The Winter War
September 30, 2023
Growing up Finnish meant hearing the elders talk about every subject around the kitchen table. As a child the tales my dad, uncles, relatives and visitors from Finland would tell intrigued me.
The stories would emphasize the idea of the "Sisu," the soul of the Finnish people. Sisu allowed this group of people living in very harsh conditions to survive adversity. It meant that even when there was no hope left in the world Finns would scrape up every bit of urgent persistence, focus and then succeed. Putin's Ukraine War parallels Putin's hero, Stalin, in his despicable approach to invading a neighbor. This has prompted a renewed interest in the lessons learned in the three-month Winter War.
There are stories of the '39 Winter War when Russia, a country of 170 million invaded Finland, a country of 3.5 million during one of the coldest winters in history. Russia used false flag tactics to justify their unprovoked invasion of Finland. The reason Russia failed in taking over Finland were self-inflicted. Stalin's paranoia had resulted in the elimination of hundreds of Russia's experienced military officers. Therefore, Russian troops had ineffective leadership. Stalin was so arrogant that Russia would easily take over the capital, Helsinki, in a week that one of the first caravans of intercepted Russian supplies consisted of band instruments and uniforms for their triumphant march through the capital. Interesting to note: Stalin sent Ukrainians from a warmer climate to war with skis and manuals on "How to Ski." These poor guys never had a chance.
In northern Finland, the under supplied Russian army slowly progressed through the difficult forest terrain. The Russian theory was they could loot and obtain supplies from towns as they would overrun them. But the Finns destroyed their towns by burning them to the ground, so the Russians had nothing to loot.
I remember stories about Finnish machine gunners facing thousands of ill-equipped Russians charging toward the Finnish line. The Russians, underfed, in light-weight coats, inadequate boots and carrying ancient weapons were at a huge disadvantage. The Russians diet of tea and biscuits was inadequate for surviving in the 70 degree cold. Finnish machine gunners would mow them down. As soon a bullet hit, the freezing temperature would cause the enemy to freeze completely. Frozen corpses would pile up like bricks. Finnish soldiers nearly went mad at the meaningless carnage. Russian officers stayed at the rear of the action equipped with guns to shoot any Russian who tried to retreat.
Finnish enhanced Russian fear with "ski patrols." After Russian soldiers had bedded down for the night, they would find every other throat would have been slit by the "ski patrol." Only ski tracks to show they had been there. Stories of Russian soldiers inexplicably disappearing also undermined morale. One incident I vividly remembered was when a column of Russian troops saw five Russian soldiers illuminated by headlights standing motionless in the road. As they got closer, they realized all five were dead and completely frozen so quickly that they had become statues performing their last actions, like reaching for a weapon.
Finnish snipers were deadly. Their culture meant every Finn was a sharpshooter and the most famous was Simo Hayha, the White Ghost, who, armed with a basic hunting rifle, still has the highest number of confirmed kills of any sniper ever with over 500 confirmed in less than three months.
The most discussed event was the "Sausage War" at Varolampi Pond. Finnish reindeer sausage supplied the protein and calories needed and soldiers were well fed. The sausage with root vegetables made a rich soup. On the day of the "Sausage War" a surprise attack by the Russians broke through the line and the Finns hastily retreated abandoning the food sled. The starving Russians, overcome by the smell of the rich soup, descended on the food sled and gorged themselves while ignoring their superiors' orders to pursue. As a result, the Finns were able to regroup. The Russian superiors killed the soldiers who had defied the orders to advance. But for the sausage soup the outcome of the Winter War may have been different.
The stories I remember are too many to tell in one pass. I looked up the statistics and saw that the Finns suffered 70,000 casualties including 25,904 deaths while Russia had an estimated 321,000 to 381,000 casualties with approximately 160,000 dead. However, Khruschev, Stalin's successor, authored a book about this war where he stated Russian causalities were more around one million. Since Russia decides to say what is "true" we will never know the actual cost to the Russian people.