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“Where Will We Bury Them All?” Finnish Arms Of The Winter War

Invaded by the expansionist Soviet Union in 1939, the Finns, a small nation of practiced riflemen, held Stalin’s hordes at bay for months with Mosin-Nagants and other small arms, including those designed by Aimo Lahti.

There are so many Russians, and our country so small, where will we find room to bury them all?” —Anonymous Finnish soldier

Not many people in the United States remember when the Soviet Union cruelly invaded its tiny neighbor Finland in November 1939. It is not the kind of subject that the highly sanitized and “politically correct” history departments of our nation’s public schools are willing to discuss anymore. Our current generation of school children has no memory whatsoever of the power and the ambition that once drove the Soviet Union. But after World War I and the Russian Revolution, in that terrible era of war and suffering, any country sharing a border with the Soviets would dread the threats, being followed by unreasonable demands, and culminating in the attack that was sure to come. There is surely a lesson to be learned by examining how a tiny nation of dedicated riflemen defended their country against one of the largest armies the world has ever known.

Just two months after the Nazis invaded Poland from the west and the Soviets attacked the Poles from the east, Stalin turned his attention north to Finland. The Russians claimed they needed a 20-mile wide buffer zone to “protect” Leningrad, home city of the communist revolution. Ultimately what they wanted was nearly all of Karelia, the Hanko Peninsula, the Rybachi Peninsula reaching into the far north of the Arctic, and four islands in the Gulf of Finland. All this territory had been hard-won by the Finns in their bloody war of independence from Bolshevik domination in 1918.

By 1939, the Soviets had already bullied Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania into castrating “mutual assistance” pacts with their Russian neighbor. Throughout the autumn of 1939, Finnish diplomats tried to forestall the inevitable and keep the Russians talking. By Nov. 13, 1939, diplomatic relations had broken down. On Nov. 30, the Soviets invaded. On Dec. 14, the League of Nations expelled the USSR from its ranks for their unprovoked invasion of Finland. Not that the ineffectual League’s actions made any difference; the snow was already tinted red with blood.

A Stumbling Red Colossus
Nearly a half-million Red Army soldiers, supported by almost 2,000 tanks and hundreds of artillery pieces attacked Finland’s southern and eastern borders. The disproportionate numbers of the opposing forces are staggering. Along the vital Karelian Isthmus, more than 120,000 Soviet troops (with almost 1,500 armored vehicles) assaulted positions manned by a little more than 21,000 Finns (and fewer than 30 anti-tank guns).

But the Soviets were disorganized and wholly unprepared. They were also hampered by a strange combination of overconfident, often incompetent, leaders operating without a clear strategy. The Red Army troops ranged from some of the better units within the Soviet forces to thousands of recent conscripts, barely trained and without the slightest preparation for the rugged terrain in which they were about to fight. The Soviet troops arrived without skis, without snow camouflage, and sometimes without proper winter clothing. Even if they had only been on a winter camping trip to Finland they would have been in significant danger from the extreme weather conditions. But the Russians had come to fight, and their inept leaders (those that remained after several years of Stalin’s brutal purges of Red Army officers) frequently blundered them into Finnish guns with no regard for casualties. In many cases, Soviet officers employed Napoleonic-era tactics against a determined Finnish opponent armed with 20th century arms. The resulting slaughter of Russian troops brought no tears from Moscow, and little change in strategy or tactics either. The world was about to learn how little the Soviets valued human life.

“A Most Honorable Annihilation”
Finland had little choice but to play for time. At the beginning of the war, Finland’s reserve stocks of ammunition were already dangerously low, having barely two months worth of rifle and machine gun cartridges available to the troops. With such limitations in mind the Finns hoped that global sentiment would be in their favor, with intervention coming from one or more of the Western powers before the country was completely overrun. In fact international opinion quickly rallied to Finland’s defense, but tangible military aid never came close to equaling the outpouring of good sentiments.

Neighboring Sweden maintained its neutrality but managed to provide aircraft, some artillery and small arms (including the Swedish 6.5x55 mm variants of the Browning Automatic Rifle) as well as a number of volunteers. Sensing the oncoming of a brutal and ultimately unwinnable bloodletting, Finnish commander Baron Carl Gustaf Mannerheim braced for “a most honorable annihilation.”

The Finnish Army was small but well practiced in the small-unit tactics that would serve it well. Their style was informal, but not undisciplined. What the Finns lacked in parade-ground spit and polish they more than made up for in superior fieldcraft and fighting spirit, or sisu. The volunteer Finnish Civil Guard (Suojeluskunta or SK) kept its ranks in top physical condition, with strong emphasis on cross-country skiing and marksmanship.

