Both the Nazi–Soviet Pact of 24 August 1939 and its coda in Moscow the following month gave Stalin a completely free hand in the north, and he moved swiftly to capitalize on it. Hoping to protect Leningrad against any future German attack, he tried to turn the Gulf of Finland into a Soviet seaway, even though its northern shore was Finnish and most of its southern shore Estonian. Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were bullied into agreements that allowed the Red Army to be stationed at key points on their territory, and in June 1940 their sovereignty was extinguished altogether by effective annexation. Surrounded on three sides by mighty Russia, they had no real choice but to acquiesce. Finland was another matter, even though she had a tiny fraction of Russia’s population and an 800-mile border with her.
In October Stalin summoned the Finns to Moscow to be presented with Soviet demands. They sent the leader of the Social Democrat Party, Väinö Tanner, who has been described as ‘tough, tactless, stubborn and frequently bloody-minded’, a curious choice of representative when the survival of one’s nation was at stake. Meanwhile, they mobilized. Stalin and Molotov wanted a thirty-year lease on the naval base of Cape Hanko, the cession of the Arctic port of Petsamo and three small islands in the Gulf, as well as the moving back of the frontier on the Karelian Isthmus, which was presently only 15 miles from Leningrad. In return for these 1,066 square miles of territory, the Russians were willing to give Finland 2,134 square miles of Russian Karelia around Repola and Porajorpi.
On the face of it, the deal did not look unreasonable, but when considered strategically the key nodal points the Bolshevik leaders were demanding made it clear that Finnish sovereignty would be hopelessly compromised, and the Finns decided to fight rather than submit. Matters were not helped when Tanner mentioned his and Stalin’s supposedly shared Menshevik past, a libel on the Bolshevik leader. On 28 November the USSR abrogated its 1932 non-aggression treaty with Finland and two days later, without declaring war, the Russians bombed Helsinki and invaded Finland with 1.2 million men, opening a bitter 105-day struggle that some have likened to the Spartans’ stand at Thermopylae.
The world prepared to watch another small nation being crushed by a totalitarian monolith. The Finnish Army comprised ten divisions, with only thirty-six artillery pieces per division, all of pre-1918 vintage, and inadequate small arms (although they did have the excellent 9mm Suomi machine pistol), supported by few modern aircraft. ‘They lacked everything,’ one historian has noted, ‘except courage and discipline.’ The Russians, by contrast, came across the border with 1,500 tanks, 3,000 aircraft and a complete assumption of a quick victory, as in Poland. The Red Army divided its attack into four parts: the Seventh and Thirteenth Armies would smash through the Finnish defences on the Karelian Isthmus known as the Mannerheim Line and capture Viipuri (Viborg), the second city of Finland. Meanwhile the Eighth Army would march round the northern shore of Lake Lagoda to fall on Viipuri from the north. The Ninth Army would attack the waist of Finland, slicing it in two, and in the far north the Fourteenth Army would capture Petsamo and Nautsi, cutting the country off from the Arctic Sea. The comprehensiveness of the plan has been described by one military historian as ‘imaginative, flexible and totally unrealistic’.
Although the Fourteenth Army took its objectives in the first ten days, nothing else went right for the Russians for the next two months. The Seventh Army, comprising twelve divisions, three tank brigades and a mechanized corps, could not break through the wilderness of barbed wire, gun emplacements, anti-tank ‘dragons’ teeth’ and well-camouflaged pillboxes of the Mannerheim Line, which was fiercely defended. The frozen ground was so hard that the Red Army occasionally had to use dynamite to move enough earth to build makeshift trenches. Even though the Finns had never faced tanks before, and were woefully under-equipped with anti-tank weapons – at least until they captured them from the Russians – they devised makeshift ways of stopping their advance, including, ironically enough, ‘Molotov cocktails’ (bottles of petrol lit with rags). This proved easier in the early stages when Russian tanks were not supported closely enough by Russian infantry, and in the dark that descended early in the Arctic winter and stayed till late.
