A Frozen Hell by William Trotter

A Frozen Hell by William Trotter.  The Russo-Finish war of 1939-1940 is often overlooked when discussing the major battles of WWII. However, I understand this was one of the most asymmetric and fast paced combats during WWII and this is the reason why for a long time I had been looking for a good detailed historical account. This book offers an exciting and fast paced narration of the war. 

Although for over 100  years Finland  was part of the Russian empire, after the Russian revolution of 1917, the country declared it independence. Then at the beginning of  1939 with the outbreak of WWII, Stalin was worried that Hitler would attempt to invade Russia and thus the soviet dictator demanded to take control of several Finish ports to protect Saint Petersburg.

After several failed diplomatic  attempts to negotiate the soviet territorial claims, Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim was summoned by the president of Finland to serve as Commander in Chief to protect Finland from the unavoidable invasion.  Mannerheim who was an extremely intelligent general, educated as an aristocrat, fluent in several languages and extensively well-traveled all across Europe and Asia,  successfully coordinated the defense of Finland and in 1944 he became the president of Finland.

Initially, the Russian invasion force was vastly superior in number and equipment, but since the beginning of the war in November of 1939, the Finns showed an outstanding domain of winter warfare. In contrast to the Finns who knew very well their land, the Russian soldiers came to fight in Finland unprepared for its dense arctic forests. Although the Russian soldiers  outnumbered the Finns non only in personal but also in equipment,  they found strong resistance almost anywhere the battles took place. While the soviet tanks were the weapon of choice for central Europe, the Finnish most powerful weapons were snipers in skis in white camo.

In Finnish warfare, “Mottis” refer to a military tactic which basically consists on encircling the enemy, sharp attacks to vulnerable points to split the formation into isolated fragments and then destroy these pockets, weakest ones first, while hunger and cold take care of the others.  Using these “mottis”, a single Finnish garrison was able to kill several thousands of Russian troops in East Lemettu (about 300 Km from St. Petersbourg), including hundreds of officers. Additionally, hundreds of other Russians were killed in the forest battles.

The battle of Suomussalmi is perhaps the most well-known fight of the winter war. Although vastly outnumbered, the Finns were extremely well prepared for combat in the northern arctic forests. Subzero temperatures not only weakened the unprepared Russian troops very fast, but also the weapons needed a very particular treatment (using alcohol and glycerin) to work properly in these conditions. Wounded soldiers were particularly vulnerable to low temperatures and the Finns destroyed the russian field kitchens, which quickly demoralized the soldiers.  The Finns knew how to dress, cook and survive in a -30 C hostile environment. Additionally,  while the Russians were confined to roads to transport their heavy equipment, the Finns were more mobile on skis and sleds.

At the same time, while battles were taking place in the northern forest, for three months the Finnish diplomats had repeatedly attempted to negotiate an end to the war. However, the demands of Stalin were too much to accept. At the end Finland was forced to cede the Karelian Isthmus and some adjacent coastline. 

The number of Russian troops dead and wounded was over five times that of the Finnish. It is remarkable what a well motivated army can achieve to defend their land. The unpreparedness shown by the Russian army was one of the precedents that led Hitler to attempt invading Russia in 1941.

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