150: The End


As February turned into March, the desire of the Finns to find a way out of the war would finally succeed.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 150 - The Winter War Part 8 - The End. Patreon Garth, Evan, Luis, Mike, Josh, Sergio, Steven, Dustin, Shannon, zz. Last episode covered some of the ways that the Red Army began to take the fighting against Finland far more seriously by bringing in a new commander, Timoshenko, and reworking their general plans to better take advantage of the Soviet advantages in material. Along with this change, near the end of January the Soviet leaders would change their diplomatic tactics with Molotov beginning diplomatic conversations with the Finnish government by using the Swedish government as an intermediary. A key point of compromise from Molotov to start off the discussions was a clear and unambiguous recognition of the legitimate Finnish government, instead of the Communist government that had been setup early in the Soviet invasion. This was the only position that Molotov could take if he wanted any realistic chance of a diplomatic end to the war, and it would work. Just because the diplomatic path was being pursued by the government did not mean that the efforts of the Red Army on the Isthmus would slacken, and after February 11th there would be a seemingly unending series of attacks.

Last episode covered, at a high level, some of the Soviet attacks of early February, but after February 11th the overall speed and power of the Soviet attacks would increase. It would be on the 11th that the Finnish situation, which for several days had been critical, began to really fall apart as a decisive breakthrough of the primary Mannerheim defenses was achieved. The root cause would be a Soviet attack on the Lähde road to the northeast of Summa where the Second Battalion of the 9th Infantry Regiment had been trying to hold back the Soviet advance over the preceding days. The Second Battalion had started the war with around 1,000 men, and it had used those 1,000 men to defend over 2 kilometers of the front, but over the course of the preceding weeks that number had been slowly reduced and by the 11th it could muster only 400 men, but it was still defending that same 2 kilometers. While Finnish units like the 2nd Battalion were slowly wasting away, the Soviet manpower pool seemed inexhaustible and on the 11th 18 fresh Soviet divisions would be moved into the attacks. Some of those forces would finally be able to push the 2nd Battalion out of their defenses, causing the first major breach in the primary Mannerheim defenses. By the time that this was known back at Finnish headquarters the breach had already been solidified and reinforced by Red Army units, making it impossible to regain the lost territory, even if manpower to attempt a counter attack had been available. There was another line of fortifications, known as the support line, about a kilometer behind the primary line of defenses, but it was not even comparable to the primary defenses, and if the Red Army pushed through the support line the entire series of Isthmus defenses would collapse because they would gain easy access to roads that ran along the Isthmus which would allow them to cut off all Finnish positions. Even without pushing through the support line, the new breach of the main line of defense allowed for the breach to widened and expanded, threatening every single position on both sides. This included the two strongest bunkers on the entire Mannerheim line which defended the approaches to Summa. The first of these to fall was the Poppius bunker. The bunker, while a strong defensive position that protected its defenders from fire, had a major weakness, the largest guns that it had were machine guns, not anti tank guns. This made it impossible for the defenders to react to tank attacks without the support of infantry outside of the bunker. But over the previous days that infantry had been slowly ground down, and this allowed the Soviets to really focus on the bunker itself. The first change that was made was for a massive artillery barrage to isolate the bunker, focused on the bunker itself and the surrounding areas. Artillery guns would also be brought right up to the front to allow for point blank fire on the bunker itself. The concrete was strong, but it could not survive this kind of focused artillery fire, and large chunks of the bunker would begin to be torn away. Once this fire had taken its toll, destroyed some of the firing embrasures the tanks went forward, and due to the lack of anti tank guns they could just drive right up to the bunker itself and could just park in front of the firing embrasures to prevent them from firing on the Soviet infantry. Even with all of this effort the first attack would fail, but then hundreds of additional infantry were added to the second attack and the defenders. of the bunker, commanded by Lieutenant Malm would be overwhelmed, with the bunker being fully under Soviet control by 1:30PM on February 11th. While the Poppius bunker was under attack, a similar effort was being launched against the Million-Dollar bunker, the other major bunker that had guarded the approaches to Summa. A similar attack was launched but the defenders of the bunker, commanded by Lieutenant Ericsson would have more success in defending their position. There would be two opportunities for the Finns to surrender, but they rejected the Soviet advances. But it was only a matter of time, with 500 pounds of explosives being placed in a crack on top of the bunker and then being exploded at 5AM on the 12th. Every single one of the defenders was killed