The Soviet Union Invades Finland

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The Chief Culprit: Stalin’s Grand Design to Start World War II, by Viktor Suvorov

I continue with my detailed review of this book; for all posts in this series, see here.

Many point to the difficulties of this Soviet invasion of Finland as evidence of the lack of capability of the Soviet military; according to Suvorov, and given the winter conditions and the elaborate defenses established, it was one of the most impressive offensive showings of the war.  Stalin demonstrated that he would pay any price to achieve his objectives.  I will touch further on this controversy at the end of this post.

The story, and controversy, will revolve around the Mannerheim Line – a line of Finnish defenses established to repel any Soviet invasion through the Karelian Isthmus.  Starting shortly after the end of the Great War, the Finnish Army began work on fortifications on the isthmus – Finland having just won independence from Russia. 

This activity increased significantly after 1929, with a solid line of fortifications known as the Mannerheim Line, named for the Commander-in-Chief who had won the war of independence in 1918. (P. 136)

It was this territory that Stalin demanded from Finland:

In October of 1939, immediately after the division of Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union, Stalin’s diplomats addressed the government of Finland, demanding the cession of the Karelian Isthmus. (P. 136)

Stalin offered two-for-one in terms of raw acreage – a trade of land for land.  While offering double the acreage in exchange, in terms of strategic significance Stalin might as well have asked for all of Finland:

The Karelian Isthmus is a direct gateway to the capital of Finland, the largest ports and most populated regions. (P. 136)

Of course, the offer was not accepted.  But this was not the end of Stalin’s plans.  He also prepared a second step – a communist revolution in Finland.  In October 1939, Stalin established within the 106th Rifle Division of the Red Army a group of Finnish Communists, then living in the Soviet Union; this division could then be declared the “national army of Finland” at the appropriate time. (P. 137)

A communist national government was also prepared, one to be sent to Helsinki in accordance with “the will of the Finnish people.”  Otto Kuusinen, a Soviet intelligence officer, was appointed head of this government. (P. 137)

Stalin issued an order to crush Finland.  For an attack, the Soviets needed a pretext.  As if on demand, on November 26, 1939, seven artillery shells allegedly flew in from the Finnish side and exploded on the Soviet side, killing three privates and one junior officer. (P 137)

Finland had no artillery near the border, and declared immediate willingness for an investigation by neutral third parties.  Stalin did not wait.  On November 30, after a brief but intense artillery firing, Soviet troops crossed into Finnish territory. (P. 138)

Radio Moscow declared that the Finnish people rose up against capitalists and the Red Army was heading forward to assist the uprising.  Units of the Red Army occupied the small village of Terioki.  Immediately Kuusinen’s “government” arrived from Moscow and went to work. (P. 138)

The Mannerheim Line was not located on the immediate border, but deeper in Finnish territory behind the “security pale.”  The space in between was filled with granite boulders and concrete blocks.  The intent was to slow down an invading army, such that those manning the true defensive line had appropriate warning of the coming attack.

Suvorov describes a typical situation in this security pale, involving Finnish snipers:

…a column of Soviet tanks, motorized infantry, and artillery is moving along a forest road.  To their left and to their right there is nowhere to go – impassable woods, packed with land mines.  Ahead of them is a bridge.  The Soviet demolition experts check for mines and come back reporting that the way is clear.  The first tanks begin to crawl onto the bridge – and together with the bridge they fly up into the air: packs of dynamite had been inserted into the supporting beams of the bridge during its construction; they are undetectable, and even if they had been discovered, any attempt to diffuse them would have triggered an explosion. (P. 139)

The Soviet line is immobilized, and the Finnish snipers begin their work.  They hit Soviet officers and tow-truck drivers.  They fire, and then disappear into silence…until they fire again.  Such Finnish tactics caused the Soviet Army to require two weeks to pass through this security pale, “with a broken morale and without ammunition, fuel, or supplies.” (P. 139)

The Soviet Army finally reached the Mannerheim Line.   Suvorov describes it as “a brilliantly camouflaged defense structure, well integrated into the surroundings….”  After suffering more than 125,000 killed or missing and over 250,000 wounded or ill, the Soviet Army finally broke through the line on March 12, 1940; the war ended the next day. The war lasted 105 days. (P. 140)

As just one provided example of the magnitude of Finnish defenses, Suvorov describes the strength of one pillbox:

The net weight of the ammunition used to shell one pillbox #0031 was 132,836 kilograms. (P. 143)

In another case, after firing more than 200 tons of ammunition, the pillbox – while damaged – remained functional.

Many military historians claim that this episode is evidence of the inability of the Soviet Army to wage effective war.  Suvorov disagrees, describing the episode as one that demonstrates “tremendous strength.”

