The Winter War: Finland 1939-40

Germany was not the only aggressor in Europe in 1939 and 1940; the USSR participated actively in the conquest of Poland, and then turned its attention to several of its other neighbors, attacking Finland and Rumania while bullying Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania into submission.  Of these, it was Finland that resisted most fiercely, and Finland that enjoyed the greatest long-term success.  In the Winter War of 1939 to 1940, the Soviets won their objectives, but they did so at great cost while the Finns largely guaranteed that they would not be absorbed into the Soviet Union or reduced to a vassal state.

Finland had been a part of the Russian Empire until 1917.  It gained its independence with the fall of the Imperial government, but before its position could be stabilized, it faced a civil war of its own.  The Soviets gave support to the unsuccessful Communist faction in Finland, and henceforth, the Finns proceeded from the assumption that the Soviets would conquer them if ever they could.

In 1932, the two states concluded a non-aggression treaty, and in April 1938, they even went so far as to discuss a naval arrangement to keep any other fleet out of the Gulf of Finland.  Ultimately, the Finns did not accept the arrangement, and the signing in 1939 of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact changed the balance of power in the east in any event.  In accordance with the secret terms of that treaty, Stalin joined in the invasion of Poland and took about a third of the country in September.  In October, Stalin turned his attention to Finland.

The Soviets proposed a land exchange.  In terms solely of square miles, the Soviets offered two miles for every mile they demanded.  In strategic terms, however, the deal solidly favored the Soviets, who offered land of questionable worth in exchange for land and considerations with substantial military value.  The islands and peninsulas in the south that the Soviets would take could offer them naval control of the Gulf of Finland; the land around Lake Ladoga would have robbed Finland of the bottlenecks that could slow a Soviet invasion from the main Leningrad area.  The Finns distrusted the offer and refused, even though they failed to secure any promises of aid from the outside world first.  They expected war to result, but they trusted in their ability to delay the Soviets, and hoped that a good showing on the battlefield would inspire help.

The Soviets activated their war machine in characteristic fashion.  First, they mounted a propaganda campaign to cast their tensions with Finland in terms familiar to the Communist state.  They gathered Finnish Communists in Moscow under Otto Kuusinen and created a Finnish Democratic Republic in exile.  Then, much as the Germans had fabricated a pretext for the invasion of Poland in September, the Soviets created a spurious incident on November 26 at Mainila to justify an attack.  On November 30, the Soviets unleashed the full power of the Leningrad Military District on Finland.  Finally, on December 2, the puppet government of Kuusinen granted all Soviet demands in a treaty which would have been considered binding if that government had ever been placed in control of Finland.

Finland’s defense surprised everyone.  It was not just that Finland was so much smaller and weaker than the USSR.  It was also that the Finnish army labored under substantial supply problems.  It had very limited artillery and mortars, and even lacked basic supplies like radios and uniforms.  There was never enough ammunition, and the fact that the limited aid that did arrive brought weapons from many different sources ensured that too many different kinds of ammunition were needed.  The Finns had one of the best submachine guns available, the Suomi M1931, but they did not have enough of them.  The odds always seemed long.

The Finns had several important advantages, however.  Its troops were not just highly motivated; they were also well-trained, with a very effective corpus of mobile ski troops.  They were led by a very capable commander, Field Marshal Carl Gustaf Mannerheim.  On the Karelian Isthmus between the Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga, the Finns had dug in three lines of reinforced defenses known as the Mannerheim Line.  And finally, the Finns were aided by the brutal simplicity of Soviet tactics, which threw large bodies of troops at prepared defenses.

The attack on the Mannerheim Line went on for six weeks, with five Soviet losses for each Finnish one.  Soviet performance was also poor elsewhere on the Finnish border, where camouflaged Finnish troops made use of forest cover and their mobility on skis to cut off and destroy Soviet formations in detail.  The greatest example of this came at Suomussalmi, near the center of Finland, where the Finns encircled and routed the 163rd Division.

Finnish strategy had always been to buy time for foreign assistance, however, and this was not forthcoming in sufficient measure.  The Western Allies hailed the heroism of the Finns, and the League of Nations expelled the USSR for its aggression, but this had little significance in December 1939.  Sweden was sympathetic, but its position as a neutral power complicated its role with regard to aid.  It did send some equipment and even a small body of volunteers, but it could not permit British and French troops to cross its territory to help Finland, and so the assistance of those two nations never arrived.  The United States placed an embargo on the Soviet Union.  Otherwise, Finland was on its own.

The Finns ended December with a series of counterattacks which, again, performed better than any might have expected.  They stalled Soviet advances north of Lake Ladoga, but they were unable to sweep away all of the encircled positions, and in this way they lost a great deal of momentum.  January brought about a change in Soviet organization.  General Timoshenko assumed command, and he proceeded gradually to flatten the Mannerheim Line with siege artillery.  Timoshenko had brought the resources with which he could beat the Finnish defenses into submission.

The prospect of success, ironically, made Stalin willing to open up diplomatic options for a resolution to the war.  Two weeks after Timoshenko opened the renewed attack on the Mannerheim Line, Finnish and Soviet diplomats began work on what became the Treaty of Moscow.  Stalin was prepared to shut down the Kuusinen shadow government, which was never acknowledged in official Soviet histories, but he insisted on the Soviet seizure of the land around Lake Ladoga, a stretch of territory north of Suomussalmi leading toward Salla, and the port of Hango on the Gulf of Finland.

In February, the Finns still hoped for some aid from the West, but this hope had to be abandoned in March.  On March 3, Timoshenko managed to get troops across the Viipuri Bay to Vilajoki, leaving nothing between these forces and the capital city of Helsinki.  The Finns signed the treaty on March 13.

The treaty was more of an armistice than a true peace treaty.  Hostilities would resume in 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union.  Finland would again go to war against the Soviets as a German ally, and it would temporarily regain the lands lost in 1940.  Remarkably, Finland would succeed in distancing itself from Germany in 1944, achieving a separate peace while the war still raged further south.  Finland was compelled to return to the borders established in 1940, but it would not be drawn into the system that became the Warsaw Pact.

Much is made of poor Soviet performance in this war in the historiography.  Certainly, the loss of leadership in the purges contributed to this bad showing.  Clearly, the initial Soviet attack was not organized and equipped for the kind of war that would be fought.  It is likely that Hitler underestimated the potential of the Red Army as a result of this campaign.  Another lesson, however, might have been missed.  Stalin was displeased, not by ghastly losses, but by delays in the timetable.  He demonstrated that he was willing to accept any losses in men and material in order to accomplish his objectives.



Bishop, Chris et al., ed.  The Campaigns of World War II: Day by Day.  Barron’s Educational Series, Inc., 2003

Dear, I.C.B.  The Oxford Guide to World War II. Oxford, 1995

Parrish, Thomas.  Simon and Schuster Encyclopedia of World War II.  Simon and Schuster, 1978

Wheal, Elizabeth-Anne et al.  A Dictionary of the Second World War.  Bedrick, 1990


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