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  • James Houser

February 29, 1940 - End of the Soviet-Finnish "Winter War"

Updated: Jun 2, 2021

February 29, 1940. Reeling from defeats and seeing its frontlines collapsing, the Finnish Government sues for peace with the Soviet Union. The Winter War is over...and for all its defiance, Finland has lost. From this war, everyone takes away the wrong lessons.

On November 30, 1939, the Soviet Union attacked Finland in a naked war of aggression. Its strategic calculus was sound. Nazi Germany and the Soviets had signed a non-aggression pact, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Agreement, by which they divided Poland between them. The secret clauses of the pact, however, allowed the Soviets a free hand in certain parts of Eastern Europe, especially the Baltic States and Finland.

Finland was high on the target list. It had been a possession of Tsarist Russia until the 1917 Revolution, after which it fought a successful War of Independence. The Finns were a people apart. They had been a Swedish possession until 1809, and had never truly reconciled themselves to Soviet authority. When different nationalities took sides during the chaos of Europe after World War I, the Finns had aligned themselves with the Whites in the Russian Civil War, ultimately using the opportunity to win their independence and expel the Finnish Reds. The Soviets had chafed under this reality ever since, but as long as the Western Powers presented a problem they could not invade. With Britain and France laser-focused on Germany, the Soviets believed their time had come.

The Winter War, 1939-40. Finns in blue, Soviets in Red.

Whether the Soviets intended to fully conquer Finland is still in dispute. They initially demanded large border territories, especially those immediately around Leningrad (modern St. Petersburg) that posed a security threat. These were terms the Finns could never accept, however, and many historians conclude that the Soviets intended to annex Finland and set up a large border state. Either way, the Finns refused, and the Soviets attacked. 450,000 Soviets swarmed the border, defended by no more than 200,000 regular Finnish soldiers - though the local militias raised this number by 50,000. An enormous industrial power, one of the strongest nations on Earth, attacked a small Nordic state - and the result was disaster.

The Finns were determined and fighting on home turf. Along the Karelian isthmus - a split of land flanked by the Baltic on one side and Lake Ladoga on the other - Finnish Marshal Carl Gustav von Mannerheim had built a fortified line that bore his name. The Soviet Army had suffered heavily from the Purges of 1937-1938, during which suspicious Stalin had much of the experienced officer corps executed. Though they attacked with masses of tanks and artillery and outnumbered the defenders two to one, the Soviets made poor headway against the Mannerheim Line.

Trenches in the Mannerheim Line

Against the tanks, the Finns deployed glass bottles filled with gasoline and set alight by a simple fuse. Since Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov had delivered the declaration of war, the Finns mockingly referred to their new weapon as a drink for the Foreign Minister - a "Molotov Cocktail". They destroyed 80 tanks this way, and the Mannerheim Line repulsed the Soviet attacks. Artillery shattered Russian assaults and the troops, suffering from poor leadership and abysmal morale, panicked and fled.

Up north in the Arctic regions, the Soviets had it even worse. The terrain was some of the worst an army has ever had to attack across. Here the Finns fought with guerrilla tactics in the vast tundra. Even though the Soviets were far stronger, they were restricted to the roads and towns due to severe weather. The Finns had white winter clothing that made them almost invisible, and used cross-country skis to maneuver around and cut off Soviet forces. Two Soviet infantry divisions were destroyed at the Battle of Suomussalmi in December by these Finnish guerrillas, and farther south the Finnish 12th Division drove back four times their number. Among the 12th Division was the famed Simo Hayha, the "White Death" who had over 500 confirmed kills.

Finns ambushing Soviet soldiers, 1939

Now here's the rub. Most accounts of the war stop there. The Finns won the first round, but they lost the war. Their struggle was heroic and steadfast, but they absolutely lost the war.

After the wretched experiences of November and December, the Soviets pulled back, recocked, and assessed. They had been humiliated, but they were not done. Stalin ordered a change in leadership. His old crony General Voroshilov, a Civil War comrade and ancient cavalry general, was replaced by the modernizer Semyon Timoshenko. Timoshenko reorganized Soviet troops and retrained them in combined arms tactics, as well as organizing close air support. He also reoriented the attack; instead of weak attacks all along the Mannerheim Line, Timoshenko concentrated overwhelming force at a single point.

On February 1, the Soviet offensive reopened. With 460,000 soldiers, 3000 tanks and 1300 aircraft, the Finns were outnumbered three to one. The Soviet forces advanced under smoke concealment, with tanks in close support and under heavy artillery cover. They splintered the Mannerheim Line. Even though casualties were high, they stove in the Finns. The legendary Simo Hayha was gravely wounded by an artillery shell in these last desperate weeks, and the Soviets were soon approaching Helsinki.

Finnish Machine Gun Crew in Winter War, 21 February 1940

The Finns had been desperate for peace since January, but the Soviets forced them to see the hopelessness of their situation before they accepted terms. The Finns had approached the Western Allies and even Nazi Germany for assistance, but they were too focused on each other to bother with tiny Finland. The Soviets, too, were exhausted and suffering high casualties even in victory. At the end of the day, both sides had gotten all they could get out of the Winter War.

Finnish troops surrendering to Soviets, artist unknown

On February 29, 1940, the Finns accepted peace negotiations based on the original Soviet terms. Though fighting continued for a week - the Soviets applied pressure to ensure the Finns were serious - the war was for all intents and purposes over. With both sides exhausted, and the alternative for the Finns being outright destruction, the peace was signed on March 12, 1940.

Finland lost 11% of its territory and 30% of its economic assets; almost 422,000 people had to evacuate the lost territory and flee deeper into the country. But it could have been a lot worse. Most nations in the 1940s would have killed to get Finnish terms from the Germans or Soviets. This was all due in large part to the heroic defense put up by the Finns.

But the central fact here is that that defense *was not enough.* Despite its earlier losses, the Soviet army reformed, learned hard lessons, and prevailed. This fact is often forgotten in narratives of the Winter War: the focus is on brave Finnish resistance rather than the ultimate facts of the outcome. The Soviet Army had a long way to go, but it learned from its mistakes - and could afford to make them. When we say "The Finns fought amazingly, but the Soviets prevailed in the end," media, pop history and drama focus on the first portion of that phrase - but it's the second portion that ultimately proved more important.

For other nations also observed the Winter War. Among them was Nazi Germany. Hitler had been unimpressed with what he had seen from the Soviet military doing its 1939 occupation of Poland, and the beginning of the Winter War seemed to confirm his beliefs. The Soviets were a weak nation with a dismal military, and "one good kick should send the whole rotten structure crashing down." Hitler, like legions of popular historians ever since, focused on the dramatic narrative and not the hard facts - though "dramatic narrative" was essentially Hitler's modus operandi. The Soviet struggles in the Winter War persuaded Hitler to step up his timetable for the invasion of the Soviet Union - the war that would ultimately doom the Nazi regime.

In 1941, when Hitler went to war with the Soviets, the Finns would go with him - as maybe the only sympathetic member of the Axis. They would once again be disappointed.

The lesson Hitler should have taken from the Winter War was to look at the whole thing - the Soviets fell behind in the first half, but prevailed in the second. The pattern would be repeated in 1941. This time, it would be the Nazis that failed to learn the lesson that Finland had learned so well - there are no trophies for victory in the first half of a marathon.

Book Recommendation: William R. Trotter's Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish War of 1939/40 (London: Aurum Press, 1991).

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