Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Finland’

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.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »