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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It was a dark, cold, and moonless night as Lt. Col Pajari moved his men into position.  Of course, in Finland, December was mostly dark and always cold.  But while the winter of 1939 was as dark as any given winter, the weather was unusually cold, with temperatures that would hit -30°F regularly.  There was plenty of snow on the ground, but there hadn’t been much in recent days, which is what the Finns had really wanted.

It would have served to slow down the Soviet Red Army, which had come storming across the border the week before.  Almost everywhere the Finnish Army had fallen back and, while the Soviets had already taken heavy losses, they had also taken the port of Petsamo in the frigid north, and were attacking at numerous points between the port and the Mannerheim Line on the Karelian Isthmus down south.

Carl Gustav Mannerheim, who had resigned his post days before the outbreak of war, was immediately called back to action.  He was surprised by how heavy the attacks had been in the heavily-forested regions north of Lake Ladoga.  The Russians were pushing toward Oulu, and if they reached it, Finland would be cut in half.

Mannerheim’s troops needed a victory…any victory, to get a boost of confidence.  Pajari’s men provided it in the early morning hours of December 7, 1939.

Crossing frozen Lake Tolvajarvi in the dead of night, his Fourth Company (made up of little more 150 men) attacked an entire regiment of Russian soldiers.  Bivouacked near a road and in a depression, they presented a fantastic target to Pajari’s men, with their dark uniforms contrasted with the white snow and highlighted by the massive fires.  Fourth Company quietly lined up on the ridge and opened fire at 2:00am.  Within minutes, it was over.  Not a single Russian soldier remained alive, and not a single Finnish soldier had so much as been wounded.

As Fourth Company was lost to the frigid morning darkness, two other Red Army regiments, panicked at the sound of gunfire and camped nearby, had mistakenly engaged one one another and were attempting to wipe each other out.

Mannerheim’s men had nowhere near the firepower to compete against the forces assaulting his country.  So it would be these small “slash-and-dash” operations, and the tremendous success they acheived in the conflict’s first two months, that would come to characterize the Winter War.

Recommended Reading: A Frozen Hell

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In the days following the end of negotiations between Finnish diplomats and Joseph Stalin, the citizens of Finland began to relax just a bit.  It was no secret that their army stood little chance…correct that…no chance against the military tsunami that the Soviets could unleash, and the Finns had initially prepared for the inevitable attack.  But to this point, none had come, and that was good enough for them.

They knew their sovereignty was recognized by the world, and Stalin must have realized that, too…hence his inaction.  And what’s more, the Finns were convinced that, should the Soviet hordes set foot upon the sacred Finnish soil, Western countries would flock to Finland’s defense.

Carl Gustav Mannerheim believed otherwise.  As Finland’s leading military man, he begged the Finnish government to reopen negotiations with the Soviets, claiming they would simply take what they wanted in the end.  His reports of Soviet forces drifting westward were, in his mind, a most ominous portent.  He even moved his own forces on the Karelian Isthmus (the main area of contention) back as a show of non-aggression.  On the 26th of November, however, several artillery shots were reported landing about half a mile inside the Russian borders near the village of Mainila.  History would show that they were fired by the Red Army, but as you would expect, the Soviets blamed the Finns.  Mannerheim wasn’t stupid (he knew how this would play out), and his anger at the “Finnish stubborness” boiled over.  The day after the “Mainila Shots”, Gustav Mannerheim resigned from the army.

In the Kremlin, Stalin had spent the last few weeks assessing his military options.  When questioned, his generals assured him that Finland would be a pushover.  Nikita Khrushchev, then a Politburo member, described the general consensus when he said, “All we had to do was raise our voices a little bit and the Finns would obey.  If that didn’t work, we could fire one shot and the Finns would put up their hands and surrender.”

