winter war (Large)

It is November in Suomussalmi. The snow has already settled over the land.  Eero’s mother is tending the cattle in Arola Farm, just a mile from the border with Russia when she hears shouts and gunfire.  She looks over the wall and sees Russian soldiers surrounding the adjacent farmstead.  Many, many more are more marching down the road.  She is ready.  The Finns had prepared against the possibility of invasion. She runs inside, grabs her three children and whatever possessions she can, puts them in the sledge, harnesses the dogs and sets off across the fields to the village to join her husband and raise the alarm.  Luckily the snow is thick enough for the sledge to run and the ice on the river can bear its weight.  They are safe for the time being.  The Russians cannot follow.     

It is 1939.  Europe is in turmoil.  Germany has mobilised, reclaimed the Rhineland, and annexed Czechoslovakia. Von Ribbentrop and Molotov sign a non-aggression pact, dividing Europe up. Russia would get the Baltic states, Finland and many of the countries in Eastern Europe. Germany would occupy Western Europe alongside its allies in Italy and Spain. Poland would be divided into two. Neville Chamberlain flies to Munich and returns waving a piece of paper: ‘Peace in our time’. 

A few weeks later, the Nazis invade Poland. Britain declares war against Germany.  Stalin, goaded by Hitler’s provocative action, sends troops to Eastern Poland and to Finland. Ewa, Maria’s mother, remembers the Russians coming to their house in the middle of the night, giving her and her mother five hours to get together what they could take and make their way to the rail station, where they were put on cattle trucks bound for Kazakhstan.  

Stalin did not find it so easy in Finland.  He gambled on surprise. The Finns would never expect the Russians to invade through the wilderness in the middle of winter, but it is a just 200 kilometres from Suomussalmi to the western sea at Oulu.  Just one rapid push and the Russians could cut Finland in two and control the land and sea routes to Sweden.  He committed one whole division, the 163rd , to attack Suomussalmi, two thirds came across on the Juntasranta Road by Arola, the other third invaded a little further south along the more densely populated Raate road. They came with tanks, artillery and aeroplanes.  The army could only travel by road; unequipped for snow and ice and lacking local knowledge, they quickly became bogged down in the swamps, lost in the forests. Many Russians had been co-opted into the army. One man had just gone out to buy his wife some shoes when he was dragged away; he still had his wife’s shoes in his knapsack when he was picked up by the Finns. And the Russians were told that they would be welcomed as liberators. In any case, the Finnish army was weak; there would be no opposition.  How wrong they were.

There were just 54 reservists in Juntasranta. They offered token resistance but nevertheless, warned by Eero’s mother, they managed to alert the Finnish command and troops were mobilised and rushed by rail to the sector, even the PPP3 bicycle brigade from Oulu!  Eero’s family and other local inhabitants escaped by truck to the west but not before they had burnt their houses and driven off their stock so the Russians could not use them. 

In three days, the bulk of the division had advanced as far as the road junction at Palovaara, part of the division turned north, part south, but there it got stuck.  It was the worst winter of the century.  The soldiers were inexperienced, inadequately clothed, had little food and harried by the guerrilla tactics of the Finnish defenders and the lack of a friendly welcome, totally demoralised.  Their equipment quickly iced up and they were confined to the roads.  The Finns were mobile; they travelled on skis and used the forest trails.  Being the land of Nokia, they were sophisticated in mobile wireless communications even then and could expertly hack into and decode soviet field instructions, but they also relied on dogs and runners to convey messages. And they were well led by commanders who understood the importance the importance of warmth and food on morale. They even took mobile saunas with them. 

Masterminded by the 74 year old White Army veteran, General Merti Mannerheim and under the field command of the tough, intelligent Colonel Hjalmar Siilvasuo, the Finns developed the tactic of ‘motti’, for fighting against an overwhelming invading force.  They would appear out of the forest under cover of darkness with machine guns, grenades and mortars, creating much noise and confusion and setting up road blocks, preventing communication and dividing the enemy into manageable units which they would besiege, positioning snipers in trees to shoot the officers and strategically attacking the field kitchens, command posts, ammunition dumps and radio transmitters, keeping the Russians in a state of constant fear.  Just one shot from a sniper would evoke a firework display of retaliatory fire, which only succeeded in breaking branches from the trees and churning up the snow. Using this tactic, the Finns slowly eroded Russian resistance until they starved and ran out of ammunition.

Another division, the 44th, was despatched to relieve the besieged Russians.  It stretched like a string of sausages for 25 kilometres along the Raate road.  Siilvasuo used the same tactic but this time he was reinforced with antitank guns and many more troops.  It was dramatically effective.  When the Russians eventually gave up in early January, they had lost 27,500 soldiers.  Their corpses littered the countryside, frozen into grotesque postures.  By comparison, Finnish casualties were just 900.  General Vinogradov managed to escape back across the border in a tank.  He was court marshalled along with three other surviving officers, taken into the woods and shot.  The official reason was ‘the loss of 55 field kitchens’.             

Slowly the troops and the snow melted away and the farmers returned to their land.  First they built their saunas.  These would keep them warm, sheltered and clean.  In Finland, warmth comes before everything.  Then they rebuilt their houses and restocked their farms.  But in 1942, they were invaded once more.  The Germans occupied Lapland to try to prevent the allied convoys supplying arms and food to the Russians via the ice free corridor to Murmansk and Archangel.  General Mannerheim might have intervened to cut the rail link between Murmansk and St Petersburg, but the Finns merely tolerated the Germans because they would serve as a shield against the Russians.  In 1944, with the Nazi hold on the war weakening, Stalin extracted a deal with Finland whereupon he promised not to invade again as long as the Finns evicted the Germans from Lapland.  This they did, but in their revenge for what they saw as betrayal, the Germans burned the towns and homesteads, many of them for a second time.          

Eero’s family returned to Arola and has remained there ever since, farming and organising bear safaris.  But Eero is marked by the war.  When he was just twelve years old, he picked up a land mine.  It exploded and destroyed most of his right hand.

 In 1990, not more than a decade after General Galtieri’s rag tag teenage army invaded the Falklands, I ran up from Port Stanley to Mount Tumbledown, the invaders last stand.  It was a sad place of barricaded caves, abandoned field kitchens and thousands of daps, those very light canvas shoes, lying in dirty puddles; the detritus of war.

And now it is the British who are waging war against a hidden adversary in Helmand Province of Afghanistan. I don’t know why any more.

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