by the explosion. Once the bunker was destroyed many of the nearby Finnish positions also had to be abandoned and the defenders would retreat to the support line to the west. There would be a moment when a unit of tanks actually completely broke through the Finnish defenses, and probably could have just kept driving west against little opposition, but instead they stopped and waited for infantry to catch up, as there was no way for them to know that they had completely broken through. One of the reasons that this happened, and why the situation around the bunkers was so dangerous for the Finnish defense is that it was just one area that was under attack, there were Soviet attacks happening everywhere along the Isthmus. Also on the 12 there were 5 separated attacks against Summa, just to the south of the bunkers. These attacks were defeated, but only at the cost of 1,200 casualties. And ever single Finnish soldier who was killed or wounded during this time was a huge loss, because they were already so outnumbered.

A great example of what it was like for Finnish soldiers at this time can be found in the actions around Muolaa Church, roughly in the middle of the Isthmus. This position would be defended by only a few hundred Finnish soldiers, and they were without any anti-tank weapons as they had all been either disabled or sent to other areas of the front. But on February 11th they would come under attack from 28 Soviet tanks, which would advance to within 20 meters of the Finnish positions, although they were stopped due to the lack of infantry support due to Finnish fire. This was an important change from the earlier fighting on this area of the front from back in December 1939, when the Soviet tanks had recklessly pushed forward without infantry, making themselves vulnerable. Instead of committing that mistake the tanks would instead withdraw back towards their lines and prepare for another attack the next day. Over the next two days, the 12th and 13th the attacks continued, and everytime an attack was launched it was repulsed, but by a dwindling number of Finnish defenders in positions that were more and more destroyed by Soviet artillery. They had also received orders, the position was to be held at all costs, and there would be no reinforcements of any kind. The attacks continued on the 14th, this time with the addition of flame thrower tanks, to handle this new threat the Finns would cover their face and just run through the flames as quickly as possible, depending on their snowsuits to protect them. I think that says everything about how desperate the situation was. But they found if they could get through the flames they could still get close enough to the tanks so that their machine guns could not hit them, which allowed for the same primitive anti-tank tactics to be used from earlier attacks, namely doing anything possible to damage the treads. On the 15th no further attacks would be launched, as the Soviets had run out of artillery ammunition, but then on the 16th they began again. During this attack the Soviets would add some new heavy KV tanks, but fortunately for the Finns two of the large tanks hit some anti-tank mines, cause the others to reconsider their paths forward. The final attack on the 16th was barely stopped, with the Finnish defenders basically out of ammunition. It was only then that the order arrived that they would abandon their position and move to reserve positions behind the line. Out of the several hundred Finnish defenders, only a few dozen would still be alive to receive the order. These type of costly defensive actions would occur everywhere, and even in the areas where the defense was successful it was often costly, and the Finns were reaching the point where there were no more replacements and reinforcements to send forward. To try and find something to send to the front conscription in Finland had expanded down to 16 year old boys and old men in their 50s, and northern Finland was being stripped as quickly as possible of every extra man, but this yielded only hundreds when the situation called for thousands. Unfortunately any man that was found and which was sent forward would not find nice prepared positions like the Finnish troops had been occupying up to this point in the war, and often there were no positions at all. Serious discussions were happening at Finnish High Command about a general retreat from the remaining areas of the Mannerheim line. But there were political considerations to this move, because at the same time that these attacks were happening and the Finns were being pushed to the edge, there were active diplomatic conversations occurring. This pushed Mannerheim into a position where he insisted on every single meter of Finnish soil should be defended at all costs, because the more territory that was held during the negotiations the more territory the Finns would control after the war. That was also simply bad military strategy, the Finnish Army no longer had the resources to defend these areas, and there was a serious risk that large units would start getting cut off due to collapse of the defenses on their flanks. But even though he wanted to hold onto as much territory as possible, the overall situation would deteriorate to the point that on February 15th, late in the afternoon, a general retirement to the Intermediate defensive line was ordered. The one area where this retirement was not ordered was in the north around Taipale, which was still holding in their original Mannerheim line defenses, which was even more impressive when you consider this was the area that was first attacked way back in the first days of December.


