Friday, November 30, 2012

The Start of the Winter War

Today (November 30th) marks the 73rd Anniversary of the start of the Winter War.

As I wrote in a previous post, one of the background causes of this conflict was the Soviet false flag which is now called the Shelling of Mainila, as well as demands for Finnish territory. The Soviet Union very confidently thought they could bowl over the small Republic within a matter of days. N.N. Voronov, who was in charge of logisitcs for the artillery arm of the invasion was asked what was the state of the ammunition stocks that could be drawn for the invasion. "That depends, Are you planning to attack or defend... and by the way, how much time is allotted for the operation?" he record saying to two officers at Meretskov's HQ.           "Between ten and twelve days," was the reply from the men.
Voronov, who had been studying the plans and maps of Finland replied "I'll be happy if everything can be resolved in two or three months". This answer did not sit well with the officers and Voronov was mocked. Commissar Kulik then ordered Voronov that all his estimates were to be based on the assumption that the entire Finnish operation would last no longer than twelve days.

The Red Army possessed three times the amount of soldiers, thirty times more aircraft and hundred more times of tanks (Finland only had 2 companies of FT-17 Renault light Tanks and 2 companies of Vickers 6-ton Medium Tanks). Soviet Propaganda portrayed the Red Army as invincible, the righteous liberators of the oppressed peoples of Finland from the hand of the bourgeois Mannerheim-Cajander Gang.

The first day of the conflict saw a singular plane fly over Helsinki and drop leaflets urging the citizens to overthrow the Government, then in a twist dropped five light bombs in the area of Malmi Airport. Then about an hour later 9 SB-2 Medium Bombers from Estonia bombed Helsinki, first aiming for the harbour (which all bombs fell into the water) and than banked to head towards the heart of the city. Bombs dropped around the architecturally brilliant Helsinki Railway Station but missed, however they did hit the public building in front of the station, killing forty civilians and injuring many more. The entire raid damaged one hanger at the airport, hit the Helsinki Technical Institute (killed several staff and students), several houses of the working class population and ironically, the Soviet Legation Building.

This was not the only raid that day, another raid hit Helsinki at 1430 (Helsinki saw 200 civilians dead at the end of the day), as well as similar raids on Turku, Viipuri (now known as Vyborg), a hydroelectric plant at Imatra and a gas mask factory in Lahti.

The Soviet Baltic Fleet landed marine parties on the islands of Sieksari, Lavanssari, Tytarsaari and Suursaari with little resistance  These islands had been part of the demands made by the Soviet Government in the run up to the war.

Luckily the Finnish army was well trained  despite its lack of munitions. They knew the area, were fighting for their homes and family. The entire conflict would touch everyone in Finland, over 340,000 men were serve on the various fronts along the border. They would account for nearly 127,000 dead Russians and injury another 188,000. They would suffer over 25,000 dead and 43,000 wounded, as well 1,000 becoming POWs.

The war would last 3 months, 1 week and 5 days. It would see the Red Army being given a massive bloody nose, with the Finnish forces winning on almost every front (Only on the Karelian Isthmus would the Finns retreat to their last line of defence).

This is just a small overview of the beginning of the Winter War. I am planning to write more articles over the next 3 months to coincide with various battles, important dates and interesting facts of this very obscure conflict of what became known as The Second World War.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The First Shots of War

On November the 26th 1939, tensions were high with all the negotiations between the Soviet Union and Finland and the mobilisation of the military on both sides. Near the Village of Mainila, on the boarder between the two countries, three Finnish Observation posts and several other Boarder Guards on patrol heard and witnessed 7 shells, and there subsequent denotations, within Soviet territory. Within hours of this incident, the Finnish delegation was informed by Soviet Authorities that due to Finnish Aggression that the Non-aggression pact that was signed in 1932 and also in 1934 were null and void and all diplomatic avenues between the countries were to cease. The incident was possible inspired by the Gleiwitz incident that had taken place earlier that year, this was used by the Third Reich as an excuse for it to withdraw from its non-aggression pact with Poland.

Why did this False Flag incident happen?

The Soviet Union had been negotiating with Finland for several bits of territory in an attempt to expand its influence. It had succeeded in incorporating several other Baltic states using a similar tactic and thought Finland would be its next victim. However Finland refused the Soviet Union in its demands for the Finnish Border to be pulled back 25 miles from its current position which would mean it would lose its defences on the Karelian Isthmus, the lensing of the peninsula of Hanko which would be the site of a Naval Base for the Baltic Fleet and in conjunction with Coastal Artillery in Estonian would effectively seal of the Gulf of Finland, as well as other demands. In return Finland would receive 3,450 square miles of Soviet Karelia but the exchange was not advantageous to Finland. Finland gave two counter offers, respectively on 23 October and 3 November and would mean the cedeing of only Terijoki to the USSR. These were flatly refused and the Finnish delegation in Moscow returned to Finland on the 13th November, hoping the negotiations would continue.