The Soviet dictator also wanted to know if the Communist contingent among Finnish workers would rise up when the fighting started.  He was assured by his sources that they would.  But one must now consider the backdrop of the time when looking at this “information”.  Clearly, people with any loyalties to Trotsky, the old Czarist regimes, or any other view differing from Stalin were receiving fatal gunshot wounds.  By the ten of thousands they were dying…Khrushchev himself narrowly escaped the executioner’s pistol.  So when Stalin wanted “the scoop”, those around him told him what he wanted to hear, regardless of whether there was any truth or research behind it.  “Will the Finnish Communists join the Red Army?”“Why, of course they will.”  Stalin’s reign of terror was one of his own worst weapons.

So it comes as little surprise that the first bombing run carried out against Finland came at 9:20am on November 30, 1939.  The single plane dropped thousands of leaflets over Helsinki which urged the workers to rise up against their leaders and overthrow the government.  That plane then dropped a couple bombs to get everyone’s attention, have them run out of the factories, and read the notes.

Seventy minutes later, a group of bombers arrived over Helsinki, this time with real bombs.  Simultaneously, the Red Army invaded Finland all along the border, from Petsamo in the far frozen north to the southern edge of the Karelian Isthmus in the still-very-cold south.  In all, more than 25 divisions set off into Finnish territory that was protected by a total of 8 divisions and a collection of reserve and Civic Guard troops.

It did not shape up to be much of a contest, but wars are not fought on paper.

Recommended Reading: A Frozen Hell

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For nearly a month, direct negotiations had persisted.  Back-and-forth communications?…more than 18 months.  The Soviet Union had, since April of 1938, been interested in territory that belonged to Finland, its neighbor to the west.  And Finland had (more or less) politely refused.

The Nazi-Soviet Pact came and went.  The combined German-Soviet removal of Poland from the map came and went.  And still the Soviets negotiated with Finland.  Not as far as he could kick him did Soviet dictator Jospeh Stalin trust his counterpart in Berlin.  Yes, half of Poland gave Stalin a sizeable space-cushion between himself and the National Socialism he despised.  But he was still afraid that Adolf Hitler would use his military might, vastly superior to any of the Scandanavian countries, to take over Finland, whose borders were just a stone’s throw from the Communist “Mecca” of Leningrad.

So, Stalin’s representatives asked that Finland give up 20 miles of territory on the Karelian Isthmus (the strip of land between the Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga).  They also desired that Finland cede several islands in the Gulf of Finland and the northernmost tip of Finland (the Rybachi Peninsula).  Finally, they asked that Finland allow them to lease the port of Hanko (on the the southernmost tip of Finland) and build a base there.  Essentially Stalin was creating additional buffer space on all approaches to Leningrad.

For its part, Finland reiterated that it was a decidedly neutral nation, and any incursion (including one from Germany) would be viewed as hostile.  So there was no need to give the Soviets a buffer zone…Finland would provide it for free.  What’s more, giving up territory in the Karelian Isthmus meant destroying much of the Mannerheim Line, a fairly stout series of fortifications, tank traps, and pillboxes.  Finland would essentially be defenseless, which wasn’t necessarily terrible…if that’s all that Stalin wanted.  If.  IF.

But Joseph Stalin was a man who had spent most of the last several years slaughtering thousands and thousands of officers, including a goodly number of Finnish-born officers.  If his own men could not trust him, how much less a target country with almost no military power?  If Finland ceded the territory, there was no way it could defend itself against subsequent aggression.

Carl Gustav Mannerheim, Finland’s leading military man, did not hold to the Finnish convention.  He strongly believed Finland should give the Soviets what they wanted.  He said that if the Soviets wanted the territory badly enough, they would simply take it by force, and Finland could do nothing anyway.  So while Foreign Minister Eljas Erkko was convinced Stalin was bluffing, Mannerheim was not.

And so the Soviet-Finnish meetings continued.  Having begun in earnest on October 12, 1939, they had lasted throughout the month.  The Finnish delegation (shown above) gave some ground, offering to give up a bit of Karelian territory and some of islands, but the Mannerheim Line and the port of Hanko were simply non-negotiable.

