Battle of Suomussalmi the conflict that defined the Winter War.

The Battle of Suomussalmi
The Battle of Suomussalmi

The battle of Suomussalmi lasted from December 7, 1939 to January 8, 1940. The encounter resulted in a decisive Finnish victory over vastly superior Soviet forces and came to represent the Finnish people’s resolve and determination to remain a free and independent state.

The Soviet forces fielded elements of the 9th Army; two divisions and one tank brigade led by Ivan Dashitsev. This force totalled 45,000–55,000 men.

The Finns, under the command of Hjalmar Siilasvuo could only muster three regiments of 11,000 men in the initial stages of the conflict and a handful of tanks and artillery pieces.

The outcome of the conflict was a stunning victory for the Finnish Army and the people of Finland. Superior strategy, tactics, and the employment of ‘asymmetric’ warfare against a superior foe resulted in 13,000-27,500 dead or missing Soviet troops, 2,100 taken prisoner and 43 tanks captured. The Finns lost 1,000 dead or missing and 1,000 wounded.

The battle of Suomussalmi is still seen today as the symbol of the Winter War.

The disposition of the Finnish Army

The Winter War began on the 30th November 1939. Prior to the outbreak of the war, the Finnish Army was able to mobilize a total of 1,621 men stationed in the training centre in Suomussalmi. From this force, the 15th Separate Battalion was formed under the command of Lieutenant Colonel L. Kyander. This force was ordered to cross the Finnish-Soviet border, advance 30km to Vuokkiniemi and engage the enemy.

Finnish Ski Troops

In addition to this force, a single Company was stationed in the Suomussalmi church under the command of Captain E.Kontula.

The only Finnish unit in the Juntusranta area was a border guard, Rajavartio-osasto II. This unit was required to patrol a 50km front with just 58 men.

The remainder of the Finnish forces on the border at the time of the Soviet attack consisted of the border station in Hossa (some 20 km north of Juntusranta) with 10 men (with one Bergmann-smg). Juntusranta had only one Lahti-Saloranta Img and 2 smg’s, one Bergmann and one Suomi-smg) . The detachment had no radio, so all communications to the HQ were made by phone.

The objectives and strength of the Soviet Force

The Soviet objective was to destroy the Finnish border and advance to Suomussalmi village.

The Soviet advance towards Suomussalmi
The Soviet advance towards Suomussalmi

The secondary objective was an advance to Puolanka via Hyrynsalmi and Ylinäljänkä. After reaching Puolanka, the 44th Motorised Division was to proceed rapidly to Oulu on the coast of Bothnia, effectively cutting Finland in half. This would force the Finnish Armed Forces to fight on two fronts, leading to its inevitable collapse.

Reports of Soviet troops crossing the border were reported on the 30th November. It wasn’t until the 03rd of December that the Soviets launched a full-scale assault.

The village of Suomussalmi fell to the Soviet forces with little resistance on December the 07th. Only one Finnish Battalion was in this sector the Er.P 15 which was based at Raate outside of Suomussami. The Finns destroyed the village to deny the Soviet forces shelter and withdrew to the opposite shore of lakes Niskanselkä and Haukiperä.

Soviet forces prior to the assault
Soviet forces prior to the assault

On December the 08th, the Soviet Military made two failed attempts to attack across the frozen lakes to the west. A second division of Soviet troops led the attack to the northwest on Puolanka which was defended by the Er.P 16 (lit. 16th detached battalion), that had just arrived.

Finnish reinforcements arrived in the form of JR 27, a newly formed regiment. Colonel Hjalmar Siilasvuo was given command of the forces in the Suomussalmi region.

Finish troops reinforcing Suomussami
Finish troops reinforcing Suomussalmi

Colonel Siilasvuo set about arranging a counter-attack to re-take Suomussalmi village. Despite several assaults by the Finnish Forces, the attack was unsuccessful with the Finns suffering serious losses.

Soviet units counterattacked on December the 24th, however, the Finnish defenses proved too strong for the Soviets to break through.

The Finns reinforced with two fresh regiments (JR 64 & JR 65), attacked and took the village of Suomussalmi. The assault was so intense that the defending Soviet forces retreated in panic over the frozen lakes of Niskanselkä and Haukiperä.

The Soviet 44th advancing east towards Suomussami got caught up in the panic of the retreat of the Soviet Army from Suomussalmi and Raate.

The Soviet 44th division became isolated into small groups due to the confusion of the retreat. The Finns used ‘motti’ tactics to destroy the remainder of the 44th.

(Motti is Finnish military slang for a totally encircled enemy unit. The tactic of encircling it is called motitus, literally meaning the formation of an isolated block or “motti”, but in effect meaning an entrapment or envelopment. By cutting the enemy columns or units into smaller groups and then encircle them with light and mobile forces, such as ski-troops during winter a smaller force can overwhelm a much larger force. If the encircled enemy unit was too strong, or if attacking it would have entailed an unacceptably high cost, e.g., because of a lack of heavy equipment, the motti was usually left to “stew” until it ran out of food, fuel, supplies, and ammunition and was weakened enough to be eliminated. Some of the larger mottis held out until the end of the war because they were resupplied by air. Being trapped, these units were therefore not available for battle operations.

The largest motti battles in the Winter War occurred at the Battle of Suomussalmi. Three Finnish regiments enveloped and destroyed two Soviet divisions as well as a tank brigade trapped on a road).

The Outcome of the Battle of Suomussalmi

The outcome of the battle was a resounding success for the Finns. Had the Soviets managed to take the city of Oulu, they would have effectively cut the country in two severing the vital rail link with Sweden. Had this occurred, the Finns would have had to fight on two fronts, the result of which would have made a Finnish capitulation to the Soviet Union likely.

Finnish soldiers celebrating victory
Finnish soldiers celebrating victory

Evaluation

The battle of Suomussalmi is often cited as an example how a small force, properly led and fighting in familiar terrain, can defeat a vastly numerically superior enemy. Factors which contributed to the Finnish victory included:

  • Finnish troops having higher mobility due to skis and sledges; in contrast, Soviet heavy equipment confined them to roads.
  • Finnish strategy was flexible and often unorthodox, for example, targeting Soviet field kitchens, which demoralized Soviet soldiers fighting in a sub-Arctic winter.
  • Soviet army being poorly equipped, especially with regard to winter camouflage clothing.
  • Soviet counter-intelligence failures: Finnish troops often intercepted the Soviet communications, which relied heavily on standard phone lines.
  • Finnish troops’ equipment being well suited for warfare in deep snow and freezing temperatures.
  • Soviet objective to cut Finland in half across the Oulu region – while appearing reasonable on a map, this was inherently unrealistic, as the region was mostly forested marshland, with its road network consisting mainly of logging trails. Mechanized divisions had to rely on these,      becoming easy targets for the mobile Finnish ski troops.
  • Poor weather favoured the Finnish fighting Forces.
  • The Soviet Red Army was still suffering from the aftermaths of Stalin’s army purges in the 1930s, with many replacement officers being incompetent and inexperienced.

 

Bibliography

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