The German sprint across Poland in September 1939 introduced the Nazi Blitzkrieg to the world, which then watched as Hitler’s forces swept over mainland Europe and bombarded Britain.
Farther north, in the frigid expanse now occupied by Finland and Russia, an equally significant battle raged in the unprecedentedly cold months of winter 1939-1940, as the outnumbered Fins took on Stalin’s Soviet Union.
The two countries signed a nonaggression treaty in the early 1930s, but that did not allay Finnish concerns about their neighbor’s ambitions.
Those fears were justified, as the Soviet Union surged across the Karelian Isthmus on November 30, 1939, seeking to deepen its western frontier.
Stalin threw about a million troops into the dense forests and frozen expanses that connected the two countries, and able, determined Finnish troops turned the bucolic landscape into a charnel house for underprepared, underfed, and initially overwhelmed Soviet troops.
Finland is thought to have lost about 25,000 soldiers during the 105-day conflict, while the Soviet Union was bled of nearly 200,000 troops, with hundreds more stricken by frostbite.
Helsinki eventually succumbed to the Soviet onslaught, however, signing a peace pact on Moscow’s terms on March 12, 1940 – though the country did not completely capitulate and would later allow German troops to transit its territory to engage the USSR.
As the photos below show, the Finnish troops made deft and deadly use of a vicious winter and unforgiving landscape to exact the maximum toll from the Russian invaders.
War between Finland and Soviet Russia started at 22:45 local time on November 30, 1939. Trenches which were dug at the beginning of the Finnish-Russian tension in Helsinki, December 1, 1939.
A house hit by a Russian aerial bomb in Helsinki, December 11, 1939, and which was still on fire after several days. Heavy Soviet artillery barrages could reportedly be heard in the Finnish capital — more than a hundred miles from the front.
Source: War is Boring
Some of the 50 volunteers for the Finnish army as they prepared to sail from New York on December 9, 1939, on the Swedish-American liner Gripsholm for their native country.
Finnish soldiers use a sleigh on the snow-covered roads near the Mannerheim line during the fighting in the Karelian Isthmus, Finland, on December 14, 1939.
A Finnish soldier at his post in the snow on the Mannerheim Line, the defensive line against Russia, in Finland, on December 14, 1939.
The war came to have two forms: A conventional conflict that revolved around the Mannerheim Line – Finnish fortifications on the Karelian Isthmus – and a campaign of harassment and attacks waged by Finnish ski troops against Soviet personnel in the country’s forests.
A private car that was completely destroyed by a bomb blast during the first aerial bombardment of the Finnish capital of Helsinki in 1940. Women members of the volunteer corps soon began their task of dismantling the wreckage and removing it from the street.
This is a Finnish light artillery squad on patrol duty in the Karelian Isthmus on January 3, 1940. Using white tunics over their heavy winter clothing to camouflage themselves, the soldiers took on the appearance of ghosts as they travel over the snow covered terrain.
The Finnish troops often had to improvise and augment their snow gear with bed linens for camouflage. But those improvisations were effective: Many thousands of Soviet troops, mostly dressed in auspicious and inadequate khaki uniforms, disappeared into the wilderness.
A Soviet bomber, shot down by Finnish anti-aircraft guns on the Karelian front on January 3, 1940, where Russia was reporting massing seven divisions for a drive on the Mannerheim line.
To ski patrols like this, somewhere in Northern Finland on January 4, 1940, was ascribed the successes that led to reported Russian routs at points where Finnish “Suicide Patrols” have penetrated into Soviet territory.
White suits for camouflage ski poles, skis, and rifles make these men look like explorers, but they’re really Finnish soldiers setting out, hunter style, to worry the Russians, in the snows and forests of Finland, January 10, 1940.
Finnish troops reporting the capture of a Russian tank in the snow-covered forest on the Eastern front, January 10, 1940. The Russians lost more than 300 tanks in the first month of the Russo-Finnish war.
What a bullet began, the Arctic cold finished, for this Russian soldier who lost his life near Suomussalmi, Finland, shown on January 31, 1940. He was killed while erecting a field telephone line. The extreme cold froze the soldier in this position.
The bitter cold could subject living flesh to frostbite within minutes of exposure, and dead bodies were often frozen to the firmness of bricks.
Finnish troops sometimes capitalized on the ghoulish brutality of the conditions, positioning dead Soviet troops in upright poses meant to intimidate their adversaries.
Members of a Finnish ski patrol examining the tomb of two Russian officers on the Salla front in Finland on February 10, 1940. The tombstone is a painted red box with a Soviet star made of coins nailed on the box.
While the Fins would eventually settle for a peace deal with the Soviets, the resistance exacted a heavy toll on Stalin’s armies.
“Indeed, the respective kill ratios and casualty rates are perhaps some of the starkest in the annals of 20th century warfare,” Iskander Rehman, a senior fellow at the Pell Center, wrote in summer 2016.
Finnish soldiers, above, are looking over the now famous battleground at Suomussalmi, Finland, on February 10, 1940, after Russian troops had been back. In the foreground of this scene of destruction are frozen bodies of dead Russians.
Swedish volunteer, “somewhere in Northern Finland,” protects himself from the sub-zero arctic cold by an eerie mask over his face in February 20, 1940, while on duty against the Russian Invaders. The small holes in the mask are what the soldier sights his rifle through.
Simo Häyhä, who was known as “the White Death,” was a Finnish sniper credited with killing over 500 enemy troops within 100 days during the Winter War.
Häyhä’s military career was ended by a shot to the face that blew off part of his cheek and lower jaw. He survived to become a Finnish hero, dying of natural causes in 2002.
Canadian volunteers who are fighting for Finland, February 24, 1940. First, they must learn to ski to prepare themselves for attack against the Russians over snow-covered battlefields.
Finnish soldiers, members of one of the ski battalions that made a gallant stand against invading Russian troops, are with their reindeer on March 28, 1940, as they take the road back to the new frontier of Finland as defined in the Soviet-Finnish peace pact.