The Winter War, also known as the Russo-Finnish War, was a David and Goliath battle between the tiny Finnish Army and the USSR’s mighty Red Army. Despite their much smaller size and strength, the Finns were able to hold off the Soviets for more than two months before the larger force redoubled its efforts and finally overran them. Sabaton’s song Talvisota, from 2008’s The Art of War, is about the Finnish Army and the tactics they used.
At the start of World War II, Finland had declared themselves neutral, but there was long-standing mistrust between them and the neighbouring USSR. The Soviets demanded concessions from the Finns – including destroying all fortifications on the the Karelian Isthmus (the narrow stretch of land that connects Finland to Russia) and moving the border further back into Finland – believing the country would allow itself to be used as a base from which enemies could attack their powerful neighbour.
On 26 November 1939, a Soviet border guard patrolling near the village of Mainila was shelled, allegedly resulting in the deaths of four guardsmen. The Soviets blamed the Finns, who denied any involvement and demanded a joint investigation. Various historians, both Finnish and Russian, have since determined that the shelling was carried out from the Soviet side of the border with the intention of giving the Soviet Union an excuse to invade Finland.
The Soviets had spent little time preparing their troops properly for invasion, believing Finland to be an easy target and assessing that total victory could be achieved within as little as two weeks. However, the Red Army was in a state of upheaval after purges during the 1930s removed a large proportion of its most senior officers – including three out of five marshals and more than 80 per cent of higher-level commanders, preferring fierce loyalty to Stalin over experience. The chain of command within the Army was disorganised, and warnings about the difficulty of Finland’s terrain went unheeded. The Reds chose the German “Blitzkrieg” model for the invasion, a style of fast and intensive attack that was very successful in areas with well-mapped roads but proved almost useless in a wild and frozen land made up of vast forest interspersed with lakes and swamps.
The invasion began on 30 November with the bombing of Helsinki and 450,000 Soviet troops entering Finnish lands. In response to international criticism, Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov said the Soviet Air Force was dropping humanitarian aid to the starving Finnish people, which the Finns would come to refer to as “Molotov bread baskets”. The League of Nations, which had been set up after The Great War (World War I) in a bid to prevent the world from going to war again, considered the invasion illegal and revoked the Soviet Union’s status as a member state.
Early in the invasion, the USSR tried to establish its own caretaker government in Finland, called the “Finnish Democratic Republic”, based in the Karelian Isthmus, but Finnish people refused to recognise it in a spirit of defiance that Finns would later term “the spirit of the Winter War”. The Karelian Isthmus was where much of the fighting in the Winter War would take place. Most Finnish troops were deployed at the Mannerheim Line, a line of defensive fortifications on the Isthmus, with a defensive force of around 21,000 men based in front of the line to pick off as much of the advancing army as possible before it reached the line.
One of the most dangerous weapons the Soviets had against Finland was their tanks, as the Finns had barely seen such artillery in use and had no training in modern anti-tank tactics. This led to the invention of a crude handmade weapon that is still in use to this day. The hand-held incendiary grenade used a bottle to hold flammable liquid, with a fuse that was lit by hand. The Finns named the device after the man they held responsible for the war –Vyacheslav Molotov – and this “Molotov cocktail” proved very effective when hurled at approaching Soviet tanks. During the first advance from the border toward the Mannerheim Line, 80 Soviet tanks were destroyed, both by Molotov cocktails and even cruder measures such as jamming the treads with logs.
While the Red Army was vast in numbers, the Finnish Army was well-led, knew the terrain it was fighting in, and was determined to protect its land and its people. As temperatures plummeted to a record low of -43°C (-45°F), the Soviets could not break through the Finnish lines and suffered heavy losses. Their first attempt was at the Battle of Taipale, which began with 40 hours of artillery bombardment followed by an infantry attack, which was repelled by the Finns and resulted in many Soviet casualties. The same story was told at different points along the Finnish defences, with comparably small pockets of Finns repelling huge Soviet divisions who simply were not prepared for the conditions.
The Finns were skilled cross-country skiers, which they used to their advantage with guerrilla attacks, donning white capes for camouflage and attacking the highly-visible soviet units, who they would divert and split off into smaller units for easier pickings. The snow also helped to camouflage their snipers, including the renowned Simo “White Death” Häyhä, who notched up more than 500 kills in the area around Lake Ladoga and inspired the Sabaton song White Death (Coat of Arms, 2010). The Soviets, on the other hand, could not ski so they moved slowly, did not know how to dress for such extreme cold, and did not have winter tents, leading to more than 10 per cent of all troops being stricken with frostbite.
Joseph Stalin could not countenance the idea of defeat by such a small and isolated nation though, and after the Red Army was repelled by the Finns on all fronts throughout December and January, causing much embarrassment at home, the Army’s command structure was reorganised, new equipment was brought in (and painted white to match the Finns’ camouflage) and new tactics were devised, relying less on tanks and bringing in more infantry to support them. Troop numbers were increased to 600,000 and when the renewed assault began on 1 February 1940, 300,000 shells were fired into the Finnish lines.
Despite World War II not having reached the Western Front yet, the support received from Finland’s allies Britain and France was not as great as was hoped, and the Finns could do little in the face of the redoubled bombardment by a bigger army that was willing to accept heavy losses to achieve objectives. The first Soviet breakthrough happened at Summa on 11 February, and the Finnish defences toppled one by one after that. Its army exhausted, Finland tried to contact the Soviet Union to concede defeat and start negotiations.
The attempts were initially ignored, but after intervention from Germany and Sweden, and with the prospect of a Spring thaw and the loss of their tanks in the swamps, the Soviets eventually agreed to discussions. The Moscow Peace Treaty was presented on 13 March 1940, and Finland was forced to give up 11 per cent of its territory to the Soviet Union – including the entire Karelian Isthmus – but retained its independence. Some 422,000 Karelians – 12 per cent of the Finnish population at the time – had to be evacuated from their homes.
Finland considered this treaty unduly harsh on their country, which was not the aggressor in the conflict, and it sowed the seeds of discontent that led to Finland abandoning its neutral status later in the war and allying with Germany against the Soviet Union. The Red Army’s near-humiliation at the hands of the Finns prompted Adolf Hitler to think that Nazi Germany could conquer the Soviet Union, and in 1941 he would begin Operation Barbarossa (the Axis powers’ invasion of the Soviet Union), and the Continuation War between Finland and the USSR would begin. One of the most famous participants in both the Winter War and Continuation War was Lauri Törni, subject of Sabaton’s Soldier of 3 Armies (Heroes, 2014).