By mid-February of 1940, the Winter War was going badly for the Finnish Army. Winter War?…what is this Winter War about which I type? Well, it’s been a while since I’ve had anything to say about it. In fact, nearly two years has gone by since this rather unknown conflict colored this page. So let’s have a quick refresher.
The Winter War was fought (as you would guess) in the winter of 1939 and 1940 between Russia and Finland. It started out as basically a Russian trade offer: Finland gives up its territory between the Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga (and some other pieces of land) and receives some Russian territory in return. The Finns rejected the trade offer and Russian leader Joseph Stalin simply ordered his army to take it, along with the rest of Finland.
And despite being grossly outnumbered, the Finns held the Russians back for more than two months. If you want the details, William Trotter’s book A Frozen Hell is an outstanding source. If you want a pretty lame overview, you can search Today’s History Lesson and find maybe a dozen pieces I’ve written covering different aspects of the Winter War.
Back to our story…
By mid-February, the Red Army had gotten itself organized and was finally using its vastly superior forces to good effect. A massive multi-day bombardment at the beginning of the month gave way to a massive coordinated assault, and the Finnish defenses cracked.
One area of especially tough Finnish resistance was the Mannerheim Line. Stretching across the land between the Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga, some positions along the Line had withstood repeated attacks. In particular, the defenses around the village of Taipale had been really tough. Located on the far left of the Finnish flanks (sitting right on Lake Ladoga), Taipale had been subjected to Russian attacks almost since the first week of December, and remnants of the Finnish Third Corps still held their ground.
In fact, it had become something of a thorn in the side of the Russians, who recognized this bubble as a point of attack. Trotter writes in his book that, if the Finns had a spare division or two, this would have been the place to use them to best effect. Unfortunately, they didn’t…but the Russians did.
On February 18, 1940, Trotter writes, “An entire Soviet division, supported by the usual stupendous artillery and aerial bombardment, smashed into a green replacement regiment and drove it from the field in panic. A dangerous dent was hammered into the front lines, and several important strong points fell, but the support line, manned by the battered but battle-wise veterans of the sector, held out.” It came to be known as “Black Day at Taipale”. And while Taipale held, collapse was all around them. Few Finnish soldiers doubted, as did the diplomats already in negotiation, that the end of the war was fast approaching.