Lest We Forget:
   World War II













The Causes, Events, and Repurcussions of the Russo-Finnish War
Endnotes and Bibliography located at bottom of page 2

In the spring of 1938, a minor Russian diplomat approached the Finnish foreign minister, with the intent of opening secret discussions to “improve relations” between the two nations in light of the worsening international situation. A year and a half later, after multiple rounds of negotiations in Helsinki and Moscow, on November 30, 1939, the Soviet Union, the “Goliath of the East”, was at war with Finland, the “David of the North”. Though it took nineteen months for the situation to come to a head, the events leading up to war whirlwinded past the participants. Neither side wanted war, but somehow they both ended up in a struggle that lasted months, and cost thousands of lives. Beyond the war itself, the effects of the events were felt for decades after the outcome was decided.

Before the outbreak of World War II, the Soviets were convinced (and rightly so) that Germany had plans for military aggression against Russia. Even after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact, each nation knew that war was inevitable. Fascist Germany was ideologically opposed to Communist Russia, and not even the title of "honorary Aryans" bestowed upon Russia by Hitler could hide that fact. That incompatibility of the two systems of government, combined with Hitler's insatiable appetite for conquest, meant that it was only a matter of time before the two powers clashed.

Knowing this, the Russians were deeply concerned with securing their borders for defense, and also for obtaining "buffer zones" to absorb German attacks. They secured a buffer zone by invading and annexing the Eastern third of Poland, and by swallowing up small Baltic and Balkan states. The one place where they were dangerously vulnerable, however, was in the North.

Their weakest point was on the Russo-Finnish border, which stretches for over eight hundred miles. They were especially worried about Finland because the city of Leningrad lies a mere twenty miles from the frontier. This was not normally a cause for great concern, but with war imminent, it became a matter of grave danger to the Soviets.

Not only was the border heavily fortified by the Finns, but artillery pieces stationed at the border could easily strike Leningrad. And Leningrad was more than just a major city and population center; it was a cultural and scientific center as well. More importantly to the Soviets, it was the birthplace of the Revolution. Clearly, a city of such importance that lies within artillery range of a bordering nation is cause for concern. But it was not the Finns who concerned the Russians - it was the Germans.

The Russian government wished to respect Finland's independence, but Moscow was wholly convinced thatGermany entertained such extensive plans of aggression against Russia that the objective of the extreme left wing of the German armies would be to effect a landing in Finland and then plunge their attack into Russia. 1

Accordingly, the Soviets wanted a military alliance with the Finns. An alliance however, would be "'in conflict with the policy of neutrality which Finland follows,'" 2 and therefore completely unacceptable to Finland. After seeing that the Finns would not budge in their commitment to neutrality, the Russians decided to try another approach. The Russians requested to know what the Finnish response would be in the event of German landings in Finland with the intent of springboarding to Russia. The Soviets warned that

If Germany were allowed to carry out these operations in Finland unopposed, Russia would not passively await the German forces at Rajajoki but would throw its armed forces as far into Finland as possible, whereupon the battles between German and Russian forces would take place on Finnish territory. 3

If, however, the Finns would oppose German landings, Russia would extend vast economic and military aid to Finland. The Finns, of course, welcomed any economic assistance that Russia would offer, but remained wary of Russian military aid. They assured (and warned) the Russians that Finland would resist any armed incursion into Finland by any nation. But this promise of Finland's was not enough for the Russians.

They wanted, and they demanded guarantees that Finland would resist German incursions, and more importantly, that Finland would not help Germany in a war against Russia. Finland, of course, because of their neutrality, had no qualms about pledging this. They would resist any invasion of their sovereignty, they would just not ally with or against any other nation. They assured the Russians of this fact, but the Russians remained wary. They demanded "concrete guarantees" that Finland was in fact no threat to Russia. These "guarantees" included:

  1. A written commitment to ward off possible attacks and accept Russian military aid in the warding off of any attacks.
  2. Permission to help arm fortifications in the Aaland Islands, and the permission to station a secret observer on the islands, so that the Soviets may keep watch over the fortifications.
  3. Permission to erect a fortified air and naval base on Suursaari Island.

