147: Suomussalmi


One of the most famous battles of the entire war would be fought in northern Finland in late December.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 147 - The Winter War Part 5 - The Battle of Soumussalmi. This week a big thank you goes out to Steve, Jacquelin, and Jean (French name) for becoming members, find out more at historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members. One of most important tools when I am writing is podcast is maps, and let me tell you finding detailed maps covering the Winter War can be challenging. When I started the podcast I picked a stack of atlases, partly because I think atlases are awesome, but also so I could have maps to reference while making the podcast. Of the three atlases I have which cover the time period of the Winter War each of them dedicate only a page or two to the Winter War, generally with one map covering the entire front, then a zoom in on the isthmus, and then a detailed map of a single battle, the battle that this episode will be covering. It would occur not in southern Finland near the Isthmus, or in the areas directly north of Lake Ladoga but instead in the far north, 350 kilometers north of Lake Ladoga. The fighting in northern Finland would become some of the most well known fighting around the world, as the stories of small Finnish units attacking large Soviet formations through their knowledge of the terrain and their woodcraft made for exciting reading. Among all of this fighting one battle stands out, the Battle of Suomussalmi. There is a good reason for this, as it is one of the better examples from the war of what small, well motivated, led, and organized units can do against a larger and less organized enemy.

The Finnish advantages in northern Finland would begin with logistics. The fighting during the early weeks of the winter war were occurring in December, and it was firmly within the Finnish winter, with temperates down to -30 degrees celsius. There were small ways in which the Finnish soldiers were supported during their actions in this kind of environment, like the usage of small stoves that could be transported by manpower to areas near the Finnish positions. This allowed for warm food to be cooked consistently near the front line which was important not just for morale, and it was important for morale, but also because it provided better nutrition. Military rations for cold weather environments are often different from normal rations due to different needs of men heavily exerting themselves in the cold weather, and the Finnish army, for all of its equipment and material shortcomings was just better at providing for those nutritional needs. On the other side of the line the Red Army units relied far more heavily on large field kitchens which were often large, hard to move around, and slow to keep up with the front line troops. It was hard for field kitchens to be kept near the front of the line, especially in instances where the Soviet soldiers moved away from the major roads in northern Finland where roads in general were so rare. This resulted in far more missed hot meals for the Soviet troops, which made fighting in the extreme cold more challenging. The situation around warming up food was just one instance where the Finnish army was obviously just better equipped for fighting in the extreme cold. Another example would be the fact that many Soviet units were not equipped with gun oil that worked when it was freezing, and at times would freeze the guns solid, which is exactly what you do not want. The Finns would instead mix their gun oil with gasoline which prevented it from freezing. The challenges faced by the Red Army then caused them to make further mistakes which would cause further problems, particularly around the Soviet habit of creating large bonfires. When Soviet units were stuck in the Finnish wilderness, large bonfires were appealing for a variety of reasons. The provided warmth, which was nice, and also the feeling of safety during the night. Unfortunately for the Soviet soldiers involved, it also created picture perfect opportunities for Finnish soldiers and units to attack the Soviets who would silhouette against the fires. We have already seen an example of this last episode when an early war Finnish counter attack was able to almost wipe out a Soviet unit that was caught unawares around a bonfire.

As with so many famous battles of every war, the thing that the battle is named after, the village of Suomussalmi was not a well known landmark before the war. It was a village with a population of only around 4,000 and in terms of Finnish war plans it was not really even considered to be at threat. It was far enough north that the Finnish leaders did not believe that it would face any Soviet threat, with the assumption being that they would focus all of their troops in the south. This meant that when the war started Suomussalmi was defended by border police unit which contained 58 men. But the Red Army was not going to leave Suomussalmi alone, and instead they would make a major attempt to push through this part of Finland with the goal of moving all the way to the Swedish border. If this was accomplished, they would be able to cut a major rail link between Finland and Sweden, and they would also essentially cut Finland in two. This was considered important enough that two divisions, the 163rd and the 44th would be dedicated to the operation. One aspect of operations in northern Finland, which is important to how the Battle of Suomussalmi develops is that large units of men were entirely road bound, they had to stick to the roads, and they were often forced to split into smaller units and take different roads. This meant that depending on the size and quality of the road, and the size of the ultimate objective, different regiments might be sent down different roads that all converged in similar areas. This is important to the development of the Battle of Suomussalmi because it made it very challenging for the Red Army officers to capitalize on their massive numerical advantage. This area of Finland was far too wooded for the kind of massive flanking maneuvers that would be seen on many other Second World War battlefields, where numbers and mobility were so powerful. Small units of Finnish soldiers and a well built road block could hold up the Soviet advance for hours or even days. The 58 men in Suomussalmi would receive reinforcement before they were tasked with dealing with the large Red Army force advancing in their direction, because as soon as the Soviet’s crossed the border it was clear that Suomussalmi was one of the area in desperate need of reinforcement. The first reinforcements to arrive would be a few companies of troops that had been stationed in far northern Finland. They would be able to move onto some roads to slow the Soviet advance to allow time for more units to arrive. With the Red Army completely bound to the roads, these delays could be accomplished, and in fact they would even just completely stop one Soviet regiment which was moving towards the village of Peranka.

