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 infantry, stalking the enemy

Finnish infantry, stalking the enemy

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.

Finns with knocked out Soviet tank

Finns with knocked out Soviet tank

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.

26 thoughts on “Sisu

  1. Mitch:
    “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.”

    I think you are wrong about this. Eliminating distinctions between officers and enlisted men was done during the Revolution and the Civil War. The general trend in the Stalinist period was to reinstate such distinctions. Personal rank was re-introduced in 1935 along with (IIRC) epaluetts for certain ranks.

    I think you confusing the treatment of military rank with the reintroduction of political commisars from 1937 to 1940. This was a blow to the independence of the professional officer corps.

  2. Rick,

    No, I’m aware of all three events – the early Red Army’s abolition of rank, the institution/removal/post-purge-reintroduction of Politruks, and the adoption from 1935-1940 of functional rather than traditional ranks for commanders. The failure in the Winter War was seen to have led to the reversion to more traditional ranks.

    I’ve read better articles, but this one goes through time timeline fairly well.

  3. “not terribly different from northern Minnesota, but much, much colder”

    Get real, Mitch, just how “much, much colder” than -60° F does it get in Finland?

  4. K,

    Even in Embarass, -60 is a rare thing. I’m talking north of the Arctic Circle, where the high for the day might be -40 for weeks at a time, and there’s 20+ hours of darkness per day.

  5. “I’m aware of all three events”

    OK. Then what did you mean when you said “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.”?

  6. “-40 for weeks at a time, and there’s 20+ hours of darkness per day.”

    I lived 150 miles south of the article circle for two winters. We would occasionally hit 60 below, but we would have week after week of sub -40.

    Mitch — Ever consider writing a screen play?

  7. I’ve considered it a bunch of times. There’s a lot of good, undertold stories out there.

    After my kids are gone? Could very well happen.

    It occurs to me; 300-odd Finnish-Americans went back to the old country to fight. Might be a good story in there.

    And goodness knows the film’d be easy enough to shoot up in the Arrowhead…

  8. RDFL,

    Enh, I conflated the 1920 “reforms” and the 1935 ones. To the non-military history geek, it’s the same basic story.

  9. “And goodness knows the film’d be easy enough to shoot up in the Arrowhead…”

    Ya, ya know, der is lotsa finlanters up der ant it wut be good fer dat economy up der ya know.

  10. And didn’t Hitler look at this and say “hey, if these Finlanders can all but defeat the Soviets, imaging what the mighty German army can do”?

  11. KR,

    An’ all dem lakes ‘n swamps ‘n stuff, y’know. And da snooow.

    (It’d also put a lot of north woods carpenters and mechanics to work building mockups of T-26 and BT5 tanks…)


    That’s a theory, and a good one.



  12. Keep in mind here that Karelia is on the Baltic in the southern part of Finland. Might not have been that much colder than Embarass; remember that the Soviets were mostly trying to protect St. Petersburg (oops, Leningrad back in those dark days) from Herr Schicklgruber, not extend their reign of terror on the Lapps north of Oulu.

    A Russian friend of mine destroyed one of my stereotypes about the German/Russian war by noting that he keeps track of temperatures in Moscow and Minneapolis, and suggested to me that they are actually pretty similar.

    He also suggested that had Hitler invaded Minnesota without cold weather gear, as he did the USSR, the results might have been about the same, with the exception that he’d have been repelled in December as the Lutern churches had their lutefisk feeds. :^)

  13. Thanks for this Mitch, being a buff on History (especially WWII related, even though this isn’t that… technically) I had no idea this event ever occured. Just like I had no idea there was nearly a socialist revolution in this country in 1877 (along with 99.9% of the general population). I’m writing a research paper on that right now. Anyone care to read the finished product, and I’m not saying that to feed my ego (but he is a little hungry now, not going to lie;))

  14. My grandfather served on the loosing side of this war. Never talked about it – ever.

    not extend their reign of terror on the Lapps north of Oulu. Beg to differ – Stalin was an expansionist and saw an opportunity. Especially since he thought he had nothing to fear from his new buddy Hitler and their newly minted “Peace in Our Time” pact.

  15. JPA, you give Hitler and Stalin too much credit. They were buying time. If Hitler hadn’t invaded Stalin would have a year (maybe two) later. They didn’t believe it would keep the peace between the two of them like Neville Chamberlin believed.

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