Archive for the ‘Scandanavia’ Category

We need a Leap Year topic, so checking the calendar may take a bit more time.  Hmmm…well…got it.

Finland’s attempts to hold back the Red Army had, by February 29, 1940, had become all but hopeless.  What had started the previous November as an incredibly lopsided affair with the Finns terribly outnumbered and outgunned was ending.  The middle months had seen tenacious fighting with the Finns holding off vastly superior numbers, but the reality was that the Finns simply didn’t have enough men and guns and bullets.  And their air force was non-existent.  The Red Army, for all the terrible losses they suffered (and some more radical estimates put that number at 1,000,000 casualties), was able to replace its forces faster than its enemy could kill them.

The Soviets, now certain of victory, were ready to dictate terms.  They did so on February 28th, with a deadline of March 1.  Fortunately for the Finns, 1940 was a Leap Year, which gave them an extra day to make their decisions.  It was an easy choice, and the Finnish government “agreed in principle” to the Soviets terms the following day.

And in a rather bizarre twist, it was precisely at this moment that French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier (shown above) decided to enter the fray.  Hours after the Finnish committed to peace talks, Daladier (without bothering to consult the British, his main ally) offered 50,000 troops and 100 bombers, to be delivered before the end of March, if the Finns would continue their resistance.

It gets better.  The British, rather than knock Daladier upside the head for his foolishness, began considering their own amphibious expedition to the north.  These offers really had no basis in reality, and the Finns knew it.  First off, there was no realistic way for either the French or British to move this kind of manpower (and all of the required logistical support) in such a short amount of time.  Plus, these immovable forces would have had to travel through Norway and Sweden.  Both countries, while maintaining a modicum of neutrality, had some pro-German leanings.  Had the British violated their Scandanavian neutrality, they risked bringing both German and Russian aggression.

Helsinki took a quick look at the proposals, recognized their utter fantasy, and kept to their plan.  The guns would continue shooting (mostly on the side of the Red Army, as the defenders were rapidly running out of weaponry) and the men would continue dying, but the end of one of the more remarkable conflicts of the Second World War was just two weeks away.

And with that, Today’s History Lesson closes out its fourth year of existence.  It’s been a rather sparse twelve months.  I’m not sure I managed even 100 pieces this year, which is a lot less than any previous year.  But 2012 is young, and maybe I can get things going again.  The prospect of beginning year five tomorrow gives me some inspiration and the calendar is full of stuff (including lots of topics that got pushed forward last year), so let’s live in hope.

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The Karelian Isthmus has long labored through uneasy times.  I suppose it’s a bad idea to apply human characteristics such as suffering and endurance to a chunk of land, because it’s very near to mixing metaphors…or something.  But it seems somehow appropriate.  We’ve talked about this piece of property on numerous occasions, and always under the strain of conflict or outright war.

Where is it?  The easiest way to find it is to locate St. Petersburg, Russia on your globe or wall map or maybe even on the Internet.  St. Petersburg sits right at the tip of the Karelian Isthmus, which separates the Gulf of Finland from Lake Ladoga (which has also received some play around these parts).

It’s not as though this is prime real estate.  In his wonderful book on the Russo-Finnish War called A Frozen Hell, William Trotter writes that while the area is beautiful, rich with trees and pocked with lakes, the beauty runs no deeper than that.  He pens, “The soil grows few crops, and those grudgingly, and the scant mineral resources are hardly worth the labor of extraction.”

This chunk of “scenic wasteland” has value because of its location and its function as a land bridge between Russia and Asia to the east and Scandanavia to the west.  And in the land couple of hundred years, much of the conflict has centered around St. Petersburg.

In the late 1930s, St. Petersburg was called Leningrad and the Karelian Isthmus, to within a very few miles of the city, was territory belonging to Finland.  And this worried the Stalin-led Soviets badly.  It’s not as though Finland was a threat, as their stance of strict neutrality was well-known.  But Germany was not neutral, and her ties in Scandanavia (particularly with Sweden) presented a tremendous threat to Stalin, especially since Finland didn’t appear to have much of a military presence.  A quick air attack, a few Wehrmacht divisions on the ground with a handful of Panzers, and the spear tip of National Socialism would be an artillery shell’s distance from Leningrad, the heart of Bolshevism.

