Monday, April 23, 2012

Lessons from the Winter War Finland 1939-1940

In late December 1939, a column of Russian tanks and infantry from the crack Soviet 44th Division, commanded by Major General A. E. Vinogradov, halted for the day in the white-coated wilderness of Eastern Finland. They were headed toward better roads leading to Oulu, a major port on the western coast of Finland. Their objective was to cut Finland in half. The Ukrainian 44th  Division was part of a heavily armored force of 600,000 Soviet troops of four Russian Armies—the 7th, 8th, 9th, and 14th—striking Finland at seven points all the way from the heavily populated Karelian isthmus in the Southeast to the port of Petsamo on the Arctic Ocean.

The column was not making good progress. Night temperatures had been dropping to nearly 40 degrees below zero. The snow was deep and the ice as hard as rock. The tank engines had to be kept running most of the night to keep them from freezing. Many of the infantry’s weapons were frozen and useless. Supplies, including winter uniforms, had been delayed by the same factors—a white hell, the second coldest winter in over a hundred years.

On their southern flank, a ski patrol of Finnish Home Guard reservists suddenly swept out of the forest and poured a deluge of submachine gun fire into the Russians, leaving many dead and wounded. The Finns, wearing white uniforms and cloaks, disappeared into the whiteness.

Two days later as dawn broke,  two Finnish skiers—expert snipers—concealed beneath their white cloaks,  picked off man after man and were gone before the Russians could pinpoint their position and return fire.

This type guerilla warfare was repeated over and over until many Russian tank and infantry units had been stalled, isolated, and helplessly cut to pieces one small raid or sniper hit at a time. The 44th and part of the 163rd Soviet Division—a force of 14,000—were almost completely destroyed in this way.  More than half of them froze to death.  Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin had General Vinogradov executed.   

According to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s later memoirs, the Soviet Union sent 1.5 million troops into Finland, and one million of them never came back, the victims of tenacious Finnish resistance, Soviet political mismanagement of the Red Army, and the white hell of 1939-1940.  The official Soviet estimate of killed and missing was 127,000, but German military experts estimated total Soviet dead and missing at 250,000. The Finns, whose total military strength never exceeded 347,000, lost 26,000 dead and missing, but nearly a thousand Finnish civilians were killed in the Soviet bombing of Helsinki and several other major cities.

Finland was part of the Kingdom of Sweden until 1809, when the Russians invaded it and made it made it an autonomous Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire. In 1899, however, Nicholas II embarked on a policy of Russification, which stirred Finnish resistance and sentiment for complete independence. On December 6, 1917, as the Russian Empire began to collapse from the strains of World War I and internal political turmoil, the Finnish Senate declared Finland independent.  This resulted in a short civil war between the newly declared Finnish government and the new Bolshevik government—or Reds. With some German help, the Reds were defeated by White Guard troops under Finnish Marshall Gustav Mannerheim, a strongly anti-Communist former officer of the Imperial Russian Army. Finland, however, continued to be plagued with Communist subversion, although the Communist Party was outlawed in 1931. 

In 1938, the Soviet Union began making territorial demands on Finland. They wanted the Karelian border, only 20 miles from Leningrad pushed back to 45 miles. They also wanted to lease the Finnish Naval Base at Hanko, east of Helsinki. Essentially, Stalin wanted to make Finland a Soviet satellite starting with a few territorial exchanges and Soviet fortifications. Finland continued to reject these “offers” and insisted on her neutrality in war.

In August 1939, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact. It included a secret agreement to divide Europe up between Nazi Germany in the West and the Soviet Union in the East. The Soviets would get Finland. On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. In the next two months, Estonia, Latvia, and Estonia capitulated to Soviet ultimatums and were occupied by Soviet troops. At the same time, the Soviets were massing troops on Finland’s Eastern border. Soviet generals estimated that Finland could be taken in 12 days.

On November 30, 1939, the Russians began an artillery barrage along the Karelian border, followed by a massive tank and infantry assault. Finnish troops, having no weapons or training to cope with tanks, began to fall back to better-fortified lines. At 9:30 AM, air-raid sirens wailed their fearful message over the Finnish capital of Helsinki, but only propaganda was being dropped. At 2:30 PM, three waves of Soviet bombers began to rain incendiary bombs on Helsinki, causing explosions, widespread fires, and collapsing buildings. Over 50 bombs demolished the huge technical high school at Frederiksgatan. More than 200 people died.

Opposing this aerial savaging of Finland were only 200 trained pilots and 162 relatively obsolete Finnish aircraft. Over the next 102 days, they would face over 3,000 of the latest Soviet fighters and bombers. But the better trained and considerably more determined Finnish pilots and aircrews shot down 240 fighter and bomber aircraft while losing only 62 of their own. Extraordinarily accurate Finnish anti-aircraft batteries brought down at least 444 more. Entire squadrons of Russian aircraft took off from the Soviet airbase near Tallinn, Estonia, and never returned.  To be continued.

Mike Scruggs

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