The Finnish government, of course, found all of these requests unacceptable for various reasons. The first request, if complied with, would compromise Finnish neutrality. The last two requests, while also compromising neutrality, would also be compromising Finnish sovereignty. Even though the Russians were prepared to grant concessions in return for the acceptance of the requests, the proposal was found completely unacceptable by the Finnish government. But the matter did not rest here.

Instead of backing off on some of their demands, the Russians instead began demanding more and more of the Finns. Although the main concerns of the Soviets were still the safety of Leningrad and the possibility of German attack through Finland, they put increasing pressure and demands on the Finnish government. In addition to their previous requests, the second round of negotiations brought additional demands, which included:

  1. The right to close the mouth of the Gulf of Finland through artillery fire from both shores, in order to prevent hostile ships from sailing on the Gulf of Finland.
  2. The right to prevent enemies of the Soviet Union access to islands in the Gulf of Finland that are near to Leningrad.
  3. The right of Soviet naval forces to use Lappohja Bay as an anchorage.
  4. Affirmation and strengthening of the non-aggression pact, going so far as to not allow either nation to join an alliance that is deemed unacceptable by the other nation.
  5. A thirty year lease on the port of Hanko, and a roughly sixty-four square nautical mile area around it. The Soviets would then have the right to establish a naval base, complete with infantry, anti-aircraft defenses, military aircraft, and tanks, in all not numbering over 5,000 men.
  6. Cession of several islands, peninsulae, and land areas to the Soviet Union, in return for cession of lands from the Soviet Union.
  7. The Russo-Finnish border nearest Leningrad be pushed back away from the city, so that Leningrad no longer lies within range of artillery fire.
  8. Complete destruction of the Mannerheim Line.

Knowing that the previous proposals were deemed unacceptable by the Finns, it is painfully obvious that these demands were unacceptable as well. Finland would not budge on any of the points, save for the cession of a few minor islands. The foreign minister of Finland, Vaino Tanner, said of the demands that, "'it is impossible for us [Finland] to go so far as to meet the Russians as they require. . . . Disagreements are thus still so great that we do not believe that we can reconcile them through additional concessions.'" 4 Seeing that neither the Finns nor the Russians were willing to back down from their position, it was clear that something had to give. On November 26, 1939, something did.

Four Russian soldiers were killed, and nine were wounded when seven artillery shells were fired near the Russian village of Manila. According to the Russians, the shells had been fired by the Finns, and that it was, "a hostile act which had already resulted in aggression against Soviet troops and caused casualties." 5 In fact, the Finnish artillery was stationed so far to the rear of the border, that it was impossible for Finland to have fired these shots. The cannons had been pulled back in order to prevent an incident like this from ever happening.

With hindsight, we can see that the Soviets were merely looking for an excuse to go to war. When the situation first began, they were honestly seeking a peaceful resolution to the matter, but at this point in time, the security of Leningrad and the northern border was of such grave concern that they felt compelled to resolve the issue by any means necessary. The Finns, however, did not see this.

The incident was regarded as a serious matter, albeit a controllable one, and Russian grievances were treated with the utmost of respect. They offered to set up a joint committee to investigate the matter, but the Russians flatly rejected the proposal. The Russians then demanded that Finnish troops be pulled back some twenty-five kilometers from the border to "defuse the situation." Finland refused, knowing that such a move would seriously compromise national security. The Russians responded by severing diplomatic ties. "Justified" by the infamous "Manila shots", on November 30, 1939, Russia invaded Finland. She used air, land, and sea units, and initiated hostilities without a declaration of war.

"'Everyone in Moscow, from Stalin down, thought that the Red Army would be in Helsinki in a week after the attack started. . . . The councilor of the Soviet Embassy in Berlin told me a few days before the fighting began that 'it will all be over in three days.''" 6 In fact, the general consensus in Moscow could not be further from the truth. All told, the war would drag out for one hundred and four days, much longer than anyone, especially the Soviets, expected.

Russian troops made initially good progress, except in Karelia where the Mannerheim Line slowed their progress. The fixed defenses were greatly effective against infantry, but visibly ineffective against tanks and armored vehicles. The line would have also been rendered useless against infantry, if the Russians had coordinated their infantry with the tanks, and made effective use of their artillery. Were it not for the ineptitude of the Russians officers left after Stalin's purge of his officer corps, the Mannerheim line would not have been such an obstacle.

