Astounding: How Finland Held off an Invasion From the Mighty Soviet Union

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April 2, 2020 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Winter WarFinlandSoviet UnionWorld War IIMilitaryTechnology

Astounding: How Finland Held off an Invasion From the Mighty Soviet Union

Heroes.

With the Tolvajarvi front stabilized, Hagglund initiated an attack on the Russian 18th and 168th Infantry Divisions and 34th Tank Brigade immediately north of Lake Ladoga, between Kitela and Syskyjarvi. After two false starts, the Finns launched their assault on December 26, first taking the village of Uomaa behind the Russian lines and cutting off their communications. This was followed by an assault by two Finnish task forces on a 10-mile front along the Uomaa road toward the north coast of Lake Ladoga. The aim was to cut off the advance elements of the 168th Division.

By the end of the first week of January 1940, the Russian Ladoga front was in tatters, with supply lines severed and many Russian battalions encircled because they had refused to retreat, instead digging in waiting to be surrounded by the Finns. The pockets of trapped Russians were soon known to the world as mottis, the Finnish word denoting a pile of timber destined to be chopped into convenient lengths of firewood. Hagglund’s attack had created nine such mottis, including Lt. Gen. Andrei Bondarev’s 20-square-mile Great Motti containing much of the 168th Division.

The Battle For Suomussalmi

As Hagglund’s mottis were forming, the action was heating up farther north. The Soviets had set their sights on Suomussalmi, a provincial town of 4,000 inhabitants located in Finland’s midsection. The Soviet 44th and 163rd Divisions of the Ninth Army were tasked with its capture. From there, they were to move on the town of Oulu, cutting off the country’s rail connection with Sweden. The 163rd was to advance on the town in two columns from the north and east, while the motorized 44th Division followed in support.

The 163rd moved slowly, its heavy equipment and transport forced to remain on the few roads in the area. Finnish ski troops slowed the unit even more by attacking supply bases and supply convoys in the rear. Nevertheless, the Russians took Suomussalmi on December 7. A few days later, Finnish reinforcements from the 9th Division arrived after traveling over a distance of 100 miles.

On December 11, without any artillery support, the Finns counterattacked the town, cutting off enemy supply lines and forestalling any possibility of a Russian retreat. The Russian 44th Division arrived within four miles of Suomussalmi on December 22 and was promptly blocked off and surrounded. On Christmas Eve, the trapped Russians attempted to break out to the east. The Finns adopted an elastic defense that lured enemy armor and infantry into the woods so they could be counterattacked by stealthily moving ski troops.

With the arrival of the 9th Division’s artillery assets, the Russians were pummeled by well-aimed fire. Their attack collapsed. The Finns then went over to the offensive on the 27th and destroyed the Russian 163rd Division three days later. Turning next to the enemy 44th Division, the Finns chopped the division into small motifs that were mopped up in turn. The fight for Suomussalmi cost the Russians over 30,000 men killed and captured, 43 tanks, and 270 other vehicles. The Finns lost 900 dead and 1,770 wounded in the grueling contest.

Breaking the Mannerheim Line

As 1939 turned into 1940, Stalin, disgusted with the war’s lack of progress, named General Semyon K. Timoshenko the new commander of the fight against Finland. Timoshenko’s chief of staff was General Georgi Zhukov, destined to become the greatest Russian general of the war. The Leningrad Military District was renamed the Northwestern Front, with the forces on the Karelian Isthmus reorganized into Thirteenth and Seventh Armies. First priority was given to breaking the Mannerheim Line. Armored units were concentrated in packs of 100 vehicles and ordered to work closely with their supporting infantry instead of charging ahead by themselves. Most importantly, the artillery was strengthened and concentrated (80 heavy guns to each mile of front), and better-coordinated barrages on enemy positions were planned to support advancing infantry and tanks.

