The Winter War – How Finland Won the Battle, Lost the War, Yet Protected Its Independence

Finnish Maxim M-32 Machine Gun Nest during the Winter War | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In the middle of the Finnish hinterland, Soviet soldiers huddled desperately around a big fire, trying to gather even the slightest hint of heat in freezing temperatures as low as -45° Fahrenheit. Suddenly a fusillade of shots split the night, downing dozens of Soviet soldiers; confusion and chaos ensued. By the time the Soviets organized to go after their attackers, the Fins had disappeared back into the night, among the trees and snowdrifts, where the Soviets dared not follow. The next day, the Red Army refused to march over a massive frozen lake in fear of hidden mines that might destroy its icy surface.1 Instead, men blundered through the icy snow draped forest, only to run straight into a lethal field of hidden Finnish machine guns and snipers.

Field cannon in its disguised fire station | Courtesy of the Military Museum of Finland and the Finnish Defense Forces. SA-kuva (Translates roughly to Winter War Photograph)

Finland and Russia were in the midst of a three month long war over Finland’s refusal to bow to the territorial demands made by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1939. Hitler and the Third Reich had started their implacable march across Western Europe and already begun conquering several countries in the beginning of World War II. The Soviets, who despite signing a pact of non-aggression with Germany were still paranoid, had tried to pressure Finland into handing over several islands, strips of land, and military bases to create a buffer zone. Russia was afraid the Fins would allow the Germans to occupy those locations in order to attack the Soviet Union.2 Finland, for their part, having observed what became of other countries that had capitulated to Soviet demands, refused. Finland rightly perceived that caving into the demands meant they would never be free of the Soviets in their country. Days later, the Soviet Army bombarded their own village of Mainila near the Russo-Finnish border, and blamed the attack on Finland. The Soviets used this as a pretext to invade, and troops advanced across the border into Finland on November 30, 1939.3

Finland was under the command of the brilliant Field Marshal Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, who came out of retirement to defend his country when the war broke out. Realizing his countrymen were hopelessly outgunned and out-manned, he threw their entire standing army into a conventional frontal confrontation style of warfare to protect the capital city, Helsinki. Marshal Mannerheim formed a complex mesh of machine guns, trenches, bunkers, and built strategic positions in an interlocking web of defenses. Rapidly calling up the conscripts, he ordered them and any citizens who grabbed up weapons to fight a guerrilla style of quick engagement and then detachment to protect the rest of the country, as he hoped to hold out long enough for the Allies or the League of Nations to come to their aid. As this was an unprovoked attack from the USSR on Finland, both members of the League of Nations, the expectation was the international community would assist the Fins. However, the initial fighting style of the Fins in the back country proved so effective, it stopped the Soviet advance cold in their tracks.4

Warrior of Lapland with Reindeer | Courtesy of the Military Museum of Finland and the Finnish Defense Forces. SA-kuva (Translates roughly to Winter War Photograph)

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

Winter War Soldiers with Equipment | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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

Swedish Volunteers who came to the aid of Finland | Courtesy of the Military Museum of Finland and the Finnish Defense Forces. SA-kuva (Translates roughly to Winter War Photograph)

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.

Watchman in front | Courtesy of the Military Museum of Finland and the Finnish Defense Forces. SA-kuva (Translates roughly to Winter War Photograph)

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

Finland’s Heroic Resistance Surprises The World | Courtesy of The War Illustrated

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.

