Guide: H6 WWII (1/2)

or the First Half of Chapter VIII of A Guide to Finland, titled “Finland in the Second World War”

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Between 1939 and 1945 the Second World War was fought all over the world. So in Finland also, but that term isn’t usually used — mostly because those parts of that terrible conflict that touched Finland can be broken into smaller, individually named parts.

The very short history of Finland for that period is this: 1) First a war against the Soviet Union, all alone; ended in a truce with Stalin nursing a bloody nose and Maid Finland breathing heavily, panickedly. 2) Then an “Interim Peace”; curiously enough that was the contemporary name for it. 3) Then, once the Nazis attacked eastwards, a new war against the Soviets, now with the Finns attacking, and now with German help. Eventually, after Stalingrad and the ensuing rout, that ended in a settlement, too: Finland lost, but wasn’t overrun. 4) Finally, there was the job of marching the Germans out of northern Finland, where they had waged their private unsuccessful war against Murmansk. The wars ended with Finland left independent, but very conscious of the Soviet bear at its eastern border.

Since that description would make this chapter disproportionately short compared to the others, the four periods of the Finnish theatre of the Second World War are described in more detail below.

Oh, you should know this period of history is the one most Finns are most familiar with. Many couldn’t name the president ten years ago (or, indeed, the prime minister today), but all know, and most are intensely proud of, the events below. An American should think what follows is for Finland the Revolutionary War and the American parts of WWII rolled together and marinaded in loss, blood and the bittersweet sugar of battered survival.

Winter War (1939-1940)

On the first of September 1939, Germany attacked Poland, and the Second World War began. Finland declared itself a neutral in all this. Then the Soviet Union attacked Poland, too, and suddenly all of Finland was sitting straight up, terrified beyond all words.

Soon Poland was gone, and on September 28th the two invaders signed a paper called a German-Soviet Boundary and Friendship Treaty. A secret article specified the spheres of influence between the two signatories — Finland and the three Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) fell to the Soviet side. If this had been known in Finland, there would have been paroxysms of terror.

If you want to comtemplate terror, you could do a lot worse than imagine yourself a Finnish diplomat called to visit Stalin while the Soviets are rolling tens of thousands of soldiers into what used to be a neighboring country of yours. (“Well, giving them a few bases is better than this threatened invasion.”) And then, of course, a speedy referendum shows that an impressive majority of the said neighbor’s people seem to want — nay, plead for! — a place in the swell and swelling Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. And then Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania cease to exist.

On the twelfth of October the Finnish delegates met Stalin and Molotov in Moscow. The demands were the same: military bases, maybe a bit of border adjustment. Just trifling things, really.

A few days later, Stalin dropped a hint that if the negotiations wouldn’t succeed, there might be “an accident”.

Meanwhile, the Second World War seemed to be winding down — there was a little bit of fighting in the borderlands of France and Germany, Poland was burning quietly, and the war was, quite accurately, called a Phoney War.

Since Finns aren’t total saps, they’d been fortifying the Soviet border the best they could, but as one can see with a glance at any map, that border is long, over one thousand kilometers. A population of three and a half million — roughly that of a large city in more populous places — had some serious work in fortifying that. Luckily, the most attractive avenue for the enemy’s advance was the Finn-held Karelian Isthmus, around one hundred kilometers wide, between the Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga, with Leningrad sitting on the eastern, Soviet, end of it, very close to the Finnish border, and Viipuri (Vyborg in Swedish), Finland’s second-largest city, sitting on the western end. North of the Isthmus, roads soon became scarce, separated by wide wilds impossible for cars or tanks to come through.

Well, Finns had their fortifications, and a national spirit solidified by their distrust of the grasping giant neighbor — but precisely because of these fortifications, close to the border, border adjustments were impossible to accept. You don’t give the only line of defense you have ready to a neighbor known to be a greedy border-adjuster, no matter how concerned he is about the defence of Leningrad. (Not that Stalin feared a Finnish invasion — ah, even Finnish pride doesn’t stretch enough to assume that — but one the Finns would allow through their territory.)

