The Finns were badly outnumbered, but they were highly motivated and understood that their national survival was at stake. Finnish soldiers were well trained and adept at small-unit tactics, marksmanship, wilderness navigation, and camouflage. Marshal Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, commander of Finnish forces, had served with distinction in the Russian army, and many of his officers had fought against the Russians in World War I to secure Finnish independence.
During the subsequent fighting, Finnish skills on skis offset Soviet mass using tactical mobility and elusiveness. The Finns used the excellent Suomi submachine gun and had secured from Bofors in Sweden 112 37-mm antitank guns, which were highly effective against the well-armed but thinly armored Soviet tanks.
Prior to the war, Finnish threat analysis anticipated two Soviet thrusts: a major assault on the Karelian isthmus aimed at Viipuri (Vyborg) and Helsinki and an attack north of Lake Ladoga to outflank Finnish defenses on the isthmus. The scarcity of roads and thick forests seemed to forbid large-scale operations in central and northern Finland. Consequently, eight Finnish divisions were deployed on the isthmus and north of Lake Ladoga. Only six independent battalions and an understrength division in reserve covered central and northern Finland.
The Russians, however, had secretly built roads and extended rail lines to the border. They committed eight divisions to a major offensive in central and northern Finland, which surprised the Finns. This offensive was designed to cut Finland in half and ravage the agricultural regions bordering the Gulf of Bothnia. As a part of this offensive, the Soviet 163rd Rifle Division was to advance on two forest roads to the town and road junction of Suomussalmi in central Finland. This attack was part of the Soviet effort to seize the Bothnian port of Oulu to the west of Suomussalmi. Evacuated by the Finns, Suomussalmi was occupied by the Russians on 7 December.
Finnish border guards harassed the Russians until an independent battalion took up positions north of the town. On 7 December, Mannerheim committed two battalions of the 9th Division to this front. Colonel Hjalmar Siilasvuo commanded.
Siilasvuo isolated the 163rd, which now was extended some 25 miles on narrow roads, establishing a key roadblock on the southern road from Suomussalmi to the border. Some 350 Finnish troops with heavy machine guns occupied an isthmus between two frozen lakes, affording a clear field of fire against attempts to outflank the position.
To extricate the 163rd, on 20 December the Soviets sent their 44th Motorized Rifle Division along the southern road toward Suomussalmi. This well-trained and well-equipped unit had both artillery and tanks. Finnish interception of Soviet radio signals revealed the Soviet plan. On 22 December, Mannerheim appointed Siilasvuo commander of the 9th Division and began to send substantial reinforcements to him. Eventually, these units included six infantry battalions, four 76.2 mm guns, four 105 mm guns, and two 37 mm antitank guns. To delay the 44th, Siilasvuo unleashed a series of savage raids on its lead elements. When Soviet attempts to dislodge the Finnish roadblock failed, the 44th halted six miles east of Suomussalmi.
Efforts by Soviet pilots to assist the ground troops were in vain. The Finns concentrated for swift attacks and then dispersed, vanishing into the forests. Bombs dropped on the road were as likely to hit Soviet soldiers as Finns, and the fixed Finnish positions were well-camouflaged. While the 44th remained paralyzed, Siilasvuo concentrated on the 163rd. The trapped Soviet soldiers were cut down in droves as they sought to escape, and the unit was annihilated by the night of 30 December.
The 44th Division, strung out in a 20-mile column, proved a more difficult foe. Fighting was ferocious, and Finnish losses were substantial. A tank breakout was halted when Bofors antitank gunners destroyed seven Russian tanks in 15 minutes and following vehicles slid into deep snow in the ditches. The last resistance ended by dawn of 8 January as Russian survivors abandoned their equipment and fled in disorder.
Soviet losses in the Battle of Suomussalmi were 27,500 killed and frozen to death and 1,300 prisoners. The Soviets also lost 43 tanks, 270 other vehicles, and 48 guns. Finnish losses came to 900 killed and 1,770 wounded. Sherwood S. Cordier
Ries, Tomas. Cold Will: The Defence of Finland. London: Brassey's Defence Publishers, 1988.; Trotter, William R. A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939–1940. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin, 1991.; Van Dyke, Carl. The Soviet Invasion of Finland 1939–40. London: Frank Cass, 1997.
Sherwood S. Cordier