On the morning of the 30th November 1939, thousands of artillery pieces opened up upon the Soviet-Finnish border in what was the largest bombardment since the end of the First World War. Within hours thousands of Soviet infantrymen crossed the border at various points from the Karelian Isthmus up to the arctic area of Petsamo. They were supported by a vast army of support elements, thousands of tanks and hundreds of aircraft. Soviet Command was confident that their superior technology and numbers would give them a swift victory, akin to the ‘blitzkrieg’ of Poland by the Third Reich, within weeks. It was not to be, within days the Soviet forces were stumbling against stubborn Finnish defenders, by the end of December the red armies had grinded to a halt by a combination of Finnish determination, poor managements, lackluster leadership and brutal winter weather.
However, this wasn’t to last forever. A quick leadership shuffle and thorough reorganisation saw the Soviet military turn humiliation into victory, even if not on the grand scale as originally envisioned. The Soviet Union’s strategy for the Winter War can be divided into two main phases. The first being the original plan that was enacted on the morning of the 30th November 1939 and was soon revealed to be both too ambitious and inadequate. The second was the one brought into place at the beginning of 1940 and commenced on the 1st February.
Plans for fighting in Finland
The first plans for Russia fighting in Finland comes from the end of the 19th century/early 20th century. The rise in Finnish nationalism from the mid-19th century started to worry the higher echelons of Russian society when certain groups, often given the umbrella term ‘Young Finns’, turned to more radical and aggressive means to push Finnish identity. When Emperor Nicholas II published his February Manifesto of 1899, there was serious concern that armed conflict could erupt in Finland between elements of the Army of the Grand Duchy of Finland and units of the Russian Imperial Army. With this in mind, the Russian General Staff conducted a study using several war games on how to invade and conduct operations in Finland if the need arises. The conclusion was that it would require a large number of highly mobile units, like the Cossacks, but outside of holding the main population centres, Finnish resistance would be hard to crush as the natural landscape favoured the local population. Luckily this plan never had to be put to the test.
The next serious round of planning for operations against Finland came about during the mid 1930s. Before this the Soviet Union pursued a policy based around creating diplomatic buffer-zones by means of non-aggression pacts, trade agreements, mutual-assistance pacts. Rising tensions brought about by the Great Depression, the policies of Nazi Germany, Japanese expansion in Chinese Manchuria, the Soviet Union started to switch to a more actively militant policy of securing its borders. In 1937 it was thought that Finland, at least the southern area around the Karelian Ishtmus, could be used as an avenue by Germany, United Kingdom or France to strike at the Soviet Union and bypass the heavy defences around Kronstadt. Assessment of Finland’s military caused no concern for the Soviet Union on its own, they had little offensive power, but this also reinforced the belief that Finland would be unable to resist an invasion from forces set upon striking at the Soviet Union. Also Finland’s close ties with the three biggest powers of Europe; Germany, United Kingdom or France, only served to strengthen the idea that Finland would be the most likely invasion approach if war ever broke out between the USSR and the European powers. Several plans were created between 1937 and 1939, some ranged from precise strikes that concentrated upon the Karelian Isthmus and pushed through to Helsinki, others were as grand as a broad strike that saw troops invade north of Lake Ladoga in a large sweeping movement. There was one plan that was massively ambitious and saw a ‘Special Army’ of 12 Divisions sent to secure Estonia before hitting Finland in three main thrusts at Helsinki, Oulu and Petsamo respectively.
The Soviet Union’s determination to secure deep buffers at the expense of its neighbours is highlighted from its negotiations with France and Britain in early 1939 with the Soviet Union pushing the label of Baltic state onto Finland, as well as putting forward the notion of securing military bases on the islands of the Gulf of Finland and Åland Islands in the event of a crisis without the consent of their owners.
