In the Winter War (November 1939–March 1940), Finland was left alone to face Soviet aggression with only a modicum of assistance from Western countries. Many books and studies have been written about this conflict. The extensive coverage in English of this three-and-a-half month struggle should not be surprising—for it represented the gallant fight of a democratic “David” against a totalitarian “Goliath.” The bravery and determination of the Finns against insurmountable odds captured the imagination of the whole world.

The same is not true for the much longer and bloodier war that Finland fought against the Soviet Union at the side of Germany from 1941 to 1944—and their subsequent campaign to drive the Germans out of Finland in 1944–45. It might be true, as Olli Vehviläinen writes, that the war in North Europe was “buried under the avalanche of more newsworthy events in the greater war,” but this was not the only reason.1

Professor John H. Wuorinen writes the following in the foreword to his book, based on an anonymous Finnish manuscript, which he edited and published in 1948:

A document which tries to give an objective account therefore cannot be published without unpleasant consequences for author and publisher alike. If this were not so, this book would no doubt have been published in Finland months ago, and the name of the Finnish author would occupy the customary place on the title page.2

While it is difficult to pinpoint how long after the war the condition described by Wuorinen persisted, it is worth noting that that the official history of Finland’s involvement in World War II was not finished until 1994, more than thirty years after a similar multi-volume history about the war in Norway was completed.

The war at the side of Germany was not viewed in the same manner in the West as was the Winter War—it was not seen as a courageous and gallant fight to preserve democracy and freedom against a giant totalitarian neighbor. While numerous works on the war have been published in Finland, it is to be deplored that virtually none have been translated into English. The war at the side of Hitler was not one that brought pride to the nation and was a period many Finns would rather forget. Due to the lack of impartial and balanced treatment, large segments of the public in the US and Europe continue to believe that Finland found itself at the side of Germany in 1941 because it was attacked by the Soviet Union.

The Finns also refer to the war at the side of Germany as the “Continuation War,” an attempt to depict it as a continuance of the Winter War in order, perhaps, to obtain a more favorable reception both domestically and internationally. Both this attempt and the insistence that it was an independent war waged against the Soviet Union fail to stand up to close scrutiny. It has proven hard to overcome the fact that Finland was the only democratic country at Hitler’s side.

The Finns’ own views about the war at the side of Germany have changed over the years. In the earlier period there was a tendency to emphasize the error of their decision to align themselves with Germany. Later, they appear to have come to the conclusion that the war was a struggle for survival and that the government made what it thought to be the least harmful choice among bad alternatives. While validating the fact that Finland found itself in an isolated and dangerous position after the Winter War and the German conquests in the West, this book will also demonstrate to the reader that there were other alternatives, which were not seriously pursued.

A defensive alliance between Finland, Norway, and Sweden after the Winter War as proposed by Finland and supported by the other two was not specifically prohibited by the Peace of Moscow or its protocols and should have been pressed harder by all countries. It was a serious policy mistake by the Soviet Union to oppose the formation of such a defensive alliance. It may well have spared the whole of Scandinavia from involvement in World War II. Similarly, the military political union proposed by Sweden and accepted by Finland later in 1940 would have benefited the Soviet Union as it specifically ruled out a Finnish war of revenge.

While examining these issues, the main purpose of the book is to deal with the unique problems that arose from an ill-prepared coalition between a democracy and a dictatorship. This book addresses the problems caused by differing war aims and the failure to make plans much past the initial assaults. Following Germany’s victories in France and the Low Countries in 1940, it became axiomatic in both Finland and Germany that bringing about the military collapse of the Soviet Union would be easy and take a short time. Likewise, both appear to have harbored the view that Great Britain and the Dominions were defeated. These views are understandable in view of the spectacular victories Germany had racked up in less than two years. An underestimation of British determination—backed by the vast arsenal of the United States—as well as the resilience of the Soviet Union, undoubtedly contributed to a number of unwise decisions by both Germans and Finns.

The harsh and unforgiving climate and terrain in northern Scandinavia and the problems these posed for men and machines in military operations are considered throughout the book. The roads and railroads in this area were marginal and that, together with the great distances involved, posed severe problems for the logistical support of operations.

It became necessary to deviate from a strict chronological approach in this book. Some subjects recur in different time periods and must therefore be discussed in more than one chapter. For the convenience of the reader, complete dates are often provided to avoid confusion.

The Finns were sensitive to what happened on other fronts in World War II, particularly in the area south of Leningrad. Events in these areas influenced Finnish views on the war and consequently impacted on their political/military decision-making. I have therefore woven summaries of events on other fronts into the various chapters thereby hoping to make it easier for readers to understand events in Finland and the relations between Finland and Germany in context.

