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Winter War - A Nation Forged Into One

Every nation has defining moments in its history, but few have such a powerful single event that embodies the people and spirit of the nation as Winter War is for Finland. The war forged a nation divided by a bloody war of independence into one entity that stood with grim determination against hopeless odds and survived to tell the tale.

Finnish troops fighting in the Arctic wilderness

Before the Russian invasion that begun on the 30th of November in 1939, most Finns were blissfully unaware of the forces Stalin had assigned for what he expected to be an easy victory. The Red Army had devised a plan to attack Finland along the whole 1300 km long border with 21 divisions that had 450 000 men.

Russian DB bomber shot down by the Finnish Air-Force

Soviets highlighted the totalitarian nature of their invasion already on the first day of the war as bomber formations unleashed hell upon Finnish cities. It’s still somewhat debated whether the attacks on civilian population were intentional or a result of utter incompetence and failed targeting of the bombing runs. The Soviet air-power had one powerful effect, the whole Finnish nation understood that they were fighting for their survival.

Burning village along the border

The words of the marching song, written by the Nobel prize winning author F.E. Sillanpää put the feelings of the men into words:

Siis te lapset ja vanhukset,
ja te äidit ja morsiamet,
niin kauan teillä on suojattu lies
kun on pystyssä yksikin mies.

Children and elders,
mothers and brides,
stove in your home shall be safe,
as long as there is a man standing

Finnish evacuated civilians at the Helsinki railway station, just minutes before the first bombing in 30th of Nov.

Another important thing that made the situation feel like the army was fighting for everyone was the fact all civilians that could be evacuated from the front lines were moved to safety and looked after. Resettling hundreds of thousands of Finns was an extraordinary feat.

For the first few days the Red Army advanced rapidly as the Finnish conscript and Border Guard units fought a pre-planned delaying action. This short phase allowed th made the situation feele Finnish forces to become accustomed to war and also confirmed the amount of men, tanks and artillery the Red Army had was significantly higher than expected, especially in the Northern Finland where Finns weren’t expecting any major operations.

The Soviet use of tanks and armored cars became as a shock to the Finnish troops, whose anti-tank weaponry was scarce. The initial attacks routed the Finnish forces, but with experience the confidence of the defenders grew. With gained confidence and the realization that the few at-guns available together with artillery, mines and improvised explosives could actually defeat the steel beasts, the Finns set to work.

Captured Soviet 45mm AT-gun turned against its former owners

Soviet BT-7 tank captured by the Finns

Work, that’s what the soldiers did, it wasn’t an adventure, it wasn’t a chance for glory. Instead the war was grim, dirty, freezing and brutal work. Something you undertake because it’s your duty, because everything you love is in danger.

While the spirit of the work was the same, the actual war was very different along different parts of the long front. On the southernmost part of the front line, the Karelian-Isthmus, the war transfomed into a one-sided trench warfare. The Red Army hammered the Finnish defenses time after time with frontal attacks supported by tanks, artillery and bombers.

Finnish soldiers holding captured British made Lewis-guns

On the northern battlefields the Red Army was restricted to operating along the narrow roads that were few and far in between. This allowed Finnish forces to stop numerically larger formations with smaller units and eventually to encircle and destroy several Russian divisions by flanking them with ski-troops.

In all theaters the skills and courage of the Finnish soldiers clearly outmatched the Soviet forces. While the superior marksmanship and the ability to ski were important, the biggest difference between the two forces was the difference in leadership. The Finnish troops were allowed to improvise and make tactical decision at all levels, on the other hand the Soviets operated in an extremely rigid chain of command.

From the beginning of the war, Finland had mobilized both the army, its supporting civil guard militias and womens voluntary organization Lotta Svärd. These combined with women replacing reservists in various duties from factories to forestry allowed the rather isolated country to remain functional despite the heavy fighting and Russian air-raids.

Finnish women working at a munitions factory

A Lotta working as an aircraft spotter in the freezing winter

Lotta's working as HQ messenger

The stiff Finnish resistance forced Moscow to ultimately commit over 760 000 men, 6500 tanks and 3800 airplanes against a nation of only 3,5 million people. In the it was just a war of attrition that nearly depleted both sides, but with smaller resources Finland was forced to hand over most of Karelia to USSR. Despite a nominal victory and enough lands to bury the 1700 00 dead Soviet soldiers and go gather their thousand knocked out tanks, the humiliation was unbearable for Stalin.

What can we learn from the Winter War

War doesn’t need one man, it requires every man and woman rallied around a common cause.

Survival and duty motivate far better than fear or glory.

Quality can outmaneuver and outgun quantity.

Moscow will always lie.

Here are my earlier pieces on the Winter War:


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