145: The Attack Begins


On November 30th, 1939 the first bombers would appear over Helsinki. The Winter War had started.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 145 - The Winter War Part 3 - The Attack Begins. This week a big thank you goes out to Renee, Justin, and Lynered for choosing to support the podcast by becoming members, find out more over at historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members. When the Soviet invasion of Finland started, it would begin all along the borders of Finland, which due to geography meant that there were multiple unrelated offensives. And what was waiting for all of these attacks was something of a shock. Soviet leaders believed that the fighting would be violent but quick, and the Finnish defense would rapidly fall apart. But what they found was a very motivated and skilled enemy which were full of what in the Finnish language might be called sisu, which does not directly translate into English but I like the translation of the word into “guts” or “grit.” The Finns would not be lacking in sisu, and they would show it in their early defense. This episode will cover the early actions in the war before ending on some, what I guess you could call interesting political developments.

The first major moves of the war would come in the form of air raids. At just before 9:30AM on the last day of November the first bombing raid would arrive over Helsinki. This first wave of Soviet bombers were not over the city to drop bombs though, but instead to drop propaganda leaflets. The content was not always the same from leaflet to leaflet, but here is an example of one of them: “TO THE FINNISH PEOPLE! The dastardly provocation of the military clique in Finland has aroused anger in our country and in the Red Army. Our patience is utterly exhausted. We are compelled to take up arms, but we are not waging war against the Finnish people, but against the government of Cajander and Erkko, who oppress the Finnish people and have provoked this war. We come to Finland not as conquerors, but as liberators of the Finnish people from the oppression of the Capitalists and landlords. Therefore let us not fight each other, but end the war and turn our weapons against our common enemies—against the government of Cajander, Erkko, Tanner, Mannerheim, and others.” Clearly with those words the leaflets were designed to appeal to the groups in Finland that were not loyal to the government, a group that the Soviet leaders believed was large enough to make a difference in the war. About an hour later the next wave of bombers arrived, and the nine SB-2 medium bombers of this wave were carrying more explosive cargo. They would target the Helsinki railway station which was located in downtown Helsinki. And they would not hit it, and railroad stations are not small targets, but they still did not hit it and instead they dropped most of their bombs on the large public square near the station which would result int 40 civilian deaths. The bombers then spread around the city and dropped some incendiary bombs almost at random with the goal of starting fires, which they were able to do, with the cities firefighters having to spend a good amount of time putting out the resulting fires. Then another raid would arrive at 2:30PM, this time 15 bombers that would just drop their bomb loads around the city resulting in 50 more civilians deaths. This would be the final bombing raid over the city on the first day, but in one day around 200 people would be killed.

At the border the the first Soviet attacks would take place north of Lake Ladoga. In this area Mannerheim and the Finnish military had to make assumptions about Soviet intentions. There were not enough Finnish soldiers to defend the entire length of the border regions, but they would also probably not need to, because it seemed likely that the Red Army would heavily focus its efforts to the south of Lake Ladoga. But it did seem likely that the Red Army would attack directly north of Lake Ladoga in an effort to outflank the Mannerheim line. This type of attack posed a serious risk for the Finns because the geography in this region was not as impassable as it was further north, and there were also limited numbers of Finnish troops available north of the the Lake. The biggest area of threat were the two major roads that ran from the border to interior Finland, and it would be on these roads that the Finnish defense would be focused. Instead of focusing too much of their efforts near the border the plan that was developed by the Finns was to allow the Soviets to advance along these roads until they reached a series of prepared defenses. Then once they reached those defenses the Finnish Army would launch some attacks moving from north to south against the Soviet right flank. If everything went well, this would cut off the forward Soviet troops and quickly create a supply crisis for their forward elements. This was all good in theory, but the Soviet’s only partially did what was expected of them. They did launch an attack north of Lake Ladoga, but they brought far more men than expected, with five full divisions when the Finns were only expecting three. They also sent two divisions even further north, which was a serious problem because the Finns had not placed any large units in that area, as they had expected nothing larger than reconnaissance patrols. This meant that instead of preparing for a flank attack on the advancing Soviets, the Finns had to instead move greater strength further north, and part of that strength was the troops that would have been used for the counterattack. It was a worrying opening for the long term abilities of the Finnish army to defend against the Soviet attack.

Further to the north in the vast distances of northern Finland the Red Army would send 8 divisions, which were supported by armor and artillery. This was far more than the Finns were planning for and would be a serious problem which would force a shift in reserves. In the far north the 104th division of the Red Army would attack Petsamo from both the land and sea, easily overpowering the small unit of Finnish defenders. Then working our way from north to south there were various Russian divisions moving towards a variety of Finnish population centers like Rovaniemi, Suomussalmi, Kuhmo, and Lieksa. In each of these cases a division of men, although with a wide range of total manpower from 6,500 to 17,000 would move towards their objects. In terms of numbers these troops would heavily outnumber the Finnish defenders, but they were also moving through unfamiliar and very dangerous territory. They would have some distance to move as well, with many of the objects a long distance from the border, especially when you consider that movement would be slow along the under developed roads. In the Gulf of Finland there would also be some early raids on some of the disputed islands, the ones that the Soviets had hoped would just be handed over through negotiations. The naval landing parties would encounter no resistance.


While the fighting was occurring to the north, on the Isthmus the Red Army was also advancing. It was on the Isthmus that General Meretskov had at his disposal 120,000 men, 1,000 tanks, and 600 artillery pieces, which dwarfed the numbers of the Finnish defenders. But before the Red Army could come to grips with the Mannerheim Line, they first had to advance through a buffer zone between the border and the line, which varied in depth between 12 and 30 miles. While there were no major fixed defenses in this zone, it was still considered an important part of the overall defense of the Isthmus, with the goal being to slow the Soviet advance to give additional preparation time. To this end, there were about 21,000 men organized into covering groups with the goal of launching some night time counterattacks against the forward Red Army units. And this they would do, causing some casualties but almost more importantly confusion. After their counterattacks they would then retreat, destroying bridges and railroad tracks in the process. They would also setup some booby traps, with the most important feature of these traps being to slow the advance, because the fear of the traps was often more impactful than the traps themselves. Here is William Trotter from A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940 describing one of the ways that this was impactful on the Soviet advance: “Under the newly frozen lakes, mines were strung on pull ropes; only partly filled with explosives so they would retain buoyancy for several days, the charges were not designed to blow up the tanks but rather to shatter the ice beneath them. When word got around about this tactic, the Russian tank drivers began to avoid the lakes altogether, which was precisely what the Finns wanted, since it was much easier to ambush the vehicles in the countryside than out on the lakes, where their guns could sweep the terrain all around.” Forcing tanks or men to stick to the roads was impactful because even under the best of circumstances there were going to be Soviet traffic jams. There were just too many men and vehicles that needed to move down too few roads, a problem that would plague many armies over the next 6 years of the Second World War. These massive traffic jams resulted in multiple days of delay especially for the artillery. It also just generally slowed the advance and over the course of the Soviet advance through the buffer zone a rhythm would develop whereby the Soviets would slowly advance during the day, clearing out Finnish resistance as they went. Then before night fell they would retreat a few kilometers to setup their defenses. During the night the Finns would move forward to reoccupy as much ground as possible, then the next day the cycle would repeat. There was no way that the Finnish screening troops could stop the Soviet advance, there were simply too many men and too many vehicles, but the fear among the Soviet soldiers of being ambushed in an exposed position slowed the overall advance to a crawl.

During this slow advance to the Mannerheim line, the Finns would also begin to come to grips with one of their greatest challenges during the war, what to do about Soviet tanks. The Finnish forces had very few, and often no, modern anti-tank guns and so they had to get very inventive about how to deal with Soviet tanks. This started with simply getting used to them being present on the battlefield. In the first days of Soviet attacks the Finnish forces were often shocked, and justifiably very freightened by the Soviet armor, but even just a few days after the start of the war, on December 4th, many units were beginning to find ways to counter the threat. There were two major ways that would be developed to disable the Soviet tanks: destroying their ability to move and then burning them out. The first method was the simplest, get close enough to the tank to jam something in its tracks and weeks to disable them, it could be as simple as a log or a crowbar. This would result in dislodging the treads from their running wheels and therefore immobilizing the tank. Another very powerful anti-tank tool was the Molotov Cocktail, which for the Finns involved using a mixture of gasoline, kerosene, tar, and chloride of potassium. These weapons were able to disable tanks, but they were also very deadly to use, mostly due to how close a soldier had to be to the tank to use them and this resulted in very heavy casualty rates among anti-tank squads, upwards of 75%. But there were always volunteers and during the fighting retreat to the Mannerheim line they were able to disable 80 tanks. Most of the fighting within the buffer zone would be over by December 6th, by that time all of the forces in the zone had been pushed back to the Mannerheim line and had been incorporated into the defense. They were also able to bring their experience and knowledge back to the other defenders, and their stories of success, and the methods they used, were invaluable for the fighting that was to come.

