80 Years since the Winter War

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).

 

 

 

August 23, 2019– 80 Years Since the Molotov- von Ribbentrop Pact was Signed

Eighty years ago, on the evening of August 23, 1939, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union shocked the world by signing a nonaggression pact in Moscow that contained a secret protocol carving up Eastern Europe into mutual spheres of influence, and ensuring that the dictators would stay out of each other’s way as they carried out their agendas.

Stalin-HitlerPact

As a result, on September 1, 1939, World War II began with Germany’s invasion of Poland, followed by the Soviet Union’s invasion of Poland two weeks later.  The attack on Poland placed Britain and France at war with Germany. This was a double win for Stalin, pitting both his enemies in the west–Nazi Germany and the Allies–against each other.

For Hitler, the pact was an act of expediency that allowed him to invade Poland and further his ambitions in Western Europe without fear of Russian reprisals. For Stalin,  the Secret Protocol was a chance to regain territory lost by Russia after World War I.

(The existence of the Secret Protocol was denied by the Soviet Union for decades. It was finally published by the Russian Foreign Ministry in 1992. It had been published in the West shortly after the war.)

After the invasion of Poland, Hitler put his plans on hold but Stalin rushed to fulfill his part of the deal. In October, he issued demands to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and to Finland.  When negotiations with the Finns broke down, Russia invaded Finland on November 30, 1939, and the Winter War began, the setting for my novel Lost Ground.

The David-and-Goliath battle caught the imagination of the world.  Support poured in from everywhere, although not the military support the Finns needed. Until now Finland had been almost totally unknown, even in Europe. Now the eyes of the world were fixed on its life and death struggle.

And it was indeed a heroic struggle. Stalin’s generals had told him the war would be over in 2 weeks, but the Finnish army stopped their advance. The Finnish people united behind their army under Marshall Mannerheim. Former differences were put aside and everyone pitched in.

In the end the tiny Finnish army was forced to bow to an armistice, after inflicting huge casualties on the invaders. The result was the loss of most of Karelia, including the city of Viipuri (Vyborg). The armistice was signed on March 12, 1940.

Here is a gallery of pictures and images of the Winter War. (Photos from SAKuva Finnish War Archives unless otherwise noted).

 

 

Juhannus – Midsummer in Finland

The festival of Juhannus, or Midsummer, is second only to Christmas in importance in Finland.  It has been observed since pagan times in many northern countries at the summer solstice. The early Christian Church designated June 24 as the feast day of St. John the Baptist, and its observation begins the evening before, on St. John’s Eve.

In Finland, summer officially begins with Juhannus. The longest day of the year is marked in many different fashions around the globe but in the north it is infused with a zest rarely seen elsewhere. Close to the Arctic Circle the sun briefly flirts with the horizon but never surrenders its light. These are the magical white nights of the north, and in pagan times Juhannus was the night for driving away the evil ones with bonfires erected on lakeshores and islands, huge pyres of wood that tinted the hazy sky with a mad orange glow.

It was also a celebration of the reappearance of the anemone, the flowering of the chokecherry, the birthing of the young. And a celebration of the act that produces the young. Fertility rituals and supernatural omens for mate-finding traditionally played a large role. These traditions were varied and often regional. Maypoles were part of the western Finnish culture while bonfires (kokkos) are found everywhere to this day. Vestibules and doorways were draped with birch boughs and rowan branches.

The Finns fortify themselves with homemade mead (sahti) or other spirits before facing the social demands of the night.

The ancient spells of mate-finding were passed on through generations of women. On Juhannus Eve a maiden had to place birch twigs on the path before her home so that in the morning they would point her in the direction where her true love would be found. A common belief was that if she placed seven different kinds of wildflowers under her pillow on Juhannus Eve, she would have a dream in which her future husband would appear. More daringly, if she went out on Juhannus Eve wearing nothing but a garland of hay around her waist, waded into the middle of a stream and sat on a rock she would be more desirable. And if there was someone she especially desired, she went to the rye field at his farm on Juhannus Eve, naked except for a garland of hay around her waist, and rolled about in the field.

