When Finns & Snow Killed the Soviets – 8 Things You Need To Know About The Winter War



As the Second World War was breaking out in Western Europe, the Soviet Union embarked on another war – one which it though would easily achieve its strategic aims, yet this was to leave the USSR bloodied and embarrassed. It was a conflict which would both encourage Hitler’s invasion of Russia and also allowed the Soviets to prepare a counter-attack against the Nazi invaders.

This was the Winter War.

1. Invading Finland
Soviet bombing of Helsinki, 30 November 1939.
Soviet bombing of Helsinki, 30 November 1939.

There was a long history of tension and violence between Finland and the USSR. With Finland’s economy growing in the 1930s, it became a tempting target for Soviet aggression. The USSR began demanding territory from Finland.

On 30 November 1939, having partitioned Poland with Germany, and with the rest of Europe preoccupied with the Nazis, the USSR invaded Finland. The objectives of the invasion have been disputed, but whether it was meant to end in the complete conquest or the rearrangement of borders, the point was clear – the USSR was after Finnish land and wanted to dominate that country.

A puppet government, named the Terijoki Government, was set up in occupied territory using a few Finns sympathetic to Soviet Communism. For the next three months, the two nations would fight a grueling war.

2. Transport Problems
Soviet T-26 light tanks of the Soviet 7th Army during its advance on the Karelian Isthmus
Soviet T-26 light tanks of the Soviet 7th Army during its advance on the Karelian Isthmus

The Russian invasion was meant to follow the blitzkrieg model which had served the Germans so well in Poland – a swift, hard-hitting advance that would use superior resources and technology to overcome resistance. But while Poland was a land of open plains, Finland was one of frozen forests and deep snow. This was no place for blitzkrieg.

Roads buried beneath ten feet of snow blocked the Soviet advance. Ground kept warm by the snow above turned into muddy swamps, through which the infantry had to trudge. Many vehicles could only advance after hundreds of infantry had gone before them, stamping down the snow.

3. Killed by Cold
Finnish ski troops in Northern Finland in January 1940
Finnish ski troops in Northern Finland in January 1940

Though familiar with fighting in their own harsh winters, the Soviets were unprepared for just how bitter the Finnish cold would be. Tents were insufficient. Uniforms were not warm enough. The Russian supply lines were breaking down and the soldiers had not the supplies they needed. Ice, wind and snow made the life of the invaders a living hell.

It was worst for injured troops. Inadequately equipped for the conditions, medical services were unable to treat wounded men quickly enough. Most wounded Soviet soldiers froze to death.

4. Wrong Weapons for the Climate

The Soviets were prepared to fight with the most modern weapons and vehicles at their disposal – equipment they expected to be superior to that of the Finns. The Finns were low on ammunition, had only limited anti-tank weaponry and aircraft, had virtually no armored forces, and were outnumbered three to one. It seemed like all too easy for Russians.

But like the men carrying them, the Soviet weapons suffered from the cold. Guns malfunctioned. Engines stalled. Motorized vehicles froze in the icy conditions. Even the colours of uniforms proved counter-productive, dark greens that would have provided camouflage elsewhere making men stand out against the frozen white and targets for Finnish snipers.

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