had been the Finnish Supreme Military Commander, a position that from now on would rest with Mannerheim. At the start of hostilities troops had been stationed in the vicinity of the border in the so-called delay positions. These positions were meant only to hinder and weaken the enemy while the Finns slowly performed a fighting retreat towards the well-fortified lines.

Even though the Finns had never faced tanks before, and were woefully under-equipped with anti-tank weapons – at least until they captured them from the Russians – they devised makeshift ways of stopping their advance, including, ironically enough, ‘Molotov cocktails’, bottles of petrol lit with rags. This proved easier in the early stages when Russian tanks were not supported closely enough by Russian infantry, and in the dark that descended early in the Arctic winter and stayed till late.

The seventy-two-year-old ‘Defender of Finland’ after whom the Line was named, Field Marshal Baron Carl von Mannerheim, proved an inspired leader throughout the campaign, keeping his reserves in the south and correctly predicting the Russians’ next moves, possibly because he had been an officer in the Tsarist Army throughout the Great War. Told by Moscow that the Finnish proletariat would welcome them as liberators, the Russian soldiers were shocked when the entire nation united behind ‘the Defender of Finland’ instead.

The five divisions of the Russian Ninth Army in the center of the country suffered the most. Although on the map the vast wastes might seem to favor an invader, the many forests and lakes channelled the Russian forces, unfamiliar with the terrain, into a series of ambushes as temperatures dipped in that unusually cold winter to as low as –50° Celsius. The Leningrad–Murmansk railway line had only one siding going off towards the Finnish border, and although the Russians took Salla in central Finland, they were flung back before they reached Kemijärvi.

The Finns burned their own farms and villages, booby-trapped farm animals, and destroyed anything that could provide the Russians with food and shelter. Equipped with skis and local knowledge, they laid mines on tracks through the forests that were soon covered in snow. Wearing white camouflage uniforms, which inexplicably the Russians were not given, the Finns were nicknamed Bielaja Smert (White Death) by their bewildered enemy.

On the western side of the Karelian Isthmus, the initial Soviet attempts at achieving a breakthrough were beaten back. However, the Finns were woefully short on reinforcements. A key initial Soviet objective was to break through the 12 km section of front between Summa village and Lake Muolaanjärvi. Where the attacks failed to achieve this, the Soviets left a division in place as a vanguard, on the shores of the lake. Its attacks would continue until the end of December, resulting in the loss of more tanks and even more men; the Finns would keep hold of their positions.

During the defensive battles, Mannerheim had given permission for a counterattack proposed by General Hugo Österman, commander of the Army of the Isthmus. The purpose of the counterattack was to surround and destroy the opposing forces near Summa village. This badly coordinated and poorly communicated attack was aptly named the ‘Idiot’s Nudge’ by the troops. However, the attack caught the Soviets off guard. The Soviets tried to act more cohesively, and made three more assaults against the Finnish lines, but poor coordination between artillery, armor and infantry led to failure on each occasion.

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.

Mannerheim spent much of the 1930s arguing with the politicians who were making further cuts in military spending. He soon realized that the country could not be defended by the few, isolated army concentrations that could be afforded. Instead, he recommended spreading the Finnish Army out so thinly that observers could not identify its location. In accordance he counselled for an increased reliance on the Defense Corps (the Civil Guard system). An aggressor would find the going immensely slow if every hamlet and every village was a strongpoint, defended by armed and trained men with intimate knowledge of the local terrain.

The extent to which the motti tactic was officially taught to officers in pre-war Finland remains unclear. Certainly the skills that were needed for this kind of action were the cornerstones of basic soldier training. Each man was able to ski for many kilometers and most were considered crack shots.

The Finns had a comprehensive understanding of the enemy forces and their capabilities. Mannerheim and many of his senior officers had served in the Tsarist army and therefore knew Russian (and thus Soviet) battle doctrine intimately. They also believed that Stalin’s purges had culled the best two-thirds of the Red Army’s officer cadre. This further enabled the Finns to make some very accurate predictions regarding their Soviet counterparts’ mindsets and actions. They believed that due to the rapid promotion of second-rate officers, little creativity or initiative could be expected when it came to reacting on the battlefield.

The motti tactic suited Finland's conditions perfectly. Finnish ski troops were highly mobile and were able to attack the Soviet columns from unexpected directions. Due to their skills in using the terrain to their advantage, relatively few men were able to prevent much larger, encircled Soviet forces from escaping.