So the Soviets began discussions with the Finns in early 1938, hinting that the Finns should take positive action to resist German aggression.  The Finns reminded their western neighbors that, as neutrals, they would take positive action against any aggressor.  The talks continued, with the Russians stating that Helsinki could really show their neutrality best by ceding to Russia parts of the Karelian Isthmus, especially those closest to Leningrad.  The Finnish response was predictable:  that’s preposterous and out of the question.

The back-and-forth banter continued through 1938 and into 1939.  When the Germans invaded Poland from the west, the Red Army followed suit from the east a couple of weeks later.  Stalin had his breathing space in Europe.  As part of his agreement with Germany, the Soviet dictator annexed Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.  Stalin had his breathing space in the Balkans.  But still there was Scandanavia.

The Finnish government was summoned in early October.  Trotter quotes Max Jakobsen, a Finnish historian.  “For eighteen months, Finland had conducted a muted dialogue with her great neighbor; the Russians had from time to time softly asked a favor or two, and the Finns had politely whispered their refusal.  Now the tone was changed:  this time, there had been steel in Molotov’s voice.”  The first high-level meeting between the two governments took place in Moscow on October 12, 1939, and there was no soft talk or beating around the bush on this occasion.

The Soviet Union demanded that the Finns give up most of the Karelian Isthmus and all fortifications there (including the famed Mannerheim Line) be destroyed.  Also demanded were several Finnish-owned islands in the Gulf of Finland and the Rybachi Peninsula in the Arctic.  In addition, the Soviets wanted Finland to lease them the Hanko peninsula and allow them to build a Red Army base there.  In return, the Russians would give Finland 5,500 square kilometers of territory on the other side of Lake Ladoga.

Effectively, the Russians were asking Finland to give up any ability to defend itself from the east while providing their neighbor protection from the west.  The Finns believed this was ludicrous.  They were right.  They also believed that Stalin’s threat to take the territory by force if they refused was a bluff.  They were wrong.

These talks would ultimately fail, leading to one of the most lopsided land battles in all of the Second World War.

Recommended Reading: A Frozen Hell

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June 22, 1941 is a day that needs no major introduction to students of World War II.  Operation Barbarossa was (and still is) the largest offensive in military history.  With most of Western Europe now under the shadow of the swastika, Adolf Hitler turned his legions east in a titanic blitzkrieg of men, tanks, guns, and planes.  The gamble he took, unparalleled in history, was that the Russian military was a house of cards that he could overrun it before it could get fully organized.

For Hitler, the gamble had worked on a smaller scale in France and the Low Countries a year before, so he was confident of its success again.  And the reality of Stalin’s paranoia-and-power-induced purges of the preceding years had not been lost in the planning.  Germany’s military leadership knew they’d be facing not only officers with little experience, but officers that would be more tentative, terrified of making a wrong move that would cost them their lives.  Hitler wasn’t being totally unreasonable when he said that “we have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.”

But what might need a bit of an introduction is Operation Reindeer.  Initiated along with Barbarossa, the offensive was much smaller in scale, involving a couple of divisions stationed in northern Norway.  Their objective was to cross the border into northern Finland, specifically the Petsamo region.  The area was known for its nickel mines, and the Germans desired to grab them before the Russians.  Reindeer was launched on June 22, 1941 with the 2nd and 3rd Mountain Divisions entering Finland.

And like the 4 million men setting off to the south and east, Reindeer got going without a hitch.  In fact, there was no fighting to speak of in Petsamo until they reached the Red Army defenses on the Litsa River.  Operation Silver Fox, the follow-up to Reindeer, had as its goal the capture of Murmansk.  But strong Russian defenses and political pressures – the U.S. notified Finland that cutting off Lend-Lease’s main supply port with Russia would have very negative consequences – meant that Murmansk would remain in Soviet hands throughout the war.

