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80 years ago: First day of the Winter War

 Finnish soldier facing the Soviet attack.
Outmanned and outgunned, most Finnish soldiers facing the Soviet attack were lightly armed. Image: SA-kuva

Early on November 30, 1939, the USSR launched a massive attack against Finland, the start of the 105-day Winter War.

At around 5:30am on the morning of 30 November, 1939, Border Guard Mikko Kallionpää returned from a night-time patrol to his station at Pielisjärvi, near the town of Lieksa in North Karelia. He had just started sipping a cup of coffee when a report was received that a column of soldiers had been seen crossing the border.

Kallionpää and fellow Border Guard Tauno Moisander were ordered to carry out reconnaissance to determine if it was a Soviet incursion. They had gone only a kilometre when they sighted Soviet troops advancing in close formation, bayonets fixed.

Kallionpää returned to base with the news and led out a small contingent to meet the intruders.

At about 6:30, Kallionpää made out a figure following the tracks he’d left in the snow, pausing to aim a rifle here and there in the still-dark forest. When the figure was within 30 metres, Kallionpää could see the greatcoat and cap that identified the invader as a Soviet soldier.

He took cover behind a tree, watching, and decided that if the soldier’s aim were to find him, he’d have to fire first.

Now only eight metres away, the soldier turned and raised his weapon directly at Kallionpää, who had taken a bead on the man’s belt buckle. Kallionpää pulled the trigger. The soldier dropped his rifle, falling forward into the snow without a sound.

This was the first casualty of the conflict that would come to be known as the Winter War.

Some 20 minutes later, the Soviet Union unleashed attacks by 21 divisions, totalling 450,000 men along Finland’s eastern border. Soon after, it began bombing the capital, Helsinki

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Käkisalmen Sanomat 30.11.1939.
Finnish newspapers on November 30th headlined Moscow's announcement of a break in diplomatic relations with Finland. By the time this newspaper, published in Käkisalmi (present day Priozersk, Russia), was in the hands of its readers, fierce fighting had already started just 70km away. Image: The National Library of Finland

The Soviet ground offensive from 30 November to 22 December 1939 displayed in red.
The Soviet ground offensive from 30 November to 22 December 1939 displayed in red. (click for full image) Image: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

On the day the conflict started, 80 years ago, Finland had approximately 300,000 men under arms to defend the whole of the country. It was woefully short of supplies, with only enough cartridges, shells, and fuel to last about two months.

Finland had a mere 32 tanks, only 10 of which were fit for combat when the war started, and 114 mostly obsolescent combat aircraft that could enter the fight.

The Soviets had secretly built roads leading to the border, allowing them to deploy their 2,514 tanks and 718 armoured cars.

Even so, what Soviet military planners thought would be a swift advance on the first day made little headway in the face of fierce resistance at the border.

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A captured Soviet T-28 tank.
A captured Soviet T-28 tank. At the start of the war, the Soviet Union deployed 1,450 tanks on the Karelian Isthmus alone. Image: SA-kuva

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Satchel charge and Molotov cocktail.
With few anti-tank weapons available, the Finnish troops relied on satchel charges and Molotov cocktails to stop Soviet armour. Image: SA-kuva

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Finnish ski troops played a crucial role during the Winter War.
Finnish ski troops played a crucial role during the Winter War. Image: SA-kuva

The main Soviet attack began at 6:50am on 30 November with an artillery barrage on the Karelian Isthmus, followed by an all-out attack by land, sea and air.

Red Army prisoners.
Some of the Red Army prisoners taken by Finnish troops in the first day of the war. Image: SA-kuva

Finnish troops made delaying actions before falling back to prepared defensive lines, and carried out scorched-earth tactics along the way, destroying anything that could be of use to Soviet forces.

The Finns had long planned a strategy of defence in depth on the Karelian Isthmus. Coordinated attacks by large Soviet forces further north along the border came as more of a surprise.

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A farmstead burning on the Karelian Isthmus.
A farmstead burning on the Karelian Isthmus. Image: SA-kuva

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Finnish civilians flee the fighting on the Karelian Isthmus.
Finnish civilians flee the fighting on the Karelian Isthmus. Around 50,000 locals had voluntarily evacuated from eastern border areas during the autumn, but many had returned to their homes before the end of November. Image: SA-kuva

Helsinki bombed

Soviet bombers, flying out of airbases in Estonia, just across the Gulf of Finland, carried out the first attack on targets in Helsinki. At 9:20am, five minutes after the first air raid sirens where heard in the Finnish capital, a formation of three Soviet SB-2 bombers appeared over Helsinki headed for an attack on Malmi airfield on the city's outskirts.

The first bombs fell near an elementary school in Santahamina. Because of cloudy conditions, the planes failed to find their target, instead unloading their bombs in residential parts of Malmi, Pasila and Tikkurila.

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Civilians filing into a bomb shelter under Esplanadi park.
The first warning sirens sounded in Helsinki at 9:15am on the 30th of November. Civilians filing into a bomb shelter under Esplanadi park. Image: SA-kuva
A second wave of 12 bombers came at 10:35am. Anti-aircraft gunners downed one plane, causing the rest to break formation and hurriedly drop their bomb loads near the Santahamina naval airfield without damaging the facility.

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Damage from a Soviet bombing raid in Helsinki.
The aftermath of a Soviet bombing raid in Helsinki. Soviet bombers struck at both military and civilian targets in the Finnish capital on the first day of the war. Image: SA-kuva

A third wave hit the city between 3pm and 4:20pm.

