The Winter War

The Winter War

The Winter War was fought between Finland and Russia between November 1939 and March 1940. After the blitzkrieg attack on Poland by Germany, the Winter War was the only other major military campaign until Hitler unleashed blitzkrieg on western Europe  in the Spring of 1940. 


Finnish infantry 

When war broke out, the Finnish army was small. The country only had a population of 4 million and as a result of this, any army could only have been small. Finland could muster a small army of professionals. The country also had a peacetime army of conscripts which was boosted each year by an annual intake of new men. There was also a reserve which all conscripts passed into after a year’s service. Compared to the vast potential resources of the Red Army, the Finnish Army was dwarfed.

In time of war, it was planned by Mannerheim that the peacetime army should act as a covering force to delay any attack until the reservists got to the front. The army was also short of equipment including uniforms and modern artillery pieces – the army only had 112 decent anti-tank guns at the start of the war. The means of producing modern weaponry was also short of the standards of Western European countries. Basic things such as ammunition could not be produced in large quantities and the army’s communication system was basic, relying in part on runners. From whatever angle the Finnish army was looked at, it seemed an easy victim for the Russians.

However, in one sense the Finnish Army was in an excellent position to defend its nation. Finnish troops were trained to use their own terrain to their advantage. Finnish troops were well suited to the forests and snow-covered regions of Finland and they knew the lay of the land. Finnish ski troops were highly mobile and well trained. However, these men were used to working in small units and large scale manoeuvres were alien not only to them but to the officers in command of them. Money simply had not been spent in Finland prior to 1939 for many large-scale military training exercises. However, as it became more and more obvious that a conflict with the Russians was likely, patriotism took a firm hold and no-one was prepared to tolerate a Russian invasion of their homeland.

To go with the army, the Finnish Navy was small and the Finnish air force only had 100 planes but some of these were incapable of being flown in battle.

The Russian army was completely different. However, in September 1939, Russia had committed a number of men to the Polish campaign. But with 1,250,000 men in the regular army, there were many more Stalin could call on. For the Winter War, Russia used 45 divisions – each division had 18,000 men; so by that reckoning Russia used 810,000 men; nearly 25% of the whole of Finland’s population. In fact, for the whole duration of the war, the Russians used 1,200,000 men in total in some form of military capacity. The Russians also used 1,500 tanks and 3,000 planes. Whereas the Finns had difficulty supplying her troops with ammunition, the Russians had an unlimited supply and a vastly superior system of communications. But the Russian army had two major weaknesses. It was used to war games on large expanses of open ground. The snow covered forests of Finland were a different matter and the Russians were to find that they were frequently confined to the area around roads as many of their men were unused to Finland’s terrain. Their tactics developed during training did not include such terrain.

The Russian Army also had another fundamental weakness: its command structure was so rigid that military commanders in the field would not make a decision without the approval of a higher officer who usually had to get permission from a political commissar that his tactics were correct. Such a set-up created delays in decision-making. Therefore the leviathan that was the Russian Army in late 1939, was frequently a slow moving dinosaur hindered by both the geography of Finland and its rigidity in terms of decision making. Whereas Blitzkrieg had been designed to incorporate all aspects of Germany’s army and air force, each part of the Russian army acted as separate entities. Whether this was a result of the purges in the military which decimated its officer corps or a result of fear of taking a decision that was unacceptable to higher authorities is difficult to know: probably it was a combination of both.

The Red Army was ill-equipped for a winter war. Whereas the army was well supplied with standard military equipment, it had little that was required for the snow-covered forests of Finland. White camouflage clothing was not issued and vehicles simply could not cope with the cold. The winter of 1939-40 was particularly severe.

The Russians were also forced to fight on a small front despite the sheer size of the Russian-Finnish border. Many parts of the 600 miles border were simply impassable, so the Finns had a good idea as to the route any Russian force might take. The Russian air force was also limited in the amount of time it could help the army because the days were so short during the winter months. When they did fly, the Russians took heavy casualties, losing 800 planes during the war – over 25% of the planes used in the war.

The Finnish High Command, led by Mannerheim, believed that the only weak spot they had was in the Karelian Isthmus. This area was fortified with the Mannerheim Line – a complex of trenches, wire, mine fields and obstacles. Concrete emplacements were built but they were few and far between with each emplacement having little ability to give any other covering fire. In no way could the Mannerheim Line compare to the Maginot Line.

The war started on November 30th. The initial stages of the war went to the Finns plan as they held up the first advances of the Red Army in the Karelian Isthmus. The Finnish troops also picked up valuable experience of fighting tanks; in this the Russians all but assisted the Finns as the tanks of the Russians operated separate to the infantry and the Finns found it relatively easy to pick off individually operating tanks. The Finns had less success around the northern shores of Lake Lagoda where the Russians did make gains. However, by mid-December, the Russians had been held in all areas and a stalemate took place. The main worry for Mannerheim was that he had already used up 50% of his reserves. Despite this, the Finns felt confident enough to launch a counter-attack against the Russians on December 27th. It lasted until December 30th when it became apparent that it was not going to be successful as the Russians had dug in well and the Finnish troops were unused to large scale offensive campaigns. So by the end of the year, an effective stalemate had occurred in all areas - but Finnish military commanders were aware that their reserves were fast dwindling.

