Battle of Suomussalmi

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Map of the fighting at Suomussalmi

The Battle of Suomussalmi took place near Suomussalmi during the winter war between Finland and the Soviet Union from December 7, 1939 to January 8, 1940 . The Red Army sent around 36,000 soldiers into the field with the 163rd Rifle Division and the 44th Motorized Rifle Division. The Finnish forces, with a maximum strength of around 11,500 soldiers, smashed the two Soviet formations and thus prevented the attempt to cut off Finland's transport links to Sweden. The battle was a propaganda success for Finland ; but it did not have a decisive influence on the course of the war.


Map of the Soviet offensives at the beginning of the Winter War

The winter war between the Soviet Union and Finland was officially started by the Soviet side as a conflict over narrow territories. The military planning of the Soviet leadership under Josef Stalin envisaged the occupation of all of Finland as a war goal. For the conquest of the poorly developed and sparsely populated northern Finland, a total of 140,000 soldiers from a total of 470,000 men were deployed. In addition to the occupation of these Finnish provinces, the Finnish state was to be cut off from its neighbors by conquering the Petsamo area in the northernmost part of Finland and the railway junctions to Sweden. To accomplish the latter task, the Soviet 163rd Rifle Division and the 44th Motorized Rifle Division were to advance on Oulu . The two divisions belonged to the 9th Army under the command of Vasily Chuikov . Three other divisions belonged to the army, but they crossed the border further south and north in order to pursue other goals and thus did not intervene in the battle. The Finnish High Command under Mannerheim saw the northern part of the country as an insignificant secondary theater of war. Due to the lack of roads and the dense forest, they saw it as impossible that the Red Army could operate here with large formations. For this reason, the Finnish Army concentrated the majority of its 150,000 or so soldiers further south along the Mannerheim Line . As a result, only a few border guards were present in the northern areas at the time the war broke out.

Course of the fighting

On November 30, 1939, the 163rd Soviet Rifle Division crossed the Finnish border. The division's commander, Kombrig Andrei Ivanovich Selentsov , carried out the attack from two directions in order to threaten Suomussalmi from two sides. He had two of his regiments advance from the north across the Juntusranta Strait. A regiment was advancing from the east across the Straate of Raate. Since the Finnish army did not expect a massive attack in this area, their forces there were very weak. When the war broke out, only a few hundred border troops were available. Nevertheless, the approach of the Soviet units was very slow at around eight to ten kilometers per day. The advance of the Soviet column was slowed down by snow and cold, poor road conditions and retreats by the Finnish troops. Selentsow had one of his northern regiments turn directly to Suomussalmi, where it was to unite with the regiment from the direction of Raate. His remaining northern regiment secured against Lake Piispajärvi north of the Suomussalmi settlement. This regiment was drawn into combat by a Finnish battalion that was quickly brought up .

On December 7th, the two remaining Soviet regiments succeeded in taking Suomussalmi and uniting there. The Finns had previously evacuated the place and burned most of the buildings. Due to the unexpectedly massive attack by the Red Army on Suomussalmi, the Finnish High Command sent the JR-27 (Jalkaväki Rykmentti 27 = 27th Infantry Regiment) to the region. His commander, Colonel Hjalmar Siilasvuo , had orders to destroy the advancing Soviet division , although his units, together with the border troops, were only brigade strength . He used the inhospitable terrain to compensate for his numerical inferiority. The Soviet troops advanced along the roads, while the Finnish troops skied around the surrounding forest areas. To increase the mobility of his troops, Siilasvuo had a system of ice paths drift into the snow. On December 12th, Siilasvuo managed to block the Raate Strait from the east with 350 men. The Finns began using roadblocks to break the columned division into isolated parts. After the Soviet forces were cut off, they had two options: to attack the roadblocks head-on or to advance on their flanks. The retreat itself had not been allowed to the Soviet units by their high command at the time. In the densely forested terrain, which was interrupted by frozen water, the Finns had the tactical superiority. So the Soviet commander ordered his troops to dig in along the road and attack the roadblocks head-on. However, these attacks failed with great losses.