These targeted the city centre, mainly hitting the area between Hietalahti and the Kamppi bus station. Among the buildings bombed was one housing the Soviet Embassy.

Along with renewed bomber attacks the next day, these were the most devastating, in terms of life lost, of the entire Winter War. Altogether, 91 people were killed and 36 seriously wounded.

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Soviet bomber shot down over Helsinki.
The tail section of a Soviet Tupolev SB-2 bomber shot down over the Munkkiniemi district of Helsinki, 30.11.1939. Image: SA-kuva

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A fire set by an incendiary bomb.
A fire set by an incendiary bomb on the corner of Abrahaminkatu and Lönnrotinkatu in Helsinki. Image: SA-kuva

In a 1930's case of "fake news", Soviet state radio claimed Finnish reports of the air raids were false and that the Soviet Air Force had merely been dropping bread to the starving masses of Helsinki.

A secret agreement

The Winter War did not take place in a political and military vacuum, but rather was linked to Soviet expansionism and power plays for dominance in central Europe

Following Finland's independence in 1917, and a bloody civil war in 1918 in which the Reds were defeated, relations with the Soviet Union were strained throughout the 20's and 30's. In 1931 the Communist Party was declared illegal in Finland.

In the late 1930's Soviet leaders launched a policy aimed at regaining parts of the Russian Empire lost after the October Revolution. Finland was also seen as a threat. Moscow was worried that Finnish territory could be used to invade the USSR or to block sea routes in the eastern Baltic. Leningrad (present-day St. Petersburg), only 32 km from the Finnish border, was considered particularly exposed.

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Secret additional protocol to the Nazi–Soviet Pact of 23.08.1939.
Secret additional protocol to the Nazi–Soviet Pact of 23.08.1939 that relegated Finland to the sphere of Soviet influence. Article 1 states, "In the event of a territorial and political rearrangement in the areas belonging to the Baltic States (Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), the northern boundary of Lithuania shall represent the boundary of the spheres of influence of Germany and U.S.S.R". Image: Public Domain

In August of 1939, the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression treaty with Nazi Germany, known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. It included a secret protocol in which Eastern European countries were divided into spheres of influence. Finland fell into the Soviet sphere, in effect guaranteeing the USSR a free hand to take military action.

On 1 September, Germany began an invasion of Poland. Soon after, on the 17th, the Soviet Union invaded Eastern Poland. The USSR then forced Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia to accept Soviet military bases and troops on their soil.

In early October, Moscow demanded that the border with Finland on the Karelian Isthmus be moved westward and Finnish fortifications on the isthmus be destroyed. Demands were also made for some Finnish islands in the Gulf of Finland, territory on the Barents Sea, and a 30-year lease of the southernmost Hanko Peninsula, around 120 km west of Helsinki, for use as a military base. In exchange, the Soviet Union offered Finland areas in Eastern Karelia.

The Finnish government rejected Soviet demands and made a counter-offer that did not satisfy Moscow.

On 26 November, a Soviet border guard post on the Karelian Isthmus was shelled, reportedly resulting in the deaths of four border guards, with nine injured. A false flag attack, carried out by a Soviet unit, the incident provided the USSR with a pretext to start the war four days later.

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On the first day of the Winter War, Foreign Minister Eljas Erkko, made a radio broadcast in English to the American people explaining the diplomatic and military situation, Finland's desire to avert further conflict, and asking his audience to "remember us in your prayers".

Outmanned, outgunned

Joseph Stalin and his generals expected Finnish defences to be overwhelmed and for Finland to capitulate within a matter of weeks. Instead, for close to four months, the Soviet Union had to commit over three-quarters of a million men and vast amounts of its superior armour and air power to battle before the Finnish nation was too exhausted to fight on.

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During the Winter War, Finnish forces suffered around 70,000 total casualties.
During the Winter War, Finnish forces suffered around 70,000 total casualties, the USSR perhaps more than 380,000. Image: SA-kuva

A peace treaty was signed on 12 March, 1940. Finland lost 11 percent of its territory and 30 percent of its pre-war economic assets. The USSR got a 30-year lease to use the Hanko peninsula as a military base, but Finland retained its independence.

Over 420,000 Karelians, 12 percent of the nation's population, were evacuated from the ceded territories.

An odd quirk of fate

By late June 1941, Finland was again at war with the Soviet Union, this time as a co-belligerent of Germany, in a conflict the Finns refer to as the Continuation War.

After more than three years of fighting, Finland sued for peace in late August 1944. Under the terms of an armistice signed in Moscow, Finland was obligated to drive out the more than 200,000 German soldiers on Finnish territory in an area stretching from the Oulu River to the Arctic Ocean.

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Mikko Kallionpää
In 2009, Mikko Kallionpää, then 94 years of age, re-enacted the first engagement of the Winter War for Yle cameras. Image: Yle

The first battle of what is known as the Lapland War took place on 28 September, 1944.

On that day, Mikko Kallionpää, who as a Border Guard had fired the first shot of the Winter War in 1939, was serving with the 5th Jäger Battalion when it came across a small German unit to the northeast of Oulu at Pudasjärvi.

The German commander rejected a demand to surrender. A firefight ensued, leaving two German soldiers dead, four wounded and two taken prisoner.

The first shot of the first clash of this war, too, came from Kallionpää's rifle.

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