During the winter of 1939-40, the Finns fought the Soviet Union in an epic struggle for Karelia, the outcome of which can only be called miraculous.
The history of Karelia has been one of frequent warfare. A glance at a map will show why. The Karelian isthmus which lies north of St. Petersburg (Leningrad) and surrounds Lake Ladoga occupies a position not unlike the Holy Land in the Middle East. It is at the end of the Baltic Sea. Control of this land dominates the trade routes which head South and East to the Orient. The Karelian coat of arms reflects this. It shows the curved sword of the East opposed by the straight sword of the West over a large crown.
From about 1200 AD on, Finland had been controlled by Sweden. In the 18th century the Tsars had made several forays into Finland and taken parts of Karelia. A secret agreement at Tilst between Napoleon and Alexander I of Russia gave the Tsar a free hand in the conquest of Finland, and in 1809 he exercised that option by taking the entire country. It was renamed the Grand Duchy of Finland.
Until the assassination of Alexander II in March 1881, Finland had been an autonomous part of the Russian Empire. She had her own language, parliament, armed forces, military conscription and coinage. Laws were passed which discriminated against Russian Orthodoxy in favor of Lutheranism and clearly favored non-Russian citizens. In 1891 a reaction to this practice became Russian policy with the declaration of Russian as the official language. In 1898 NI Bobrikov was appointed governor general of the Duchy. Bobrikov's style was uncompromising. Everything was to be subservient to Mother Russia. In 1901 Finland's legislature was stripped of its power, and in 1902 her independent armed forces suddenly found themselves an extension of the Tsar's army. Young men were conscripted to fight the Tsar's wars. The press was controlled and direct petitions to the Tsar were ignored. However, on June 16, 1904, Bobrikov was assassinated and a spirit of revolution swept the land. This was followed by a number of events throughout the Russian Empire which eventually brought down the monarchy.
On December 6, 1917, Finland declared its independence and fought its own version of the "revolution" in a civil war in which White forces under the leadership of Carl Gustav Mannerheim prevailed over Red Army. For 20 years, Finland, like others, had neglected its military despite warnings from Mannerheim. After World War I, Finland had been given control of the Åland Islands by the League of Nations and with the consent of Sweden with the understanding that no military forces were to be stationed on them.
With the rise of Hitler in 1933 and the ever increasing military build-up by Germany under Hitler and finally the acquisition of territories starting in 1938, Molotov and Stalin, himself, began secret negotiations with a few Finnish representatives in an attempt to force the Finns into giving up control of the Åland Islands, Hanko and other strategic islands in the Baltic plus a large strip of land to the north of Leningrad in return for indefensible parts of Soviet Karelia. However, the Finns could not do this without violating their trust with other Scandinavian countries and the League of Nations.
Hitler looked for any excuse to retake Poland which had been lost by Germany during World War I. In order to secure his Eastern frontier from attack from Russia which also had designs on parts of Polish territories, lost during World War I, Stalin and Hitler signed a "non-aggression pact." It included several secret agreements. It gave Germany the right to take all of Poland except the four Eastern-most counties. These, plus the Baltic States and Finland were to be given to Stalin, if he could take them.
On September 1, 1939, German troops crashed across the Polish frontier in a blitzkrieg and took Poland in a matter of weeks. Stalin's troops moved into the Baltic States and eastern Poland with ease. On November 26, 1939 a border "incident" at Mainila, which even the Russians did not believe, took place.
On November 30, 1939, it was Stalin's next move. 250,000 Russian troops under the cover of a coordinated air and artillery bombardment crossed into Finland to begin one of the least publicized and most costly campaigns in the annals of military history. It would be a "walk over;" General Meretskov estimated it would take only 10 to 12 days for his 26 well equipped 14,000 man divisions to reach Helsinki. Russian propaganda had been so convincing that it was felt that the Finns would be waving flags and welcoming the Red Army with open arms. Opposing him were nine poorly equipped 11,000-man Finnish divisions.
Meretskov never suspected that his army was about to plunge into a frozen hell, the second coldest winter since 1828, and oppose Mannerheim, probably one of the greatest defensive tacticians since Robert E. Lee. So confident were the Soviets of a quick victory march to Helsinki that they came with parade bands, but without winter uniforms, without supplies for a protracted campaign and without medical services. Even more sinister was the fact that Stalin had purged most of his regular army officers two years earlier and placed most of the responsibility for the army in the hands of political commissars.
For 105 days the world held its breath and learned the word sisu, while Russians died at the incredible rate of nearly 10,000 per day and the Finns lost 250 per day. When the armistice finally came on March 13, 1940, the Finns counted 25,000 dead, 55,000 wounded, and 450,000 homeless, a terrible price for a country of only four million people. However, even the Finns did not know the devastation that they had caused the Russians until years later. All this was at the hands of an army of less than 250,000 (mostly light infantry, home guard units) with hardly any anti-tank weapons (except Molotov cocktails) and 41 operational fighter aircraft. In the words of my father-in-law, Antti Olavi Pönkänen, who fought in this war: "Our lakes are full of dead Russians."