The Winter War Plans – Phase One
In June 1939, the Soviet General Staff created a plan based around the weakening international situation and Finland receiving help to conduct operations against the Soviet Union. The main architect of the plan was Chief of the General Staff Boris Shaposhnikov, who was formerly commander of the Leningrad Military District, and highlighted a protracted campaign that lasted for months. It highlighted the great difficulties the Soviet military would face and that the operations needed to be conducted in ideal conditions. The plan also stressed that the “retaliatory strike” against Finland needed to be decisive and swift in order to avoid conflict with other nations that would come to the aid of Finland if the conflict was drawn out for too long.
The plan was approved by People’s Commissar for Defense of the Soviet Union Kliment Voroshilov but upon presentation to the Main Military Soviet, the plan and Shaposhnikov was mocked by General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Joseph Stalin. Stalin, along with the majority of the military and political leadership of the Soviet Union, do not expect Finland to put up serious resistance, and in words similar to those used by his Nazi counterpart Hitler, stated ‘Fire a few shots over their heads and they will fall in line’. It was with this dismissal that the baton was passed to the Leningrad Military District and its commander, Komandarm 2nd rank Kirill Meretskov. Meretskov was given until the end of July 1939 to come up with an outline for an operation against Finland, which he did and then presented to Stalin and Voroshilov for evaluation. Meretskov also highlighted that the area of operations was difficult as it was awash with lakes, rivers, swamps and forests with little to know sufficient infrastructure for large scale force deployment. However Stalin and Voroshilov still refused to accept the information and insisted that operations be planned around a swift strike lasting no more than 3 weeks, but as a conciliation, they promised that Meretskov could request military units from outside the Leningrad Military District.
As Meretskov reworked his original plans, the Soviet Union was gearing up for war. Mobilisation on all fronts was occuring as September came. On the 3rd September a special Murmansk group was established with a directive to secure the region from possible attacks coming from Finland as well as defend the Kola Peninsula in the north from possible landings. Troops in the Karelian Region were also mobilised with the task of securing the area from attacks originating within the Finnish territory. After the Soviet invasion of Poland on the 17th September attention turned to the Baltics and Finland. The Baltic states acquiesced to the demands of the Soviet Union for the establishment of forward bases but Finland remained resolute to keep itself neutral in any forthcoming war and refused any treaty that saw its sovereignty compromised. As this diplomatic back and forth was occuring, the Soviet Military was deploying large numbers of troops in the Leningrad region.
Battle order number 1 was issued at 1830 on the 8th October, it stated that all troops of the 7th, 8th, 9th, and 14th Armies were to be grouped along the Finnish border by the 10th October. This can be seen as the official start of the operations against Finland. Throughout October more units were moved into the Leningrad Military District, including heavy artillery and armoured brigades. Meretskov chaired the final planning meeting for the liberation of the Finnish peasants on the 29th October. During the discussion, Corps Commander Nikolay Voronov, chief of the artillery, was asked how much ammunition was required for his artillery in the upcoming operation. Voronov asked how long the campaign was expected to last, ‘ten to twelve days’ came the reply. Voronov was taken aback and retorted that he would be happy to see the situation in Finland resolved within three months. This was met by a stern order to base all his calculations on twelve days of combat. The planning council ended with a firm idea of the course of the operations. The main striking force was to be the 7th army, led by Komandarm 2nd rank Vsevolod Yakovlev, which would use its nine rifle divisions, one tank corps and three tank brigades, along with sixteen artillery regiments and twelve air regiments, to smash the main defensive line on the Karelian Ishtmus. It was estimated that it would capture Viipuri in four days and be in Helsinki by day twelve. The 7th Army was supported on its northern flank by the 8th Army, which was tasked with pushing through the defenses in the Ladoga area and breakthrough into Finland. It could also be used to swing into the rear of the main defensive line if the 7th Army required it. The 9th Army with its five rifle divisions was tasked with cutting across the center of Finland from Suomussalmi and Kajaani to Oulu. This would stifle the assumed Swedish deployment of several divisions, as well as cut off any possibility of Finland retreating north in a similar action to the war plans conducted during the Finnish War of 1808-1809. The final avenue would be carried out by the 14th Army, with its two rifle and one mountain divisions, would secure Petsamo, denying Finland assistance from the arctic port and push into Rovaniemi.