After the Red Army troops had pushed through the buffer zone, they would make their first major effort against the Mannerheim Line on its northern end. This was not the most likely area to attack, which was against Summa in the south, but Meretskov hoped that by attacking first in the north he could force the Finns to move reinforcements north, which would make them more vulnerable for a Soviet attack in the south a few days later. Mannerheim and the Finnish leaders did expect a Soviet attack in the south, but when the fighting started on the northern end of the line they were determined not to fall into the Soviet trap of moving troops away from the pivotal areas around Summa. Fortunately for the Finnish defenders, in the area where the Red Army would attack the defenders had the advantage both when it came to the elevation and the type of ground, with the defenders having at least some solid ground to build defenses on, because most of the land in the northern sectors of the Mannerheim Line had a water table that was very close to the surface. Even with these advantage it was impossible to build the kind of defenses that were seen around Summa, and for the majority of the front around the Soviet target of Taipale the Finnish 10th Division, which would be defending this sector for the entire war, were defending mostly just shallow trenches. The Soviet attack on December 6th would be prefaced by an artillery barrage which would last 4 hours, after which the Soviet troops surged forward. One of the units taking part was the 19th Rifle Regiment, which had to attack across the Taipale river to get to their objective, here is Sergeant Major Tkachev with a first hand account of the attack: “The assault began. Our men ran into the field towards the river, and Finnish artillery immediately hit them with shrapnel. Everyone was pinned down. I was next to the trench at that moment. We rushed to the river along the trench. We reached the bank and saw the bodies of our dead sappers lying in heaps, and no crossing ready! The bank was steep, so we dived down to the river. There were several row boats below. ‘Move, fellows, move!’ We jumped into the boats and rowed like crazy, although what could we do on the other bank? Each of us had fifteen rifle rounds and one F-1 hand grenade. Not much of a soldier! Thirty-two of us made it to the other bank.” Tkachev’s experience was not greatly different than what was experienced along the entire attack, with little real headway made against the Finnish defenses, although fighting would continue over the following days, although these were mostly just skirmishes designed to explore and test the defenders rather than actually push them out of their defenses. That effort would be reserved for December 14th, when the Soviet’s would begin their largest bombardment yet before dawn, with the artillery continuing to fire until around 11:30AM. When the firing stopped the Soviet attack moved forward, this time accompanied by over 50 tanks. As they slowly moved forward, when they reached a preplanned zone, the Finnish artillery began firing. The bombardment was a surprise to the Soviet attackers, and over the next several minutes it would continue as the Finnish gunners dropped both high explosive and shrapnel rounds right into the middle of the Soviet attack. It was an economical way to structure the artillery bombardment, but it relied on the Soviets to play their part of advancing in large groups right into the kill zone. The attack would be halted by this artillery fire, with over 400 Soviet casualties and 18 disabled tanks. While this was a success, it was also a success that could not be maintained, mostly due to Soviet numbers. After the failure on the 14th, more Soviet troops, another entire division, as well as all of their divisional artillery strength was brought into the attack against Taipale. They would continue launching attacks over the following days, but they were costly failures not that much different than the first on December 14th. The Russians would fire their artillery against the defenses, they would attack in large groups, the Finnish artillery would answer when they reached a specific point. There were attacks that would last under an hour, achieve nothing, and result in 1,000 dead and 27 destroyed tanks. One soldier of the 150th Rifle Division, Tarasov, would write: “Father! We await death every moment … two times we were under very heavy artillery fire. Many of my comrades were killed or wounded. There were days when 600 and 700 men were killed and wounded. Trucks are evacuating the wounded day and night. By now the artillery has been firing for sixteen days, but nothing helps to drive the Finns out of there … Many men were killed here, many wounded also by friendly fire.” While they were doing well to hold back the Soviet attacks, this period was not a fun time to be a Finnish soldier in the Taipale area. One Finnish soldier, Vesteri Lepisto would later write about this period of the fighting that “Our groups were made up of seven or eight men. The pressure from lack of sleep and rest was so general that the only thought was to get out, do our jobs, and get back as soon as possible. There was always a lack of ammunition; our hand grenades produced in seven different countries were really hazardous. Our lives were at stake every time we used them. Our most aggravating work was getting out there in forty below zero, right in front of the enemy lines to set up barbed-wire barricades. We had to work without gloves and we dared not make any noise. Everything was done at night … I was always hungry. We couldn’t eat snow because it was contaminated by grenade explosions and would cause painful stomach problems.” But Lepistö and his fellow Finns were able to hold out long enough, even against very lopsided odds. One Finnish estimate of the artillery strength in this sector of the front put the number of Soviet artillery batteries at 111 with just 9 Finnish batteries. But as I said, they were able to beat the odds for long enough, because after the attacks in the second week of December the Soviet focus shifted down to the southern end of the Mannerheim line near Summa.

