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Those Burly Finns

Finland puts up a hell of a fight in the Russo-Finnish Winter War.

The year is 1939, and the nation of Finland has been independent of Russia for but two decades, having escaped from the Empire as it was consumed by Lenin's October revolution. A fledgling democracy, Finland has no love of Communism or Fascism. The Fascists in particular are failing to endear themselves to the locals due to their habit of kidnapping leftists, driving them to the Russian border and heaving them over the fence. The Commies are even more hated, thanks to their association with centuries of Russian misrule, and in no part helped by the radio broadcasts of one "Moscow Titu". She plays old Soviet favorites such as "Kalinka", "Ei Ukhnem", and "Beryozomka", plus some Bach, interrupting the music to brand Finnish Prime Minister A.K. Cajander a "clown, crowing rooster, squirming grass snake, marionette" and "small beast of prey without sharp teeth and strength, but having a cunning lust." He is also accused of "standing on his head, talking upside down, smearing crocodile tears over his dirty face and weeping the repulsive tears of a clown imitating a crocodile." As William R. Totter puts it in his A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940, "The Finns found such vituperation against their Prime Minister shocking and worrisome, but typical." Finland would just as well be left alone. [See the full article from Pravda]

Unfortunately, in 1939, Stalin was eyeing Hitler in a most skeptical light. A cursory examination of a map revealed Finland held strategic land crucial to the defense of Leningrad. Suddenly, invading Finland and retaking that land seemed like a jolly good idea. After some meetings with his People's Commissar of Defense, K. E. Voroshilov, he figured they could knock out Finland in roughly twelve days. Just looking at the numbers, it seems reasonable: Russia had 171 million people to Finland's 3.5 (!). If Russia just threw enough bodies at Finland, trained or no, it would fall.

Finland had other ideas. Her soldiers were spectacularly educated in winter fighting and also how to make things posh (every company usually had a sauna nearby, and trenches were lined with fur to keep in the warmth). Compare this to the Russians, many of whom didn't have an hour of training before getting shipped off to fight in the coldest Finnish winter in over a hundred years.


The Finns, faced the inevitable Russian Armageddon with a grim optimism that must be alien to anyone who has not themselves lived through a desperate land war for their motherland. Of the upcoming casualties, they asked, "There are so many, and our country so small, where will we find roomto bury them all?" Anticipating the harsh winter, they spent much of the autumn of 1939 destroying bridges, roads, houses and barns that had taken a generation to build so the Russians would have no shelter during their march. Indeed, while much is made of Russia's love for the scorched earth policy, it appears the scrappy Finns had a few things to teach them. Visiting this heartbreaking necessity, British journalist John Langdon-Davies tells of an old peasant woman told her house is to be burnt at day's end. She is given several hours to gather her belongings and prepare for evacuation. When the Finnish soldiers return some time later to burn the house, they find it sparkling clean, floors scrubbed, walls whitewashed, and a fat pile of kindling, gasoline, and matches with which to start the fire. Upon asking the woman why she'd gone to such trouble, the soldiers are told simply, "When one gives a gift to Finland, one desires that it should be like new." Burly.

Another old man returned to the smoldering remains of his house, even while fighting was within earshot, to poke through the ashes with a stick. "This farm was burned down twice before on account of the Russians," he said, "once by my grandfather, and once by my father. I don't reckon it'll kill me to do it either, but I'll be damned if I could drive away without first making sure you'd done a proper job of it." Damn burly.

Honestly, Who Throws a Dead Chicken?

Trotter tells us, "The abandoned villages were not hospitable even in ruins... mines were left in haystacks, under outhouse seats, ...underneath dead chickens and abandoned sleds. The village wells were poisoned, or, if time and chemicals were lacking, fouled with horse manure." Floating mines underneath newly-frozen lakes blasted ice from under Russian ranks to sink them, and Finns covered frozen lakes with cellophane so they looked liquid from the air.

Despite vastly superior man- and firepower, the Russians could not make inroads against this selfless defense. The Russians were getting spanked. However, this is the way of life for a Russian soldiers: take a few hundred thousand fatalities, and prevail anyway. The Finnish commander, Mannerheim, struggling to explain the determination on both sides described the Russian soldiers as posessing "a fatalism incomprehensible to a European." Some regiments would link arms and march in a line to clear minefields. They sang "party war songs and [continued] to advance with the same steady, suicidal rhythm even as the mines began to explode, ripping holes in their ranks and showering the marchers with feet, legs, and intestines." As one Russian soldier put it, "Company commanders... will shoot anyone who falls back or turns around... [but] one does not have to be a psychologist to know that the new attack, in which the soldiers would have to climb over the bodies of their own killed or wounded, would fail."

