The Winter War 1939

The Winter War 1939

The war between Russia and Finland, generally referred to as the Winter War, lasted from November 30th 1939 to March 13th, 1940. The Winter War was a direct result of the Nazi-Soviet Non-aggression Pact of August 1939. The public face of this treaty was a ten-year period of non-aggression between Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia. There was a secret side to it however, which stated that Russia would attack Poland in September 1939 and would have more rights to determine its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe.



Carl Gustaf Mannerheim - c-inc Finnish forces

After the fall of Poland in September 1939, Russia sought to extend its influence over the Baltic and between September and October 1939, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia were all made to sign treaties “of mutual assistance” that allowed Russia to establish military bases in each of the three Baltic states. Many people assumed that Finland would be Russia’s next target.

On October 5th, 1939, Russia invited Finnish representatives to Moscow to discuss “political questions”. Finland sent to the meeting J K Paasikivi who met Stalin and Molotov to discuss land questions on the Finnish/Russian border. The meeting started on October 12th.

To defend the approach to Leningrad, Stalin wanted Finnish islands in the Gulf of Finland, including Suursaari Island, handed over to Russia; he wanted to lease Hanko as a military base and to establish a garrison of 5,000 men there and he demanded more Finnish land on the Russian border to be ceded to Russia. In return, Stalin offered Finland land in Soviet Karelia and the right for Finland to fortify the Aaland Islands. Stalin couched all his land requirements in terms of defending parts of Russia, be it Leningrad or Murmansk, from attack.

“We cannot do anything about geography, nor can you. Since Leningrad cannot be moved away, the frontier must be further off.” Stalin

Paasikivi returned to Helsinki to discuss with the Finnish government Stalin’s demands.

Finland was highly suspicious of anything required by Stalin. Relations between Russia and Finland had been fraught for many decades and nearly everyone in Finland saw Stalin’s demands as an attempt by Russia to re-establish her authority over Finland once again. Historically, Finland had been part of the Russian Empire; from 1809 to 1917, Finland had the status of a self-governing duchy. It was the Bolsheviks under Lenin that had recognised the full independence of Finland in December 1917. Therefore, anything regarding land and Finland done by Russia in the era of Stalin was understandably seen as suspicious within Finland.  

However, Stalin was himself suspicious of Finland. He believed that Finland would welcome the defeat of communist Russia – after all, Finland had helped anti-communist groups in the Russian Civil War and Stalin believed that Finland would allow her land to be used as a base by invading forces for an attack on Russia.

After discussions in Helsinki, Stalin’s proposals were rejected. Ironically, two people did show some ‘support’ for them – Paasikivi and Marshall Mannerheim, c-in-c of designate of Finland’s military in time of war. Both felt that some islands in the Gulf of Finland should be ceded to ‘buy off’ Russia as both feared that if war did occur, Finland would have to fight Russia by itself with no help from any other country. However, their beliefs were rejected by the Finnish government, even though Germany urged Finland to accept Russia’s demands. By the end of November 1939, was between Finland and Russia seemed unavoidable. 

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 in November 1939. 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 his 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 communication. 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 and the majority of their vehicles were unable to go off road. 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 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 important delays in decision-making. Therefore the leviathan that was the Russian Army, 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 the result of a fear of taking a decision that was unacceptable to higher political 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 in the initial stages of an invasion. 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 – over 25% of their 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, south-west of Lake Ladoga. 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. However, the Karelian Isthmus had to be held as its loss would have given Russia a direct line to Helsinki, less than 200 miles to the west.

War broke out on November 30th 1939. 






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