This Day In History: The Soviets Attack Finland (1939)

On this date in history, the Soviet Union attacked Finland in 1939 and it became known as the Winter War. The Soviets had long wanted to conquer Finland as they believed that the country could be used as a base in any invasion of their country. Stalin ordered several hundred thousand men to attack the Finnish army. However, the Finns had been preparing for such an eventuality for some time. They had established a defensive line and they were ready for the Soviets. The Soviet army was not really prepared for the invasion and they were poorly led. Stalin had killed or imprisoned many of the leading Soviet generals and as a result, the army was ill-prepared for any major operation.

On this day in 1939, the Red Army crosses the Soviet-Finnish with almost half- a-million men and thousands of tanks. They also carried out an air raid on Helsinki. The surprise and unprovoked attack united the nation and every Finn was determined to fight for their homeland.  The Soviets believed that they could simply roll into Helsinki, they did actually easily overcome the Finnish defenses but the Finns adopted guerrilla warfare. The Finns were lucky in that the weather became especially cold. The Soviets were not prepared for the change in the weather and they suffered accordingly. Many Soviet troops froze to death and their tanks broke down. They were suddenly susceptible to a counterattack. The Finns used ski troops very effectively and they launched hit and run attacks on the Soviets. They also used Molotov cocktails to great effect. The world sympathized with the Finns and the US extended some $10 million in credit to Finland, while also noting that the Finns were the only people to pay back their World War I debts to Washington.  But it was Finland’s neighbors who helped the Finns the most and many volunteers came from Sweden, Denmark,  Norway and the Baltic States to fight with the Finns. Throughout the winter the Finns were able to use their tactics to great effects.  Finland was not able to receive more help because of a German blockade. By the Spring the Soviets had reorganized and they were prepared to launch a massive attack on the Finns.  The Finns despite help from their neighbors were not able to fight on. By March 1940, negotiations with Moscow began,  and a treaty was signed and Finland  lost the Karelian Isthmus. This was a key strategic area that the Soviets wanted to control. The Finns were lucky at this time because unlike the Baltic States they were not conquered by the Red Army and absorbed into the Soviet Union.

The Karelia area the site of some of the fiercest fighting of the Winter War (1939)