On December 16, the Finns were reinforced by artillery units for the first time . The JR-64 Infantry Regiment was assigned to Siilasvuo, as well as a ski hunter battalion and another infantry battalion. The JR-65 infantry regiment strengthened the northern troops and was able to force the Soviet regiment on Lake Piisparjärvi completely on the defensive. On December 22nd, Siilasvuo's units had reached a strength of around 11,500 men and were raised to the rank of a division. These reinforcements were also motivated by the fact that the Soviet 44th Motorized Rifle Division had already crossed the border on December 13th. She was to rush to the aid of the beleaguered 163rd Rifle Division on the Straate of Raate. On December 23, the Finns began their first attacks on the 44th Division, which as a result dug itself about ten kilometers away from the easternmost elements of the 163rd Division. A possible explanation for this behavior is the erroneous assumption of the commander of the 44th Division Alexei Vinogradov that there were numerically superior Finnish units facing him. Since no contact was established between the two Soviet formations, the Finns were able to smash all three regiments of the 163rd Rifle Division along the streets of Raate and Juntusranta as well as in Suomussalmi undisturbed one after the other. The division's last organized resistance ended on the night of December 29th to 30th, 1939. The division was almost completely destroyed, the majority of the fleeing soldiers fell victim to temperatures as low as −30 ° C or to Finnish patrols .

Now the Finnish units turned to the 44th Division. This was buried in a column around 30 kilometers long along the Straate of Raate. On January 5, 1940, the Finnish armed forces began a concentrated attack. They attacked the column at different points at night and divided them into pockets several kilometers long by means of roadblocks. These sections were then individually attacked and defeated. At Chuikov's insistence, the unit received permission from Joseph Stalin on the evening of January 6 to withdraw. On January 8, there was a disorderly retreat into Soviet territory, which resulted in very heavy losses.

Crucial factors

The Battle of Suomussalmi was the Red Army's most spectacular failure in the Winter War. The reasons that led to this failure are, on the one hand, to be found in the surprising combat strength of the Finnish Army and, on the other hand, the mistakes of the Red Army. Ninth Army Chief of Staff Nikishev summarized these errors in a report to Voroshilov as follows:

“Because of their organization and rich technical equipment, especially with artillery and means of transport, our units are unable to maneuver in the theater of war. They are cumbersome and in many cases tied to technology that can only be moved along the streets. (...) the procedure under extraordinary circumstances has not been practiced - the troops are afraid of the forest and do not use skis. "

Supply problems of the Red Army fit into this picture. Shortly after the outbreak of war, the 163rd Rifle Division complained over the radio about a lack of snowsuits, boots and food. Accordingly, she had to accept losses from frostbite even without enemy influence. Winter camouflage suits were generally not included in the Soviet inventory. The 44th Motorized Rifle Division had been assigned several thousand pairs of skis. They only reached the unit shortly before the invasion of Finland. Training the soldiers with this new means of transport was no longer possible. Furthermore, the commander of the 44th Vinogradov Division had to allow his light units to advance on foot due to the lack of trucks. So they could not take on their actual task, namely the reconnaissance on the battlefield, because they lagged behind the heavy units. All the problems of the Red Army can therefore be traced back to a mistake that had already been made before the beginning of the war: the Soviet commanders' inadequate analysis and neglect of the climatic conditions when planning operations on the Finnish theater of war.

The Finnish troops quickly developed a tactic with which they could successfully take action against their opponents, who were superior in numbers and materials. To do this, they broke into suitable places in the streets that were ruled by the Red Army. After a short preparation with machine guns, mortars and, if available, artillery, an attack with infantry was carried out against a section a few hundred meters long . The Finns, equipped with winter camouflage clothing, were able to work their way up to the Soviet positions relatively undisturbed in the rough terrain. This deprived the Red Army of the ability to respond to the attack with its armored forces and artillery. As soon as the infantry went on the attack, the Finns sealed off the fighting section on both sides with their support fire. As soon as the section was secured, it was paved and held against attempted breakouts with support from the surrounding forests. The resulting pockets of Soviet units pushed on the defensive were referred to by the Finns as Motti (roughly translated as “encirclement”).

