Finland 1940: The Destruction of the Soviet 44th Motorized Rifle Division
Finland became part of the Russian empire, on March 29, 1809, after more than six centuries of Swedish rule. A century later the Bolshevik Revolution shattered the world of the tsars and the USSR emerged; Finland was not part of it. The country became an independent presidential republic having experienced first a bitter civil war and a war with the Russians. The relations between Finland and the Soviet Union remained tense. In 1939 Stalin, seeking to secure access to the Baltic Sea, proposed a land exchange. The Finns would surrender territory around Leningrad, some islands in the Gulf of Finland and other naval facilities and in exchange they would get unpopulated territories in the Soviet Karelia. The Finnish parliament rejected the proposals as unacceptable. Stalin decided to invade, probably thinking that Finnish workers would welcome Red Army soldiers as liberators, but what happened was quite the opposite.
The Soviet Invasion
The Soviet-Finnish war, widely known as the Winter War, started with the Soviet invasion, without a declaration of war, on November 30, 1939 and lasted for 105 days. The Red Army enjoyed a vast superiority in men and materiel, but the nature of the terrain and the determination of the Finns were greatly underestimated. The Soviets attacked with four armies; the 7th and the 8th in the south, the 9th in the centre and the 14th in the arctic north. The operation was expected to last two weeks, at most!
The Soviet Ninth Army was to bisect Finland at its narrow waist by driving for the city of Oulu, at the northern end of the Gulf of Bothnia. On 30 November the Ninth Army commander, M. P. Duhanov, hurled three divisions across the border, but they could not cooperate with one another because they were separated by sixty to one hundred miles of roadless woods. The 163rd Division materialized the central prong of the Ninth Army’s offensive.
The 163rd Division’s Advance Towards Suomussalmi
The 163d Rifle Division brushed aside light covering detachments and on 7 December reached the village of Suomussalmi, some twenty-five miles from the Soviet border. There a Finnish brigade of less than 5,000 men held the 163rd Division in check until more reinforcements could reach that remote district.
By Christmas the Finnish forces in the area totaled 11,500 men, reorganized as the 9th Division. This division had been formed in haste from:
Jaeger Regiment 27, commanded by Lt. Col. Johan Makiniemi,
Jaeger Regiment 65, commanded by Lt. Col. Karl Mandelin and
Jaeger Regiment 64, commanded by Lt. Col. Frans Fagernäs
The Division was commanded by Col. Hjalmar Siilasvuo, an experienced veteran.
On 27 December Colonel Siilasvuo launched a major counterattack against his opponent, who outnumbered him by several thousand men and also enjoyed a vast superiority in firepower. In two days of fierce fighting the Finns shattered the 163rdDivision; before the month ended its survivors were fleeing in disorder northeast towards the frontier.
The 44th Motorized Rifle Division Enters the Scene
While the battle with the 163rd Division was still developing, the Ninth Army had dispatched along the Raate - Suomussalmi road a strong reinforcement, Commander Vinogradov's 44th Motorized Rifle Division. This regular army unit was from the Kiev Military District, and most of its troops were Ukrainians who were not familiar with northern woods. The advance elements of the 44th Division were spotted as early as 13 December, and it was estimated that the main components would be on the Raate road by the twenty-fourth. Had they succeeded in linking up with the 163rd Division in time, the defense of central Finland would have been seriously jeopardized.
However, Colonel Siilasvuo had countered this potential threat before it became a reality. On 11 December he established a roadblock at a ridge between Lakes Kuivasjärvi and Kuomasjärvi, about six miles southeast of Suomussalmi. There Capt. Simo Makinen’s two infantry companies, reinforced by additional mortars and guns, held up the advance of the entire 44th Division. The 44th Division had large amounts of motorized equipment, including about fifty tanks, all of which were confined to a single narrow dirt road through a pine forest. Under those circumstances the division could not bring more than a fraction of its abundant firepower to bear on the Finns at the roadblock. Although they had several hundred pairs of skis, none of the Russians had been trained to use them; therefore, even the infantry was confined to a radius of a few hundred yards on either side of the roadway. In contrast, all of the Finns were experienced skiers and thus able to keep the 44th Division under constant surveillance. They also harassed it night and day with hit-and-run attacks on both of its vulnerable flanks, which stretched nearly twenty miles from the roadblock to the border. Misled by the frequency and effectiveness of those attacks, Commander Vinogradov believed that a much larger force opposed him. Consequently, he made no major effort to rescue the 163rd Division while it was being destroyed just six to eight miles beyond the roadblock.
Setting the Trap
While still preoccupied with the numerically superior 163rd Division, Siilasvuo had the foresight to order the preparation of an improvised winter road for future operations against the 44th Division. Previous Finnish experience had indicated that three miles was the extreme limit for effective flanking attacks in wooded wilderness. More ambitious attempts had failed because of the problems of communications, supply, and artillery control in such a heavily forested environment. The winter road over the frozen lakes began to prove its worth when Capt. Ahti Paavola’s light battalion easily skied along it for fifteen miles on New Year’s Day. Two larger strike groups, Task Forces Kari and Fagernäs, also skied along that ice road during the first two days of January. They deployed from Suomussalmi to positions as far as twenty miles to the southeast from which they would later launch coordinated flank attacks.
