Fans of underdogs should observe today as an international holiday.
It’s the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Winter War. It was 70 years ago today that Stalin’s Red Army invaded sprawling, cold, thinly-populated Finland. His army of well over 200,000 troops, with hundreds of tanks and hundreds more artillery pieces, slammed into the Finnish defenses up and down the entire border – especially in the key strip of land, the Karelian Isthmus, betwen the eastern reaches of the Baltic and huge Lake Ladoga. Karelia was the key to taking Helsinki and the rest of Finland’s small political and industrial base – although Finland was very predominantly rural and agricultural for another generation after the Winter War.
The attack ran into trouble right away. Part of the Soviets’ problem was self-inflicted; Stalin had purged most of the best, most competent officers from the military in the three previous years, afraid that good officers would become big coup risks. He”d also undercut the prestige and authority of the officer class – at one point even erasing the difference between officers’ and enlisted mens’ uniforms. The surviving officers were largely toadies, selected for their political reliability more than their caliber as leaders. Between the purges and the other turmoil facing the Red Army of the era, their troops – mostly conscripts – were badly led and badly equipped for any kind of fight in the sub-arctic wastes of Finland, even against an indifferent foe.
Finland was not an indifferent foe. They had secured their freedom from Russia less than a generation before, and they guarded it jealously. While their standing military was very small, most of the male population served in the “reserve”. On the one hand, the reserve was less formal than we’d recognize; many didn’t have uniforms – only troops on active service got them – and so they provided their own winter clothing. On the other, they knew the terrain – a maze of forests, swamps and lakes not terribly different from northern Minnesota, but much, much colder – like the backs of their hands.
Finnish snipers in particular distinguished themselves, with one – Simo Häyhä – becoming the single greatest sniper that ever lived. More on him in a few weeks.
The Soviets attacked wearing their brown uniforms against the white snow, making easy targets in the bitter cold. They kept to the roads, ceding the woods to the Finns…
…who, on their skis and knowing the territory, opted to fight a guerrilla-style war in the snow. Russian columns, led by tanks, stalled on roads through forests and swamps that were impenetrable to vehicles. The Finns attacked Soviet field kitchens – the Russians’ only source of hot food in the bitter, -40 cold – crushing the enemy’s morale before picking off the infantry protecting the tanks, who were then sitting ducks for a molotov cocktail.
This style of war was christened “Motti” tactics by non-Finnish military historians, unaware that “Motti” is nothing but a colloquialism for swamp; Finnish officers after the war expressed puzzlement at the term; paraphrasing one officer I read years ago, it wasn’t as if the Finnish military academy offered a course in swamp warfare in the arctic. They improvised.
The improvisation peaked at the epic battle of Suomussalmi, for a week in mid-December. A Soviet column of two divisions – close to 35,000 men, with attached units – advanced across the border to the village of Suomussalmi, attempting a tank assault through the forests; the Finns cut the column up into many, isolated small detachments that the Finns destroyed piecemeal. The Finns destroyed the two divisions, killing as many as 25,000 Soviet soldiers and capturing 2,000 more, as well as dozens of tanks and artillery pieces and thousands of rifles, machine guns and horses – all of which they turned against the invaders in short order.
There were dozens of such repulses; the Soviets suffered grievous casualties; . The initial attack was repulsed in what was not only an upset, but one of the bloodiest upsets in military history. The Soviets admitted to 126,000 dead (post-Soviet academics put the figure closer to 134,000), twice as many wounded, and the loss of over 3,000 tanks and as many as 500 aircraft. This to a nation that started the war with 13 tanks, few serious antitank weapons, and an air force of maybe 100 planes against a Soviet air force with 20 times as many aircraft.
Stalin responded to the intital stalemate by mobilizing 600,000 men, lanching them into meatgrinder frontal attacks in immense force across the Karelian Ithsmus, which finally ground the Finns – who never had more than 250,000 troops to cover the whole country, and who started the war short on ammunition – down enough to eke out a treaty at the cost of immense Soviet casualties. In exchange for horrific losses, the Soviets gained a little territory and not a whole lot else.
The Winter War teaches us many lessons useful today. Individuals with firearms and local knowledge can have a disproportionate impact on their enemies. International diplomacy is fairly useless against an aggressor who has no interest in peace under any terms (the Winter War was one of the last nails in the coffin of the League of Nations).
At any rate, three cheers for those inscrutable Finns.