Key point: The Finns fought hard and, although they lost their land, they didn’t lose their freedom. How did they manage to do it?

The hugely cynical German-Soviet nonaggression pact, concluded in August 1939, assigned the Baltic region of eastern Europe to the exclusive sphere of influence of Communist Russia. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin immediately embarked on a program to annex traditionally Russian-dominated territory in the area, including Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, to serve as an obstacle to any potential German invasion of the Soviet Union. With good reason, Stalin did not trust Nazi strongman Adolf Hitler to keep his word one second longer than Hitler thought expedient.

The Soviet leader feared that his pro-German—or at least anti-Russian—neighbor to the north, Finland, would join Germany in an assault on Russia. As a result, he demanded that the Russians be allowed to station troops in certain key areas of Finland, and that the Russo-Finnish border on the Karelian Isthmus between the Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga be moved 20 miles northwest to create a buffer zone to better protect the Russian city of Leningrad on the extreme eastern edge of the gulf. In return, the Soviets would give up some worthless wilderness land in eastern Karelia and enter into paperweight trade and defense treaties.

The Finns understandably resisted. The consequence of such concessions by the Helsinki government would have forced them to dismantle their defenses in the territory forfeited to the Soviets, leaving them bereft of the ability to defend themselves against future Russian aggression. Determined to preserve their hard-won independence, achieved from Russia in 1918, and misled by the delusion that the Western democracies would step in to deter any Communist attack, the fiercely patriotic Finns rejected all Soviet demands.

An Unprepared Red Army

Responding to the unexpected rebuff from Helsinki of Soviet demands, which he viewed as urgent and reasonable, Stalin ordered the Red Army on November 13, 1939, to prepare for an invasion of Russia’s northern neighbor. Like the country it represented, the Red Army was a colossus on paper, with hundreds of divisions and thousands of aircraft and tanks. A war with Finland involving merely mathematical equations would be a short one indeed. But much of the Russian strength was more apparent than real. In 1939, the Red Army was still an unknown quantity. Born in the Russian civil war of 1918-1920, a conflict made up of scattered large-scale partisan operations, the Army was untried in conventional warfare, except for a short, sharp conflict with the Japanese in Manchuria in the spring and summer of 1939.

Although one of the largest military machines in the world, the Red Army was hard-pressed to adequately equip and maintain such a huge force. By the end of 1939, much of its equipment was obsolete, but the need to arm newly activated formations prevented the replacement of old infantry weapons, tanks, and planes. Even had all the combat weapons been perfectly up to date, the level of training of Russian troops in their usage was below par, as was the expertise and experience to put in place a logistical system that could properly support large-scale military operations.

The rank-and-file Russian soldier was not all that bad. Some units were better trained than others, but none was adequately prepared for the challenge of extreme winter warfare. Only a quarter of the Soviet Army’s entire strength could be devoted to the Finnish war effort, at least at the start. Garrisons in Poland, Romania, the Baltic States, and the Far East tied up some of its finest fighting formations. Initial Soviet forces committed to battle would be around half a million men.

The Great Purge

By far the most serious and crippling blow to the effectiveness of the Red Army at the brink of the Russo-Finnish War was the lingering effects of Stalin’s cold-blooded purge of its officer corps during the previous two years. The paranoid dictator, seeing plots against him at every turn, had decimated the Red Army leadership in an attempt to quash any potential obstacles to his absolute control of the country. Internal threats were always seen as the most immediate threat to his power. The existing Army, led by numerous ex-czarist officers, was considered by Stalin to be the primary menace to his regime. Hundreds of officers were systematically liquidated during the ensuing Great Purge. Stalin’s aim was the utter destruction of the Red Army’s leadership. In this he succeeded totally. Anyone who demonstrated the least amount of initiative or creative thought was disposed of in an NKVD prison cellar by a bullet to the back of the head. Marshals, generals, colonels, and even junior officers and NCOs were shot by the dozens. To fill the gaps, officers were rapidly promoted before they were properly trained for their new and higher responsibilities. It was not uncommon to find colonels in charge of divisions, majors heading up regiments.