The southern areas of the Mannerheim line were destined to be the point where the Winter War would be won or lost, largely thanks to geography. It was in this area that the Leningrad to Viipuri railways ran, and it was the one area where there was a corridor that was easily traversed by a large military force. The problem for the Soviets was that this line was less than 20 kilometers in width. This had been the area where the Finns had dedicated most of their resources and effort, and it was here that the first defenses of what would come to be called the Mannerheim line were constructed in 1919. The defenses were, at least at the start of the fighting, manned by the Finnish 5th Division who arrayed in the defenses in front of the village of Summa. The first major Soviet attack toward Summa would begin at 10AM on December 17th with a five hour artillery barrage and bombing sorties by about 200 aircraft. The two primary axes of this first attack was directly against Summa and then along the Lähde road to the north. The main ground troops were two armored brigades along with some additional armor units and then over 800 tactical support aircraft. On the Lähde road the Soviet’s had prepared large demolition charges to destroy the barbed wire and anti tank defenses that the Finns had erected, and after these charges were blown a unit of 50 Soviet tanks launched their attack. The Finnish plan against such attacks was two fold, the first was simply to stick it out as long as possible. The hope was that this would cause the Soviet tanks to lose their infantry support, with the infantry stuck fighting the Finnish defenders while the tanks continued forward. Then once the tanks were isolated they could be dealt with in various ways, or at least forced to retreat. The second part of the plan was to deal with the tanks, which would be hit by the same types of attacks that had been used during the retreat from the buffer zone, either disabling the tracks or with molotov cocktails. A new tactic was also used in this area which involved the use of the large anti-tank rocks that had been put in place over the preceding decades. As discussed last episode, these rocks were not actually capable of preventing the movement of Soviet tanks as they had upgraded suspensions. But what it did allow for was a brief window when the tanks would climb the rocks which left them unable to fire forward. In that brief window Finnish troops would run forward, put anti-tank mines in the exact spots where the tracks were about to fall, and then try to run away. Just like every other anti-tank tactic this was extremely dangerous, but it did work. In the first series of attacks in and around Summa 35 tanks would be destroyed, roughly a third of the total number of Soviet tanks that took part in the attack. But this did not in anyway mean that tanks were not a serious threat. One Finnish Lieutenant would revisit this area of the front after the war and would write: ‘Black concrete bunkers stood in sparse forests without any communication cables or trenches. They were an intolerable place to be in combat, one had to always be ready to bail out immediately. Despite their high cost, they were hopeless rat holes and I am wondering why the enemy did not fry them all. If these bunkers were equipped with anti-tank weapons, one could defend oneself against tanks. In reality, all we could do was sit inside the bunker and wait for a tank to drive up and do what he pleased.’ After the first attacks on December 17, almost every day for the next several days fresh Soviet efforts would be launched. On December 18th Lähde would be the focus of an attack involving 68 tanks, several of which were destroyed by Finnish artillery well forward of the defense line, while 15 more were destroyed by the infantry. On the 19th another Soviet attack in the same area saw the large Poppius bunker surrounded and the Finnish defenders forced to defend themselves for 48 hours without any support. Thankfully, after 2 days of fighting with nothing but grenades and rifles they were relieved by a Finnish counterattack. While they were holding out to the south in the Summa sector further attacks continued, although they were met by similarly determined Finnish defense. After December 20th the fighting would begin to die down, by which point 58 Soviet tanks had been destroyed just in the areas in front of Summa. The Red Army had thrown Seven infantry divisions against the Mannerheim line from Taipale and Summa, along with hundreds of tanks, and they had captured very little territory and had completely failed to push the Finns out of their defenses. It was a very rough time to be a Red Army soldier, with one letter found on a body in the Summa sector saying: “We march already two days without food. … in the severe cold we have many sick and wounded. Our commanders must have difficulty justifying our being here. … we are black like chimney sweeps from dirt and completely tired out. The soldiers are again full of lice. Health is bad. Many soldiers have pneumonia. They promise that the combat will be over by Stalin’s birthday, the 21st of December, but who will believe it?”

While the Red Army was experiencing some challenges in their attacks against the Finnish military, they were also pushing forward with their political plans for Finland. It would begin after the small village of Terijoki was captured on the shores of the Gulf of Finland which was destined to be the symbolic capital of the new People’s Revolutionary Government of the Finnish Democratic Republic. This new Republic was declared on December 1st, with Otto Ville Kuusinen at its head with the various government agencies led by members of the Finnish Communist Party. The initial plan was to have Arvo Tuominen, head of the Finnish Community Party, act as Prime Minister of the new government, but he was hesitant to join the government, particularly after it was clear that the Red Army was not going to be able to achieve a quick victory. But there were enough Finnish Communists who did want to join the government for a cabinet to be created. One of the new government’s first acts was to sign a treaty of mutual assistance with the Soviet Union, along with an official government newspaper and an army. This army, the First Finnish Corps, was basically just a Red Army unit with some officers who were of Finnish descent and then some Finnish Communist volunteers. The Corps was symbolic only though, and would not actually participate in the fighting during the Winter War, although it did occupy areas behind the front line. The creation of this government was announced on the radio on December 1st, and it would continue to exist for the duration of the Winter War.