How to Defeat Russia, Finland-Style
'Finland at War' details Russia's lopsided 1939 defeat
Osprey Publishing sponsored this post.
In November 1939 a conversation took place in the Kremlin that Vesa Nenye, Peter Munter and Toni Wirtanen — authors of the new book Finland at War: The Winter War 1939-40 from Osprey Publishing — describe as “prophetic.”
After centuries of tension, newly independent Finland and its former ruler Russia were about to go to war, with Moscow aiming to reabsorb the smaller Nordic state in part to prevent Finland from allying with Germany. But the 105-day Winter War, pitting the scrappy Finnish army against a much larger but poorly led Russian force, would end with the battered Russians suing for peace.
In the November 1939 meeting at the Kremlin, political commissars Gregory Kulik and Lev Mekhlis grilled Chief Marshal of Artillery Nicholas Voronov. Kulik and Mekhlis asked how much ammunition Voronov needed for the forthcoming Finland campaign.
“That depends,” Voronov replied, according to Nenye, Munter and Wirtanen. “Are you planning to attack or defend? … With which forces and on which sectors? … And by the way, how much time is allotted for the operation?”
The reply to the last point came quickly: “Between 10 and 12 days.” Eyeing the map of Finland hanging on the wall, Voronov replied: “I will be happy if everything can be resolved within two to three months.” Everybody laughed derisively. “Marshal Voronov,” Kulik replied sternly. “You are ordered to base all your estimates on the assumption that the operation will last a maximum of 12 days.”
Kulik’s optimism would turn out to be deadly wrong for the roughly 167,000 Russians who would die in Finland, against Helsinki’s loss of around 26,000 soldiers.
On paper, Russia was clearly superior. “The Winter War has often been described as a battle between David and Goliath, based on the disparity in numbers and levels of armament,” the authors write in their information-packed, lavishly-illustrated, 305-page book.
The Finnish divisions could only field one artillery regiment composed of three understrength batteries using mostly obsolete tsarist-era howitzers and light three-inch cannons. In addition to riflemen, each division also had a light detachment of roughly 500 men and included a 180-strong cavalry unit, a bicycle company and a separate machine-gun squadron. At the outbreak of hostilities, the Finnish artillery had enough ammunition to last for roughly one week of fighting.
In comparison, each of the Soviet divisions had their own heavy howitzer and cannon regiments as well as an anti-tank company equipped with 12 45-millimeter anti-tank guns. In addition to the divisional batteries, each regiment had its own tactical antitank battery and four regimental cannons. Thus the Soviet artillery within each division already outshot the Finns by more than two to one. Each Soviet unit also contained its own armored battalion, with 10 to 40 tanks, as well as a reconnaissance battalion.
The Finnish heavy artillery units comprised four separate artillery batteries whereas the Red Army had whole artillery regiments. Thirty-two Vickers and a handful of obsolete Renaults were the only tanks the Finns possessed. The Soviet forces had at their disposal several armored brigades containing hundreds of tanks.
On Nov. 30, 1939, the Russians invaded.
The massed Soviet artillery opened up and the first red-starred bombers appeared over Finnish cities. For many Finnish soldiers this was their first experience of combat. Several recounted afterwards that at first it felt strange aiming and firing their weapons against other human beings. After a couple of hours all such sentiments had been shaken off; there was no shortage of Soviet troops to shoot at. As one Finnish soldier astutely summarized the situation on the eve of the war: “We are so few and they are so many. Where will we find the room to bury them all?”
In battle after battle, the Finns bloodied the Russians.
Finnish tactics were limited by the availability of equipment and ammunition. This meant avoiding fighting in open terrain where inferior Finnish firepower would likely spell disaster. Conversely, the Soviets had the opposite in mind as their inflexible doctrine was designed for all-out frontal assaults supported by massed artillery and armor.
This tactical rigidity meant that the Red Army would often repeat the same failed attack with the same formations again and again. As the Finns became aware of this, they attempted to strike deep into enemy lines using the cover of terrain to their advantage. To the Red Army’s great advantage, these large-scale guerrilla tactics could not be employed on the Karelian Isthmus.
There, a much more conventional war would have to be fought, with far superior Soviet forces attempting to weaken heavily fortified Finnish lines. And Finnish successes would depend on the quality of their leaders, their military skills and discipline and above all their sisu (a simple term that has become a byword for the endurance, grit and “never give up” attitude demonstrated by the Finns).
One highlight of Finland at War is Nenye, Munter and Wirtanen’s brief biography of Finnish sniper Simo Hayha, history’s deadliest marksman.