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. Nevertheless, by the end of the day, Finland found itself in a life-and-death struggle for its existence.
On November 30, 1939, the Soviet Union attacked Finland by land, sea, and air, with no declaration of war.
There had been trouble with Moscow, of course, ever since the Molotov-von Ribbentrop pact of August 1939, which had a secret protocol placing Finland in the Russian sphere of influence. Stalin had already pressured the Baltic states into compliance with his agenda. In October, he turned his sights on Finland. The Finns resisted his demands and when negotiations broke down, Moscow manufactured a border ‘incident’ at Mainila and used it as a casus belli.
Almost simultaneously, Stalin set up a puppet government in the border town of Terijoki. The leader of the Leningrad Military District, Andrei Zhdanov, commissioned a celebratory piece from Dmitri Shostakovich entitled “Suite on Finnish Dreams” to be played by Red Army marching bands during the victory parade in Helsinki.
Martha Gellhorn, famed American war correspondent and wife of Ernest Hemingway, arrived in Helsinki on November 29, 1939. She was awakened 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 saw well-dressed citizens hurrying to the 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.”
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 struggle caught the attention of the world and hundreds of foreign correspondents converged on Helsinki. The Finns sought help from their Scandinavian neighbours and from Britain, France, and America. Help did arrive in the form of volunteers, medical personnel, and offers to take in Finnish children, but not the military aid the Finns desperately needed.
Finnish defenses surprisingly held out for over three months while inflicting stiff losses on the Soviets, but in February 1940 the final act of the war began. A new and massive Russian offensive was launched on the Karelian Isthmus. “Twelve Soviet divisions along with five Soviet tank brigades—approximately a quarter of a million men—were about to hurl themselves in the Viipuri area against two understrength, ammunition-poor, bone-tired Finnish divisions of less than twenty thousand.” (Gordon F. Sander, The Hundred Day Winter War, University of Kansas Press, 2013, p. 296)
The Finns were forced to retreat from their main defence line, the Mannerheim Line, for the first time. Although victories continued north of Lake Ladoga and the eastern Isthmus stood firm, by early March the Russians stood at the gates of Viipuri in the west.
Meanwhile, France and Britain had an expeditionary force ready to march to Finland, but neutral Sweden refused to grant transit rights. While negotiations continued, the situation of the Finns grew dire.
Reluctantly bowing to the reality that Western aid would not arrive in time, the Finnish government signed an armistice with Russia on March 12, 1940. A ceasefire came into effect all along the front the next day, March 13.
The ceded area included Finland’s second largest city of Viipuri (Vyborg) and much of Finland’s industrialized territory–11% of the territory and 30% of the economic assets of pre-war Finland. Twelve percent of Finland’s population, some 422,000 Karelians, had to be evacuated and re-settled.
When the terms of the peace were announced, flags in Finland flew at half mast.
The estimated number of Russian dead has changed over the years. The generally accepted figure is 230 000- 270 000. ]Finnish dead numbered approximately 25 000.
The Finns had lost so much and paid such a great price that at first the peace felt more unbearable than the war. That was before they knew how desperate the military situation on the Isthmus had been, how close they had come to catastrophe. Gradually, they understood. The peace was cruel, but there had been no other choice; and they still had their country and their freedom. –from Lost Ground
The last word goes to the man who led Finland’s army through the war, Marshal C.G.E. Mannerheim, in his Order of the Day to his soldiers, dated March 14, 1940:
“Peace has been concluded between our country and the Soviet Union, an exacting peace which has ceded to Soviet Russia nearly every battlefield on which you have shed your blood on behalf of everything we hold dear and sacred.You did not want war; you loved peace, work and progress; but you were forced into a struggle in which you have done great deeds, deeds that will shine for centuries in the pages of history. More than fifteen thousand of you who took the field will never again see your homes…But you have also dealt hard blows, and if two hundred thousand of our enemies now lie on the snowdrifts, gazing with broken eyes at our starry sky, the fault is not yours. You did not hate them or wish them evil; you merely followed the stern law of war: kill or be killed.
Soldiers: I have fought on many battlefields, but never have I seen your like as warriors. I am as proud of you as though you were my own children; l am as proud of the man from the Northern fells as of the son of Ostrobothnia’s plains, of the Carelian forests, the hills of Savo, the fertile fields of Häme and Satakunta, the leafy copses of Uusimaa and Varsinais-Suomi. I am as proud of the sacrifice tendered by the child of a lowly cottage as of those of the wealthy.
We are proudly conscious of the historic duty which we shall continue to fulfil; the defence of that Western civilisation which has been our heritage for centuries, but we know also that we have paid to the very last penny any debt we may have owed the West.”
The full text is worth reading. Available at: https://histdoc.net/history/mheim.html
The Winter War in photos (courtesy of SAKuva (Finnish Military Archives) unless otherwise noted).