I am taking a small break on the series about Andrew Jackson to talk about one of my favorite events to study in WWII. On this day 76 years ago, in 1939, Russia and its Red Army began its invasion of Finland.
The story of the Axis powers taking Finland is a fascinating one that does not get talked about enough. The Finnish people were brave, courageous, clever, and refused to give up their country without a fight despite the overwhelming odds.
In 1932, the Russians and the Finns had signed a Non-aggression Act promising peace to the neighbors. But on November 30, 1939 at 9:20 am, the treaty was violated when the Russians bombed Helsinki and invaded with 1.2 million. Along with them they brought 1,500 tanks and nearly 3,000 aircraft to overwhelm the sparsely populated under-equipped and outdated Finnish forces. The Russians assumed this would go quickly and smoothly, and the need for extra provisions and extensive winter clothing would not be needed. They started off in good spirits as they achieved all of the initial invasion goals in ten days. But the securing of the rest of the country would prove deadly and difficult, lasting another 105 days. (Roberts, 30)
The Finnish army was made up of 10 divisions containing just 36 varying artillery pieced that all dated pre-WWI.
Their leader organizing the defense was Field Marshal Baron Carl von Mannerheim. Mannerheim had been an officer in the Tsarists army during WWI and was assumed by the Russians to be a friendly. To their shock he had organized a defense line called the "Mannherheim Line" that would haunt the unsuspecting soldiers and bring life to his nickname as the "Defender of Finland". The Red Army had been told that they would be welcomed and celebrated but they ended up fighting for their lives. Mannerheim had an intense and electric way of inspiring those around him to defend Finland. (Roberts, 31)
The Finns lacked weapons, comparable aircraft, and had no tanks or any means of anti-tank weapons; but they quickly learned how to hijack them using the Russians own "molotov cocktail'.
Using his knowledge of Russian war tactics, Mannherheim successfully predicted all of the Red Army's moves making it seem like the Finns were everywhere. Lacking a lot of equipment, one thing they were well equipped with was white camouflage uniforms; something that the Russians did not think they would need with the timeline they had anticipated with the invasion. The camouflage was one of the Finns most useful weapons of the defense, the Red Army nicknamed them Bielaja Smert (White Death).
The cold would also be Finland's friend as temperatures fell to -58 F. Many soldiers froze to death or got wounded and then the wound froze bringing on gangrene. One of the main strategies of the Finns were to keep the Red Army soldiers from sleeping. The constant roar of engines, frightened horses and the fear of the Finnish trackers and hunters hidden in the trees terrified many of them from sleeping well--if at all. The Finnish trackers and hunters would hide way up in the tall trees of the forest and wait for dark and while the Red Army solders were huddled around their camp fires--they would pick them off one by one by the shadows from the fire.
They were also able to pick up the Red Army's radio signals which were not sent in code but plain language. This revealed just how weak their forces were with inadequate hot food and winter clothing.
The Finns seemed to be everywhere and the world watched in awe as they successfully kept the Russians at bay. They had filled the wilderness with mines and traps, gun emplacements, "dragons teeth" and pillboxes (makeshift anti-tank weapons), as well as the excellent sharpshooters hidden in the trees. But the Mannerheim Line could only be maintained for so long. When a Finn soldier fell there was no one to replace him, they had already called up everyone ages 15 and up for its defense. But when a Russian soldier fell they had two more ready to take his spot. (Roberts, 31)
One solder expressed his frustrations saying that there were "more Russians than [they] had bullets." Another Finnish officer wrote to his family, "One thing is clear: we have not fled. We were prepared to fight to the last man. We carry our heads high because we have fought with all our might for three and a half months." (Hastings, 38)
The Finns had also passed a scorched earth policy, requiring each citizen to destroy anything that could be of use to the Red Army including food, livestock, buildings, tools, skis, and vehicles upon evacuating their villages. (Hastings, 32)
After the loss of 25,000 Finns and 200,000 Russians, the two governments signed the Treaty of Moscow on March 13th ending the 4 month courageous defense of Finland. Despite Russia's victory it had been an embarrassing campaign that Hitler would view as a true measure of the Red Army skill for the rest of the war. (Roberts, 34)
Roberts, A. (2011). The Storm of War: A new history of the Second World War (p. 32-34). New York: Harper.