Ok, so it's a little late, but this is definitely a topic worth remembering. November 30th marked the 75th anniversary of the start of the Winter War, the first of two conflicts between Finland and the Soviet Union during the Second World War. Often forgotten today due to World War II occurring at the same time, the Winter War lasted for 105 days during a brutally cold winter. 

War between the two countries had been brewing for a number of years prior, mainly due to the Soviet Union's insistence that the Finns yield the Karelian Isthmus, among other territorial possessions. The Karelian Isthmus, north of St. Petersburg (Leningrad), had been a point of contention between the two countries for centuries, and was considered by the Soviets to be particularly strategic for its location in relation to Leningrad. After years of demanding territory to no avail, the Soviets took matters into their own hands. In late November 1939, the Soviets claimed that the Finns had launched artillery strikes on their territory. Investigation has since revealed that the artillery strikers had in fact come from the Soviets, not the Finns. Nonetheless, the Soviets attacked a few days later on November 30, launching air raids on Helsinki and beginning a massive ground offensive against the Finns. However, despite having an overwhelming numerical advantage in both men and machines, the Soviets met very stiff resistance from the Finns.

The Finns were commanded by Field Marshal C.G.E. Mannerheim, an officer who ironically had spent much of his military career in service with the Russians. During the Finnish Civil War in 1918, Mannerheim had commanded the Whites and defeated the communist forces, gaining a reputation as a capable though cold and calculating leader. Mannerheim had no illusions regarding the threat posed by the Soviets. At the time of the Winter War, Finland's population stood at 4 million, a figure which had no hope of supporting a long-term war against the Soviets with the massive manpower base. Mannerheim therefore positioned his forces in a way to maximize their potential. Mannerheim assumed that he Soviets would not attack through the desolate northern wilderness, but would instead attack through the Karelian Isthmus. He placed six divisions under the Army of the Karelian Isthmus to repel attacks through this corridor, two divisions under control of the Fourth Corps to protect the northern shores of Lake Ladoga, and the North Finland Group, which was responsible for covering the remaining 625-mile border between Finland and the Soviet Union.[1] Mannerheim wisely assumed that the Soviets would attack through the Karelian Isthmus rather than try to attack through the thick arctic forests of the northern border, and concentrated his forces along the Mannerheim line, a series of fortifications that, while somewhat crude by comparison with other fortifications, were intended to repulse a Soviet attack.

                On the other hand, the Soviets had concentrated a huge amount of manpower for their attack. The 7th Army, containing between 12-14 divisions, three tank brigades, and a mechanized corps attacked up the Karelian Isthmus. The 8th Army, consisting of six rifle divisions and two tank brigades, would attack to the north of Lake Ladoga. The 9th Army, which included five rifle divisions with attached armor, would support the offensive in the north. Finally, the 14th Army, with three “mediocre” divisions with some armor support, would attack from Murmansk towards the north of Finland.[2] Aside from a huge advantage in armor (the Finns had virtually no tanks themselves), Soviets could also turn to their air force, which vastly outnumbered anything the Finns could through against them.


                Despite these figures, the Finns were able to put up an incredibly stout resistance. For over two months, the Soviets suffered at both the hands of the Finns, who were more than familiar with the heavily forested terrain, and the freezing winter conditions, for which the Soviets were unprepared. Despite their near complete lack of armor, the Finns found ways of disabling Soviet tanks, ranging from strategically placing their few Bofors anti-aircraft guns in places where the Soviets concentrated their armor, to firebombs. In fact, during the entire war, the Soviets lost over 1900 tanks to combat and 1200 tanks to mechanical difficulties in the Karelian Isthmus alone.[3] The Soviets were also unprepared for the Finnish Air Force, which though thoroughly outnumbered by the Red Air Force and equipped only with second-rate foreign types, managed to shoot down roughly 240 aircraft over the course of the war while losing only 26[4]. As the Finns fought back, Soviet troop morale plummeted. Unfortunately for the Finns, despite inflicting grievous losses on the Soviets, they were fighting a losing war. Their small pre-war army and manpower base was unable to support the war of attrition being fought in the wilderness. In fact, Finland’s strategy for winning the war depended upon foreign assistance. The Finnish government attempted to persuade several Western governments to assist them in fighting the Soviets, most notably with France and Great Britain. Both countries eventually agreed to a plan that would commit over 100,000 troops to landings in Sweden with an advance into Finland to support the Finns in non-combat roles. However, the war ended before these plans could be affected.  


By February 1940, the Soviets finally began to learn from their mistakes. Chipping away at Finnish forces through artillery barrages and small infantry assaults, the Soviets broke through the Mannerheim line in mid-February. By early March, the Soviets were advancing deeper into Finland. Resigned to their fate, the Finns proposed a surrender effective March 5, but the Soviets declined, preferring to capitalize on their gains. Finally, on March 12, a peace treaty was signed in Moscow. A cease-fire went into effect the following day. The Finns suffered some 24,823 killed and 43,557 wounded, with another 420,000 rendered homeless by the peace treaty, which had seded the Karelian Isthmus and other former Finnish territories to the Soviets.[5] Losses for the Soviets continues to be debated by historians. Official Soviet claims at the time of the treaty listed 48,745 killed and over 159,000 wounded. However, more modern estimates by Russian historians have found that Soviet losses were probably closer to 230,000 killed either from combat or as a result of disease or exposure and another 200,000-300,000 wounded.[6] Included in this figure is some 5,000+ Soviet prisoners released by the Finns back to the Soviets at the conclusion of the war. Many of these prisoners were simply executed by the Soviets for their perceived failure or sent to prison camps. In any case, most of the repatriated prisoners did not survive for long.

The Winter War was not the only conflict between Finland and the Soviet Union. Just over a year after the end of the Winter War, the Finns sided with the Germans during their invasion of the Soviet Union, eager to regain their lost territory. The Continuation War would drag on until 1944, when the Finns signed another treaty with the Soviets. Shortly afterwards, the Finns sided with the Soviets and began the Lapland War, an offensive which pushed their former German allies out of Finland. The war finally concluded with a German surrender on April 25, 1945. Despite Finland’s later allying with Germany, the Winter War continues to be remembered as a classic example of a small country bravely resisting a much later and better equipped country, though in the end the Soviets were ultimately successful in their efforts.



[1] P.47 Trotter, William R. A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin of Chapel Hill, 1991. Print.

[2] P. 38-39 Trotter, William R. A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin of Chapel Hill, 1991. Print.

[3] http://www.winterwar.com/Tactics/FINatTactics.htm#losses 12/30/2014

[4] P.187-193 Trotter, William R. A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin of Chapel Hill, 1991. Print

[5] P.263 Trotter, William R. A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin of Chapel Hill, 1991. Print

[6] Trotter, William R. A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin of Chapel Hill, 1991. Print