The Russians attacked in company, battalion and regimental strength across frozen lakes, their dark uniforms easily visible against the white snow. Machine guns enfiladed the lakes and home guard troops, most of whom were expert shots, armed with one of the best military rifles ever made, the Sako Arms version of the Russian rifle, picked them off one by one. One Finnish soldier, Corporal Simo Häyhä was credited with more than 500 known kills.
One of the most famous early battles of the Winter War occurred at Suomussalmi during December, 1939. The Russian 44th Division advanced along the Raate Road from the south and the 163rd Russian Division advanced from Juntusranta from the North. They were supposed to link up at Suomussalmi and then head West across Finland to Oulu and cut the country in half. Russian troop strength totaled 48,000 men, 335 cannon, 100 tanks and 50 armored cars. The Finnish defenders reinforced from a few thousand now numbered 17,000 with 11 cannons under the command of Colonel Hjalmar Siilasvuo; his only hope was to defeat the Russians in detail. And he did.
To slow down the 163rd in the north, Finnish ski troops made wide circling flanking movements of 20 to 30 miles under cover of the long night and caught the rear and middle parts of the column by surprise. They found Soviet soldiers huddled around fires in -40° weather easy prey to sub-machine gun fire and grenades. Almost any wound was fatal. As the 44th approached Suomussalmi down the Raate Road, they had to pass between Kuomasjärvi and Kuivasjärvi on a narrow isthmus. 350 Finns in hand-to-hand combat closed the isthmus. Trees were now felled across the road in front and behind with the 44th Division strung out along the road. The 163rd only six miles north engaged in desperate struggles to push the Finns west, but were stopped. Much of this fighting was hand to hand. After four days, both the 163rd and 44th were stopped dead in their tracks. Now Russians of the 163rd Division, after throwing their weapons away made an attempt to escape back to Russia. Two Finnish machine gun platoons and a guerrill a company helped them back to Russia.
The 44th fared even worse. Trees blocked the roads which prevented movement. The frozen lakes around them were death traps. Any attack across the lakes were met with machine gun fire. The Russian dead were permitted lie frozen in the snow over the lakes until the thaw when their bodies sank to the bottom. Several attacks by the Finns further demoralized the Russians. Orders from the commanding general did not permit a fighting retreat. The 44th was out of food, freezing and had nowhere to go except to sit and be slaughtered at will. Of the 44,000 only 5000 made it back. The Finns captured intact 85 tanks, 437 trucks, 20 tractors, 10 motorcycles, 1620 horses, 92 artillery pieces, 78 anti-tank guns, and 13 anti-aircraft guns plus thousands of rifles, machine guns and a horde of ammunition. This was later used against the Russians in Karelia.
In the Karelian isthmus, Russian units were isolated from each other into motti, "log piles." There, surrounded, they froze and starved to death by the thousands or died by rifle fire and wounds. However, the Russians continued to reinforce in the South and keep the pressure on the Finnish line.
As 1940 came, it was apparent to Stalin that his armies were suffering terrible losses; he was getting nowhere fast and knew that Finland had to be beaten at all costs. The British and other nations offered token forces and supplies for Finland, but the Swedes refused transit. Hitler made immediate plans to invade Norway and Denmark while these two countries declared themselves "neutral." Swedish diplomats pointed out that "When great powers are waging war, small countries can't afford to be heroic." This was the thanks Finland got for honoring her commitments to her neighbor, Sweden. Stalin demoted or shot most of the commanders and placed the entire operation in Finland under the command of Marshal Semyon K. Timoshenko.
Timoshenko ordered large numbers of reinforcements into Western Karelia. According to Khrushchev, Stalin was "gnashing his teeth," waiting for news. "Our air force has been called into action. Many bridges have been destroyed. Many trains have been crippled . . . The Finns have only their skis left. Their supply of skis never runs out."
Blanket bombing began on February 1, 1940, to soften up the lines. The Russians massed 600,000 men, artillery lined hub to hub and poured over 300,000 shells in one day on the Mannerheim Line's Summa positions. In 1.6 miles of front there were 440 cannon pounding the Finns who replied with only 16. Six divisions supported by 500 aircraft and many tanks attacked at the Hatjalahti and Muolaa Lake sectors. The Finns pushed them back. Entire Russian Divisions were wiped out, but more kept attacking over the frozen bodies of their comrades.
