Reading through history brings up some bizarre episodes and military history is no exception either. Like the time a group of French Hussars captured a Dutch fleet, or the US officer who strapped bazookas to his light observation aircraft and strafed German panzers.
There were a number of bizarre episodes in the Winter War. One of these took place over the evening of the 10th December and 11th December when a successful Soviet assault was stopped by Sausage Soup.
Makkara – Finnish Sausage
Finland is a sausage nation, without a doubt. Go to any event and you’ll find sausage served. Go to sauna with friends, sausage. Go to a BBQ, sausage. Go to a New Years Party, yep, you guessed it, sausage. A quick search turned up a few results stating that on average Finns eat 2.7 kilograms of sausage a year. I will admit to contributing my fair share to that number.
Finnish sausage is similar to German Bockwurst. Finely ground pork being the traditional and most commonly ingredient. Most supermarkets will have a whole aisle dedicated to them and in the summer the selection will grow with numerous flavours coming out.
Due to their cheapness, cultural ‘importance’, relatively long shelf life, they have been creatively made into numerous recipes. Sausage casseroles, soups, sauces and pastas are not uncommon appearances at dinner tables and even restaurants will serve sausage dishes. It isn’t surprising then that Sausage soup, made with potatoes, onions and carrots was adopted by the military as a protein rich, cheap and easy to produce meal.
Group Talvela – Guarding the Flank
The Finnish IV Corps was given the task of securing the backgate into Finland, the northern shore of Lake Ladoga. It had two full divisions and several battalions assigned to it. In the opening days of the Winter War, the Corps performed poorly, as Major General Juho Heiskanen allowed his units to give up too much ground. The rapidly deteriorating situation in the northern Karelian region worried Colonel Paavo Talvela, a veteran of the 1919 Aunus expedition in the region and who had written a thesis about combat operations there. He held a meeting with Marshal Mannerheim and expressed his concern that if the situation continued, they would run the risk of losing the front and then the war. The Soviet 8th Army was already halfway to the vital Värtilä railway junction that would open up a way to cut into the rear of the Karelian Isthmus and strike at the Main Defence Line.
Mannerheim was convinced by Talvela’s argument and upon his insistence immediately sent Infantry Regiment 16 (JR 16) to help relieve some of the pressure. JR 16 was under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Aaro Pajari, a friend of Talvela’s, and he set about getting his regiment from the railway at Värtilä to the frontlines near Tolvajärvi. Talvela was given command of a special Division sized battlegroup, Group Talvela, and was ordered to halt the Soviet advance by any means necessary. Together, Talvela and Parjari rallied the disheartened Finnish forces but the Soviet’s kept the pressure on. It was decided that Parjari would conduct a daring behind the lines raid against the Soviet forces in the area. So on the evening of 8th/9th December, Parjari and his volunteers skied through the forests of North Karelia under the cover of darkness and a feint attack by a company of JR 16.
After a few hours of skiing, the raiding party came across a Soviet regiment bedded down for the evening in a valley by Kivisalmi. Pajari deployed his men to engage one of the battalions and then gave the order to open fire. The surprise was complete and the battalion was unable to counter before the party was already moving on to another of the battalions. He then repeated the strategy. He ordered a withdrawal and as the team skied away, the two battalions engaged each other in confusion. The raid was a total success, the only casualty was Parjari, who collapsed of a mild heart attack on the return journey. The effect this raid gave to the demoralised Finns cannot be understated, it rallied veterans and conscripts alike that they could combat the Soviet mass.
The Sausage War
The effect of the raid upon the Soviets was equally as demoralising, as it was uplifting to the Finns. Now the encamped Soviets were fearful of more raids, more guards were placed on duty, more soldiers became sleepless, exhaustion set in. The rapid advance had also stretched the supply lines to their limit. This meant that the vanguard had to rely upon the merge rations of black bread and frozen dried meat. Brigade Commander Nicholas Beljalev wanted to give his 139th Rifle Division a few days to consolidate after the sweeping success, however the 8th Army Staff refused this and demanded he push on.
It was while this lull in the Soviet advance that Talvela came up with a plan to go on the offensive and push the 139th Rifle Division out of the village of Tolvajärvi. It was during this consolidation of forces for the assault that a threat that could undo all the success Talvela had just gained occurred. The 718th Rifle Regiment of the 139th Rifle Division had been held in the reserve and had been pulling up to the rear. After a 5 day hard march, it was now ready for rest but Beljalev ordered it to advance through the forest and hit the Finn’s left flank. It burst through the trees at the rear supply and artillery area for Group Talvela at around 2300. The sight of two battalions of infantry sent the rear echelon troops into a panic. The victorious Soviet infantry started to pursue the retreating Finns but were then stopped dead in their tracks, but it wasn’t some strong defence that caused it. No, what stopped the potentially devastating breakthrough was the smell of several field kitchens filled with sausage soup.
The Soviet infantrymen, who had marched on nothing but dried rations couldn’t hold to their discipline and were overtaken by the thought of a good hot meal. It was lucky for the defenders though that Pajari was passing through the area on his way with orders for the assault on Tolvajärvi. He saw the wave of panicking Finns and using all his skills as a commander hobbled together a scratch force of about 100 cooks, clerks and gunners. The starved, freezing and exhausted men of the 718th Rifle Regiment were blissfully unaware of their surroundings, focused as they were upon the warm bounty of sausage soup, when the improvised outfit attacked just after midnight on the 11th. The fighting was brutal. The rallied Finns leap upon their Soviet counterparts without mercy. Finnish puukko knives slashed throats, entrenching tools cracked bones, pistols and submachine guns burped, the scene was terrifying. It was one of the rare instances of hand to hand combat in the winter war. The slaughter lasted only minutes, the Soviets scattering, some dying with their mouths and pockets filled with sausages. One pair of Finns stalked the woods, using a lamp to stun their prey before the other fired his suomi SMG, showing their hunting background.
As morning broke, over 100 Soviet bodies were counted, the Finns lost only 20. It was clear that this was a serious pincer movement and had the 718th Rifle Regiment pushed forward, the majority of Infantry Regiment 16 would have been encircled and eventually crushed by the weight of the 139th Rifle Division. The 139th Rifle Division had lost a crucial tactical battle and in the process, 2 battalions were now broken. It tried to make up for this by launching an assault across the frozen lake of Tolvajärvi on the morning of the 11th but they were met by the guns of Infantry Regiment 16. The only setback for the Finns was the scheduled assault on the 11th was pushed back to the 12th in order to allow the men time to recover.
And so ends one of the more bizarre engagements of the Winter War.
Sander, Gordon F. The Hundred Day Winter War: Finland’s Gallant Stand against the Soviet Army. (University Press of Kansas, 2013)
Nenye, Vesa; Munter, Peter; Wirtanen, Toni. Finland at War: The Winter War 1939–1945. (Osprey Publishing, 2015)
Irincheev, Bair. War of the White Death: Finland Against the Soviet Union, 1939-40.(Stackpole Books, 2012)
Trotter, William R. A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939–1940. (Algonquin Books, 2000)