The plan was sent to the Main Military Soviet and was approved on the 15th November. The directive stated that all would hinge upon the outcome of the first battles, that the Army, in cooperation with the Air Force, would engage and isolate the Finnish forces in order to deliver a decisive blow. Orders were given to the Baltic and Northern Fleets to prepare themselves for “a determined attack, the aim of which is to destroy the enemy’s ground and naval forces in a short period of time”. The plan, on paper, was sound. Using its superior numbers and technology, the Red Army would smash the Finnish military at the border, leaving the interior of the country open for unhindered advance. As the day for commencement of operations approached, the high command of the Soviet armed forces organized itself into a command body, adopting the traditional name of “stavka”. The numbers amassed for the Finnish operation was immense, approximately 400 000 men, 2,000 artillery pieces, 3,000 armoured vehicles of various types and 3,000 aircraft of various types. This was also supported by the over 200 vessels from the Baltic and Northern Fleets.
The Kuusinen Government
The final piece in the Finnish operation started on the 17th November with the formation of the 106th “Karelian National” Rifle Division. An open invitation was sent out for Finnish and Karelian volunteers to join this new military force that would bring liberation to the oppressed people of Finland. At the same time, Otto Wille Kuusinen, a former leading member of the Finnish Socialist Workers’ Republic, who was living in exile in the Soviet Union, was approached by Stalin and Molotov and ordered to set up a Government that would replace the Finnish Government once the Finnish operation was concluded. On the 2nd December, 3 days in the Winter War, the 106th “Karelian National” Rifle Division was converted into the 1st Finnish People’s Rifle Corps.
Much more can and will be said about the Kuusinen Government but that is for a separate article.
The Opening Failures
After a 30 minute preparatory bombardment, whistles sounded and flares shot up all along the 1 610 km Soviet-Finnish border as thousands of soldiers and tanks charged. Every major border road had at least one division assigned to it, while aircraft soared overhead on missions to strike at targets in the interior of Finland. The Baltic fleet steamed out from Kronstadt with orders to seize the islands of Suursaari, Lavansaari, Tytärsaari and Seiskari, and to destroy Finnish coastal fortifications. This was to be followed by landing a Division behind Viipuri, thus cutting off the soon to be retreating Finnish military. The first day of action was a great success as Finnish forces were pushed some 80 to 100 kilometres back, but this success didn’t last long. Already on the second day, cracks in the Soviet plan were showing. The failure to carry out reconnaissance and acquire up to date intelligence, meant that it wasn’t long before obstacles that were not marked upon operational maps turned up. The rapid mobilisation of forces also meant that some divisions were only partially mobilised or supplied. The failure to account for the undeveloped infrastructure hampered follow-on logistics. Probably the biggest failure was the training. Despite developing such theories as Deep Battle, and possessing technological advanced pieces of equipment, the standard method of fighting was still the massed infantry movements not amiss upon the battlefields of the First World War. The purges of the Soviet military in the late 1930s led to rapid promotion of inexperienced and unqualified officers, this was also coupled with the introduction of ‘collective’ command of the military commander, a political officer, and a soviet of representatives. These policies essentially crippled the most powerful and technologically advanced military force in the world at the time. At best it would slow the advance due to every reaction needing to be signed off by a plethora of individuals, and at worse it would reduce the plan to mob tactics.
The inflexible, strict timetable meant that it wasn’t long before the armies were criticised for their lack of results. Every time the Soviet forces met resistance, they would halt and slug it out, then hours after contact has ceased, would the advance continue. This meant that small units of Finnish soldiers could hold up entire regiments. When the 7th Army finally reached the main Finnish defensive line, 2 days behind schedule, it found itself incapable of breaking through. It wasn’t much different for the other 3 armies, as they found themselves incapable of moving past their initial gains. By the 20th December, the day before Stalin’s birthday, and the day they should have been capturing Helsinki, the Soviet operation in Finland had lost all initiative and was essentially over. By the end of December the Main Military Soviet had called a halt to all offensives.