First of all, it is necessary to keep in mind that the Red Army acted in conditions that no Army had previously faced.  It was conducting an attack in an average temperature of 21 to 24 degrees Celsius below zero…. Stalin ordered the army to act in impossible conditions, and the Red Army did the impossible. (P. 140)

The Finns, of course, fought in the same conditions.  Suvorov points out the advantage of having the home field.  He describes the fortifications, but of more importance (at least to me) is his description of the living conditions for the Finnish troops:

Behind these rows of barricades were concrete casements.  Each major defensive construction stored ammunition and fuel, contained warm sleeping quarters, a restroom, a kitchen, a dining room, and had running water and electricity.  Communication lines, command posts, hospitals – all were below ground, under concrete, in the woods, hidden in the snow, all in warmth. (P. 140)

The Finnish soldiers and snipers could catch a break from the cold.  The Soviets could not.  It may not sound like much, but I have never spent 105 days (and nights) outside in the elements at 21 – 24 degrees Celsius below zero.  The Finnish troops after a few hours or even a few days on patrol, came into the warmth, and had a decent meal.  The Soviet troops, after a few such days in the elements, only could look forward to an unknowable number of more such days – into an unending horizon of unbearable cold.

But try attacking under these conditions.  Try to amputate a leg when beyond the thin cloth wall of the hospital tent the temperature is minus 40, and inside it is minus 30. (P. 141)

Boulders, hidden under the snow, ripped tank tracks and broke the rollers.  Of the 105 days, only 25 days were suitable for flying.  During the winter, darkness, while not permanent, consumed the greatest portion of each day. (P. 141)

Suvorov claims that “Military experts from all countries of the world unanimously agreed that no army, taking any amount of time, could break through the Mannerheim Line.” (P. 136) There is no footnote for this claim, and in checking other sources there appears to be significant disagreement.  For example, Wikipedia:

The weakness of the line is illustrated by the fact, that the amount of concrete used in the whole Mannerheim Line—14,520 cubic meters or 513,000 cubic feet (14,500 m3)—is slightly less than the amount used in the Helsinki Opera House (15,500 cubic meters or 547,000 cubic feet). The much shorter VT-line used almost 400,000 cubic meters (14,000,000 cubic feet) of concrete.

This is also not footnoted.

From a customer review of “The Mannerheim Line 1920-39: Finnish Fortifications of the Winter War”:

The next section [of the book] discusses field fortifications in the Mannerheim Line (trenches, wooden bunkers and obstacles) and the author makes good points that the Finnish defenses were poorly suited to stop Soviet armor. Obstacles such as anti-tank ditches were not always covered by fire and the Finns exaggerated the ability of large rocks to stop Soviet tanks. Worse, the Finnish anti-tank defenses were extremely weak and relied on a small number of Bofors 37-mm guns but many bunkers had nothing more than a machinegun, which enabled Soviet tanks to drive right up to them and fire into the gun ports.

Suvorov sees things much differently.  If the attack was such a failure, why did Stalin’s court reporters not face execution for reporting the poor performance?

…the first and loudest reports of the Red Army’s poor performance in Finland came in newspapers funded by Stalin.  Stalin’s court poet, Alexander Tvardovsky, suddenly began speaking of the “infamous war.”  For some reason, he was not executed.  For some reason, he was awarded Stalin’s praises. (P. 144)

Was this the story Stalin wanted to get out?  Given the overall ruthless demeanor of the man, one must suspect so.

The Baltic countries got the message; they understood that resistance was futile:

…Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia, surrendered to Stalin without a fight and became Republics of the Soviet Union.  The governments and military leadership of these countries had carefully watched the war in Finland and drew from their observations a frightening, but correct conclusion: the Red Army was capable of carrying out impossible orders, and it would not be stopped by any number of casualties. (P. 144, emphasis added)

The Soviet Army learned many valuable lessons about fighting in such inhumane cold, lessons put to good use against the German invasion of 1941-42.

Whatever one concludes about the performance of the Red Army in this war, it seems to me the following cannot be denied:

From the actions in Finland, there could be only one logical conclusion: nothing is impossible for the Red Army. (P. 144)

Stalin demonstrated that he would spare no effort to achieve an objective; I envision a man who sees his fellow Soviet citizens as meat being sent to a grinder, and he would send as many men as necessary into the grinder in order to meet his objectives.  Concerns about internal political blowback were non-existent; such was the thoroughness of Stalin’s internal security state.

Stalin would do anything to achieve his objectives.  Even if one disagrees with Suvorov’s military conclusions, this message rings loud and true.

Reprinted with permission from Bionic Mosquito.

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