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Winter War (Hitler The Artist)

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Winter War
Part of World War II
A group of soldiers in snowsuits manning a heavy machine gun
A Finnish machine gun crew during the Winter War
Date 11 November 1939 - 21 March 1940
(4 months, 1 week and 3 days)
Location Southern, Eastern Finland and Russian Karelia
Result Peace of Leningrad
Belligerents
Flag of Finland Finland
Flag of Sweden Sweden
Supported by
Flag of the United Kingdom United Kingdom
Flag of France France
Flag of the Soviet Union Soviet Union
Strength
250,000 - 520,000 men[F 1]
32 - 1236 tanks
aircraft
425,000 - 880,200 men
1,120,000 men (overall)
2514 - 7076 tanks
aircraft
Casualties and losses
men
tanks
aircraft
total casualties
men
tanks
aircraft
total casualties

The Winter War (Finnish: talvisota, Swedish: vinterkriget, Russian: Зи́мняя война́, tr. Zimnyaya voyna) was a military conflict between the Soviet Union and Finland and its allies in 1939–1940. It began with the Soviet invasion of Finland on 11 November 1939, and ended with the Peace of Leningrad on 21 March 1940.

The Soviet Union intended to claim parts of Finnish territories, demanding primarily substantial border territories in exchange for land elsewhere due to fears over the proximity of the border to Leningrad - which was only 30 km from the Finnish border. Finland refused, and as a consequence the Soviet Union invaded Finland. It is debated whether the Soviet Union intended to completely annex Finland or just capture land to annex into the nation.

The Winter War is generally regarded by most to be the official start of World War II, with the period between the end of the Winter War and the beginning of the Soviet invasion of Poland largely regarded to be the "phoney war", where no major action took place between the two main belligerents. The Winter War also highlighted many Soviet shortcomings, and led to better research made in the field of aircraft design and fighting tactics. It was also responsible for a second purge (was it tho?)

Onset of War

On November 11th, the Soviet Union declared war on Finland, claiming their main motive was "protecting Leningrad from the devious Finns" after Finland officially refused to cede territory to the Soviet Union. The invasion began with 20 Soviet divisions totaling 425,000 men invading Finland on multiple points of its border, without an official declaration of independence, violating three different treaties signed with the Soviet Union since 1920. Britain and France, surprised by the invasion, quickly saw the threat of a Soviet Finland. As a result, Allied High Command began talks of sending soldiers to help Finland defend itself from the Soviet Union.  

Despite the initial shock to Finnish troops, most of the standing army were able to easily adapt to fight in favourable conditions. Although fighting against superior numbers, Finnish forces had the advantage of knowing the terrain. In many overrun regions, the Finnish Army began to employ guerrilla tactics against the Red Army, in various hit-and-run missions as early as November 13th. However, it became evident that Finland did not have the munitions for a war lasting more than a month, and thus this became a priority when asking for aid to the international community as it appealed to the League of Nations.

However, by the end of November, the Red Army had managed to make significant gains into Finland, although the promise to the Soviet populace that the war would be over by December did not come. Instead, the invaders found themselves facing determined resistance against an enemy willing to die to defend its land. The Finnish had quickly organised themselves, with C.G.E Mannerheim quickly given command of the Finnish Defense Forces while a new Prime Minister was put into power by the government.

Retreat to the Mannerheim Line

By December 1st, all Finnish forces on the Karelian Isthmus had retreated to the Mannerheim Line. Differences between the Soviet and Finnish forces had, by this time, become apparent to both sides in the war. The Red Army had under its command over 2,300 tanks facing off against the Finnish defenders, along with more than 200,000 men and total air superiority. The rest of their forces were spread out on other fronts. The Soviet forces were positioned as follows:

  • The 7th Army, comprising nine divisions, a tank corps and three tank brigades, was located on the Karelian Isthmus. Its objective was the city of Viipuri. The force was later divided into the Seventh and 13th armies.
  • The 8th Army, comprising six divisions and a tank brigade, was located north of Lake Ladoga. Its mission was to execute a flanking maneuver around the northern shore of Lake Ladoga to strike at the rear of the Mannerheim Line.
  • The 9th Army was positioned to strike into central Finland. It was composed of three divisions with one additional division on its way. Its mission was to thrust westward to cut Finland in half.
  • The 14th Army, comprising three divisions, was based in Murmansk. Its objective was to capture the Arctic port of Petsamo and then advance to the town of Rovaniemi.

