A Brief History
On November 30, 1939, Soviet forces crossed the Finnish border in several places and bombed Helsinki and several other Finnish cities, starting the Winter War. (NOTE: For the sequel to this article, please click here.)
In the aftermath of Poland’s collapse in September, 1939—a collapse that the Soviet Union had a major role in contributing to—Soviet leader Joseph Stalin quickly turned his ambitions towards gobbling up even more of eastern Europe. Turning his attention toward the Scandinavian country of Finland—a nation which had the audacity to secede from Russia during its Communist revolution twenty years earlier—he intended to bring it back into the Soviet fold by amassing an army of nearly a million men, over 6,000 tanks, and almost 4,000 aircraft to invade the country. Finland, with an army of just 340,000 men (most of them reservists hastily called to active duty)—and backed by just 32 old tanks and 114 aircraft—appeared to be an easy target and few people gave them any chance of standing up to the Russian juggernaut.
But Finland had three things on its side: first, the Russians launched their invasion in the dead of winter which, considering their proximity to the Arctic Circle, was the worst possible time. Second, most of Finland is vast, trackless forest and marshes with few, if any, roads or railroad lines, giving Russia’s highly mechanized army no means of advance, and, finally, the Finns proved to be tough, resourceful, and skilled fighters who knew how to take advantage of these circumstances. Dressed in white snowsuits that made them almost invisible against the snow and using guerrilla hit-and-run tactics, they devastated the ill-prepared and badly led Russian troops, who soon became bogged down just a few miles inside Finnish territory. Entire battalions were wiped out by the fast moving Finnish troops, while tanks and aircraft were rendered largely unusable by the bitterly cold temperatures. (How cold? Nighttime lows of –40° degrees was not uncommon, causing oil to turn to sludge inside engine crankcases. In some cases, tank crews had to build fires under their tanks just to get them to start, only to find that once they got them started, they couldn’t maneuver through the thick forest terrain.) In fact, the cold turned out to be a powerful ally of the Finns, as more Russian soldiers died from the cold than died from Finnish bullets. Further, tens of thousands more succumbed to minor wounds that would have been survivable under normal circumstances, but they froze to death before medics could get to them.
For nearly two months the Finns held the Russians at bay, permitting them to make only modest gains (at a horrific cost) until finally the Russians wised up, changed tactics, and tried it again. As a result, by early March they began making some progress, but even then it was at terrible cost in terms of men and equipment. It wasn’t until the Finns began literally running out of ammunition that they were forced to admit defeat, resulting in a treaty with Russia that ended hostilities on March 13, 1940. Although Finland was forced to cede about 11% of its territory to Russia (including the large port of Vipuri—modern day Vyborg) the war was a victory in that it allowed the country to retain its sovereignty and remain out of the Soviet bloc while serving as a model to rest of the world of how a small and under equipped military force could best a much larger foe with a bit of ingenuity and determination—a lesson Russia was to repeatedly learn the hard way over the next five years.
The fact that Russia sustained over 320,000 dead and wounded, including 137,000 killed or missing (to put this in perspective, the U.S. lost 56,000 men in Vietnam over a seven year period; the Russian Army, in contrast, lost twice that number in just thirteen weeks!), combined with the staggering loss of 3,500 tanks and almost 500 aircraft, was a humbling lesson to Russia that was to have profound impact on future events. First, it highlighted serious deficiencies in the Soviet military that convinced Hitler—who, at the time, was considering invading the Soviet Union—that the Russian army could be defeated, enticing him to begin laying down plans for the invasion of Russia in June of 1941 (Operation Barbarossa). Second, the lack of significant support for Finland from the western allies (France and England) also convinced Hitler that the allies were weak, encouraging him to launch an all out invasion on France that following June that proved to be a spectacular success. In effect then, the Finns stubborn refusal to roll over, Russia’s ineptitude on the battlefield, and the allies tepid response to the whole thing laid the foundation for an even larger and far more destructive war. Had Finland quickly succumbed to the Russian Army—as it was expected to do—it is uncertain as to whether Hitler would have chanced invading the Soviet Union a year later and history might have played out differently. As it was, in humbling the Russian bear, Finland opened a Pandora’s box that was to resonate for the balance of the century, making the brief war—just 105 days—one of the most important conflicts of the twentieth century. How did it end? For the sequel to this article, please click here!
Our main sources for this article were The Hundred Day Winter War: Finland’s Gallant Stand against the Soviet Army (Modern War Studies) by Gordon F. Sander (June 26, 2013) and The Winter War: The Russo-Finnish War of 1939-1940 by William R. Trotter (September 20, 2002).