The Buzz

This Battle in the Winter War Had Far Reaching Consequences for Russia—and Beyond

From Leningrad to Murmansk, columns of Soviet Red Army troops stormed down roads and trails into Finland’s dense forests, lakes, and swamps, seeking to cut Finland in half.

Soviet Union Communist Party General Secretary Josef Stalin—known simply as the “Vozhd” or “Boss” to his inner circle—had ordered his massive armies to invade Finland, a blatant act of aggression, in 1939, a year of aggression. His massive armies, lavishly equipped with tanks, guns, and aircraft, easily outnumbered the Finns, and Stalin expected that he would carve out a land barrier between Leningrad, Russia’s “Window on the West,” and his supposed ally, Nazi Germany.

At first the bloodthirsty dictator sought to gain millions of acres of Finnish soil through diplomacy, but despite their country’s small size and weaker economy the Finns were tougher than the nations that had given in to Hitler in 1938 over Czechoslovakia. They would not yield an inch of their forested soil. Their three million people would stand against the Soviet Union’s 105 million.

On paper, the Finns had no chance. But this war, like all wars, was not fought in a ledger book. Unlike other wars, the war between Russia and Finland was fought in a winter landscape of endless forests, swamps, frozen lakes, subfreezing temperatures, and wilderness. Unlike their enemies, the Finns were at home in this dreadful environment and prepared to fight in it.

Stalin had gutted his army during bloody 1930s purges, turning the once formidable machine that had defeated the White Russian Army and Western invaders in the 1920s into a corps of obedient and incompetent lackeys. Despite the harshness of Soviet winters, Russian troops were not trained or equipped for winter fighting. Soviet field kitchens, for example, spewed out easily seen black smoke through chimneys that went straight up. Finnish kitchens used screens to hold back dark ash and vented horizontally.

Skiing was Finland’s national pastime, and the Soviets ignored it. As a result, Soviet ski troops were trained to stand upright and fire their rifles from their skis. Finnish troops were trained to fire their rifles prone, using the skis as braces for their rifles to ensure accuracy. Invading Soviet forces did not bother to wear snowsuits and were slowed by heavy vehicles that could not operate offroad in the heavy snowfalls.

The Finns had another edge, their supreme commander, Baron Carl Gustav Mannerheim, age 72, a former czarist Russian Guards officer, hero of the Finnish Civil War, big-game hunter, humanitarian, and national icon. He insisted that Finland refuse to negotiate. When Finnish politicians sent a delegation to Moscow to talk peace, he resigned his position as commander in chief. Just before the war broke out, the Finnish government begged him to resume his position and he did so. A Spartan, cold man, he dominated any gathering by the sheer force of his imperial personality. Perhaps most importantly, the Finnish Army and its men were trained to use their own initiative in difficult situations, counterattack swiftly, and were above all free men fighting for their homes against a foreign invader. The Soviets were that invader, and their initiative and flexibility had been sapped by the purges and political officers that peered over every commander’s shoulder and reviewed his plans.

The Soviet attack came on a wide front. On November 29, 1939, the Soviet 155th Infantry Division attacked the Finnish 4th Corps in the Suojärvi sector, headed for a key road junction at Ilomantsi in Finland’s midsection. Some 40 miles to the south, the 139th Infantry Division attacked through lakes along the axis of the Tolvajärvi Road, headed for a major road, which would in turn enable the Soviets to cut the rail line that supplied the entire IV Corps, imperil that force, and prevent its own counterattack. If the Soviet attack succeeded, it could cut Finland in two.

To add punch to this offensive, the Soviet 55th Infantry Division was moving parallel to the rail line between Suojärvi and Loimola. Lastly, the 168th Infantry Division, moving on the shore road, was headed northwest to Kitelä. The Soviets advanced slowly, bogged down by the tractors they were using to haul supplies and artillery.

Studying his maps and the panicked reports from IV Corps officers, Mannerheim turned to an ad hoc force named Task Force R after its commanding officer, Lt. Col. Veikko Räsänen, which consisted of four independent infantry battalions and PPP-7, the designation for the 7th Bicycle Battalion. PPP-7 had left its bikes in the barracks and was operating on skis, like everybody else in the Finnish Army. The task force was weak in artillery with only five or six modern guns in the rear and two 50-year-old field pieces on the border.

The troops were tough enough, but Räsänen did not rise to the occasion—he seemed shocked and quickly lost his grip on the situation. At a time when frontline leadership was desperately needed, Räsänen stayed in his bunker at Ägläjärvi, six miles behind the front—too far for the Finns with their erratic communications.

When the Soviets hit the Finns on November 30, they streamed across the border but showed considerable caution—every time a Finnish rifle opened fire, they hit the ground. One Finnish automatic rifle team held up a full Soviet regiment for more than an hour near Jehkila at the northeast tip of Lake Suojärvi.

But on December 1, the weight of Soviet numbers began forcing the Finns back. They set up delaying positions at Varpakyla. The Soviets attacked with frontal assaults over open terrain and fell in heaps. But the sacrifice diverted the Finns from efforts to flank the defenders’ roadblocks, forcing them to retreat to further delaying positions.