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
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”
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
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