Posts Tagged ‘Winter War’

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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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.

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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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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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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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