How Did Finland Survive the Winter War of 1939-1940

The Mannerheim Line across the Karelian Isthmus

Among the many battles and events that took place during World War II, one of the least understood is the so-called Winter War, which took place between Finland and the Soviet Union from November 30, 1939, until March 13, 1940. The Winter War happened during the early stages of World War II and illustrated to many in the West the danger of the looming specter of totalitarianism that threatened Europe. In September of 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union, although seemingly at opposite ends of the political spectrum, had worked in concert to invade and occupy Poland.

In the months that followed, often termed by scholars as the “phony war,” Germany prepared for its eventual invasion of the Low Countries, Norway, and France, while the Soviet Union flexed its own imperial muscle by attempting to retake its former colony of Finland by force. In the war that followed the Soviet invasion of Finland, the world was awed by the tenacious fighting abilities of the Finns and the acumen of the Finnish high command. Despite being outnumbered three to one in infantry forces and many times more in terms of tanks and planes, the Finns avoided being overrun by the Soviet forces. Although not technically a victory, the Finnish resistance to the Soviet army during the Winter War allowed Finland to remain independent and to even attack the Soviet Union a year later in the “Continuation War.”

Although the Winter War has largely been avoided in more popular histories of the period, historians have given it a considerable amount of attention, particular concerning the tactics the Finns employed in order to slow the Red Army juggernaut. An examination reveals that the Finns employed many tactics that allowed their severely outnumbered army to thrive in the face of such incredible odds. Finnish success began at the top, where the government allowed their Field Marshal, Carl Gustav Mannerheim, the freedom he needed to be successful. On the front lines, the Finns were able to use the environment, and their knowledge of it, to their advantage. On the other side, the Soviets suffered from extreme micromanagement and a lack of quality officers due to purges carried out by dictator Josef Stalin.

A Brief Background of the Conflict

Carl Gustav Emile Mannerheim (1867-1951)

Finland and Russia have shared a border for hundreds of years and for most of that time the interaction between Finns and Russians has been relatively peaceful. For most of early modern history, Finland was a colony of Imperial Tsarist Russia. Finns were allowed to serve in the Russia military and were given full rights as Russian subjects, but the situation changed when the Russian royal family was overthrown by the Bolshevik communists in 1917. The Bolshevik hold on Russia was tenuous at best as it fought other political factions within the country as well as foreign powers during the Russian Civil War.

The Finns took advantage of the situation and declared Finland independent in 1918. Communist Russia for their part was uninterested in Finland until Josef Stalin replaced Vladimir Lenin as the supreme dictator of Russia in 1922. Stalin immediately embarked on a geo-political program that incorporated elements of imperialism into the young communist state. Russia became the core state in the newly founded Soviet Union, which turned its eyes toward what many believed was the renegade state of Finland. [1]

Besides the Soviet desire to spread communism by force, attitudes in Finland also contributed to deteriorating relations between the two countries in the late 1930s. For decades, Finnish nationalists and revanchists advocated for the incorporation of all of Karelia, most of which was part of the Soviet Union, with Finland. Although most Finns did not view Karelia so strongly, some groups, such as the Lapuauns, were particularly vocal about uniting what they believed was the Finnish ancestral homeland with the modern nation-state of Finland. [2] The activities of the Finnish nationalists surely rankled Stalin and the Soviet government, but even many of the more mainstream Finnish leaders made the tense situation even worse.

No doubt influenced by the vociferous calls Finland’s nationalists, Finnish Prime Minster Aimo Cajander proved to be extremely obstinate in his negotiations with Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov and was even unwilling to concede to the most modest of Soviet demands. [3] Cajander’s inability to reasonably negotiate with the Soviets was quickly viewed as a liability by many in the Finnish government, who were willing to grant Stalin minor concessions in order to avoid a war. For instance, Mannerheim urged Cajander to cede the Aaland Archipelago to the Soviets, which were of little military or economic consequence to the Finns. [4] Unable to find a diplomatic solution for what they believed were many legitimate issues, the Soviet Union decided to attack Finland at the onset of winter in 1939.