The best and most comprehensive accounts in English of the German-Finnish coalition war are those written by Earl F. Ziemke and General der Infanterie Waldemar Erfurth, the Chief of the German liaison staff at the Finnish headquarters.3 Ziemke’s work, The German Northern Theater of Operations was written in 1959 for the US Department of the Army while Erfurth’s book (based on a book he had published in German in 1950) was written under the auspices of the Foreign Military Studies Branch of the Historical Division, European Command, more than twenty years later. Another work of historical research that deserves mention is Major James F. Gebhardt’s book, written for the Combat Studies Institute of the US Army in 1989. This excellent study deals in detail with the Soviet breakthrough and pursuit in the Arctic region in late 1944.

There are a number of books by German participants written from the 1950s to the 1980s that have not been translated into English. Some are unit histories. There are also a number of books in Swedish and Norwegian, but again they have not been translated.

Two books by Finnish-Americans, John H. Wuorinen, and Leonard C. Lundin, deserve mention. They were written in 1948 and 1957 respectively.

The memoirs of Marshal Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, the Finnish commander in chief, were published in Swedish after his death in 1952, and in English in 1954. There are numerous discrepancies between what is contained in Mannerheim’s memories, noted throughout this book, and what appear in other sources. Marshal Mannerheim did not begin writing his memoirs until illness forced him to move to Switzerland for medical treatment—to the Valmont Sanatorium in Montreaux. His memoirs were written with the help of a number of generals and colonels headed by General Erik Heinrichs, his former chief of staff. Since his book was not finished when the marshal died in January 1951, Colonel Aladar Paasonen, chief of Finnish Intelligence, was given the task of completing the manuscript. The reader should keep this fact in mind as we encounter the discrepancies.

The most recent work translated into English of which I am aware is that written by the Finnish historian Olli Vehviläinen in 2002. However, this excellent book of 199 pages is only partially devoted to Finland’s war at the side of Germany. Furthermore the part dedicated to military operations deals primarily with Finnish operations while little space is given to German operations in Finland. Finally, it is weighted toward the political and foreign policy aspects of the war.

Military operations in Finland had profound strategic consequences for the outcome of the war on the Eastern Front. It is hoped that this book, by building on the research and writings of others, will provide useful information in English for the student of military history on an aspect of World War II that is virtually unknown in the West. This book analyzes military operations and military decisions and tries to put them in context of what was happening on other fronts and in the international political arena. In addition, the study of past military operations in the Arctic region with its increasing strategic importance because of the abundance of oil and other natural resources is a worthwhile endeavor.

This book does not address social, economic, and political affairs in Finland during the war unless they are viewed as impacting on military operations or decisions. Additionally, the book does not address air and naval operations to the same extent as land operations. This is not to slight those two services but is primarily due to the scarcity of sources available to me. My own difficulty in reading Finnish has served as a limitation on the use of Finnish sources. The archives of the former Soviet Union have been partially opened and these will undoubtedly throw some new light on the events of the war in the future. My use of Russian sources has basically been limited to works that have been translated to English.

Concerning the names of locations in Finland I have not followed a set pattern. Many names of geographic locations in the territories that are now under Russian control differ from one map to another and some of the places are so small that they do not appear on maps available to me, not even on the excellent maps in Ari Raunio’s war atlas. When I use Finnish names in these areas I place the Russian names in parentheses if they are known. Likewise when I use Russian names I place the Finnish exonyms in parentheses—again if they are known to me.

I owe a special debt to all who have written about the various aspects of the war in Finland. They are frequently referenced in text and notes.

I am grateful to a number of libraries and archives, including Mr. Janne Hallikainen at the Photographic Center of the Finnish Defense Forces. The friendly and helpful staff of the Coyle Free Library in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania has been of great assistance. Glennis Garnes, in charge of the Inter-Library Loan Program, worked tirelessly to locate references from across the US, some of them rather obscure.

The Finnish Embassy in Washington, D.C., has helped address the problem of name changes of locations in former Finnish areas that are now part of Russia. Specifically, I want to mention the excellent assistance by Nina Pihlman and Ulla Ahola.

Jukka Juutinen, a Finnish national, has helped with the translation of passages from Finnish sources and answered numerous questions that I had over the past year. By making available Finnish views on various aspects of the war he has made a valuable contribution.

My friend, Dr. Enoch Haga of Folsom, California has read and proofed every draft. He has provided helpful suggestions on various aspects of the project from its inception. Dr. Loislane Lowe in California has also assisted in the proofing and editorial process.

Finally, it is obvious that I could not have completed this work without the understanding and support of my family. My debt to them is immense.

Despite the diligence of those who provided assistance, comments and advice, I must stress that I take full responsibility for all conclusions and such errors as this book may inadvertently contain.


Turbulent Start

From the 13th century until the reshuffling of borders during the Napoleonic wars, Finland was an integral part of Sweden. Swedish rule brought Western culture and law as well as the Lutheran religion to the country. While most continued to speak Finnish, the official language for administrative purposes and use by the upper classes was Swedish. The Swedish empire in the Baltic began to disintegrate after losing its great-power status in the 18th century. However, it was not until 1809 that Finland was separated from Sweden and became a grand duchy of Russia with considerable local autonomy.