Due to the lack of anti-tank guns, tanks were virtually unaffected by the line, and the Finns were forced to find other means of carrying out anti-tank warfare. The Finnish troops employed petrol bombs and explosives to take out tanks at close range, usually under cover of darkness. These attacks were quite effective at night, but also costly, because the cover of darkness allowed Russian infantry to move forward nearer Finnish positions, and retaliate against the exposed Finns. Still, to the dismay of the Russians, Soviet attacks were stalled and in places thrown back with great casualties. Encirclement battles were fought along the few roads leading from the long Finnish border inland.

In several of these battles, whole Soviet divisions were dominated and their equipment was captured (crucial to the otherwise ill and under-equipped Finnish armed forces). Main contributors to these victories were the fighting spirit of the Finnish troops and the skillful use of small unit tactics in the forests on the road-bound attackers. The Finns, realizing that the Soviets were relying on superior numbers alone to win the war, engaged in harassment warfare, costing the Russians dearly, while suffering relatively few losses themselves. However, lack of artillery, ammunitions and reserves for the Finns made the breaching of the main defensive line inevitable.

Finland, of course, realized that it could not hold against such overwhelming strength, and actively sought diplomatic means to end the war. The Russians, foreseeing such a turn of events, had set up a puppet "Democratic Republic of Finland" government, and refused to recognize the legitimate government, saying that they had fled to an unknown destination. This People's Government of the Democratic Republic of Finland, "headed" by Finnish old-guard communist Otto Kuusinen, in fact had no real duties other than the publication of a newspaper and propaganda. That, and to carry on the illusion of being a legitimate government, in order to allow the Soviets to not lose credibility altogether for not negotiating. By only recognizing the puppet government, the Soviets could reject all proposals of peace talks, saying that

'the Soviet Union is not at war with Finland and does not threaten the Finnish people. The Soviet Union maintains peaceful relations with the Democratic Republic of Finland. The [Helsinki government is] not the real representatives of the people of Finland' 7

Because of this puppet government, all routes the Finns attempted to take to peace were blocked by the Russians. The Finns attempted to use the Swedes, the Americans, and the Germans as mediators, but the Russians ignored their cries for peace. Having those avenues blocked, the Finns next appealed to the League of Nations, where again they were given the same response. In the League of Nations, however, the Russians were harshly criticized for their actions. Nations not under the sphere of influence of the USSR were quick to proclaim that they were sickened by the abuse of power displayed by Russia.

So, for a time, the fighting went on, with no hope of a peaceful resolution in sight. After Finland had beaten back the first attacks, the Soviet Union changed the commanders leading the attack as well as the tactics employed by the army. Utilizing their absolute superiority in air power, artillery, and tanks, as well as sheer manpower, the Soviet attack gradually wore down the Finnish defense, forcing the Finns to withdraw to secondary defense lines.

On the Karelian isthmus the fighting resembled more of the First World War massive frontal attacks than the fluid encirclement battles fought elsewhere on the fronts. Both sides were suffering heavy losses, especially the Finns, as the fighting grew more fierce and widespread. Finally, near the end of January, Russia stated that it was not "opposed to concluding an agreement with the Ryti-Tanner government," and if the Finns made "adequate proposals," 8 then they would indeed enter into negotiations yet again.

Clearly, the swing in policy from ignoring the legitimate government to recognizing it was not a factor of the military situation. It can therefore only be attributed to the general world view of the situation. Countries everywhere condemned Russia, actively sought peace, and in many cases, supplied aid to Finland. Sweden and Italy provided both equipment and volunteers, and the United States provided over one million dollars in aid. In addition to the three listed above, countless other nations rushed to the aid of Finland. The Allies (France, Britain, etc.), were in fact seriously considering coming to the aid of Finland militarily by "invading" Finland and fighting off the Russians.

With news of possible Allied activity spreading, Germany began putting heavy pressure on the Soviets to make peace, for an Allied presence in Scandinavia would pose a serious threat to the Third Reich. The pressure of Germany, the knowledge that a supposed week long conflict had turned into a Europe-wide war against Russia, and with world opinion turned sharply against them, the Russians had little choice but to reenter into negotiations. On January 29, 1940, the Russians stated that they would reopen negotiations if the Finns would meet their original demands. The Finns, however, heartened by their unexpected "success" against Russia, and the promise of Allied military aid, stated that they would not make far-reaching concessions.

