I suspect even the most knowledgeable World War II buff has a hard time remembering the USSR and Finland fought a brief war during the winter of 1939-1940. After months of political tension war finally came to Europe as the armies of Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland, crushing all organized resistance within a few weeks. Coming to the aid of their ally Poland, Britain and France declared war on Germany with Germany responding in kind. However, until spring of the following year neither side attacked each other, since both sides were fearful of the other’s defensive capabilities.
During the lull in hostilities Stalin looked ahead to a time when Germany, after defeating Britain and France, would set its sights on the Soviet Union. The USSR needed to secure its northwestern frontier. If Finland was occupied by the Nazis, or at least fell under their sway, Lenningrad, the USSR’s second largest city would be a short skip and a jump away. After the Finnish government rejected Stalin’s demands of Finnish border territory the USSR attacked, expecting to crush Finland quickly. But the Finns fought back. And hard.
William R. Trotter ‘s 1991 book A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939–1940 tells the story of this brief but bloody conflict. According to Trotter, if there was ever a David versus Goliath battle between two modern countries this was it. On one side was Finland, a small Nordic nation of only 4 million with limited resources and an army void of tanks.Pitted against it was the mighty USSR, a Eurasian behemoth with comparatively unlimited human, industrial and military resources including state of the art artillery, aircraft and tanks. Finland’s only hope was to keep the Soviets at bay for as long as possible until military assistance could arrive from friendly nations like France, Great Britain or Sweden.
Fortunately, the Finns had a few things working in their favor. One, they were blessed with outstanding military leadership, specifically they had General Mannerheim running the show. Mannerheim and his subordinates knew if they had any chance to halt the Red Army they needed to use their meager resources as wisely as possible. Therefore, whenever possible they attacked the advancing Soviet units fast and hard, frequently on skis with machine guns blazing. Poorly led, poorly equipped, unfamiliar with the local terrain and unprepared for the harsh Finish winter, the Red Army conscripts suffered horrific losses. Before long what was promised as a quick Soviet victory turned into a hopeless bloodbath. But how long could Finland hold out against such a mighty adversary?
I’m glad Trotter wrote A Frozen Hell. Stories like this need to be told and told in detail. They should not be relegated to mere historical footnotes.