The Winter War: November 30, 1939

November 30, 1939, began like any other winter Thursday in Finland. For many families, it was pea soup and pancake day. Daylight hours were short; the darkness came early. There was concern over the international situation, of course, but it seemed far away. There had recently been negotiations with Stalin concerning his territorial demands on Finland, but the crisis seemed to have abated. Nevertheless, by the end of the day, Finland found itself in a life-and-death struggle for its existence as a nation.

Martha Gellhorn, famed American war correspondent and wife of Ernest Hemingway, had arrived in Helsinki on November 29, 1939. She was awakened at 9 AM the next morning by the drone of bombers and the crash of bombs. Rushing to the window of her room at the Hotel Kämp, she looked down on the Esplanaadi, a boulevard that ran to the South Harbour, and saw well-dressed citizens hurrying to the timber-lined air raid shelters in the centre of the park.

A Soviet bomber was flying low at about 1000 meters, dropping not bombs but paper leaflets. The leaflets said, “Finnish comrades! Put down your arms. We come not as conquerors but as liberators. We have bread.” The last line brought sardonic quips from the Finns, who began to call the bombs “Molotov’s breadbaskets.”

On November 30, 1939, the Soviet Union attacked Finland by land, sea, and air, with no declaration of war. Despite being badly outnumbered and short of everything from shells to anti-tank guns, the Finnish army held on for 105 days. The David-and-Goliath story caught the attention of the world and hundreds of foreign correspondents converged on Helsinki. The Finns sought help from Britain, France, and America, and their Scandinavian neighbours. Help did arrive in the form of volunteers, medical personnel, and offers to take in Finnish children, but the expeditionary force planned by Britain and France was too late, and Finland bowed to an armistice with Moscow in March 1940, forcing her to cede large parts of Karelia to Russia. 450,000 Karelians had to be evacuated and re-settled.

A map of the bombing raids on Helsinki on November 30:


This is how the beginning of the war felt to Tina, the young heroine of Lost Ground:

Out of the rubble, the stark reality emerged that they were alone at war with the Soviet Union…Shock turned to anger, and all the old Finnish divisions–working class and upper class, Swedish-speaker and Finnish-speaker, rural and urban–vanished overnight. For the first time in the history of the young republic, every heart beat as one heart. For Tina,the first days of the war fused into colours–the blackness of their solitude, the ice-white certainty that they would never give in, and the searing red rage that made warriors of them all.

The Winter War in photos (pictures courtesy of the Finnish War Archives, unless otherwise marked).




The Unfinished Finnish Question: Molotov in Berlin, November 1940

The Soviet Union attacked Finland on November 30, 1939, and the Winter War began. The groundwork for this had been laid in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of the previous August, when Stalin and Hitler agreed on spheres of influence in Europe and placed Finland in the Soviet sphere.  The war ended in a bitter armistice in March 1940 that forced Finland to cede the Karelian Isthmus and other parts of its eastern provinces to the USSR.

Some post-war historians have argued that what Stalin got from Finland in the end was all he had really wanted to begin with. This viewpoint may still be held by those who see Stalin with rose-coloured glasses. The best way to refute it is to point to the words of Molotov himself in his meetings with Hitler in Berlin on November 12-13, 1940.

These meetings were held as a follow-up to the August 1939 pact and an attempt to confirm that its provisions were still in effect.

It is clear that Molotov’s primary (although not sole) concern was that, despite the Russian gains from the Winter War, the pact remained ‘unfulfilled‘ with regard to Finland. Time and again during the two days of meetings he returned to this theme, and sought assurances that Germany would not intervene if the Soviet Union finished the job.

Anyone who doubts that the goal of the Soviet Union was to occupy all of Finland need only read the transcript of these meetings. Molotov repeatedly seeks Germany’s blessing to complete the job in Finland. Hitler, who by then was planning his invasion of Russia, declared that he did not wish another war in the Baltic.

Finnish leaders knew of Molotov’s requests to ‘solve’ the Finnish question and understood what they meant. This played a leading role in  driving Finland into Germany’s arms in the conflict with Russia that began in June 1941.

Excerpts (translated) from the transcript of the November meetings:

November 12, 1940, Molotov to Hitler:  “The German-Russian agreement of last year could therefore be regarded as fulfilled, except for one point, namely, Finland. The Finnish question was still unsolved, and he asked the Führer to tell him whether the German-Russian agreement, as far as it concerned Finland, was still in force. In the opinion of the Soviet Government, no changes had occurred here. Also, in the opinion of the Soviet Government the German-Russian agreement of last year represented only a partial solution.”


Source: (full transcript available here)