The Winter War 1939–40 (Casemate Illustrated)

Image of The Winter War 1939–40 (Casemate Illustrated)
Release Date: 
July 15, 2023
Reviewed by: 

"Anyone wanting to understand the current war in Ukraine would benefit from reading this careful and thoughtful history. . . . a deft use of the documentary format."

Philip Jowett's The Winter War 1939–40 comes out at just the right time. Anyone wanting to understand the current war in Ukraine would benefit from reading this careful and thoughtful history.  This is a piece of the past that is scarcely known in the United States. For all the many pages spent on WWII in high school classes, the Finnish-Soviet war is never even mentioned.

Jowett uses his own extensive personal photography collection to describe the various facets of this important conflict, from capsule descriptions of major generals and politicians to illustrations of weapons and camps. By using so many images in his text, he makes the war more vivid and comprehensible, a deft use of a documentary format.

The book starts with a timeline that provides a clear summary of the war:

"Following futile negotiations between Helsinki and Moscow, on November 30, 1939, 600,000 Red Army troops crossed the border into Finland, while the Red Air Force unleashed bombing raids on Helsinki and other key cities. With the Soviet invasion, so commenced the bitter three-and-a half-month war that came to be known as the Winter War, a classic David and Goliath struggle that ultimately witnessed some 70,000 Finnish casualties and upward of half a million Soviet casualties, most of whom were sacrificed in massed infantry charges or perished from hypothermia, frostbite, and starvation."

Stalin's main concern was how close Leningrad was to the Finnish border. The clear solution to him was to move this border, to take as much of Finnish territory as he could. When negotiations didn't work, he was sure force would.

The Finns were vastly outnumbered, on land, sea, and air, with much older weapons and far fewer of them. Still, they managed to hold off the Soviets due to their expertise in winter combat.

"Before long, the narrow forest roads were crammed with wall-to-wall columns of tightly packed armor and trucks. It was then that the highly mobile Finnish troops, usually on skis, attacked the columns in a series of deadly ambushes. This was the pattern of combat in the early days of the war that was repeated up and down the border with isolated Soviet units surrounded and suffering from the intense cold during the worst Finnish winter since 1878. The flank units guarding the columns were incapable of providing the necessary protection."

While bombing with their superior air power seemed like a good solution to avoid the freezing terrain, in reality it proved unprofitable because there were so few big cities:

"The relative failure of the Red Air Force bombing campaign led Soviet theorists to conclude that strategic bombing was not a good idea. In reality, the lack of major targets was an issue and the Soviets decided to reduce the number of bombers sent on raids."

That left the land as the main avenue for attack. Individual battles are laid out in detail, with well-chosen photographs expanding on the text. One picture of a pile of frozen Soviet soldiers accompanies this description:

"The 163rd was all but destroyed as a fighting force and few of its men ever returned to Soviet lines, with thousands of troops lost. Once again the grim body count had been done by the Finns, the sheer scale of their victory over the 44th and 163rd Divisions became obvious. Some 27,000 Red Army troops were dead and their bodies, according to witnesses, 'were stacked like cordwood in the forest.'"

The winter itself helped the Finns in their fight against the Soviets, with many Red Army soldiers freezing to death. The Soviets realized in late 1939 that they needed to rely on soldiers like the Finns, those who could ski and shoot, who knew how to handle harsh extremes of cold. They brought in the 2,000-strong Siberian Ski Brigade. These men did know how to deal with the terrain and the cold, but were not trained in caring for their weapons. "Their rifles and sub-machine guns had not been cleaned and lubricated properly and many jammed due to frozen oil."

But despite all the defeats, the Soviets seemed to have an endless supply of men, sending thousands more to follow the thousands who perished. Just as is happening now with Putin, Stalin refused to give up:

"Although Stalin was stunned by the defeats of the Red Army in Finland, he was in no mood to withdraw from the conflict. His stubborn, unflinching attitude was to restart the war in earnest in the first months of 1940." By concentrating on the Karelian peninsula and massive troop numbers, the Red Army finally won some important battles. The Finnish army was simply too small, too ill-equipped to stand up to the constant onslaught. In the end, a truce was negotiated with Finland maintaining its independence as a country but losing a large amount of territory, 16,000 square miles of Karelia.

Still, Jowett makes clear the depth of the losses to the Soviets, perhaps as many as one million dead soldiers, 1,000 aircraft and 2,300 armored vehicles lost, as well as "enormous amounts of military equipment [that] had been left on the battlefields."

Jowett has amassed an impressive amount of detail, yet the writing never bogs down. He leads the reader through this war with precision and employs images to great effect. The Winter War provides not only good, solid history, but serves as an example for how photographs and text can work together to make a difficult subject easier to follow, making history into a compelling story.