In 1939, Europe was gripped at the start of another World War. Although the Soviet Union would end the conflict fighting alongside the Allied forces, the beginning of the war was a different story. A non-aggression pact with Adolf Hitler signed in August 1939, known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, gave Josef Stalin the breathing space to turn his sights on his Nordic neighbour Finland. To this day, many don't know the true ins and outs of what was a brutal fight in temperatures that dropped to -43°C. This is the story of the Winter War.
After Hitler had invaded Poland from the west in September 1939, Stalin sent in the Red Army from the east and swiftly conquered the eastern side of the country. Looking to expand his influence over Eastern Europe further, Stalin then turned his attention to Finland. He feared his neighbour could become a base of operations for Germany, who might launch an attack from there against the Soviet Union. Although Finland had declared itself neutral at the start of WW2, the Finns and Soviets shared a deep mistrust of one another. With Leningrad situated just 20 miles from the Finnish border, Stalin wanted a buffer zone and so sought to push the Finnish border back.
He offered the Finns a land swap whereby they succeeded borderlands, including several islands, to the Soviets and in return, the Finns would receive Soviet land elsewhere. Fearing Soviet expansionism and mistrusting their motives, the Finns refused the deal.
With tensions between the two countries on a knife-edge, the Soviets conducted a false flag operation close to the border. A Soviet guard post supposedly came under Finnish artillery fire, leading to several casualties. The Finns denied the attack and it was later proved to be the work of a Soviet NKVD unit. The border incident provided Stalin with the pretext he needed to declare war on his neighbour.
On 30 November 1939, just three months after Hitler invaded Poland, Stalin ordered the Red Army to invade its Nordic neighbour, commencing the start of the Winter War, also known as the Russo-Finnish War.
On paper, the Red Army was far superior, outgunning the Finns in almost every department. Most significantly was the sheer volume of troops at Stalin’s disposal. He ordered half a million soldiers into Finland on several fronts, the tiny Finnish Army had its work cut-out.
Stalin hoped the war would last just a few weeks. The speed of Soviet victory in Poland had convinced Stalin he’d have similar results in Finland.
Early on, however, it was clear the Soviets were facing a tougher challenge. Stalin’s purges of the Red Army in the 1930s now came back to bite him. His army had been left weakened and lacking in experience and competency. The Soviets also underestimated the determination of their enemy. In fact, the strength of the Finnish national unity during the invasion became known as the Spirit of the Winter War and is often credited as the driving force behind Finnish survival.
A large portion of the fighting focussed on the Karelian Isthmus, a small land bridge situated in southern Finland that connects with Russia. A series of Finnish defence systems on the Isthmus became known as the Mannerheim Line and it wasn’t long before the Soviets began testing its strength.
Although the Finns had few anti-tank weapons, they soon learnt the weaknesses of Soviet armoured vehicles, especially at close range, and developed their own weapon to counter them. It was a glass bottle filled with petrol and stuffed with a piece of cloth. The cloth was ignited and thrown towards the Soviet tanks, exploding upon impact. The simple hand-held incendiary became known as the Molotov Cocktail, a sarcastic nod to the Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov.
Equipped with Molotov Cocktails, the Finns perfected the art of tank disposal and throughout December enjoyed a series of victories against their numerically superior invaders.
As the icy grip of winter took its hold on the Finnish landscape, temperatures around the Karelian Isthmus plummeted to around -43°C. This played perfectly into the hands of the defenders who were better prepared for the frosty conditions. Many Soviet soldiers didn’t have proper winter clothing and thousands suffered from frostbite. They also stood out like sore thumbs wearing their Khaki uniforms making themselves easy targets for Finnish snipers.
One such sharpshooter was a Finnish man named Simo Häyhä. He was so successful that he garnered the nickname ‘The White Death’ and after the war claimed to have killed 500 enemy soldiers, the highest number of sniper kills by a single individual in any major conflict.
Skirmishes started to break out in Central and Northern Finland, although the difficult terrain slowed any significant Soviet progress. The conflict even reached the perimeter of the arctic circle, with fighting occurring in Lapland. Dressed in white and masterful on skis, the Finns quickly moved across the snowy landscape, seemingly invisible to their enemy as they executed guerrilla attacks. Although vastly outnumbered, the Finns dogged defence halted Soviet advances.
Back in the Soviet Union, the propaganda machine went into overdrive as Stalin sought to reassure the public the war was going to plan. In truth, the Red Army was being humiliated.
The Soviets hoped a reshuffling of personnel alongside a shift in tactics would break the deadlock. Increasing bombardments on the southern Finnish line began to wear the defenders down by early February. As resources began to dwindle, the Finns hoped to secure help from Great Britain and France. Neither came to their aid due to Norway and Sweden refusing to grant the Allies a right of passage through their countries.
By late February, the Finnish forces were exhausted but so were the Soviets who now feared a spring thaw would bog their forces down. The Red Army had also suffered embarrassingly high casualty numbers and pressure began to build for a treaty to be made between the two countries.
With negotiations ongoing, the Soviets finally made military inroads in early March, breaking through the Mannerheim Line. With the situation of their armed forces improving, Soviet demands increased. The Finns were eventually forced to accept the Soviet terms.
The Moscow Peace Treaty was signed on 12 March 1940 with a ceasefire coming into force the next day. Finland ceded 10% of its entire territory to the Soviets and around half a million Finns lost their homes and were evacuated. Around 25,000 Finns had been killed in the conflict, with 43,000 wounded whilst the Soviets lost between 120-000-160,000 men, with around 200,000 wounded, sick or frostbitten.
Although battered and bruised, the Finns had kept their independence and their heroic defence had significant ramifications on the course of WW2. The poor performance of the Red Army during the Winter War convinced Hitler that an attack of the Soviet Union would be successful, which he undertook in June 1941 during the doomed Operation Barbarossa. The Allies had also been left red-faced after their chaotic, shambolic and toothless attempts to help Finland had failed.