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.
In late 1939, the Soviet Red Army invaded Finland marking the start of what the Finns call ‘Talvisota’, the Winter War. With their military might, the Soviets believed that the war would only last a few weeks, if not days, but they were wrong. The Finnish counteroffensive surprised the whole world with its tenacity.
Without modern equipment, tanks or even allies, the Finnish seemed doomed from the start, as Soviet troops crossed the borders on November 30, 1939.
Finland had a troubled history with Russia. Its declaration of independence from the Russian Empire in December 1917 led to a brutal civil war between the right-wing whites and Bolshevik reds. This was also a cultural war, in which the Finnish nationalistic elements fought against the supporters of Russian influence. This resentment lingered in the Finnish conscience well into the late 1930s, when war again loomed across the continent.
There were plenty of people who believed that the antagonistic ideologies of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union would eventually lead to war between the two, and that Finland may play a part in that future war. In the event of such a war, Josef Stalin was concerned since the Finnish border was not even 30km away from Leningrad, and the Finnish batteries in the Gulf of Finland could threaten Soviet shipping in the Baltic Sea. Now, during the Great War, some Finns had close contact with the Germans, and there was even a Finnish Jäger battalion that saw action with the German Army. Stalin saw this possible connection as a threat, even as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact went into effect in the wake of German and Soviet invasions of Poland. They partitioned Poland and a buffer state between the two powers no longer existed, so Stalin secured a military presence in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania just in case. Finland, which declared itself neutral, was next.
Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov presented demands to the Finns that included moving the border further away from Leningrad, which would involve the Finns giving up their entire defensive line against the Soviets and having to relocate some 10 per cent of their population, leasing the Soviets Hanko Peninsula to use as a military base, and giving them the Rybachi Peninsula, which Stalin wanted for its nickel mines. The Finns were dead against this, and the Red Army invaded Finland at point all along the entire border. Winter had already begun, and it would become one of the coldest in recorded history.
Baron Field Marshal Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim came out of retirement to take overall command of the Finnish Army and knew that the key to the defence of Finland was the Karelian Isthmus – the narrow strip of land between the Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga.
Since 1932 they had prepared strong lines of defence there between the lakes and marshes, which the Russian troops now had to attack head on. The boggy ground was no good for Soviet tanks and artillery to cross, and the areas they could cross had been extensively mined by the Finns.
Small yet mighty
The Finnish army was small but was strongly motivated by patriotic fervour. They could mobilise maybe a little over 300,000 men and were equipped with only outdated artillery and machine guns, except for the Finnish made Suomi submachine gun.
The Russians, for their part, did not even bother to send their best troops, using only what was available in the Leningrad region. Even so, against such a small nation, Stalin wanted a quick war and ordered General Kirill Meretskov, the commander of the Leningrad Military District, to conquer Finland in a few weeks. Meretskov planned to do it by Stalin’s birthday, December 21, although this date is lightly disputed.
Meretskov would make two-pronged attack to break the Mannerheim Defence Line, one force heading straight over the Karelian Isthmus, and another force making a wide swing around Lake Ladoga to outflank the Finnish.
The challenges of the Arctic climate
In the far north, beyond Lake Ladoga, the Soviet forces marched into nightmarish conditions.
They were neither equipped nor trained to fight in the arctic climate. They were not even camouflaged for the snow; nor were their tanks. The terrain was some of the densest forest in the world, with snowdrifts between the trees deeper than a man standing. The area lacked adequate infrastructure and the troops were confined to the roads, which they had to follow in long convoys.
They were perfect targets for Finnish ambushes. Small platoons of Finns on skis or snowshoes, wearing winter camouflage constantly harassed the Soviet troops, raided their supply columns and operated behind the lines. The Soviet Command structure at this time had political commissars issuing orders, and not just military men, which made it very unwieldy, and the troops had been ordered not to withdraw no matter what. This led to the soldiers being isolated into small pockets by the Finns in a hostile territory. The Finnish called the pockets “mottis”, the word for stacked firewood, reflecting how the Soviet soldiers were huddled together in defensive positions in freezing temperatures, with barely any food, through the long nights of northern Finland.
“Motti-techniques” were snipers and mortar teams harassing the trapped soldiers and depriving them of sleep, while stragglers, firewood gatherers and supply columns were picked off one by one.
Slowly but steadily, the mottis shrunk as the Russian soldiers starved or froze to death, until they were weak enough for assault companies to finish them off. This had the added bonus of preserving ammunition, salvaging the Russian weapons and winning without costly direct engagements.
Strong Finnish defences
The Finnish defences of the Mannerheim line were strong, and that, paired with the knowledge of the terrain and the skilled non-commissioned officers, allowed them to outmanoeuvre the Soviets, even when heavily outnumbered.
But they still lacked adequate weapons, especially weapons to deal with the Soviet tanks. One way was to sneak up to a tank and throw an explosive cocktail of gasoline, kerosene and tar at it, hoping to ignite the machinery. They named it the Molotov Cocktail after the Soviet Foreign Minister. He had said that the Soviet bombers would only drop food supplies, not bombs. When bombs were in fact dropped, they were called Molotov Breadbaskets. Molotov cocktails had, in fact, been used earlier in the Spanish Civil War, but it was here they got their name.
Soviet High Command grew frustrated with the lack of progress, but to a large degree, this came from insufficient skills in organisation and coordination between the Russian forces. Even though they had a big advantage with regards to armour, artillery and aircraft, they could not combine arms efficiently.
The more mobile Finns could thus react to each threat separately and concentrate their small forces on where the Soviets attacked next. Throughout December 1939, the Finns consistently and devastatingly defeated the Red Army, but in the long run, they could not hope to beat the USSR’s military. Help from other nations was often promised but rarely delivered, though volunteers from all around the world arrived, and in many cases, fought.
The treaty that ended Talvisota
With Semyon Timoshenko and Georgi Zhukov now in charge as 1940 began, the Red Army underwent a period of re-training for winter war and using combined operations. By mid-February, the Mannerheim Line was broken and in the early hours of March 13, 1940, Finland and the USSR signed the treaty that ended Talvisota. 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, considering it 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.
Finland had fought well, and for a time, had beaten one of the mightiest nations on earth. The Soviets gained all the concessions they had asked for and more, but at what cost? The Finns had lost some 25,000 and maybe another 50,000 wounded, over two per cent of their population in just 105 days. The Soviets had taken over 200,000 casualties according to their official estimate, but they may have had as many as 250,000 men killed, not counting the wounded.
If you’re interested in a more visual interpretation of this story, watch our Sabaton History episode, Talvisota – The Winter War: