JANUARY 1940 – RAATE ROAD
One of the most important battles of the Winter War, the Battle of Raate Road, was fought Jan. 1–7, 1940. It was a part of the larger Battle of Suomussalmi , whose aim was to cut Finland in half at its ‘waistline’, through Suomussalmi in eastern Finland to Oulu on the west coast.
Two Soviet divisions and one Soviet tank brigade were brought to the theater of Suomussalmi, a total of 55,000 Soviet forces.
In preparation for a victory parade in Oulu, the Soviets also brought a brass band.
The heavily outnumbered Finnish 9th Division stopped and decisively defeated the invading Red Army on the Raate Road during the first week of January, 1940. The battle showcased the effectiveness of Finnish “motti” tactics, in which the enemy is encircled, entrapped and decimated. Scroll down for a picture gallery of the battleground.
On December 7, 1939, the Soviet 163rd Division had captured Suomussalmi, but found itself trapped inside Finnish territory, and the Soviet 44th Rifle Division was sent to its aid.
The Finnish 9th Division had already destroyed the Soviet 163rd Division when it received orders to destroy the Soviet 44th Division. The 44th was stalled on the narrow, forest-encircled Raate Road, 12 kilometers south of Suomussalmi. It was destroyed by the vastly outnumbered Finns.
Finland’s largest newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, quotes Robert K. Maddock Jr. on the subject of Soviet casualties in the Battle of Raate Road:
“Russian troop strength totaled 48,000 men, 335 cannon, 100 tanks, and 50 armored cars. The Finnish defenders, reinforced from a few thousand, now numbered 17,000 with 11 cannon under the command of Colonel Hjalmar Siilasvuo; his only hope was to defeat the Russians in detail. And he did.”
Of the Russians who escaped, many were wounded. In the dark northern winter, temperatures plummeting to -40C – rare even by Finnish standards –, “only 5,000 made it back.”
“The Finns captured intact 85 tanks, 437 trucks, 20 tractors, 10 motorcycles, 1,620 horses, 92 artillery pieces, 78 anti-tank guns, and 13 anti-aircraft guns plus thousands of rifles, machine guns, and a horde of ammunition. This was later used against the Russians in Karelia.”
The Soviet 44th Division was formed nearly entirely of soldiers from Ukraine. The Ukrainian veteran of the battle, Sergeant Pyotr Andrevitch Morozov, was interviewed in 1991 by Finnish writer Leo Karttimo. According to Morozov, Finns returned prisoners of war, but none of them made it back to Ukraine as the Soviet secret service NKVD executed them all in the summer of 1940.
By executing witnesses, hiding evidence and distorting written accounts, Stalin hoped to erase the entire Winter War from history, as the Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev explained in his memoirs in 1970. In the Cold War period, the Soviet Union and Stalin nearly succeeded in this.
Raate Road was one of the first battle sites the Finnish authorities allowed foreign war correspondents to view. There is a first-hand account in my novel Lost Ground.
Photos from Finnish War Archives