148: The War in the North


During the December 1939 and January 1940 there was fighting occurring all over Finland north of Lake Ladoga.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 148 - The Winter War Part 6 - The War in the North. This week a big thank you goes out to Raymond, Ronald, Brian, and Preston for choosing to support the podcast by becoming members and to Max for the donation. You can find out more about either option over at historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members. Throughout December and January there would be fighting in many areas of Finland north of Lake Ladoga, the last two episodes have discussed some of them. This episode will look at some of the other fighting that would happen in this area before the focus next episode shifts back to the major fighting that would happen on the Isthmus. One of the disclaimers I will give at this point, and really for the entire podcast, is that this is not an exhaustive discussion of all of the fighting that would occur in central and northern Finland. There were countless small engagements, raids, and battles fought during the war and to look at each of them in any detail would be an entire podcast. I have pulled out a few sections of the fighting for a more detailed examination during this episode, as examples of the fighting.

Along the front north of Lake Ladoga there were a large number of smaller actions that would take place that would never be as famous as the actions around Soumussalmi. One of these would take place in the same area as the actions that we discussed in Episode 4 of this series, although “in the same area” in this case still meant that they were quite separated by the geography of the area. In this case two regiments of the 12th Finnish division would defend the areas on the approaches to Soujarvi against a much greater number of Soviet attackers. As long time listeners know, I love a good armored train, and I would be remiss without mentioning that on this area of the front an armored train would once again make an appearance. In this case the train was quite old, dating back to the Civil War days, but it did have several machine guns and even some French 75mm artillery pieces. It would move from place to place to try and slow down the Soviet attack as they approached Soujarvi. The defense of Soujarvi would last for a few days, and the last defenders of the village would pull back on December 2nd, after giving their all to try and defend the city as long as possible. On this area of the front these troops were able to quickly retreat and break contact with their Red Army pursuers, and their commander Colonel Teittinen of the 34th regiment would begin to put in place his plan to put a more permanent stop to the Soviet attack. As with so many other Finnish commanders, Teittinen knew this area well and he understood, much like other Finnish commanders in the weeks that would follow, that if the Soviet forces stayed on the roads there would be opportunities for slowing or even halting their advance if the Finnish troops could properly position themselves in the surrounding countryside. Teittinen’s plan was to not focus his forces on the road itself, and instead only a screening force would be positioned to actually stop the Soviet advance. Instead he would move his men all of his forces in the areas along the road, which were almost certainly not navigable for the Soviets, because there were many unmarked paths, and so an attack from this area was likely to come as a surprise. He would then send his men into an attack, catching the Soviets off guard and hopefully shattering their advance and pushing them back. This was an objectively good plan, that properly took advantage of all of the strengths of the Finnish troops and their commanders, as would be shown in other actions, but it also meant that the Red Army would advance even further. During these early days of the war, before the full scope of the challenges that the Finns would face north of Lake Ladoga were fully known Mannerheim was pushing for an immediate counter attack. This counterattack not just disrupted Teittinen’s plans, but also was going to be a major problem for his units, who had been fighting for over three days without any break, and part of Teittinen’s plan was to try and build in some time to rest before his attack was launched. With his new orders that simply would not be possible, and Teittinen began to try and call Mannerheim’s headquarters to get the attack orders rescinded. He would be unsuccessful, and since he had his orders all he could do is try to get his men together and then launch an attack up the road into the Soviet units. This was of course the worst possible thing to do, and when the Finns moved forward they were met with withering fire including fire from Soviet tanks. Just like other units, the two regiments in this area of the front were not accustomed to dealing with the Soviet tanks, and that combined with the soviet firepower meant that the counterattack was a non starter. Instead they would rapidly retreat, and they would not stop until they reached the Kollaa River, at which point they were finally able to dig in, get some anti tank guns into position and prepare a defensive position. Calling Kollaa a river might be doing a disservice to rivers everywhere, as it was never more than a few meters wide. The Kollaa river would then be the site of Finnish defense in this area for the rest of the war, something that nobody would have ever planned, it was just the spot they retreated to that looked good.