While some of the smaller Soviet thrusts could be stalled out by the small units available in northern Finland, if there was any hope of stopping the major Soviet push by the 163rd division towards Suomussalmi more manpower would be required. With this requirement in mind, Mannerheim would order Infantry regiment 27 to move north. The 27th was commanded by Colonel Hjalmar Siilasvuo, a World War 1 veteran of the Finnish Jaeger Battalion which had fought for Germany against Russia during the First World War. Siilasvuo’s regiment had some real challenges in front of it, it did not have any heavy weapons, it did not possess a single anti-tank gun, and it was not even fully equipped with basic items like tents. But the 27th had one major advantage, which would over the next weeks prove to be decisive, most of its troops were from small Finnish villages just like Suomussalmi. This meant that they had skis and they knew how to use them, and they were at home in the Finnish forests, which would prove to be an essential quality in the actions that would follow. Before the 27th could arrive the Soviets would take control of Soumusalmi and so Siilasvuo would setup his headquarters in the village of Hyrynsalmi to the southwest of Soumusalmi. On December 9th the Soviet troops would continue their advance down the road that linked the two villages together only to very rapidly run into a solid wall of Finnish machine gun fire. This was a surprise, and an unwelcome one for the Red Army commanders. At this point a rumor would circulate around the Finnish forces that the 27th was just the first regiment of an entire Finnish division which would be coming north to push back the Soviet advance. This rumor was completely false, but was not denied by Siilasvuo because he knew that it would be great for his men’s morale. One of the major morale issues for the small units of Finnish defenders in northern Finland was the feeling that they were simply forgotten. They were always fighting much larger Soviet units with very little communication with outside forces, and so it was easy to just feel like they were alone and forgotten fighting a hopeless fight. Combatting this feeling was an important part of being an effective Finnish officer during these early phases of the Winter War, and Siilasvuo would do it partially by just letting the rumors of more reinforcements make their rounds.