Nowadays Juhannus typically involves the raising of the flag in the early evening, followed by the singing of patriotic anthems and songs about summer. Then everyone adjourns to the sauna, where fresh birch switches lie fragrant and green on the benches, and cool lake water sparkles in large pails.  After the sauna, the guests gather around picnic tables as the hostess prepares the delicious crepes called lettus, to be eaten with whipped cream and strawberries. Drinks follow, along with toasts to friends and family, the summer, Juhannus, possibly the leaders of the nation and family forefathers, interspersed with snippets of song. The evening bubbles and ferments with hilarity, the fish still splash and jump, and bees still search for nectar in the daylight that refuses to die.

Later, the bonfire is lit and bursts into flames that lick the sky with insistent red tongues and feed the evening air with wave after wave of heat.

“The whole sky glows and the air itself seems to shimmer in the soft, gentle light…When the sun goes down briefly, the whole of nature settles into a strange dreamy mood. The bringer of day is gone, birds fall silent, humans and animals seek rest and plants wait for night that does not come. Instead, a dim, silvery light spreads over forests, waters and shores. It is not the light of the sun, the moon or the stars.”

Z. Topelius

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

luonnonkukkia juhannusmidsun

March 12-13, 1940: The Winter War ends in a bitter armistice

By early March 1940 the final act of the Winter War between Finland and Russia was underway. A new and massive Russian offensive had been launched on the Karelian Isthmus.wintwar11Twelve 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 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. Finnish reserves were  non-existent.

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 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. This was the Peace of Moscow. When the terms of the peace were announced, flags in Finland flew at half mast.

Helsinki juhlii rauhaa.

kokosuomi_sx

One Soviet general remarked: “We have won just enough ground to bury our dead.”

The estimated number of Russian dead has changed over the years and may never be known. 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 Mannerheim:

Soldiers! I have fought on many battlefields but never have I seen your like as warriors. That an army so inferior in numbers and equipment should have inflicted such defeats on an overwhelmingly powerful enemy is something hard to find a parallel for in the history of war. It is equally admirable that the Finnish people were able to resist giving in to despair, and instead to grow in devotion and greatness. Such a nation has earned the right to live.

Mannerheim

Marshal Mannerheim, Finnish Commander-in-chief

February 28: Finland’s Culture and Kalevala Day

On the journey toward Finnish independence as a nation, the epic poem Kalevala played a central role in creating a sense of national pride and identity. The first edition of the Kalevala appeared in 1835, compiled by Elias Lönnrot from folk poems collected in Finland and East Karelia.

1280px-Gallen_Kallela_Lemminkainens_Mother

Lemminkäinen’s Mother by Akseli Gallen-Kallela
Ateneum, Helsinki

The stories of the Kalevala had been part of the mythology and oral tradition of speakers of Balto-Finnic languages for 2000 years. Its unique poetic metre was subsequently used extensively by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Its legends and themes also influenced J.R.R. Tolkien heavily.

The germ of my attempt to write legends of my own to fit my private languages was the tragic tale of the hapless Kullervo in the Finnish Kalevala. It remains a major matter in the legends of the First Age (which I hope to publish as The Silmarillion)
― J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 257

At the time the Kalevala appeared, Finland had been an autonomous Grand Duchy under Russia for a quarter of a century. Prior to this, until 1809, Finland had been a part of Sweden.The independence movement that resulted in Finland’s declaration of independence in 1917 was strongly influenced by the emergence of the Kalevala as a symbol of national identity.

The Kalevala also inspired the great Finnish composer Jean Sibelius in his music, as well as generations of poets and artists to this day.

It marked a new beginning for Finnish culture, and brought a small, unknown people to the attention of other Europeans.

kaleva8

Kullervo Rides to War by Akseli Gallen-Kallela

Old Student House, Helsinki

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:

HelsinkiBombing4

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).

A Sombre Anniversary: the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 23, 1939

August 23 is the 79th anniversary of the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that paved the way for World War II.

The invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany from the west on September 1, 1939, and by the Soviet Union from the east two weeks later,  had been set in motion on August 23, 1939, with the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Hitler and Stalin.  This was an agreement to to stay out of each other’s way while each carried out his own agenda.

The pact included a secret protocol carving Europe into two spheres of influence.  Finland was in the Russian sphere.

