Winter War, The Russo-Finnish conflict

Finnish resolve to remain independent ran deep, ‘We are no longer Swedes, we will not become Russians, so let us be Finns’ ran one particular slogan of the time.

The First Finnish Troops

In November 1914, Finnish resistance against Russian rule increased. Students began meeting secretly for plans of Finnish Independence. In became clear that Finland would need it’s own army. Several countries were approached by all refused. Finally, the Finnish volunteers were supported by Imperial Germany by providing secret military training for Finnish volunteers, most of whom were students, in what became known as the Jäger movement. By 1916, the volunteers were fully trained and were considered elite troops of Germany and shortly after, the were sent to the Eastern Front. On 15 December 1917 Russia and the Central Powers agreed an armistice, later ratified with the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918. After Finnish troops had returned home, the received their first Finnish ranks, which were based on the German ranks they had previously.

Independence and Civil War

By March 1917, Lenin declared Finnish independence but tensions rose quickly as there were still 40000 Russian troops stationed in Finland. Internal tensions started to rise between the Red and White factions. Only two weeks later Lenin started supplying arms to the Red Faction inciting them to revolt. On 28 January 1918, the Red Faction launched an attack against Helsinki seizing large parts of the city. The White Faction marched to take control of the central regions of Finland, overrunning the surprised Russian troops, disarming them and sending them back to Russia on foot.

Civil War now erupted. The Whites controlled the south and the Reds the central and northern part of Finland. Both armies consisted of 70000 men but with one difference. The Reds were poorly equipped and hardly trained while the Whites consisted of the German trained Jäger Battalion. By May 1914, the Whites overran the last Red stronghold at Tampere (with help from German landing parties). The Reds fled to the Russian border of whom only 10.000 made it across.

Finland and Soviet Russia finally signed the Peace Treaty of Tartu on 14 October 1920, defining the Estonian–Russian border between the two countries. Many Fins saw this as a humiliating defeat. Several rebellions broke out in the Karelia region (now part of Russia) which were secretly supported by the Finnish government but were ultimately put down by Russian troops. By the 1930’s things settled down but the Fins realized they had to stand on their own two feet. In accordance, the training regime for the officer core was formalized, and by 1935 mandatory refresher training was set for all reservist troops. By the autumn of 1939 an estimated 7,200 officers and 172,000 non-commissioned officers and soldiers had completed this program.

The road the war

In 1939, Finnish delegates were summoned to Russia to discuss Russian seizure of Finnish territory. The Russians were concerned of the borders since Finland was so closely associated with Germany. The Fins refused. While negotiations were still going on, Russian troops gathered along the border. On 26 November, following direct orders from Leningrad, one battery from the Soviet 221st Artillery Regiment fired a salvo at their own comrades located in the village of Mainila in Russia. As this artillery battery was located north of the small Russian village, it appeared that the shells had come from Finland. This gave the Soviet Union an excuse to cut diplomatic relationships with Finland and to cast aside the mutual peace agreement.

Russian advance

The Winter War Monument is a field with thousands of natural stones erected in memory of Finnish and Red Army soldiers who fell in the Battle of Suomussalmi in 1939-40. The field is encircled by forest battered by artillery. The idea of the monument is to use visual means to make people think about the suffering and havoc wrought by war.

On 30 November 1939, without a declaration of war, the first Soviet troops entered Finland, red starred bombers appeared over Finnish cities. As one Finnish soldier summarized the situation on the eve of the war: ‘We are so few and they are so many. Where will we find the room to bury them all?’. The Russian advance was slow, enabling the Fins to evade the Russian encircling attempts. Despite heavy losses, the Russians managed to establish a beachhead. The Fins counterattack several times but were thrown back allowing the Russian the increase their bridgehead.

The Fins retreated across the Taipale river, blowing all bridges stalling the Russian advance. Russian high command felt not enough progress was made and insisted a rapid advance. In the night of 7 December, Russian troops started their advance with hardly any artillery support which was still stuck in traffic behind the front lines. Due to the strong current, several pontoon bridges drifted away from the landing areas. As the Russians were halfway, the Fins switched on their searchlights and opened fire. Only 30 Russian troops reached the other side but were promptly captured.

Reinforcements

The Russians increased the troops to 250.000 and added another 300 artillery pieces. The Russian’s moved to the western part of the front, causing a chaos. This allowed the Fins to regroup. By 13 December the Soviets had managed to establish a strong bridgehead on the Finnish side of the peninsula at the Taipale River. Unfortunately for the attackers, once again the Finnish positions had been expertly camouflaged, with machine-gun emplacements dug in to provide crossfire over the open fields. This meant that the Soviet artillery was largely firing blindly into a large wooded area in the hope of hitting something. Even after 3 hours of extensive preliminary bombardment, very little actual damage had been caused.