T he main and final attack of the war began on February 6, 1940, along a five-mile front in Western Karelia with three divisions supported by 150 tanks and 200 airplanes. The results were the same with thousands of dead Russians lying in front of the Finnish positions and more Russian troops charging across their frozen bodies. On 11 February the Russians managed to make breakthroughs on both flanks (Lake Ladoga & Gulf of Finland). Finnish troop strengths were down to one half or one third of original and the Finns were nearly out of ammunition. They were now withdrawn on February 14 to new defensive positions. The Russians made no effort to pursue them.
By February 26, the Finns were forced to abandon Koivisto and they retreated back toward Viipuri. The need for men, arms and ammunition was desperate and Mannerheim warned the Finnish government about the potential consequences. The French and British were offering to send 100,000 men, but should the Finns accept this aid which was not at all certain, go it alone, or try to work a deal with the Russians? The offer from the Allies was suspect and the Swedes were not of a mind to permit them to cross their country. The British and French were also fearful of Hitler's designs on Norway and Denmark and might use the troops there. The German government advised the Finns to make arrangements with the Russians. The Finnish Foreign Affairs Committee again asked Sweden if they would allow transit of Allied troops and Mannerheim asked the United States to mediate. On March 5, Stockholm informed Helsinki that the Cabinet had decided to let no troops cross Sweden by a unanimous vote.
On March 6, 1940, a Finnish delegation left for Moscow to discuss terms. The Finns prepared for another counter-offensive, and the Russians brought up more troops, but all was quiet. In some sectors of the line there were only a few Finns left where there had been whole units, and there was precious little ammunition. Then on March 13, 1940, it was all over; an armistice was signed. Had the Russians mounted just one more attack, they might have carried it all the way to Helsinki, but they had lost their nerve about the same time the Finns ran out of ammunition.
Under the treaty, Russia received Finland's second largest city, Viipuri, the port of Petsamo on the Arctic Ocean, the Hanko area, all of Lake Ladoga’s shores and the entire Karelian Isthmus, the home of 12 per cent of Finland's population. Finland gave up a total of 22,000 square miles. One Russian general remarked, "We have won enough ground to bury our dead." Khrushchev wrote, "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." According to Khrushchev, 1.5 million men were sent to Finland and one million of them were killed. 1000 aircraft, 2300 tanks and armored cars and an enormous amount of other war materials were lost.
The people in the ceded area were given the right to remain with the Soviet Union or emigrate to Finland. Most if not all of the 450,000 people living in the region moved to Finland despite being left destitute and homeless.
The most famous weapon of this brief war is well known—the Molotov cocktail, named after the perfidious Russian negotiator. However, its origin, an invention of the Finnish Liquor Board, is generally unknown. With hardly any anti-tank weapons, four-man Molotov cocktail crews destroyed nearly 2000 tanks. The Soviet tanks had an extra 50 gallon gas tank on the back end of the tank near the engine air vents. The tanks were noted for their poor maintenance and excess grease and oil in the engine compartment. The tank would be allowed to penetrate the tactical wire. One man with a log would attempt to jam the tracks while the two Molotov Cocktail men would throw their weapons on the back end of the tank. The gasoline and alcohol would drip into the engine compartment where heat would ignite the mixture and the engine compartment would burst into flames. This would in turn ignite the 50 gallon gas tank on the back of the tank and create tremendous heat inside the tank. The tank crew would attempt to escap e and the man with a sub machine gun would kill the crew. Casualties among the Molotov cocktail crews were about 75 per cent.
The Winter War of 1939 is a footnote in most histories. Yet it had great importance in the outcome of World War II. Hitler watched as the Finns humiliated the Russians and believed that Germany could crush his Eastern neighbor. Although publicly claiming a great victory, Stalin realized that it had been a military fiasco. He reinstated many Army officers, returned their rank and privileges and reduced the importance of political commissars. His reorganization was just in time to prevent Hitler from taking Russia. Timoshenko said, "The Russians have learned much in this hard war in which the Finns fought with Heroism." Admiral Kuznetsov concluded, "We had received a severe lesson. We had to profit by it." Khrushchev summed it up, "All of us—and Stalin first and foremost—sensed in our victory a defeat by the Finns. It was a dangerous defeat because it encouraged our enemies' conviction that the Soviet Union was a colossus with feet of clay . . . We had to draw some lessons for the immediate future from what had happened."
As for the Allies, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's British government and the French government of Daladier vacillated in indecision during the "mid-winter madness" of the "phony war" of 1939-40. The Nazis invaded Norway and Denmark and both governments fell. Pierre Laval took over in France to no avail, but Chamberlain's "peace in our time" policy was replaced by the resolute Winston Churchill. Once Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in June of 1941 and Japan attacked the US in December of 1941, the US, Britain and Soviet Union were thrown together as allies and this spelled doom for the Axis powers in what became one of the true holy wars of world history.
This epic Finnish Winter War is the material of heroic ballads passed down to generations. Only the hand of God could have brought about the results.