The Soviet Union’s victory over Finland, March 1940, followed a very competitive war, which was unexpected. This, military observers believed, resulted from Stalin’s purge of the Red Army, 1937-8, which had badly weakened the military capacity of the Soviet Union. Hitler believed the Red Army was no longer a credible military force. He saw the purge and the Finnish war as evidence for his long-term goal of invasion and Lebensraum1. Hitler’s racial beliefs held the Slavs2 in contempt and the courageous, out-numbered Aryan Finns confirmed his racial biases. The Winter War was followed in the summer of 1940 by a stunning demonstration of German supremacy when the Wehrmacht crushed western Europe3. In June 1941 Hitler took the fatal decision to launch Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union because of his ideological biases, Stalin’s purges and misreading the Winter War.
The brutal purge of the Red Army was unprecedented. Field Marshal Tukhachevsky and two of his fellow field marshals (out of five) were shot more or less out of hand in 1937. They were followed by about 35,000 other officers and NCOs. The purge petered out at the end of 1938 and military observers made their negative assessment of the Red Army. They were waiting for the ‘audit of war’. The Winter War provided that audit.
Soviet territorial demands on Finland in the Karelian Isthmus were rejected and Stalin went to war to solve the issue by force. This provided military observers with the live conflict they wanted. A great power invading a tiny country ought to have led to a routine victory. By Christmas 1939 it was clear that Finland was providing a stern test.
The Soviets’ overwhelming logistical superiority was balanced by the incompetence of their commander, Voroshilov. As a commander he was utterly mediocre. The Mannerheim Line extended across the Karelian Isthmus4 as a fixed defence against the Soviet Union.
It was a problem which Voroshilov failed to solve. Timoshenko was brought in by Stalin to assert Soviet supremacy. He used First World War tactics: ferocious bombardment. Further north in the bitterly cold winter of 1939-40, the Finns used guerrilla warfare. Adapting their winter hunting skills – skis, camouflaged clothing, accurate shooting – they ‘hunted’ the Red Army in their terrain and climate. Hunting was transformed into sniping sapping the morale of the Red Army. Timoshenko solved these challenges by attrition-warfare5.
The creeping barrage by heavy artillery was supplemented with tanks and infantry attacks. The Red Army’s overwhelming logistical superiority meant that the Finns were ground down. The Karelian Isthmus and the route to Helsinki, 200 miles away, was open by the 11th February 1940. The largely successful guerrilla tactics the Finns employed further north were rendered pointless by the collapse of their principal front-line. The only issue was whether the Soviets would push westwards towards Helsinki, which they didn’t do as they feared continuing guerrilla warfare.
The Winter War is important because it was one of the building blocks in the decision to invade the Soviet Union in June 1941. Hitler’s biases focussed on Voroshilov’s period as commander. The gigantic Red Army was stalemated by a tiny ‘Aryan’ army, by using heroic guerrilla warfare in northern Finland. Finland was eulogised by Hitler. If Finland could do that to the Soviets what could the mighty Wehrmacht do? Hitler ignored the fact that the Soviets occupied eastern Poland6 at the same time as they launched massive attack on Finland. The Soviet’s ability to easily raise an overwhelming force escaped his ‘analytical’ mind. His military advisors knew only too well that an attack on the Soviet Union was unlikely to be a success but they were ignored7.
Stalin’s purge had left the army bereft of expertise, leaving the mediocre Voroshilov and Timoshenko to crush Finland. The universal judgement of military observers was that Finland, population 4 million, had demonstrated that the Red Army was in terminal decline. The victory of the Soviet Union was a disaster. It was a disaster for the Soviets as it led to German invasion in 1941. It was a disaster for the Germans who began an unwinnable war. It was a disaster for Finland because they allied themselves with Nazi Germany in 1941. The Winter War was important because it helped shape decision-making by appearing to verify Hitler’s racial prejudices and spurred him on to a fatal decision.
The Soviet Union attacked Finland because it believed that Leningrad was vulnerable. This wasn’t just another example of Stalin’s paranoia as one of the main targets of Operation Barbarossa was Leningrad. Leningrad was besieged for 900 days and about a third of its population died from starvation or diseases associated with starvation. Finland was an ally of Nazi Germany and participated in the attack on Leningrad.
1 Expansion eastwards to create a quasi-imperial Germany
4 See the Wikipedia article https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mannerheim_Line#The_Winter_War
6 There were circa 600,000 Red Army troops in Poland when they attacked Finland https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet_invasion_of_Poland
7 Napoleon’s defeat was used in war games; Bismarck’s axiom that fighting a two-front war led to defeat was also standard military college learning. Hitler ignored both maxims.