The main problem the Finns faced was that often the motti created were simply too large for them to destroy. With more artillery and better heavy weapons, or simply with more time and men, this could have been accomplished with greater frequency. As it happened, some of the biggest pockets were never cleared during the war.

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.

Häyhä was the second youngest child of eight siblings. Born in the village of Kiiskisenkylä, he attended grammar school and helped run the family farm. His hobbies included skiing, shooting and hunting as well as Pesäpallo, the Finnish form of baseball.

At the age of 17, Häyhä joined the Civil Guard. He was already an expert marksman, winning competitions by hitting a small target at 150m range six times within one minute. From 1925 to 1927, he completed his national service in a bicycle battalion. Häyhä gained the rank of corporal upon completion of an NCO training course. In 1927, he underwent specialist sniper training.

On the front, he applied his craft using his old Civil Guard service rifle that he had brought with him to war. Although Häyhä did not keep track of his own achievements, his comrades did. Early in December, he managed to kill 51 enemy soldiers in just three days. Initially, even his closest superiors did not believe these numbers. As this relentless kill rate continued, Lieutenant-Colonel Teittinen ordered an official observer to follow him. When Häyhä was close to his 200th kill and had just returned from dispatching a particularly troublesome enemy sniper, his promotion to the rank of junior sergeant was suggested.

Häyhä preferred to use only the basic rifle sights as they would neither frost over, nor reflect sunlight like optic scopes would do. It also allowed him to lie flatter, thus offering a smaller target.

While adopting a high-knee shooting position, Häyhä was shot in the face with an explosive bullet. The round that entered the top of his lip and pierced his left cheek was prohibited by international convention. Although the newspapers proclaimed ‘Simo is dead!’, Häyhä managed to recover, with the help of ten operations. He was prohibited from returning to front-line service and instead served his country by procuring horses for the military.

In an interview with Helsingin Sanomat magazine in 2001, Häyhä was asked how he felt about his role during the war: ‘I did what I was told to do, as well as I could. There would be no Finland if others would not have acted likewise.’

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.

The Soviet plan was to cross the Taipale River at three locations. Despite heavy losses, the Soviet troops were still so numerous that they managed to gain a small bridgehead. Over the next few days the Finns repelled several assaults, destroying many enemy formations. In the end, the Finnish counterattacks and efforts to hold the Koukkuniemi Peninsula just forward of the main defensive lines around Taipale were not enough. Soviet forces took the area, thus securing a staging zone for further attacks towards Taipale.

The area around the town of Kiviniemi formed the second natural crossing point over the Taipale River. The retreating Finns had already completely destroyed the road bridge there and had also managed to partially demolish the railway bridge across the river. Here the Soviets were, for the first time, to meet tenacious resistance. The firestorm that met the advancing Red Army troops took them completely by surprise and the leading regiment attempting to cross the river was routed.

Soviet troops fared a little better near the small village of Kelja, lying on the shores of the wide and slow-moving Vuoksi River, roughly halfway between Kiviniemi and Taipale. Early on Christmas Day the Soviets began to cross the frozen Vuoksi in four places. The timing of the attack surprised the Finns, and they did not immediately react to the intelligence reports clearly stating that large Soviet formations were approaching. Once the situation became clear, more troops were committed and eventually only a small bridgehead at Kelja remained.

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.

The Soviets attacked north of Lake Ladoga both quickly and decisively. The strong attack forced Lieutenant-Colonel Veikko Räsänen’s 4,000-strong Task Force Räsänen to withdraw from the border. The village of Suojärvi – a strategically important road and rail crossing – fell to the Soviets. The following day the Finnish 12th Division, led by Colonel Lauri Tiainen, made an unsuccessful attempt to retake Suojärvi. This counterattack went so badly that some of the troops panicked and fled past their assembly area, abandoning the planned defensive positions. Finnish author Erkki Palolampi was an eyewitness to the incident: ‘Tanks rattled onwards on the roads and also tried entering into the forest … Firing is intense and then somebody starts to shout that the tanks are now attacking from behind: “They have breached through!” The man’s eyes are round with fear, another man sees his terror and the shout spreads from soldier to soldier. Nothing can stop it now: “Tanks are coming, tanks have breached through…” Men start to run without hearing the commands and curses of their officers. Panic spreads … fear grips more and more of the companies … everybody has only one thought, to escape the terrible tanks. A young man tries to jump into a passing sleigh shouting: “Now the men of Finland are no match for the Russkies, tanks have broken through and troops are routed. Tanks will kill us all!” … Even two or three days later, there were still scared men wandering around the Loimola area looking for their companies.’

