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A Brief History of the Winter War
At the start of the Second World War, the USSR under Josef Stalin signed a treaty of non-aggression with Hitler’s Germany known as the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, but whilst it was at peace with Germany, the USSR waged a fearsome war with its neighbour, the tiny but determined Republic of Finland. Russia’s dispute with the Nordic country began in 1939 when Soviet leader Joseph Stalin sought to widen his control in Eastern Europe. Suggestions that Russia feared an attack from Germany through Finland, Stalin demanded that the country’s border with Russia be redrawn and reestablished 25km further back along the Karelian Isthmus, in order to create a buffer zone around the city of Leningrad. He also demanded that Finland handed over several islands in the Gulf of Finland and leased Russia territory on the Hanko Peninsula so that they might construct a naval base. Stalin offered a sizeable chunk of Russian territory as part of the deal, but the Finns did not trust the Soviet’s motives and rejected the proposals. Consequently, on November 30, 1939, after a series of failed negotiations and missed ultimatums, the Soviet Red Army invaded Finland with half a million troops. Even though the Finnish armed forces were vastly outnumbered and outgunned in the Russo-Finnish War of 1939, what became known as the “Winter War,” the Finns had the great advantage of defending their country on Finnish soil. Their military leader, Marshal Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, himself a former general in the army of Tsar Nikolas II, developed strong defensive lines of trenches, concrete bunkers and field fortifications on the Karelian Isthmus, behind which the Finns fought heroically to beat back repeated Soviet tank assaults. In other places along the frontier, Finnish ski troops exploited the harsh and rocky landscape to conduct almost guerrilla warfare on isolated Soviet units. Their irregular methods were undoubtedly assisted by the freezing Finnish winter, which bogged the Soviets down and made their soldiers easy targets against snowy terrain. Even though the Finns put up a valiant challenge during that winter of 1939-1940, their troops were, in the long run, no equal for the sheer enormity of the Red Army. In February 1940, in the wake of one of the fiercest artillery bombardments in history, the Soviets recommenced their offensive and overran the Finnish fortifications on the Karelian Isthmus. With its forces short of ammunition and approaching the point of exhaustion, Finland acceded to an armistice the following month. The treaty that followed the Winter War forced Finland to give up eleven percent of its land to the Soviet Union, yet the country retained its independence and later took on Russia for a second time during World War II in what is known as the “Continuation War”. For Russia, however, victory came at a massive cost. In just three months of fighting, their forces suffered over 300,000 casualties compared to around 65,000 for the Finns. The Winter War may have had broader implications for World War II, as it is often thought that the Red Army’s uninspiring performance is often regarded to be behind Adolf Hitler’s driving but mistaken belief that his June 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union would be successful.
All photos courtesy of SA-kuva (Finnish Wartime Photograph Archive)