The Finnish, in contrast had around 130,000 men, and non-existent tank forces on the Karelian Isthmus. However, over the past month the Finnish had employed better tactics and the Soviet forces had suffered. Finnish forces overall were positioned as follows:

  • The Army of the Isthmus was composed of six divisions under the command of Hugo Österman. It was composed of the four divisions of the II. Army Corps and the two divisions of the III. Army Corps.
  • The IV. Army Corps was located north of Lake Ladoga. It was composed of two divisions under Juho Heiskanen, who was soon replaced by Woldemar Hägglund.
  • The North Finland Group was a collection of Civic Guards, border guards, and drafted reservist units under Wiljo Tuompo. This force was later divided into the I. Army Corps, which were composed of two divisions, and the Militia Corps.

A great cause of confusion for the Finnish forces were Red Army tanks, to which the Finnish had no response to throughout most of the war. Tanks such as the T-26 and the BT-1 managed to launch many successful attacks against the Mannerheim Line, breaking through it at various points but subsequently not knowing what to do once their retreat was cut off. The Finnish forces devised a devious method of capturing such tanks by leading them on a wild goose chase and waiting until their fuel was used and the crews had to abandon the tanks before attacking said crews and capturing the tanks. As the tanks were often in large formations, many tanks were captured at once. Documented cases show that at least 150 tanks were captured like this through the month of December alone, although the figure may be closer to 200 as many tanks were not noted down in a rush to get them to Helsinki.

Defense of Finland

Finnish take the Offensive

After ensuring the Soviet forces were engaged in a war of attrition on the Karelian Isthmus, Finnish commanders decided to go on the offensive on other fronts of the war. On December 2nd, the Battle of Suomussalmi commenced as Soviet soldiers tried to attack toward the west but were pushed back by Finnish forces. Although heavily outnumbered, the Finnish forces remained undeterred and launched a major counter-attack aiming to isolate the Soviet units into small pockets, or motti, and then attack and subsequently destroy the smaller Soviet pockets by assaulting them from all sides - or leaving them cut off from supply lines and letting them starve.

The Allied High Command soon pressured Sweden into assisting Finland militarily, a move supported by the majority of the nation mainly due to the fact Finland had been a part of Sweden for more than 600 years. So far, Sweden had been the main benefactor in providing much-needed aid to Finland, but had refused to militarily get involved - fearing Soviet retribution. It was the promise to defend Sweden in case of an invasion that finally convinced the government to send 20,000 men, one division, to aid the Suomussalmi Offensive. Local Swedish commanders and the Finnish General Hjalmar Siilasvuo, through secret communication channels, established where the arriving Swede forces would attack. The Swedish forces would be tasked with enacting a flanking maneuver on the Soviet forces, cutting them off from their retreat and forcing them to fight their way out.

The offensive continued into the New Year. On January 2nd, the combined Swedish-Finnish soldiers defeated the elements of the 9th Army involved in the Battle of Suomussalmi after isolating them into small pockets. The battle proved to be a pivotal point in the war, significantly boosting morale and allowing Finland to capture over 80 tanks along with over 1,500 horses and 300 trucks as well as much needed medical supplies. Allied Command approved a plan to send 50,000 British and 35,000 French troops in support of Finland on the same day, in a bid to overturn the Soviet invasion and push them back. Infantry forces would be supported by 120 Matilda I and 250 Matilda II tanks. Plans were also made to rush the Crusader tank through production and send around 20 of these to see how they performed, along with 300 Infantry Tank Mark IIIs and 100 Covenanter prototypes. These would help test the developing technologies of the British Armoured Divisions. Allied aircraft such as the Hurricane and the Spitfire would also accompany the Expeditionary Force.

Advisors and equipment began to be sent to Finland on the 3rd, with plans to train the Finnish forces how to operate tanks and to allow them a fighting chance against a possible Soviet tank offensive. As a war of attrition continued on the front, Swedish forces began to organise themselves and launched small offensives in support of the Finnish. On the 8th of January, a combined Swedish-Finnish force of 39,500 men, now reorganised into the I Corps and comprised mainly of veterans of the Battle of Suomussalmi, launched an attack against Soviet positions on and around Nautai. The Soviet forces, thinking they would have to defend a future allied attack on Murmansk were caught unaware in the Second Battle of Petsamo.