Mannerheim held Major-General Juho Heiskanen accountable for the loss of the Suojärvi area, and had him replaced by Major-General Johan Voldemar Hägglund. Over the next few days, having abandoned their prepared positions, many Finnish soldiers fled all the way back to the Kollaa River and dug in. Assessing the predicament of his new command, General Hägglund posed the question: ‘Will Kollaa hold?’ The resounding reply came from Lieutenant Aarne Juutilainen: ‘Kollaa will hold, unless we are told to run!’

Given that the Soviet attack towards Kollaa was of secondary significance compared to the main push in the south towards Kitilä village on the shores of Lake Ladoga, the Finnish took a calculated risk by only defending the main approaches to the Kollaa River and leaving the vast areas of difficult terrain to the south largely unguarded. As the situation became more serious for the defenders, further troops had to be assigned to block the Soviet advances in the area. Despite the shortage of men, the Finnish lines continued to hold while Soviet losses mounted, particularly in numbers of tanks.

The Finnish line in the Kittilä sector was defended by Colonel Hannu Hannuksela’s 13th Division. His first task was to delay the Soviet advance as long as possible. Having witnessed the divisions’ defensive positions being overrun at Käsnäselkä junction, he gave the order to retreat, via the village of Uomaa, to the prepared defenses at Kitilä. Sergei Ivanovich Kovalev, the Divisional Chief of Operations for the 18th Rifle Division, summarized the events for the 208th Rifle Regiment, around Uomaa on 5 December: ‘The 208th Rifle Regiment encountered strong fortified positions. In front of Uomaa they were faced with barbed-wire obstacles, behind these was a minefield, and on the edge of the village there were dugouts for forward observers. Brigade Commander Kondrashev gave orders for a series of direct attacks, but they all failed. Two of our tanks hit mines and were destroyed. Machine-gun fire mauled the soldiers, who once or twice dared to rise up for an attack. At noon we dragged over our heavy howitzers; they struck the machine-gun dugouts with direct fire. By the evening we had nearly surrounded the village. The Finns started to burn down the houses and then headed into the woods.’ The Soviet divisions capitalized on Hannuksela’s retreat by pushing ahead and reaching Kitilä. Here Hannuksela dug in with the five battalions under his command, finally halting the Soviet advance on a line from Kitilä to Lake Syskyjärvi.

At Kitilä, both the attacking Soviet divisions converged. They veered north towards Lake Syskyjärvi, and for Lake Ruokojärvi. After a brief fight, Soviet troops occupied Ruhtinaanmäki hill and hamlet. By noon the following day, the Soviets had also secured the area around Lake Syskyjärvi to the north. This would mark the furthest advance for the 18th Rifle Division. A wounded Soviet soldier later recalled the capture of Ylä-Uuksu village as the division advanced towards Pitkäranta: ‘Our mission was to capture the church. I used my binoculars and could not believe what I saw. A soldier and a girl pushing a heavy machine gun up the hill. The girl was clad completely in black, maybe she was a nun or something, tall and strong nevertheless. We started shooting at the pair. Our bullets did not hit them. They pushed the heavy machine gun into the church and then manhandled it into the tower. The Finns also have Maxims [machine guns]. Then they began to dish out such a beating, that God spare us! One could not even lift one’s head up. If you did, you got [a bullet] immediately. There was nothing for it, we had to swallow our pride and ask for the artillery’s help … Their third round felled the Finns. Naturally the church tower went with them.’

General Hägglund decided to gamble his northern Kollaa River front by stripping away some of the defenders to strengthen the 13th Division. This enabled him to free more troops for a counter-offensive he had ordered. The plan was to destroy the Soviet forces advancing along the Lemetti road. Fearing Soviet armor, the Finnish troops avoided movement by road and advanced cross-country. From the outset, the terrain proved challenging for the two attacking formations. Unsurprisingly, the Soviet formations managed to hold their ground all along the Lemetti road, where their artillery and tanks could best be deployed.

