One of the most important battles of the Winter War, the Battle of Raate Road, was 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
Soviet attacks Nov. 1939 (Wikimedia)