The Finns continued their semi-independence and Western orientation but after 1894 both became increasingly threatened by the drive to centralize the administration of the far-flung Russian empire. Finns were conscripted into the Russian military, new taxes were introduced, and a large number of Russian troops were stationed in the country. The Finns felt their way of life threatened by this centralization.

There was a respite in the centralization process after the unrest in Russia following the Russo-Japanese war. In 1906 Russia allowed the formation of a Finnish parliament based on universal suffrage and Finland became the first country in Europe to give women the vote. The independence movement that began with centralization continued but did not mature until the Bolshevik takeover in Russia in November 1917. The Bolsheviks’ professed doctrine of self-determination for non-Russian nationalities gave encouragement to those who wanted nothing short of total independence.

Events appeared to go smoothly after Finland’s declaration of independence on December 6, 1917. At the urging of Germany, then engaged in peace negotiations with Russia, Finland presented a petition for independence to the new Bolshevik leadership. This petition was granted by the Council of People’s Commissars on December 31 and sealed by a handshake between Vladimir Lenin and the Finnish representative, Pehr Edvind Svinhufund.

Finland’s independence ushered in a turbulent period for the country. In twenty-four years Finland became embroiled in three wars with its large eastern neighbor.

The revolution in Russia also spread to Finland where opposition to the principles of the Bolsheviks was far from universal. A civil war broke out between those on the left (Reds) and landowners and nationalists (Whites). While the Reds were supported by Bolshevik troops, the Whites, under the command of an aristocrat and former general in the Russian Army, Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, gained the upper hand by the spring of 1918. The Whites received both troop and matériel support from the Germans who were interested in weakening Russia through the creation of independent states on its borders. In the end, after toying with the idea of a constitutional monarchy, Finland became a democratic republic with a unicameral parliament and a strong presidency.

In their negotiations with the Soviets the Finns tried to acquire the strategically important East Karelia, arguing for an eastern border running from the White Sea to Lake Ladoga (Laatokka). The Soviets were adamantly opposed and without the support of either Germany or the Western Allies in World War I, Finland had to settle for the boundaries of the former Grand Duchy. Finland’s independence and borders were formally recognized by the Peace of Tartu in 1920.

Finland had a difficult time settling on a consistent foreign and security policy after independence. Most of these difficulties were caused by external events. The earlier pro-German orientation ended with Germany’s defeat in World War I.

There followed a period of Western orientation along with enthusiastic support for the League of Nations. Even as late as August 2, 1937 Joseph E. Davies, the United States ambassador to the Soviet Union, reported from Helsinki that in European politics Finland followed England’s signals because England was Finland’s best customer.1

The Finns were dismayed by the inability of the League to do anything to hinder the conflicts that broke out in the 1930s and this resulted in a security policy based on neutrality. At the end of 1935 Finland joined the Scandinavian neutrality block. This was a natural move because of the close historical, cultural, and economic ties between the Scandinavian countries.2 However, this association proved unworkable since these countries could not agree on a common policy when faced with a crisis.

Relations between Finland and Germany cooled in the 1930s. In Finland, as in the other Scandinavian countries, the Nazi regime was sharply criticized. In 1939, Finland caused considerable resentment in Germany by joining Sweden and Norway in rejecting a proposed nonaggression pact.

Finland signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union in 1932 at the latter’s invitation, and this pact was renewed in 1934 for a period of ten years. Tensions with the Soviet Union began to grow in 1938 when the Soviets initiated secret discussions with Finland. The reason for the discussion, according to the Soviet emissary, Boris Yartsev, was the possibility that in the event of a Soviet conflict with Germany, the latter might use Finland as a launch pad for an attack against the Soviet right flank. In such an eventuality, the Soviets would not wait for the attacker to advance to their border, but would strike the enemy in Finland. With this possibility in mind, the Soviets now demanded the right to aid Finland.

The confidential talks with Yartsev continued throughout the spring and summer. On August 11, 1938, the Finns presented Yartsev a draft treaty in which Finland formally declared that it would not permit any foreign power to obtain a foothold on its territory for an attack on the Soviet Union. The Soviets were requested to reiterate their assurance that they would respect Finland’s territorial integrity. The Soviet Union was also asked to give its approval to the joint Finnish-Swedish remilitarization of the Åland (Ahvenanmaa) Islands.3

The Åland Islands, between Sweden and Finland in the northern Baltic, were demilitarized in accordance with an international treaty in 1921. However, there were growing fears that Germany or the Soviet Union would rush to occupy them in case of a European war.

The Swedish and Finnish governments had agreed that Finland should, with Swedish assistance, embark on a partial remilitarization of the islands. This was approved by the signers of the 1921 agreement and by the League of Nations. The Soviet Union—to which this proposal was also presented although it had not signed the 1921 agreement—delayed its answer and implied that permission would be granted only on condition that the Soviet Union was given the same status as Sweden in defending the neutrality of the islands.4

On August 18, 1938 the Soviets demanded a written pledge that Finland would repel a German attack and agree to accept Soviet armed assistance. They also demanded facilities on the Finnish island of Suursaari (Gogland) in the Gulf of Finland for the purpose of building an air and naval base. In return, the Soviets offered to guarantee Finland’s independence and territory and to conclude a favorable trade treaty. The Finnish government rejected the proposals.

