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White David vs. Red Goliath, The Winter War, 1939-1940


FNG / Fresh Meat
Mar 25, 2006
Connecticut, United States
So, I had begun writing this while I was bored and supposed to be filing grants at work. I posted it on two other forums but forgot about the fellows that would appreciate it most: you!

So, here goes. Not done yet. I'll get around to it eventually.

The Winter War, 1939-1940
i. Causes
ii. The Armies
iii. The First Days


The Karelian Isthmus is situated directly between the Gulf of Finland in the eastern most portion of the Baltic Sea and the rather sizeable Lake Ladoga in northwestern Russia. Apart from what is lovely scenic countryside during the summer months, the Karelian Isthmus holds no significant natural resources and is poor farmland. Despite this, the area has been a spot of intense anxiety for the past three hundred years since Russia’s Peter the Great--the reason being that it stands as a land bridge between greater Russia and all of Scandinavia. The terrain serves as a convenient route between Scandinavia and Russia that is not found anywhere else. The northern and eastern borders of Finland are heavily forested and remote. They are hard to travel through for most modern vehicles and most anything but aircraft and skis.

Ever since May of 1703 when Peter the Great began to construct his new capital city just south of the Karelian Isthmus, the area has concerned Russia’s generals. The Isthmus could serve as a defensive buffer against potential aggressors coming from Sweden and later Finland—or a conduit for aggressors to attack Russia. The construction of St. Petersburg in this location ensured that at some point the area would become the focus of a conflict.
Such was the case in late 1939. Months prior in August of that year, Hitler’s Germany had signed a pact with Stalin’s Soviet Union which contained several secret protocols. This pact—the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact—divided up parts of Europe and Scandinavia into mutual ‘spheres of influence’ between the two nations and guaranteed that the two nations would not attack each other. In the Soviet’s sphere lay eastern Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Finland.

A week after the pact had been signed, Germany invaded Poland with lightning speed. On September 17, the Soviets, as per the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, invaded from the east and carved Poland in half to create a buffer zone against Germany. Soon after, the foreign ministers of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Finland were invited to Moscow to discuss ‘mutual assistance’ pacts with the Soviets and other concessions. In early October, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania signed a ‘mutual assistance’ agreement with the Soviets allowing the Soviets to base planes, ships, and troops inside their countries. All three were effectively under Stalin’s thumb and well within the Soviet’s ‘sphere of influence’ now.

Stalin’s demands of the Finns were different. Europe had become engulfed in a large war and Stalin worried about the security of his nation. Due to mounting concerns, he had secured the non-aggression pact with Hitler to create buffer zones against potential enemies. Leningrad (formerly St. Petersburg) was dangerously close to the Finnish border. Given that Finland had previously accepted help from Germany during their 1918 civil war and that the Finnish government was fairly anti-Bolshevik in nature, Stalin wanted to gain a northern buffer zone against possible aggression and to protect Leningrad.

In his first meeting with the Finnish delegation, Stalin sat down and immediately laid out his demands. First, he wanted the border between Finland and the Soviet Union on Karelia moved north around 20 miles. Second, he demanded that several islands in the Gulf of Finland and two peninsulas in northern and southern Finland opened to Soviet naval forces. In exchange, Stalin would agree to give Finland a large portion of the land above Lake Ladoga (to the east of the Karelian Isthmus) to Finland. The Finns, having just recently become an independent nation in 1918 and having no ill-intent against the Soviet Union refused. They offered counter-terms but Stalin refused these in turn.
The Finnish refusal to Stalin’s terms caught the Soviets flat-footed. Stalin, the cynical and paranoid politician he was, wondered what gave the Finns such a strong backbone to refuse his demands. The Finnish armed forces were small and poorly-equipped while the Red Army was a mechanized behemoth. They could not hope to secure their sovereignty by force and had no alliances with any foreign powers. Naturally, he suspected the Finns perhaps had a secret alliance with Hitler’s Germany or something equally underhanded. The Finns, in coming to the negotiating table, suspected that if they agreed to Stalin’s terms now, it would only open the door for Stalin to demand more outrageous things in the future. The Finns and Soviets met for over a month to discuss the issues at hand. The Finns refused Stalin’s demands and still Stalin refused their counter offers. On November 3rd, Molotov, Stalin’s foreign minister ended a session of talks with a veiled threat of military action if the talks continued as they had been. On November 9th, the talks ended entirely and the Finnish delegation left Moscow. The Finns prepared for the worst.
Shortly afterwards, Stalin met in his apartment with close members of his ruling elite: Molotov the foreign minister, Zhdanov the Leningrad party chief, Krushchev, and the Finnish communist exile, Kuusinen. They discussed plans to attack Finland and set up a puppet communist government under Kuusinen.