All of those units enjoyed the comfort of Finnish Army tents, each of which was easily transported on one skiff like sled called an akhio, which was harnessed to three skiers, with a fourth behind it to steady the load. The units also used that simple carrier to haul mortars, heavy machine guns, and supplies and to evacuate the wounded. Each tent, heated by a wood-burning stove, kept twenty men comfortably warm on even the coldest nights. Lying on soft pine branches and sleeping in their uniforms, the Finns did not need blankets.
In marked contrast, the Russians huddled around open campfires or dug holes in the snow for shelter. At best, they had an improvised lean-to, a shallow hole covered with branches, or a branch hut fashioned at the roadside or in a ditch. The fortunate ones had a fire in a half barrel. Many froze to death in their sleep. Lack of proper footgear aggravated their misery; the summer leather boots which most wore contributed to many frostbite cases. Finnish estimates put Russian losses from the cold as high as their battle casualties. Once the Finns had begun major and sustained counterattacks, the enemy’s problems of survival worsened; it became too dangerous to use open fires at night. Moreover Finnish patrols deliberately sought outfield kitchens as targets and eventually destroyed or captured all fifty-five of them.
Siilasvuo Orders the Attack
After a series of engagements, on 4 January Col. Siilasvuo issued orders for a general attack designed to destroy the 44th Division the next day. Two new task forces were assembled; Lt. Col. Makiniemi’s Task Force was to attack the strongest known enemy concentration, in the Haukila area, from the south and Lt. Col. Mandelin’s Task Force, was to strike Haukila from the north. Just east of Makiniemi’s sector Task Force Kari was to destroy the strong units in the Kokkojärvi-Tyynelä region by flank attacks. With part of his force he was also to push east to link up with Task Force Fagernäs. Task Force Fagernäs was supposed to cut the road about a mile from the border and at the Purasjoki River to prevent the 44th Division from receiving reinforcements from the east.
The Soviet resistance was so strong that none of those attacks succeeded completely. Task Force Fagernäs achieved the day’s best results, although it accomplished only half of its mission, its attacks in the Raate area and at Likoharju having been repelled. Near Mantyla, however, one of its platoons did ambush and destroy several truckloads of reinforcements that were part of the 3rd NKVD Regiment, which had been sent to assist the 44th Division at the beginning of January. In a renewed assault that night, Fagernäs finally took a stretch of the Raate road just north of Likoharju and held it against a strong counterattack from the east. Around 22:00, his engineers blew up the Purasjoki River bridge, thus preventing further enemy truck traffic beyond that point.
The Finns Move for the Kill
The decisive battles occurred on 6 January. Task Force Makiniemi overcame stubborn resistance to widen its hold on the Raate road east of the original roadblock. Until the next morning the Soviets had abandoned their heavy equipment on the road and fled towards Haukila hill.
On the opposite side of the road, Task Force Mandelin spent most of 6 January hunting down enemy stragglers who were retreating through the woods to the northeast. Trudging through the snow on foot, the hungry and demoralized Russians were easy prey for the Finnish skiers.
Task Force Kari cut the Raate road about a mile east of Kokkojärvi and established another roadblock, which it held against two strong counterattacks. Desperately trying to fight its way out to the east, the 44th Division was being cut into smaller and smaller fragments.
The freshest Russian troops, including the NKVD unit, counterattacked Task Force Fagernäs in such strength during the morning of 6 January that it had to withdraw a short distance into the woods to escape the fire of five Russian tanks. After their reserve company arrived, the Finns resumed the offensive near the Purasjoki bridge, where they established defensive positions west of the river. Nevertheless, Russian counterattacks continued near Likoharju late into the evening.
Late in the evening of the sixth, Commander Vinogradov belatedly authorized the retreat that had been underway in many sectors for hours. He advised his subordinate commanders that the situation was desperate and that those who could escape should. Alexei Vinogradov survived the battle, but was trialed for incompetence and was publicly executed.
Mopping-up continued for several days, as the Finns hunted down half frozen stragglers in the woods along the entire length of the Raate road and to the north. By the standards of that small war, the booty was enormous: the Finns captured 43 tanks, 70 field guns, 278 trucks, cars, and tractors, some 300 machine guns, 6,000 rifles, 1,170 live horses, and modern communication equipment which was especially prized. The enemy dead could not even be counted because of the snow drifts that covered the fallen and the wounded who had frozen to death. A conservative Finnish estimate put the combined Russian losses (the 163rd and 44th Divisions, plus the 3rd NKVD Regiment) at 22,500 men. Counting killed, wounded, and missing, Finnish losses were approximately 2,700 (only about 12% of these casualties were frostbite cases).
Despite the performance of its soldiers and the feelings of sympathy in the western world, Finland could not stop the Soviet juggernaut. The Winter War ended in March 1940 with the signing of the Moscow Peace Treaty. Finland was forced to satisfy Stalin’s demands. Nevertheless the fighting spirit and tactical prowess of the Finns were admired throughout the world.
Chew, Allen F. Fighting the Russians in Winter: Three Case Studies. Leavenworth Paper no. 5. Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1981.