Soviet Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov initiated fresh proposals in March 1939. He asked the Finns for the lease of five small islands in the Gulf of Finland so that the Soviet Union could defend the Leningrad passage.5 Mannerheim, who was now Chairman of Finland’s Council of Defense, advised the government not to reject these new proposals without trying to reach a compromise. The government did not heed his advice and rejected the Soviet proposal on March 8. Litvinov sent a special emissary, Boris Stein, to Helsinki to discuss the matter. He offered Finland 183 square kilometers of land on the eastern frontier in exchange for the islands.6 Mannerheim again advised meeting Stein halfway but again the government did not agree.7 The discussions broke down on April 6. It was not the failure of these negotiations that changed the situation between Finland and the Soviet Union radically in 1939 but rather the new relationship between Germany and the Soviet Union.

The Ribbentrop–Molotov Pact

On August 23, 1939 the German Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, flew to Moscow where he and the Soviet Foreign Minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, signed the now famous non-aggression pact. The two countries had already concluded an economic agreement on August 19.

The Soviet Union agreed on the economic accord to provide food products and raw materials to Germany in exchange for finished products. In the non-aggression pact, both countries agreed not to take aggressive action against each other if either became involved in war.

A secret protocol to the non-aggression pact (its existence was denied by the Soviets until 1989) spelled out the respective spheres of influence of the two countries in the Baltic area. It reads in part:

In the event of a territorial and political rearrangement in the areas belonging to the Baltic states [Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania], the northern boundary of Lithuania shall represent the boundary of the spheres of influence of Germany and the U.S.S.R.8

This shows that Germany left Finland within the Soviet sphere of influence.

This non-aggression pact gave the Soviets the buffer they desired as protection against an attack from the west, something they had been unable to secure from France and Britain in earlier negotiations that summer. For three centuries, the creation of a buffer zone had been—and continues to be—a central goal of Russian security policy.

Russia’s concern for its security is understandable when viewed in historical context. For 300 years Russia had faced devastating attacks from the west, beginning with the Swedish invasion in the Great Nordic War (1699–1720) and continuing with the invasions of Napoleon and later Germany, Austria, and Turkey in World War I. It is regrettable that Russian fears led to occupation and repression of neighbors with common borders. The non-aggression pact also secured for Joseph Stalin time to modernize and increase the strength of the Soviet military forces. These forces had been badly weakened by earlier purges, as was soon to be demonstrated by their less than stellar performance in the Winter War.

For Germany, the pacts (economic and non-aggression) were viewed by Adolf Hitler as a temporary detour on the road to the ultimate military destruction of the Soviet Union. They removed the immediate threat of a two-front war. If the Western Allies couldn’t count on cooperation from the Soviet Union, Hitler speculated that they would not react militarily to his planned invasion of Poland since there was no way for them to influence the fate of that country without Soviet assistance. In addition, the pacts secured for Germany important economic resources needed for its war industries, thus minimizing the effects of any possible economic blockade.

The Soviet Union acted quickly to take advantage of the free hand given by the Germans in the Baltic region. Each of the Baltic states—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—individually received an invitation for their foreign ministers to come to Moscow to negotiate. These negotiations ended in the Baltic states being forced to accept demands granting the Soviet Union bases and mutual aid pacts. Thereafter, these countries were independent in name only. Eventually, during the summer of 1940, they were absorbed into the Soviet Union.

Soviet–Finnish Negotiations

The announcement of the pact between the Soviet Union and Germany did not worry the Finns initially. They even felt safer since their two powerful neighbors had come to an understanding, thus lessening the chance of a war in the Baltic. This view was further strengthened by announcements by German officials. The German ambassador to Moscow, Count Friedrich Werner von Schulenburg, announced on August 30, 1939 that there had been no discussion of any spheres of influence to which Finland might belong at the Moscow meeting in August between Ribbentrop and Molotov.9 This blatant misstatement of facts was made possible because spheres of influence were spelled out only in the secret protocol mentioned above.

The Soviet Union significantly strengthened its defensive position in the west through the acquisition of air and naval bases in the Baltic states. However, Soviet leaders felt that the security of Leningrad would be menaced as long as they did not fully control sea and land approaches—Leningrad’s suburbs were located only around 30 kilometers from the Finnish border.10

The Soviet government initiated negotiations with Finland on October 5, 1939, apparently expecting the latter to make concessions similar to those made by the Baltic states. It was suggested that Foreign Minister Väinö Tanner or his representative come to Moscow as soon as possible because the Soviets desired an exchange of ideas with Finland concerning certain political questions caused by the outbreak of World War II. Finland agreed on October 8 to send a representative to Moscow.11

The Finns became alarmed over the Soviet request for negotiations. To prevent any surprises, several classes of reserves were called to the colors on October 10.

