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The Winter War

A brief history of a forgotten war on the outskirts of the Arctic.

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By Nate Galt | United States

Seventy-nine years ago today, the first shots of the Winter War were fired in southern Karelia in present-day Russia. Before the war started, the government of the Soviet Union wanted to protect its second-largest city, Leningrad. Soviet leadership demanded Finland move its border fifteen miles northwest to create a buffer zone between the city and Finnish soil. The Soviets then implored Finland to cede small parts of northern Karelia and its only access to the Arctic Ocean. Finland refused on the grounds that it is a sovereign country with pre-defined borders. After all other negotiations failed, the Soviets began their attack. 

Four days before the war officially started, the USSR pulled off a false flag operation to convince its people that Finland had shelled attacked Soviet troops. On November 30, 1939, the Red Army moved into the Karelian Isthmus and began bombing. In the middle of the isthmus, the Finnish army hastily built an array of fortifications which they called the “Mannerheim Line,” named after their leader, Marshal Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim. The small stretch of land in between Lake Ladoga and the Gulf of Finland was viciously defended by the Finns. To the north, Joseph Stalin and Soviet General Voroshilov ordered a push towards the Finnish countryside and the Arctic Ocean port of Petsamo. 

The initial offensives were not completely successful due to Finnish guerrilla tactics and the onset of winter. The Finnish army used ski patrols, snipers, camouflage, and surprise flanks to patrol the heavily wooded areas of Karelia. For many soldiers, these areas were their home, and they made sure to know the exact layout of their terrain. The very thought of a hiding Finnish sniper struck fear into the hearts of Soviet soldiers. The legendary Finnish sharpshooter, Simo Häyhä, made a name for himself in the Winter War. He racked up over 500 confirmed kills during the war while hiding in the forest. Soviet high command tried to dispatch their most elite counter-snipers to kill Häyhä.

Ultimately, their efforts proved a massive failure. The Finnish sniper’s actual number of kills, including non-confirmed ones, would probably number anywhere from 800 to 1200. He was most successful during the 3-month long Battle of Kollaa in Karelia, where he killed over 25 Soviets per day in temperatures that only barely stayed above -25 degrees Fahrenheit during the few hours of daylight. The Red Army, frustrated by the results, tried to move their tanks into the heart of Finland. The Finns, now known for their guerrilla tactics, used Molotov cocktails and log jams to eliminate the tanks that traveled on the few roads linking the two countries. Other snipers were ordered to patrol those roads as well. The Molotov cocktail’s name came from a Finnish joke. When the world first heard of the bombing of the Finnish capital of Helsinki on November 30, the Soviet foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, said that his country merely provided “food aid” for the starving Finns and did not bomb any buildings. The Finnish army named their new tank-destroying device after him, calling it “a drink to go with the food.” 

Frustrated with the news of a slowed offensive, Stalin replaced his initial commander, General Voroshilov. He tried to break the fortifications on the Mannerheim Line. While this proved unsuccessful, the Finns’ supplies and ammunition began to steadily run out. On March 12, 1940, the Moscow Peace Treaty was signed. The Finnish government capitulated to Soviet demands and a ceasefire was called. Finland lost one-ninth of its territory and was forced to pay reparations to the USSR. While the results were disappointing for both countries, Finland still maintained its independence. Mannerheim became a national hero for his leadership of the Finnish army. After seeing how hard it was for the Red Army to win the Winter War, the Third Reich’s leadership thought that it would be very easy to defeat an incompetent army without strong leadership. 

While many write this conflict off as insignificant, the long-term effects of the Winter War would be felt for years after its end. The war could have been a justification for the breaking of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact by the Germans. Also, it was used as a reason for Finland fighting the Soviets in the Continuation War a year later. The Winter War was a very interesting conflict which gave birth to many guerrilla tactics. While it may seem like a minor conflict, it should never be forgotten.


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