Factors in the Finns’ Favor

Finnish Ski Troops Fighting on the Mannerheim Line

When the massive Red Army moved across the Finnish-Soviet international border on November 30, 1939, the Finns were waiting with a well-crafted plan for survival. At the heart of Finland’s wartime strategy was their esteemed field commander, and many would say a military genius, Carl Mannerheim. By the time the Winter War broke out, Mannerheim was already a well-seasoned military veteran who in the early part of his career served in the Imperial Russian army, so he was somewhat familiar with Russian military tactics and philosophy. But even more important than knowing his enemy, Mannerheim was a typical Nordic pragmatist who was well-suited for a campaign such as the Winter War. In the months leading up to the Winter War, Mannerheim crafted a well-thought out military strategy that combined geo-politics with practical battlefield operations.

Essentially, Mannerheim knew that tiny Finland could not defeat the Red Army outright, so he developed a strategy that was intended to inflict as many casualties on the Soviets quickly in order to either get them to the negotiating table or to entice a foreign power to join the Finns. [5] One of the most daring applications of this strategy was a December 23 counter-offensive by the Finns that temporarily pushed back the Soviet lines. Although the counter-offensive was ultimately unsuccessful, it kept the Soviet commanders off guard and wondering when and where the next Finnish counter-attack would take place.

Besides Mannerheim’s superb approach to the war, the Finns were blessed with a government that did not micromanage the field marshal or his other commanders. The government let the commanders decide the course of the battle, which translated into battlefield daring and creativity. Along with a sympathetic government, the Finnish population overwhelming supported the war effort – even leftists who may have normally supported the Soviet Union fought alongside far-right nationalists on the Mannerheim Line in order to stem the Soviet tide.

The Finns hoped that ultimately their efforts to slow down the Red Army would send a signal to the world that some countries, even some of the smallest, would take a stand against totalitarianism. Much of the Western press was sympathetic to the Finnish cause and when it seemed as though hostilities would break out, thousands of volunteers streamed into the Nordic nation to fight alongside the Finns on the Mannerheim Line. The major Western powers, though, remained reticent. The United Kingdom and France never declared war on the Soviet Union, even after the invasion of Poland, but a plan was developed to militarily aid the Finns in what became codenamed “Avonmouth.”

The French in particular embraced the plan enthusiastically, which was more about depriving Germany of iron-ore resources in neutral Sweden than it was about saving democratic Finland from the communist Soviet Union. Despite many in the French military openly advocating for Avonmouth, such as general Audet, the British never came on board and so the threat of foreign intervention on Finland’s behalf remained a threat, although a credible one that may have caused the Soviet high-command to make more measured moves. [6]

In terms of battlefield tactics, Mannerheim and his commanders knew that they were at a supreme disadvantage in terms of numbers and equipment so they were forced to be creative and work with what they had. The topography of Finland is perfect for a defensive war and the exceptionally hearty and outdoor-centric Finns used that to their advantage. Finland is full of forests and doted throughout with lakes of various sizes. The heavy forest areas, especially north of Lake Ladoga, proved to be nearly impossible for Soviet tanks and mechanized vehicles to traverse when the Finns sabotaged the roads and the frozen lakes, which the Soviets thought were viable alternatives to the roads in the early stages of the war, proved to be death traps for Red Army columns when the Finns dynamited them sending many Soviet soldiers to frozen, watery graves. Although several battles took place throughout the northern Finnish-Soviet border, most of the action happened on the narrow land mass known as the Karelian Isthmus.

When planning for a potential Soviet invasion months before the Winter War, Mannerheim correctly deduced that the main thrust of the Soviet attack would come north from Leningrad (St. Petersburg) into the Karelian Isthmus towards the Finnish city of Viipuri/Viborg. The Karelian Isthmus is a narrow strip of land, only about 100 miles at its widest point, between Lake Ladoga in the north and the Gulf of Finland to the south. Hundreds of lakes dot the landscape, which Mannerheim knew would prove the perfect spot for a bottleneck. Between the lakes of the Karelian Isthmus, a series of bunkers, pillboxes, trenches, and stretches of barbed wire were erected in order to slow down the Red Army. The fortifications became known collectively as the Mannerheim Line for the commander who envisioned it.