It was on this day, November 9, 1939, that the negotiators met for the last time, where the Finnish delegation reminded Stalin of their compromises…and their unwillingness to go any further.  Stalin was somewhat surprised by the intransigence he witnessed.  After an hour, the meeting concluded (despite the heavy discussions) on an upbeat note. Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet Foreign Minister smiled and waved.  Stalin wish the Finns the best and then departed…

…to meet with his generals and begin making plans to subdue a stubborn little pip-squeak country on its western border.

Recommended Reading:  A Frozen Hell – A friend (and fellow reader of Today’s History Lesson) recommended this book to me.  I’m reading it now, and it’s really good.

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More than a year ago, we got to wax “Scandanavian” when we talked about the German invasion of Denmark and Norway.  Having achieved almost complete surprise, the German army and navy forced Denmark to surrender just hours after hostilities had commenced.  Norway, however, would be a tougher nut to crack.

Adolf Hitler had long had his eye on Norway.  First, way up north (where the country is thin) lies the port city of Narvik.  It was from this port that iron ore (from just across the border in Sweden) was shipped from Sweden to Germany.  And Narvik was just one of many deep-water inlets from where the German navy could launch raiding parties into the North Atlantic.  But culturally, Norway was also considered to be the birthplace of the “superior” race…the Nordic-Aryans, so many ardent Nazis wanted to bring the country “into the fold”.

The Allies (at this time comprised of just the French and British) saw Norway’s value to Germany as well, particularly Narvik.  And they were also gravely concerned about not only navy raiders in the North Atlantic, but also potential German use of airfields to launch air patrols.

So when the Germans invaded, the British responded, and sent their navy into the fray immediately, and three infantry brigades in the middle of the month.  It was not enough.  The German ground forces were much larger, and the British, without proper air support, were vulnerable to the slashing runs of Luftwaffe planes.  The French also sent ground troops, but they could do little as well.

By the end of May, Allied forces were looking to get out of a hopeless situation and, by June 8, they had done so, evacuating Norway and leaving it to certain defeat.  Norway’s army saw no reason to continue in an unwinnable conflict against a vastly superior enemy, so it capitulated as well.

German forces rolled into Oslo and, on June 10, 1940, the fighting ended and Norway was out of the war.  Norwegian resistance persisted throughout the whole of the Second World War, but Norway, with its dream naval facilities, was firmly in German hands.

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Today’s History Lesson, a discussion of the Altmark (shown to the left), actually bridges a couple of topics we’ve looked at in the past.  Back in December, we learned about Captain Hans Langsdorff and the Admiral Graf Spee.  Langsdorff’s pocket battleship earned quite a reputation as a merchant raider in the southern Atlantic Ocean.

In that piece, I mentioned that just before she was discovered by the British (who were desperately trying to find and sink her), the German sea fighter refueled and offloaded the prisoners taken in her various engagements.  The ship to which the prisoners were sent?…the Altmark.  The British government, having learned of its sailors being transferred, began their search for the fugitive vessel.

A 7,000-ton tanker and supply vessel, the Altmark served triple duty as a prison, taking the captured British sailors from the Southern Hemisphere all the way to Germany.  But as the ship passed through neutral Norwegian waters, it was searched on several occasions by officials.  The British soldiers, isolated in the hold, tried in vain to make their presence known, but were unable to…

…until the Altmark was spotted by British aircraft, who notified the destroyer HMS Cossack.  In hot pursuit, the Cossack chased her prey into a Norwegian fjord.  Having run her to ground on February 16, 1940, a scene reminiscent of the swashbuckling pirate days was played out.  Just after 10pm, the British boarded the Altmark, subdued the crew in hand-to-hand combat, and freed all 300 British prisoners.

Norway, a neutral country, protested the violation of its waters by both countries, but did little else.  The British, already wary of Norway’s pro-German “neutrality”, felt that the Norwegian government hadn’t done enough to stop the Germans.  From a German perspective, it seemed apparant that not only would the Allies ignore Norway’s neutrality, but that Norway wasn’t strong enough (or willing enough) to protect its neutral status.