As the Soviets focused on preserving their hold on the vital supply route, the Finns managed to regain total control of the Syskyjärvi area. Several Finnish battalions attempted to retake the Ruhtinaanmäki area. The Soviets managed to hold this position. Political commissar Nikolai I. Klimov’s diary entry from 28 December tells how his friend Toivo (a Karelian Finnish speaker fighting in the Red Army) decided to retaliate personally for the nightly Finnish raids aimed at capturing prisoners: ‘I asked to be given the identity details of a fallen Finn. I dressed up warmly and then during the night I snuck towards their trenches. At a pre-agreed signal, my comrades opened fire. Soon I started shouting in my fluent Finnish, “Guys, help me! I’m wounded! My name is Pekka Perttinen from Major Valkama’s battalion. My legs have been hit! Help me! Save me, I’m freezing to death! Help me for Christ’s sake…” I had to shout for more than half an hour, before two crawling figures finally approached me. I let them get a bit closer before I said: “Have a grenade, guys!” Afterwards, only a wet stain remained. I then repeated the same feat on the left flank. This time I took a partner and together we silenced two would be rescuers with our knives, while the third we took prisoner. At first he refused to speak, but I soon taught him. My fists still ache.’

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.

Colonel Paavo Talvela had been recalled to the colors on the eve of the Winter War. He initially served in the Ministry of Defense on the Chief of Operations Staff for the Army Supply Committee. This was to prove a very short assignment, but one that brought Talvela once again into the inner circle of Mannerheim’s wartime councils. From the outbreak of hostilities, Talvela had kept a close eye on the region north of Lake Ladoga. He felt a close affinity to this area, as he had previously fought in the region as commander of the 1919 Aunus expedition during Finland’s Kinship Wars.

Mannerheim ordered the formation of a new corps-sized force, Group Talvela. After the War Mannerheim explained why he had chosen to place most of his remaining reserves and hopes in Talvela: ‘A fearless and strong-willed commander, who possessed that degree of ruthlessness required in an offensive against a greatly superior adversary.’ Group Talvela was to stand outside the normal army hierarchy and report directly to Mannerheim. Talvela’s mission was to halt the Soviet advance and regain the areas lost by the rapid withdrawal of IV Army Corps in the pivotal Suojärvi area.

When Talvela received alarming news of the rapidly deteriorating situation stemming from the loss of Suojärvi, he immediately approached Mannerheim. Suojärvi was a village that he had long considered the key for holding all of northern Karelia. From there a network of roads opened south towards Pitkäranta and west towards Värtsilä. By this point the Red Army had already advanced more than half way towards the Värtsilä railway junction. The danger was that if these crossroads were also lost, then the whole front could collapse, as Soviet forces would continue to pour into the rear of the Mannerheim Line on the Karelian Isthmus.

The Red Army had reached the edges of lakes Tolvajärvi and Hirvasjärvi. This forced the Finns to regroup and throw every man they could muster into saving Tolvajärvi village on the western shore. Following the desperate struggles of the last few days, Talvela realized that they needed some kind of victory in order to curb the panic, and show the men that the Soviets were not invincible. As he had earlier reasoned to Mannerheim: ‘In situations like this, as in all confused and hopeless situations, an energetic attack against the nearest enemy was and is the only way to improve the spirits of the men and to regain control of the situation.’ Accordingly, Talvela then devised a plan proposing a daring counterattack to the rear of the enemy positions. However, his men talked him out of personally leading the attack.

Colonel Talvela’s counterattack was to be divided into three parts. Major Jaakko (Jaska) A. Malkamäki led the two battalion-strong Task Force M. He was to initiate the attack with a flanking movement on the north side of Tolvajärvi village. Once his troops had fully engaged the enemy, Colonel Pajari would launch the main thrust over the frozen lake with three more battalions. Major Erik A. Paloheimo would stay in readiness, keeping two battalions and one additional company as reserves.

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.

Despite their apparent success, for some reason Major Malkamäki was made nervous by the light Soviet resistance, and ordered his men to return to their earlier assembly area. Consequently, by lunchtime Task Force M had to inform Pajari that the attack on the north side had been unsuccessful. The failure seemed to result more from the lack of proper leadership than any enemy resistance, as the Soviet 718th Rifle Regiment had also retreated from the area. For the time being, neither side left any men holding the objective.