The Finnish foreign minister, Väinö Tanner, asked the German ambassador to Finland, Wipert von Blücher, to see him on October 6. Tanner stated that he did not know what the Soviets had in mind. He pointed out that while Finland was willing to make compromises, any demands involving the Åland Islands or Viipuri (Vyborg) would be rejected. The foreign minister also asked what the position of Germany would be if Finland found Soviet demands unacceptable.12

Blücher forwarded a report of the conversation to Berlin. The answer from the director of the Political Department of the German Foreign Ministry arrived the following day. It stated that a conflict between the Soviet Union and Finland was unlikely but that Germany would remain neutral in any such conflict.13

Juho Kusti Paasikivi—a former prime minister and ambassador to the Soviet Union—was selected to go to Moscow. He was instructed to make no commitments with respect to military bases on Finnish territory and adjustments of the border on the Karelian Isthmus. On the other hand, the exchange of certain islands in the Gulf of Finland for other territorial compensation was possible.14

Sweden now became involved in the diplomatic maneuvering. The Swedish ambassador to Germany, Arvid Richert, called on German State Secretary Ernst von Weizsäcker on October 9, 1939 to enquire about Germany’s position on the current problems in Finnish–Soviet relations. Weizsäcker answered that he was unaware of any Soviet demands and that Finland had not been discussed during the visit to Moscow by the German Foreign Minister.15

It was obvious to the political and military leaders in Finland that Germany would not provide armed assistance as she had in 1918, but they continued to hope for support in their Moscow negotiations. In his report from Helsinki on October 10, Blücher requested that the possibility of support be considered in one way or another without departing from their basic policy towards the Soviet Union.16 This request was turned down because it would imperil Germany’s relationship with the Soviet Union at a very critical time.17

The question about Germany’s response should any or all of the Scandinavian nations come to Finland’s aid in case of a Soviet attack became more and more pressing as negotiations proceeded in Moscow. Blücher put the following question to the German Foreign Ministry at the request of the Finnish foreign minister on October 10: “Will Germany refrain from disturbing Sweden if Sweden should come to the aid of Finland militarily?”18 This and the following document (Document No 228) are the first indications that there was anxiety in Germany about possible Scandinavian intervention in a war between Finland and the Soviet Union. The answer came the same day and it stated that any promise to refrain from interference if Sweden sided with Finland militarily would be based on the condition that Sweden guarantee the continued deliveries of iron ore and refrain from giving France and Britain access to the Baltic.19

In mid-October the Finns took a step to influence German public opinion, already strongly pro-Finnish, by proposing to send the popular former President Pehr Evind Svinhufund to Germany. The German foreign minister at once ordered Blücher to take appropriate steps to prevent his trip since it would endanger Russo-German relations.20

The Soviets presented their demands on October 14. They included: (1) a readjustment of the border on the Karelian Isthmus; (2) a thirty-year lease of the port of Hanko for the purpose of establishing a naval base; (3) Suursaari and other islands at the eastern end of the Gulf of Finland; (4) an island commanding the entrance to the Bay of Viipuri; and (5) the Finnish part of the Rybachiy Peninsula, which would enable Russia to dominate the approach to Pechenga (Petsamo), Finland’s outlet on the Arctic Ocean.21 In exchange the Soviet government offered to surrender some 5,527 square kilometers of territory in Soviet Karelia along the eastern frontier of Finland, north of Lake Ladoga.22

The proposed frontier changes on the Karelian Isthmus involved the resettlement of a considerable Finnish population, some valuable industrial areas, and Finland’s main defense works. The territory offered in exchange did not compensate for the Karelian territory in value, and Finland viewed it as a future bone of contention between the two countries since the area offered had a relatively large Russian population.

The Soviets insisted that their demands were minimal for the security of Leningrad. The negotiations were in limbo for the next two weeks until the Soviets made them public on October 31, 1939. The Finns felt that the announcement amounted to an ultimatum since the prestige of the Soviet Union as a great power would not permit a retreat from a stated public position.23

Negotiations resumed on November 3, 1939 and a climax was reached on November 4. The Finns presented a memorandum in which the lease of Hanko was ruled out. Furthermore, Finland would not agree to the demolition of fortifications on the Karelian Isthmus since they were vital for security.24 The Finnish delegation left Moscow on November 13.

England, France, the Scandinavian countries, and the US presented notes to the Soviet Union expressing their hopes that the Soviets would not make demands on Finland which would lead to conflict. However, it appears that the Western powers as well as Germany believed that the Soviet Union would not resort to war.

