Russo-Finnish War of 1939-1940
by Ron Kurtus (4 December 2006)
In 1939, Russia—known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR)—attacked their small neighbor Finland in an effort to annex the Karelian peninsula. Finland fought back fiercely, mounting heavy casualties on the Russian troops. After the Russians regrouped, they were able to overpower the Finns and take the land they sought. Lessons can be learned from this war.
Questions you may have include:
- Why did the Russians start the war?
- Why did the Russians suffer heavy losses?
- How did they finally beat the Finns?
This lesson will answer those questions.
Prelude to war
With the turmoil in Europe due to the Nazi Germany expansion, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin felt that Russia needed a buffer zone for their city of Leningrad, which was only 32 kilometers from the Finnish border. They had already annexed the eastern third of Poland and the small Baltic countries, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Russia makes demands
Russia made demands that Finland demilitarize their Mannerheim fortification line, which went across the Karelian Isthmus just north of Leningrad. They also wanted several islands in the Gulf of Finland. In return, Russia offered some land of limited value along the eastern border of Finland.
When Finland balked and negotiations broke down, Russia broke off diplomatic relations and attacked Finland in November 1939.
Confident of easy victory
The Russians were confident that they would be able to achieve their goal and defeat the Finns within two weeks.
Sure of themselves
They were so sure of themselves that they sent in troops who were dressed only for Fall weather, and these troops were commanded by officers who had rose through the ranks by showing their loyalty to Stalin and had escaped his recent purges of potential threats to his dictatorship. They were not the type of officers who would take initiative without full approval from Moscow.
In fact, the Russians were sure of themselves that they included brass bands along with the tanks and troops.
Thought Finn workers would revolt
One reason for their confidence was the fact that during the time of the Communist revolution, the Finns had a violent civil war with the conservative Whites versus the Communist Reds. Stalin and the other Communist leaders felt that the Red Finns would rise up and support the Russian effort. They started their campaign by dropping leaflets, telling the workers to rise up against the ruling class.
Had overrun the Poles
Also, the Russians had recently been successful in overrunning their opponents with their tank divisions. They had easily captured land in Poland inhabited by 13 million people, more than twice the number in Finland. They also had been successful in skirmishes against the Japanese in Mongolia.
What they did not count on was the fact that the Finnish people would set aside political differences to defend their country. Also, this was not Poland, where there were roads and open fields--the type of terrain that tank forces excel in. Instead, the land was forest and more forest, with few people and narrow dirt roads. It was a logistical nightmare for tank forces.
Elite military leadership
The Finnish military leadership--including Field Marshall Mannerheim--had all been trained in an elite Russian unit during the Russo-Japanese War. Meanwhile, the Russian leaders were uninspiring lackeys of Stalin--not the type that would dare to take any initiative.
The Russians were not prepared for the Finnish winter and many were not clothed properly. Meanwhile the Finns dressed in white and fought on skis.
The Finns living in the war zone abandoned their home and burnt them to the ground, depriving the Russians of possible shelter. They also set booby traps everywhere--even under outhouse toilet seats.
Since the Russian tanks have difficulty moving up the narrow roads, they tried crossing the frozen lakes, but the Finns had set mines under the ice that exploded and weakened the ice enough to cause the tanks to break though and sink. After losing a number of tanks that way, the Russians kept off the lakes.
The Russians first concentrated their efforts on the eastern border of Finland, but the Finns, superior in winter warfare and ably commanded by Field Marshall Mannerheim, repulsed attacks at Lake Ladoga, Suomussalmi, Salla, and Ivalo.
World sympathy was with Finland. Sweden and Norway sent volunteers and supplies, and some supplies came from France and Great Britain. Many Americans rooted for the Finns in their fight against the big bully Russia, but the United States did not help Finland with supplies.
Finally, however, small Finland was no match for the USSR. The Soviets had four times as many troops, 100 times as many tanks and 30 times as many aircraft as the Finns. Russian air bombardments and well-prepared frontal attacks in February 1940 on the Karelian Isthmus brought Finnish resistance to the verge of collapse.
In the peace treaty signed on March 12, 1940. Finland ceded part of the Karelian Isthmus, Vyborg (Viipuri), and several border territories to the USSR. This amounted to 10% of their land. The Finns also lost 20% of their industrial capacity as a result of the defeat.
Stalin realized his mistakes in this war and decided reinstate qualified officers and modernize the Soviet forces. These improvements became valuable in allowing the Soviets to resist the later German invasion.
In June, 1941, Russia broke the treaty and attacked Finland again in a effort to overrun the country. This was known as the Continuation War. Since Nazi Germany provided aid to Finland, and because Russia claimed the Finns had really provoked the war, Great Britain declared war on Finland. The Continuation War lasted until September 19, 1944.
Russia attacked Finland in order to annex the Karelian peninsula, as a way to better protect Leningrad. Finland mounted heavy casualties on the Russian troops until the Russians regrouped and overpowered the Finns.
Lessons learned from this war include:
- Never take an opponent lightly
- People fight more fiercely in their own back yard
- Dictators often surround themselves with "yes-men"
- People will settle internal differences to beat a common foe
Learn from the past events
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Russo-Finnish War of 1939-1940