Further to the south, the Finns were able to send troops to help the two companies which had been, since early that morning, fighting almost non-stop near Kotisaari Island. By late afternoon, these forces had been reinforced to four companies, which then managed to completely occupy the island. The Finns had encircled and killed around 200 enemy soldiers, and had gained additional artillery and 20 armored vehicles. If all of the tanks could have been repaired and put into use, Talvela’s men would have nearly doubled the size of the Finnish armored forces.

Colonel Talvela now insisted that his troops press home the attack so the enemy would be completely destroyed. Pajari managed to convince him otherwise by reminding him of the setbacks previously suffered by Task Force M in the north. Most of the men were ordered back to Tolvajärvi village for a period of rest, while lighter formations held the new positions on the east side of the lake. Pajari sent the following dispatch to Talvela: ‘I have today attacked and struck back at the enemy at Tolvajärvi, forcing them to retreat with heavy losses towards the east. The flanking action to the north was a failure but my attack was an overall success mainly due to the success on the southern flank. Men there occupied Kotisaari Island and after a tenacious attack reached the Tolvajärvi Isthmus. I then moved most of my reserves into combat at 13:00 in order to break the center of the enemy’s resistance. This caused their defense to collapse and started a general retreat. This action was very demanding for and placed heavy strain on all my troops. Also our losses have been heavy, especially amongst the officers.’

After the battle, Talvela wrote in his diary: ‘Great day of battle at Tolvajärvi. Pajari made a frontal assault capturing large areas. On the left flank, we fought an engagement battle. We gained many spoils of war. Attack failed at Ilomantsi. To celebrate this great day I am going to have a sauna tonight.’

The Finns launched attacks against Ägläjärvi village from three directions. Some troops managed to reach and make contact with the enemy within the village. Nevertheless, by nightfall all Finnish forces were forced to return to their staging areas. During the day, Mannerheim telephoned Talvela; he promoted Talvela to the rank of Major-General and Pajari to Colonel for their achievements in bringing about Finland’s first major victory. Despite Mannerheim’s caution, Talvela remained of the view that it was strategically important to move the battle line to the east side of the village.

The exhausted Finns managed to squeeze the Red Army forces into an ever-diminishing area around the village itself, and their only escape route along the road was close to being cut off. Supported by artillery, the main Finnish attack finally managed to cut the road. The main Finnish attack continued alongside the road. As the Soviet defense stiffened, the group reserves were committed to the assault. At this stage, Talvela sent the following report to headquarters explaining why he had continued the attack: ‘Despite the endless, demanding fighting and the great strain this has had on the troops, by taking the initiative and by continuously advancing we have managed to create such a spirit of success that we have in the end succeeded in advancing. Our seven worn battalions and four artillery batteries now face the whole Soviet 1st Rifle Corps. How we are going to deal with them in the end is unclear. But it is absolutely necessary that as soon as we reach a suitable line, we dig in and defend so that the men can rest. It is still a big question mark for us how we are going to deal with the 155th Rifle Division on the Ilomantsi front. So far, the freezing weather and heavy snowfall have been doing our job there.’

Due to the perilous condition of their divisions, the Soviet Eighth Army command gave orders for a general withdrawal to the Aittojoki River. The Finns further accelerated these plans through their surprisingly early and aggressive assaults. The retreating troops had to beat off the advancing Finns repeatedly, but it seems that the order for the evacuation had been issued just in time. Thus, these men avoided being completely surrounded, and destroyed, by the narrowest of margins. After reaching the Aittojoki, the Finns set up defensive positions. This line would become quieter from this point on, and remain so for the duration of the war.

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.

Because their leaders had assumed an easy victory, many of the Russians had been sent into sub-Arctic Finland in December lacking winter clothes and felt boots, as the Finns discovered by listening to their radio transmissions. These were equally astonishingly sent en clair rather than in code.

Freezing, starving and cut off from retreat by the Finnish for a fortnight, the morale of the 163rd Division broke on Christmas Eve and they fled eastwards across the frozen Lake Kiantajärvi. The Finns then sent up two Bristol Blenheim medium bombers to smash the ice, sending tanks, horses, men and vehicles tumbling into the freezing water below. The Russian 44th Division that had come to rescue the 163rd were within earshot of the débâcle, and could hear their comrades dying. But they were not given orders to move.

On the night of New Year’s Day the Russian 44th Division became the next victims of the Finns, as the barometer dipped again to –30° Celsius. By constantly mortar-bombing their sixty field kitchens at mealtimes, the Finns kept the Russians short of hot food. When the Russians lit fires the Finns machine-gunned them from the treetops, ‘easily picking out the dark silhouettes of the men against the snow’.