While the Finns were setting up their road blocks to halt further Soviet advances, they were also planning for more proactive operations. These would primarily be in the form of road cutting operations which were operations what perfectly took advantage of the strengths of the Finnish units, while preying on the weaknesses of the Red Army units they were facing. Road Cutting operations were exactly what they sound like, operations designed to sever road connections between Soviet units by taking over parts of the road. To describe how one of these operations were structured, here is just a long quote from A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940 by William Trotter describing how these operations were, in general structured. “The combat team selected to make the actual cut would move into preselected assembly areas just beyond reach of the enemy’s reconnaissance patrols. Finnish patrols, meanwhile, had already established the most concealed routes of approach to the road from the assembly area and secured them by positioning pickets of ski troopers on the flanks. Each combat team made its approach according to a timetable that allowed the commander on the spot to gauge the pace so that his men would not arrive at their jumping-off point too tired to do the job. At the final assembly point, usually within earshot of the road, heavy winter garb was discarded and left under guard along with the other heavy equipment. The assault teams wore only lightweight snowsheets and carried as much firepower as possible: Suomis, Lugers, grenades, and satchel charges. Speed and shock were the ingredients of a successful road-cutting attack. While the assault team was deploying, scouts would creep as close as possible to the point of impact and would bring back last-minute coordinates for the mortars and Maxim guns, which would put down suppressive fire on either side of the raiding party. At the signal, a short, sharp barrage of mortar and machine-gun fire would crash into the intended point of contact. “After a few moments, the supporting fire would be shifted 100 meters or so to the right and left of that point, in effect sealing off a narrow corridor across the road. That was the moment to launch the assault.” When successful these operations could catch the Soviet units completely off guard and leave them in a situation where the best thing they could do against the Finns was to coordinate attacks on both sides of the captured piece of the road, but the lack of radios on within the Red Army units made it difficult to actually achieve the necessary level of coordination. Also when successful these road cutting operations allowed much smaller Finnish units to neutralize much larger numbers of Soviet troops. For example in one of the early operations just 350 men were able to cut the road that supported almost an entire Soviet division, making it impossible for them to continue their advance due to lack of supplies, and forcing them to shift their effort to dealing with the small Finnish force to their rear. Along with the first of these road cutting operation, Siilasvuo would also order a more traditional assault against some Soviet positions near a village, but as was often the case these were not very successful. But more help would arrive in mid December when 8 artillery guns and then a few anti-tank guns would arrive, taking Finnish heavy firepower from nothing to at least something in these area of the front. This allowed the Soviet forces to be brought under Finnish firepower for the first time, adding to their misery in the pockets that had developed through the road cutting operations. By this point the Finns had successfully cut off the entire Soviet 163rd division, with one major road block separating it from the Soviet 44th division, and then the 163rd itself cut into several different pockets along various roads in the area. The biggest threat to the growing possibility of a major Finnish victory was the possibility of the 44th division coming to the rescue of the 163rd. To prevent this from happening to separate efforts were started, the first was to accelerate the tightening of the pockets of the 163rd division, and another to halt the advance of the 44th. The most important actions were against the 44th, and several small attacks were launched against the forward units of the 44th division. These attacks were not designed to necessarily destroy these units, but instead to slow down their advance, and they were quite successful. General Vinogradov, the commander of the 44th became concerned that he was moving his men into a trap, and that they would get cut off just like the 163rd, and so he stopped the advance. This is one of those command decisions that receives criticism, but is very easy to understand how the officer arrived at the decision, because it is exactly what probably would have happened if the 44th advanced too far too quickly, but unfortunately for the men of the 44th division, just halting their advance would not save them, but we will come back to that in just a little bit, first we have to turn back to the destruction of the 163rd.

On December 23 more units arrived in the area in the form of the 64th Infantry regiment, along with a special ski battalion, and another independent battalion of infantry, this allowed the attacks on the 163rd to be greatly accelerated. This was critical to the continuation and expansion of Finnish efforts in the area, because one of the challenges of the road cutting operations is that once the road was cut, the troops that had cut the road had to stay on the road to defend the road blocks, and so the more little pockets the 163rd was cut into, the greater the number of Finnish troops committed to static defense, which made it more difficult to continue the raids and attacks against the remaining pockets. The 163rd division was not content to just sit on its hands and let itself be destroyed due to Finnish attacks and the slow dwindling of supplies, and instead several concerted attempts to push through the Finnish road blocks and push back to the east to link up with the 44th division. These attacks, culminating in efforts on the 25th of December, would be unsuccessful, and would would represent the moment where the defense of the 163rd division transitioned into a state where it was just a matter of time before all of the pockets would either be destroyed or forced to surrender. Siilasvuo sense this shift, and that the 163rd was running out of ammunition, and moved over a general counter attack on the 27th. During this attack the Finnish forces were able to roll up many of the Soviet positions on the roads leading to Suomussalmi, but even though the troops around Suomussalmi continued a stout defense for a few days, time was running out. By the 28th they were either killed or were forced to surrender. By the 29th the last sizable Soviet unit, a single regiment, launched the last serious breakout attempt of any unit of the 163rd division, but it was defeated, and by the 30th the final pocket of the Soviet division was eliminated. An entire Soviet division ceased to exist, but even before the final days of the 163rd division Finnish focus shifted to the 44th division, with the hope of a similar result.