The Set-up

It was a Sunday afternoon and Finnish Border Guards did what they normally did, patrolled the border, played cards, listened to the radio, chatted about things back home mainly of the female variety and maintained their weapons. All knew about the recent negotiations and how high the tension was (from the 9th of October the Finnish Army had been slowly mobilised under the guise of refresher training), they also knew they were be the first line of defence against the tidal wave of the Red Army. At about 1440 the Border Guards heard 7 successive artillery shots being fired, soon it was worked out that the shots hand landed 800 meters behind the border and that the weapon used was a high trajectory Trench Mortar. The Guards thought it was training exercise and recorded a smoke screen going up soon after the shots, which thus blocked all observation. Three Guards saw a officer on Horseback approach their Russian counterparts who were standing about the nearest building in Mainila, soon all 12 men marched off in an easterly direction and within ten minutes 7 shells landed on that very same spot. The guards also reported six men coming back to inspect the damage and saw no sign of dead or injured people.

At 2100 Moscow Time (2200 in Helsinki) Baron Yrjö-Koskinen received a call asking him to report to the Kremlin. He was informed by Molotov that Soviet Border Guards stationed at Mainila had been fired upon resulting in the deaths of three privates and one NCO, two officers and seven privates were also wounded. The Finnish Government attempted to deal with this incident in the diplomatic way and drafted a letter which stated that the shots had come from the Russian side of the border and that to put in place protocols relating to border incidents that were part of the 1932 non-aggression Pact (which was extended in 1934) and that both sides should withdraw their forces to the same distances. It was impossible for Finnish Artillery to have fired the shots because on the orders of Field Marshal Mannerheim, all Finnish guns were withdrawn from range of the border for several weeks before the shots were fired.
The Soviet government was unwilling to accept such an answer stating that “the deep hostility of the Finnish government towards the Soviet Union” was forcing the tensions to boiling point and “The fact that the Finnish government denies that Finnish forces fired upon Soviet forces with artillery and inflicted casualties, can only be explained as a device to mislead public opinion”, and so Molotov informed the small Republic of Finland that the Soviet government was no longer bound by the non-aggression pact. Within four days of this announcement Helsinki was on fire from Soviet Bombs and troops had crossed the border in several locations.


When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 hundreds of documents were declassified and Russian Historian Pavel Aptekar analysed the dairies and reports of the units who were posted in the area and found no record of any losses on the day of the 26th or in the immediate dates surrounding it. Nikita Khrushchev (who at the time was a Commissar and served as an intermediary between Stalin and the Generals of the Red Army) claimed in his memoirs that the incident was set up by Marshal of Artillery Grigory Kulik, an infamous NKVD General who would contribute to the failure of the Soviet defence during the first weeks of the German invasion. However he very coy about who fired the first shots and is quoted as saying “It's always like that when people start a war. They say, 'You fired the first shot,' or 'You slapped me first and I'm only hitting back.' There was once a ritual which you sometimes see in opera: someone throws down a glove to challenge someone else to a duel; if the glove is picked up, that means the challenge is accepted. Perhaps that's how it was done in the old days, but in our time it's not always so clear who starts a war.” Boris Yeltsin, the First President of the Russian Federation (which followed the Soviet Union) made a statement in 1994 denouncing the Winter War as a War of Aggression.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Comparison of Typical Finnish Infantry Division to Typical Soviet Rifle Division

Below is a simple comparison between a standard Finnish Infantry division and a typical Soviet Rifle Division. They are not exact figures but only paper strength at the time of the outset of the Winter War. Both division use the same basic 'triangular' structure, meaning they both have three Infantry regiments which had three infantry battalions.  

It is very hard to exact the exact composition of a Soviet Division during the Winter war because changes to the organisation had been made in 1938 but not all changes had taken place. Also many sources differ greatly on the subject. As such I have tried to make my list as average as possible given the available information.

These are only 'official' paper strengths and do not represent actual numbers. An example is the Finnish army rarely ever had 4 AT guns let alone the full paper strength of 18. 

We can see that a Soviet Division had about twice as many automatic weapons than its Finnish counterpart. A Soviet Division also had three times the amount of artillery with, what seemed like, an unceasing supply of shells. Another advantage the Soviet Division had was it could call upon numerous support units like tank brigades, artillery batteries and air power. However all this strength was the Achilles heal for the Soviet units, they were designed to fight in the open fields of Europe and with such a high degree of motorisation were restricted to the poorly constructed roads of the Finnish countryside.