Magazine article The Spectator

A Country to Die For

Magazine article The Spectator

A Country to Die For

Article excerpt

THE WINTER WAR: THE RUSSO-FINNISH WAR OF 1939/40 by William R. Trotter Aurum, L18.99, pp. 298, ISBN 1854108816

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 RussoJapanese 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. …

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