As a result, the German High Command began planning the invasion of Denmark and Norway in earnest.  Two months later, in April 1940, the invasion would be launched.

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After Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939, the War entered something of a quiet phase.  The French and British, having often endured Adolf Hitler’s bluster and threats, expected their opponent’s territorial ambitions to continue unabated.  When the Winter of 1939/40 passed without any major action, the Allies started to get a little cocky, referring to this time as the “Sitzkrieg”.  On the 5th of April, British PM Chamberlain gave his famous “Hitler has missed the bus” speech.  Four days later, on April 9, 1940, the German dictator responded…

…with an invasion of Denmark and Norway.  Both countries were considered neutral, though one could make a case that Norway rather played up to both sides, allowing the German transport ship Altmark (carrying British prisoners) sanctuary in Norwegian waters, then subsequently allowing the British Navy into those same waters to commandeer the Altmark, then allowing the British to mine their territorial waters just one day prior to Germany’s action.

Denmark, sitting right on the German border, stood no chance of victory, and the Danish military resisted for only a couple hours before calling it quits.  Before a full day had passed, German forces marched into Copenhagen, and all was over.  Norway, on the other hand, would prove a tougher nut to crack.  The Germans wanted Norway as staging areas for their maritime war with Britain.  Britain wanted to prevent that, as well as put Germany’s iron-ore shipments (coming out of Sweden via Trondheim) in jeopardy.

For the first time since the start of war, the German military would face real resistance.

Recommended Reading – Snow Treasure – Ok, ok…yeah, it’s a children’s story. But it’s based on a true story.  I ordered it from one of those “book-order-sheet-thingies” when I was in grade school, and I read it numerous times.  It’s probably been 30 years, but I still remember how much I liked it.  Order it for your kids, or somebody else’s kids, but take a peek at it yourself before you give it away.

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If you haven’t heard the story of David (the little teenager) and Goliath (the nine-foot giant warrior), it’s pretty simple.  Goliath mocks Israel, David challenges Goliath with rocks, Goliath mocks David, David “rocks” Goliath.

Fast-forward about 3,000 years to the fall of 1939.  The Soviet Union had been bullying Finland for several months, requesting land as a buffer for two of its primary cities…Murmansk and Leningrad.  While Hitler had given Joseph Stalin a free hand in the Baltic republics, the lack of trust meant Stalin wanted a bigger cushion, especially for Leningrad.

The Finns dragged their feet at the negotiating table, unwilling to give up prime ports in exchange for wasteland, and Stalin lost his patience.  On November 30, 1939, Goliath (with more than 700,000 troops at his disposal in just the Leningrad Military District) attacked David (with little more than 150,000 men in total).

And Finland spanked the Soviet troops, which were poorly led (thanks to Stalin’s purges), poorly equipped (many died from frostbite and exposure), and poorly prepared to deal with creative Finnish battle tactics.  Using terrain, extensive camoflauge, and the famous soldiers on skis, the Finnish not only held their own, but by January 1940, were pushing the Soviets back.

Obviously embarrassed, the Soviet leader brought in his most accomplished (still-breathing) general, Semyon Timoshenko, and told him to finish the job.  Taking defensive positions to build up troop strength, Timoshenko then launched a massive assault and, in early March, broke through the Mannerheim Line (Finland’s version of the Maginot Line, which bridged Lake Ladoga and the Gulf of Finland) and began pushing the Finns back.

Realizing the end was near, the Finnish government sent a delegation to Moscow to sue for peace, and an agreement was reached on March 12, 1940.  But the guns continued to fire until they finally fell silent on this date…March 13, 1940.

Finland lost what became known as the Winter War and roughly 25,000 men.  Soviet losses are nearly impossible to pinpoint.  Numbers vary from about 90,000 – 250,000 killed.  Some estimates go much higher.  Whatever the actual number, it’s safe to say that, even in defeat, David gave Goliath a beating he wouldn’t soon forget.

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