So in the end, Operation Reindeer was a very minor operation that had little bearing on the war.  It was a rather isolated outpost that would, with the turn of fortunes against Germany, eventually be abandoned.

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For a couple of months, the horribly outnumbered Finnish troops had held their Soviet counterparts at bay.  Their only real allies in this fight against a vastly superior force had been Red Army arrogance, solid tactics, a brutally cold winter, and sisu (a word coined at this time that, roughly translated, means “guts”).  But they used all of them to the fullest and gained the admiration of much of the world…though with that admiration came precious little help.

Then General Timoshenko arrived and got things on the Soviet side a bit more organized, and the Finnish situation went downhill pretty quickly.  A massive bombardment, begun on February 1, 1940 was followed by the final breakthrough.  Keep in mind that Finland only had 150,000 men in its entire army, and those still able to fight had been employed without respite since hostilities started in November…they were completely exhausted and running low on ammunition.

So it comes as little surprise that the Red Army, ten days later, achieved the breakthrough from which the Finns could not recover.  The Red Army was still suffering huge casualty counts, but outnumbering the Finns by better than 4-to-1 gaves the Soviets some “wiggle room”.

Throughout the Winter War, Finnish diplomats (even when they were sort of winning) tried to discuss peace initiatives with Moscow, but their calls were never answered.  Joseph Stalin wanted a victory, and to accept peace terms in an already terribly embarrassing endeavor was beyond contemplation.  But now, with victory seemingly on the horizon (and far more favorable terms able to be negotiated), a still-red-faced Soviet dictator was probably more willing to talk.

And so the peace delegation from Finland landed in Moscow and began negotiations on March 8, 1940.  They would be concluded four days later and the guns would fall silent one day after that.

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On February 1, 1940, a Finnish reconnaissance plane made its way through stiff enemy air cover to photograph Russian positions.  The war being fought between these two countries since late November had, for the last few weeks, been at something of a standstill.

But when the film was quickly developed and analyzed by the Finnish military, what was discovered was a massive buildup of cannon that had seemingly appeared overnight.  A collective gasp went up in the room with the sudden realization that the lull was just about over.  In fact, it ended that day, with a massive bombardment that was described as “the last thunderclap of Armageddon.”

The Red Army drive against tiny Finland was about to begin anew, with fresh forces, more tanks (now operating in harmony with the troops), more guns, and more planes.  On the other side, their opponents, now exhausted with many formations operating at half-strength (or worse), were overwhelmed.  But they fought on and, even in their weakened state, were still capable of killing lots and lots of Soviet invaders.  But it was never enough.

On February 11, 1940, the Finnish fear of a Red Army breakthrough became a reality as breaches were made in both flanks at Lake Ladoga and the Gulf of Finland.

The “December part” of the Winter War had shown what superior tactics, superior leadership, and effective cover could achieve against a larger and more arrogant opponent.  The “February part” served as a sobering reminder that overwhelming force with even a modicum of coordination against an exhausted foe was still the preferable position in which to be.

The February 11th breatkthrough was the beginning of the end of Finnish resistance.  A month later, the guns would fall silent.

Recommended Reading: A Frozen Hell

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The war that was being fought between the Soviet and Finnish armies in the brutal Scandanavian cold had accomplished several things.  First, it had elevated the vastly outnumbered, out-gunned, and out-manned Finnish army to exalted status.  That had happened because of the second accomplishment…the total embarrassment of the Soviet army.

Beginning in early December of 1939, Finnish commanders had begun using the terrain and better tactics to hold down their much larger enemies.  They made small night-time attacks and, with platoon- and company-sized forces (along with a healthy dose of Red Army arrogance), were able to destroy regiment-sized encampments.  In this manner, entire Red Army divisions were wiped out almost to a man.

But even more than that, the Finns understood rest and relaxation as important components of war better than their invaders did.  As much as possible, soldiers given time to sit in hot springs and saunas, which served to warm their bodies.  Many of their meals were served hot.  A cold soldier was most often a dead one, and the Russians, without these benefits, verified that theory thousands and thousands of times.

