The Winter War

The Winter War, also known as the Russo-Finnish War, began on November 30, 1939. The USSR had been attempting to gain territory in Finland as a buffer against possible Nazi attack, which the government of Finland refused to grant. On November 26th, the Red Army staged an attack on the Russian border town Mainila and claimed that Finnish forces were responsible. Despite Finnish denials to the contrary, the USSR used this as a pretext for invasion.

The Soviet leadership believed it would be a quick victory. The Soviet Union was one of the most feared nations in the world, and it should have been easy to subdue tiny Finland. It was not.

Background

Josef Stalin's political purges of the Red Army had left it in the hands of many inexperienced commanders. The recovering Red Army's only test up till now was a simple charge into Poland, which had been attacked by Nazi Germany 16 days before and which was already a broken nation. Nevertheless, with its large population, copious natural resources, militaristic government, and extremely rapid industrial development (at least according to propaganda accounts), the USSR was considered one of the great powers of the world.

Finland had only recently broken free of Russia. The independent Finnish state was established in 1917, taking advantage of the confusion of revolution and civil war. Because this was done with German assistance, Finland and Germany remained close. And because of this relationship, the USSR's leadership was anxious that a German attack might come through Finland. The Finnish government was actually rather cool to the rise of the Nazis, and was not planning to assist them. Nevertheless, Stalin's paranoia was not to be denied, and despite having signed a non-aggression pact with Finland in 1934 he had the Red Army prepared to invade. With the feigned attack on Mainila, the die was cast, and the invasion began four days later on November 30, 1939.

On December 3rd, Finnish Foreign Minister Väinö Tanner gave a speech which included these words:

I repeat here what I said yesterday to certain foreign correspondents: the Finnish government will not refuse to take part in negotiations for the restoration of peace. Nevertheless, anyone who believes that the Finnish people can be brought by the threat of force, and the terror already launched, to make concessions that would denote in reality the loss of their independence is mistaken.

War

The Red Army had orders of magnitude more tanks and aircraft than the Finnish Army, and vastly more manpower. But what the Finns lacked in equipment and numbers they made up for in strategy, initiative, and local knowledge. Just as the central control of the Soviet Union's economy had left it inflexible and slow to adapt, central control of Red Army units led to military incompetence. Meanwhile the decentralized and nimble Finnish Army used surprise, ambush, and a variety of innovative tactics in beating back the invaders.

Many Finnish soldiers did not even have uniforms, and had to wear their regular winter clothing with ad hoc military displays. They were armed, but not as well as the Red Army war machine—so throughout the war they used captured Soviet rifles, ammunition, and tanks. Using the enemy's weapons is a classic guerrilla tactic, later recommended by several communist war theoreticians; this time, it was the communists who suffered.

The Finns' knowledge of local geography, and the Soviets' lack of it, was crucial. While the Red Army stuck to its tanks and troop formations, the Finnish Army took every advantage it could. The most devastating Soviet loss was at the Battle of Suomussalmi, which saw mechanized Soviet units that were completely unfit for the terrain relentlessly attacked by greatly outnumbered, but much more mobile Finnish troops; about twenty percent of Soviet losses in the Winter War were in this battle. The Finns used skis, sledges, and horses (many of the latter captured from the Soviets) to speed through the forests.

While there was formal military direction from Commander-in-Chief Carl Mannerheim, the Finnish Army's local commanders used the forests, marshes, and lakes in their immediate areas to make attack plans. Using local knowledge of terrain against clueless invaders is another strategy recommended by communist guerrilla manual writers, but again the Soviets had to learn the hard way. Other novel approaches to battle included the way Finnish troops targeted Soviet field kitchens. Already miserable Soviet troops suffered even more due to the lack of supplies. Meanwhile Finns had friendly kitchens and even saunas close by.

Settlement

Eventually, the Soviet war machine dumped so many men, tanks, and planes into Finland that the Finnish Army, though hardy and adaptable, was in danger of being overrun. They were not prepared for a long conflict; they had hoped to stall Soviet advances long enough for foreign military assistance to arrive, but such assistance proved difficult to organize and ship. However, Stalin was not fully aware of the weakness of the Finnish position. With spring approaching and the prospect of getting further stuck in unfavorable geography—and unanimously negative and steadily worsening international attention besides—the Soviets warmed to the idea of a peace settlement.

The Treaty of Moscow was success on paper. The terms of the treaty ceded about ten percent of Finland to the Soviet Union, including a large portion of its industrial region. Yet the invaders' goal had originally been the subjugation of Finland, which they were not even close to attaining. Moreover, as Winston Churchill said,

Only Finland—superb, nay, sublime—in the jaws of peril—Finland shows what free men can do. The service rendered by Finland to mankind is magnificent. They have exposed, for all the world to see, the military incapacity of the Red Army and of the Red Air Force. Many illusions about Soviet Russia have been dispelled in these few fierce weeks of fighting in the Arctic Circle. Everyone can see how Communism rots the soul of a nation; how it makes it abject and hungry in peace, and proves it base and abominable in war.

This ill-gotten Finnish territory was only a small part of the Soviet Empire, but the way it was won demonstrated much about the character of a communist nation. Its military grabs were not in the name of finding new markets to exploit, the claim communists made about capitalism, but they were opportunistic and evil nonetheless. Vladimir Lenin wrote

Capitalism’s transition to the stage of monopoly capitalism, to finance capital, is connected with the intensification of the struggle for the partitioning of the world.

The struggle for the partitioning of the world, indeed.


Back to May Day 2006: A Day Of Remembrance

Share this

The Finnish resistance

The Finnish resistance against communist invasion is one of the triumphs of a free people from the 20th century. Their morale was strong, compared to the ill-motivated conscripts they faced. There's a Finnish saying from the Winter War: "There are so many, and our country so small, where will we find room to bury them all?"

The Russians ended up burying the Finns under a weight of men and metal, much as the Soviet war machine did to the Germans a few years later. "We've got more men than you do bullets, and we're willing to spend them profligately."

The Finns have unfortunately been labeled as Nazi allies during the Second World War. Their alliance was one of convenience only, and as you note they were always cool to the Nazi party.

Another excellent post, the

Another excellent post, the Soviet invasions of Finland, Poland and the Baltic states are all but forgotten today. The Nazis and Soviets were on the same side at the start of WWII. The heroism of the Finns should always be remembered. The Soviets had to conquor every inch of territory they ever controlled, through Russia in the Civil War, the republics in the empire and the countries of Eastern Europe occupied after WWII. Always posing as the foe of imperialism, the Soviets were the greatest imperialists of all.

quote from Finnish book,

quote from Finnish book, Unknown soldier; ''one of our soldier counts as ten ruskie ones...'' ''Sir, what happens when eleventh comes?''
great article.