The seventy-two-year-old ‘Defender of Finland’ after whom the Line was named, Field Marshal Baron Carl von Mannerheim, proved an inspired leader throughout the campaign, keeping his reserves in the south and correctly predicting the Russians’ next moves, possibly because he had been an officer in the Tsarist Army throughout the Great War. Told by Moscow that the Finnish proletariat would welcome them as liberators, the Russian soldiers were shocked when the entire nation united behind ‘the Defender of Finland’ instead.
It was the five divisions of the Russian Ninth Army in the centre of the country that suffered the most. Although on the map the vast wastes might seem to favour an invader, the many forests and lakes channelled the Russian forces, unfamiliar with the terrain, into a series of ambushes as temperatures dipped in that unusually cold winter to as low as –50 Celsius. The Leningrad–Murmansk railway line had only one siding going off towards the Finnish border, and although the Russians took Salla in central Finland, they were flung back before they reached Kemijärvi. The Finns burnt their own farms and villages, booby-trapped farm animals, destroyed anything that could provide the Russians with food and shelter, and, equipped with skis and local knowledge, laid mines on tracks through the forests that were soon covered in snow. Wearing white camouflage uniforms, which inexplicably the Russians were not given, the Finns were nicknamed Bielaja Smert (White Death) by their bewildered enemy.
Further south, the Russian 163rd and 44th Divisions were annihilated around the ashes of the village of Suomussalmi, in a ferociously brilliant Finnish operation that ranks with any of the Second World War. A logging, fishing and hunting community of 4,000 people before the war, it was captured by the 163rd (Tula) Motorized Rifle Division on 9 December, but was then cut off by the Finnish 9th Brigade under Colonel Hjalmar Siilasvuo. Because their leaders had assumed an easy victory, many of the Russians had been sent into sub-Arctic Finland in December lacking winter clothes and felt boots, as the Finns discovered by listening to their radio transmissions, which were equally astonishingly sent en clair rather than in code. Freezing, starving and cut off from retreat by the Finnish 9th Brigade for a fortnight, the morale of the 163rd Division broke on Christmas Eve and they fled eastwards across the frozen Lake Kiantajärvi. The Finns then sent up two Bristol Blenheim medium bombers to smash the ice, sending tanks, horses, men and vehicles tumbling into the freezing water below. As the historian of the Russo-Finnish Winter War laconically records: ‘They are still there.’ The Russian 44th Division that had come to rescue the 163rd were within earshot of the débâcle, and could hear their comrades dying, but they were not given orders to move. On the night of New Year’s Day they became the next victims of the White Death, as the barometer dipped again to –30 Celsius. By constantly mortar-bombing their sixty field kitchens at mealtimes, the Finns kept the Russians short of hot food, and when the Russians lit fires the Finns machine-gunned them from the treetops, ‘easily picking out the dark silhouettes of the men against the snow’. The standard Red Army rifle, the single-shot bolt-action 7.62mm 1902 Moisin-Nagant, became inoperable when its gun-oil lubricant froze in conditions below –15 Celsius, and armoured vehicles either had to be kept running, at ruinous expense in fuel, or they would seize up and block the narrow passageways through the forest.
‘We don’t let them rest,’ said General Kurt Wallenius of the Finnish Northern Army; ‘we don’t let them sleep. This is a war of numbers against brains.’ Sleep for the 44th was next to impossible because of the vehicle engines, terrified horses, Finnish professional trackers and hunters who made excellent snipers, and even ‘the sharp reports of the trees as their very sap froze’. Those who resorted to vodka found that, despite the initial sense of warmth, body heat was ultimately lost. The slightest wounds exposed to the air froze and went gangrenous. Frozen corpses were piled up, one on top of the other, as the Finns methodically moved from sector to sector, wiping out Russian resistance. By 5 January, a thousand Russian prisoners had been taken, a further 700 soldiers had escaped back to the Russian lines, and over 27,000 had been killed, all for the loss of 900 Finns. As one of his officers remarked to Colonel Siilasvuo, ‘The wolves will eat well this winter.’ The Finns captured 42 tanks, 102 field guns and 300 vehicles at Suomussalmi, as well as thousands of the conical-shaped Red Army hats (budenovka) that they later used in deception operations. Indeed, they captured more military hardware than they received from outside sources, however much the League of Nations supported Finland’s struggle (expelling the USSR from its ranks on 14 December) and however much the Western Allies’ Supreme War Council debated sending aid (they agreed to it only on 5 February, by which time it was too late).