While it was good that the Finnish soldiers had the Intermediate Line to retreat to, there was a reason it was the Intermediate line, as it was often much less impressive than the primary line of fortifications had been. In some cases there were essentially no fixed fortifications at all, and it was more just a line on a map where the troops stopped retreating. In those cases the Finnish soldiers often tried their best to throw something together but often all they had time to do was fill up some sandbags, maybe fell some trees, lay some mines, and then sight their machine guns and Bofors anti-tank guns. By the 18th, just a few days after the retreat was ordered the Soviet tanks were already pushing up against it. During these attacks the Soviet units often just went for it, recklessly pushing forward even without properly infantry support for the tanks, which would cost them several tanks. But there was a certain luxury that the Red Army had in these attacks, they could replace their losses, meanwhile the Finns could not replace there losses and there was nowhere to retreat to, this was the last defensive line. Even though the defenses around Taipale would last longer than in many other areas, the beginning of the end for the defenses on the northern end of the Isthmus would come on February 18th when the Soviets got serious about pushing the Finns back. An entire division, along with huge numbers of artillery guns and with strong support in the air pushed forward, overrunning several critical strong points, the forward defenses were lost. The reserve line held, but only barely. Overall the situation was grim, and to try and stabilize the line the only Finnish armored attack of the war would be launched on February 26th when several old Vickers tanks would move forward. They would shock the Soviets and have some initial success, but the old Vickers tanks only had a 37mm cannon and they soon ran into Soviet tanks that they could not destroy, the attack was over in a matter of hours. In the last days of February Timoshenko could smell blood, and he planned to launch another massive effort all along the line on February 28th. But Mannerheim pre-empted this attack and orders a withdrawal once again, to the Rear Line, which was even more just some lines on maps. This meant that the when the Soviet assault was launched on the 28th the artillery fell on empty trenches and the Soviet attacks found no one in the defenses.

While the fighting on the Isthmus was continuing, negotiations between Finland and the Soviet Union had already started. In the middle of February there had already been conversations in Sweden between the two parties, with the Finnish Foreign Minister Väinö Tanner presenting an offer for some of the desired territory that the Soviets had wanted back before the war started. However, every single day that the fighting on the Isthmus continued, and continued to go poorly for the Finns meant tat the Soviet negotiating position was stronger. Their starting point was some of the islands they wanted, and the entire Karelian Isthmus. All of these conversations were happening in Sweden, but the Swedish government was not a wholly uninterested party. Instead they wanted to find a path to peace that resulted in Finland retaining its independence, even with reduced territory, so that it could continue to exist as a buffer state between Sweden and the Soviet Union. Many of the Swedes both inside and outside the government were not a big fan of this, but it would be the path pursued by the Swedish government, with the King of Sweden making a rare public statement on this specific topic to make it clear that the Swedish goal was to find a path to peace, even if large areas of Finland were lost. In the last days of February things would start to happen very quickly for the negotiations. On February 25th the Soviet demands were made clear, the Isthmus, a base at Hanko island, and the signing of the mutual assistance pact that the Soviets had proposed before the