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#WinterWar80: Road to War

On October 5th 1939 the USSR invited Finnish representatives to negotiations in Moscow. The Finnish government draw the correct conclusion that USSR was going to demand territory and bases from Finland. But the Finnish government wasn’t ready to roll over in the negotiations.

The signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between the USSR and Nazi Germany and the following invasion of Poland by the two, had made the Finnish leadership somewhat alarmed. During the October 1939 the USSR had demanded bases from the Baltic states. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania saw that they had no choice but to comply with the demands as they were trapped between the co-operating dictatorships.

Some leverage had to be created for the Finnish government. So it was decided that the best way to counter the Soviet pressure was to mobilize the Finnish army. But instead of announcing a general mobilization, Finland begun an “extra refresher training for the reservists”. 

Finnish Cavalry deploying to the border to delay the anticipated invasion by USSR

The Independent Finnish army emerged from the turmoil of the Finnish Civil as a rather mixed force of various White Guards with not much in the way of formal training. The leadership was in the hands of the ex imperial Russian army officers and the men trained in the German Jaegerbattalion 27.

Initially the army was formed as cadre force, supported by the Civil Guard Suojeluskunta that grew into an organic part of the defense forces, helping with maintaining the reservist training after the initial conscription.

The White Guards formed the base of the Finnish Army from 1917 onward. 

In 1935 the Finnish defense was revised from a traditional cadre system into a regional system. In the new system the active duty training formations were no longer expanded with the mobilized reservists. Instead the conscript units with their professional officers and NCOs were immediately sent to secure the border areas. Their mission was to screen the mobilization of the reserves into regional units. This field army was mobilized and equipped with the help of the local Suojeluskunta organizations. 

Finnish artillerymen resting at a local Suojeluskunta-house during the extra refresher training .

The voluntary training role of the Suojeluskunta allowed them to utilize the grassroots knowledge of the manpower in their respective areas to form effective front line units with minimal extra costs. The system was considered both effective and cheap, compared to the systems used by most other European nations.

Nurses organized by the Lotta-organization

A Lotta working as a messenger in a HQ
So by 20th of October 1939 the Finnish army had mobilized with the conscript units and border troops manning border line with a mission to delay the possible Russian invasion army and to buy time for the reservist field army to prepare the main defensive line. In addition to the army and Suojeluskunta, the womens organization Lotta Svärd also mobilized its members into supporting roles ranging from nursing and clerical duties to factories and anti-aircraft spotting.

Finnish reservists fetching food from the field kitchen that was crucial for winter warfare. Note also the warm civilian clothes taken from home.

It was an amazing feat that Finland managed to mobilize and concentrate 275000 men into defensive positions in just a week with the limited infrastructure available. While the organization proved efficient, the material situation of the Finnish army ranged from decent in small arms to abysmal in armor and anti-tank weapons. A grave lesson was learned when the Finns attempted to purchase additional equipment, like artillery and munitions from the world market. As everyone was now preparing for the looming World War, not much was available for purchase with the limited funds available.

An evacuated Karelian boy in Viipuri before the war broke out. After the war vast majority of the people evacuated became homeless, but all were settled within Finland.
One especially Finnish aspect was the widespread evacuation of the civilian population from the anticipated battle fields. Only few areas that were under Soviet surveillance were not evacuated in order to not give the USSR any grounds to claim that Finland was preparing to attack the USSR. The people in these villages later on suffered greatly in the Russian captivity and the mistake was not repeated later on.

Family fleeing the coming invasion with the little belongings their horse could pull

As the negotiations dragged on until the end of November the Finnish army had an excellent opportunity in both getting to know itself and harmonize the training and also to orientate itself to the coming tasks and battlefields well in advance.

During the negotiations the USSR also concentrated it’s troops to the Finnish border, with 450 000 men and 2000 tanks being ready by the early November. After the Kremlin realized that the Finnish leadership wasn’t going to agree to the Soviet territorial demands, Kremlin begun, what could be called a hybrid operation against Finland. Moscow prepared to prop up a puppet state called the Finnish Democratic Republic. It was led by a Finnish communist Otto-Wille Kuusinen, who had fled to the USSR after the failed revolution in 1918.

The fake republic naturally required a fake army, so the Soviets tried to from a Finnish peoples army to join the invasion. The only problem was that most of the Finns in the Soviet Union had been executed in the Stalins purges. So Moscow had to use anyone who could pass as a Finn, like Belorussians, instead of the Finns to man the Finnish peoples army.

Finnish soldier at the main defensive line

So by the late November in 1939 the largest army in the world was ready to invade a tiny freedom loving democracy. On the 26th of November the Red Army shelled its own forces at the border village of Mainila to create a Casus Belli.

Three days later, on the 30th of November, the Red Army began their parade march to liberate Finland, only to encounter the most determined fighting force the world had seen. The following 105 days of war created countless legends and possibly up to half a million Soviet casualties.

Picture source is that contains all of the photographs acquired by the Finnish Defense Forces during WW2.

Here is my previous Winter War related piece:


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