It's Not All Black and White

Don't forget your poles
Don't forget your poles

. The list of Soviet failings was long and comprehensive. The troops wore olive drab or khaki uniforms, their tanks were painted black, and they carried heavy field stoves that sent thick plumes of black smoke visible for miles. Not a super idea for hiding in the snow. The Russian field manual for snow combat was probably written in the Mediterranean, because it had a passage on bayoneting on skis (this won't work for the same reason you can't bowl wearing rollerblades). While Finnish field doctors knew, for example, that morphine would freeze in the cold unless stored in the mouth or armpit, their Russian counterparts scratched their heads as their wounded howled in pain. So great were the casualties that hospitals in Leningrad filled to capacity early in the invasion; soon after, mile-long lengths of trains wound their way as far as Moscow, windows covered with curtains to hide curious passersby from the hideous sight of the frostbitten, the bleeding, the wounded and the dying. Trotter sums up the situation endured by the hapless Soviets:

For many of the encircled Soviet troops, just staying alive, for one more hour or one more day, was an ordeal comparable to combat. Freezing hungry, crusted with their own filth (while the besieging Finns, a thousand meters away, might be enjoying a sauna-bath), for them the central forest was truly a snow-white hell... their despair was recorded in the thousands of never-mailed letters to home they had scrawled before dying, letters they had sealed, for lack of anything better, with bits of black bread that had been chewed to a paste and dabbed onto the paper like blobs of rubber cement.

Who Could Hate Communists?

The Russians just had an awful time. One captured Soviet colonel offered some more details during his interrogation: "I know that Stalin and Voroshilov are clever, sensible men and I can't understand how they were led to this idiotic war. What do we need cold, dark Finland for anyway?" He also talked about his time in the woods:

... Finns we couldn't see anywhere... When we sent our sentries out to take their positions around the camp, we knew that within minutes they would be dead with a bullet hole to the forehead or the throat slashed by a dagger... it was sheer madness... We Soviets thought we were respected by other countries because of our peace-loving ways, and the entire civilized world was behind us since we were the cradle of all free workers. Now we are hated and despised. You'd better bury all those soldiers before spring. Otherwise you'll have a plague.

Please Leave a Bomb at the Tone

Things were difficult. A division of Russian ground forces issued a communique so desperate it took on comic overtones:

Please airdrop food and supplies, regardless of weather. Last drop did not include ammunition. Please air drop ammunition. Two days without bullets. Food and fodder all gone. Try to send some today. Why do you let us suffer without food and fodder? Please do something about it! Four aircraft did not drop any food at all. Generally we received too little food. The greater portion landed on the Finnish side.

After hours with no response, they lamented, "Why don't you answer our messages?" Long ago the Finns had figured out the Russian radio signals and had their transports dropping supplies on Finnish positions. Of course, the Russians eventually got wise and dropped a "supply" of bombs.

While we have made much of the Russians' difficulties, we should remind ourselves that the Finns were terribly short on ammunition, arms and other supplies -- many of their artillery pieces were from the nineteenth century. Even with these shortcomings, they managed to completely outmaneuver the Russians on nearly every front, including the art of gentlemanly war. Russian soldiers injured more seriously than Finns received medical care first in Finnish field hospitals, and captured Russians were always treated to hot meals, warm shelter and saunas. A Russian man who had hopped the Finnish border to buy some shoes for his wife was shanghaied by the Red Army and put into service without a shred of training. He was captured by the Finns, still toting his wife's shoes. "The Finns took pity on the wretch," Trotter writes, "gave him fresh socks, some cigarettes, and a turn in the sauna bath... he was retained at headquarters as a kind of mascot for the rest of the campaign."


One exceptionally burly Finnish sergeant held off two Russian tanks with a 9mm pistol. Another took a bullet to the lung, and smiled in front of his commanding officer, claiming it was far easier to breathe with this new hole in his chest. Finland's antitank forces endured a 70% mortality rate, but had no shortage of volunteers. However, this is not to say they were without their failings: Most of a division ran screaming from an armored car that happened to be Finnish, having mistaken it for a Russian tank. Trotter reports, "Most of the Fifth Division troops didn't stop running until they were back in line, where officers who had witnessed the debacle cursed and punched and in some cases threatened to shoot them." Engle and Paananen describe a platoon commander who went crazy during combat for the shortage of guns and ammunition:

He burst into the command dugout, and started raving: "My wife is coming here with more machine guns. We're going to kill them all. Even the last one. My wife is coming with more machine guns." Then he turned into the open without his weapon or hat and screamed, "My wife is coming, my wife is coming, with more weapons!" A piece of red-hot shrapnel stuck him, and he was quiet.
Burying the dead
Burying the dead

Nevertheless, Finland managed to inflict in between 230,000 and 270,000 fatalities plus 200,000-300,000 injuries on Russia, while losing 48,745 troops and enduring 159,000 other casualties during the campaign. It held on for as long as it could before succumbing on March 13, 1940, but only after a two-week-long bombing and artillery effort by Russia, which threw everything it had at poor Finland. Mannerheim's orders to his troops upon their surrender survive as a piece of inspired patriotism.

While cleaning up, a Finnish officer muttered to a photojournalist, "The wolves will eat well this year." After the "victory", a Russian officer muttered, "Well, we've won just enough land to bury our dead."


  1. William R. Trotter. A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940. Algonquin Books, 1991.
  2. Engle Paananen, Eloise Paananen. The Winter War : The Russo-Finnish Conflict. Westview Press, 1985.

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