Revisiting Finland's Tactical Success During the Winter War
Matthew Merighi recently highlighted Finland’s tactical successes during the Winter War and the role of tactical innovation in asymmetric conflict. Merighi highlighted the micro-tactical successes of the Finns but in doing so overplays their importance relative to outcome of the Winter War and its relationship to World War II overall. Merighi’s approach is symptomatic of a growing trend in Western military analysis to elevate tactical successes to the realm of strategy and in doing so obscures the failure of strategy to link tactical actions to a political objective. This article seeks to provide an alternate perspective on the the Winter War; highlighting the fact that despite initial Finnish tactical successes, the result was, in the end, a Soviet strategic victory that provided the foundation for the remainder of their military successes in World War II. This analysis will hopefully encourage further discussion about what Huw Davies has termed the instrumentalisation of history–or in this case, the danger of drawing strategic inferences from poorly contextualised tactical analogy.
When assessing a conflict there is a danger in focusing on tactical actions alone, because they tend to be easier to assess in terms of cause and effect (or victory and defeat); however, they also tend to draw out the wrong lessons. Much is made of the Finnish destruction of the Soviet 163rd and 44th Regiments at Suomussalmi, but just like the Battle of Cannae to which they have been compared, these spectacular tactical victories should not distract from the overall result of the war. Arguably, the Soviet experience is more interesting than that of the ‘gallant’ Finns because of the strategic and operational adaptation forced upon them by initial tactical setbacks. As such, this article avoids discussion of prescriptive tactical lessons and seeks instead to draw out operational and strategic level observations that better represent the Winter War in its historical context. Assessment of the conflict will be provided through consideration of two key themes:
- The relationship between campaign design and tactics, and
- The tyranny of history and the importance of context in military study.
The Winter War began after Finland’s refusal to grant territorial concessions to the Soviets following lengthy diplomatic posturing between the two nations. It was the biggest Soviet military operation since the 1937 purges and came on the back of successes in Manchuria and Poland. Some 450,000 men invaded Finland on 30 November 1939, with the Soviets aiming to establish physical depth and security for Leningrad. Having learned lessons from Poland’s recent loss of sovereignty, Finland sought to retain its independence.
The war can be divided into two major phases: phase one from 30 November 1939 to mid-January 1940, and phase two from mid-January to 13 March 1940. The first phase saw four Soviet armies (approximately 21 divisions) invade and spread piecemeal across the length of the border. The Finns effectively had understrength divisions facing armies, with their defences massed along the Mannerheim Line on the strategically significant Karelian Isthmus in the south. They used more mobile and flexible groupings in the north where the terrain and weather favoured highly adaptive guerrilla troops. The Soviets quickly became bogged down and lost focus. Meanwhile, the critical problem for the Finns was their requirement for international support that would never materialize.
By the second phase, the Soviets had adapted based on their initial failures. They reinforced the effort, rearranged their command and control, and re-focused their resources. The resulting changes created sufficient physical and psychological pressure to enable a major assault on the Mannerheim Line on 11 February 1940. By 15 February, the Finns had ordered a full retreat, and the Soviet breakthrough began. By 4 March, the equivalent of 30 Soviet divisions were assaulting the remnants of the Finnish forces, and when a ceasefire was agreed on 13 March, the Finns were close to total collapse.
Campaign Design and Tactics
The Winter War is a compelling example of the sometimes inverse relationship between campaign design and tactical success. Ancient Rome taught us the innate resilience of a massed army, one that could afford to lose battles but always win the decisive contest and ultimately the war. The Winter War is similar in many ways, with the successful application of superior strategy as the ultimate arbiter for the achievement of political ends through the application of tactical means.
In phase one of the war we see the inherently-flawed nature of the Soviet operational plan. They failed to identify the Finnish centre of gravity (the Mannerheim Line) and dissipated their forces, turning their strength into weakness. They underestimated their enemy, and by attempting to take all of Finland they both stretched their lines of communication and supply and degraded the effectiveness of their command and control. Indeed, an Allied assessment at the time based on the advice of a former Finnish G2 was that the northern actions were “merely sideshows of relatively little importance,” further going on to state, “The Reds appear to be incapable of choosing proper objectives…There is evidence of notable dispersion of effort.’
