At the far eastern end of the Baltic Sea, between the Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga, lies the narrow Karelian Isthmus. Beautiful countryside consisting of blue lakes and evergreen forests and small farms, home to Finns for centuries. The Isthmus had always been a land bridge connecting Asia to the expanse of the Scandinavian peninsula and the West. It was a highway for migrations, invasions, kings and tsars and traders. And armies. Few areas of comparable size in Europe have been fought over so frequently and bitterly. This tension only increased when Tsar Peter the Great built his new capital on the swampy river delta at the eastern tip of the Isthmus, in spite of the fact it was Swedish/Finnish land.
In 1939, the main Finnish defense line, the Mannerheim Line (named for the commander-in-chief, Marshal C.G.E. Mannerheim) ran across the Isthmus and this is where the Finns expected the brunt of Soviet attacks. They were correct. The first major assault was at the eastern end, where the narrow Taipale River forms a peninsula called Koukunniemi (Cape Hook). In mid-December, the tip of the peninsula was no-man’s-land. The Finns had given it up because it was difficult to defend, and hoped that they could tempt the Russians into attacking in the open fields to the north. Every inch of these fields had been pre-plotted by Finnish artillery.
The Finnish hero of Lost Ground is stationed at Taipale. To read his account of the battle,scroll down to the end of this post.
On December 15, the Russians began their assault with two divisions, tanks, and fifty-seven batteries of artillery (as opposed to the Finns’ nine batteries). The attack began with a bombardment of thunderous fury. Crouched in their trenches, the men of the Finnish Tenth Division cursed their own artillery for its lack of response, unaware that the Finnish gunners were under orders to conserve their shells for the most ‘efficient’ targets. When the Russian barrage lifted, the Finns saw some fifty tanks and behind them, advancing in parade ground formation, an entire infantry division. The Russians did not have winter camouflage and were easily visible. With a crash, the Finnish guns erupted and dropped salvo after salvo of explosives and shrapnel into the midst of the dense, milling Russian formations. After five minutes, the assault ended,leaving the snow red with hundreds of casualties. The attacks continued for two days. The Finns repulsed them with machine guns and mortars, grenades and mine fields. Finnish gunners sometimes had to be removed due to the stress of inflicting such heavy casualties. Finnish tank killers used Molotov cocktails to destroy tanks that got through the line, naming these explosive bottles after the Russia foreign minister. This phase established the principle that ruled all future Mannerheim Line battles: the Russian’ willingness to take horrific, enormous casualties and still keep coming.
@copyright Ulla Jordan 2015:
December 16, 1939
I am in the dugout, tending the fire. It’s two o’clock in the morning, the others are asleep. It’s warm in here, almost too warm, except when someone opens the door. The men snore and grunt; the air is not what you would call fragrant. Take the ‘normal’ odours of men in close quarters, and add piles of sweaty clothing, snow-soaked boots and socks and foot-rags, and leftover food stuck here and there. On the upper wooden planks it’s so hot they sleep in their undershirts; down below they freeze their feet. In their sleep they shift arms and legs and roll over each other. They scratch their heads and private parts, even in their dreams battling the lice and fleas that appeared soon after we moved into the line. Nobody knows where they came from because we were all clean when we got here, but that’s life in the dugout. You sleep, eat and breathe as one, and if the roof takes a hit you die the same way. Shadows from the swinging oil lamp float over the men’s bodies. It’s almost cozy. Always coffee on the stove.
You have to learn fast out here. Things like the noises of shells and grenades. Which ones will go left or right, when to duck and when to keep going. Otherwise you’re shipped out quick on one of the sleds they use to transport supplies forward and bodies to the rear. Or in a wooden box marked “Do not open.” I bumped against one of those once, and it clattered inside. Everything freezes quickly here. During our first week the weather turned frigid and the temperature just keeps diving—minus twenty, minus thirty degrees.
…The Russians are still on Cape Hook, digging toward our positions. Even when they don’t attack, the artillery fire gets you splinter by splinter, arm by arm, shattered gut by shattered gut. Every day someone catches it. We had a few “quiet” days watching the Russian fires in the woods; they don’t give a damn about camouflage because they know we don’t have the guns or shells to harass them. They live over there like in a boy scout camp. But let them see a feather of smoke on our side and we get a blast faster than you can say Molotov.
Then yesterday morning they really came at us. Guns, infantry, and for the first time, tanks. That’s when I saw it clearly—that they were aiming at ME. That shook the cobwebs out of my brain about the Fifth Commandment, or whichever one it is that says Thou Shalt Not Kill. Try telling that to yourself at the bottom of a trench under artillery fire. I burrowed into the frozen wall, the earth jumping, grenades and shells flying along with clumps of earth, tree shards; my sense of balance gone and the ground swaying. The barrage lasted for three hours, and our own guns were absolutely silent. We knew that due to shortages our artillery had orders to shoot only at the juiciest, most efficient targets. But we couldn’t understand their not replying at all. We understood soon enough. They waited until the Russian barrage lifted and their infantry massed in Cape Hook field. We saw them coming, following their tanks, plodding straight on. When the core of their formation reached a certain point, our guns opened up. They went down like stick men, milling around, stumbling over their dead, while our guns methodically cut them down. Some made it back to their woods, a few kept coming behind the tanks. We shot every browncoat that made it into shooting range, but their tanks rolled right through our positions. That scared the hell out of us. None of us had ever seen a tank before. After dark our tank killers crept out with their explosive bottles. They’re devilishly effective. Some wag christened them “Molotov cocktails” in honour of the guy producing this show, together with Uncle Joe.
Today they came at us again. None of their infantry got past our barbed wire. Some lay sprawled on the wire like bugs caught in a mesh. At dusk the fields rippled with dark piles of Russian dead. I have to confess that I felt joy seeing them go down. At the time, that is. Now, away from that hysteria, the memory of those piles never leaves my mind. I often wonder how the Russians get through all this. We at least know why we’re here. What does a Russian know? You’re shipped to an unknown wilderness, handed a gun, told to plow across a snowy field, and then halfway across the field you die. I hate those brown piles out there.
When we moved up into the line our platoon leader just looked each of us in the eye and said, “The Russians are over there. Keep them out.” Every man has taken his own private vow: they will only pass over my dead body.
@copyright Ulla Jordan 2015 from LOST GROUND