war. They demanded that an answer be given by March 1st. At this same time the Finnish leaders would come to understand the scope of the possible military assistance from Britain and France which…was….disappointing to put it mildly. The lack of possible foreign intervention and the very firm communications from Mannerheim that the military was at the point of complete deterioration, would force the Finnish government into agreeing to the Soviet terms of February 29th. It would take time for the message to arrive, and for a negotiating team to be sent to Moscow, and during that time the Red Army attacks would continue, and it was clear they would continue until the final agreement was signed. The Finnish negotiating team would not arrive in Moscow until March 8th, and it was not really a negotiating team, as there would be no real negotiations. It was only at that point that they would find out that they would be forced to give up additional territory in northern Finland, and they would be forced to built a railway between Tornio on the Swedish border and then link it up with the Murmansk railroad for use by the Soviet Union. These new demands caused a lot of discussion in Helsinki as the government decided what to do. There were some discussions of just continuing to fight on, but a report would arrive from General Heinrichs on the Isthmus, with the full support of Mannerheim, which would read: “As Commander of the Isthmus Army I consider it my duty to report that the present stale of the Army is such that continued military operations can lead to nothing but further debilitation and fresh losses of territory. In support of my view I set forth the loss of personnel which has occurred and which is still going on. The battle strength of battalions is reported now generally to be below 250 men 53 with the aggregate daily casualties rising into the thousands. As a consequence of physical and spiritual exhaustion, the battle fitness of those who remain is not what it was when the war started. Considerable losses of officers further reduce the utility of these diminished units.” This prompted a somewhat simple message to Finnish representatives in Moscow: “Headquarters has furnished situation report; not sanguine about chances of carrying on.… As continuation of war on the basis of aid promised is difficult, and as contact with you is slow, we authorize you to decide the matter in all respects, provided you are unanimous.” There would be further attempts to get the Soviets to negotiate on anything, but Molotov simply said that they could either sign it immediately, or they could negotiate again after the Red Army had captured some more territory. On March 11th the decision was made to sign, with the signature occurring on March 13th. A ceasefire would take effect on March 13 at 11AM, just to throw in some additional suffering, the Soviets would launch a massive artillery barrage just 15 minutes before the ceasefire came into effect. Mannerheim would give his farewell order stating, among other things: “Soldiers! I have fought on many battlefields, but never have I seen your like as warriors! … After sixteen weeks of bloody combat, with no rest by day or night, our army stands unconquered before an enemy whose strength has grown in spite of terrible losses. … Our fate is hard, now that we are compelled to surrender to an alien race land which for centuries we have cultivated with our labor and sweat.… Yet we must put our shoulders to the wheel, in order that we may prepare, on the soil left to us, a home for those rendered homeless, and a better life for all; and, as before, we must be ready to defend our diminished homeland with the same resolution and with the same fire with which we defended our undivided homeland. We are proudly conscious of our historic duty, which we shall continue to fulfill: the defense of western civilization which has been our heritage for centuries. But we also know that we have paid, to the last penny, any debt we may have owed the West.”

