Waving goodbye

The Winter War

William R Trotter <em>Aurum Press, 283pp, £18.99</em>

ISBN 1854108816

Suicide attackers are supposed to come from minorities that lack the conventional trappings of military power, such as the al-Qaeda hijacker or the Palestinian bomber, or else those who have recently lost such power and seek a last resort, such as the Japanese kamikaze. In truth, the chief exponents of suicide in battle have always been the largest and best-equipped armies. The strategy, in the form of attacks by waves of human beings, has had a murderous but consistently successful history on the battlefield. The Chinese in the Korean war, the Russian steamrolling of the Wehrmacht and Douglas Haig's approach to the western front: all these eventually won the day. When choosing their weapons, most duellists go for the sledgehammer.

According to this account of the 1939-40 war between Russia and Finland, there was little temptation, prior to hostilities, for the Soviet commanders to think of anything other than using their own men as cannon fodder. After all, the population of the tiny Scandinavian state was three and a half million - immediate neighbours to 171 million Russians! Up against the largest army in Europe, in spring 1939, the Finnish army did not possess a single working anti-tank gun or any tanks of its own. It had only a dozen modern fighter planes and artillery that dated from the Russo-Japanese war of 1905. So it was with some surprise that the Russians found that their demands for strategically important Finnish territory were met not by appeasement, but belligerence.

Perhaps the Finns could not believe that Stalin truly thought them a threat. Fascist activity in their country was limited, while the right-wing "putsch" of Kurt Wallenius in 1932 was a crime carried out so incompetently that it was barely attempted, let alone committed. Nevertheless, even Stalin could be forgiven for suspecting Hitler's influence in the region because, as the book's photographs reveal, the Finnish air force festooned its planes with large swastikas.

The outcome of the subsequent war was never in doubt. Yet the popular image of the conflict remembered as the "Winter War" still has the might of the Red Army being humiliated by a handful of bobble-hatted skiers. On the other side, Soviet mythology trumpeted the breaching of the Mannerheim Line - Finland's Heath-Robinson version of the French Maginot fortifications - as a feat "without parallel in the annals of war".

Indeed it was, but not in the way Pravda pretended. During four months of combat, the Finns were able to kill ten Russians for every one of their own dead. There were many reasons for the debacle, but few excuses. Morale among the defenders of a free country was high, but the Red Army was still reeling from the purges inside the Soviet Union. Neither was there much enthusiasm from indigenous communists, who declined to form the fifth column that Stalin expected would sweep the country. Finnish workers were certainly unimpressed by Soviet promises of an eight-hour day - a measure that had already been instigated 25 years earlier in Finland.

The Arctic winter was to the Russians what their own winter was later to be to the Germans and had been, much earlier, to the French. The winter of 1939 was one of the coldest on record, with temperatures dropping to 42 below zero. The Red Army crossed the snowscape without winter camouflage for the infantry and with their tanks painted olive green. While the Russian conscripts froze, the Finns enjoyed warm dugouts and even constructed saunas a hundred miles from the front line. Their other advantage was that scourge of modern armies from the Balkans to Vietnam: trees. Forests and woodland hid guerrilla fighters, held up tanks and made most engagements short-range affairs that proved ideal for the Finns' sub-machine guns, as opposed to the rifles of their opponents. The Soviet columns soon became so wretched that the Finns mistook them for political undesirables whom Stalin wanted killed off. But the Red Army was never likely to run out of cannon fodder.

The Winter War - about which William Trotter writes with authority and flair - was the precursor to a greater slaughter. When the generals finally abandoned the dogma of the human wave, it was largely only for metal and machines, rather than bodies and horseflesh, to be flung headlong towards the enemy line.

Nicholas Fearn is the author of Zeno and the Tortoise: how to think like a philosopher (Atlantic Books)

This article first appeared in the 09 December 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Why the French call us Londonistan