The Winter War Plans – Phase Two
A special session of the Politburo was called in the opening days of 1940, among those present was the higher ups of the Leningrad Military District, members of the Main Military Soviet, commanders of the military districts of Kiev and Belorussia, Stalin, Voroshilov, and the Chief of Staff Shaposhnikov. The main and only topic of discussion was the situation in Finland. Shaposhnikov, who could now claim to be right in his initial assessment of how the Finnish campaign would go, opened up with putting forward his original plan. This time, instead of being mocked by Stalin, it was accepted. The operation was taken off the hand of the Leningrad Military District and the North-Western Front was established on the 7th January under the command of Komandarm 1st rank Semyon Timoshenko. This combined the 7th Army now commanded by the disgraced Meretskov, and the newly formed 13th Army commanded by Komandarm 2nd rank Gröndahl, as well as several air force, artillery, NKVD detachments as well as the Baltic Fleet. However the military formations north of Lake Ladoga were subordinated to the Karelian Front under command of Komandarm 2nd rank Mikhail Kovalyov. A thorough reorganisation and retraining regime was ordered throughout both Fronts. In order to not give rest to the Finns, the Soviet air force was ordered to commence a 10 day operation of intense bombing against “administrative targets and armament industries, rail bridges, railway intersections, ports and cargo ships.”
Timoshenko was given 25 days to prepare for a new offensive against the Finns on the Karelian Isthmus. He was allowed to request any reinforcements he thought were necessary and soon 12 additional divisions and 6 artillery regiments arrived.Timoshenko studied his new command and laid out his new directives, they would concentrate the new offensive at Viipuri. This made sense strategically as the frontline was only 30km from the city, its capture would be a huge blow to Finnish morale, it was the logistical ‘key’ to break through thanks to its railway system and relatively sophisticated road network. The new offensive was divided into 4 ‘waves’, the first consisted of 11 rifle divisions in the front line, 15 rifle divisions in the second echelon, the 2 rifle divisions and the armoured brigades in the third echelon, and 2 rifle divisions and the 2 divisions of the 1st Finnish People’s Rifle Corps in the fourth echelon. There was also a special reserve held at Leningrad consisting of a cavalry corps, 3 rifle divisions and an armoured brigade. The lack of troops trained in winter war was partially rectified by the formation of special ski battalions and squadrons. A total of 45 000 men, all volunteers who were somewhat skilled in skilling, were assigned to 40 ski battalions and 200 ski squadrons. The assigned sectors was also restructured, a division’s sector was now 2–2.5 km, a regiment’s 700-800 m, and a company’s at least 400 m. This restructuring allowed for concentration of force and reinforcements of units at the right moment. It also allowed for flexibility of deployment as required. The system of ‘collective’ command was also abolished, with political officers now solely responsible for the morale of the troops, rather than overseeing the decisions of military officers.
The frontlines weren’t quiet during this time, the trench warfare that had set in was constantly disturbed by probing attacks by the Red Army. Sometimes ingenious inventions such as armoured sleds or radio controlled demolition tanks were sent against Finnish fortifications to not only test the strength but to exhaust the Finnish soldiers. As the deadline to restart the offensive drew near, the overall strength of the Red Army from the Arctic Ocean to the Karelian Isthmus amounted to 40 division, some 957 675 men, 8,000 armoured vehicles, and around 4,000 aircraft.
The 1st February saw the commencement of the next stage of the Finnish operation. Soviet units conducted large scale probing attacks in the Summa and Lähde sectors, these were eventually forced back but at great cost to the defenders. The Soviets returned day after day, smashing against the defences. Each attack was preceded by a well directed bombardment that would see anything outside of bunkers or dugouts buried or destroyed. On the 11th February the main offensive struck against the main Finnish defensive line across the Karelian Isthmus. Whenever a Soviet strike was repelled, the weight was shifted to another position, this constant waves of assaults, combined with vast artillery bombardments, caused casualties to mount into their thousands for the Finns. On the 13th, the first breakthroughs occurred at Lähde by the 123rd Rifle Division, by the end of the day a gap 100km wide and 6km deep was threatening the entire Finnish defence. It was now the beginning of the end. Mannerheim issued orders for disengagement and redeployment to secondary defensive position on the 15th February. Timoshenko issued his own orders to consolidate and then pursue. A fierce 3 day snowstorm from 21st to the 23rd February temporarily halted Soviet advances and gave Finns additional time to dig in at the temporary Interim Line. However the Finns had lost over 6,000 men in the past 3 days of fighting. The 24th February saw the Soviets renew their offensive, artillery bombardments followed by assault formations supported by tanks. The training between infantry and tanks in the weeks of January was paying off, Finnish troops were now unable to divide the two groups up and break them down separately.
