The Winter War

Finland Table of Contents

The underlying cause of the Winter War was Soviet concern about Nazi Germany's expansionism. With a population of only 3.5 million, Finland itself was not a threat to the Soviet Union, but its territory, located strategically near Leningrad, could be used as a base by the Germans. The Soviets initiated negotiations with Finland that ran intermittently from the spring of 1938 to the summer of 1939, but nothing was achieved. Finnish assurances that the country would never allow German violations of its neutrality were not accepted by the Soviets, who asked for more concrete guarantees. In particular, the Soviets sought a base on the northern shore of the Gulf of Finland, from which they could block the Gulf of Finland from hostile naval forces. The Finnish government, however, felt that accepting these terms would only lead to further, increasingly unreasonable, demands.

The Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of August 1939, by bringing together these former archenemies, revolutionized European politics. The secret protocol of the pact gave the Soviet Union a sphere of influence that included Finland, the Baltic states, and parts of Eastern Europe. When the Germans won a stunningly quick victory over Poland in September 1939, the Soviets hastened to take control in their sphere of influence. In addition to the land taken from Poland in September, the Soviets quickly turned the three Baltic states into quasi-protectorates. Finland followed these events closely; thus, when, on October 5, the Soviets invited Finland to discuss "concrete political questions," the Finns felt that they were next on the Soviets' agenda. Finland's first reaction was to mobilize its field army on October 6, and on October 10 Finland's reservists were called up in what amounted to a general mobilization. The following day the two countries began negotiations that were to last until November 8.

In the negotiations, the main Soviet demand was that the Finns cede small parcels of territory, including a naval base on the Gulf of Finland that the Soviets wanted to help them protect Leningrad. In exchange, the Soviets offered to cede to Finland about 8,800 square kilometers of Karelia along the Finnish border, or about twice the amount of land to be ceded by Finland. Unlike the previous negotiations, these talks were conducted in the public eye, and the Finnish people, like the government, were almost unanimous in rejecting the Soviet proposals. The ostensible reasons for Finland's refusal were to protect its neutral status and to preserve its territorial integrity. In addition, moving the Finnish border on the Karelian Isthmus away from Leningrad would have given the Soviets possession of much of the line of Finnish fortifications, the loss of which would have weakened Finland's defenses. Underlying the hardline Finnish negotiating position were a basic mistrust of the Soviets and a feeling that the Soviet offer was merely a first step in subjugating Finland. In this suspicion of an ulterior motive, the Finns were matched by the Soviets, who believed that Finland would willingly assist Germany in a future war.

The Finnish government appears to have underestimated the Soviet determination to achieve these national security goals. The two main Finnish negotiators, Vainö Tanner and Juho Paasikivi, vainly urged the Finnish government to make more concessions, because they realized that Finland was completely isolated diplomatically and could expect no support from any quarter if events led to war. General Mannerheim also urged conciliating the Soviets, because Finland by itself could not fight the Soviet Union. When he was ignored, he resigned from the Defense Council and as commander-in-chief, saying that he could no longer be responsible for events. Mannerheim withdrew his resignation when war broke out, however, and served ably as the Finnish military leader. Some historians suggest that the war could have been prevented by timely Finnish concessions. It appears that both sides proceeded from a basic mistrust of the other that was compounded by mutual miscalculations and by the willingness to risk war.

The Soviets attacked on November 30, 1939, without a declaration of war. The Soviet preparations for the offensive were not especially thorough, in part because they underestimated the Finnish capabilities for resistance, and in part because they believed that the Finnish workers would welcome the Soviets as liberators. However, almost no Finns supported the Soviet puppet government under the veteran communist Otto Kuusinen. In addition, in one of its last significant acts, the League of Nations expelled the Soviet Union because of its unprovoked aggression against Finland.

The task facing the Finnish armed forces, to obstruct a vastly larger enemy along a boundary of about 1,300 kilometers, appeared impossible. Geography aided the Finns, however, because much of the northern area was a virtually impassable wilderness containing a few, easily-blocked roads, and Finland generally presented difficult terrain on which to conduct offensive operations. Thus the Finns were able to use only light covering forces in the north and to concentrate most troops in the crucial southeastern sector, comprising the Karelian Isthmus and the area north of Lake Ladoga, that protected the isthmus from rear assault. The position on the isthmus was strengthened considerably by the Mannerheim Line. An additional Finnish advantage lay in the Finns' unorthodox military doctrine. They were trained in the use of small, mobile forces to strike at the flanks and the rear of road-bound enemies. By means of the so- call motti tactic (the name is taken from the Finnish word for a cord of firewood), they sought to break invading columns into small segments, which were then destroyed piecemeal. The final advantage of the Finns was their phenomenally high morale; they knew they were fighting for their national survival. Finland's main disadvantage lay in the glaring, fifty-to-one disparity between its population and that of the Soviet Union. The Finnish hope was to hold out until help could arrive from the West, a forlorn hope as events turned out.

