On the 30th of November 1939, hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops and thousands of tanks and aircraft flooded over the Finnish border. This was the start of the First Soviet-Finnish War, also known as the Winter War.
This invasion was started by Joseph Stalin, as land in Finland once belonged to Russia and he wanted it back. His opportunity to attack came when the world was focused on Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1st of the same year.
The Winter War
Finland and the USSR had actually signed a non-aggression pact in 1932, but the Soviets started making it clear the peace would not last not long after. The Soviet Union received massive amounts of backlash for the invasion, resulting in their removal from the League of Nations.
They entered the country with enormous numbers of troops, equipment, tanks, and planes, massively outnumbering the Finns. With over half a million troops and thousands of tanks, it seemed like the Soviets would steamroll through Finland, which is dwarfed by Russia. However, much to Stalin’s embarrassment, this was not the case.
The army the Soviets sent in was not in any condition for conquering. Just a few years earlier, Stalin’s purges, which were to secure his position of power, had ravaged the Soviet command structure. Around 30,000 high-ranking officers were either arrested, imprisoned, killed, or sent to punishing work camps. The purges targeted anyone who was deemed a political obstacle or opponent, peasants, and from selected ethnicities. It is estimated that the purges led to around 1 million deaths.
The purges had devastated the Red Army’s chain of command, as experienced officers had been replaced with less experienced supporters of Stalin. This resulted in disorganized, poorly trained troops who had inadequate supplies, food, and clothing for tackling a region as cold as Finland. The Finns were well versed in low-temperature operations, and they were well trained, motivated, and equipped.
The Soviets’ disadvantages were compounded by the Finns’ advantages, who were able to school their enemies at the start of the war. At one point though, the Finns gained a useful but unexpected ally: sausage.
The Sausage War
On the 10th of December 1939, just over 10 miles away from the border, the Soviet 718th Rifle Regiment launched a surprise assault on Finnish troops near the village of Ilomantsi, Finland. Once again, this should have been a walk in the park for the lumbering Red Army.
At the start of the attack, the Soviets forced a Finnish retreat, but the now-starving Soviet troops were suddenly overcome by the delicious smell of sausage stew emanating from the Finnish cooking tents. The Finns ate sausage because of its high fat content, vital for keeping the troops energized in the bitterly cold temperatures.
The Soviets had been forced to march for five days and simply couldn’t resist the food, something they had received so little of. They paused their attack and began to eat their fill. This pause gave the Finns enough time to regroup, surround the Soviets, and begin their own assault on the feasting enemy.
The ensuing battle was a hand-to-hand slaughter. The Finns attached bayonets and made quick work of the unsuspecting Soviet troops, driving them back and forcing them to call off the assault.
Finnish estimates place the death toll at around 100 Soviet troops to 20 Finnish troops. The battle was formally known as the Battle of Varolampi Pond, but amongst troops, it was known as the ‘Sausage War.’
Despite the success of the Sausage War, the Soviets would eventually prevail when Finland and the Soviet Union signed the Moscow Peace Treaty, which ended the war in the Soviets’ favor. Even though Finland had lost, they fought an incredibly successful war that decimated huge numbers of Soviet troops while keeping their own casualties relatively low. Finland lost about 25,000 troops who were either dead or missing, while the Soviets lost a massive 130,000 to 170,000, dead or missing.
The war exposed the Soviet military’s flaws and gave Hitler the idea that conquering Russia was possible. Ironically, the lessons the Soviets learned from the Winter War would later play a huge part in defeating the Germans, who made the same mistakes the Soviets did in 1939.