How Joseph Stalin's forces tried to seize Finland in 1940 'Winter War'

A warning for Putin: Joseph Stalin’s forces tried to seize Finland in 1940 ‘Winter War’ but were humiliated by a much smaller force and forced to settle for a peace treaty after three-months of warfare in which they lost 126,000 troops

  • The Winter War of 1939-1940  saw Finland defy the Soviet Union’s hopes for a quick, emphatic victory 
  • Instead, Soviet troops – who numbered around one million – were fiercely resisted for nearly three months 
  • In that time, Russia suffered more than 300,000 casualties – including 126,900 deaths 
  • By comparison, Finland lost 25,900 men out of an original force of around 300,000 

During Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the world has marvelled at the way in which president Volodymyr Zelensky’s forces refused to capitulate to the superior military might of their enemy.

Much has been made of the poor tactics of Vladimir Putin’s generals, along with Russia’s demoralised troops and malfunctioning equipment.

But more than 80 years ago, the similarly small Finland took on the might of the Soviet Union when dictator Joseph Stalin ordered an invasion of the country after its government refused to agree to demands to give up substantial territory.

The Winter War of 1939-1940 – which began less than three months after the start of the Second World War – saw Finland’s forces use innovative tactics to defy Russia’s hopes for a quick, emphatic victory that could have landed Stalin control of the whole country.

Instead, Soviet troops – who numbered around one million – were fiercely resisted for nearly three months, with dramatic photos showing how vehicles and equipment had to be abandoned in the face of the opposition and freezing conditions.

In that time, Russia suffered more than 300,000 casualties – including 126,900 deaths – and lost up to 3,500 tanks and around 500 aircraft.

By comparison, Finland lost 25,900 men out of an original force of around 300,000.

Stories of Finnish heroics include that of a Finnish farmer who became the deadliest sniper in history after killing 505 Soviet troops.

In the fighting, Finland also pioneered the use of the improvised grenade the Molotov cocktail, which was named after the Soviet Union’s foreign minister.

Ultimately however, the sheer numerical superiority of the Soviet Union’s forces took its toll and Finland’s government was eventually forced to sign a peace agreement that forced them to give up around ten per cent of their territory.

Despite the defeat, Finland emerged with its sovereignty intact and its international reputation enhanced, whilst the Soviet Union was kicked out of the League of Nations and was condemned by other world leaders.

The Winter War of 1939-1940 – which began less than three months after the start of the Second World War – saw Finland’s forces use innovative tactics to defy Russia’s hopes for a quick, emphatic victory that could have landed Stalin control of the whole country. Above: Russian soldiers captured by Finland

Instead, Soviet troops – who numbered around one million – were fiercely resisted for nearly three months, with dramatic photos showing how vehicles and equipment had to be abandoned in the face of the opposition and freezing conditions. Above: An abandoned Soviet tank 

The Winter War began in November 1939 when Finland refused to agree to the Stalin’s demand to give up territory so he could push Russia’s border westwards.

At the time, Stalin feared an attack by Nazi Germany – which ultimately came in June 1941 – and claimed the need to protect the capital Leningrad (now St Petersburg) from attack.

In September 1939, Adolf Hitler’s forces had invaded and overcome neighbouring Poland after a little over a month of fighting.

In temperatures that were as low as -45F, Soviet troops attacked Finland on several fronts with troops, thousands of tanks, planes and artillery pieces.

Finland had access to only a few dozen tanks, around 100 aircraft and very low levels of munitions. 

Led by Marshal Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, the Finnish troops repelled wave after wave of assaults.

Finnish sniper Simo Häyhä emerged a hero after racking up the most sniper kills in the history of warfare

Soviet troops were shown up in their fight against Finland, but ultimately triumphed due to their numerical advantage. Above: A burning Soviet tank

A Russian soldier smiles whilst raising his hands in the air as a Finnish serviceman aims a pistol at him

The Winter War began in November 1939 when Finland refused to agree to the Stalin’s demand to give up territory so he could push Russia’s border westwards. Pictuered: Joseph Stalin

Elsewhere, Finnish ski troops turned the landscape to their advantage to attack isolated Russian units.

Finnish sniper Simo Häyhä emerged a hero after racking up the most sniper kills in the history of warfare.

Aged 33 when the war broke out, Häyhä quickly acquired a fearsome reputation, striking the enemy unseen and unheard from hidden positions up to 300 yards from his target.

Nicknamed The White Death, Häyhä was a prime target for the Soviets, who targeted him with mortars and heavy artillery to halt his killing spree, which once claimed 25 men in one day.

Despite the perils of his situation, Häyhä professed to never feel fear, and would obsessively clean his weapon to make sure it worked in -20C temperatures.

Other tricks included freezing the snow around his hideout, so it would not fly up in the air when firing with an M/28-30 rifle, and covering his mouth to stop the steam rising from his breath.

With his white hood and a long jacket Häyhä was perfectly camouflaged inside the covered foxholes he dug into the icy landscape of eastern Finland, which the USSR invaded on November 30 1939

In temperatures that were as low as -45F, Soviet troops attacked Finland on several fronts with troops, thousands of tanks, planes and artillery pieces. Above: A Soviet bomber during the conflict 

Finland had access to only a few dozen tanks, around 100 aircraft and very low levels of munitions. Soviet railway guns are seen battering the Mannerheim Line, Finland

Soviet soldiers are seen being taken into battle on a sled drawn by a tank during the Winter War. Exhausted Finland had been forced to fight without the assistance of Britain and France – who were already at war with Germany

Soviet ski troops are seen advancing into Finland during the Winter War of 1939-1940. The Russians ultimately triumphed due to their sheer numerical superiority 

A Finnish soldier stands guard as Russian prisoners walk past during their daily exercise in the grounds of a prison camp in northern Finland

A downed military plane is seen in Finland during the Winter War of 1939-1940. The sheer numerical superiority of the Russian army finally held sway, after Soviet troops had used enormous artillery bombardments to overrun defences

Häyhä’s luck ran out after 98 days, when he was hit in the jaw and spent a week unconscious in hospital before waking up on the precise day his countrymen signed the Moscow Peace Treaty on March 13, 1940.

Exhausted Finland had been forced to fight without the assistance of Britain and France – who were already at war with Germany.

The sheer numerical superiority of the Russian army finally held sway, after Soviet troops had used enormous artillery bombardments to overrun defences.

The Moscow treaty ended the conflict on Soviet terms, with the Finns agreeing to hand over western Karelia and part of the Hanko Peninsula for a naval base.

Ultimately, this worked out at around 10 per cent of Finnish territory.

However, after the start of Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, the Finnish government allowed German troops passage through the country.

They later even joined the fight against the Soviets in what became known as the ‘War of Continuation’.

It is also believed that the poor performance of the Soviet Union during the attack on Finland prompted Hitler to launch his invasion of the country.  

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