After a month of increasingly difficult talks, the Finnish negotiators left Moscow in the middle of November. Soon after, the Soviets informed the Finnish government that someone had shot across the border — and according to the Soviets, not in the anticipated direction. No, the evil Finns had used a cannon that must have been stolen from the Soviets, since there was no record of it existing in Finnish hands; and the shot had killed a few Soviet servicemen that had been entirely innocently loitering somewhere near the border along with a few divisions of armored infantry. As a result, the horrendously offended Soviet Union had no choice but to act in pure self-defence.

A few frantic days later, there were Soviet bombers in the skies of Helsinki, raining an unexpectedly heavy autumn storm down on Finland’s capital. The war began on the 30th of November, on December’s eve, and was soon and afterwards known as the Winter War. If you come to Finland, you should know something about it, since there’s no other event in Finnish history as celebrated and well-known as these few months of desperate glory.

The invading Soviets had a million men, over six thousand tanks, enough planes to fill the skies, and seemingly endless supplies and reinforcements. Finns had a quarter-million badly equipped men (some were issued only a cockade, a belt and a rifle; but you can’t see civilian clothing under the snow white camouflages anyway), thirty tanks, and 130 planes. That’s four Soviets for every Finn. (Then again, a wartime saying commented that “every Finn is worth ten Russkies.” The exchange rate of, say, Finns and Californians is unknown.)

Then again, Finland had two great allies.

No, not France or Great Britain or America or Germany. No help from any of them. The first two planned an expedition of sorts, mainly to get an excuse to drop the most of them into northern Sweden, where some mines seemed to be too alluring to the Germans, but even these plans never got off the ground. America was too far away; Germany still intent on honoring the hidden agreement with the Soviets.

Finland’s first ally, though he never intended to be such, was Stalin himself. It’s certainly nice when your opponent is a paranoiac that executes half of his army’s officers fearing disloyalty and political incorrectness.  That does funny things to your enemy’s leadership qualities and their general tendency to go for independent thought and initiative.

Stalin gave Finland yet another blessing in heavy disguise, too: he was not willing to negotiate since, by another freak accident, he just happened to find a clutch of very dedicated Finnish communists (those that had fled to the Soviet Union after the civil war in 1918) in Terijoki, the very first Finnish village the Soviets took — and naturally Stalin felt those nicely malleable Finns and not the recalcitrant chaps in Helsinki were the sole legitimate Finnish government, and the only one he could negotiate with.

Also, those in Terijoki were much more willing to cede land and all kinds of other piddling sovereignty things — partly a question of shared ideologies, and partly one of this government having a lot of free time since it didn’t actually, erm, have anything to govern.

Finns were not exactly amused by this, and tricks like this made sure even the left-leaning Finns took up arms and shot at anything red that moved westwards; as a propaganda exercise the Finnish Democratic Republic was both a foot in mouth and a shot in the said foot.

The second great helper was Nature itself — herself, if you so will. The war began on the eve of December, and the winter of 1939–40 happened to be cold. Beyond cold. Colder than death. So cold that it approached the anecdote where spit tinkles on hitting the ground. Temperatures of minus forty degrees weren’t uncommon that winter — curiously, minus forty is the same in both Celsius and Fahrenheit. And too many of the Russians sent to invade Finland were farm boys from sunny Ukraine, shivering in their dark summer uniforms, clustering miserably around cannons and field kitchens broken by the cold and trucks and tanks halted by snowed-in roads.

And the opposing side — well, white-clad Finns that skied out of the seemingly endless, trackless woods, took a few potshots at the captains and the field kitchens of a Soviet convoy slowly crawling along a snow-choked road, and then vanished. And a few hours later the same would happen again, until the whole column froze in place — you can’t chase an enemy into the forests if you don’t have skis, and even having them isn’t going to help you if you haven’t skied all your life. The Soviets sent to invade the north of Finland didn’t fare well; there weren’t many towns to occupy, just roads through a hostile, cold wooded wilderness, where the enemy seemed to be everywhere. Entire divisions went in and didn’t come back: once stretched long along a wilderness road they were cut to pieces (the so-called “motti” tactics), and the pieces then destroyed by fire, cold and surrender.

And, of course, once a whole division surrenders to you, you suddenly have ammo again!