The Allies were wholly ready to come to the aid of Finland, stating that Finland need only to request their aid. This created a very delicate situation for the Finns. In order for the Allied troops to reach Finland, they would have to transport through Norway and/or Sweden. Norway and Sweden, however sympathetic to Finland they were, would not allow this to happen for one reason.

The Germans, wary of an Allied presence in Scandinavia, warned that any "small nation, which under the circumstances now comes to Finland's aid will suffer the fate of Poland." 9 This threat was clearly aimed at Norway and Sweden, and it proved rather effective. Both Sweden and Norway denied the Allies the right to transport troops through their territory. With the hope of foreign military aid gone, the Finnish situation worsened, and Finland was just barely able to hold the front.

Seeing that they were fighting a losing battle, the Finnish government informed the Russians that they were ready to enter into negotiations on March 6, 1940. The Allies were greatly dismayed at this, for to them, peace on Russian terms meant victory for German diplomacy. No amount of pressure the Allies applied on Finland, Norway, and Sweden, however, could match the immense pressure on the Finns from Norway, Sweden, Russia, and Germany.

By this token, the acceptance of Soviet terms of peace was almost accepted as fact. The conditions of the treaty hardly differed from those which Moscow had demanded before the outbreak of hostilities. The terms of the treaty state that

the entire Karelian isthmus with the city of Viipuri, the whole of Viipuri Bay with its islands, as well as the territory west and north of Lake Ladoga with the cities of Keksholm and Sorrtavala, were ceded to Soviet Russia. . . . In the region of Kandalaksha the border was also moved farther west, and parts of the Rybachi and Sredni peninsulas and a number of the islands in the Gulf of Finland were handed over to the Soviet Union. 10

In addition to those demands, the treaty also established the 30 year lease on the Hanko peninsula, for which the Finns were compensated eight million Finnish marks. As stated in the earlier demands, the Russians had the right to establish a naval base and garrison troops, along with any armed forces deemed necessary. Finland was also banned from maintaining any armed naval vessel larger than one hundred tons, and from maintaining a total naval presence of more than 400 tons off the Arctic coast.

The Russians were also granted the right to build a railway connecting the Soviet Union, Sweden, and Norway through Finland. The Soviets would then have the right to transport goods through Finland by rail free of tariffs, inspections, and fees. The treaty was signed in Moscow on March 12, and the cease-fire went into effect at 12:00 PM, March 13, 1940. Although the terms of the treaty were terribly harsh for Finland, the Finnish government was "'happy that the agreement does not limit Finland's sovereignty and independence'". 11 For Finland, however, the worst was yet to come.

With the treaty signed, and the new borders drawn out, Finland was in a new dilemma. Who would be Finland's ally in case Moscow decided to present new demands? Certainly, the Allies would not help, since Finland had made peace directly against their wishes. With this in mind, Finland turned to her neighbors. Norway and Sweden were both too small and too scared to help, or be of any real assistance. Aside from that, the proposed "Northern Alliance" was frowned upon by the Soviets, claiming that it was anti-Russian, and prevented the Finns from entering it.

So the next logical step was to turn to Germany. When the Finns asked the Germans to guarantee the borders of Finland through a military alliance, the Germans agreed to do so. Although nothing was ever set down in writing, "all indications point to Germany's having given some sort of a guarantee to Finland." 12 Indeed, the peace treaty had brought about a relationship between Finland and Germany that would later develop into a full fledged anti-Russian military alliance. In fact, Finland would play a rather important role in the remainder of World War II, both alongside and against Germany.

The "Continuation War" is the war in which Finland fought alongside Germany against Russia from June 25, 1941 to September 4, 1944. When Germany attacked the Soviet Union, directly violating the Nazi-Soviet pact, Finland allowed German troops to attack the Soviet Union through Finland. Although the Soviets viewed this as an open act of aggression, Finland had not declared war on the Soviet Union.

This changed when the Soviets began bombing Finnish cities on morning of June 25, 1941. Finland then duly declared war against Russia, and joined the attack on June 30. The prime objective of the Finns, understandably, during this period was to liberate the areas lost to the Soviets in the Winter War.

