42: The Winter War

This week’s plog is all about the Winter War! What does a war have to do with nature and the Arctic? Well, part of the war was in the Arctic, covering that part, but the nature/climate aspect is also a lot bigger than you would expect. This war, no doubt filled with skill, pluckiness, tragic loss and many complex reason for its outcome, was heavily influenced by the environment where it happened. To remind us then that the environment shouldn’t be ignored in any venture (though hopefully none of the lovely readers of this plog are planning to wage war on anyone), we will looked at what happened in the Winter War, and ultimately why it ended like it did. Interested? Read on!

The situation of Finnish and Soviet Union borders in the 1930s with various disputes areas. Notice how close to the Finnish border the city of Leningrad, now St Petersburg, is. (Picture adapted from original by Paradox)

The political bit

Let’s set the scene. It is 1939 and World War 2 has begun. Whilst in central Europe Germany was invading Poland, thing were not quiet in the north. Russia (then the Soviet Union) had its major city of Leningrad (now St Petersburg) on the vulnerable west coast of the country and so wanted to protect this area. Stalin stated that he wanted to have a bigger buffer zone around the Soviet Union’s border in case of an attack, as despite signing a non-aggression pact with Nazi-Germany, they didn’t entirely trust that the two powers wouldn’t come to blows. To gain this buffer, the Soviet Union forced Baltic States like Latvia and Lithuania to sign treatise allowing them to build military bases within their borders.

Finland, who was a neutral country, were told to give over islands, to move their border back 16 miles and to destroy many of their own fortifications in areas near the Soviet Union. Understandably, Finland were not keen, especially as they had seen the impacts of Soviet Purges of their own people, giving the Soviets a decidedly bad reputation. There were some discussions back and forth about potential compromises, which in the end led to nothing, though it should be noted that a few years previously the Soviet Union and Finland had signed a non-aggression pact. However, in November 1939 a border guard post in the Soviet Union near the Finnish border was mysteriously shelled, killing four border guards. Whilst now both Finnish and Russian historians have concluded that this was actually done by the Soviets, it fulfilled its purpose as a deception at the time. The Soviet Union blamed Finland for the attack, giving them the excuse to throw aside the pact and declare war on the country with the intention of advancing in and taking the land that they wanted. The Winter War had begun.

The non-aggression pact being signed by Finnish Minister of Foreign Affairs Aarno Yrjö-Koskinen on the left, and Soviet Envoy Ivan Maisky on the right in Helsinki in 1932.  (Picture: WSOY kuva-arkisto)

The environmental bit

At the time Finland had a population of 3.7 million, whilst the Soviet Union had 168.5 million people. Of course, some of these Soviet inhabitants lived in East Asia, but to all intents and purposes the Soviets vastly outnumbered the Finns, and had far better military equipment. The Finns had a tiny air force, just over a hundred and their number of tanks were in the tens which they didn’t even had the resources to run. The Soviets had these things in the thousands, so it was expected to be an invasion that would take a couple of weeks. The Soviets were even warned by their superiors to not accidentally cross the Swedish border on the other side of Finland when they swept through the country. However, they hadn’t counted on the Finnish army, and crucially the environment and climate in the region, so when they advanced over the borders that winter, thing very much did not go their way.

The Soviets had decided to invade Finland by tank. Finland however, was covered in snow, forest and swamps. Especially in the area between the two nations there was very little infrastructure, almost no roads even dirt or gravel tracks. In fact the majority of the border was impassable, so the Finns worked out the few crossover points and concentrated their efforts there. When the tanks rumbled into view, they simply stuck logs and crowbars in their way to immobilise them and then attacked at close range. Their ammunition supplies were low, but they filled glass bottles with alcohol, threw in a few matches and threw these at the advancing army, an invention they called the Molotov cocktail after Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov.

