This Battle in the Winter War Had Far Reaching Consequences for Russia—and Beyond
Finns and Soviets clashed on December 21, 22, and 23 with little impact. The Soviets brought up more aircraft, and the Finns brought up more antiaircraft guns, shooting down three Soviet planes on December 21.
Late on the 21st, 2nd/JR-16 and two companies of ErP-9 attacked Ägläjärvi from the north, and two companies of ErP-10 and all of ErP-112 attacked from the south. In the dark, the Finns crossed the ice and closed on the village without losses against heavy but wild Soviet fire.
However, the Soviets had turned the small village into a fortress. The Soviets set up their automatic weapons for converging fire, and Finnish NCO and platoon leader casualties were again heavy—one battalion lost all three of its company commanders.
Each building was a separate strongpoint. One Finnish soldier said, “The houses were shot full of holes like sieves.” The Finns hurled grenades into the buildings, but defending wounded Soviet troops went on fighting. The Finns fought house to house and room to room with grenades and bayonets. The fighting was so close that neither side could use its mortars.
Finnish mobility eventually told the story, as one Finnish detachment cut off the village with a roadblock to the east, trapping the defenders. By noon, the 2nd Company of PPP-7 broke through into the center of the village to knock out a set of interlocking machine-gun nests. By 2 pm, the Soviets, short of ammunition and men, were in retreat. By dusk, Mannerheim called off further attacks, aware of his limited supplies of men and munitions.
After the victory, fighting did not stop in the Tolvajärvi sector. On Christmas Day, the Soviets bombed Pajari’s headquarters at Aittojoki, killing the regimental chaplain while he held Christmas services. The Finnish Air Force retaliated, shooting down four Soviet bombers.
After that, fighting quieted down in the sector to company-sized actions and ski patrols, and in late December the first Finnish-American volunteers to reach the front were deployed to that sector, making up for the heavy losses. It was a token force of about a platoon, but it was in action for the rest of the war, providing at least moral if not material support to the Finnish cause.
Panin and Belaev faced defeat on their side. The 139th Division had lost a regimental headquarters, most of its artillery, and had been thoroughly mauled. Many men, including officers, were close to mutiny. Panin and Belaev ordered the division to withdraw, something the Red Army had not done since the Russian Civil War in 1919. Doing so was a shock to the Soviets and a boost to Finnish morale.
Another casualty of the campaign was the 8th Army’s boss, Corps Commander Khabarov, who was replaced by Army Commander (Second Rank) Grigory Mikhailovich Shtern, a Stalin favorite. Ironically, he would be shot in a last-minute purge in June 1941, just before the German invasion of Russia.
The Tolvajärvi campaign was Finland’s bloodiest of the war. Talvela lost a third of his officers and NCOs and a quarter of his other ranks, a total of 630 men killed and 1,320 wounded.
Soviet losses were more difficult to count. At least 1,000 died in the snow without being seen or counted. The Finns pulled 4,000 Soviet bodies out of the snow between Tolvajärvi and Aittojoki. Some 5,000 Soviets were wounded and almost 600 taken prisoner, many suffering frostbite due to poor winter clothing. The Soviets also lost 59 tanks and armored cars. The Finns took possession of 220 usable machine guns and light automatic weapons.
Talvela had eliminated the Soviet threat to the entire Ladoga-Karelia Front, burned up the Soviet 8th Army’s reserves, and provided his own nation with a huge morale booster after the failure on the Karelian Isthmus. The campaign showed the toughness of the individual Finnish soldier and the weakness of the average Soviet soldier. The Soviet prisoners said they did not know why they were fighting. Perhaps most significantly, the victory displayed the courage and battlefield prowess of numerous Finnish officers.
But nobody thought about this at nightfall on December 23, when the Finns reached the Aittojoki River. The riverbank was a good defensive line, the Soviet threat was decisively checked, and the Finns were exhausted. They had done enough for two weeks, and the weary Finns began digging in, breaking into ration packs. They would enjoy a special treat for Christmas, gifts from the 80,000-strong Lotta Svärd women’s organization, including civilian gifts of knitted clothing, delicacies, coffee, brandy, tobacco, and aquavit.
It was a welcome respite from the fighting against the Soviet juggernaut, and it proved all too brief. Soon enough the Red Army would return, and the war would continue until March 1940, as their overwhelming superiority in men and materiel resulted in a costly victory for the invaders.
David Lippman is a frequent contributor to WWII History. He also maintains a website dedicated to the daily events of World War II.
This article originally appeared on Warfare History Network.
Image: Wikimedia Commons