With a population of only 3.6 million people (the Soviet population was 193 million in 1941), Finland hardly seemed in position to reject Stalin's demands. Although the Finns were open to some compromise regarding territory above Leningrad, they were upset about demands for the destruction of their fortifications and a for naval base on the Hango Peninsula. Tough negotiations continued for two months without result. Finnish leaders believed that Stalin was bluffing, but after a contrived border incident on 26 November, Stalin ordered the invasion, which began on 30 November 1939. It was not one of Stalin's finer military exploits. Despite overwhelming superiority in manpower, resources, and equipment, it took the Red Army nearly four months to crush its tiny opponent.
About the only advantages for Finland were the harsh climate, soldiers' familiarity with the area, superior leadership and training, and high morale (the Finns were fighting for their homeland). The abundant forests provided good cover and concealment amid sparse settlements and poor trails. Only the Karelian Isthmus had developed towns and farming areas with roads. This environment worked against mechanized operations and gave the advantage to mobile forces equipped with skis. Marshal Carl Gustav Mannerheim, commander of the Finnish forces, possessed keen insight regarding the strengths and weaknesses of the Red Army, and Finnish commissioned and noncommissioned officers were well trained and exhibited considerable initiative.
In all, the Finns fielded about 300,000 men. They had only 422 artillery pieces, 32 tanks, and a few aircraft. Many independent battalions and separate companies were dispersed throughout the country. The Finns lacked equipment of all sorts, and what they had was a mixed variety provided from different countries. The soldiers were well acclimated and wore white camouflage uniforms to facilitate swift movement. The Finns also did what they could to strengthen their natural defensive line on the Karelian Isthmus by constructing obstacles, trenches, and bunkers.
For the initial invasion, Stalin employed only 20 Soviet divisions against 16 Finnish divisions, and he must bear responsibility for the initial Soviet military failure in Finland. Fresh from the Red Army's relatively bloodless triumph in Poland, Stalin personally intervened to reject the plan advanced by his chief of staff, Marshal Boris M. Shaposhnikov, which entailed a careful buildup and use of the best Soviet troops, even those from the Far East. Many of the Soviet units were poorly trained and improvised formations. Worse, the Soviet troops were unprepared for winter fighting. Stalin rebuked Shaposhnikov for overestimating the Finns and underestimating the Red Army. The new plan, worked out on Stalin's orders and confirmed by him, led to the fiasco of the early Soviet defeats, leaving Shaposhnikov to remedy the situation.
The Soviet military was in wretched shape; recent purges had decimated the officer corps and left in command unqualified men who were reluctant to take the initiative. The soldiers were poorly trained in winter fighting and breaching fortified lines. The standard Soviet rifle division was well manned and equipped, but the heavy material was not suited to such a primitive operational environment. The Soviets did have an advantage in heavy artillery, but very little coordination had been developed between the arms, so attacks were not synchronized for effectiveness. A severe lack of communications equipment added to the problems of coordination and tactical flexibility. Among the rank and file, morale was poor. These factors mitigated overwhelming Soviet advantages in manpower and quantities of equipment.
In December 1939, the Finns halted the main Russian thrust across the Karelian Isthmus at the so-called Mannerheim Line. The Finns gained an early advantage when they obtained the Soviet tactical codes through the corps level. Thus they could monitor Soviet radio communications and decrypt Soviet units' locations. This intelligence became a force multiplier and helped the Finns to detect, outmaneuver, and defeat far larger Soviet formations. The Finns would cut off the enemy line of communications, separate the road-bound columns into pockets called mottis (motti is the Finnish word for a pile of logs held together by stakes ready to be chopped into firewood), and then destroy them piecemeal. By moving quickly, firing from concealed positions, and rapidly eliminating Soviet patrols, the Finns produced fear that reduced the ability of Soviet forces to react. The Finns also showed great ability in improvisation (as with the gasoline bomb in a bottle hurled at Russian tanks and dubbed "Molotov cocktail"), by their effective use of ski troops, and by fitting largely antiquated biplane aircraft with skis so that they could operate in snow.
After decisive tactical defeats destroyed several of their divisions at Tolvajarvi and Suomussalmi, the Soviets brought in new divisions and spent almost a month training intensively in tactics to develop better coordination among infantry, tanks, and artillery. In addition, they focused on better close-air support and the development of mobile reserves to exploit breakthroughs. At the small-unit level, special assault groups were organized to destroy Finnish bunkers efficiently.
Not until February 1940 did Soviet forces mount an effective assault on the Mannerheim Line. They doubled their strength against the Mannerheim Line with the Northwest Front, commanded by Marshal Semyon K. Timoshenko, and concentrated more than 35 divisions, which included heavy artillery and new-model tanks, against the weakened Finns. Sheer weight of numbers enabled the Soviets to break through the Finnish line at Summa on 11 February, and by 8 March they captured part of the key Finnish defensive anchor at Viipuri (Vyborg).
Stalin then dictated a peace settlement. Stalin did not annex Finland, or even Helsinki, but he exacted territorial concessions well in excess of those sought before the war. The Finns were forced to yield some 25,000 square miles of territory, including the Karelian Isthmus. The war also displaced some 400,000 Finns, for virtually all left the territory ceded to the Soviet Union.
Although Soviet terms were regarded as harsh by the Finns and by Finland's many international supporters, they were mild compared with those the Soviet Union imposed on the other three Baltic countries. In the case of Finland, Stalin may have been deterred by strong anti-Soviet sentiment that the invasion had aroused throughout the world. Indeed, 11,500 volunteers went to Finland to fight against the Soviets. Britain and France actually considered military intervention against the Soviet Union, including bombing strikes against the Caucasian oil fields and an "uninvited landing" in Norway as a preliminary step to sending troops to Finland. Seen in retrospect, such a step would have been disastrous to the Allied war effort. Stalin may also have been restrained by his desire to keep open the option of a possible alliance with the west against Hitler and to minimize the many disadvantages resulting from the Soviet aggression. One consequence for the Soviet Union of its invasion, expulsion from the League of Nations, was not a major blow.
Ultimately, the Soviets threw 1.5 million men (almost half their army in Europe), 3,000 aircraft, and nearly as many tanks against Finland. The Soviets suffered 230,000 to 270,000 dead—many the result of the cold and because of poor Soviet medical services—and a comparable number of wounded. They also lost 1,800 tanks and 634 aircraft. The Finns sustained far fewer casualties (22,425 killed and 43,557 wounded), and 62 of the 162 planes of their largely antiquated air force were lost.
One of the war's most important effects was the damage to Soviet military prestige. Many observers believed that the Soviet Union was incapable of waging a large-scale war. This was a conclusion Hitler was too quick to draw. Another consequence was the Soviet decision to adopt the Finnish automatic sidearm. After the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Finland waged war against the Soviet Union as a cobelligerent of Germany, a decision that led to it unfairly being branded as an Axis power and to its second defeat in 1944.
Steven J. Rauch and Spencer C. Tucker
Condon, Richard. The Winter War. New York: Ballantine Books, 1972.; Trotter, William R. A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939–1940. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin, 1991.; Upton, A. F. Finland in Crisis, 1940–1941. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1964.; Warner, Oliver. Marshal Mannerheim and the Finns. London: Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1967.