28 August 2019
The Cold Shoulder
Mention winter, the Soviets and World War Two in the same sentence and people will most likely think of the disastrous Siege of Leningrad, when Hitler failed to learn from Napoleon’s mistake and drastically underestimated the ferocity of the Russian Winter. Yet early on in the Second World War it was the Soviet Union that underestimated the cold, during the ‘Winter War’ between Finland and the USSR in 1940.
On 30 November 1939 the Soviet Union invaded Finland in a bid to grab territory. The campaign would last for three and a half months with the Soviets emerging victorious, though not before sustaining humiliating levels of casualties. Ironically for a nation famed for its cold weather, much of this came down to a lack of gear for dealing with Finland’s cold weather, and the Finn’s corresponding upper hand in fighting in such conditions.
Seeking to replicate Hitler’s Blitzkrieg tactics, the Russians pushed into Finland with a mass of planes, mechanized infantry and tanks, only to find their modern equipment rendered unusable in many instances by the cold, which caused it to malfunction. At the same time, basic equipment was sorely lacking, and many soldiers fell to frostbite and sickness. One particular area in which the soldiers suffered a dearth of equipment was tents, and had to make do with digging holes in the frozen ground or huddling around fires at night to stave off the cold. Such was the level of poor planning that early on in the offensive the Soviets neglected to camouflage both their troops and their vehicles with winter colours, leaving them instead in the traditional olive drab colour scheme.
The Finns, by contrast, were well adapted to the climate and terrain, and inflicted horrific casualties on the communist invaders. The Finns were good skiers, and were properly outfitted in winter gear that allowed them to blend into the environment and keep warm. Against a traditional army the Finns employed Guerilla tactics to extreme effect. According to Nikita Khrushchev, the Winter War cost over a million Soviet deaths compared to Finnish losses of 25,000, on top of substantial losses in vehicles and materiel.
Though the Soviets belatedly adapted their tactics and overcame the Finns, the offensive had nonetheless painted the Russians in shame. It also proved crucial in the wider war, as the Soviet’s poor performance convinced Hitler that he would be victorious if Germany were to attack the USSR.