On 30th November 1939, the Soviet Union launched an unprovoked attack against Finland, with the pretext of preserving the security of Leningrad.
The Hitler-Stalin or Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 23rd August 1939 had secretly divided Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Finland into ”spheres of interest” between the two dictatorships of Nazi Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, each signatory agreeing to give free hands to the other in subduing these countries under its rule. Finland with its population of 3.8 million at the time had to fight for its life and freedom against the U.S.S.R. of 170 million people.
In the Soviet views, Finland is still accused of the failure of Soviet-Finnish negotiations in 1938-39, ”thus leading to the Winter War”. Let us take a closer look at this argument.
It was all too obvious that a dwarf country could not possibly threaten its giant neighbour, so the imperialistic motive of the planned conquest of Finland had to be disguised into an entirely imaginary fictive scenario of ”threat to the security of Leningrad by Germany via Finnish territory”.
Contrary to the disinformation of Communist propaganda, Finland was never a vassal state of Germany, there was no influential Nazi or Fascist political party in Finland, and the military officers who had secretly received their Jaeger training in Germany in 1915-18 for the liberation of Finland from Imperial Russia had professional ties with Imperial Germany, not the Nazis. The Finnish Supreme Commander, Marshal C. G. E. Mannerheim, had received his military training and experience in Imperial Russia serving its Czar, like many other high-ranking Finnish officers, before having joined the Army of the newly independent Finland. They never held a high opinion of the German III Reich. The Finnish military throughout all its ranks was loyal to the Constitution of Finland, and there is no evidence of any risk of a coup d’état in favour of a Nazi Germany -minded government. Finland relied on the League of Nations as a mediator in international conflicts, it had to large extent neglected its national defence, and it pursued a policy of Nordic strict neutrality equally towards Hitler’s Germany as well as Stalin’s Soviet Union.
The Soviet Union started secret negotiations with Finland in April 1938 on issues of security and ”the German threat to Leningrad via Finland”. To materialise, for reasons of geography, such a scenario of German threat would have required an enormous task force, to carry out one of the two possible alternatives: either 1) to advance through Scandinavia from the West and all through Finland, or 2) to be shipped from the South across more than 500 kilometres of the Baltic Sea to its destination in Finland. Thereafter, disembarkation of all the troops and their material from cargo ships, then grouping the attacking force for a march to a staging area at a suitable distance from Leningrad would have been required. There the German troops would have needed to stop to redeploy for an attack, and only thereafter could the attack order have been given.
March by land from the West all the way to the Finnish Karelian Isthmus facing Leningrad would have taken the German war machine via Norway or Sweden across all of Finland. That would have meant making the neutral Nordic Countries another major theatre of WWII in its own right, wasting German forces and time in fighting entirely wrong states, without serving German aims of war and probably never leading to Leningrad. Had there been no preceding war against the Soviet Union, the neutral Finland would of course have had every reason to defend itself against such a German invasion, as would also Sweden.
Therefore, the Soviet hypothetical scenario could not possibly mean a German land warfare campaign through Scandinavia, but rather a long-range seaborne operation as in the map above, in the style of the German intervention in the Finnish Civil War of 1918. Then the 10,000-strong Baltic Sea Division led by General Rüdiger von der Goltz had attacked Hanko, followed by Colonel Otto von Brandenstein’s 3,000-strong detachment taking the town of Loviisa.
Taking the Southern coast of Finland in co-operation with the White Finns from the mostly untrained Red Guard militia in 1918, while the turmoil of the Bolshevik Revolution was still raging on in Russia, was entirely different from trying a similar but necessarily much larger operation in the late 1930’s or early 1940’s, directed against Leningrad via Finland.
The young Republic of Finland had established itself since 1917, maintaining neglected but motivated Defence Forces, although coastal defence fortifications and some warships were inherited from Imperial Russia; in addition, two coastal defence ships and five submarines were built in Finland. Finnish foreign policy gave no reasons to expect abandoning neutrality in favour of attacking Leningrad.
What is more important, the Soviet rule had also established itself in Russia, placing heavy emphasis on its military strength. The development in military technology during the passed two decades had produced a great change in warfare, with an improved mobility of troops, longer range and stronger firepower of artillery, and the central roles of armoured troops and air power with bombing capability. The regional security environment around the Gulf of Finland had completely changed since 1918, making massive landing operations much more vulnerable especially against the modern forces of a great power of the 1940’s.
There is no documentary evidence whatsoever of the existence of such a German war plan, via either route of advance, for very good reasons: it would have been an impossible operation, doomed to a fiasco. None of Hitler’s Generals and Admirals would have been prepared to execute such an unrealistic mission without hope of success, as it would have been a logistic nightmare right from the beginning. Thus the whole outset of the Soviet-Finnish negotiations in 1938-39, the hypothetic unspecified ”German operation threatening Leningrad from Finland” was nothing but hoax, both as a land campaign from the West and as a long-range seaborne operation from the South.
For taking Leningrad, how much troops of the Heer would have been required? The rough rule of thumb for a successful attack operation calls for a threefold numerical superiority for the attacker, at least for the critical locations intended for breaking through.