Kolla would turn into a months long battle of attrition, although it would at least start with a few days rest as the Finnish retreat had outpaced the Soviet advance. All available resources were put into supporting the new defensive line, with a motley crew of artillery pieces of all different types brought in to support the defense. This included that old armored train, which would once again put its French 75s to use. The first Soviet attacks would be quite clumsy, they would fire their artillery and then just come charging up the road right into the Finnish positions. The Finns would answer with their artillery, maybe hit some of the tanks with anti-tank guns, and then use their machine guns to fire at the infantry until eventually the tanks would grind to a halt, then the unsupported infantry could not advance further by themselves, and so the whole attack would collapse. It did not help the Soviet cause that with every attack, more of their tanks were disabled, and those disabled tanks blocked the highway even more. This would cause the attacks to spill out on either side of the highway to a greater and greater distance. Both sides would then spend the next month pouring more soldiers into the fighting on the Kollaa, what started as an engagement of a single Finnish regiment vs a Red Army division was quickly expanded to two divisions and two regiments, then four divisions. The Red Army would also bring in all of its strengths into this fighting, bringing in hundreds of pieces of artillery to pound the Finns into submission. The week of January 21 was particularly bad, with 200 Soviet guns balanced against only around 20 Finnish artillery pieces. But no matter how much artillery they dropped on the Finnish positions, the Finns continued to resist. Wave after wave of Soviet infantry would attack, and they would be killed, sometimes at great cost to the defenders. After those large attacks in the third week of January the fighting on the Kollaa began to diminish in intensity mostly because the focus of both armies had simply shifted elsewhere. Fighting would not fully end on the Kollaa until the conflict was finally over, and on March 13th when the cease fire took effect both sides were still holding their territory on both sides of the river.