The loss of the two divisions at Suomussalmi, when compounded with the reversals at the Mannerheim Line and the victory of General Paavo Talvela, who destroyed the 139th and 75th Red Army Divisions at Tolvajärvi on Christmas Eve, sent a humiliating message around the globe for the USSR, even though the Finns could not follow up these successes for lack of troops (they were conscripting fifteen-year-olds as it was). Hitler in particular believed he learnt lessons about the performance of the Red Army that were to affect his decision to invade Russia the following year. Yet they were substantially the wrong ones.
Stalin’s purging of the officer corps in 1937 had seriously weakened the Red Army. The former Chief of Staff Marshal Tukhachevsky was shot, and with him died new thinking about the development of mass armoured formations operating deep inside enemy territory. General Konstantin Rokossovsky, one of those who were tortured during that time – though not shot despite his Polish origins – later said that purges were even worse for morale than when artillery fired on one’s own troops because it would have to have been very accurate artillery fire to achieve such damage. Three out of the five Soviet marshals were purged in 1937–8, thirteen of the fifteen army commanders, fifty-seven of the eighty-five corps commanders, 110 of the 195 divisional commanders and 220 of the 406 brigade commanders. In total, around 43,000 officers were killed or imprisoned, although 20,000 were later released. Yet no fewer than seventy-one out of the original eighty-five senior members of the USSR’s Military Council were dead by 1941. When Rokossovsky, who had been beaten so badly in prison that he lost eight teeth and had three ribs broken, reported to Stalin for duty after being reinstated, Stalin asked him where he had been. Rokossovsky told him, whereupon Stalin laughed and said, ‘A fine time you chose to go to prison!’ before getting down to business.
Although the Soviet forces were staggeringly badly led at the outset of the Winter War, they learnt quickly. A trusted member of the Supreme Soviet from its creation in 1937, General Semyon Timoshenko was sent to take over on 8 January, and after four or five attacks a day he broke through the Mannerheim Line on 13 February. In Finland the Soviets came to understand the importance of co-ordinating armour, infantry and artillery. However heavy the Russian losses, there were always fresh troops to fling into the struggle. As one Finn put it after the battle of Kuhmo, ‘There were more Russians than we had bullets.’ When the fighting became purely attritional on the Isthmus, the Finns simply could not carry on bleeding like the Russians could. Furthermore, the Winter War showed that men fought harder when patriotically defending the Soviet Motherland than when in attack. (That was eventually to apply to the German Fatherland too.) Instead of these lessons, Hitler learnt the almost banal one that Stalin had shot a lot of good generals in the late 1930s. He was not the only one, however; on 20 January 1940 Churchill said that Finland ‘had exposed for all to see the incapacity of the Red Army’.
On 11 February the Russian 123rd Division broke through the Mannerheim Line close to Summa, leading much of the Seventh Army through two days later. They then moved on to Viipuri. With neutral Norway and Sweden denying access across their territory to the Allies, Petsamo in Russian hands and Hitler closing off the eastern Baltic, no significant help was likely from the West. Since by March as much as one-fifth of his army had become casualties, and there were only 100 Finnish planes left to fight 800 Russian, Mannerheim urged the Government to negotiate, and the Treaty of Moscow was signed on 13 March, while Russian and Finnish troops were still engaged in hand-to-hand combat in central Viipuri. Except for the loss of the whole Karelian Isthmus, the terms were not very much worse from those demanded by Stalin and Molotov in November, before around 200,000 Russians and 25,000 Finns had died, and 680 Russian aircraft and 67 Finnish had been destroyed. Yet Russian military prestige had been severely damaged, and Stalin had created a situation on his north-western border that would require fifteen divisions to police. The moment that Finland sniffed her opportunity for revenge, at the time of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, she seized it.