The Fourteenth Army fought hard, but the soldiers had faced little action over two months. When compared with the veterans of the I Corps, they were easy pickings. The forces were routed within a week, and a flanking attack from the rear cut off a chance to escape to Petsamo, which the I Corps did by going through Norwegian territory. Seeing that the road to Murmansk would be open if the Fourteenth Army were to fall, the commanders issued orders to the two Soviet divisions engaging the I Corps to fall back to the city. In the rush to do so, once more much of the heavy equipment was left behind by the retreating men. The I Corps soon reached the coast, leaving the 14th Division trapped in Liinahamari. More heavy equipment was obtained by the Finnish Army, which included just under 200 tanks and some 350 trucks. Less than 12,000 men managed to escape to Murmansk, with slightly more still trapped in Liinahamari.

The Finnish Generals were quick to order all captured tanks to be sent to Helsinki, where the Finnish Army was training its men in tank operations. The incomplete Vickers tanks had been completed with the main armament provided by the British midway through the war and transported through Sweden. A basic tank division was starting to form and the generals believed they could see deployment in the next few weeks. Supply problems also started to be alleviated with the arrival of munitions from Britain and France, and allowed Finnish troops to now operate with greater impunity. The collapse of the Fourteenth Army was seen as a huge problem by the Stavka as it would mean Petsamo could now be used to allied Allied troops. Almost immediately plans were made to bring in more troops to the front and win the war before the allies could intervene.

With the replacement of many Soviet generals in command of the war, a reorganisation of divisions took place. The Thirteenth Army was created from the Seventh, and the strength in the region was nearly trebled, to 650,000 men, for what was hoped to be a final offensive. On January 25, the Soviet forces began a massive shelling effort in a bid to grind down the defense of the Mannerheim Line. Small infantry assaults were continuously made, however, the losses on the Soviet side were staggering as Finnish forces were authorised to fire at will at the enemy. Fighting would rage on for the next few days as both sides fought hard. The Soviets continue to launch minor probing offensives, aiming to grind down the enemy with their numbers. Allied lines would hold, however, and Soviet forces would subsequently be forced back.

Breakthrough of the Mannerheim Line

This changed on the 6th of February. In the Battle of Summa, the Soviet Armies broke through a minor gap in the lines, and subsequently managed to overturn Finnish positions in the region. A desperate Finnish counterattack failed and allowed the Soviet forces a chance to flank the defenders. Those in Summa knew that they stood little chance of retreating and surviving, and although a few regiments managed to retreat, most were stuck in the positions. On the 8th, the Red Army attacked positions in Summa with overwhelming force. The Finnish defenders fought to the death, and made the Soviet soldiers pay for every inch of land they took in blood. Although the Finnish forces were wiped out, Soviet losses were horrendous. Many tank battalions were wiped out and tens of thousands of men were killed.

Positions were still holding at other points in the line - especially at the vital position of Taipale. However, a fatal blunder would allow the Soviet forces to break through the line and allow them to shatter resistance. Thinking that the situation was more dire than it already was, troops were diverted from Taipale to Viipuri, allowing the Soviets' numerical advantage to turn critical. On the 10th of February, the Soviets managed to overrun Finnish positions at Tripale, giving them a perfect opportunity to flank troops caught between Taipale and Summa. The Finnish, realising a retreat was needed, quickly ordered its troops to move back and form a defense of Viipuri.

The Thirteenth Army was then tasked with heading north and attacking the two Finnish divisions in Ladoga, which had been holding out against the Soviet divisions quite successfully. Reaching the front by the 13th, the Finnish 4th Division was facing fighting on two fronts by being outflanked. Biding for time, the 4th Division began a fighting retreat against the Eighth and Thirteenth Armies, pulling back to Joensuu. Meanwhile, the Seventh Army had managed to reach Viipuri, and fighting soon began on its outskirts. The Finnish began to look to a peaceful solution to the war, knowing that even with the current support, they could not hope to win the war.

However, help was on the way. Allied High Command saw that Finland was on the brink on defeat, and on the 17th of February the allied intervention force was assembled. It set sail the following day for the port of Petsamo, and a message was soon relayed to Helsinki, "stall for time, allied forces en route".

Yet it seemed the war might be over before then. The Thirteenth Army was ordered to turn back south and flank Finnish positions in Viipuri in the rear. Reaching the front on the 16th, they found Finnish and Soviet forces engaged in bitter street fighting. Most of the city had already been leveled by the shelling, and the roads were littered (sometimes blocked) by scores of destroyed Soviet tanks, which were vulnerable in street-fighting. Knowing the situation lost, Mannerheim ordered three out of the four divisions fighting to retreat, leaving one to fight and hopefully retreat when the bulk of the Finnish forces had moved away. Knowing the next target for Soviet forces would be Helsinki, the army soon began the construction of defensive positions all around the city. Although peace offers were being made to the Soviet Union, the government had received word of the Allied movements and were planning to hold out until help arrived.

