75 Years since the Winter War – Lessons for Today

The Winter War was a strange conflict. Taking place during the opening stages of the Second World War, it was largely isolated from this larger conflict, and would probably have gone down in the history books as yet another one of the minor campaigns of the war, comparable to the Yugoslavian campaign or the fighting in Iraq or Ethiopia, except for the fact that the Soviet Union did not achieve the goals it set out for.

Still, it is hard to argue that the war as a victory for Finland. During the “105 Days of Glory“, the armed forces on average suffered almost 250 killed and over 400 wounded in action, with an average of nine civilians losing their lives due to enemy action a day. The war ended with Finland losing large land areas, including Vyborg, and over 10% of the population being displaced. Personally, I have always felt that Väinö Linna’s fictional Private Vanhala accurately summed up the outcome of the war:

quoteThe war has been glorified, de-glorified and re-glorified more times than most, and there is a continuous stream of academic texts on virtually all aspects of it. Not claiming to be able to present the final narrative in any way, I believe there are a number of timeless lessons that easily can be deducted from the conflict.

International politics doesn’t always work out the way they are expected to

The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact came as a surprise to many, and was a very hard blow for a string of Central/Eastern European countries. The possibility of an alliance with Sweden was not there when Finland would have wanted it.

It isn’t always easy to foresee which acquisitions are useful and which aren’t

The questioned deal for modern (and expensive) Blenheim-bombers for the air force was a great success, as these provided valuable service up until the end of the Continuation War. The two 3,900 t coastal defence ships of the Väinämöinen-class were heavily armed and armoured, sporting beautiful lines and wre up the pride of the small Finnish fleet. Aside from taking part in the AA-defence of Turku and bombarding the Soviet naval base in Hanko a few times, they spent most of their time unused. It is hard not to argue that the large sums invested in these couldn’t have been used better elsewhere.

Even when one knows what is needed, it isn’t always possible to get it

By the time the war broke out, it was very clear to both the political and military leadership that Finland needed, amongst other things, more anti-tank weapons, modern fighters, large quantities of artillery shells, and so forth. But with a global war brewing around the corner, there were extremely few places willing and able to supply these.

Fighting spirit beats numbers…

Repeated countless of times, one of the main reasons why the Finnish forces managed to hold back the invaders for so long was the superior morale amongst the Finns.

…but lack of proper equipment causes unnecessary losses…

Asking soldiers to fight tanks by pushing logs between their road wheels can hardly be seen as anything more than a symptom of a lack of modern equipment, and will eventually make own losses unbearable (and will probably have a negative effect on the will to fight as well).

…and sometimes you need a bit of luck as well…

The purges of what had been one of the most modern and innovative officer corps had far-reaching and well-known effects, and it is difficult to imagine that the Soviet losses would have been as great without Stalin’s purges of the inter-war years.

…but sometimes all of this simply isn’t enough…

At the end of the day, the qualitative edge of the individual soldier doesn’t alone determine the outcome of battles, numbers are needed too.

…however, Finland was spared the fate of our southern neighbours.

As stated in the beginning, Finland did not win the war, nor could we hope to win a similar conflict today. However, by making the price high enough, the Finnish defence forces were able to convince Stalin that occupying Finland wasn’t worth the hassle. Hopefully, today’s defence forces are able to maintain this deterrence.