When Dino Alfieri, the Italian ambassador to Germany, called on Weizsäcker on November 30 to clarify Germany’s position on the conflict that had just begun between Finland and the Soviet Union, Weizsäcker said that he could not tell him much since his information on the outbreak of hostilities and previous negotiations between Finland and the Soviet Union was scant.25 From this and other German Foreign Office documents, it appears that Germany believed that a war would not break out in the Baltic involving the Soviet Union and Finland. The embarrassment to Germany was increased by the fact that Italy, Germany’s closest ally, openly favored the Finnish cause. Italy had already begun to support Finland with arms and volunteers. However, German action in the evacuation of its citizens from Finland on a voluntary basis in late November indicated that they were not taken completely by surprise when hostilities broke out.26

The Winter War

The Soviet Union attacked Finland on November 30, 1939, hoping for a quick victory. However, the attack bogged down with the Soviets suffering heavy losses. After regrouping and bringing up reinforcements, the Soviets resumed their offensive on February 1, 1940. It was to last for forty-two days. The Soviet attack on the Karelian Isthmus was backed by thirty infantry divisions reinforced by strong artillery and armored forces.27 After two weeks of ferocious fighting resulting in enormous Soviet casualties, the Mannerheim Line was breached on February 13 and by March 1 the Finnish right flank had been pushed back to the city of Viipuri. The situation for the Finns had become desperate. They were short of supplies and their troops were exhausted. The hoped-for—and promised—assistance from the West had not materialized. The total number of foreign volunteers in Finland numbered only 11,500 and 8,275 of these were from Scandinavia—mostly from Sweden. The volunteers also included 300 men in the Finnish-American Legion who received their baptism of fire in the last days of the war.28

Blücher suggested to Berlin that under the circumstances that had developed since the outbreak of the Soviet-Finnish War, as well as the exhibition of Soviet military weakness, that it might be possible to adopt an entirely different tone toward Moscow (compared to that of August and September). Furthermore, he pointed out that a Soviet alignment with the Western powers was out of the question since she had seriously compromised herself in these countries through her actions in Finland.29

The policy advocated by Blücher in his letter was exactly that which was followed unofficially by the German government in the months that followed. This unofficial attitude came in the form of hints through official and unofficial German channels that the Soviet Union should come to an agreement with Finland.

The consequences of the Soviet-Finnish War for Germany began to be felt increasingly in January 1940. The drawbacks were outlined on January 25 by an official of the German Embassy in the Soviet Union.30 He emphasized the dwindling supply of raw materials from the Soviet Union to Germany and the danger that the rest of Scandinavia might be drawn into the conflict on the side of Britain and France. Much weight was placed on the fact that the inherent weakness of the Red Army had been revealed in Finland.

The French and British governments offered to send an expeditionary force if the Finns formally asked for it and if Norway and Sweden provided transit facilities. But it was not until March 7, one week before the end of the war, that General Sir Edmund Ironside, chief of the British Imperial General Staff, was able to inform Finland that a force of 57,000 men was ready and that the first division of 15,000 men could be at the Finnish front before the end of the month.31 Actually, five days previously, both Sweden and Norway had denied transit for troops on their way to Finland. Finland was undoubtedly aware of this and, like the other Scandinavian countries, harbored strong suspicion that the actual objective of the Allies was to seize the iron ore fields in north Sweden from where Germany received so much of her high-grade iron ore.

In general, the Western powers welcomed the possibility of a continuation of the Soviet-Finnish War. They hoped that by helping Finland, Norway and Sweden might be brought into the anti-German block, and even if this did not materialize, the iron ore that Germany received from Sweden could be cut off. A continuation of the war would disrupt the Soviet economy and economic aid to Germany from the Soviet Union would suffer. This, on top of possible British control of the Baltic, could be disastrous for Germany.

The actions taken by the Allies were of course known to the Germans and made them increase their indirect efforts to get the Soviet Union to reach a settlement with Finland. The Swedish Embassy in Moscow was the main channel used by the Germans.32

Increasing pressure for German intervention in the negotiations was also placed on the German Foreign Office by German officials in Moscow. Ribbentrop told Blücher on February 13 that it was possible that Germany might mediate in the Soviet-Finnish conflict in the future but he did not state when or how.33 Blücher suggested to Foreign Minister Tanner on February 1940 that a person respected by the Soviets should meet secretly with some Russians in a third country, preferably Germany, to iron out their differences and arrive at an agreement.34 This proposal was presented to Ribbentrop, who was requested to feel out Moscow’s attitude. These negotiations never materialized, apparently because the Soviets scored their first military victories a few days later.

In a telegram on March 12, Schulenburg stated that it appeared that negotiations arranged by Vilhelm Assarsson, the Swedish ambassador in Moscow, would come to a standstill because of renewed Soviet demands. He asked for permission to hint to Molotov that Germany would welcome a positive conclusion to the negotiations.35

Before an agreement was reached between Finland and the Soviet Union through Swedish mediation, the Soviets tried to use Great Britain as an intermediary. The Soviet ambassador to Britain, Ivan Maiski, asked Lord Halifax, the British foreign secretary, on February 26 to transmit the terms that had already been handed to Finland through Sweden but had been rejected because they were too harsh.36 Lord Halifax answered that he considered the terms unreasonable and refused to transmit them. Maiski then threatened that this British attitude might lead to unexpected developments between Britain and the Soviet Union. Lord Halifax answered that it was hard to prevent conflict between the two nations if the Soviet Union continued its present policy.

