John Colvin

A country to die for

Text settings


William R. Trotter

Aurum, pp. 298, £

Finland declared independence from Russia in 1917 during the Bolshevik revolution. The subsequent civil war ended in victory by the White forces under Marshal Baron Gustav Mannerheim, a former officer in the uniform of the Tsar, later to become commander-in-chief of the Finnish army in the Winter War of 1939/40.

Mannerheim had been a chevalier garde to the Romanov royal court in St Petersburg. Passionate about baroque ceremony, he yet fought well in the savage Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05, travelled for the Tsar for over five years in wild Central Asia, including Tibet, and served with distinction under Bushilov in the first world war, before the imperial defeat by the Bolsheviks. But after escaping to exile in Finland he did not become attached to democracy: with sunken, piercing eyes and hooked nose, he was yet judged courteous and fatherly: an air of de Gaulle.

His champs de battaille were, vitally, the Karelian Isthmus with its bogs and lakes; northward the huge forests, impassable in the winter snow except to trained skiers, further up, Petsamo, Lapland, the Centre, where Finland could have been cut in two at the waist.

Finnish artillery was confined almost to old field guns and howitzers, some dating back to the Russo-Japanese war, and to light 81mm mortars. The army held no operable tanks: it carried Lahti 7.62 machine guns, but the best sub-machine gun was the 'Suomi' (Finland), distributed to ski patrols and mass-produced later in the USSR after the battle was over. Otherwise, there was only 'sisu', guts or grit, the ingredient in most men in Mannerheim's little ten-division, 150,000-man army.

'Mutual Assistance Pacts', de facto surrenders, were imposed in 1939 by the USSR on Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, followed by negotiations to a similar end between Russia and Finland. Although Mannerheim, the fierce and stalwart aristocrat, alone in comprehending the pathetic state of Finland's defences, was anxious to accept at least some of Russia's concessions, the USSR invaded under a KGB pretext, 'the Mainilashots', in December, across the Karelian border, bombing Helsinki, and establishing a 'Democratic Republic' under an old Finnish communist Kuusinen.

Mannerheim faced more than 30 Soviet divisions, including powerful tank and armoured brigades, opposed by few and ineffective A/T batteries, until the arrival in December of Swedish anti-tank Bofors. In a kaleidoscopic portrait of the terrain, William Potter takes us through the battles of the Ladoga-Karelia front, the essential Russian entry point, four Soviet divisions with armour, against some 4,000 Finnish border and civic guards, the latter victorious at Tolvajarvi and Kollaa, General Hagglund's devastating 'mottis', fragmentation by ambush of Russian columns in the vast subarctic wildnerness of forested north- central Finland.

In, for example, 'the Great Motti', attempted breakouts led to the death of 3,000 Russians of whom 300 were officers, and to the capture of 117 AFVs. All the mottis except three were wiped out. The long Finnish winter had always lent to its soldiers 'a dour and brooding quality' which had already led civilians 'to seek victory over nature and brought light to darkened villages'. Finns were heated by smokeless stoves in lined huts, Russians by soaring, visible camp fires; many Russians did not know even where they were. Their postal services, medical and washing services did not exist. Many Russians could not ski, nor even received white camouflage.

The battle of the strategic village of Suomussalim, initially defended by only 50 Finnish border guards, reinforced by small mobile detachments, led to only 2,500 Finnish casualties, but to 27,500 Russian dead: the battle is taught as a classic in military academies everywhere.

But on 12 March the gallant struggle ended, the Finns overwhelmed, a date on which Russia received 66,000 square miles of Finnish territory and when a Franco-British expeditionary force should have belatedly embarked, ostensibly to Finland's aid, but actually to stop Swedish iron-ore shipments to Germany. The convoys never sailed.

The mysterious Continuation War followed later that year, almost coincidental with Barbarossa and, in 1944, Stalin invaded with 450,000 infantry, 10,000 guns, 800 tanks and 2,000 aircraft. Peace in September, however, at least left Finland a free state