The standard Red Army rifle, the single-shot bolt action 7.62mm 1902 Mosin-Nagant, became inoperable when its gun-oil lubricant froze in conditions below –15° Celsius. Armored vehicles either had to be kept running, at ruinous expense in fuel, or they would seize up and block the narrow passageways through the forest.

‘We don’t let them rest,’ said General Kurt Wallenius of the Finnish Northern Army; ‘we don’t let them sleep. This is a war of numbers against brains.’ Sleep for the 44th was next to impossible because of the vehicle engines, terrified horses, Finnish professional trackers and hunters who made excellent snipers, and even ‘the sharp reports of the trees as their very sap froze’. Those who resorted to vodka found that, despite the initial sense of warmth, body heat was ultimately lost. Frozen corpses were piled up, one on top of the other, as the Finns methodically moved from sector to sector, wiping out Russian resistance.

The Finns captured 42 tanks, 102 field guns and 300 vehicles at Suomussalmi, as well as thousands of the conical-shaped Red Army hats (budenovka), which they later used in deception operations. Indeed, they captured more military hardware than they received from outside sources.

At Raate Road the Finns were also able to suppress movement along the road, preventing the withdrawal of all the heavier equipment. Leading tanks drove straight into the Finnish mines at the makeshift roadblocks, so the Soviets sent their pack animals forward in the hope that a stampede could clear a path through. The Raate road was cut at multiple points, creating several smaller motti, which the Finns then proceeded to try to destroy. The Raate road was littered with abandoned Soviet vehicles and heavy equipment. Due to its heavy losses in men and equipment, the 44th Rifle Division could no longer function as a fighting unit.

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.

The Soviet troops in the area were led by Brigade Commander Nicholas Gusevsky. Gusevsky’s troops were highly trained and were perhaps the best suited out of all the Red Army units to the terrain and the Arctic warfare conditions. This was an important consideration: according to the Finnish meteorological records from the time, ‘It became so cold that even the reindeer were dying’.

In his book Kuhmo Talvisodassa, the local Finnish commander, Hjalmar Siilasvuo, recalls the following about the situation he faced: ‘When I examined the resources allocated for this task, I found them to be too weak. We had already given the enemy one month to dig in. I knew from experience that the Russians had excellent entrenching machinery. At Suomussalmi, in much shorter time, they had managed to build fortifications and dugouts impervious to our light artillery … Also, there simply was not enough men for the planned mission … However, the enemy’s penetration deep into the Kuhmo area had forced the high command to plan an offensive against this sector despite the uncertain prerequisites.’ By now, his forces had finished taking up positions both north and south of the enemy’s entrenchments. The latter had not been strategically planned. Instead, the Soviet troops had dug in wherever they happened to be when the orders to halt arrived.

Siilasvuo’s men were by now highly experienced in the kind of motti tactics that were now called for. The nature of the terrain, with its narrow isthmuses, was once again to their advantage for such maneuvers. In preparation for rapidly cutting off the enemy lines, the Finns made ice roads and established strategic supply stations near their designated assembly areas. When everything was ready, the men would move to their jumping-off points only at the last moment; this would prevent the (rare) Soviet patrols from detecting them, and more importantly allowed the soldiers to rest in the comfort of their warm tents for as long as possible.

The Finns managed to sever the road leading towards Lieksa. They tried immediately to crush the resultant Soviet motti, but practically all of the encirclements held. The Finns tried to widen the breach at the road and to capture Löytövaara hill. If this could be achieved, any further Red Army relief attempts from the east would be virtually impossible. The hill was captured only after Siilasvuo threw his remaining reserve companies into the fray. A Soviet counterattack turned into disaster: the Soviet commander was killed and, over the next few days, Finnish counter-strikes destroyed the ski battalions almost to a man.

The Soviet troops continued to threaten the defenders at Löytövaara from positions a few kilometres further to the east at Kilpelänkangas. A surprise Finnish attack turned out to be highly successful, and with the job done, the Finns retreated back to Löytövaara. As Kilpelänkangas was left unoccupied, the Soviets were eventually able to regroup and bring in further reinforcements. Two battalions once again attacked the Soviet staging area at Kilpelänkangas. By evening, the defenders had finally begun to give ground, retreating towards Riihivaara. The Finns decided not to pursue the withdrawing enemy.