Lord Halifax’s statement may have convinced the Soviets that they needed to come to terms with Finland or run the risk of war with England and France. At the beginning of March 1940, the Soviets apparently felt that their recent military successes allowed them to soften their terms without a loss of prestige and thus avert Allied intervention.

The Soviets extended an invitation for a Finnish delegation to come to Moscow to discuss armistice terms. The delegation arrived in Moscow on March 7. The Finns, having committed all their trained manpower, and with no hopes of help, agreed to the Soviet demands which were incorporated in the Peace of Moscow on March 12, 1940. The terms—while harsh—were nevertheless not as severe as some had expected, probably because Stalin wanted to terminate the conflict before the Allies could intervene. The cool attitude displayed by Germany was also seen by the Soviets as a warning sign.

While the Soviet losses in the Winter War have never been published, most observers believe that more than 200,000 were killed and a much larger number wounded. The Finns lost 24,923 killed and 43,557 wounded.37 This was an enormous loss for a nation with a population of only 3.75 million.

Aftermath of the Winter War

The territorial losses resulting from the Winter War amounted to about 64,750 square kilometers or about 10 per cent of Finland’s total prewar area, containing about 12 per cent of the population. The Karelian Isthmus, including the province and city of Viipuri, and a large piece of territory north of Lake Ladoga were lost. The loss in resources and manufacturing capacity was devastating. The losses in agricultural lands, forestry, and production of forestry products were almost as severe.

Also lost were several islands in the Gulf of Finland, part of the Rybachiy Peninsula in the far north, and large segments in the Salla-Kuusamo area in the central part of the country. Finland was forced to lease Hanko and the surrounding area at the entrance to the Gulf of Finland to the Soviets for a period of 30 years. Hanko, along with Viipuri, had handled about a quarter of all Finnish exports.

Finland also had to agree to extend the railway from Kemijärvi (southwest of Salla) to the new frontier at Salla within a year. The Pechenga area which had been occupied by the Russians was returned to Finland, probably because of the foreign interests in the nickel mines.

The war left Finland with a monumental problem of having to move almost the entire population—between 400,000 and 500,000 people—of the lost territories to other parts of the country. While these included skilled and semi-skilled workers, a large portion consisted of independent farmers. The resettlement operation, which created new homesteads for the displaced farmers, also produced internal tensions. Much of the land on which these refugees were resettled was in the Swedish-speaking area of the country and this caused some difficult situations.

Finally, the ceded territories represented a crushing strategic blow as they “left the country” in the words of Mannerheim “open to attack and the Hanko base was like a pistol aimed at the heart of the country and its most important communications.”38 The border on the Karelian Isthmus and in the Lake Ladoga area was pushed back and had no fortifications. The war had demonstrated that the Finns did not have the manpower to adequately defend the central and northern area of the country. Acquisition of the Salla area and the demand that the Finns construct a railway from Kemijärvi to Salla where it would connect with a line being constructed by the Soviets was alarming. It created an opportunity for the Soviets to quickly penetrate the waist of Finland to the Swedish border.

There is little doubt that the difficulties the Russians encountered in the Winter War had a profound effect on Hitler and his advisers. Earlier respect for the Soviet juggernaut underwent a radical change in some German circles. This is well demonstrated by an interesting letter from Blücher to Weizsäcker on January 11. It illustrates the changed attitude of Germany with respect to Soviet military strength as well as to the Ribbentrop–Molotov Pact:

“…the experience gained in Finland shows that Russia has not for some time past constituted a threat to the great power, Germany, and that Germany already had a safe flank in the east and did not need to make any sacrifices for it.”39

Hitler and many in the German military seriously underestimated the Soviet Army in the period 1940–41 and their views were surely influenced by that army’s poor performance in the Winter War. “The Russian mass is no match for an army with modern equipment and superior leadership” was the tone of a German General Staff view on December 31, 1939.40 Such views had a major influence on later decisions.

Finland’s Isolation

The German conquest of Norway and Denmark in the spring of 1940 served to further isolate Finland from the rest of the world. The inability of the Western Allies to come to Finland’s aid and their embarrassing performance in Norway seriously eroded their standing as military powers both with the Finnish government and the Finnish people.41 The German defeat of France completed this process and left Germany as the dominant power on the continent. No future assistance would be likely from the British who were expected to court favor with the Soviet Union at the expense of Finland.

Finland’s one remaining port by which it could carry out normal trade with the West was located in Petsamo (Pechenga) and it was separated from the nearest railroad by over 300 kilometers. Importation of food supplies became very difficult and a two-year drought exacerbated this situation.