The great offensive wasn’t without its flaws. The natural barriers of the Taipale and Vuosalmi kept the Soviets at bay. The Red Army still stopped fighting for the evenings, allowing the Finnish Army time to regroup and dig in. Logistics were still hampered by poor infrastructure and reinforcing armoured elements were always delayed.
The failures at the beginning of the Winter War were now either fully or partially solved. The exhausted Finns were on their last legs. Every commander openly reported to Marshal Mannerheim that their troops were unable to resist. Red Army soldiers were crossing the frozen Bay of Viipuri. In the closing days of the conflict, Soviet troops were firmly within the suburbs of Viipuri, Finnish defensive positions across the south-west part of the Isthmus were crumbling and those elsewhere were in danger of being outflanked.
At 1100 Finnish time, on the 13th March 1940, hostilities between the Soviet Union and Finland came to an end. In the last days of the offensive, there was an estimated 960,000 men, 11,266 artillery, 2 998 tanks and 3 253 military aircraft deployed by the Soviet Union.
The opening moves of the Winter War highlighted how flawed the traditional concept of ‘Revolutionary’ Armies were. Poor leadership due to Marxist theory, coupled with the underlying legacy of First World War Tsarist tactics, led to horrible judgement of the capabilities of the Red Army. Luckily though the Red Army did have an embryonic doctrine in the form of Deep Battle and once Soviet leadership realised that they had failed to properly prepare for or properly execute the conflict, this doctrine developed to its full potential. It would use probing attacks to gather intelligence and decide where best to weight an assault, once identified, it would use a combination of bite and hold tactics with exploitation by mobile elements. Combined arms tactics were enforced, drastically reducing casualties on both the armoured and infantry corps. Lines of communication were greatly improved and secured, no longer could bands of ski born Finns hijack them as effectively as in the opening stages. Logistics were strengthened to the point where operational needs could be fulfilled, a brilliant example is how the Soviet artillery were firing some 230,000 shells per day on average.
No longer was mass frontal attacks used but correct usage of force was employed. Now men and material could be cycled in and out of the advance in order to reserve energy and keep up the pressure on the defenders.
This did not mean that all was perfect. As we have already discussed, it wasn’t uncommon for penetrations to go unheeded or opportunities to destroy Finnish units to be wasted. Deep Battle doctrine, while it was part of the reason for success in the Winter War, was never able to be fully employed because the terrain on the Isthmus was wholly unsuited to it.
The biggest thing to come from the conflict was the Soviet Leadership’s sobering up to its deficiencies. While it hosted the largest and, arguably, the most technological advanced fighting force on the planet, it was clear that it needed to be overhauled. Once the war ended several sweeping reforms took place within the Red Army and while these were not completed by the beginning of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, they greatly contributed to the Soviet Union being able to eventually stall and then push back the invaders.
Manninen, Ohto. The Soviet Plans for the North-Western Theatre of Operations in 1939-1944. (National Defence College Helsinki 2004)
Van Dyke, Carl. The Soviet Invasion of Finland, 1939–40. (Routledge, 1997)
Nenye, Vesa; Munter, Peter; Wirtanen, Toni. Finland at War: The Winter War 1939–1945. (Osprey Publishing, 2015)
Sander, Gordon F. The Hundred Day Winter War: Finland’s Gallant Stand against the Soviet Army. (University Press of Kansas, 2013)