Anti Aircraft Cannon | Courtesy of the Military Museum of Finland and the Finnish Defense Forces. SA-kuva
  1. Iskander Rehman, “Lessons From the Winter War: Frozen Grit and Finland’s Fabian Defense”, June 2016, War on the Rocks, https://warontherocks.com/2016/07/lessons-from-the-winter-war-frozen-grit-and-finlands-fabian-defense/.
  2. Maeve Underwood, “A Short History of the ‘Winter War’”, June 2018, Imperial War Museums,  https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/a-short-history-of-the-winter-war.
  3. The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, “Russo-Finnish War”/“Winter War”, November 2018, Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/event/Russo-Finnish-War.
  4. William Trotter, Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940, January 2001.
  5. Robert Citino, “White Death”, June 2018, The National World War II Museum, https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/white-death.
  6. Iskander Rehman, “Lessons From the Winter War: Frozen Grit and Finland’s Fabian Defense”, June 2016, War on the Rocks, https://warontherocks.com/2016/07/lessons-from-the-winter-war-frozen-grit-and-finlands-fabian-defense/.
  7. Robert Edwards, The Winter War : Russia’s Invasion of Finland, 1939-1940,  pg 157, (New York : Pegasus Books, 2009).
  8. Tapani Kossila, “Foreign Volunteers in the Winter War”, March 2019, Axis History, https://www.axishistory.com/various/34-finland-general/finland-general/212-foreign-volunteers-in-the-winter-war.
  9. “Winter War 1939-1940”, 2010, Ministry of Defense of Finland, February 2 2020, https://www.defmin.fi/winterwar/.
  10. “Winter War 1939-1940”, 2010, Ministry of Defense of Finland, February 2 2020, https://www.defmin.fi/winterwar/.
  11. Robert Citino, “White Death”, June 2018, The National World War II Museum, https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/white-death.
  12. “The Moscow Peace Treaty”, March 12 1940, Winterwar.com, http://www.winterwar.com/War’sEnd/moscow_peace_treaty.htm.
  13. Michael Peck, “How Finland Lost World War II to the Soviets, but Won Peace”, August 2016,  The National Interest, https://nationalinterest.org/feature/how-finland-lost-world-war-ii-the-soviets-won-peace-17412.
  14. Major Gregory Bozek, The Soviet-Finnish War of 1939-1940, Getting the Doctrine Right (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas : School of Advanced Military Studies
    United States Army Command and General Staff College).
  15. “Finland’s Heroic Resistance Surprises the World”, The War Illustrated, December 23, 1939.
  16. “1939-1940 – The Winter War”, Global Security, https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/war/winter-war.htm.
  17. John Mosier, The Blitzkrieg Myth: How Hitler and the Allies Misread the Strategic Realities of World War II (New York City: HarperCollins,  2004), 88.
  18. Robert Citino, “White Death”, June 2018, The National World War II Museum, https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/white-death.

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26 Responses

  1. The Winter War is one of many obscure conflicts in history destined to have only a few pages in the story of our history. The Winter War in recent years has become somewhat a meme, for one reason or another. People would say that it is the great wars that change the course of history. However, I say it is these little wars that make the biggest difference in war affairs.

  2. I absolutely adore the Winter War, too often the Russian winter is heralded as some great force when clearly the Soviets were just as capable at being affected by freezing temperatures. It’s good to see the Finns getting the credit they deserve for prompting operation Barbarossa since the outcome of this war is what lead much of the world to view the Red Army as a second rate alongside the armies of countries like Japan and China.

  3. Glad to see an article covering one of the less talked about aspects of World War II. While I do not think that the Soviet losses in the Winter War were the sole reason for the German invasion of Russia, I can say that they definitely encouraged them. I find it extremely fascinating and kind of ironic that such a small country as Finland could inflict such damage on the Soviets.

  4. The Finnish winter war is one of great fascination and is a war which is often overshadowed by the second world war. This should not be the case as although Finland lost 10% of its territory they still preserved Finnish independence which lead to them remaining independent even after the second world war and through the cold war. Along with this the article does an excellent job in describing the war to the readers and goes on to tell how the war ended.

  5. Such a well written article! Very interesting and informative. I honestly had absolutely no idea about this aspect of history. I did not even know that Finland was a country participating in WW2. But the even more captivating aspect of your article is that it was out of the protection of their independence in why they were allies with the Germans. I also had no concept of the warfare tactics the Finnish used. So great! Good job, thoroughly enjoyed reading your article.

  6. Like some of my peers, I have long known about Finnish snipers through the numerous abundance of World War 2 memes given to me via Instagram or Reddit. Although I was a history buff before reading this article, I never would have thought that Finland, a presumed neutral country, fought back against the Soviet Union in order to defend their land from a complete communist takeover. But what is even more perplexing is the fact that Finland fought alongside Germany under the guise of preserving their independence. Alongside this, and despite it being an unconventional method in warfare, the Finnish soldiers utilized guerilla tactics to fight back the Soviet Union. Overall, the article was quite the educatory piece of writing. I did not know about Finland’s involvement with warfare and battles during World War 2, and was shocked learning about them being a small part of the Axis powers.

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