As the Finnish politicians gave their commanders plenty of freedom throughout the course of the war, the Finnish commanders did the same. Mannerheim and the Finnish high command encouraged asymmetrical warfare, which resulted in the effective use of ambushes, snipers, small patrols of “tank hunters,” and ruses such as booby traps. Perhaps the most famous guerilla method the Finnish soldiers used was throwing Molotov cocktails, named for the Soviet foreign minister at the time, to destroy Soviet tanks. [7] The nature of Finland’s rough terrain, along with a well thought out strategy and effective commanders were no doubt the primary reasons Finland survived the Winter War, but the Soviets sabotaged their own efforts in many ways.

Problems in the Red Army

When the Winter War began in 1939, the Soviet Union was at the height of the Stalin era, which is known today for its repression. Among the many groups of people within the Soviet Union who Stalin had liquidated during his infamous purges of the 1930s was the Red Army’s high command. [8] With most of its best commanders either dead or wasting away in Siberian gulags, the Red Army was ill-prepared to pursue a major campaign against most foes, especially one as determined and capable as Finland. Once the Red Army began its invasion of Finland, its high-command looked less like a professional military organization and more like a wing of the Communist Party.

Where the Finnish government allowed Mannerheim and his commanders a great amount of freedom to pursue the war, the Red Army was plagued with micromanagement by political commissars who had no warfare experience and who had little knowledge or understanding of battlefield tactics. In the early stages of the war, commanders who failed to reach strategic objectives, such as Vingradov and Gusev, were stripped of their commands, imprisoned, and sometimes even executed by Stalin who took their failures personally. The commanders who lived through the first weeks of the war, such as Timeshenko, then took conservative approaches that lacked imagination, but allowed them to live to the war’s conclusion. [9]

Finally, the micromanagement by the Communist Party and Stalin’s repressive tactics on the high-command trickled down and began to take its toll on the rank and file of the Red Army. By late December, the Finnish high-command learned from Soviet POW’s and deserters that the morale of the entire army was particularly low: deserters were routinely shot, units were inadequately supplied with the most basic of necessities, and the high-command was constantly plagued by conflicts with the commissars.

Results of the Winter War

The final result of the Winter War was a strategic loss for Finland. The Finns were forced to sign the Moscow Peace Treaty on March 13, 1940, giving the Soviet Union the Karelian Isthmus and along with it Viipuri/Viborg and the Aaland Archipelago. Over 30,000 Finns were dead along with more than 130,000 Soviets – the war was a truly devastating a sign of things to come during World War II. [10]

Despite technically losing the Winter War, Finland survived and was able to fight on a year later against the Soviet Union in what became known as the Continuation War. Finland was able to survive the power of the Red Army due to a combination of factors. The Finns were blessed with an especially capable high-command that was given free reign by their government to carry out a strategy that utilized their country’s topography and allowed their soldiers to employ guerrilla tactics. On the other side, the Red Army was plagued by politics and purges, which resulted in a lack of morale among their rank and file. Today, military historians often point to the Winter War as a case study of what a modern day David can do against a Goliath.


  1. Channon, John. The Penguin Historical Atlas of Russia. (London: Penguin, 1996), p. 110-11
  2. Trotter, William R. A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-40. (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books, 2000), p. 9
  3. Edwards, Robert. The Winter War: Russia’s Invasion of Finland, 1939-40. (New York: Pegasus Books, 2008), p. 59
  4. Edwards, p. 29
  5. Trotter, p. 51
  6. Cairns, John C. “Reflections on France, Britain and the Winter War Prodrome, 1939-40.” Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques 22 (1996) p. 212
  7. Trotter, p. 42
  8. Channon, p. 111
  9. Edwards, p.240
  10. Edwards, p. 258

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