The Finns massed their defences along the Mannerheim Line, in a design for battle reminiscent of the French Maginot Line. They hoped that the consolidation of Finnish forces on decisive terrain would deny a Soviet offensive. This operational plan was never fully tested in phase one as the Soviets conveniently failed to act as the Finns had assessed. The Soviet decision to disperse, rather than concentrate their forces, allowed the Finns to use their famous guerrilla tactics in the north. It was here that Finland experienced its large-scale tactical successes–not where they had actually planned to fight the Soviets.
Phase two would prove that the initial Soviet and Finnish operational plans were flawed. However, in phase one the Finns were able to exercise significant flexibility at the tactical level largely due to the Soviet Union’s mistakes. There is no doubt that the Finns adopted an asymmetric approach, showed great innovation, and fought with the bravery expected when facing an existential threat–this was, however, totally counter to their actual plan which was based around conventional defence along the Mannerheim Line. The Soviets on the other hand were slower to adapt to the tactical situation based on the sheer size of their force and the magnitude of their operational mistakes. Yet, the same mass that led to their initial overconfidence and dispersion of effort also provided sufficient organisational resilience to conduct a wholesale review. This review resulted in the implementation of a new operational plan that connected the strategic need–a buffer for Leningrad–with tactical actions.
In phase two the Soviets simplified their plan and executed it violently. They restructured the force and its command and control, and focused all resources at the Mannerheim Line. This was a logical employment of Soviet capability due to their enormous advantage in combat power. The Finns had limited artillery support, no tanks, and suffered from ammunition shortages–there was no practical way they could mount a successful conventional defence against the Soviet behemoth. The Finns also failed to utilise naval assets that could have proved decisive in the Karelian Isthmus as a result of their lack of joint planning and a focus on defending against Soviet strength. Together with their lack of redundancy, flexibility, and external support, the Finns were unable to cope with the reinvigorated Soviets. Meanwhile, the Soviets simplified their plans to suit the terrain with a significant improvement in combined arms application that saw massive artillery bombardments followed by tanks that provided the initial wedge for the infantry to break through.
The ‘Tyranny of History’ and Importance of Context
The Winter War alone does not tell the full story, and the historical lens has to be widened to fully understand its context. The Winter War is a great example of the folly of focusing on tactics at the expense of operational and strategic realities. Indeed, there are too many accounts that almost gloss over the fact that the Soviets were the eventual victors, while lionising the ‘gallant’ Finns.
Merighi contends that the Winter War was a pyrrhic victory for the Soviets. If it was a pyrrhic victory, it was certainly Finland’s. While they did retain their sovereignty, their army was effectively destroyed and Finland was left as a state with limited means to determine its own destiny. Moreover, they were eventually forced to seek German support from the ever-present Soviet threat. This bargain not only placed them on the losing side of the Winter War but eventually that of World War II, leaving them to the ironic fate of having to pay reparations to the Soviets. In contrast, despite their physical losses, the U.S.S.R. came through the Winter War having not only identified, but actually applied valuable lessons about the employment of their military resources–it was far from a hollow victory. For this reason alone, the campaign must be viewed as part of the historical continuum lest we risk drawing the wrong lessons from spurious, isolated tactical analogies.
The historical continuum also provides a better mechanism to predict future behaviour and to posture or respond appropriately. There was nothing surprising about the Soviet intent to gain a physical buffer–this had been Russian doctrine since the appearance of the Mongols. Indeed, when viewed in this context, the recent Russian actions in Ukraine and their posturing against Finland and Sweden over the possibility of their joining NATO are also easily understood. The same can be said of the outbreak of the Winter War; which begs the question of whether Finnish strategic calculations and planning were fundamentally flawed in the decades prior to conflict–meaning that all tactical actions were effectively futile from the outset.
Furthermore, like many contemporary analysts, Hitler also drew the wrong lessons from the Winter War. In the result, he saw Soviet weakness and opportunity, rather than determination and adaptability. This emboldened his planning for Operation Barbarossa and led to Germany’s greatest strategic blunder of World War II. A miscalculation that meant any Nazi tactical successes would still fail to achieve strategic victory. The Winter War, and Finnish tactical actions therein, proved to be the crucible that forged a Soviet military machine capable of withstanding the Nazi offensive–a fact that ultimately proved decisive in the outcome of World War II.
