To those of you who may be surprised to find the word “Finland” even mentioned in a blog about military history, let me assure you, I’m just as shocked myself. Finland isn’t well known for its military, as the young country celebrates it’s 100th birthday in 2017, and currently holds a population of just over 5 million. In, fact, Finland’s history mainly consists of being a part of larger powers such as the Kingdom of Sweden from the 12th century through 1809, and then Russia until it’s independence in 1917.
The story began in 1917 when Russia was forced to give up a large chunk of territory following their defeat in World War I, leading to the creation of several countries including Finland. Twenty-two years later, at the outbreak of the Second World War, the power-hungry Soviet Union had their sights set on reclaiming what they believed to be rightfully their own.
On November 30th, 1939, without a formal declaration of war, the Soviets sent twenty-one divisions (450,000 men) across the border and opened artillery fire on the capital, Helsinki, effectively beginning what would become known as “The Winter War.”
The entire world assumed little Finland was done for, expecting the conflict to end in a matter of days. To put things into perspective, the population of the Soviet Union in 1940 is estimated to have been over 190 million, almost 50 times greater the population of Finland.
In addition to being outnumbered, the Finns were under equipped, originally only having enough ammunition for 60 days of full-scale war. While the Russians mobilized over 5,000 tanks and 2,500 aircraft during the conflict, the Finnish Air Force and Tank Corps were basically nonexistent.
Finland did have one crucial edge over the “Ruskies”: the home-field advantage. Despite its size, the Finnish defense force was highly trained. Finnish troops were required to have 365 days of training, taking time to learn how to use the harsh weather, terrain, and constant darkness during the later half of the year to their advantage.
The Soviet plan of attack consisted of concentrated force in two main areas: the southern part of Finland, which held most of the country’s population, known as the Karelian Isthmus, and the Finnish Lapland, the underpopulated arctic in the upper part of the country.
The Finnish deployed most of their troops along the Mannheim Line, a defensive structure built in the Karelian Isthmus upon Finland’s independence from Russia in 1917. The Finns were surprisingly able to hold, halting Soviet forces until early February.
As a result of the stalemate in the south, the Soviets attempted to make ground in the north, deploying far more troops than the Finnish high command ever imagined. As a result, the Finns let the Soviets cross the border without resistance, as they didn’t have the resources to defend a another fortified line like they were in the south.
They instead resorted to guerrilla warfare, using the famed ski troops to execute ambushes and surprise attacks on Soviet supply lines and patrols. The Finnish troops and positions were well camouflaged with the snow, while the Russians were dressed in the standard olive uniforms of the Red Army. The Soviet T-34 tanks were not painted in appropriate camouflage, allowing the Finns to destroy over 3,500 during the war with anti-tank guns and bazookas.
The Finnish soldiers were also dressed accordingly to the extremely low temperatures, while most Soviet troops were issued nothing more than a light winter jacket. Temperatures were reported to have dropped below -45 degrees Fahrenheit, dooming thousands of Russians to frostbite.
The Finnish were unable to hold the Soviets forever, as they started losing ground come spring 1940. However, the severe Russian causalities and humiliation sustained during the fourth month invasion lead Stalin to propose the Moscow Peace Treaty on March 13, 1940.
The Finns were forced to give up the Karelian Isthmus, along with several islands and small pieces of territory which the Soviets had managed to secure.
The gains were far outbalanced by the cost. By March 13th, over 125,000 Soviets were reported as dead or missing, with another 180,000 men wounded. The Finnish estimated they shot down nearly 500 planes and destroyed over 3,500 tanks. In total the Finns suffered only 70,000 casualties, but did witness the devastation of many towns in the northern part of the country.
At the time, the Finnish were looked down upon by many for signing a treaty with Nazi Germany, as the Germans were knee-deep in a war with the Russians themselves. Field Marshal C.G.E Mannheim, the head of the Finnish military, knew that he needed Germany’s resources in order to repel the Russians, prompting the Finnish government to strike a deal. The Germans agreed to send the Finns weapons, tanks, planes, and a few divisions of men in exchange for access to move their forces through the country.
However, modern historians see that this alliance was a necessity in order for the Finnish to defend their homeland. Once the Russian threat had been neutralized, Mannheim saw to it that his country broke all ties with Germany, earning the respect of the Western world. The Field Marshall later served as Prime Minister of Finland after the war in 1946.
The ultimate moral of the story here is that despite a population of only 5 million, Finland comes packin’. As I’ve learned from Erdal, his country is still proud of their victory against the odds, and every male in Finland is still required 365 days of military service after finishing high school.
Vladimir Putin’s recent actions in Ukraine and threats to reunite the former Soviet Union make this history lesson even more relevant. If Russia once again becomes the aggressor, all I have to say is be careful what you step in Vlady, because the Finns won’t come quietly.