Days later, on November 26th, several artillery shots were reported by Finnish border posts. The shots landed in Soviet Karelia close to the Finnish border. Stalin ordered Molotov to send a strongly worded note to the Finnish government in Helsinki, the Finnish capital, accusing Finland of attacking and killing Soviet troops with artillery fire. Finland responded with claims of their innocence and citing an order issued days earlier by Field Marshall Mannerheim, commander of the Finnish forces, to pull all artillery back from the front lines. Stalin and Molotov were not impressed and responded with what amounted to a declaration of war against Finland.

Hours later, Soviet bombers flew out from cloud cover and began to bomb Helsinki. Finland and the Soviet Union were now at war.

The Armies

On the eve of the Winter War, the Finnish armed forces could muster a total of ten fully equipped infantry divisions. Mobilization of the nation by Field Marshall Mannerheim would allow for another two divisions to be raised. These, however, could not be fully equipped and were comprised of mostly home guard militia types with sketchy training. Each division numbered 14,000 men and could call upon support from roughly 30 artillery pieces of various sizes and nearly 24 mortars.

Ammunition was extremely scarce as well. Finnish stockpiles contained about two months’ worth of ammunition for small arms and about one month of ammunition for mortars and artillery. With so little ammunition and such a small pre-war budget allocated to the armed forces, Finnish gunners had taken enormous pains to prepare for potential war. Potential battlefields in Finland and on the border were identified and mapped for the gunners. These areas were preregistered ahead of time. Finnish artillery would be deadly accurate when compared with their Soviet counter parts. Soviet gunners would suffer from poor fire control throughout the fight. The Soviets, who could call upon infinitely more firepower, would at times simply fire blindly.

Unlike the Finns, the Soviets did not adequately prepare for the coming war. Soviet artillery brought as many direct fire guns to the field as howitzers and mortars. Under normal circumstances, this would pose little problem to Soviet operations. The Finnish forests were deep and heavily wooded. Finnish artillery concentrated on guns with arced trajectories to negate the problems posed by the dense forest.

This could be blamed on one of Stalin’s cronies by the name of Kulik. Deputy-Commissar and an artillery officer from the Russian Civil War, Kulik was responsible for a number of serious blunders that plagued the Red Army not only in the Winter War, but also the war against Germany. During the years leading up to the war with Germany, Kulik, possessing Stalin’s favor, overruled several more knowledgeable artillery officers during discussions of how to rearm the Red Army’s artillery branches. N.N. Voronov, a high ranking artillery officer of the Red Army, had the courage to stand up and argue for more modern artillery over the non-sense Kulik was advising Stalin to purchase. Stalin placed his faith in Kulik—which ended up being a poor decision—and dismissed the pleas of Voronov.

Kulik was ordered north with another sketchy favorite of Stalin, the Commissar Mekhlis. Mekhlis would later make a name for himself during the German invasion by being sent from front to front terrorizes Red Army generals and arrested many of them for no good reason causing even more chaos on the front. He was later responsible for the collapse of the entire Crimean front in 1942. This, however, finally earned him Stalin’s wrath and a serious demotion.
Mekhlis and Kulik soon made themselves nuisances. The timetable for the invasion of Finland gave for about 10 days of combat before Finland would fall. Anyone who disagreed with this was mocked by both Commissars ruthlessly. Kulik not only extremely underestimated the Finns, but he also ordered barely any ammunition be brought forward for the coming attack. Voronov, by this time, chief marshall of artillery was called to give estimates on how much ammunition would be required for the offensive. To answer the question, Voronov would need to know how long the operation would last. Kulik gave the answer: ten days. Voronov wasn’t stupid, he could look at a map and see that it’d take at least ten days to move through the Finnish forests. Voronov replied, “I’ll be happy if everything can be resolved in two or three months.” He was mocked by both Mekhlis and Kulik.

Voronov wasn’t the only Red Army officer that could read a map however. Red Army chief of staff Shaposhnikov prepared a fairly extensive report on the challenges of invading Finland and the forces and timetable required for such an operation. The Red Army could bring to bear large amounts of armor and artillery and supporting infantry. However, these things required favorable terrain. Shaposhnikov could see that Finland was heavily forested and would be covered under a deep blanket of snow during the winter months. Combat would favor close up infantry battles. The report was submitted to Stalin but apparently ignored.