A third motti of 54th Mountain Rifle Division forces formed further to the west. It contained the divisional headquarters, and was located on the narrow stretch of land between lakes Saunajärvi and Alasjärvi. For a total of four days the Soviets managed to hold the Finns at bay; at this point Siilasvuo was forced to respond rapidly to a new threat, and so he ordered the attack to halt. After fierce fighting, the Soviet forces there finally dispersed into small groups in order to try to escape. Most of these ‘splinters’ were dealt with immediately by the encircling Finnish formations.

The defenses near the 54th Mountain Rifle Division’s headquarters were finally overcome; according to estimates, around half of the troops managed to escape west to the next motti. The Finnish forces then proceeded to prepare for further attacks against this target. When the news of the Moscow Peace Treaty reached the combatants, the men had advanced to within just 40m of the Soviet dugouts. The attack was halted immediately, but both sides continued a fierce exchange of fire for the last two hours of the war.

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.

Soviet forces made slow progress on the push south along Finland’s Arctic Highway. Temperatures had plummeted to below -40°C. As the supply columns stretched out, the Finns would suddenly launch their small raiding parties. By the end of January 1940 the relentless winter and sniper attacks had more or less halted any Soviet attempts to advance.

A more dangerous situation developed much further south, where the Soviets were rapidly progressing across Finland towards Salla. The village was promptly occupied. The ultimate goal of the Soviets was to sack the city of Rovaniemi, the capital of Lapland, and if possible continue all the way to the port of Tornio on the Gulf of Bothnia. By now, divisional headquarters did not believe the Finns could muster any significant defensive efforts before the town of Kemijärvi. In order to stall the relentless Red Army onslaught, the Finns scraped together all their available men.

Major-General Kurt Wallenius decided that the Soviet advance had to be stopped well before the town of Kemijärvi, and especially in its drive towards Pelkosenniemi, where the Red Army was making worryingly good progress. The Red Army advanced to the Kitinen River ferry crossing at the northern edge of Pelkosenniemi. The Soviets managed to establish a bridgehead on the west bank, despite the defenders’ best efforts to prevent this.

Things did not go well for the Finns at the Kitinen bridgehead. The Soviets pushed forward tenaciously. Eventually two enemy tanks managed to ram straight through the Finnish defensive positions. This caused panic amongst the Finnish supply troops, who rushed onto the road in their flight to the south. However, just as all seemed lost to the Finns, the Soviet forces suddenly began to retreat as well. It turned out that the Soviet flank collapsed by a surprise attack. By the following morning, the enemy had withdrawn completely. Fighting in the Salla sector was over.

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.

While mobilizing its resources, the Finnish government hoped to restart negotiations, but it is doubtful whether, even if the Soviet Union had been willing to negotiate in December and January, it could have accepted the terms likely to be offered in the face of a public opinion jubilant over the early victories and unheeding of the danger ahead.

The Germans refused to sell weapons to Finland, tried to keep what few weapons the Finns could order in Italy from getting there, and left the Swedes worried about a possible German invasion if they came to Finland's assistance.

There was a considerable amount of discussion in and between the governments of the Western Powers about using the opportunity, which appeared to be created by the Russo-Finnish war, to strike indirectly at Germany by helping Finland. Any aid to Finland, even of a purely material sort, which prolonged that war, would reduce the aid the Soviet Union could provide to Hitler.

Western intervention in the form of troops could come effectively only through Norway and Sweden and would simultaneously cut Germany off from the Swedish iron mines. Since the involvement of Allied troops on the Finnish front meant war with Russia, the bombing of Soviet oil fields in the Caucasus would both aid that effort and deprive the Germans of petroleum supplies from Russia. These projects were debated endlessly with no decision to go forward reached.

The Finns repeatedly tried to obtain diplomatic support from Germany; but Berlin had promised Finland to the Soviet Union. And, far from being prepared to help the Finns, Germany was willing to aid the Soviet Union, both to repay Soviet favors in the ongoing war against Britain and France and to assist in a swift Russian victory. The fighting was of no use to Germany; it threatened to reduce the availability of Soviet supplies to herself, and opened the possibility of an Allied intervention in Scandinavia which could threaten her own iron supplies from Sweden.