The troops leading the assault would not have known this; to them it might have seemed impossible for anyone to have survived the firestorm their comrades had unleashed. Then the Finns struck back at the advancing infantry and tanks with all
their firepower. This quickly caused the two attacking elements to become separated. Eventually the tanks had to halt their advance and instead had to start driving back and forth in order to maintain contact with the advancing infantry. All this had to be done while under highly accurate fire from hidden anti-tank guns. After each shot the Finnish crews would drag their gun back and move from one prepared position to the next. This denied the Soviets a clear point for their spearhead to focus on. In the end, in most of the sectors the Red Army managed to advance only a few hundred meters, up to the Finnish anti-tank ditches.

The Russian attempted several counterattacks until 25 December but all were repulsed. It was now clear that directly attacking the Fins did not work. The Russians started to dig in.

“He Who Brings the Light” is made of stainless steel and its base contains 105 photographs of the Winter War.

Stalled

By January 1940, the Russian advance had been halted on all fronts. The freezing temperatures favored the defenders. Russian equipment rendered useless allowing the Fins to perform a hit and run tactic. Negotiations started again but the Russians refused all of the Finnish proposals. Finally, the Fins received reinforcements through Sweden.

Finnish Counter Attack

On 6 January 1940 the Fins counterattacked in an attempt to encircle the Russian troops. The attack was a success, the Fins capturing entire Russian divisions. By 9 January the encirclement was complete, the Fins again aided by temperatures of -40 degrees. The Russians were supplied by air and had a large number of pack animals available for slaughter, the chance of starving the encircled Russians, seemed unlikely.

The Fins lacked heavy firepower to break the Russian defenses. On 17 February, the Russians attempted a breakout but were all repulsed by the Fins. The encircled Russian force was now reduced to a small 8 square km. The Russian commander asked for a surrender but was refused. He decided on his own that they’d try another breakout. The Fins launched another attack on 28 January, at that moment de Russians attempted their second breakout. The masse breakout caught the Fins by surprise A chaotic point blank fight erupted but the Russians managed to break out. Their luck didn’t hold as they ran into Finnish positions and were destroyed.

Russian Counter Attack

This bunker was constructed in the ’30s as part of the Finnish Mannerheim Line. It saw action during the Winter War (1939-1940) and in 1944 (image from TracesOfWar.com)

The Russians counterattacked with 30 new divisions on Sunday 11 February. By 19:00 hours, Russian troops had breached the Mannerheim line. The Fins planned a counterattack for 13 February but this never started. On 14 February, the Fins were ordered to retreat to the Interim Line to set up better defensive positions. This temporary defense was reached on 17 February and was abandoned again on 21 January as the Fins retreated further. This continued while on 6 March a delegation was sent to Moscow to discuss a ceasefire. The soviets knew the war was practically won and only agreed to a ceasefire after all their demands were met.

When the ceasefire began on 13 March, the embittered Meretskov gave orders for the 34th Rifle Corps to continue its attack against Viipuri. While the rest of the Soviet armies were to stand down and obey the rules of armistice, the 34th was told keep fighting until the city was in Soviet hands. Before the Soviets could complete the capture of the city, the Finnish delegation in Moscow finally capitulated to Stalin’s terms, where in the end, according to Prime Minister Ryti, ‘not even a single comma had been up for negotiation’. This prompted President Kallio to curse: ‘Let the hand wither that is forced to sign such a paper’

On most fronts, peace had come just in the nick of time. Now the heavy price of this peace was just starting to dawn on the exhausted Finnish population. Bitterness and resentment would remain. One Soviet soldier asked a comrade with Finnish roots: ‘Tell me honestly, what kind of a character do the Finns possess? … They say the Finns are mean.’ His comrade replied: ‘They are not mean, they just really hold a grudge. They remember who has done them harm in the past. God forgives, the Finns do not.’

Raatteen Portti Winter War Museum

Exhibition of Raatteen Portti interpreters the course of the battle through the eyes of both parties. Thousands of young men had to suffer the battle in sub humane conditions-frozen to the core and undernourished. Today a stone field with 17 000 stones commemorate the sufferings of the fallen men. The 105 copper bells of the Monument inside the stone field symbolize the duration of the Winter War. Along 18km long Raate Road many memorials tell the story of soldiers´s sacrifices.The Frontier Guard Museum located at the eastern end of the Raate road at Suomussalmi is restored to its state of 1939. It tells us of the life of a frontier guard post before the Second World War. This building is the only one of the guard houses built before the WW II by the independent state of Finland which is left. Local guides are available. More info can be found here

Winter War Museum

The Kuhmo Winter War museum presents the events of the Winter War in Kuhmo via artifacts, photographs, scale-models and sound effects, The museum provides a view into the everyday life of evacuees, and Finnish and Soviet soldiers. A different theme such as evacuation, the village, care and service on the front line, care on wounded, battles and life after the signing of peace is presented in each room. More info can be found here

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