Sunday, May 19, 2019

The Winter War 30/11/1939-13/03/1940

This post is a continuation of my previous post "Soviet/Russian Mythology about WWII- Who started the war?" The Winter War against Finland was a continuation of Russian military conquest of Eastern Europe as divided up under the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, including the secret agreement to divide Eastern Europe into "spheres of interest" between Germany and Russia.

Finland had been ruled by Sweden for 600 years and by the Russian empire for 100 years. The country had become independent in 1917 and fought and won a civil war against Soviet-backed Communists to maintain its independence. A former General of the Russian Empire, Carl Mannerheim was appointed Field Marshall of the Finnish Military. He understood the only threat to Finland was from Russia and through the Karelian peninsula. A line of strongly fortified casements, fronted by several kilometers of defensive obstacles was built across the peninsula from the Gulf of Finland to Lake Ladoga, about 40 km back from the Finnish border.

Having taken half of Poland and militarily occupied the Baltic States, Stalin next turned his attention to Finland.  The problem, according to Stalin, was the Finnish border was too close to Leningrad and he needed a buffer zone, the Karelian Isthmus, offering to trade a much larger piece of Russia farther North which had little or no value for anything. The Finns refused and Stalin had "no choice" but to invade Finland. This documentary tells most of the story of The Winter War.

The Finns fought the Red Army to a standstill, destroying 10s (if not 100s) of thousands of Soviet soldiers until simply through overwhelming force the Red Army broke through the Mannerheim Line and they were forced to sue for peace. Finland lost 11% of its land area and 30% of its economy, Ceding most of Karelia including all of the Karelian peninsula, including Vyborg, the capital but kept their pride and their independence.

Russian death losses were incredibly high with estimates ranging from 50,000 killed to 250,000 killed and 400,000 missing. The Soviet Union was humiliated and their army revealed as weak and virtually useless at waging war. They were forced to stop short of taking all of Finland.

Suvorov devoted an entire chapter of The Chief Culprit to the Winter War and raises some interesting issues. Why were Soviet losses so high? Yes, the Red Army was abysmally led, poorly equipped, poorly fed, poorly everything but it was the first time in history that a military endeavour of that magnitude was ever undertaken in the far north under winter conditions.

Yes, the tactics of 18th-century massed full frontal assault into 20th-century machine guns didn't work any better than in WWII and the Red Army cared no more for high losses to gain an objective than did the Tsar's army before them but the terrain totally supported the defenders. Roads were few, narrow, heavily mined on both sides. Intense cold, long hours of darkness and deep snow favoured the Finns, camouflaged in white and very mobile on skis.

Suvorov goes into detail about the fortified Mannerheim Line and the number of direct hits it took to destroy them, one at a time. According to him, the casements or pillboxes were 1.5 to 2 meters thick concrete, covered on top with thick steel plate and then with boulders and earth for total camouflage.

Destroying one such position, Pillbox 31, took1043 shells from a 203 MM howitzer and 116 from a 280 mm howitzer, a total of 133 tons of shells plus tons of gunpowder in silk bags. All of which had to be hauled in and handled to the guns, all under fire.  These guns weighed 18 tons and 19 tons respectively, had to be hauled in in pieces and then set up and sighted, all under fire. Stalin asked the Red Army to do the impossible and they did it, but no one gave them credit.

Stalin had achieved his objective which was not Finland but a clear path to the iron mines in Northern Sweden. He stopped when he did (protecting Leningrad) because the Germans had threatened a military response if they thought those iron mines were in danger.

When the Russian Press makes nasty remarks about the incompetence of the Red Army and someone is not immediately shot, perhaps one should question why.  Hitler was ecstatic and believed the Russian army would fold in a matter of a few months. So Barbarossa was launched without preparing for a lengthy war.  Hitler's Hubris cost him the war.

Note: I have not read sufficient books on The Winter War to feel totally comfortable with anyone's version yet. This book is available on Kindle: Finland at War: The Winter War 1939–40 

1 comment:

  1. Harsh winter conditions are always a good defence for those who have them.