The expulsion of the Soviet Union from the League of Nations in no way assisted the Finns but undoubtedly made the Soviet leadership even more dubious about such international organizations than they were before they reluctantly joined the League in 1934.

The French were very much more enthusiastic about the Allied schemes than the British, a reflection of their greater interest in keeping the fighting as far as possible from France, which had been so devastated in World War I. The British government, on the other hand, was most skeptical. This appears in part to have been due to a slightly more realistic assessment of the risks. The British government was also much more reluctant than the French to violate the neutrality of Norway and Sweden, a step that increasingly appeared to be an unavoidable accompaniment of any effective assistance to Finland.

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.

Soviet ground and air forces massed on the Karelian Isthmus, and in early February approximately 45 divisions, backed by massive amounts of artillery and 3,000 tanks, battered the Finns back 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.

Russian military prestige had been severely damaged, and Stalin had created a situation on his northwestern border that would require fifteen divisions to police. The moment Finland sniffed her opportunity for revenge, at the time of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, she seized it.

As the terms of the Moscow Peace Treaty were being settled, Molotov had remarked: ‘Since blood has been shed against the Soviet government’s wishes and without Russia being to blame, the territorial concessions Finland offered must be greater than those proposed by Russia in Moscow in October and November of 1939 [i.e. before the war started]’. Nearly 12 percent of the population had to be resettled from ceded lands. Despite this heavy cost, most Finns thought that retaining independence was more important than the loss of territory.

Continuing Finnish freedom came with a high human cost. The number of civilian and military casualties totalled 24,918 dead and 43,557 wounded, of whom 9,562 were to remain permanently disabled. The total losses for the Soviet Union have never been published, but the best estimates put them at well over 200,000 killed and a much larger number of wounded.

The later-day Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev made a claim in his 1970s memoirs that the total number of Soviet lives lost in the Winter War exceeded 1 million. Khrushchev also commented that, although the Red Army had employed their superior numbers well and had carefully chosen the timing and place of each attack, ‘even in these most favorable conditions, it was only after great difficulty and enormous losses that we were finally able to win. A victory at such a cost was actually a moral defeat.’ Khrushchev also recalled how greatly the Finns had been underestimated by the Soviets at the start of the war: ‘All we had to do was raise our voice a little bit and the Finns would obey. If that didn’t work, we could fire one shot and the Finns would put up their hands and surrender. Or so we thought … The Finns turned out to be good warriors. We soon realized we had bitten off more than we could chew.’

Mannerheim remained in his position as Commander-in-Chief. Wartime rationing, censorship and limitations on travel continued, while further commercial restrictions were introduced. Despite the unusually cold winter, which had ruined most of the fruit trees and berry bushes, there was generally enough food to go around. When the harvest of the following summer turned out poorer than usual, rationing was further tightened.

Although Finland was now at peace, the flames of global war were beginning to fan higher. During this unsettled time, Finland tried desperately to remain neutral and not be drawn into yet another conflict. This position became increasingly more difficult, and the Finns did their best to form an alliance with the rest of the Nordic countries. It was their hope that the support of the Swedish Army in particular would help quell the threat of any further invasions. However, both the Soviets and the Germans objected strongly to these plans, and under pressure from them the talks faltered.

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.

During 1940, Finland tried to seek political and defensive allies in the West. At each stage the Finnish delegates were given kind words and praise for their nation’s efforts in retaining its independence, but no promises of concrete help. Towards the end of the year, Adolf Hitler, who had his own plans for the USSR, suddenly changed Germany’s national policy towards Finland: grain and weapons purchases became possible, and talks of future cooperation began.

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.

The Winter War showed that the Russians fought harder when patriotically defending the Motherland than when in attack. That was eventually to apply to the German Fatherland too. Instead of these lessons, Hitler learnt the almost banal one that Stalin had shot a lot of good generals in the late 1930s. He was not the only one, however; on 20 January 1940 Churchill said that Finland ‘had exposed for all to see the incapacity of the Red Army’.

While these defeats suggested serious defects in the army, they were less representative of the quality of Soviet forces than the August–September 1939 battle of Khalkhin Gol in Outer Mongolia. There, Soviet divisions under General Georgi Zhukov had smashed a reinforced Japanese division. However, on the basis of the disasters in the Winter War, European analysts deemed Soviet capabilities distinctly inferior. Such perceptions by the Germans would have a fateful impact on preparations for the invasion of the Soviet Union.