To help the new, inexperienced leaders, a dual system of command was implemented. Political commissars were appointed at the regimental level to assure the reliability of field-grade officers. This also allowed for divided command, which would help control potential enemies inside the Army. But the commissars were more than mere political advisers; they had real authority over the conduct of military operations. Consequently, planning for military missions was secondary on everyone’s agenda, power and control being the primary goals. Much of the rigidity and snail-like pace of Soviet battle schemes could be attributed to the lack of unity of command, which permeated down to battalion level.

A Veteran Finnish Army

The Red Army’s opponent in late 1939 was a Finnish National Army of 33,000 men grouped in three infantry divisions, a light infantry and a cavalry brigade supported by about 15 artillery battalions, fewer than 70 aircraft, and a dozen French World War I-era Renault tanks. The regular army was backed up by territorial and home guard units. The most important of these was the territorial force, which when mobilized increased the Finnish Army to 127,000 men in nine infantry divisions. The Army Reserve had another 100,000 men, as did the paramilitary Civic Guard, allowing the Finns to field an army of more than 400,000 troops in 12 divisions of 14,200 men each. (A typical Russian division was over 17,000 men strong.) In support of frontline forces were 100,000 women of the Lotta Svard, or Women’s Auxiliary Army. In addition, small numbers of cavalry and Jaegers, acting as elite light infantry, the latter moving by bicycle, could be employed. Field artillery was chiefly 77mm field guns supplemented by 122mm howitzers. Heavy artillery consisted of 105mm and 107mm pieces, but there were few of these in the Finns’ arsenal. All artillery was horse drawn, and each battery held between four and six pieces.

In contrast to their Russian counterparts, many Finnish officers were veterans of World War I and the Finnish War of Independence. They were drawn from the aristocracy and thus were very anti-communist, and they typically led from the front. Finnish enlisted men were also very capable. Most were comfortable in winter conditions, could navigate through thick forests, and were crack marksmen. Along with an experienced, dedicated officer corps and committed frontline troops, the Finns were fortunate to have an Army commander who inspired confidence as well as providing unity of command. Born in 1867, Baron Carl Gustav Mannerheim was a Swedish-Finnish nobleman and career soldier who at the age of 19 had gone AWOL from a Finnish cadet program and joined the Imperial Russian Army, where he served with distinction during the Russo-Japanese War and World War I.

When Russia fell into revolutionary chaos in November 1917, Mannerheim returned to Finland and assumed leadership of the Finnish anti-Bolshevik military forces. Under his command, the Finnish Communists and their Russian supporters were crushed, and Finland obtained her independence from Russia. But after 1919, Mannerheim spent much of his time dabbling in right-wing politics. From 1931 to 1939, he was chairman of the country’s Defense Council. Favoring a policy of conciliation toward Stalin, he was nonetheless appointed commander of the nation’s military when war with Russia appeared imminent.

Three Fronts of the Russo-Finnish War

Operations during the Russo-Finnish War would be divided among three distinct geographical areas: the Karelian Isthmus, the region immediately north of Lake Ladoga, and the area farther north of the lake. By far the most important front was the Karelian Isthmus north of Leningrad. Its open fields and partly cultivated woodlands made the topography conducive to large-scale mechanized maneuvers. A sprawling network of lakes, the isthmus was initially an obstacle, but once the lakes froze in mid-December, they became clear terrain. The isthmus, 65 miles across at its widest point, was protected by a Finnish defensive position known as the Mannerheim Line. The area located to the north of Lake Ladoga, called by the Finns Ladoga-Karelia, was a region less well developed and more heavily forested than the isthmus. With few major roads, that part of the country was best traversed on numerous logging trails that were mutually supportable. A successful thrust through this area could result in the outflanking of the Mannerheim Line.

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