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Posts Tagged ‘Carl Gustav Mannerheim’

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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