After the invasion of Poland, Hitler put his plans on hold, but Stalin rushed to fulfil his side of the deal. In October, Moscow issued demands to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and to Finland.  When negotiations with the Finns broke down, he said “It’s time to let the soldiers do the talking.”

As a result, Russia invaded Finland on November 30, 1939, and the Winter War began, the backdrop for my novel Lost Ground.

The David-and-Goliath struggle caught the imagination of the world.  Support poured in from everywhere, although not the military support the Finns needed. Until now Finland had been almost totally unknown, even in Europe. Now the eyes of the world were fixed on its life and death struggle.

And it was indeed a heroic struggle. Stalin’s generals had told him the war would be over in 2 weeks, but the Finnish army stopped their advance. The Finnish people united behind their army under Marshall Mannerheim. Former differences were put aside and everyone pitched in. Special mention must be made of the role of Finnish women. Some worked as Lottas (the women’s auxiliary) and others ran the home front in the absence of their men, taking on unprecedented roles.

In the end the tiny Finnish army was forced to bow to an armistice, after inflicting huge casualties on the invaders. The result was the loss of most of Karelia, including the city of Viipuri (Vyborg). The armistice was signed on March 12, 1940.

Here is a gallery of pictures and images of the Winter War. (Photos from SAKuva Finnish War Archives unless otherwise noted).

Finland’s Culture and Kalevala Day – February 28

On the journey toward Finland’s independence as a nation, the epic poem Kalevala played a central role in creating a sense of national pride and identity. The first edition of the Kalevala appeared in 1835, compiled by Elias Lönnrot from folk poems collected in Finland and East Karelia.

1280px-Gallen_Kallela_Lemminkainens_Mother

Death of Lemminkainen – Gallen Kallela

This poetic style and its stories had been part of the oral tradition of speakers of Balto-Finnic languages for 2000 years. Its unique poetic metre was subsequently used extensively by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

At the time the Kalevala appeared, Finland had been an autonomous Grand Duchy under Russia for a quarter of a century. Prior to this, until 1809, Finland had been a part of Sweden.The independence movement that resulted in Finland’s declaration of independence in 1917 was strongly influenced by the emergence of the Kalevala as a symbol of national identity.

The Kalevala also inspired the great Finnish composer Jean Sibelius in his music, as well as generations of poets and artists to this day.

It marked a new beginning for Finnish culture, and brought a small, unknown people to the attention of other Europeans.

kaleva8

The Battle of Raate Road: January 1940

One of the most important battles of the Winter War, the Battle of Raate Road, FinnishSoldiersreturning from Raate Roadwas fought Jan. 1–7, 1940. It was a part of the larger Battle of Suomussalmi. The Russians aimed 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. In anticipation of a victory parade in Oulu, they also brought a brass band.

Heavily outnumbered, the Finnish 9th Division nevertheless decisively defeated the  Red Army on Raate Road during the first week of January, 1940. The battle proved the effectiveness of Finnish “motti” tactics, where the enemy is encircled, entrapped and decimated.

The 9th Division had already encircled the Soviet 163rd Division in the village of Suomussalmi when it was ordered to destroy the Soviet 44th Division. The 44th was stalled on the narrow, forested Raate Road, 12 kilometers south of Suomussalmi, and was systematically destroyed by the outnumbered Finns.

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 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 arctic winter, temperatures plummeted 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 Soviet 44th Division was formed nearly entirely of soldiers from Ukraine. 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                                                                                   from Finnish War Archives 

 

HAPPY 100th BIRTHDAY, FINLAND!

ON DECEMBER 6, 1917, the Finnish parliament declared independence from Russia. After 700 years of Swedish rule and 100 years as a Russian Grand Duchy, the sovereign state of Finland took shape.

Over the next 100 years, the young nation fought hard for its independence, fending off the Soviet Union in the Winter War and the Continuation War at the cost of precious lives and precious ancestral lands. Finland emerged from World War II as an independent state and survived the Cold War Years despite its difficult geographical position between Russia and the West. In 1994 it joined the European Union and today is a thriving, modern democracy with a solid economy and solid democratic institutions,  leading edge technology and world class educational systems, and of course,  its saunas and sisu intact.

Finland’s first 100 years in pictures: