UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


1939-1945 - World War II

For most of Finland's history, the country had lived on the periphery of world events, but for a few weeks during the winter of 1939-40, Finland stood at the center of the world stage. Finland's stand against Soviet aggression aroused the world's admiration. The Winter War, however, proved to be only a curtain- raiser for Finland's growing entanglement in World War II.

Warfare and the environment in which it takes place are closely connected. The terrain places restrictions of its own on the directions in which it is possible to advance, and it also gives shape to the battlefield and affects the events that take place on it. It is also possible to make use of the terrain, the weather and the conditions in general to create an element of surprise, to achieve success, to improve one’s own firepower or to minimize one’s own losses. In these ways geographical factors, particularly infrastructure, topography, the cover offered by the terrain, trafficability and the presence of obstacles, have throughout history had a significant influence on the decisions made by military commanders, their operations plans and the ways in which they deploy their troops.

In Finland it is the conditions prevailing in winter in particular that impose restrictions on military operations, to the extent that one may well regard Arctic areas as more demanding environments in military terms than jungle, deserts or mountainous regions. Troops that are unprepared for operating under winter conditions in the north can find themselves fighting two opponents at once, the actual enemy and the environment. In the worst case a failure to adapt to winter conditions can lead to a military catastrophe, although winter conditions have also been known to give one side an advantage if it is able to move about efficiently in the snow and can organize supplies for its troops. Success in military manoeuvres in the north in winter has been found to call for the appropriate degree of cold knowhow, which is something that the Finns are specialized in.

In many parts of the world hostilities have been suspended once winter has set in, whereas armies in Russia and the Nordic countries have repeatedly taken advantage of wintry conditions to mount attacks. In the military encounters that have taken place on Finnish soil during the independence period, i.e. the Winter War of 1939–40 and the Continuation War of 1941–44, the focus of military operations was in both cases on the border area between these two nations, chiefly on the Karelian Isthmus, where the terrain and the road network permitted the massive use of tanks. Here the Finns fought a largely defensive battle, whereas on the long front lines north of Lake Ladoga they were able to engage in more fluent manoeuvres, as they also did during the Lapland War against the Germans in 1944–45. All in all the Finns had five winters during the Second World War in which to gain experience of warfare under such conditions.

On the other hand, the Red Army detachments, which were poorly trained for warfare under winter conditions suffered from all the inconveniences imposed by the snow and cold, as did the German troops operating from bases in the north of Finland. The Finns succeeded in overcoming the terrain and the conditions very much better that their opponents because they had devoted time and energy during the interwar period to developing their equipment and armaments and polishing up their winter combat skills and forest warfare tactics. Many of the soldiers had previously worked as lumbermen, had an intimate knowledge of nature and were powerful skiers, all of which gave them a tactical advantage. Although the conscripts were not specifically taught how to survive in nature, their training was angled to some degree towards the effects of winter, the longest season in the year in Finland, on the mobility and functional capacity of individual soldiers.

In both their military planning and its implementation the Finns were able to account for the effects of the terrain and the winter conditions in evening out the discrepancy in the balance of arms between the two sides. Northern and Eastern Finland were regarded as more exacting venues for warfare that the front further south, as the terrain in the more northerly border regions was judged to favor defenders who were able to move about actively. The Finns estimated that the Red Army would not be able to operate with such a powerful force on the northern front that it could have penetrated into the interior of the country through its sheer weight of numbers. In addition, the enemy’s movements were expected to slow down as the supply lines became longer and the front became wider. The Red Army was also expected to attempt to make use of the existing roads, and therefore careful attention in operational planning was paid to nodes in the transport network and to railways. The plan was to stop the invaders in the boggy forests in the immediate vicinity of the border so that the various invading formations could not link up and unite forces.

The Red Army had been trained to operate in open terrain, so that its attacks remained fragmentary in forest terrain, and the struggle to penetrate through the deep snow of the wilderness zone where there were no roads exhausted its troops. This meant that the coordination of the two basic factors for combat, fire and movement, broke down. The Finns, however, looked on the forests as the best terrain through which to mount an attack, but movement called for a high level of training and experience.

One problem affecting forest warfare was that the effectiveness of direct fire infantry weapons was dependent on the undergrowth and the density and thickness of the tree trunks, and a further problem was that the branches of the trees hampered the use of hand grenades and even small twigs could cause deflections in the flight paths of bullets. Since forest warfare often took place at close quarters, submachine guns were the best weapons. Heavy arms often proved inaccurate in forests, and shells would frequently explode in the trees. Weapons with a high-arcing ballistic trajectory, particularly easily manoeuvrable light mortars transported in ahkios (boat-hull deep snow toboggans or sleds) hauled by skiers, were especially well suited for forest battles under winter conditions.

The Soviet troops were only able to attack along narrow mobility corridors, which also meant that they were unable to deploy their full firepower. Thus the battles degenerated into separate engagements over individual points in the terrain. When hostilities were confined to the roadsides the Finns would establish their defensive positions beside the roads that the enemy would be most likely to use for an attack, whereupon the width, bearing capacity and traffic ability would give them a good idea of the striking power that might be expected in each case. This ensured that the Red Army offensives were repeatedly directed at the defending forces’ strongest points.

Operating in the forests during the winter, the Finns restricted themselves for the most part to the use of small-unit tactics, without any need for commanding large bodies of troops. This meant in practice that they were delegating authority to those in command of smaller units, in the spirit of the “mission tactics” (Auftragstaktik) based on trust which they had adopted from the Germans.

The fact that the aggressor was road-bound meant in practice that the Finnish commanders were frequently able to seize the initiative and achieve a local superiority in numbers against a threatening enemy column and eliminate it separately. In this way the enemy’s leading formation could be halted by only a small Finnish detachment at a favourable point in the terrain and the main body of the enemy troops could be isolated between lakes, peatlands or rocky outcrops by means of broader offensives or smaller flanking movements. This process of cutting off and isolating of the enemy forces were typical for these operations on the interior lines. The tactical mobility granted by the use of skis gave the Finns a notable advantage by allowing them to make surprise attacks on the enemy’s flanks and rear.

Finns achieved success in the winter phases of the Second World War because they had prepared themselves thoroughly for this type of warfare and had plans that were realistic and could be carried through. At the same time, they were able to retain their capability for action under the harsh conditions and could respond to each situation in an appropriate manner.

The termination of the Second World War left the Finns relieved that the hostilities were over and that they had succeeded in preserving their independence but horrified at the unreasonable reparations demanded of them under the peace treaty with the Soviet Union. Finland had lost almost 100,000 citizens in the war, the connection with the Arctic Ocean had been cut off by the ceding of the Petsamo area to the Soviet Union, and the country had also had to relinquish its second largest city, Viipuri (Vyborg), extensive areas of Karelia and a small strip of territory on the eastern border of Lapland. About one-eighth of the prewar area of Finland was lost, including the Petsamo area with its valuable nickel mines.

World War II had a profound impact on Finland. Approximately 86,000 Finns died in the war--about three times the losses suffered during the civil war. In addition, about 57,000 Finns were permanently disabled, and the vast majority of the dead and the disabled were young men in their most productive years. The war had also left 24,000 war widows; 50,000 orphans; and 15,000 elderly, who had lost, in the deaths of their sons, their means of support. Altogether the country had to re-house some 420,000 former inhabitants of that area in the remaining territory of Finland. One-half million Finns were refugees--more than 400,000 from the ceded or leased territories and about 100,000 from Lapland, where their homes had been destroyed.

Another effect of the war was the financial burden imposed by the cost of maintaining one-half million troops in the field for several years and by the requirement to pay the Soviets reparations in kind worth US$300 million (in 1938 dollars). The Soviet lease of the Porkkala Peninsula less than twenty kilometers west of Helsinki, as a military base, was a blot on the nation's sovereignty. Finally, an intangible, but real, restriction was placed on Finland's freedom of action in international affairs. Finland's relationship with the Soviet Union was permanently altered by the war.

Despite the great losses inflicted by the war, Finland fought for and preserved its independence; nevertheless, had the Soviets been vitally concerned about Finland, there is no doubt that Finnish independence would have been extinguished. Finland emerged from the war conscious of these realities and determined to establish a new and constructive relationship with the Soviet Union.

The signing of the preliminary peace treaty between Finland and the Soviet Union on September 19, 1944, marked the beginning of a new era for Finland. Its hallmark was to be a diametrical change in Finnish policy toward the Soviet Union; the traditional hostility was to be replaced by a policy of friendship. Finnish leaders felt that only a genuine rapprochement between the two countries could guarantee Finland's long-term survival as an independent state. In the late 1980s, the new policy, operative for more than forty years,appeared to have been successful in preserving Finland's freedom. Domestically, Finland's society and economy have undergone rapid changes that have made the country a prosperous social-welfare state. Finland's achievements in the postwar years have been surviving external threats and thriving as a modern industrialized country.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list

Page last modified: 25-09-2019 18:57:36 ZULU