All the Fins were proficient skiers, who knew every inch of their homeland that they fought desperately to defend, and they geared up for the freezing winter. They also wore white to camouflage within the wintry landscape, and used reindeer to move supplies around to reduce their traces and sound that could give away their position. By contrast, the vast Soviet army had received little to no arctic training, had no knowledge of the area, wore khaki uniforms that stuck out against the constant blanket of snow, and relied on inexperienced commanders due to Stalin’s purge of the former Red Army Commanders to quash his opposition. Stalin, who feared the officers of the Red Army were working against him, had removed and executed thousands of high ranking members of the army, thrusting young commanders with no knowledge of the theater into command roles. The Fins constantly harassed and attacked the sides and rear of marching columns, went after supply lines, and ambushed Soviet camps at night. So the Soviets could not sleep, while the Fins utilized their knowledge of their geography to its fullest extant.5 Countless Soviet soldiers sent into the Finnish woods were never seen again.Since the Soviets did not have the training nor the equipment needed to deal with the thick snow and arctic conditions, they were forced to use narrow forest roads or back trails to move around – and the Fins knew these roads very well. The long, slow columns of Russian troops were easily ambushed and cut to pieces time after time by the Fins who used skis to move around extremely efficiently. As the Fins noted, “Infantry on skis could go anywhere and retain freedom of maneuver. As the lakes, rivers, and marshlands freeze during the winter, they ceased to be natural obstacles and thus the battlefield became larger than during the milder seasons.’ Camouflaged and mobile ski troops mounted surprise attacks on the flanks and rear of the enemy to cut off communications and supply lines, leading to its destruction.6 Finnish forces were able to repel the constant assaults of the Soviets for a time, inflicting horrendous numbers of casualties upon them. The only problem was for Finland, who had no way of invading Russia, there was never a way for them to actually ‘win’ the war. All they could do was avoid losing for as long as possible. And against a foe such as the USSR, who could lose hundreds of thousands, even millions, of troops and not care, every single man lost on the Fins’ side was irreplaceable. Finland was counting on England, France, and the League of Nations to come to their aid, but help never came. England and France were busy fighting Hitler already and were leery of taking on Russia at the same time, while the League of Nations, who was largely powerless, condemned the Soviet Union for its unprovoked attack and expelled the USSR from the League of Nations in one of its final significant actions.7 That did not, however, prevent unofficial aid from eagerly stepping forward to assist the Fins, and civilian and military volunteers from the United States, Canada, and other Nordic countries like Denmark, Norway, and Sweden signed up and made the trip to Finland to help fight the Soviets. In total, roughly 12,000 volunteers answered Finland’s call for help.8 Finland could only hold off the Soviets for so long. Russia eventually got their act together, reorganized their army, drew up new plans, and sent for more men and better equipment. Finnish forces were slowly pushed back, the dead bodies of Soviet soldiers frozen solid in the subzero temperatures and becoming walls for their compatriots to hide behind. The Fins made them pay dearly for every inch, but with Russia using hundreds of thousands of men as canon fodder, Finnish forces began to run low on ammunition and equipment. Already severely outclassed in terms of men and military equipment, what little hardware the Fins possessed at the start of the war had already been deployed or used up by this point.9 This did not stop them from fighting vailiantly as we learned from an incredible account – one man in particular, legendary sniper Simo Hayha, became known as the “White Death”.10 He had over 500 kills during the three short months of the Winter War – the highest total for any sniper in a single war in history. He became a larger than life figure for the Fins, becoming a source of pride and emblematic of the determination and grit of the Fins to protect their country. On March 13, 1940, however, Finland finally sought an end to the Soviet invasion. Russian forces had finally broken through the Mannerheim line protecting Helsinki. The new Soviet commander, General Semyon Timoshenko, realized the folly of fighting the Fins in the mountains and wilderness of Finland, called off those attacks, and instead concentrated all his forces against the Mannerheim line. He took staggering losses in the process, but finally broke through. With Finland’s only solid defensive position gone, and with the capital city at risk, Finland had no choice but to seek for peaceful terms to end the fighting. They signed the Treaty of Moscow, ending the war on March 12, 1940.11 The terms were harsh. Finland lost around 10% of its territory, and around 12% of their population lost their homes.12 But while Finland might have lost the war, they had accomplished what they set out to do. The ultimate goal of the Winter War – to preserve Finnish independence – was a success. Tiny Finland had gored heavily the Soviet bear that they were spared from the fate of losing their sovereignty to the Soviets like many other countries in the area.13 Finland lost just over 21,000 soldiers, while the USSR lost around ten times that number, upwards of 200,000 deaths. Finland also amassed 43,000 wounded, while Russia had over 600,000 injured soldiers, the vast majority of whom were so badly hurt and frostbitten that they could never fight again. All told, Finland had a total bill of 64,000 lost, while over 800,000 men from the Soviet Union died or suffered irreparable harm from this war. And the number for the Soviets injured may have been even higher. For example, future Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev privately wrote that he believed Finland had caused over one million Soviet casualties.14 The Winter War sent shock waves throughout the international community. Praise and sympathy for the Finnish effort was widespread, with headlines like the War Illustrated Magazine’s “Finland’s Heroic Resistance Surprises the World” printed worldwide.15 This also had a huge impact on how the world saw the Soviet Union. The Allies, as well as Germany, now considered the USSR to be a paper tiger. The casualty ratio when compared to the Fins was so ridiculously high, that it emboldened other powers, even while already engaged in World War II.16 This actually led to Hitler’s decision to invade Russia. He had been concerned about attacking the Soviet Union earlier in the war because he feared its strength, but now, as that strength appeared to be vulnerable, that mitigated his worries.17 Germany’s invasion of Russia is widely considered the turning point of the Second World War by historians. In fact, about a year later, Finland faced off against Russia once more in what was known as the Continuation War, this time with the Fins having some German support, as they fought to reclaim the lands Russia took at the Winter War’s conclusion. As Germany was in the middle of attacking Russia, it felt they should also support the Fins who also had a gripe with Russia. This led to the interesting situation of Finland fighting Russia in the Continuation War alongside Germany, while Finland still remained uninvolved during World War II. Finland never signed the Tripartite Pact that established the Axis powers, and instead considered working with the Germans against the USSR to be self-defense. The Germans, however, merely considered their efforts in the Continuation War part of their efforts in World War II. While Finland did not win this war either, it once more inflicted vastly disproportionate damage on the Soviet Union, as the Finnish and German losses on that front compared to Soviet losses.18 For every German or Fin lost, three Russians died. In the end, Finland’s show of defiance, while costly in the short term, saved their independence and integrity as a country, while shocking the world and ultimately changing the course of history.
Treaty of Moscow 1940
World War II
Howdy. I’m Stephen Talik, a native Texan born in College Station, and an Eagle Scout. I find history – especially the World Wars, Cold War, and the espionage world – fascinating. I also enjoy learning about the newest and coolest gadgets for technological use and internet security, and watching sports. I have also interned in the Washington D.C. office of a member of Congress, and I am a Political Science Senior at St. Mary’s University.Author Portfolio Page