Teamed with the Germans, and better equipped than in 1939, the Finns had little trouble driving the Russians back to pre-Winter War lines. In a few areas of the front, Finnish troops crossed the old border, but it was solely in order to gain favorable defensive positions. This is obvious because the Finns never advanced far into Russia, and they also refused to join the German attack on the city of Leningrad.

This "attack phase" of the war lasted roughly until the end of 1941, at which time the fighting more or less was quiet, and the lines remained constant until the summer of 1944. At this time, it was clear to all (save Hitler himself) that Germany was going to lose the war. The fact that Germany had fought (and nearly won) a three front war against nearly every major power in the world is amazing in itself. But the fact that Finland was about to again switch sides in the war is one of the oddest happenings in World War II. Once it became apparent that Germany was losing, and losing quickly, the Finns opened negotiations with the Soviets. Nothing came of these, however, and the two nations remained at odds.

The Soviet Union started an all-out attack on the Karelian Isthmus on June 9, 1944 (it was coordinated with the D-Day landings in Normandy). The massive attack was able to breach the Finnish defense in Valkeasaari on June 10, and the front retreated rapidly to the secondary defense line of the Finns, the Vammelsuu-Taipale Line (This line had been erected after the Winter War as a defense against a possible Soviet invasion).

The fighting was furious as Soviet tanks and infantry supported by massed artillery and ground-attack aircraft pounded the Finnish defenders into the ground. Once again, the Finns fought valiantly, but the technological and numerical superiority of the Russians was too much for the exhausted Finnish defenders. The line was breached by a Soviet attack on June 14, and after the failure of a major counter attack to repulse the attackers, the defense had to be pulled back yet again.

Once again, the Finns engaged in a hit and run harassment war, engaging Soviet columns and retreating before the Russians could mount an effective defense. As valiantly as they fought, the Finns could not halt the Soviet military giant. On June 20, 1944, the city of Viipuri fell to the Soviets. Shortly after this time, however, the Finnish army had somehow been able to concentrate enough artillery and troops equipped with new German anti-tank weapons to actually present a formidable threat to the Soviets.

Between June 25 and July 6, the largest military battle ever fought in Scandinavia went in favor of the Finns. Soviet losses in tanks and manpower on this killing ground were so great that the Red Army was forced to break off the attack and even retreat.

Having failed to penetrate deep into Finland by land, the Soviets next tried an amphibious assault across the Gulf of Finland. It ended in disaster when the Russians could not obtain a beachhead on the mainland. This attack began on July 4 and fierce amphibious attacks and close range battles continued until July 10. The third major effort by the Soviet armed forces began July 4, this time attempting to obtain a bridge-head across the Vuoksi river. This attack was pounded by Finnish artillery, and suffered viscous counter-attacks at the hands of the Finnish infantry. Finally, on July 11 as Soviet high-command ordered their troops to re-organize on defense.

At the end of summer, the front was stabilized, with the Finns actually holding the upper hand. Finland, to her credit, saw that peace with the Soviet Union was the only possible way to avoid going down with the Germans at the time of their inevitable defeat. The Soviets, knowing that their military position was weak, but their diplomatic position was extremely strong, welcomed peace with the Finns.

The cease-fire with the Soviet Union began 07:00 AM on September 4, 1944. Finland lost roughly the same amount of territory as it did following the first war with the Soviets, and things were more or less returned to the pre-war status quo. The two greatest stipulations of this treaty stated that Finland must pay huge reparation payments to the Soviet Union, and they also must drive the remaining German forces out of Finland.

The "Lappland War" was fought against Germany after the cease-fire with the Soviet Union. It was the effort on the part of the Finns to carry out their part of the treaty and drive the Germans from Finland. Were they not able to expel the Germans on their own, it was written in the peace treaty that the Russians would be "obliged" to come to Finland's "aid."

This cause much apprehension on the part of the Finnish government, for if the Soviets brought their troops into Finland unopposed, it would surely mean the occupation and annexation of Finland. Spurred on by this fear, the Finns fought well against a disheartened German army. The last German troops were out of Finland on April 27, 1945.

Because of their unique situation, the Finns never surrendered, and were never occupied by Allied troops. In addition to being the only nation in World War II to change sides twice, Finland was also the sole country on the losing side that was not occupied by foreign troops. While their country was never occupied, Finland was raped economically by reparations and concessions written into peace treaties.

continue to page 2
Copyright © 1994-2005 Stephen Payne