Sunday, December 12, 2010

December 12, 1939 – Battle of Tolvajärvi Becomes Finnish Rout

Throughout its history, Finland had struggled to free itself from the imperialistic influence of her neighbors. In the Medieval period, Sweden settlers dominated the natives and achieved rule with the Finnish people being commoners. During the wars of the eighteenth century known as the Greater Wrath and Lesser Wrath, Russia, revolutionized after the time of Peter the Great, occupied Finland. Ultimately, the Finnish War of 1808-9 would wrest control from Sweden and turn Finland into an autonomous grand duchy within the rule of the Russian Empire.

Finland would stay under Russian influence for another century until the Russian Civil War would give way to Finland's independence on December 6, 1917. Relations between the Finnish Republic and the eventual Soviet Union remained strained. While non-aggression treaties were signed in the 1930s, Soviet invasion would spark the Winter War on November 30, 1939, as a side-event to the growing Second World War.

The nations were scarcely matched: Finland's army was 30% that of Russia, its air force 3%, and its armored vehicles 1%. While the numbers were overwhelming, the Red Army was still recovering from Stalin's Great Purge of more than 30,000 officers imprisoned or executed in 1937. Meanwhile, the Finns held high morale and unbreakable commitment to resistance. While the Russians had air superiority and powerful advances with tanks, the Finnish troops had minor victories, holding the Russians moving northward from Leningrad across the isthmus between the Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga. While the Mannerheim Line held there, more Russian troops crossed from north of the lakes. The Finns planned to meet them at Tolvajärvi.

The Finnish battle plan was to use the frozen lakes as points to cross and attack the oncoming Soviets in a pincer movement. The Finns engaged with Soviets, who outnumbered them five-to-one. Rather than attempt to press ahead along the road, the Soviets withdrew. Thinking that he had caught the Russians unawares, Finnish Colonel Talvela took up pursuit. Despite taking losses during the retreat, the Russians came under artillery protection and counterattacked, wiping out the Finnish defenders.

With the harsh victory at Tolvajärvi, the Russians picked up momentum that would bring them around the lake and encircle the Finnish defenders along the Mannerheim Line. Helsinki would fall March 13, 1940, and Finland would be declared part of the Soviet Union. While the quick conquest had been a military victory, the Finnish people had not yet given up the fight. Secretly supplied by Hitler's Germany, the Finn resistance would be an enormous strain on Stalin's manpower and resources. By the time the German invasion of Russia began with Operation Barbarossa in 1941, the Soviets would be ill prepared to fight since so many were already working to maintain occupation.

The Eastern European Theater would be a bloodbath with Stalin desperately fighting to keep Hitler from taking Moscow, Stalingrad, and, especially, Leningrad, whose siege began September 8, 1941. In 1943, Stalin would proclaim an end to rule over Finland and recall troops to bolster his defenses. Rising up as a fascist power, the Finns would counterattack, leading to the fall of Leningrad. In June 1944, Moscow fell, but Stalin continued fight on, eventually reversing the tide of war back to near the 1941 border.

The Western Front, however, eventually pushed into Germany, and Hitler's regime fell with the taking of Berlin by General George S. Patton on May 2, 1945. Armistice fell across Central Europe, and Finland's fascist government collapsed under Soviet pressure. While the Russians did not occupy much of Eastern Europe, they did take hold of their old Russian imperial possessions, including Finland. It would not be until after the end of the Cold War that Finland, then a bleak, backwater economy, would regain its independence.

In reality, the Russians were planning assaults on the Finnish flanks, and the Finnish 16th Regiment held them by their audacity of attack. Russians took thousands of casualties while the Finns only had some one hundred killed and 250 wounded. Despite victory at the Battle of Tolvajärvi, the Winter War would end with substantial lands being ceded by Finland to Russia. It would take up an alliance with Germany after Operation Barbarossa in the Continuation War theater of World War II, reaching an armistice with the Soviet Union in 1944. After balancing a delicate neutrality through the Cold War, Finland would find a prominent place in the European Union and be among the first to institute the euro.

1 comment:

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.


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