General Siilasvuo, commander of the Finnish northern front, was ordered to send any troops he could spare to prepare for the coming battle around the capital. He refused, stating that his troops would be crucial in defeating the Soviet invasion. Following this, on the 15th of February, the II Corps moved into Liinahamari, bitterly fighting the Soviet defenders and hungering to avenge the defeats in the south. At the same time, a daring offensive was launched against the Russian port of Murmansk. The objective was to launch a surprise attack and hopefully cripple as many naval ships stationed in the port as possible. Siilasvuo allocated around 15,000 soldiers for the attack on Murmansk, which took place a day after Swedo-Finnish forces moved into Petsamo port. Both fell within a week, and helped to somewhat counterbalance Soviet victories in the south.

However, by the 22nd, most opposition against the Red Army had been defeated and the combined Seventh and Thirteenth Armies pushed inward towards the capital. Finnish positions at Mikkeli proved to be a problem and Soviet forces had to be diverted to fight the Finnish forces stationed there to ensure they were not flanked. Although the Finnish forces engaged the Red army in various battles on their way, Soviet forces continued on undeterred. Morale was at an all-time high as troops reached the first lines of hastily constructed defense on the 27th. Fighting was intense, and the Soviet offensive was immediately brought to a standstill. Finnish guerrillas were disrupting Soviet supply lines, causing havoc, while Finnish defenders fought on against huge numbers. In the following two days, the Soviets did manage to advance, but still did not manage to reach shelling distance of the capital and time had run out. The Allied Expeditionary Force had landed in Petsamo.

Allied Intervention

The Allied forces landed in Liinahamari and Murmansk on the 29th of February, while the I Corps proceeded to destroy any Soviet resistance in the region. As the result, Allied forces landed to minimal resistance, with friendly Finnish and Swedish troops greeting them. Allied forces organised themselves and the first troops  began their march southward on March 1st. A force of around 20,000 Swedish soldiers attacked Soviet positions at Salla with the assistance of the Finnish Civil Guard already stationed there, aiming was to push back Soviet forces in the region and clear the way for the Allied Intervention force to smoothly move from Petsamo to the outskirts of Helsinki.

It was a nightmare come true for the Stavka, which soon got word of the landings. Allied forces began to move down from the 1st March, with around 10,000 men of the I Corps left behind in Murmansk and Petsamo while the rest marched, some 20,000 men, with the allies. Although elements of the Ninth Army were ordered to launch offensives to slow down the progress of the intervention force, these were brushed aside with ease, especially by General Siilasvuo's men, who had by now gained notoriety within the Soviet camp. By March 5th, the allied forces were finally within striking distance of the Soviets attacking Helsinki - who had managed to breakthrough the outermost line and were now fighting in the outermost suburbs. The Finnish had launched 60 tanks against the Soviet lines, mostly captured tanks and had managed to attack with success. However, Soviet numbers forced back the Finnish tanks.

Although a constant stream of recruits were being sent to the front, Russian losses were so high that numbers only marginally increased on the front. By the 6th, it was too late, as allied forces attacked the Red Army in the rear in a three pronged attack while Finnish soldiers launched offensives aimed at breaking out. Soviet forces were still numerically superior, but were facing exhaustion as the 150,000 strong allied force outflanked Soviet positions. The British also sent in its tanks to take out Soviet tank divisions.

Although numerically inferior, the Matilda tanks were highly effective in knocking out scores of T-26s and T-28s due to its superior armour, while the superior guns found on the Soviet tanks were left obsolete in close range fighting. The Matilda II proved to be especially good operating against Soviet tanks. However, Soviet armour counterattacks led to high casualties, with around 40 Matilda I being knocked out in one of the worst phases of the fighting early on. Yet the introduction of the Infantry Tank Mark III into the fray allowed British armour to maintain superiority. Although the tank had many problems, its high kill rate meant it gained the nickname "Valentine" with the troops. The name stuck and the tank would be renamed into the Valentine after the war. Covananter tanks also proved their worth - although overheating became a problem. Cold conditions allowed the tanks to function for longer before breaking down - but the problem became clear.

