As the Second World War was breaking out in Western Europe, the Soviet Union embarked on another war – one in which it would easily achieve its strategic aims, yet one which was also 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
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
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
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 colors 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.
5. The Finns Fight Back
The defense of Finland was a classic example of what a smaller, less well-equipped army could achieve with courage, ingenuity, and knowledge of local conditions.
The Finns initially undertook a fighting retreat, giving them time to prepare defensive lines deeper in the country. They used guerrilla tactics and skillfully concentrated their forces to attack Soviet troops that outnumbered them as much as twelve to one in some areas. Pockets of Russian forces were isolated, surrounded and then destroyed.
Finnish tactics adapted to the weather, the enemy forces, and the limitations of their own supplies. Troops on skis were able to move far more quickly and comfortably than the Soviet infantry, regularly out-maneuvering them. Bullets were scavenged from fallen enemies, helping to make up for the shortfall. Russian tank’s tracks were jammed with improvised devices to halt their advance.
The Molotov cocktail became the signature weapon of the war, and was so popular with Finnish troops that it was soon centrally manufactured.
Despite the existence of the puppet government, almost no-one in Finland favored the Soviet cause. The nation was united in the face of Russian aggression.
6. International Involvement
Like the Spanish Civil War before it, the Winter War became a rallying point for opposition to what many saw as a dangerous ideology and the policies of a dictator. Money and supplies were raised from countries around the world, though a German blockade made it hard to get them through. Messages of support were sent by prominent figures in Washington. France and Britain talked about sending their own troops into Finland.
But it was Finland’s local neighbors who helped the Finns the most. Volunteers from Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Estonia, Hungary, and the Ukraine came to fight alongside the Finns. Fellow Scandinavian countries, in particular, had friendly relations with Finland and feared that the Soviets would invade them too. They supplied troops familiar with the climate and its ways of fighting, men who, like the Finns, they were able to ski into battle.
7. Peace at a Price
The USSR had its own tactics – costly, brutal ways, but ways which could win. Flinging thousands of men into head-on assaults, they wore down Finnish resistance, and eventually breached the defensive lines. Outnumbered, outgunned and with their plans broken, the Finns were forced to seek peace.
It was a peace the Soviets were willing to accept. The war had cost them hugely in terms of men, material, and reputation – it was a painful embarrassment they wanted to put behind them. Despite this, they held enough Finnish territory to seek terms that suited them.
On 12 March 1940, the Moscow Peace Treaty was signed. Finland conceded 11% of its territory, 30% of its economic base, to the USSR. 422,000 Finns lost their homes.
8. Lessons Learned… Or Not
The Soviets had learned a lesson from the Winter War. They re-equipped their battered armies with better equipment, particularly the T-34 tank.
Hitler, watching from Germany, had also learned a lesson – that Russia was weak, and he could confidently invade and conquer the country.
But Hitler had not learned all the tactical lessons of the war, he failed to realize the ability of ill-equipped but determined forces to hold back better-equipped foes, and the dangers of a war in winter. Next time, these would aid the Soviets, not stop them and the lessons learned from the Finns, would allow them to beat the Germans.
- Geoffrey Regan (1991), The Guinness Book of Military Blunders.