November 30, 1939: the Winter War begins

November 30, 1939, began like any other winter Thursday in Finland. For many families, it was pea soup and pancake day. People were already dreaming of Christmas, the light in the darkness. There was worry over the international situation, of course, but it seemed far away. Thankfully, the recent crisis with Stalin concerning his territorial demands on Finland 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, 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. From the window of her room at the Hotel Kämp, she looked down on the Esplanaadi and down to the South Harbour, and saw well-dressed citizens hurrying to the timber-lined air raid shelters in the center of the boulevard.

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.” This 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, 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. Over 400,000 Karelians had to be evacuated and re-settled.

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


Bombing raid on Helsinki Nov. 30, 1939

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).