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Winter War Campaign - Part I: Boulder Dash
by Pete Dade

We are black like chimney sweeps from dirt and completely tired out. The soldiers are again full of lice…. They promise that the combat will be over by Stalin’s birthday, the 21st of December, but who will believe it?
- From a Soviet letter found on the Summa battlefield, Finland. (Eloise and Paananen, The Winter War.)

A Forgotten War

Between November 1939 and March 1940, the world watched on as a small Baltic republic grappled with the world’s largest military power—and twisted a Goliath’s arm behind its back.

Falling between the bookends of World War Two, the Soviet invasion of Finland in November 1939 stands as a largely underappreciated war within a war. Although seemingly lost now amidst the striking German blows against Poland in the autumn of 1939 and France in spring of 1940, the “Winter War” still imposed a profound influence on World War Two. It undermined the world’s perception of Soviet military might and competence, prompted a massive overhaul of Soviet military doctrine, and set the world’s contemporary political landscape upon its ear as England and France considered assisting in the fight against the Soviets, their future allies in the war on Germany, by sending troops to Finland via Norway and Sweden.

Finland ultimately lost this war and thus ceded roughly ten percent of its of its territory. Yet its fighting force of less than 200,000 under-equipped men exacted wildly asymmetrical losses from nearly half a million Soviet invaders. These figures vary, but sources range from an initial Soviet appreciation of 48,000 Soviet dead or missing to Nikita Khrushchev’s later concession that the number was closer to a quarter million men. Additionally, the Soviets also lost somewhere in the order of 2,000 tanks—quite the feat considering that the Finns had no appreciable armored forces beyond a battalion-sized contingent of underpowered tanks. Meanwhile, generally accepted figures place Finnish losses in the order of 25,000 killed or captured.

Although technically a loss for the Finns, the Winter War provided a victory in that it maintained its status as a sovereign nation rather than end up absorbed into the U.S.S.R. The Finns simply fought too well for the Soviets, and the Soviets proved themselves clumsy and ham-fisted opponent for the Finns.

The Best Offense is a Good Defense

How the Finns managed to inflict such losses against the Soviet invaders opens up numerous avenues for discussion, but the abbreviated answer lies in factors of terrain, doctrine, and a blend of troop quality and training. In short, the Soviets were utterly unprepared for the conditions under which they would fight the Finns. Moreover, the Finns would largely frustrate any attempt by the U.S.S.R. to fight on its own terms. When the battlefield environment conspired against mechanized operations, the Soviets largely failed to adapt—at least early on. Conversely, the Finnish brand of defense effectively augmented the nation’s lack of war materiel with terrain and local knowledge, particularly in the sub-Arctic and Arctic wilds along Finland’s eastern border with Russia. Here, in one instance, mere battalions of Finns completely annihilated an entire Soviet division that attempted to funnel mechanized forces through frozen forest tracks and roads.

The main fighting, though, occurred across the Karelian Isthmus, which linked the U.S.S.R. with Finland’s southern territory. Here the Finns stymied the main axis of the Soviet attack for weeks on end along the Finnish “Mannerheim Line.” Named after Finland’s own General Carl Gustav Mannerheim, a veteran of the Imperial Russian Army during the First World War and the Commander-in-Chief of the Finnish Army during the Winter War, this defensive line wasn’t a massively constructed defensive fortification like the Maginot Line in France, but rather a series of non-mutually supporting bunkers, trenches, and natural defensive positions. In fact, one anecdote points out that the Helsinki Opera House demanded more poured concrete than the entire Mannerheim Line.

Using camouflage, sunken boulders that impeded armored advances, and pre-sighted artillery targets, the Finns created bloody killing zones upon which the Soviets dashed themselves again and again. The sheer number of forces in the Soviet order of battle dictated that it would only be a matter of time before such resistance would be winnowed down. Such was the case, but it begged tens of thousands of Soviet lives and a drastic re-working of the Soviet approach at the hands of General Semyon Timoshenko before the Finnish defense would crack.

Scenario: Boulder Dash

By mid-December 1939, the Soviets took their first shots at sections of the Mannerheim Line. In and around the town of Summa, the Soviets attempted a number of breakthroughs that resulted in grievous losses of both men and armor. General Meretskov, in command of the attacks, put forth a revised tactical approach that called for armor to support the work of sappers who would destroy Finnish anti-tank emplacements. The Finns, with their prepared defenses and tank-hunter teams waiting in the woods, readied themselves for this renewed assault on their position.


The Soviet attack largely failed due to the improper application of armor and a lack of proper supplies. Follow-up attacks in Summa on 20 December thrust a handful of vehicles into the town of Summa itself, which were then destroyed in close combat or because they sat idle for lack of fuel. Throughout the fighting in this section of the Mannerheim Line, the Soviets lost roughly three fifths of its armor. Days later, the Finns would launch an attack of their own in this sector and disrupt Soviet plans for a renewed and carefully orchestrated attack. Unfortunately for the Finns this counter would also falter, as the Finns quickly discovered for themselves the demands of offensive operations on Finnish winter snow.

Suggested Reading:

Engle, Eloise; Paananen, Lauri (1992). The Winter War: The Soviet Attack on Finland 1939-1940. Stackpole Books.

Trotter, William R (1991). A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940 (also published as The Winter War). Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

Van Dyke, Carl (1997). The Soviet Invasion of Finland, 1939-40. Frank Cass Publishers.

Korhonen, Sami (1999-2004).

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