by MITCH SWENSON
On Nov. 30, 1939, the Soviet Union invaded Finland with more than 400,000 troops. The assault was almost three times larger than the Allied landing at Normandy. Soviet Leningrad, a city of five million, by itself contained more people than the entire country of Finland. As the world’s largest infantry force, the Red Army marched across the border with resolve. It looked like a decisive victory for Stalin.
Instead, the Winter War became one of the USSR’s most shocking defeats. A Finnish army just a third the size of the Soviet force slowed and bloodied the invaders until a peace deal ended the war.
In the first week, the forests of Karelian Isthmus were lit up by gunfire. The Finns lacked the anti-tank ammunition needed to adequately combat Soviet vehicles and Stalin’s army gained large tracts of the forest within days. One thousand Soviet tanks successfully besieged the meager Finnish brigades until Finnish engineers found a vulnerable exhaust shoot on the back end of the Red Army’s T-28 tanks.
Finnish ski troopers, quick and agile in the forests, wove through the trees, using their white uniforms to remain concealed in the snow. The skiers tossed Molotov cocktails and satchel charges through the exhaust opening into the tanks’ bellows, causing the vehicles to explode from the inside out.
In one instance, a Finnish ski trooper sledded close enough to pry the treads off one T-28, demobilizing the tank and allowing other Finnish skiers to plunk explosives inside.
Eventually, Finland was able to roll back the Soviets’ tank advances with these drive-by ski bombings. And on Dec. 6, Stalin’s army mounted a large-scale infantry invasion near the Taipale River. The Soviets, having a huge numbers advantage, plowed through the snow towards the enemy.
But the Finnish ski troopers, again utilizing their knowledge of the white and wooded landscape, expertly positioned automatic weapons that mowed down wave upon wave of advancing Soviet soldiers.
After days of slaughter, enough dead riflemen had piled up in the snowbanks that the oncoming lines of Soviets were able to take cover behind the frozen bodies. The sub-zero temperatures hardened the corpses enough to stop the Finnish machine gun rounds.
On Dec. 17, having taken heavy losses, the Soviets shifted their focus to a different area of the Finnish front known as Summa and Lahde. The Soviets used flamethrower tanks to scorch the Finnish trenches while the Finnish army fought back fiercely. It’s been said that two machine gunners fired 40,000 rounds between them.
In the evenings, the Finnish ski troops counterattacked. By Dec. 21, Stalin’s birthday, seven Soviet infantry divisions had been wiped out along with 250 T-28 tanks.
A bitter winter fell. Temperatures plunged to negative 40 degrees Fahrenheit. It was so cold that when a soldier was hit by a bullet and his circulation slowed, his body would freeze almost instantaneously, immortalizing his agonized posture.
Later, the Soviets entered Finland from the eastern border and walked narrow logging trails in the woods with more than 30,000 troops. Included in this line were aerosani—propeller-driven snowmobiles with mounted machine guns. These snow-skimmers had been developed for delivering mail and medical aid in Siberia.
The Finnish ski troops approached the lines from the front and back and knocked out the lead and trailing vehicles, causing the middle units to become stuck. Swiftly, the Finns jumped out of the forest and further split the Soviet columns with mortars and grenades. In this way, the Finns decimated the long Soviet columns and took 1,500 prisoners.
In January both sides recessed and regrouped as the cold became unbearable. When the Soviets returned in February they launched an all-out assault, sending 45 divisions—a total of 750,000 troops—into the forests of the Karelian Isthmus.
Two thousand artillery shells slammed into the Finnish front line. There were simply too many Red Army troops for the Finnish ski troops to dexterously out-maneuver their foes—and as a result Finland’s army could not hold.
The Finns sent in their reserves. The fighting raged on, with Stalin’s army slowly pushing back Finland’s infantry. By March 12, the Finnish ski troops were almost out of ammunition. But the next day, March 13th, 1940, Helsinki and Moscow signed an armistice. Having largely held back the USSR, Finland sacrificed some territory for an end to the fighting,
All told, it is believed that the Finnish army killed more 200,000 Soviet soldiers for a loss of fewer than 50,000 its own.
When the snow finally melted that spring, the corpses of thousands of Soviet soldiers were unearthed in the Finnish woods, each body still contorted as in its final moments of life.