The Wargamer

26 May 2017

Book Review: The Winter War

The Soviet attack on Finland 1939 to 1940

Published on 7 JUL 2014 7:19am by Paul Robinson
  1. world war ii, background / research material, eastern front, introduction, english

This is the latest from the extensive Stackpole Books Military History series.  It is a short but thorough account of the Soviet Union’s attack on Finland in November 1939; a war overshadowed by the much larger cataclysm already unfolding elsewhere in Europe. The authors are Eloise Engle, a specialist in military affairs and Lauri Paananen who served with the Finnish Home Guard during the Winter War.

The book is broadly chronological account with each of the seventeen chapters covering a discreet phase or aspect of the conflict.  Whilst reflecting the experiences of both the Soviet armed forces and the Finns the book is largely told from the latter’s perspective.  The authors interweave a chronology of the war with first-hand accounts and experiences of the Finnish combatants.  Given the short nature of the war this works really well in such a concise book (176 pages including appendices)

The war is a fascinating one for those interested in military affairs as it pits two ill matched forces, in a climate and terrain armies would not normally choose to fight over and represents a very odd political situation at the very beginning of the Second World War (Britain, France and other Scandinavian countries in support of Finland versus Russia and Germany might seem to be an odd fantasy of a wargamer seeking an alternative scenario for his troops but was not as unlikely a possibility as it may now seem).  Also for those who like an underdog the Finns were definitely that; however to quote from Nikita Khruschev in the book’s Preface: “All we had to do was raise our voice a little bit and the Finns would obey.  If that didn’t work, we would fire one shot and the Finns would put up their hands and surrender.  Or so we thought.”

The book’s Introduction gives those of us unfamiliar with the history of Finland a brief overview of how it became the Nation-State it was prior to the Soviet attack and the long relationship between the Finns and the Russians.  It also describes the national Finnish characteristic of Sisu, which mean.as guts and tenacity.  And as the rest of the book sets out The Finns would certainly need plenty of Sisu!

Following a brief Prologue which describes a meeting of the Soviet high command just before the invasion Chapter One sets out the immediate prelude to the Soviet assault (the calm before the storm if you will) and the reasons for the War.  The next Chapter takes us through the initial attack that began on the 30 November 1939 with 600,000 invading troops!  Chapter three is a brief account of the initial impact on civilians; the Soviets carrying out some pretty indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets.

Chapter Four covers the first attacks on the Karelian Isthmus, the possession of which was a key Soviet war aim.  And we get more information on Marshal Mannerheim, the commander of the Finnish armed forces.  This reveals the fascinating fact that he was never actually in the Finnish army but was an officer in the Imperial Russian army (however the brief history of Finno-Russian historical relations at the start of the book shows this is not really as bizarre as it seems)!  This chapter also gives some information on the differences between the two opposing forces (Finland’s army largely reservists, the Soviets in theory better trained and equipped).  Chapter five moves away from a strictly chronological account to talk specifically about the Russian tank force and how it was combatted by the Finns (who had very few tanks themselves).  The Finn’s made great use of the so called Molotov cocktail and indeed the State Liquor Board mass produced them!  Also I have to mention at this point the peculiar way the author’s refer throughout the book to Russian tanks as “Panzers”.  I am not sure why this is used rather than just the English word “Tank”; however the authors are consistent and you soon get used to it.

Chapter six again deals with a specific aspect of the war, the severe weather.  And for those who are aware of the problems the Germans faced in Russia during their invasion of the Soviet Union it is a massive irony that the Soviet troops suffered so much from the cold and the snow in Finland.  Chapter seven discusses further the impact of the Russian bombing campaign on international opinion.  But the sympathy generated resulted in very little by way of real support (or intervention).  Chapter eight goes into the detail of the air war where the small Finnish air force performed prodigies versus a vastly numerically superior Soviet force.  The final chapters return to a chronological account leading up to the end of the war.  I feel I should not spoil the outcome for anyone not familiar with this aspect of 20th century military history.

The book is supported by a collection of black and white photographs in the centre showing some of the personalities of both sides and also typical scenes of troops and tanks in action.  There are a number of black and white maps; personally I could have done with a few more, but as this book is very much an overview of the war I didn’t find this was really an issue.  There are also a number of what I think are contemporary cartoons showing Finnish troops marching, fighting and eventually returning home all with a wry quip or witty remark, mostly at the expense of the Russians.   These are excellent as I think humour, especially in extreme circumstances, can give an insight into a people or a situation that is removed from our own experiences!

The book has five appendices.  The first lists those Finns who had fought and who gave assistance to the authors.  The second tables the various equipment and supplies that Finland received from various countries (so for example 40 40mm AA guns from Hungary, 150 mines from Italy and 25 Gloster Gladiator aircraft from the Union of South Africa – a gold mine of information).  Appendix three compares the structure and strengths of a typical Finnish and Soviet division and four shows the broad positions of these divisions across the theatre of operations.  The final Appendix is a helpful guide to understanding what Finnish place names mean.

Overall I thought this was a well-balanced book giving a good overview of the war and also detailed insights into the way it was fought by those involved. This is a useful primer therefore for anyone interested in this war and anyone interested in the second act, the so called Continuation War, where the Finns attacked the Russians alongside the Germans should read “Finland’s War of Choice” that has previously been reviewed on this site.

“The Winter War” available now in paperback from Casemate Publishing, normal price $19.95/£12.99 (ISBN 9780811714013).

http://www.casematepublishing.co.uk/title.php?isbn=9780811714013