After the advance of the 44th had been stopped by the attacks in mid-December, they had been largely immobilized and did not move to try and help the units of the 163rd that were being destroyed on the roads to their west. They did not know it but they were now the primary target of the Finnish troops who planned to use the same tactics once again. The goal was to take the entire length of the 44th division, which was occupying about 30 kilometers of a road, and cut it into smaller pieces just like with the 163rd. The first major attack was designed to separate the strongest portion of the 44th, the first several kilometers, from the rest, an operation which would be launched by a battalion of troops from the 27th Regiment on January 1st. The attack would be launched in the dead of night just after midnight, when the Russian sentries, which were positioned far too close to the road, were killed and the Finnish troops attacked the road. In a fortunate mistake, the Finnish soldiers had actually made a mistake, and they had gotten confused and attacked the wrong spot in the road. They were only off by less than 500 meters, but it meant they attacked an area of the road that was home to a Soviet artillery battalion. This was what Bob Ross would call a happy accident because it allowed for the neutralization of the Soviet artillery completely be accident. The Finnish units were able to quickly take control of the road and start throwing up defenses against the inevitable Soviet counter attacks. Both the Finns and the Soviets knew that the Finnish road blocks were at their weakest just after they were created, before more men and equipment could be moved onto the road and defenses strengthened. With this in mind, a risk was taken and both of the anti-tank guns available in this area of the front were sent forward with the unit that made this attack. This was a major risk, these were the only too Bofors anti tank guns that the Finns had, and if they were lost they were gone and there would be no replacements. But this risk would pay off because when the expected Soviet attack was launched the two guns disabled 7 tanks in a matter of minutes, with the added benefit that those disabled tanks added to the strength of the roadblock because they themselves blocked the road. As soon as the Soviet counter attack was defeated the units on the road block settled into a routine. The first part of that routine was for hot meals to be brought forward on sleds, and heated tents were setup on a nearby ridge to allow for troop rotations from the road block to the heated tents and back. I am not Finnish, I am not a soldier, I have never fought a battle in the Finnish winter, but when I try to think about what they would be like, and it is hard, I just think about how awesome it would be to get a hot meal and get even brief moments inside a heated tent, just absolute heaven. The rotation that would be setup would be different based on what the Finnish soldier was doing, but for the units that were actively patrolling and launching raids against the Soviet positions they were on a rotation where they would patrol for 2 hours, get two hours rest in heated tents and dugouts, then patrol for another 2 hours, then they would rest for 4 hours, which would often include a hot meal. It was hard work, but knowing that there was a warm rest and a hot meal at the end of it must have been a major boost to morale. While they were patrolling they would often launch small raids against the trapped Soviet units, with the goal of slowly destroying their ability to fight and support their soldiers. Targets were selected carefully to have the greatest effect, command posts, ammunition storage dumps, any field kitchens. One of the interesting features of this fighting is that you can often find field kitchens listed alongside tanks in the battle reports as targets worth calling out as being destroyed, which I think says everything that needs to be said about their importance. The Soviet experience, on the receiving end of these raids day after day was a frightening one, with Finnish ski troops seeming to appear from anywhere, attack, and then leave before a real reaction could be organized. Here is a regimental commander of the 44th discussing his experience: “But Finns we couldn’t see anywhere. And believe it or not, the first Finns that I personally saw were the two that took me as a prisoner after my regiment was destroyed. We couldn’t see them anywhere, yet they were all over the place. If anybody left the campsite, he met with certain death. When we sent our sentries to take their positions around the camp, we knew that within minutes they would be dead with a bullet hole in the forehead or the throat slashed by a dagger. This invisible death was lurking from every direction. It was sheer madness. Hundreds, even thousands of my men were slaughtered.” The complete control that the Finns had of the woods around the roads made any real Soviet action impossible. Another attempt would be made on January 2 to storm the roadblocks created along the road but they were stopped not just by fire from the road blocks but also by murderous flanking fire from both sides of the road. Every day that the road block survived it got stronger, and by January 6th, as the ability of the trapped units were losing their ability to continue the fight, the road block was protected by more and more troops, mines, and fortified positions. By January 6th organized Soviet resistance was over and a general retreat was ordered, and the last resistance from any units was over by the 8th. A second Soviet division had been almost entirely destroyed on the roads of northern Finland. Around 27,000 Soviet soldiers from the two divisions had been killed, either by Finnish actions or by the elements, 43 tanks and 270 other vehicles were destroyed. Many vehicles, 48 artillery guns, 300 machine guns, even a few tanks were captured by the Finnish troops, massively increasing their capabilities. It only cost the Finns about 900 dead and 1,800 wounded. The battle of Soumussalmi was a truly stunning victory, by far the most incredible event of the Winter War. And the story of the battle would make its way into newspapers all around the world, which is understandable, a few regiments of Finnish troops destroyed 2 Soviet divisions! Amazing. There would be other successes on other areas of the front, but this would be the crowing achievement of Finnish arms. It also brought with it some problems that would only be felt later, because when combined with the successful Finnish actions that we will discuss next episode, it would begin to move the Red Army towards changes that would see the final defeat of the Finns in the months that followed.