Finnish Army units were often composed of men from the same region, drawing strength from their familiarity with each other as well as their officers. Regional pride drove many Finnish units to perform miraculous feats in the field. On one occasion, a small strike force of two under-strength companies slipped across frozen Lake Tolvajarvi in a night raid against an entire Soviet battalion, caught clustering around its bonfires. After the Soviet sentries were silently dispatched with knives, the Red Army battalion was decimated in less than five minutes with accurate rifle and light machine gun fire. The only Finnish casualty of the raid was its commander, Lt. Col. Pajari, who suffered a mild heart attack on the return trip.

One small blessing for the Finns was that most of their small arms shared the same ammunition as their Soviet opponents. The more Maxim guns and Mosin-Nagant rifles they captured, the more guns and ammunition they had to use. The Finnish defenders gained copious amounts of their supplies the hard way—they took them off the dead bodies of their enemies.

More Soviets Than Bullets
The disparity in the numbers of troops and supplies available to the combatant forces soon made itself apparent. So too did the fatalistic nature of the Red Army, with its inexorable, almost zombie-like advance into the muzzles of Finnish guns. At the Russian crossings along the perfectly flat Taipale Peninsula, Finnish machine gunners mowed down one Soviet human wave attack after another. Thousands of Red Army soldiers fell to individual Maxim guns, whose gunners eventually went mad when the knowledge of the incredible amount of blood on their own hands sank in. Machine gunners fired until their water-cooled barrels boiled over despite the winter frost, while the snow before them turned red as hundreds, then thousands of fallen Soviet troops simply piled up into grotesque mounds. The brutal cycle of death repeated itself again and again as the Maxim guns chattered out 7.62x54 mm R slugs at 500 rounds per minute, even when the gunners broke down, the guns continued their deadly work unabated—and still the Russians came on.

It appears as though Moscow’s cruel calculations came true with unerring accuracy. Even if each Finnish marksman struck down a Soviet soldier with every shot, Stalin still had more men to sacrifice than the Finns had bullets to fire. And the fatalistic Red Army soldiers were ready, willing and perfectly able to walk, stumble or crawl over the backs of their fallen comrades to achieve their objectives. They feared their own commissars more than they did the crack of a Finnish marksman’s rifle or the death rattle of his Suomi submachine gun. The Bolsheviks continued to pour into Finland.

Advanced Small Arms Designs
Finnish and Soviet troops used the same basic rifle, all variations in one form or another of the bolt-action Mosin-Nagant Model 1891, chambered in 7.62x54 mm R. Finnish ordnance experts had improved the design in their own factories, creating the Model 1891-24, Model 27, Model 28 and the Model 28-30—all of which offered superior fit and finish (no pun intended), and greater accuracy to the original Russian rifle. Finnish marksmanship was noted before the Winter War, and became legendary afterwards. Individual Finnish snipers achieved incredible scores in a “target rich” environment. One Finn sniper was credited with more than 200 kills in the short three-and-a-half month period of the Winter War.

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2 Responses to “Where Will We Bury Them All?” Finnish Arms Of The Winter War

Pat Patterson wrote:
October 05, 2013

There appears to be only one source for the claim that Maxim gunners went insane from all the Russians they killed. That source is 'Frozen Hell' by William Trotter. He mentions that 'MG men at Suvanto had to be replaced due to psychological problems as they had to shoot too many men' but gives no source for this statement. In contrast, this source: http://forum.axishistory.com/viewtopic.php?f=59&t=65321 states: The war diaries of all Finnish mg companies in that area have survived and parts of them can be found in Kimmo Sorko's book Suvannon Salpa. That book is highly detailed account of battles in Suvanto.I did go thru it briefly in library today but even that had no mention of 'breakdowns'. I emailed the author on September 20, asking for a source to verify this statement, but as of this date (October 4) have had no response.

MarkS wrote:
October 03, 2013

Tom Laemlein mentioned that 'one Finn sniper was credited with more than 200 kills'. I believe he is refering to Simo Hayha who was credited with 200 kills with a Suomi 31 SMG. What Tom should have mentioned is that Simo was also credited with 505 kills with a Mosin-Nagant Model 28 with iron sights, earning him the nickname “The White Death”. He used iron sights to present the smallest possible target for the enemy, plus a scope could fog up or cause a glare, giving up his position. He went as far as to keep snow in his mouth so his breath wouldn't give up his position. The Soviets feared him so much that they mounted numerous counter sniper and artillery attacks to get rid of him. On March 6th, 1940, he was hit in the jaw by an explosive round from a counter sniper. He fell into an 11-day coma, awakening on the day the war ended. Hayha was given numerous awards, and was also promoted from corporal to second lieutenant, a jump in the ranks that had never been seen in Finland’s history. Despite being slightly disfigured, he recovered from his injury, and went on to live until the age of 97. He allegedly attributed his deadly sniping skills to “practice”. If anyone should be mentioned by name in this article, Simo Hayha should be, or at least give him the full credit he deserves, as he is one of the best snipers of all time.