Most observers expected an easy Soviet victory. The Soviets simply advanced all along the front with overwhelming forces, apparently intending to occupy all of Finland. Thanks to the foresight the Soviets had shown in previous years by constructing bases and railroads near the Finnish border, they were able to commit much larger forces than the Finns had anticipated. The main Soviet assault on the Mannerheim Line was stopped, though, in December 1939. Farther north along the line, the Finns were able to employ their motti tactics with surprising effectiveness. At the most famous of these engagements, the Battle of Suomussalmi, two Soviet divisions were virtually annihilated. By the end of December 1939, the Finns had dealt the Soviets a series of humiliating defeats. For a few weeks, the popular imagination of the outside world was captured by the exploits of the white-clad Finnish ski troops gliding ghostlike through the dark winter forests, and in general by the brave resistance of the "land of heroes."

The Soviet invasion brought the Finns together as never before. In an act that only a few years before would have been unthinkable, on Christmas Eve in December 1939, middle-class Finns placed lighted candles on the graves of Finnish Red Guards who had died in the civil war. The magnificent courage displayed by Finnish soldiers of all political persuasions during the Winter War of 1939-40 led Mannerheim to declare afterwards that May 16 would no longer be celebrated, but that another day would be chosen to commemorate "those on both sides who gave their lives on behalf of their political convictions during the period of crisis in 1918."

The defeats and the humiliations suffered by the Soviet Union made it even more determined to win the struggle. The military command was reorganized, and it was placed under General S. K. Timoshenko. The Soviets made intensive preparations for a new offensive, assembling masses of tanks, artillery, and first-class troops. On February 1, 1940, the Soviet offensive began, and this time it was confined to the Karelian Isthmus. Soviet tactics were simple: powerful artillery bombardments were followed by repeated frontal assaults, using masses of tanks and infantry. The Finnish defenders were worn down by the continual attacks, the artillery and the aerial bombardments, the cold, and the lack of relief and of replacements. On February 11, 1940, the Soviets achieved a breakthrough in the Mannerheim Line that led to a series of Finnish retreats. By early March, the Finnish army was on the verge of total collapse. Finland was saved only by agreeing quickly to Soviet terms, which were encompassed in the Peace of Moscow, signed on March 13, 1940.

By the terms of the Peace of Moscow, Finland ceded substantial territories: land along the southeastern border approximately to the line drawn by the Peace of Uusikaupunki in 1721, including Finland's second-largest city, Viipuri; the islands in the Gulf of Finland that were the object of the negotiations in 1938-39; land in the Salla sector in northeastern Finland (near the Murmansk Railroad); Finland's share of the Rybachiy Peninsula in the Petsamo area; and the naval base at Hanko on the Gulf of Finland, which was leased for thirty years. The ceded territories contained about one-eighth of Finland's population; virtually all of the inhabitants moved over to Finnish territory, thereby losing their homes and livelihoods.

Finland's losses in the war were about 25,000 dead, 10,000 permanently disabled, and another 35,000 wounded, out of a population of only 3.5 million. Estimates of Soviet losses vary greatly. A subsequent Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, estimated in his memoirs that the Soviet losses were about one million men. In addition, the Soviets lost much of their military credibility. Foreigners had observed keenly the performance of the Red Army in Finland, with the result that the military capabilities of the Soviet Union were widely discounted. Four months after the conclusion of the Winter War, Adolf Hitler decided to invade the Soviet Union, an event that historians generally consider a turning point of World War II.

It is true that the Red Army had performed badly in Finland, but there had been some extenuating circumstances. The winter of 1939 to 1940 was one of the coldest winters of the century, and the Soviet troops were not trained for action under Arctic conditions. The Soviet officer corps had been decimated by the purges of the 1930s, and the officers were intimidated by the presence of political commissars within their units. There was, especially in the first phase of the fighting, poor coordination of the various arms (infantry, artillery, armor, aircraft), and there were deficiencies in preparation and in intelligence. In the year following the Winter War, the Soviets worked hard at correcting their weaknesses, with the result that in 1941 the Red Army was a much more effective military machine.

Custom Search

Source: U.S. Library of Congress