The Buzz

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

Before Talvela could attack, the Soviets hit him on his left flank, using the ski battalion of the Finnish National Army, a collection of renegade Finns who were willing to fight for Stalin. The entire battalion marched through the forests on his left flank at Lake Tolvajärvi. The Soviets aimed at Talvela’s supply line, the road to Korpiselka. There were no defensive works there, just field kitchens, artillerymen, quartermasters, and the headquarters company. At 11 that night, the Soviets attacked the position, where Finnish cooks were simmering large vats of sausage soup. The Soviets scattered the panic-stricken cooks and then sat down to eat the Finnish soup.

While they did, the Finns had a little time to recover. It was a stroke of luck for the Finns. Another was that Pajari himself was nearby. On his own initiative, he assembled 100 cooks, clerks, medics, supply sergeants, and artillerymen, and led them in a counterattack. It was a rare example of bayonet fighting in the Russo-Finnish War, and the Finnish troops, furious to see their own countrymen fighting for the hated Soviet invader, took no prisoners.

Meanwhile, Pajari summoned two companies of frontline troops to back up his ragtag band, and they hit the renegades from the east. By 4 am, the Finnish National Army was in full retreat, and by dawn the fighting was over. Only a few of the renegade Finns made it back to their lines. The road and forests were strewn with frozen corpses, at least 100 of them near the bullet-riddled soup pots, some with hunks of sausage still clinging to their gray lips.

The battle became legendary in Finnish history as the Sausage War and was a major boost to Finnish morale.

But the Tolvajärvi struggle continued. The same night, a Russian battalion moved out from Kottisaaari Island across the ice, heading for Tolvajärvi village from the south.

The Finns were alert, and Lieutenant Eero Kivela’s JR-16 company was first to get hit. He left two platoons and his heavy machine guns to hold the village and outflanked the outflankers with three rifle platoons. At dawn, the Soviets were just across the lake, still in the open. Kivela’s men wasted no time. They opened fire and killed scores of men with their first volley. The Soviets panicked and fled across the open ice, making superb targets. Kivela’s men kept firing until the Soviets were gone and then strode onto the ice to seize 16 machine guns from the dead men before retiring.

The Soviets kept trying on December 11, but the other attacks were less threatening. One Soviet objective had been achieved, perhaps unintentionally. Talvela would have to postpone his own counterattack until December 12.

Talvela assigned the task to the freshest men he had, Battalion ErP-9 and two companies of 1st/JR-16. If they could open the Russian defenses, his other forces could go through the hole in the lock. One pincer would cross the northern end of Lake Hirvasjärvi, pivot southeast, and hit the Hirvasharju Peninsula from the high ground in the rear, striking the tourist hotel, which was the lynchpin of the Soviet defenses.

When the northern pincer had made progress, Pajari would lead a frontal assault on the peninsula. Pajari would have his own troops along with a company from JR-37 and the 10th Independent Battalion (ErP-10). A third southern pincer, consisting of two companies of ErP-112, would assault Kottisaari Island, taking its high ground and enabling Finnish guns to interdict the Soviet supply line —the road over the Kivisalmi bridge. With luck, good timing, and determination, the Finns could win.

Talvela also made plans to counterattack at Ilomantsi. On December 11, the Soviets attacked at Oinaansalmi and the ferry crossing at Kallioniemi. In both places, the Soviets were thrown back with moderate casualties—two tanks wrecked by satchel charges and Molotov cocktails at the former and 134 dead at the latter. Now Talvela wanted three of Ekholm’s battalions to hit the Russians at Möhkö from the flanks and frontally.

On the other side, Commander Belaev, who headed the Soviet 139th Division, was under pressure to advance. Corps Commander Panin arrived at the 139th’s tactical headquarters on the morning of December 12 and personally took command of the division, ordering Belaev to attack.

The Finnish attack went wrong from the start. The 2nd and 3rd Companies of JR-16 moved off on the northern pincer at Lake Hirvasjärvi in foot-deep snowdrifts, unable to reach their start lines until well after daylight, costing them tactical surprise. While these Finns tried to sneak up on the Soviets, the Soviets were trying to do the same in accordance with Panin’s orders.

Instead, both sides surprised each other. The 3rd Company, on the far Finnish left, took the heat of the attack and Soviet machine-gun fire, and the Finns withdrew all the way to the Tolvajärvi Road. The 2nd Company slipped past the Soviets across the lake and readied for the southward turn when it was stopped cold by heavy Soviet fire at 11 am. Pinned down, it lost contact with ErP-9.

That battalion was not doing much better. One company got mangled in the battle and retreated to the Tolvajärvi Road by 10:30. The battalion regrouped and joined the 2nd Company to prevent them from being overwhelmed, but this Finnish group could make no progress and withdrew, except a group of 100 men from the 2nd Company, which stayed in the battle, drawing down large numbers of Soviet troops.