Very little effort was expended to train Red Army troops to use skis or other necessities of winter warfare in Finland. Meanwhile, the Finnish army was hard at work creating tactics to emphasize the terrain advantages offered by the Finnish forests and snow. Ambush tactics, lightning fast ski assaults—these were the main focus of Finnish infantry training in the years leading up to the Winter War. With such an emphasis on infantry, small arms would play an extremely important role. Here, the Finnish army had an advantage over the Red Army. While their standard service rifle was simply a variant of the Russian Mosin-Nagant, the Finns possessed and excellent submachine gun: the Suomi KP-31. The KP was a sturdy platform firing 9mm rounds at nearly 900rpm. It was accurate to nearly 200 meters and was extremely reliable in the cold weather. Its size and weight made it excellent for ski troops to use quickly. The Soviets came to fear the gun and would eventually take the design and copy it to create the famous PPSh-41 submachine gun.

The Finns also had a reliable and powerful light machine gun called the Lahti. It was close in function to the American B.A.R. but could survive in much colder temperatures. Rare amongst weapons of the time, the Lahti could also be switched between semi- and fully-automatic fire. It fired 7.62mm rounds and could be fired either shouldered or from an attachable bipod. The main advantage here was that it was mobile firepower for fast moving Finnish troops unlike the Finns mainstay machine gun, a water-cooled Maxim variant. The Maxim was heavy, weighing nearly 23 pounds. It was, however, rugged and reliable even in the horrific conditions of the Finnish winter. The Finns would make excellent use of these throughout the war as make-shift artillery. Due to the lack of shells and artillery pieces, to reduce strong points, Finnish troops would wheel a Maxim up to ludicrously close ranges and blast away until the position vanished. Other armies would have called upon mortars or artillery. Finland had to make the most out of the few things they had.

Unlike Finland, the Soviets could call upon large amounts of armor to support their attacks or force breakthroughs. Finland had no armor whatsoever. In fact, Finland didn’t even have obsolete armor for troops to train against. Finnish troops would get a rude shock during the opening days of the war by both the Soviet artillery and armor. Most Finnish troops hadn’t seen a single tank, let alone the massed armor the Soviets would use. Finnish troops made excellent use of the very few 37mm Bofors anti-tank guns they had and would improvise with anything they had on hand to destroy tanks. The Finns created the famous “Molotov Cocktail” gas bomb or bundled grenades together to attack tanks. Despite the Finns having no armor whatsoever, the Soviets brought forward many anti-tank guns and wheeled them into the Finnish forests. Lucky for the Finns, these were quickly captured and made good use of.

Soviet armor would cause many problems for Finnish troops throughout the war, but the breakthroughs they created were seldom exploited by Soviet infantry. Communication between armor, artillery, and infantry in 1939’s Red Army was limited to attacking in the same direction. Whether or not infantry and tanks got there at the same time, no one knew, or seemed to care. The Red Army had a long way to go before it became the mechanized juggernaught of 1945. First they had to shake off the oppressive yoke of the Commissar and needed to get their hands dirty with some actual combat experience. The stereotypical massed charges against machine guns and through minefields to clear them for Soviet armor most certainly applied here. Finnish machine gunners would sometimes have to be rotated off the frontlines at strong points in the line after mowing downs literally hundreds of Soviet soldiers in the space of 20 minutes. The senseless slaughter would fray the nerves of troops.

This was the state of both armies as Soviet troops massed on the Finnish border and Finnish troops frantically continued to fortify the Mannerheim defense line. In terms of manpower and materiel available to both sides, this couldn’t have appeared as anything less than a foregone conclusion on paper. The Finns, however, had Soviet incompetence, the terrain, and some of the best officers in any army to help to even the odds. Despite this, no one was holding their breath.

The First Days

Beginning on November 30th, 1939 the Red Army invaded Finland with 25 full divisions supported heavily by attached and independent armored brigades. Due to Finland’s manpower constraints, Marshall Mannerheim knew he could not defend every stretch of the Finnish-Soviet border. A sober analysis of the terrain prompted him to believe that he would not have to. Red Army officers, like most officers around the world had been duly impressed by the rapid German victories and combined arms effort that had swept over Poland. Trying their best to imitate this entirely German way of making war, Soviet planners envisioned armored thrusts across the Karelian Isthmus by the Seventh Army, across the north shore of Lake Ladoga by the Eight Army, and across central Finland to Oulu by the Ninth Army. The goal was to tie down defenders in the Mannerheim line and achieve a breakthrough to Viipuri by the Seventh Army in concert with the Eight Army breaking into the rear of the Mannerheim line north of Lake Ladoga. In the densely wooded north, Finland would be cut in half by the Ninth Army’s thrust across central Finland to Oulu on the coast. Unlike Mannerheim, Soviet planners did not take into account any of the terrain involved.

