The Buzz

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

Mannerheim sent JR-16 from Oulu to Värtsilä late on December 5, and Talvela arrived at Mannerheim’s headquarters at 4 am on December 6, Finland’s Independence Day, wearing full dress uniform.

Mannerheim briefed Talvela on the situation. The Soviet attack was two campaigns, one on IV Corps’ northern flank, along the road from Suvilahti to Kollaa, and another on the roads to Tolvajärvi and Ilomantsi. Mannerheim would therefore detach all the troops on the latter front from IV Corps to report directly to him. This force would be under Talvela and called Group Talvela.

Talvela’s job was to halt the enemy drives, throw them back, and recapture Suojärvi’s road network, cutting off all supplies to the southern Russian column on the Kollaa Road. Talvela would have less than half the manpower of his opponents, no armor whatsoever, no air support, and precious few mortars and artillery.

Still, Talvela was eager to take the offensive. JR-16 would be his trump card. It was commanded by an old friend and Finnish Civil War comrade, Lt. Col. Aaro Pajari, a highly competent officer who concealed his heart condition beneath great determination. Talvela phoned Pajari and told him to find out what was going on at the front and then drive back to Värtsilä with a full report. Pajari did so, talking to commanders and frontline soldiers, urging them to speak freely. He spent some time studying terrain and fresh intelligence reports and then headed back, meeting with Talvela at 3 am.

Pajari’s report was grim. The defenders of Tolvajärvi had been retreating for a week, pounded by artillery and tanks, only able to respond with machine guns and hand grenades. The men were physically exhausted, edgy, and discipline was being maintained only by a thread. One more Soviet push would break them. The opposing Soviet 139th Infantry Division had a high level of training and tactical cohesion and was making solid flanking attacks. The Finns were on the wrong end of five-to-one numbers.

To make matters worse, the weather was aiding the invaders. Snowfall had been light and spotty, meaning that the offroad snowdrifts were not enough to hamper Soviet troops and not enough to provide Finnish ski troops with their advantages. Pajari concluded that the Finns needed something close to a miracle to halt the Soviets. Taking the initiative was simply impossible.

Talvela absorbed this report and had another worry, the secondary threat at Ilomantsi. There the Soviet 155th Infantry Division was heading southwest and nearly 10 miles from the town.

Against this the Finns could put up only two battalions, but the Soviet drive was really being stopped by the 155th Division’s commander, General Gusevski, who was moving cautiously.

Talvela decided to gamble. Assuming that the 155th would continue to move slowly, he would focus his strength on Tolvajärvi. First, he would put steel in the Finnish defenses. The Finns would hold the west shore of Lake Tolvajärvi. Talvela sent Pajari back to the front, no longer as an observer, but as commander. He would relieve the hapless Räsänen. Talvela said later, “In situations like this, as in all confused and hopeless situations, an energetic attack against the nearest enemy was and is the only way to improve the spirits of the men and to get control of the situation.”

But while the two officers planned their strategy, the fighting went on. PPP-7 retreated five miles from its position at Ristisalmi on the eastern shore of Lake Ala Tolvajärvi to Lake Hirvasjärvi, north of Lake Tolvajärvi.

However, Talvela got some help from IV Corps—a battery of artillery on December 6, two more en route, and an independent battalion, ErP-9 (“Er” standing for “independent” or “detached”). Pajari’s own regiment, JR-16, reached the front on December 7.

The 1st/JR-16 arrived first, early on December 7, and began digging in west and north of a bridge that spanned the narrows between Lakes Tolvajärvi and Hirvasjärvi. But as soon as the battalion began digging in, it came under enemy artillery fire, and some of the Finns fled as far west as Korpiselka. That opened a gap in the Finnish lines that enabled the Soviets to gain control of Kottisaari and a long narrow peninsula called Hirvasharju, which extended to the northwest and split Lake Hirvasjärvi from Lake Tolvajärvi. On that peninsula stood a new two-story tourist hotel, built chalet-style with the second floor overhanging the first. It had a superb view of the lakes and hills. The commander of the Soviet 609th Infantry Regiment saw it as a command post and bunker and turned it into his headquarters.

Talvela arrived on the scene late in the day to find 1st/JR-16 retreating and reorganizing and tried to rally some of the men. They were too dispersed for him to do so, but the panic had run its course. The weary men regrouped, and 3rd/JR-16, under Pajari, arrived. Pajari ordered his men to dig in, walking up and down the line, calmly and firmly telling his men to do their duty. Despite his calm voice, Pajari had misgivings.

Pajari’s force was badly equipped by Finnish standards, lacking uniforms and snow boots and as unprepared to face the sub-zero temperatures as it was Soviet artillery fire. Fortunately, 3rd/JR-16 was not hard pressed. The Soviets were consolidating positions around the hotel that Pajari could see through his binoculars.

Early that evening Talvela conferred with Pajari, and they agreed that the situation had stabilized but the virus of defeat was spreading. Dramatic action was needed to curb the panic, regain the initiative, and show the Finns that the Soviets could be beaten.