Shortly after the general breakout of World War Two, there was another war, a small war which had immense consequences. That was the “Winter War” which began on 30 November 1939 when the Soviet Union attacked Finland. The Soviets had made some territorial demands on Finland which had been part of the Tsarist Empire for a century or more but broke away and declared their independence when the Bolsheviks came to power. Under a treaty, negotiated with Lenin, the USSR gave up its claim on the territory of Finland.
Since Imperial Germany was at war with Tsarist Russia and subsequently the Provisional Government of Alexander Kerensky, several thousand Finnish officers went to Germany and were thoroughly trained in German Army tactics. These officers subsequently held all key positions in the officer corps of the Finnish Army and formed the backbone of the army command in the Winter War.
Finnish 76mm artillery dating back to around the year 1902
The Winter War isn’t important of itself. It wasn’t as if the Finns defeated the Soviets. It was critical because many people including Hitler and the German High Command drew conclusions which turned out to be erroneous. While the Finns did not beat the Soviets, they managed to hold them off for over 100 days and were able to end the war with a peace treaty – which did involve giving up 11% of the country including their second largest city but this fell far short of the Soviet goal of total victory over the entire country. The Finns had just a few tanks, several dozen aircraft, most obsolete, almost no artillery and most artillery pieces they did have dated from the turn of the century. They had few radios. Not much motor transport. In the beginning they didn’t even have enough rifles and many of the rifles were the antiquated model used by the Imperial Russian Army in the First War which were designed in the late 1800s.
Only half the Finish Army had received substantive training. Local civic guards and raw conscripts were used to bring units up to strength. The Soviet commissars and military officers on the scene told Stalin they would conquer Finland in two weeks. Several of the professional general officers who had not been murdered by Stalin, told him this was not possible. He ignored their opinions. The Red Army divisions which initially attacked Finland were not well trained or equipped. At a basic level they lacked white outer uniforms to disguised them in the snow. Instead they simply had their heavy brown overcoats which stood out against the brilliant white snow like neon signs.
Soviet equipment and bodies of Red Army soldiers after the Battle of Raate road in January 1940.
This Soviet T-26 tank has been destroyed by a Finnish satchel charge in the Winter War. 13 February 1940
Logistical support was a nightmare. The difficulty of getting fuel and food and clothing to the troops overwhelmed Soviet supply units. Wounded were rarely evacuated. They just died. Incredibly, the Soviet troops did not know how to ski. Of course, the Finns did and they ran circles around the Soviets, often descending silently out of the night to kill groups of Russian troops who were so cold they would build huge bonfires to keep from freezing to death. They may as well have put up a sign for the Finns saying, “Here We Are – Attack Us.” Although passed down in popular lore, the Finns didn’t actually fight from skis. When they got where they were going they took their skis off and several men guarded them while the others went and killed the Russians.
Because they could not ski and did not have any vehicles which could traverse the deep snow, the Soviets were confined to narrow roads and the Finns constantly ambushed them – striking the front of the column and the rear of the column simultaneously. The Finns then hosed the column up and down the line with heavy machine gun fire, killing most of the Russian troops and causing the vehicles to explode except for tanks which the Finns blew up with satchel charges. The tanks were helpless. If they moved off the road they bogged down in the snow and couldn’t actually move in any direction because of the thick forest. The Finns actually wiped out several Soviet divisions.
Naturally, Stalin shot the generals responsible for this debacle. But the incompetence of the Soviet troops shook Stalin up and many of the reforms which enabled the Red Army to eventually stand up to the Germans date from this time.
[Source: Frozen Hell: the Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-40 by William R. Trotter.]