One of the most pivotal battles of the Winter War, Raate Road, was fought 1–7 January 1940. It was a part of the larger Battle of Suomussalmi whose objective was to cut Finland in half at its narrow ‘waistline’, from Suomussalmi in the east to Oulu on the west coast.
The Soviets brought two divisions and one tank brigade to the theater of Suomussalmi. Anticipating a victory parade in Oulu, they also brought a brass band.
The heavily outnumbered Finnish 9th Division under Colonel Hjalmar Siilasvuo had already encircled the Soviet 163rd Division in the village of Suomussalmi when it was ordered to destroy the Soviet 44th Division advancing along Raate Road from the border. The 44th was stalled on the narrow, forested road, 12 kilometers to the south. As the 44th crept westward, the Finns blew up tanks and trucks along sections of the convoy, halting their advance. With mines and booby traps in place, they blocked the Soviets from joining their comrades or retreating to the border.
Colonel Siilasvuo’s plan was simple: to cut off the Soviet supply line to the border, split up the troops into smaller segments, isolate them and wipe them out.
The decisive battles began on 5 January 1940, when the Finns attacked Raate Road near the border in company strength. Further west, they attacked with about a battalion of men and took it after several attempts.
The remaining regiments of the 44th Division were squeezed into a very narrow area. Between 5-7 January 1940, the unlucky 44th was systematically destroyed by Finnish ski troops who struck unseen and undetected from the surrounding deep woods. The captured commander of the Red Army division would later recall that he never even saw a Finnish combatant until he was taken prisoner.
The battle proved the effectiveness of Finnish “motti” tactics, where the enemy is encircled, entrapped and decimated in pieces.
Russian troop strength totaled 48,000 men, 335 cannon, 100 tanks, and 50 armored cars. The Finnish defenders, reinforced from a few thousand, numbered 17,000 with 11 cannon under the command of Siilasvuo; his only hope was to defeat the Russians in detail. And he did.
Of the Russians who escaped, many were wounded or succumbed to the cold. In the dark arctic winter, temperatures plunged to -40C , rare even by Finnish standards, and only 5,000 made it back.
The Finns captured 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 wealth of ammunition.
The 44th Division was formed nearly entirely of soldiers from Ukraine. The dark, overhanging woods and the bitter cold were fatal to soldiers from the steppes untrained in winter warfare.
A 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.
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 courtesy of SAKuva (Finnish Military Archives) unless otherwise noted.