With the wisdom of hindsight we now know that the German Army Group North of Operation Barbarossa advanced on land all the way to the gates of Leningrad in 1941, spearheaded by its Panzer units and supported by the Luftwaffe, protecting itself with all its firepower while decimating Red Army units. Yet, the real Heeresgruppe Nord failed to penetrate the defences of Leningrad with its strength of some 270,000 in September 1941 – that wasn’t sufficient then, with losses of 60,000. The unspecified ”Soviet fantasy plan” used as the negotiating argument with the Finns did not work, at least when carried out from the Southern side of Leningrad only, while the Finnish troops of the Continuation War on the Northern side of the city had been ordered by their Supreme Commander to stop their advance at the outmost fortified zone of Leningrad and to prepare there for defence only.
Aboard freight ships like in ”the replayed 1918 scenario”, German troops could have been protected by the Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe only, unable to use their own weapons in a huge armada of ”sitting ducks” for days on end, unable to inflict any losses to their adversaries on the way, but themselves being vulnerable targets to multiple weapons effects, at the latest since their entry into the Gulf of Finland, with no element of surprise in their favour.
How many cargo ships would have been needed for such a sealift across the Baltic Sea for an immense task force with its personnel strength in the order of several tens of of thousands if not more? To also carry their needed light and heavy weapons, ammunition, vehicles, and fuel, with all the needed reserves on board, as any replenishments could have been supplied with long delays only? How many cargo ships were available in the German merchant fleet at the time, while also transporting the strategic iron ore from Sweden? How many warships of the Kriegsmarine and aircraft of the Luftwaffe would have been tied to escort them, the aircraft then having to fly back and forth from their bases in Germany or Poland? – In 1939, the Germans themselves estimated their transport capacity as insufficient even to occupy the demilitarised Åland Islands.
Considering the effects of the modest Finnish Defence Forces guarding their territorial waters with their warships and submarines, coastal artillery, and sea mines, and the Finnish Army attacking the intruders on Finnish soil – in keeping with neutrality – and in addition, the attrition caused by the Red-Bannered Baltic Fleet, the Soviet Air Force, and the Red Army with all their weapons, plus the obstacles, mine fields, and strong fortifications on their side of the Karelian Isthmus, with the counterattacks and reserves called from the rest of the U.S.S.R., how many Germans under all that firepower against various stages of the operation would have ever survived even to see Leningrad? This would not indeed have been like crossing the English Channel. WWII never saw an attempt at such a massive long-range amphibious operation by any participant, against such a heavily and deeply defended target as Leningrad, just because the military lead of any country was simply not insane enough even to try such folly.
* * *
But all the same, the Soviet diplomats were clever enough to sell their imaginary ”threat” to the Finns at the negotiating table, as a pretext for demanding a naval base from Hanko (in gross violation of Finnish neutrality), moving the border to grab land on the Finnish Karelian Isthmus, and the dismantling of all fortifications (to facilitate a later Soviet attack). Furthermore, the Soviets demanded ”strengthening of the current non-aggression pact between the Soviet Union and Finland by adding into it an item committing the contracting parties into not joining such groups of states or alliances, which directly or indirectly are hostile to one or the other contracting party”. That is, defensive alliances were not allowed to either party – guess which party would have needed one? The offered territorial compensation in exchange, although nominally multiple in terms of square kilometres, was irrelevant in comparison to the significance of all the strategic assets demanded by the Soviets.
Fortunately, the Finnish negotiators never gave in to those unilateral demands, designed as ”the thin end of the wedge” to weaken the Finnish defence against the inevitable Soviet attack. Had that mistake been made, Finland could never have endured the Soviet strategic offensive until the Moscow Peace of 12th March 1940, as it happened. But despite its losses, Finland gained its most important goals of the war: its survival as a nation and its independence as a state.
History proves that in the long term, the Nazi-German threat against Leningrad and the rest of the U.S.S.R. was quite real, but before the Winter War initiated by Stalin, it had nothing to do with Finland whatsoever.
The Winter War changed everything profoundly in terms of Finland’s security policy and even survival strategy from 1940 onwards – the failed policy of neutrality had to be abandoned and security guarantees obtained for the inevitable next round of the match. The only realistic alternative left for that in 1941 was Hitler’s Germany, with its troops then being welcomed for support, instead of being repelled as intruders violating neutrality – for military reasons only, not in the least for political or ideological reasons. Hitler did not offer it as a charity, but it came with a price tag: joining Operation Barbarossa.
Arrogantly enough, those with the mindset of the Stalinist attackers still keep accusing Finland for the Winter War to this day, for Finns being so stupid as to prefer to fight for what was theirs, including the lives of those dear to them, and for refusing to share their fate with the Baltic countries that did make all the fatal concessions as demanded from them in similar negotiations.
In the International Law, there are no obligations to any sovereign state to comply with unilateral demands of its neighbour. There was no legal justification for the Soviet attack, let alone moral justification. There was a non-aggression Pact in force between Finland and the Soviet Union until 31st December 1945, which the U.S.S.R. unilaterally renounced two days before its full-scale attack along the whole length of the border without declaration of war.
I hope the Reader will be able to learn more about the outbreak and the course of the Winter War from the Finnish media feed during the coming events of this anniversary of a sad chapter in history.
– Any comments to be submitted in English, please.