The Soviets tried to advance over the ice, but the Finns simply shot through the ice causing the heavy machinery to fall in and the attacking forces to drown. Whilst the Soviets trundled through open areas where their tanks would fit, the Finnish army on skis hid in the forests and picked off the exposed enemy, with one individual Simo Häyhä said to have singlehandedly killed 500 men. The Finns wore warm winter clothing, camouflaged white in colour to blend in with the snow. The Soviets wore khaki uniforms that stood out clearly, and didn’t even get snowsuits until a few months later. The Finns knew the terrain and climate, and had suitable equipment. Many of the Soviets weren’t used to this cold winter, with temperatures going as low as -40 oC (-40F), and had to sleep in improvised shelters. Throughout the Winter War over 61,000 Soviet soldiers got frostbite, many before they even entered Finland. Scores starved and froze, simply keeping alive in the environment being as much of an ordeal as the fight itself. In the far north above the treeline, the soviet tanks had more room to move but had even more extreme climatic conditions so a Finnish army skilled in survival in that climate and a fifth of the size of the Soviet army were able to stop their advance.

Throughout the war, it is though that the Finns had 70,000 casualties and the Soviet Union between 321,000- 381,000 people injured or killed. Whilst these stats were strongly to the advantage of the Finns, it should be noted that this was a tragic loss of life overall, no matter the nationality.

A Finnish soldier carrying a Molotov cocktail, a glass bottle of flammable liquid that would be lit and thrown as a bomb. It was named after Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav Molotov. Early in the war, the Soviets bombed the Finnish city of Helsinki. This received a lot of international criticism, and the Soviets replied saying they had not dropped bombs but food packages as humanitarian aid. The Finns called these bombs Molotov’s bread baskets. (Picture: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

The end

Surprisingly enough the Soviet Union didn’t actually lose. Once February came around, a combination of growing experience, refined tactics, far greater amounts of ammunition and sheer numbers allowed them to advance into Finland in the south. The Finnish army was becoming exhausted, and the Soviet Union was suffering a great embarrassment that their army had taken such a beating, so in March 1940 the two sides came together signing the Moscow Peace Treaty that involved Finland handing over large tracts of Karelia, 11% of the countries land much of which Russia still holds today. The Winter War did have wider impacts for the ongoing World War as a whole, giving Germany the mistaken belief that they could successfully invade the Soviet Union in 1941.

Despite the war ending on Soviet terms, it is widely seen as a victory for Finland, though you may argue that in war there are no real winners. The reasons for the Soviet defeat are of course multifaceted. Stalin had recently had a purge of his military leaders, getting rid of many who were competent at war but not deemed loyal enough, and replacing them with completely loyal but questionably skilled new military leaders. This meant that tactics were often a mess, many aspects of geography, training in winter skills and provision of winter equipment being neglected, essentially sentencing their own troops to death.

At the same time the environment played a big factor. No matter the fighting skills, to wage war in an area it was essential to be able to move across the landscape, to stay warm and well rested keeping up energy and moral, to have sufficient food, to have the experience and mental fortitude for long dark winter nights etc… Climate, moral, leadership, equipment, skill of the enemy, all these and more played a role in the outcome of the Winter War.

On the right the Finnish ski patrol on the edge of the woods, keeping an eye out for soviet soldiers. On the left Soviet troops in their trenches. The Finns had white camouflaged clothing that was warm and suited to the cold winter climate. The Soviet soldiers however wore dark khaki uniforms which made them stand out. (Picture: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

We have somewhat of a habit of compartmentalising knowledge. Art is for arty situations, far removed from science. Biology and physics are clearly very different, and music and computer science are separate fields. In the real world however, all these things are interlinked, and nearly everything we do on earth is interlinked with the natural environment. War isn’t just based on tech and fighting skills, it depends on the structure of the ground on which the battle is fought, the visibility caused by weather, the opportunities for food resources whilst armies are on campaign from agriculture to foraging, the potential for guerrilla warfare in complex protected locations and so on not even to mention the impacts of wildlife from prey to predators to disease inducing or poisonous creatures. This is just military activities, but so many other activities we do and their outcomes are tightly interlinked with the condition of the natural world. In fact even our everyday lives are, so it doesn’t matter if you are not an environmentalist or a nature geek, we all need to pay attention to the natural world.

For more info:

A short article and photo gallery from the winter war (note: readers may find some images disturbing)

A basic video on the winter war:

Music: kongano.com

Title Image: Military Museum of Finland/ CC BY-SA 4.0

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