The Winter War had lasted about 3 and a half months, and during that time and on both sides of the conflict the war had been costly. On the Finnish side, there were around 25,000 killed and 44,000 wounded. These numbers need to be put in perspective though, because it represented around 1.75% of the total population of Finland in 1939 which means, as a percentage of the population puts it around the same as the United Kingdom would suffer in the entirety of the Second World War, and Finnish casualties were compressed into just a few months. On the Soviet side, the numbers are a bit harder to determine, the challenge being that at the time you have Soviet sources that are probably downplaying the numbers to make the cost of the war seem less than it was. But then later, after the de-Stalinization campaigns the numbers were probably overstating the numbers. This results in some pretty wide ranges, but just to give kind of the middle of the road estimate it is probably something around 150,000 killed and 200,000 wounded. No matter what the exact number was for the Soviets, it was certainly far more than they expected, because when they had planned the war and when the war had started they expected it to be an easy war, they would march into Finland, capture a bunch of territory, take over Helsinki and install a Communist puppet government. Obviously, it was a bit more difficult than that. The challenges that were faced put into stark relief some of the failures in basic preparations that had taken place in the Red Army leading up to the conflict. There were not enough warm clothes, resulting in over 100,000 frostbite casualties, the men and officers were not prepared and trained for the fighting in the north of Finland which contributed directly to the disaster at Suomassalmi. There were also mistakes that we have not really even discussed, like the almost complete breakdown in the training of replacement soldiers due to the much higher than expected casualty figures. This resulted in replacements being sent to units with almost no training, making them more of a burden than a benefit. Around Europe there would be many nations looking at the Winter War, trying to determine as best as they could what had happened and why, and also to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the Red Army. The evaluations in Germany would obviously be very important to future events, and so I will just quote a bit from a report written up by the German general staff right at the end of 1939, so that would have been after the failures of the opening Soviet offensives, but before their more successful attacks in February and March. “In quantity a gigantic military instrument.—Organization, equipment and means of leadership unsatisfactory—principles of leadership good; leadership itself, however, too young and inexperienced.—Communication system bad, transportation bad:-troops not very uniform; no personalities—simple soldier good natured, quite satisfied with very little. Fighting qualities of the troops in a heavy fight, dubious. The Russian “mass” is no match for an army, with modern equipment and superior leadership.” The Red Army would also begin their own evaluation of what had happened in Finland, to try and learn lessons and help them in future conflicts. To this end, 46 officers and selected regimental commanders who had fought in the war were brought to Moscow in April 1940. The discussions were chaired by Kliment Efremovich Voroshilov. There were some mistakes made in their analysis which was compiled over the following days, maybe the most important was due to the actions of the 168th Division north of Lake Ladoga. To remind you, this had been the division that had been cut off and surrounded by Finnish forces, but had been able to hold out until they were relieved after several days. The assembled officers rated the Soviet defense of these pockets quite highly, not taking into account that the Finns mostly could not do anything due to simple lack of numbers of firepower, not because the surrounded Soviet troops had unlocked some amazing method of defense. The fighting in Finland also prompted some additional focus in the Red Army on fixed defenses and assaulting fixed defenses, which had been so critical to the fighting on the Isthmus, although it would not be a particularly useful skill in 1941. Looking back from the modern day, we can give our own analysis here, and while it is clear that the Soviets had some major challenges in Finland you can already see some of the features of the Soviet soldier that would serve the Red Army so well in the trying years ahead. At an individual level the Soviet soldiers fought hard, and continued fighting hard in some truly abysmal situations. Even with all of the challenges being faced morale never was truly broken. The Red Army also proved that it could overcome some real adversity, and adapt quickly to the circumstances that it faced, which is one of the major reasons it would be able to launch its crushing offensives after Timoshenko took over command.

For the Finnish military there were also many positive aspects of the fighting, even if the end was defeat. It was not due to a lack of fighting spirit or ability that the Finnish Army had been defeated, but simply a lack of material and manpower. What had been shown on the battlefields all over Finland was that the Finnish soldiers and their officers were very flexible and skilled at using their strengths in the realms of small unit tactics and the use of the Finnish countryside. At a higher level the Finnish Army knew what it needed to do to fight in the conditions found throughout Finland, taking care to ensure that the soldiers at the front had the training, experience, and supplies they needed to survive in some harsh environments. But none of these positives could outweigh the technological and industrial imbalances, even though there was no shortage of effort both from the soldiers and on the home front. These experiences would serve them well in the years that followed, because the fighting between Finland and the Soviet Union was far from over. What would come next would be called the Continuation War, which would begin alongside the German invasions in the summer of 1941 and continue until September 1944, but that is a story for another day.