One of the options that the defense of Kollaa opened up for the Finns was a counter attack opportunity just north of Lake Ladoga. In early January Mannerheim would actively put the local commander, General Hägglund to attack quickly, eventually sending a representative from his own headquarters to expedite the planning and launching of the attack. Mannerheim was impatient for the start of the attack because he felt that the Red Army was presenting an opportunity on the northern side of Lake Ladoga. Before the end of the year the Soviets had sent a lot of troops to various areas north of the lake, and there had been some very tidy Finnish victories against some of these attacks. Kollaa was still holding out, the Finns had won a moderate victory at Tolvajarvi, and then of course the fighting at Soumussalmi was going very well. This was combined with some of the challenges that the Soviet forces just to the north of Lake Ladoga were having with supplying their troops, with the broken terrain and huge snowdrifts being a serious problem and forcing the Red Army to stick firmly to roads. The overall plan was not that much different than what had happened at Soumussalmi, where the main Finnish forces would be split into two different task forces which would have the goal of attacking a stretch of the Uomaa road. Just like at Suomussalmi, the goal was not to attack the main Soviet forces head on, but instead to simply cut them off from their supplies. The hope was that this development would cause the Soviets to begin a series of hasty, ill planned, and poorly executed counter attacks which would accelerate the collapse of the pockets that would be created as part of the attack. This was important to Finnish planning, because if that did not happen, and the pockets turned into a slow attritional grind, these operations would occupy a large number of Finnish troops for a lengthy period of time, it would consume valuable ammunition, and it would also cost lives. There had been a preview of what would happen in some of the pockets at Suomussalmi, where the fighting had drug on for many days as the Soviet forces decided to just defend in place rather than try to break out. The attacks began during the first week of January and by the 11th the Finnish forces had already broken the 168th division into multiple pockets, and had completely severed the division from their supplies by capturing the village of Koirinoia. There would be 11 pockets created during the attack, some of which contained hundreds of tanks, which were a problem. These tanks were primarily from the Soviet 34th Tank Brigade which had been a part of the advances north of the lake. Fuel became a problem almost instantly, but even after they were out of fuel the tanks still continued to play the role of fire support to the Soviet defenders, just adding to their already large advantage in firepower due to the artillery and mortars that were also trapped in the pockets. This would setup a situation where the Soviet forces could not really move due to the strength of the Finnish road blocks, but the Finns also could not make any real effort to reduce some of the larger pockets due to the firepower disparities at play, with the Soviet artillery quickly being called in against any Finnish attack. Slowly the smaller pockets were destroyed, but the three largest remained, near the villages of Siira, Uomaa, and Kitelä. The Soviet forces at Kitelä were by far the strongest, and there would be serious efforts to find way to supply the troops that were within that pocket. The Finnish defenders were overstretched trying to contain the pocket, and therefore there would be multiple instances where Soviet supply routes would be established to bring supplies into the pocket. Some of these were overland routes which simply took advantage of the thin nature of the encirclements, while others were also established over the frozen surface of Lake Ladoga, which by mid and late January would be able to support heavy supply runs. In both cases the Soviet supply columns would move off under cover of night, Finnish ski troops would ambush them and try to whittle down the volume of supplies, but there was only so much they could do, some supplies would get through. When the weather permitted there were also some airdrops of supplies into the largest of the pockets. Eventually the trapped Soviet troops would have to resort to eating their horses, but they continued to resist. As the fighting continued, efforts would be made to relief the pockets, efforts that would eventually be successful. Even with reinforcements sent to Hägglund near the end of the January, the entry of fresh Soviet forces into the fighting, pushing west to relief the pockets, finally resulted in the three remaining groups of Soviet troops being relieved. In the end the fighting north of Lake Ladoga would be a failure for the Finns. They had some flashy early successes in the fighting, but by allowing a few of the pockets to become very large, they were unable to reduce them in time. Some credit should also be given to the Red Army commanders in this region, the 168th Division commanded by General Bondarev would find itself cut off in various pieces, but the commanders inside the large pockets would choose the correct path of just trying to hold out, instead of wasting their strength on fruitless counter attacks. Basically, they did not panic, and that would allow them to eventually be victorious. For Mannerheim and the wider Finnish cause, these battles would in the end be a disaster. One of the reasons for the attack was to quickly destroy the Soviet forces north of the Lake so that the flow of Finnish troops could be reversed. Since the start of the war thousands of Finnish troops had been moved north from the general reserve to deal with the various Soviet offensives north of Lake Ladoga. Mannerheim really needed that flow to reverse so that some of those troops could start coming back to the Isthmus, where the fighting was rapidly escalating and the situation for the Finns was dire. Instead of reinforcements moving south, the prolonged action around the pockets meant that more troops had to be sent to Hägglund, pretty much completely defeating the purpose of the attacks in the first place. This fighting stands as a good example of how sometimes, partial victories are not victories at all. The Finnish troops had executed a great early attack attack against the 168th Division, they had cut it into multiple smaller groups, but because they could not take the next step, it might have been better to have never started the attack in the first place.


One of the themes of the fighting north of Lake Ladoga that has occupied the last few episodes of the podcast was the shock felt by the Finnish leaders that the Soviets were sending so many troops into these areas to fight over largely unimportant terrain. But nothing would be more of a shock than the four offensives mounted in the far north. These offensives targeted various villages and areas in the very far north like Petsamo, which was Finland’s only arctic port. They were able to capture the port with almost no fighting, and after a short firefight they were able to bring in more forces by sea. The defenders of these areas had no hope of actually stopping the Soviet advance and instead all they could really do was try and slow them down a bit and the fall back to survive until another day. But as the Soviets then tried to push further west to capitalize on these gains, along the Arctic Highway, they became vulnerable to the same type of raids that were being launched against Red Army formations throughout northern Finland. They became strung out on the highways and this allowed Finnish units to launch raids, which forced the Soviets to devote more resources into defending the roads, including the building of blockhouses which were erected at five mile intervals throughout January. Then by the end of January the weather had deteriorated to the point where neither side could launch any serious military operations simply due to the cold. In the end these efforts would mostly just represent a major misuse of Red Army soldiers, with 10,000 troops mostly immobilized in far northern Finland with little ability to influence the fighting to the south.

