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Smackdown: Timoshenko and the Winter War

By Robert M. Citino
12/12/2011 • Fire for Effect

I’ve already confessed my love of the Talvisota, the “Winter War,” especially the opening phase in which the tiny Finnish army stood tall and smashed the initial Soviet invasion of their homeland. The Finns were a democratic people, fighting in defense of the patria, and they showed what free men, fighting for a righteous cause, could do even in desperate circumstances. Manpower? The numbers tilted in favor of the Soviet Union a thousand times over. Weapons and technology? Again, not even close. The Red Army had modern tanks and aircraft and artillery. The Finns had to improvise homemade bombs, bottles filled with gasoline that they nicknamed, ironically, Molotov cocktails. Supply? Again, don’t make me laugh. The Red Army was arguably adequate, given the horrendous nature of the arctic winter conditions in which this war took place. The Finns barely registered on the logistic scale, although those reindeer-drawn sleigh columns are still impressive.

This is the version of the Winter War that history continues to teach us. The defenders triumphant. Heroes drawing a line in the sand… er… snow. A tyrant seeking the subjugation of a free and hearty race thwarted in his foul and demented quest.

Yeah…. Unfortunately, we live in a cruel world, and I’m sure you know where this is headed.

The New Year of 1940 saw the tide turn when Stalin named one of his brighter young officers, General S. K. Timoshenko, to the supreme command of the theater. The new supremo was just 44 years old, vigorous, and filled with good ideas. We might call him one of the rare upsides of Stalin’s murderous purges. A whole cohort of experienced professional officers had just gone to the grave, and that is rarely a good thing for a modern army. In many (most?) cases, the new men were hacks and bunglers and butchers, just as you would expect. But just enough of them were smart younger men, ambitious and determined to show that they belonged.

Timoshenko prepared carefully, then did what any analyst would label the obvious thing: suspending the fruitless fight to the north and launching a coordinated assault by two entire armies, the 7th and the 13th—some 600,000 men in all, supported lavishly by artillery and aircraft—against the Mannerheim Line. Soviet losses were stupendous, but the Finns were no match for such numbers. Timoshenko also showed some finesse, launching his 28th Rifle Corps across the ice of the frozen Gulf of Finland towards the key port of Viipuri and turning the Line’s right flank. The assault opened on February 1st, 1940 and cracked the Line by the 11th. By the 25th, Viipuri had fallen and the main Viipuri-Helsinki road was in Soviet hands. The Finns, having suffered 30,000 casualties and levered out of their one solid defensive position, had no choice but to ask for terms.

The Soviets had won the Winter War, taking the territories they’d demanded and more: Viipuri, the northern port of Petsamo, and some 20,000 square miles of Karelia. The cost, however, had been unbelievable. Nikita Khrushchev would later estimate the casualty figure at a nice, even one million. His number is almost certainly inflated, part of his effort to de-Stalinize the Soviet Union, but the reality is bad enough: somewhere between 400,000 and 600,000 total casualties, depending on the source you read, with 120,000 to 200,000 of them killed in action. However you do the math, it was a steep price to pay for what was, after all, a relatively minor border rectification.

Even here, though, we must accept the complexity of military history. The world paid a great deal of attention to the opening phase of the Winter War, with those nimble Finnish ski troops slashing into their lumbering adversary. I fully admit to sharing in this prejudice. So did Hitler and the planners on the German General Staff. Their conclusion was that an invasion of the Soviet Union would be a pushover. Perhaps they all should have paid more attention to the end of the fighting, to Timoshenko’s war.

And I promise to do just that. Maybe next year.

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8 Responses to Smackdown: Timoshenko and the Winter War

  1. Mike Beatty says:

    What about the Germans’s failure to learn from the fate of the Red Army in Finland? If only approximately one-third of the Soviet casualties were combat deaths, it stands to reason that a significant number of Red soldiers died from exposure and cold injuries. Or am I getting lost in the thickets of legend?

    If, in fact, the Red Army was unprepared for the reality of a Finnish winter – as unprepared as, say, the Wehrmacht was for the reality of a Russian winter – how did the Wehrmacht manage to allow itself to fall victim to the same phenomenon in the Soviet Union in the winter of 1941? Why/how did the Germans miss the warning signs that General Winter is a formidable ally, and a fearsome enemy, who arrival on the battlefield is literally just a matter of time?

    Was it simply hubris? Did OKW simply assume that the Soviet Union would be conquered in time to allow German troops to move into winter quarters, with distribution of cold-weather clothing conducted under non-combat conditions?

    My point is, if the Germans drew the (incorrect) conclusion that the Soviet Union was ripe for plucking, how did OKW miss the fact that the Red Army had been decimated because it was not prepared to fight in a hostile environment?

    • Alan Wika says:

      That same kind of hubris could be applied to the U.S. Army. Just prior to the Battle Of the Bulge, we were so certain the German Army was going to fold before Christmas that we were rushing ammo and fuel stocks forward and neglected to provide the same kind of cold weather clothing to our own troops and suffered thousands of cold weather casualties during the battle as a result.

  2. Rob Citino says:

    I think you answered it. Barbarossa was not to supposed to extend into the winter, and certainly it was not part of the original plan to be fighting high intensity combat in front of Moscow in December.

    That said, hubris was also involved.

  3. Gerry Proudfoot says:

    Good article despite the brevity. Readers of the Winter War would do well to pay attention to end phase and not get caught up in the romanticism of the early days.

    As for the Germans it is a myth that they did not have warm clothing. They had warehouses full of it. Their problem was inadequate distribution due to low capacity rail lines and lack of motor transport from the railheads. If the logistics staff had to decide between bullets, shells and spare parts or winter clothing it was the clothing that was left behind. A warm but unarmed soldier is useless but a cold soldier with a machine gun can still fight.

  4. Mike Beatty says:

    It is awfully simplistic to say that the Germans had adequate supplies of cold-weather gear, they just didn’t have the transportation to move it forward. It makes little difference in sub-zero temperatures, whether a soldier lacks a greatcoat because the greatcoat doesn’t exist, or because the greatcoat is safe and warm and dry in a warehouse somewhere, be it 5 kilometers, or 500 kilometers.

    The comment about the relative value of warm, unarmed soldiers versus cold, armed soldiers is true as far as it goes, but what of it? An armed soldier who froze to death for lack of cold-weather gear is as useless as a warm soldier.

    • Dave says:

      Having been a soldier my self ( I served in Korea in peace time) I know what cold is minus 20 or 30 was the norn for winter. It was always hurry up and wait. Every thing above your ankles was warm. Your feet were the problem, they were hot and sweaty from walking or cold from waiting. If we were at one place for a long tine we changed to thermo boots from leather boots. We had good cold wearthe cold wearther gear.

    • Gerry Proudfoot says:

      The point was to discredit the view that the Germans learned nothing from the Winter War. The fact is the logistics staff back along the supply chain did provide the winter clothing required. The issue was in prioritizing deliveries over an overburdened supply network. In the winter of 41/42 the Germans likely made the correct choice, the soldiers were cold, some died, others badly injured but the line held the crisis passed because bullets were moved forward before parkas.

      If you dig deep enough you will also find that the winter of 1941/42 was actually milder on average than normal. The myth that the Germans had to fight on at -40C is just that – myth. While it may have been bitterly cold at times, the milder winter meant the Germans were able to cope better than had a ‘normal’ winter occurred.

  5. Paul Penrod says:

    Man for man the Finns were a tough. One example is the disportion
    ate amount of medals they won in the 1932 and 1936 Olympics. Finland also has the distinction of being the only nation in the world that squared its account with the US regarding war debts.

    One of the favorite Finnish tactics didnt require skis. They would create a “motti” or roadblock, stopping a larger Russian column along a road flanked by woods. During the bitter night, they would launch forays of small groups kill Russians huddling around campfires and to destroy fuel trucks, cook wagons and signals apparatus. Then the Finns would melt back into the forest and let the enemy freeze to death

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