The Karelian Isthmus and the northern shore of Lake Ladoga could support large columns of troops and their support echelons. Modern military technology, trucks, tanks, and the like, would be able to make use of the roads on the isthmus and the two good roads north of Lake Ladoga. North of that, however, roads were few and far between. The area was heavily wooded and a modern, mechanized army would be limited to one or two roads for their advance into the deep Finnish wilderness. Mannerheim expected little in the way of Soviet incursions north of the area immediately north of Lake Ladoga. Four army corps were set in and around the Karelia and Lake Ladoga. Most were concentrated on the Mannerheim line—Finland’s main defensive line snaking its way across southern Finland. North of Lake Ladoga there was the North Finland Group comprised of one or two divisions, border guards, and activated reservists. The north was virtually impenetrable for modern mechanized armies prompting Mannerheim—correctly—to station the vast bulk of his troops in the south where terrain was much more favorable for offensive operations.

Soviet planners didn’t agree with their maps however. When fighting broke out, they would surprise Mannerheim by sending large mechanized formations across the border on nearly every major road north of Lake Ladoga. Unfortunately for these hapless troops, they would be pinned to their roads and cut into smaller and smaller groups by mobile Finnish ski troops. This, known as “motti tactics” after the Finnish word for small bundles of sticks hacked into smaller and smaller pieces, would become a well known and widely used phrase during the course of the war. Several entire Soviet divisions were annihilated by smaller Finnish battalions in the densely forested north.

Despite the rude surprises in the north, the Red Army by and large attacked where Mannerheim believed they would. The Finnish terrain didn’t allow for much in the way of strategic surprise as it was. The Mannerheim line was situated between 15-30 miles behind the Finnish border. Mannerheim had deployed screening forces well ahead of the line to slow the Soviet’s advance to the line. The bulk of the Soviet forces advanced into Karelia encountering uneven resistance. Most Finnish troops had not had a chance to even glimpse a tank in training let alone be on the receiving end of a massed armored charge. In several areas Finnish troops held until confronted with armor.

Finnish troops were poorly equipped to deal with tanks. There were a precious few Bofors 37mm anti-tank guns allocated to each division. These were kept sited on roads and other areas certain to see Soviet armor. The Finnish screening forces made use of whatever was on hand to combat tanks. Bundled grenades, gasoline bombs, and even crowbars were used to destroy or otherwise disable a tank. Soviet infantry-armor cooperation was nearly non-existent. Often time Soviet armor would break through a Finnish position only to find that their accompanying infantry had melted away under Finnish fire and had ultimately retreated. The tanks would then deploy into a rough circle, like a wagon train in the wild west, and stay there for the night. During the night, Finnish troops snuck up to the tanks and destroyed them with grenades and gasoline bombs.

The Red Army had expected a popular rising against the Finnish government by Finnish workers. They crossed the border with banners, pamphlets—even a brass band--and all manner of useless propaganda items for these would-be revolutionaries. A Communist-Finnish government was set up under Kuusinen shortly after hostilities began. The Soviet press tried to portray the Kuusinen government as the legal government of the Finnish people that had been forced into exile by the ‘fascists’ under Mannerheim. No one believed this. Red Army troops were surprised to find towns deserted and burned to the ground and that the workers themselves had firmly stood behind their legal government. Eventually the Kuusinen government simply faded away as everyone had simply stopped caring and had given up the charade.

By December 6, all the screening forces had fallen back across the Mannerheim Line and burned everything behind them. The Soviets prepared their first offensive against the Mannerheim line at Taipale.
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FNG / Fresh Meat
Jun 14, 2006
the Finns possessed and excellent submachine gun: the Suomi KP-31. The KP was a sturdy platform firing 9mm rounds at nearly 900rpm. It was accurate to nearly 200 meters and was extremely reliable in the cold weather. Its size and weight made it excellent for ski troops to use quickly. The Soviets came to fear the gun and would eventually take the design and copy it to create the famous PPSh-41 submachine gun.

I apologise for nitpicking, but I can
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