As the 1930’s gave way to January of a new decade, the Winter War captured the imagination of the world.  Radio and newspapers broadcast accounts of how tiny Finland was putting a big-time hurt on the mighty Soviet Union.  It was at this time that fighting on the Finnish front entered something of a lull.  The Finns, largely exhausted and running low on pretty much everything needed to fight, simply slowed down.  This quiet time allowed Stalin to lop off a few more heads for incompetence and bring in General Semyon Timoshenko.

Timoshenko’s plan was to build up a massive force that would, once and for all, simply overpower the Finns.  They began a process of daytime bombardments with artillery and aircraft.  The Finns, low on ammunition and possessing no air force, simply hid in their bunkers during the day and came out to make repairs at night.  But as the weeks passed, the men grew more and more worn down as sleep became more fleeting.

And then on February 1, 1940, Red Army artillery turned up the dial, beginning a ferocious bombardment that would last 10 days.  It was one of the longest “softening-up” periods of the war.  But Timoshenko knew that if victory was not achieved, he only had a bullet to look forward to.  And after 10 days, the all-out assault would finally break the Finns. But that’s for 10 days from now…

Recommended Reading: A Frozen Hell

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We’ve gotten mostly dug out from the biggest blizzard to hit the area in more than 30 years.  It began in earnest Tuesday and, by noon yesterday, had dumped 15″ of snow.  Of course, the snow didn’t fall in a vacuum…it was carried about by 40+ mph winds.  We don’t have a snowblower, just shovels, so it was more than 3 hours of shovelling to open our 50-foot driveway.

The roads need to be finished, which means the plows will dump a bunch more snow in the driveway between now and tomorrow night…and there’s still the walkway to the front door to clear.  But that will mean digging through 4-foot drifts.  So for now, we’re entering the house through the garage and waiting for spring.

With snow absolutely everywhere, let’s spend one more evening discussing a rather unusual engagement that took place in the Winter War.

Colonel Aaro Pajari’s successful raid on the 7th had a couple of side-effects.  First, it gave a boost of confidence to the Finnish troops involved as well as those in the area.  Other units picked up on Pajari’s tactics, using them to great effect against the superior numbers of Red Army soldiers.  Second, it caused the Russians to become far more wary than was really necessary.  Sniper fire and well-entrenched Finnish platoons could tie up battalion- and regimental-sized forces.  The raids had replaced the Russian arrogance with gross hesitation.

Finnish Colonel Paavo Talvela had experienced this first-hand.  His troops, having retreated for the first week of the War, had begun a series of jabs against the Russian 155th Division.  With the enemy now off-balance and nervous, Talvela planned an all-out offensive for December 11th.  The Red Army, however, had other ideas.

As the clock struck 11:00pm on December 10, 1939, an entire Soviet battalion marched, undetected, through dense forests and attacked Talvela’s left flank not far from Tolvajarvi (and not far from the scene of Pajari’s raid).  There were almost no troops there, just field kitchens, cooks, a few personnel, and some medical units, which were quickly driven off.

But the cooks left behind huge vats of sausage soup simmering over the fires, which the attackers smelled.  They stopped, looked around for a moment, then grabbed spoons and bowls and helped themselves.  The momentum of the attack was broken.

Colonel Pajari, still in the Tolvajarvi area, quickly assembled the scattered cooks, medics, and quartermasters into a 100-man force and commenced a counterattack.  The subsequent fight, named the “Sausage War”, was brutally vicious, with hand-to-hand combat and knife fights waged around steaming pots of delicious dinner.

When the attacks subsided in 11th’s morning hours, the kitchen’s soup kettles were mostly empty, having been riddled with gunfire.  The ground was strewn with soldiers, temporarily warmed by a purloined dinner, now frozen in death.  Many still had mouths full of sausage.  Only a few dozen Red Army soldiers from the battalion returned to their lines.

Recommended Reading: A Frozen Hell

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