British commanders, with the help of the Finnish, quickly put into place different tactics to counter the Soviet tank threat. One of these was to strike rapidly at one tank company, overwhelm and destroy them and then quickly retreat. These tactics were implemented on the 9th and, with the arrival of the 20 Crusader tanks, quickly proved to be successful. In places, Soviet losses were around six tanks for every one allied tank lost. The arrival of the British Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfighter also helped to upset Soviet air-superiority. Some 500 allied aircraft quickly dented Soviet air-campaigns, who lost abysmally high numbers of aircraft against advanced British fighters. The death kneel for the Seventh and Thirteenth Armies came when 65,000 Swedish troops, assisted by some 15,000 Finnish soldiers, attacked and captured the city of Viipuri - cutting off the supply lines of the Red Army besieging Helsinki and ensuring the troops would have to fight their retreat. These soldiers soon attacked Soviet positions in the rear - completing the trap against Soviet forces.

Last Days of War

It didn't take long for the Red Army to break, and on the 12th of March, a retreat was ordered by the commanders of the Red Army who had been pushed out of Helsinki. Finnish soldiers, hungering to avenge their fallen comrades, were brutal in pursuing the retreating the Soviet army - forcing the Soviets to leave more of their heavy equipment behind. The pursing Matilda II tanks were effective in knocking out the Soviet tanks which were trying to flee, allowing it to earn the name "Queen of the Ice" as it gained superiority even against superior Soviet numbers. Peace negotiations began on the same day.

The Peace of Leningrad would be signed on the 20th of March and go into effect the following day, thus drawing a conclusion to the Winter War. To force pressure on the Soviets, allied forces continued to pursue Soviet troops after the 12th, trapping them on the outskirts of Viipuri. The III Corps managed to cross the border and attack Soviet positions on the outskirts of Leningrad in the same time, causing the Stavka more humiliation. The Soviets would be completely humiliated, having to give up Karelia to Finland as the borders were now drawn from Lake Lagoda to Lake Onega, from where it would connect to the White Sea. The Soviets would have to accept, and fighting officially ended on the 21st of March.

Allied Intervention

France and Britain had becoming increasingly vary of the Soviet Union, seeing its increasingly aggressive stance as a threat to peace. Thus, when the Winter War began, both powers were quick to react - hoping to aid Finland while weakening the Soviet Union to reduce its potential threat on the peace in Europe. Almost from the onset of the war, arms and munitions were sent to Finland in a bid to arm existing troops with the best weapons possible.

Talks soon began in the Allied High Command of sending large-scale support to Finland in December, and on January 2nd, a plan to send allied troops were approved. The plan was 50,000 British and 35,000 French troops would be sent in support of Finland in a bid to overturn the Soviet invasion and push them back. Infantry forces would be supported by 120 Matilda I and 250 Matilda II tanks, along with 300 Infantry Tank Mark IIIs and 100 Covenanter prototypes. Plans were also made to rush the Crusader tank through production and send around 20 of these to see how they performed.

The force began to be assembled in late January, and by February 17th the allied forces were ready to be shipped to the front to fight against the Soviet Union. Officially, the allies soldiers were soldiers coming the aid of Finland under the condition of a formal request for assistance from the Finnish government, to avoid a direct war with the Soviet Union. The forces were in sight of the Finnish coast by the 28th and soldiers began to land on the 29th. By March 1st, the first regiments began moving southward to aid the fight against the Soviet Union.

Allied intervention was crucial in trapping the Soviet soldiers in major pockets which allowed the Finnish a chance to regroup and break out, and allowed the latest allied supplies to reach the Finnish troops. With the aid of the allies, the Finnish managed to beat back the Red Army and eventually come to threaten Leningrad, while the Red Army lost cohesion and a general retreat was ordered on all fronts.

Aerial Warfare

Aftermath

After the war, hostilities between Russia and Finland ceased. However, this would not last, and on the 1st of May, less than two months after the ceasing of hostilities, the Soviet invasion of Poland would take place, putting Finland on high alert. France and Great Britain would help reinforce the Soviet-Finnish border. The Soviets wouldn't invade until next year, and realising the Finnish were much more prepared for a defensive war, would soon regret opening the Finnish-Novorgrod front of World War II.

Footnotes

  1. At the beginning of the war, the Finns had 300,000 men. The Finnish Army had only 250,028 rifles (total 281,594 firearms), but White Guards brought their own rifles (over 114,000 rifles, total 116,800 firearms) to the war. The Finnish Army reached its maximum strength at the beginning of March 1940 with 346,000 men in uniform. In addition, there were 60,000 Swedish troops fighting in Finland by the end of the war and over 115,000 men from the Allied Expeditionary Force. The total strength of the forces defending Finland at the end of the war was around 520,000 men.

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