The winter helped some, though less, in the southern parts, in the Karelian Isthmus. The war there was terrible, an endless roar of Soviet guns and cannons. The Soviet tactics were straight from the previous war and left a lot to be desired — mass charges across a flat expanse against fortified positions do eventually work, but the focal word here is eventually — but four or more against one (with only the four being replenished as they fell) and immensely worse odds in guns and ammo eventually had an effect, and Finns slowly retreated, as fighting becomes difficult when you start to run out of bullets before the enemy runs out of men.

Imagine that: You have no allies, or, even worse, you have just spectators: people that sympathize but offer no help, no guns, no soldiers, no ammo; and all the while this juggernaut batters you, and though it suffers terrible losses, it seems to have a bottomless larder full of soldiers and guns. You’re drowning in the enemy, and though its advance is slow, it doesn’t stop. And, worst of all, it is led by Josef Stalin.

Since both fear and realistic appraisal of geopolitical realities are alien to the Finnish mind, Finns fought. Five Soviets fell for each Finn, broken tanks and burned trucks littered the sides of every road to Finland’s insides, and the Isthmus began to resemble the surface of the Moon, but the enemy just kept coming. Since the great and terrible Stalin could not be wrong, unfortunate things kept happening to the Soviet commanders that couldn’t execute what had seemed to all a simple pushover. (Apparently some Russian units had been specifically ordered to be careful to not cross over to Sweden; well, no such trouble.)

There was plenty of goodwill towards Finland, and a few brave unofficial volunteers from Sweden and from more distant places, but bravery can only take one so far, and every winter must eventually end. The Winter War began on the last day of November, 1939, and on the 13th of March, 1940, with encouragement from Sweden and Germany who, for reasons of their own, wanted the war over with, an armistice was signed. (Meanwhile, the Terijoki government vanished in a puff of political hot air.) The Soviets fired a few final volleys and then the fighting ceased. Finland was exhausted, out of ammo and intact foxholes. The Soviet Union was embarrassed by its failure and the abysmal performance of its army — a little time later a certain dictator would decide that invading Russia wasn’t as risky as it had seemed.

Estimates of the losses vary — 66 000 dead and wounded, a third of them in the first category, seems an an accurate estimate of the Finnish losses, while the Soviet losses were in the 300 000 — 400 000 range, with a similar division. For the Soviets, that was an alarming sting; for Finland, it was two percent of its population.

Finland ceded a large part of Karelia — one-tenth of its territory — to the Soviets, giving Leningrad an ample buffer zone. Some 400 000 Karelians — over one-tenth of Finland’s population — were evacuated, in many cases by troops marching past, coming from battlegrounds that were to remain deep in the ceded territories.

Interim Peace (1940-1941)

The following period was, even while it lasted, called “Välirauha”. That translates as the Interim Peace, and gives you either a good picture of the Finnish grasp for geopolitical realities, or then of the Finnish gift for sullen grudges.

Finland came out of the Winter War with considerable international goodwill (“Oh! Poor brave little nation!”), so what was the logical next step? Naturally an alliance with Nazi Germany! And here we hit dangerous waters. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Finns took up arms in their part of the world as well, but they weren’t exactly allies. The term Finns liked to use (and still like to use) was “co-belligerents” — two realms that just happened to share an enemy. (Not that that prevented the various Allies from declaring war on Finland; and historiography seems to be revealing the difference was almost entirely semantic.) The stupid and monstrous Nazi cruelties did not spread to Finland — actually, a few Finnish Jews serving in the “co-belligerent” Finnish army were offered an Iron Cross by the impressed, grateful German “allies” warring nearby. They declined to accept the decoration.

(Well, to be exact, Finland did extradite eight Jews to Germany, with predictable results. There has been some self-flogging in Finland over this; but still, the writer finds it comforting in a grisly way that eight human lives lost are enough to make an entire nation so deeply uncomfortable and miserable. It is good and proper to face the uncomfortable details of one’s history; but at the same time there is some little balm (though of course no excuse) in the fact the uncomfortable parts are not so overwhelming as those of others.)

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Prev: Between warsContents — Next: WWII (2/2)

One Response to “Guide: H6 WWII (1/2)”

  1. lonepanther Says:

    excellent and factual and humorful summary!

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