Battle For Finland – The Winter War

In 1939 the Soviet Union expands its borders at the expense of several small neighboring countries. But Finland refuses to be coerced.


Poland was not the only country that figured in the secret clauses of the 1939 Russo-German Pact. They also mentioned the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, together with Finland, placing them within the sphere of interests of the USSR. Joseph Stalin having watched Hitler’s army one small country so spectacularly, seems to have felt it was time for the Red Army similar gains.

Political pressure and geographical realities were enough to persuade the three Baltic republics to sign treaties of mutual assistance, which allowed the Soviet Union to establish garrisons and bases within their borders. However, Finland felt herself protected in their most vulnerable are in Lake Ladoga and the Gulf of Finland, by the swamps, lakes, wilderness of forest and the sheer Arctic distances that made up their eastern frontier, stretching from Lake Ladoga and all the way to the Arctic Ocean. The Finns also believed that the spirit of training of her armed forces would be enough to hold the first onslaught, and that their own David fighting the Soviet Goliath would evoke active aid from the rest of the world.

Overwhelming Odds

When, on November, 28 after two months of verbal bullying from Molotov and defiance by the Finnish leaders Paassikivi and Tanner, the USSR broke off negotiations and attacked the Finnish defenses two days later, it looked at first as if the Finns had been right. Certainly all Western Europe and the United Sates applauded the Finnish stand and military successes at first exceeded all expectations. Despite the size of the Finnish Army (at its peak more than 16 divisions)despite its acute shortage of transport, signal equipment and total armor, it held the Soviet attack which came through the Karelian Isthmus, along the whole Mannerhiem Line (the main Finnish defenses) from the Gulf of Finland to the River Vuoksi.

The Finnish II and III Corps, in fact beat back the Soviet 7th and 13th Armies, inflicting terrible losses on the Red Army infantry by the accuracy of their riffles and machine gun fire and on the Soviet tanks with petrol bombs. By December, 22 after six days of pointless battering against a seemingly impregnable line, the Soviets broke off the attack and withdrew to regroup and to re-think. Matters had not gone so well for the Finns north of Lake Ladoga. The six divisions of the Soviet 8th Army crossed the frontier and advanced implacably to the line of Finnish defenses between Kitela an Ilomantsi. But in doing so they had given some hostages to fortune, incredibly, the Soviets had no ski troops, whereas every Finnish soldier was well trained on skis and many were expert at using them in military context. Soviet divisions thus found themselves cut off from communication and supplies, small formations were decimated, some units were annihilated.


Finland is Defiant

The Suomi M1931 was Finnish made and one of the best SMGs

Much farther north at Suomussalmi, the Soviet 163rd division was surrounded until December, 29 when it broke completely, the survivors fleeing across the frozen wilderness leaving 11 tanks, tanks 25 guns and 150 lorries to the elated victors. But of course, it could not go on. Firstly although Sweden, France the United States and Britain all professed a desire to help, they produced very little of it, because Britain and France needed all their resources for their own use, Sweeden and the USA because of their carefully cultivated neutrality, secondly when plans were laid to send British and French reinforcements in, Sweden refused to allow the passage.

By early January, Stalin had decided to bring it all to an end. Command was given to General Semyon Timoshenko, siege artillery was brought up, and on January, 15 1940 the systematic destruction of the Mannerhiem Line began. Finnish troops spent their days in the trenches connecting the strong points and their nights desperately trying to reconstruct smashed concrete boxes and destroyed guns pots. Very soon they all had to spend every night trying to beat off Soviet tanks. Sheer exhaustion spelled the end of the Mannerheim Line, and of course every other Finnish line of defense.


The Road to Helsinki

By the beginning of March the Soviets had driven them back to Viipuri, and from there the Finnish Line curved back along the Tali and on to Vuossalmi, then to the water line at Taipali on Lake Ladoga. On March, 3 Timoshenko sent a battalion and a brigade  across the ice to Vilajoki. So the Finnish positions were turned, and the road to Helsinki open. On March, 13 bowing to the inevitable, Prime Minister Ryti signed the treaty of Moscow, which returned the Russo-Finnish border more or less where Peter the Great had drawn it in 1721.



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