The new Soviet attack on the Mannerheim Line commenced on February 1, 1940, with more than 300,000 artillery shells smashing into Finnish positions around Summa on the first day. The Russian ground attack was directed toward the city of Viipuri. Despite the new and improved tactics and better morale, one aspect remained the same: the Russians were still willing to accept massive losses in order to gain their objectives. These attacks, made by massed columns of closely packed men, were supported by air bombardment and artillery fire, followed by strong tank and infantry assaults. No matter how many men and vehicles were lost, the attacks would be repeated in each division’s assigned sector, up to five times a day, with fresh units thrown into the cauldron of battle.

The Russian advance on February 2 and 3 repeated the pattern of the first day, but was even more powerful. Fighting was fierce around Summa, with the Finns knocking out 90 tanks while laboring under artillery shelling of 400 rounds per minute. As the days passed, the Finnish strong points fell to the Soviet attackers. A week later, the Russians widened their attacks by hitting positions from Taipale to the Gulf of Finland.

Finally, on February 11, the inevitable occurred—the Russians broke through the Mannerheim Line northeast of Summa. The Russian 123rd Division with its attached 35th Light Tank Brigade punched through the weakened and exhausted defenders after a furious two-and-a-half-hour artillery barrage and established a salient in the enemy lines. The Finns counterattacked on the 13th but were repulsed. That same day, a strong Russian armored column was poised to roll past the Lahde crossroads straight for Viipuri. Unaccountably, the force halted to await reinforcements, allowing the Finns to shore up their defenses and stop the threatened advance on Viipuri.

The Last Line of Finnish Defenses

The pressure along the entire Karelian front continued to increase. As a result, Mannerheim ordered the II Corps to retire to a position farther back from Summa, called the Intermediate Line. The new site varied in strength widely from sector to sector. In the area fronting Viipuri, it was as strong as the Mannerheim Line. On the 18th, another crisis brewed for the Finns as a Soviet division almost took Taipale on the other side of the Karelian Isthmus.

By February 24, the Intermediate Line was bending at several places. At one of the threatened points, Honkaniemi Station, the Finns launched their only tank attack of the war, using five British-made Vickers light tanks sporting 37mm guns. The Finnish tanks were routed when they ran into several Russian tanks firing much larger 76mm shells. Not long after the failed tank attack, Mannerheim ordered a retreat to the Rear Line, an area west of Viipuri where numerous lakes made for good defensive ground.

On February 28, Timoshenko carried out an attack on the entire Rear Line. He felt confident; the Mannerheim Line had held for 78 days, the Intermediate Line for only 12 days. Timoshenko reasoned that the third Finnish defensive line could not be very strong—and there was no fourth line.

As March approached, the Finns hoped that the Isthmus Army could hold out until the spring thaw melted the frozen lakes and gulf, creating a protective quagmire shielding Viipuri. Aware of the coming thaw, the Soviets pressed ahead with their attack on the Rear Line on March 2. The next day, the XXVIII Army Corps landed on the western coast of the Viipuri Gulf. Some 30 Russian divisions, 1,200 armored vehicles, and 2,000 aircraft began hammering the Rear Line and the gulf.

Over 200,000 Russians and 25,000 Finns Killed

By mid-March, the loss of territory and of men—75,000 killed or wounded since the start of the war—had exhausted the Finnish nation. It was also obvious that no help would be coming from the Western powers. The Helsinki government requested and was granted a ceasefire on March 13. There was nothing left to do but count the cost: 25,000 Finns killed (about 2.6 million in 1939 American terms), with another 44,000 wounded. The Russians claimed 215,000 died or wounded. (Modern authorities speculate that the real number of Russian dead was 230,000 to 270,000, with an additional 200,000 to 300,000 wounded.) The Finns also destroyed 2,300 armored vehicles and 700 Russian planes

In the end, Finland lost the Karelian Isthmus and had to allow Soviet basing rights at the port of Hango. More than 420,000 Finnish civilians were displaced as a result of the political settlement. But the most amazing result of the savage war was that the Finns retained their independence. For Stalin and the Soviet Union, the victory was bittersweet. The Winter War had cost them enormous national prestige and encouraged Adolf Hitler to look ever more closely at an eastward invasion of Mother Russia—an invasion that would begin in June 1941, code-named Barbarossa.

This article by Arnold Blumberg originally appeared on Warfare History Network.

Image: Wikimedia Commons