While the Red Army would experience many challenges during the Winter War, the Red Air Force would have its own share of problems. Unlike on the ground, the problems in the air had little to do with Finnish resistance, and were more about the Soviet aircraft being able to have the impact they thought they should have. Around 2,500 aircraft would participate in the fight against Finland, with the bombing force being seen as the most important piece of the Soviet air effort. They would launch bombing raids against a variety of targets, ranging from direct attacks against Finnish military units, to attacks against transportation systems like railways and railway stations, as well as against civilian targets. During these raids the primary Soviet bomber was the Tupolev SB-2 a twin engine bomber that could carry 500 kilograms of bombs and was roughly comparable to many other twin engine bombers that nations would enter the Second World War with. The challenge in all of these cases was that Finland was, in general, a very spread out nation there were not large concentrations of targets just due to the structure and population distribution within Finland. And this meant that bombing raids against rail depots, for example, might actually just mean bombing raids against tiny little villages that had built up around the depots. But due to the difficulties of hitting targets while bombing, these tiny targets might necessitate multiple large bombing raids that tried to saturate the target with bombs in the hopes that some of them would hit in the correct area. In many cases, even when the Soviet bombers got lucky and a bomb did hit the correct target, the damage was largely superficial and the trains could be running again within a matter of a few hours. Now, you may be getting tired of me saying this, but this is once again just another example of how hard it was in the late 1930s and into the Second World War to really execute an effective strategic bombing campaign against targets like railways. During the war, even later in the war when massively larger bombing fleets would be wandering the skies of Europe, targets likes railways would prove remarkably difficult to put out of action. And so the Soviet failures to achieve the results they were hoping for, in really any of their strategic bombing initiatives, was mostly just par for the course during the early war years. For all of their effort in bombing industrial and transportation targets, the estimates for how many man hours of military production were lost are as low at 5%, which was completely compensated for by the shift to around the clock production in many industries. However, just because the bombing of Finland did not achieve the goals that the Soviet leaders were hoping does not mean that it did not cause damage and suffering, with that suffering being most acutely felt by Finnish civilians. There would be over 2,000 instances of Red Air Force bombers striking civilian targets during the war, destroying 2,000 buildings and damaging 5,000 others. Along with this damage, 650 civilians were killed and around 2,000 wounded. It was a modest death toll compared to later bombing campaigns, but at the time that it occurred the bombing of Finnish cities would be one of only a handful of sustained bombing campaigns against civilian population centers.

There were of course efforts by the Finnish Air Force to defend against the air attacks launched against targets in Finland, but from the very beginning they were at a massive disadvantage. At the start of the war, there were just 48 fighter planes that were flight ready, and while more would be imported during the war from various European sources they would always be at a major numerical disadvantage. To make matters worse, many of the fighters that were present were outdated and obsolete, with the Dutch Fokker D.XXI being the only real modern fighter in the arsenal and even that had a fixed undercarriage. Major reinforcements arrived later in December in the form of 30 French Morane-Saulnier 406s and 30 British Gloster Gladiators. The French fighters were definitely better performing, with the Gladiators an aging biplane design, which was less of a problem than the fact that their only armament was 4 .303 calibre machine guns which made it difficult to cause real damage to Soviet aircraft. Even with their numerical and technological disadvantage Finnish aircraft would shoot down around 240 Soviet aircraft, although that probably says more about the vulnerability of bombers to attacking fighters than that the Soviets were unskilled or doing something wrong. There were also attempts to launch offensive bombing raids using Bristol Blenheims and some Italian Fiat bombers, but these bombing raids were always very very risky due to the sheer number of Soviet fighters that they often encountered over their targets. This meant that most Finnish bombing raids were done as early or as late in the day as possible to minimize the amount of time spent over their targets during the middle of the day when interception was the most likely. Even when they managed to survive, causing damage was just as much of a problem for the Finnish bombers as it was for the Soviet pilots. Along with the active defense in the air, there were also attempts to make the anti aircraft guns that defended Finnish cities as effective as possible. This included a system of air spotters at air raid warning posts which were sited in tall towers near likely targets which provided some early warning, although it also put the spotters at risk of strafing attacks from enemy planes. Many of the spotters would be women, who replaced men in these areas who were needed at the front. Altogether Finnish anti-aircraft guns shot down over 315 Soviet aircraft during the war, which did put a serious dent in many Soviet bomber squadrons. Unfortunately, they were unable to prevent the bombing campaign entirely, or the change the course of the war.