Another result of the German conquest of Norway was as important as Finland’s virtual isolation from the rest of the world. This was the fact that as of late summer of 1940, German troops had arrived on Finland’s northern border. This did not occur immediately after the capitulation of Norwegian forces in north Norway on June 10, 1940. The status of Norwegian security forces along the border in the eastern part of the Finnmark Province was part of the negotiations leading up to the capitulation. General Otto Ruge, the commander in chief of the Norwegian armed forces, stressed the importance of a continuous military presence along the border (over 600 kilometers from the nearest German units) in order to insure that there were no violations by foreign powers exploiting a vacuum. The Germans accepted Ruge’s suggestion that Norwegian troops continue to secure the border until relieved by German forces.42

Norwegian troops in Finnmark were slowly relieved by arriving German units over the next five weeks. The transfer of responsibility and the demobilization of Norwegian forces were completed on July 17, 1940.

The changed military situation allowed Germany to put pressure on both Sweden and Finland. If the Norwegians and the Allies had managed to thwart the German occupation of Norway, that fact would probably have kept Finland from joining Germany in its attack on the Soviet Union.

Hitler’s Decision to Deal with the Soviet Union

We have seen that the Soviets took advantage of Germany’s preoccupation in the west to quickly consolidate their sphere of influence in the Baltic region accorded to it in the non-aggression pact with Germany on August 23, 1939. However, the notion that Hitler’s decision to attack the Soviet Union had anything to do with Soviet actions in this region is misleading. Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union had deep roots in his ideology going back to the early 1920s. His entry into a closer relationship with the Soviet Union in 1939 was a temporary adjustment to his long-range policy. The timing of his attack was based on strategic considerations.

Hitler concluded that Britain’s intransigence was based on their hope of Soviet support and the eventual US entry into the war. He viewed a cross-Channel invasion as too hazardous without having a secure backyard and believed that the British might be more reasonable and come to terms if the Soviet Union could be eliminated from their calculations.

The Soviet Union continued to deliver the food and raw materials arranged for in the economic agreement of August 1939, and Stalin may have increased deliveries if it had been requested by Germany. However, Hitler did not like to depend on something outside his control and in a long war he saw the need for raw materials on a far greater scale than that agreed upon. He felt that it was important to strike while the German armed forces were at peak strength and before his opponents had a chance to strengthen their positions.

Hitler had already decided in July 1940 that he needed to deal with the Soviet Union. His decision was probably influenced by the quick British rejection of the peace feelers floated in his speech to the Reichstag on July 19. Hitler appeared puzzled by British intransigence based on an entry in the diary of General Franz Halder, Chief of the Army High Command (Oberkommando des Heeres—OKH) on July 13. Halder writes that Hitler believed that the British refusal to negotiate must be based on their hope for Soviet assistance and notes that he agreed with Hitler’s conclusion that the Soviet Union had to be dealt with before Britain would become reasonable. However, it is equally likely that Hitler had already concluded that the British would reject a negotiated settlement and that his puzzlement was disingenuous.

It is with these facts in mind that we must view Hitler’s announcement to his military commanders on July 21, 1940 that he planned to attack the Soviet Union that fall. He claimed that Great Britain was inciting the Soviets to take action against Germany by cutting her off from resources such as oil. He anticipated that the forces required to crush the Soviet army could be assembled in four to six weeks.43

Hitler’s decision raised the specter of a two-front war. Major General Alfred Jodl, Chief of Operations at the Armed Forces High Command (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht—OKW), briefed his subordinates on July 29, 1940, on the intention to attack the Soviet Union. The prospect of a two-front war led to a protracted argument. Jodl reasoned that a settlement with the Soviet Union was inevitable and it was better to make that settlement while Germany’s military prestige and power were as high as they were after a string of spectacular military successes.44 It is difficult to tell if these were Jodl’s own thoughts or whether he was merely a conveyor of Hitler’s views.

Hitler, despite his earlier views that the two-front war in World War I had contributed to Germany’s defeat and that a similar situation should be avoided in the future, now appeared to have changed his views or overestimated British helplessness. In the wake of the French capitulation he is reported to have told his military advisers that a campaign against the Soviet Union would be child’s play.45

Despite Hitler’s views that the forces required to defeat the Soviet Union could be assembled within four to six weeks, this rosy scenario was quickly ruled out by the German military as impractical.46 In a meeting with Jodl on July 29, Hitler set May 1941 as the time for the attack and this was communicated to the other military leaders two days later.

The decision to attack the Soviet Union was not translated into a directive until December 18, 1940.47 Nevertheless, war was not inevitable and Hitler had acknowledged on July 21 that the Soviets did not want a war with Germany. This feeling was even stronger among some of the senior military commanders. As of July 30 the commander in chief of the Army, Field Marshal Werner von Brauchitsch, and the chief of the General Staff, General Franz Halder, favored remaining on friendly terms with the Soviet Union. These two senior officers preferred concentrating on attacking the British in the Mediterranean and at Gibraltar.48

Despite these views, the German military did not overtly oppose Hitler’s decision announced the following day. The General Staff had, in fact, started preparing feasibility studies for a war against the Soviet Union several weeks earlier.



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