The Finnish-Russian War: David & Goliath?

The Finnish-Russian War: David & Goliath?



Not really, because this war was not won by ‘David’. Otherwise, the similarities are notable. In November, 1939, only a couple of months after the beginning of World War II, Soviet Russia decided that her frontiers should be moved back on the Karelian Isthmus, in order to make Leningrad more secure. The Soviets also wanted a long-term lease on the important port of Hanko, commanding an entrance to the Gulf of Finland, as well as territory in the north (near Petsamo) to protect the sea-route to Murmansk.

All this was put via Stalin’s diplomats to Finland, whose disparity of size and population with Russia could be compared to Minorca/The Iberian Peninsula. But the Finns said no. The Soviets, filled with contempt for their own non-aggression pact with Finland, attacked the tiny country without bothering to declare war.

It was 30 November, 1939. Stalin’s intention was to make Finland a part of the already colossal Soviet Union. He even had ready a name – the Karelo-Finnish-Soviet Republic. Being Stalin, he expected little or no resistance. “We’ll fire off a few guns and they will capitulate,” he told young Mr. Khruschev, who no doubt showed his agreement.

But Finland did not capitulate. The Finns knew they could expect no help from Germany, for Hitler had signed the infamous non-aggression pact with Russia; both Britain and France were at grips with Germany already. The Finnish army was composed of around 300,000 men, nearly all reservists (well-trained reservists, as Stalin was to find). It had no tanks, hardly any artillery and less than a hundred fighting aircraft. The rest of Europe understood that it was to be Czechoslovakia/Poland all over again, with Stalin playing the part of Hitler. The rest of Europe was wrong.

The Soviet Army of a million men attacked on four fronts at once, with appropriately large artillery and air support. The centre front was Petsamo; a way would be made to cut through Finland’s narrow middle to secure the Gulf of Bothnia; the third front was the northern edge of Lake Ladoga, and the fourth against the Mannerheim Line in the Karelian Isthmus.

All these attacks were, as if by magic repelled. “Brave little Finland!” announced the British newspapers. Fighting in thick snow the Finnish ski troops made manoevre after manoevre against and around the Soviet troops who had no skis. But of course it could not last. Faced with overwhelming strength the Finns were pushed back, exhausted. They had no choice but to surrender, which they did on 12 March, 1940 after several months of brave resistance.

Finland was forced by Stalin to give Russia the territory he wanted, plus more (Vyborg) but oddly enough she retained independence. Perhaps the dictator had the same thoughts about an occupied Finland as Napoleon had had 140 years before, about an occupied Spain. Not worth the bother and the blood. Also, the Soviet Army’s performance had been degrading – hardly surprising since Stalin had recently purged all but very few of his best generals. This absurd mistake was to be repeated by Hitler in 1944, when he sacked or killed his best generals.

The Russians lost over a thousand of their tanks and had nearly 127,000 men killed in action. They also lost 684 aircraft, a huge number for what should have been a quick, cheap campaign. Finland lost 25,000 men and 61 aircraft.

The Finnish-Russian War has not exercised the pens of numberless historians, and yet its importance is immense. The weaknesses of the Soviet Army were revealed directly to Hitler, and made him expect a rapid victory when he, too, broke all his promises by invading Russia in June, 1941 (Operation Barbarossa). The Soviet Union was duly expelled from the League of Nations for this unprovoked and unparalleled aggression – as if Stalin could give a damn.

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.


  1. Anonymous February 12, 2015 at 11:15 pm - Reply

    Finland never surrendered. While you have some facts right you are not exactly right on others. The whole campaign was an embarrassment and debacle for Stalin. Stalin was concerned about western intervention and he did not know the Finns where at the breaking point(Finns where dealt a tough hand however played it well). Stalin decided it was a good time to cut bait with the Finns as they would not stop fighting. The min. dead on the Russian side is what you quote however there are several authorities on the subject that quote 225,000+ soviets dead and another 400,000+ wounded. While it may just be conjecture, however Khrushchev claimed in his memoires that they[the soviets] lost more than 1 million men.

    • Dean Swift July 17, 2015 at 8:53 am - Reply

      Thank you for your erudite and apt comment, best wishes, Dean.

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