The winter in January 1940 meant that little military action of value took place. What the Finns perfected, though, was a tactic in attacking Russian convoys. The Finns knew that Russian vehicles had to stay on the road. They therefore used their knowledge of the terrain to get behind the convoy and attack from the sides and from the rear thus blocking off any form of Russian retreat. The Russians then had to dig in (the Finns called these positions 'mottis') where they fought back. Some of the mottis were so big that the Russian troops held out in them until the end of the war. Other smaller ones were ruthlessly destroyed. Though the Finns did not achieve a major victory at this time, their victory at Summosalmi did a great deal to boost the nation's morale. However, on February 1st, the Russians launched a major offensive.

Aware that they had not been successful up to the end of December, the Russians had started preparing for a major assault on December 26th when they essentially started creating a new army for the Finnish front. On December 28th, an order was given that no more mass frontal assaults were to be allowed as they had proved to be very costly in terms of men lost. Instead the Russians adopted a step-by-step advance tactic that was preceded by a massive artillery bombardment which was intended to smash any concrete emplacements that the Finns had built. One month was spent practicing this tactic combining infantry, tanks and artillery. On January 7th 1940, Marshall Timoshenko was given command of the Russian Army in Finland. 

On January 15th Russia started a systematic artillery bombardment of Finland’s defences in the Karelian Isthmus. The Russians had a free hand in this as their artillery guns were more powerful than Finland’s and so could fire at Finnish positions in the Isthmus but were out of range from any Finnish attack. Also with complete mastery of the air, Russian gunners were given specific co-ordinates to aim for.

The main Russian attack came on February 1st. The Finns had six divisions (about 85,000 men) at the front and three in reserve positions. However, two of the reserve divisions were newly created and had no experience of combat. The Russians had learned their lessons from the previous two months. Tanks attacked first with infantry literally in tow as many tanks pulled along infantry soldiers on sledges. The tanks placed themselves in front of the Finnish bunkers therefore protecting the infantry soldiers. The usual tactic of the Finns against this was to evacuate all fortified emplacements during the day and return to them at night once the Russians had moved back. During the night, the bunkers would be repaired. However, this was exhausting work and wore down the Finnish defenders. The Russians used a policy of attacking for three days and then pausing for 24 hours before attacking again for another three days. On February 11th, the Russians made an expected breakthrough at Summa in the Karelian Isthmus. The Mannerheim Line was broken at this point.

“The breakthrough at Summa was the military turning point of the war. The reasons for it are complex. There were mistakes in that the structure of the defences, particularly in placing the bunkers so that they could not support one another and so could be eliminated individually. The careful planning of the Russian attacks exploited this weakness to the fullest.” A Upton

The Russians simply wore down the defenders and exhaustion was a major factor in why the front line at Summa collapsed. By February 17th, those survivors at Summa had withdrawn from the Mannerheim Line. On February 25th, the Finns attempted a counter-attack using the remaining fifteen tanks that they possessed. Ironically, as these tanks advanced to the front line to support the infantry, they caused panic among many Finnish troops who did not know that Finland had any tanks – they assumed that they were Russian tanks that had got behind them in an encircling movement. The counter-attack failed.

Wary of previous problems encountered in Finland, the Russians advanced steadily. However, they did advance and the Finns had to retreat despite the cautious approach of the Russians. By March 13th, the Finns were in retreat.

  “The general military position on March 13th was roughly as follows. The Russian offensive on the isthmus showed no sign of slackening.” Upton

By mid-March the troops in the Finnish army were exhausted. However, the Russians seemed disinclined to pursue them – the doctrine of step-by-step established in December 1939, still dominated tactics, as did a healthy respect for the Finnish army.

A peace settlement was not long in coming. If the Russians had fully broken through the Karelian Isthmus, Helsinki was less than 200 miles away. If the Finnish army had been destroyed, nothing would have been in the way to stop the Russian army. In fact peace talks had been going on while Russia had made military gains. The Finns had been told the precise terms the Russians wanted on February 23rd. The Russians wanted:

  A 30-year lease of Hanko.

  The cessation of the whole of the Karelian Isthmus and the shores of Lake Lagoda on the Finnish side.

   In return, the Russians would evacuate the Petsamo area.

The Finnish government was unwilling to negotiate on these terms. However, the declining military situation meant that they were not in a position to do so. The hope of military assistance from Britain and France failed to materialise. In all senses, the Finns were by themselves. Sweden urged Finland to accept the Russian demands. The Russians had set March 1st as a deadline for negotiations. With the ever decreasing military situation confronting them, the Finnish government saw no alternative to acceptance.

The March 1st deadline passed but the Finnish government was assured that the terms still stood and that the deadline had been extended.

On March 6th, a Finnish delegation left for Moscow. Talks opened on March 8th. The Russians, led by Molotov, now demanded more land than their earlier terms. The Finns were outraged but could do little about this because of their poor military situation. On March 12th, the Finnish government gave its permission for the delegation to accept the terms. On March 13th, the Treaty of Moscow was signed and hostilities ceased at 11 a.m.

The Russians defended their actions by stating that their newly acquired land would give them military protection and security. In particular, Leningrad would be better protected.

Why didn’t Stalin simply order his vastly superior army to continue conquering Finland after the fall of the Karelian Isthmus? The answer is not known for sure but it is thought that Stalin was looking at the bigger picture – seeing that  a war against Nazi Germany was unavoidable, the campaign in Finland may well have been seen as a distraction taking up valuable troops.

There is no doubt that Russia decisively won the war but at great cost. The Russians admitted that 48,000 of their men were killed and 158,000 wounded. The Finns put the Russian casualties much higher. Also the Russians lost many tanks and planes. However, Russia could accommodate such manpower losses and the greatest value it got from the war was the experience of fighting a modern war.


MLA Citation/Reference

"The Winter War". HistoryLearningSite.co.uk. 2014. Web.






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