The Finnish commander Siilasvuo had a system of ice paths built early on. This enabled the Finns to relocate their troops relatively unnoticed and quickly. This enabled the soldiers, who are trained in skiing, to react quickly and attack in several places at the same time. They also used the mobility they gained to compensate for their inferiority in terms of guns. The Finnish artillery units carried out brief fire raids and were then relocated to other positions. This made it difficult for the Soviet artillery to provide effective counterfire. In addition, the Finns were able to provide their soldiers with at least a basic level of adequate food and rest through a system of small field kitchens and warming tents.

The circumstances of the common soldier in the Soviet Motti were very different from those of his Finnish opponents. Parts of the 44th Division ran out of food just a few days after the turn of the year. Ammunition also ran out after a few days of fighting. The Soviet Air Force tried to supply the trapped units, but failed at this task. In addition, their bombing had hardly any effect due to the dense forest and the only six hours of daylight. The Finns also concentrated raid-like disruptive attacks on command posts, food and ammunition stores and field kitchens . In their hedgehog positions, the Soviet soldiers faced an invisible enemy without warmth or food. This psychological moment was compounded by Finnish sniper attacks, which made events even more unpredictable for Soviet troops.


900 Finnish soldiers were killed in the battle and 1770 were wounded. The information about the Soviet loss figures vary depending on the source. In the Finnish sources up to 27,500 dead are named. More conservative Finnish estimates put around 22,500 total casualties in the dead, wounded and prisoners, even lower ones of only around 13,000. Reports from the Red Army shortly after the war only give precise information for the 44th Division. By January 7th, this group had lost 1001 dead, 1430 wounded, 2243 missing and 82 frozen. According to Soviet sources, the total losses of the 9th Army , to which both divisions near Suomussalmi belonged, were around 8,500 dead, 5,000 missing and 32,500 wounded during the war. Despite this information, a Russian historian puts the Soviet casualties in the battle at 15,000.


The Finns were able to capture large quantities of war material, including trucks, tanks , machine guns , anti-tank guns and mortars . The Suomussalmi victory helped convince Finnish public opinion and political circles that Finland was about to win the Winter War. Some Finnish newspapers even prophesied the collapse of the Soviet Union in the face of the victories in the north. From a strategic point of view, the outcome of the fighting at Suomussalmi had no impact on the winter war. From the Soviet point of view, the destruction of two divisions did not change the situation on the important fronts along the Mannerheim Line . The sending of troops to the Suomussalmi area and the time-consuming fighting over the Mottis , however, meant that these units were missing as a reserve at the crucial stages of the battle. The Finnish negotiator with the Soviet Union, Juho Kusti Paasikivi , summarized the successes in Northern Finland and thus also Suomussalmi as follows:

“Our victories are considered terribly great, and from our point of view they are glorious. However, they have no effect on the final result. Given the power of the vast Russian state, these defeats have no meaning. "

For the Soviet state and its armed forces, Suomussalmi meant a considerable loss of prestige. The majority of foreign observers knew reports of the battle, but not the terrain or the circumstances in which it had taken place. Suomussalmi is seen as a factor that led both the Axis Powers and the Allies to underestimate the military potential of the Soviet state.

The defeat at Suomussalmi had far-reaching consequences within the army. Under the aegis of Lev Mechlis , a close associate of Stalin, purges were carried out on the remaining units. The commander of the 44th Division, Vinogradov, was shot , as was his political officer . Furthermore, the chief of staff of the superordinate 9th Army Yermolajew was executed as a so-called saboteur . As a consequence of the defeat at Suomussalmi, so-called preventive departments were set up from the ranks of the NKVD , which were only subordinate to the secret service itself. These units were around 2,700 men strong. Their job was to intercept deserters and remove politically inconsistent soldiers from the force.


