The Buzz

This Battle in the Winter War Had Far Reaching Consequences for Russia—and Beyond

To buy time, Finnish engineers blew a dam on Lake Suojärvi’s western shore, which flooded icy water over both sides. The Finns took advantage of the flood to flee, but the water soon froze up and the Soviets resumed the attack, driving the Finns off a north-south road from Suojärvi and Salonjärvi and its roadblock.

Task Force R dug in on the western bank of the Aittojoki River, with PPP-7 as the reserve at Ägläjärvi. Among the Finnish troops digging in was Special Battalion No. 112, made up of rear-echelon paperchasers with very little training and outdated equipment.

The Soviet advance was worrying Mannerheim, and he personally ordered Task Force R to counterattack on December 3 to reopen the road. The Finns jumped off on time and surprised the Soviet invaders. But when Soviet tanks showed up, the Finnish attack was stalled in its tracks.

Soviet troops and tanks began moving across Lake Salonjärvi’s ice to encircle Task Force R. The only unit left to save the day was Special Battalion No. 112, and they charged into a counterattack, hurtling the Soviets into the forest. The assault gave the Finns time to withdraw to the prepared defenses on the Aittojoki.

The next morning, December 4, the Soviets attacked the Finns in the misty predawn darkness. The Finns held the line for three hours against heavy frontal attacks.

Finally, the Soviets broke through and slammed into PPP-7’s headquarters. The battalion’s commander, a major, rallied his miscellaneous collection of clerks, medics, cooks, quartermaster troops, and walking wounded, who fought the Soviets with personal sidearms, knives, and weapons grabbed from the dead. The Finns put up a determined fight, but halfway through the battle the major was wounded and rumors spread that he had been killed. The defenders collapsed in fear and panic. The men at the front, learning that their rear was being torn apart, also caved in. Räsänen and his headquarters team had to flee to Tolvajärvi while the rest of Task Force R fled to Ägläjärvi.

By morning on December 5, Task Force R had regrouped and dug in. Mannerheim ordered Räsänen to counterattack, and the colonel formulated a risky and ambitious plan—PPP-7 would go forward, braced on the flanks and rear by Special Battalion 112. These two outfits would absorb the next Soviet attack and hold it in place while the rest of Task Force R, in the dense forests north of the road, hit the Soviet flank.

The plan would have been a good one if the Finns had good communications and more men, but they did not. PPP-7 broke under  Soviet pressure in the first quarter hour on December 5. The rest of Task Force R never got the word to make the flanking attack, which would have easily cut off the Soviet advance.

Räsänen ordered another retirement, but this was conducted in good order thanks to the energetic Special Battalion 112. The Finns were now a group of hungry, scared, exhausted, frozen, depressed, whipped men falling back on Tolvajärvi and its hills and frozen lakes. Räsänen gloomily reported to Mannerheim that his men were nearing the point of ineffectiveness.

Finnish troops had retreated more than 40 miles and showed the strain. Some men had shot at each other by mistake, and others had fled at the mere rumor of tanks. Now the Soviets were poised to take the rail junction at Värtsilä. If the Soviets did so, they would collapse the Ladoga-Karelia front, and the Mannerheim Line would be open to attack from the rear.

The situation was desperate for Mannerheim. Studying his maps, he ordered JR-25 of the 9th Division to entrain for Kuhmo to serve as the nucleus of a newly formed brigade, despite its shortages of clothing and equipment. JR-27 was sent to Suomussalmi on December 7. The third and last regiment of the 9th Division, JR-26, was left on the Karelian Isthmus, facing the biggest Soviet offensive.

On December 5, JR-16 of the 6th Division was assigned to Mannerheim’s personal command and sent to Tolvajärvi to stiffen the defenses.

The Finns continued to crumble on December 5. Ägläjärvi fell, putting them halfway between the border and the rail junction. The Soviet 155th Division was storming toward Ilomantsi, which would mean that all the Finnish troops at Tolvajärvi would be cut off.

The only good news for Mannerheim was that the Soviet attacks north of Lake Ladoga were not coordinated; they were separate columns attacking up roads and trails, tied by their heavy vehicles to those narrow arteries, unable to properly deploy beyond them or move and fight well in the adjoining woods, swamps, and frozen lakes.

Mannerheim realized that if these isolated columns could be cut off and destroyed quickly the Finnish troops fighting there could be transferred to the Karelian Isthmus to hold the main front on the Mannerheim Line. All that was needed was some determined leadership.

Fortunately, Finland abounded in such men. Mannerheim appointed one of his best officers, Maj. Gen. Woldemar Hägglund, as commander of the IV Corps and assigned him to defeat 10 Soviet divisions.

Next, Mannerheim turned to a close personal friend, Colonel Paavo Talvela, a hero of the 1918 civil war, vice president of the national film company, and president of the state liquor board, to serve as field commander. Talvela was an appropriate choice. He had completed extensive map wargames over that area while studying at the Finnish War College, where he had graduated at the top of his class. Bold, resolute, tough, Talvela was an imaginative tactician and familiar with the terrain. Mannerheim described him as “a fearless and strong-willed commander, who possesses that degree of ruthlessness required in an offensive against a greatly superior adversary.”