The Winter War highlights the importance of situating campaign assessment within appropriate historical context to ensure the right conclusions are drawn. It also demonstrates that tactical setbacks, rather than successes, provide the obvious and crude necessity for strategic and operational review and adjustment. The current Western predisposition to analyse ‘successful’ tactical actions to inform the development of strategy is a frustrating example of our failure to understand this. It is all too easy to focus on what has been done well at the tactical level–as in the case of the ‘gallant’ Finns. However, the more difficult intellectual experiment is to review a campaign in its totality–to examine whether tactical actions were linked to a strategy that achieves the political objective and overall victory. This is the lesson that should be taken from the Soviet example in the Winter War as it demonstrates how strategy should be amended based on the counter-actions of an adversary.
Western interventions in recent times have arguably failed to conduct similar reviews. This failure of strategic imagination has led to entanglement in a range of messy, interconnected conflicts where tactical successes are abundant, but strategic victory remains elusive. As military professionals it is our responsibility to use history to illuminate current concerns and draw out the difficult lessons related to the achievement of strategic victory. Unfortunately, when Western militaries measure campaign success through the lens of tactical action, in isolation of broader operational and strategic concerns, it serves only to elevate tactics to the realm of strategy ensuring victory remains out of reach.
Mark Gilchrist is a serving Australian Army Officer. The views provided here are his own and do not reflect any official positions.
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Header Image: A group of Red Army soldiers demonstrates a captured Finnish state flag. (Wikimedia Commons)
Selected Winter War References:
- Chew, Allen F., ‘Fighting the Russians in winter: three case studies’, The Leavenworth Papers, US Army Staff College, 1981.
- Churchill, Winston. The Second World War: Vol 1, Houghton Mifflin, London, 1948.
- Deane, William H. Elements of operational design in the Russo-Finnish War, Naval War College, 1995.
- Nordling, Carl O. ‘The Soviet over-sea 1940 invasion of Finland : why did General Pavlov's ice-borne attack succeed?’ The journal of Slavic military studies ; Vol. 14, no. 4, December 2001.
- Reese, Roger R. ‘Lessons of the Winter War: a study in the military effectiveness of the Red Army, 1939-1940’. The Journal of Military History. Jul 2008. Vol. 72, Iss. 3.
- Unknown, ‘Bulletin No 2: Soviet – Finnish War. Operations from Nov 30 1939 – Jan 7 1940’, Special Bulletins from the 1939-40 active campaign in Europe: Lessons 1-10, 1940.
- Wikipedia: ‘The Winter War’, accessed 25 Sep 15.
 Winston Churchill, The Second World War: Vol 1, (Houghton Mifflin: London, 1948) pp 427-29
 Jessica H. Clark, Triumph in Defeat: Military Loss and the Roman Republic, (Oxford University Press: 2014) p48
 Allied Assessment, ‘Bulletin No 2: Soviet – Finnish War. Operations from Nov 30 1939 – Jan 7 1940’, Special Bulletins from the 1939-40 active campaign in Europe: Lessons 1-10, p3/10
 William H. Deane, Elements of operational design in the Russo-Finnish War, (Naval War College: 1995)
 Carl O. Nordling, ‘The Soviet over-sea 1940 invasion of Finland: why did General Pavlov’s ice-borne attack succeed?’ Slavic Military Studies, Vol. 14 (4), pp145-138.
 Chew, Allen F., ‘Fighting the Russians in winter: three case studies’, Leavenworth Papers, 1981
 These range from books like Gordon F. Sanders’ The Hundred Day Winter War: Finland's Gallant Stand against the Soviet Army (Modern War Studies: 2013); to blogs that include Matthew Merighi’s recent post as well as: http://ar.to/2010/08/red-blood-white-snow and http://warisboring.com/articles/how-to-kill-a-lot-of-russians-finland-style/. Finally these analyses contribute to military papers such as http://cgsc.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p15040coll2/id/3408/rec/1 which fundamentally misinterpret what occurred and contribute to organisational mythologising of Finland’s actions.