Web links

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Anthony Upton: Finland 1939-1940. Newark 1974, p. 56; William Trotter: A Frozen Hell. Chapel Hill, 1991, p. 153.
  2. ^ William Trotter: A Frozen Hell. Chapel Hill, 1991, p. 158.
  3. ^ Carl van Dyke: The Soviet Invasion of Finland 1939-1940. London / Portland, 1997, p. 40; P. 42; P. 52 f;
    William Trotter: A Frozen Hell. Chapel Hill 1991, p. 150 f;
    Anthony Upton: Finland 1939-1940. Newark 1974, p. 51 ff, p. 63 ff.
  4. According to the memories of the former commander of the 325th regiment, GA Weschtscheserski, who was subordinate to the 44th division at the time. Played from the following internet source. Retrieved October 8, 2007 at 5:17 pm. The Red Army had a system of functional ranks during the war. The rank of KomBrig roughly corresponds to the personnel rank of a major general.
  5. a b c William Trotter: A Frozen Hell. Chapel Hill, 1991, pp. 150-170.
  6. ^ William Trotter: A Frozen Hell. Chapel Hill, 1991, pp. 144, pp. 150-170; Carl van Dyke: The Soviet Invasion of Finland 1939-1940. F. Cass, London / Portland 1997, pp. 87 ff.
  7. ^ GF Kriwoschejew : Rossija i SSSR w woinach XX weka. Poteri wooruschennych sil. Statistitscheskoje issledowanije Olma-Press, Moscow 2001, ISBN 5-224-01515-4 ; Original text in Russian: "Наши части по своей организации и насыщенности техникой, особенно артиллерией, и обозом не приспособлены к маневру и действиям на этом театре , они тяжеловесны и зачастую прикованы к технике, которая следует только по дороге ... действиям в особых условиях не обучены - леса боятся и на лыжах не ходят ... "
  8. ^ William Trotter: A Frozen Hell. Chapel Hill 1991, p. 151 f; Carl van Dyke: The Soviet Invasion of Finland 1939-1940. London / Portland 1997, p. 86.
  9. ^ Eugene J. Palka: Geographic Information in Military Planning. In: Military Review. dated March 1988; Pp. 52-61.
  10. ^ William Trotter: A Frozen Hell. Chapel Hill 1991, p. 150 ff.
  11. ^ William Trotter: A Frozen Hell. Chapel Hill 1991, p. 150 ff.
  12. ^ William Trotter: A Frozen Hell. Chapel Hill 1991, p. 170.
  13. Dr. Allen F. Chew: Fighting the Russians in Winter: Three Case Studies. Fort Leavenworth, 1981; accessed on October 4, 2007 at 8.30 p.m.; Press release on the website of the Battle Monument in Russian and Finnish accessed on October 6, 2007 17.10.
  14. ^ Carl van Dyke: The Soviet Invasion of Finland 1939-1940. London / Portland 1997, p. 88.
  15. ^ GF Kriwoschejew: Rossija i SSSR w woinach XX weka. Poteri wooruschennych sil. Statistitscheskoje issledowanije ( Memento of March 29, 2010 in the Internet Archive ) Moscow, Olma-Press, 2001. ISBN 5-224-01515-4 ; accessed October 4, 8:30 pm; Press release on the website of the Battle Monument in Russian and Finnish accessed on October 6, 2007 17.10.
  16. ^ William Trotter: A Frozen Hell. Chapel Hill 1991, p. 170.
  17. ^ Sinikka request: Image Research and the Enemy Image: The Soviet Union in Finnish Newspapers during the Winter War (November 30, 1939 - March 13, 1940) Oulu 2002; Retrieved October 4, 2007.
  18. ^ Anthony Upton: Finland 1939-1940. Newark 1979, p. 90.
  19. translation of a quote from Passikivi: Anthony Upton: Finland 1939-1940. Newark 1979, p. 91; Original text in English: 'our victories are considered tremendously great, and from our point of view they are magnificient, but they have no effect on the final result, since in view of the power of the huge Russian state, these defeats have no significance '.
  20. ^ Anthony Upton: Finland 1939-1940. Newark 1979, p. 91.
  21. ^ Carl van Dyke: The Soviet Invasion of Finland 1939-1940. London / Portland 1997, p. 88 f.
This version was added to the list of articles worth reading on October 14, 2007 .