Posts Tagged ‘Mannerheim Line’

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 »

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

Read Full Post »

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

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 »

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.

Read Full Post »