The Winter War broke out when the Soviet Union attacked Finland on November 30, 1939, only three months after the start of World War II. Stalin expected to conquer the whole country by the end of 1939, but Finnish resistance frustrated the Soviet forces, which outnumbered them three to one. Finland held out until March 1940, when a peace treaty was signed ceding about 10% of Finnish territory to the Soviets. It has been persuasively argued that the poor showing of the Soviet forces had a significant effect on Adolf Hitler's decision to attack the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa).

Table of contents
1 Background
2 The War
3 Armistice
4 Peace of Moscow
5 Major battles
6 See also


Finland had a long history of being a part of the Swedish kingdom when it was conquered by Russia in 1808. Following the end of World War I, and the revolution that brought Soviet power to government in Russia, Finland had declared itself independent on December 6, 1917. The German-Finnish ties¹ remained close, although Finnish sympathy for the Nazis was very sparse. The relation between the Soviet Union and Finland was tense and frosty. Josef Stalin feared that Germany would attack sooner or later, and was keen to avoid a German attack on Leningrad (Saint Petersburg) via Finnish territory.

Germany and the Soviet Union had signed a mutual nonaggression agreement, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, on August 23, 1939. The Pact also included a secret clause allocating the countries of Eastern Europe between the two signatories. Finland was agreed to be in the Soviet "sphere of interest". Germany's attack on Poland, September 1st, was followed by a Soviet invasion from the east. In a few weeks they had divided the country between them. The countries in the neighbourhood realized their fate could be the same. During the fall of 1939 Stalin demanded that Finland and the Baltic countries allow the Soviet Union to set up military bases on their soil - supposedly for defensive purposes. The Finnish government felt it had little alternative but to refuse Stalin's demands; on November 30 the Soviets attacked with 23 divisions of 450,000 men who quickly reached the Mannerheim Line. Formerly classified Soviet archives have revealed documents proving that the war was based on a bogus border incident in which the Soviets fired on and killed their own soldiers, blaming it on the Finns and replying in kind.

Stalin expected to conquer the whole country by the end of the year, installing a puppet regime, created in Terijoki on December 1 under the auspices of the Finno-Karelian Soviet Socialist Republic.

The War

Initially Finland had a mobilized army of only 160,000 men, but the Finnish troops turned out to be a fierce adversary employing guerilla tactics, fast moving ski troops, and capitalizing on their local knowledge. A certain improvised petrol bomb adapted from the Spanish Civil War was used with great success, and gained fame as the Molotov cocktail. The conditions of the winter 1939/40 were harsh; temperatures of -40°C were not unusual, and the Finns were able to use this to their advantage.

In addition, to the surprise of both the Soviet leadership and the Finns, it turned out that the majority of the Finnish Socialists did not support the Soviet invasion but fought alongside their compatriots against the common enemy. Many Finnish Communists had moved to the Soviet Union in the 1930s to "build Socialism", only to end up as victims of Stalin's Great Purges, which led to widespread disillusion among Socialists in Finland. This partial healing of the wounds and rifts after the Civil War in Finland (1918), and Finland's language strife, is still referred to as "the Spirit of the Winter War". Although it should also be noted that many communists were not accepted to fight because of their political background.

Soviet arrogance was also a factor. One famous case was the so-called "Raatteentie Incident", where a Russian unit was wiped out after marching in the middle of a forest road straight into an ambush, with Finnish soldiers on all sides. Equipment shortage was another factor for the Finnish side. At the beginning of the war, only those soldiers who had been receiving basic training had uniforms and weapons. The rest had to make do with their own clothing with a semblance of insignia added and, in some cases, with their own guns. These mismatched "uniforms" were nicknamed "Model Kajander" after the Prime Minister Aimo Cajander. The Finnish tried to alleviate the shortages by making extensive use of the equipment, weapons and ammunition captured from the enemy.

World opinion at large supported the Finnish cause. The World War hadn't really begun yet, for the time being the Winter War was the only real fight going on, on which the world's interest was focused. The Soviet aggression was generally deemed totally unjustified. Various foreign organizations sent material aid, such as medical supplies. Finnish immigrants in the US and Canada returned home, and many volunteers traveled to Finland (one of them actor-to-be Christopher Lee) to join Finland's forces. Sweden, for once not neutral, contributed with military supplies, cash, credits, humanitarian aid and some 8,700 Swedish volunteers prepared to die for Finland. Foreign correspondents in Helsinki wrote, and even greatly exaggerated, reports of supposed Finnish ingenuity and successes in combat.

In February 1940 the Allies offered to help. 100,000 troops were to disembark at the Norwegian port of Narvik and allegedly support Finland via Sweden. However, only a small fraction was intended for Finland. Suspicions that the objective of the operation was to capture and occupy the Norwegian shipping harbour of Narvik and the North-Swedish iron ore fields, in order to halt export to Germany, and fear of thereby becoming the battle ground of Allied and German armies, caused Norway and Sweden to deny transit. After the war it became known that the commander of the Allied expedition force actually was instructed to avoid combat contact with the Soviet troops.


By the end of the winter it became clear that the Russians had had enough, and Germany suggested that Finland should negotiate with the Soviet Union. Russian casualties had been high and the situation was a source of political embarrassment for the Soviet regime. With the spring thaw approaching, the Russian forces risked becoming bogged down in the forests, and a draft of peace terms were presented to Finland on February 12. Not only the Germans were keen to see an end to the Winter War, but also the Swedes fearing a collapse in Finland. As Finland's Cabinet hesitated in face of the harsh Soviet conditions, Sweden's King Gustaf V made a public statement, in which he confirmed to have declined Finnish pleas for support by regular troops.

By the end of February the Finns had depleted their ammunition supplies. Also, the Soviet Union had finally succeeded in breaking through the previously inpenetrable Mannerheim Line, against which they suffered most of their casualties. Finally on February 29 the Finnish government agreed to start negotiations. An armistice was signed on March 6, 1940, although fighting continued sporadically. After four months of fighting, at least 127,000 Russian soldiers had lost their lives[1]. Finnish losses had been limited to around 27,000 men[1], but peace still came at a high price for the Finns.

Peace of Moscow

In the Moscow Peace Treaty of March 12 Finland was forced to cede the Finnish part of Karelia (with Finland's industrial center, including Finland's second largest city Viipuri, in all nearly 10% of the territory), even though large parts still were held by Finland's army. 422,000 Karelians, 12% of Finland's population, lost their homes. Military troops and remaining civilians were hastily evacuated to avoid becoming subjects of the Soviet Union.

Finland also had to cede a part of the Salla area, the Kalastajansaarento cape in the Barents Sea and four islands in the Gulf of Finland. The Hanko penisula was also leased to the Soviet Union as a military base for 30 years.

The Finns were shocked by the harsh peace terms. It seemed as if more territory was lost in the peace than in the war. Sympathy from world opinion, and from the Swedes in particular, seemed to have been of little worth. For better or for worse the harsh terms made the Finns inclined to seek support from Germany, and made many Finns regard a revanche as justified.

Only a year later, in June 1941, hostilities resumed in the Continuation War.

Major battles

See also

  1. The independence movement was supported by Imperial Germany. In the subsequent Civil War Germany-trained Finnish Jaeger troops and regular German troops played a crucial role. Only Germany's defeat in the World War I hindered the establishment of a Germany-dependent Monarchy under Väinö I of Finland.