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5 June 2022

Molotov cocktails and the Northern Lights: Finland’s Winter War against Russia

Art student Bonar Dunlop was one of thousands of foreign volunteers who fought alongside the Finns in 1939-40.

By Fiona Dunlop

With Finland barrelling towards Nato membership in the face of Russian aggression, it is timely to remember how this Baltic country was invaded by its mighty neighbour more than 80 years ago.

In November 1939 an age-old border conflict between the two countries resurfaced when Russian tanks rolled into Finland. The Soviet offensive touched countless foreign hearts; it was a classic tale of David vs Goliath. The result was a flood of international volunteers who struggled through the snowy wastes to help the Finns in what came to be dubbed the Winter War.

One of the roughly 13,500 men to enlist was my father, Bonar Dunlop. Originally from New Zealand, he’d come to London to study art at the Royal Academy. He signed up in early March 1940, frustrated by Britain’s Phoney War. Days later, he was sailing with about 160 other volunteers in a convoy from Leith in Scotland to Norway. Although he only managed to send two letters from Finland, he later wrote an account for radio broadcast by the BBC’s Pacific service.

The contingent had a tough journey into Finland: “For four days solidly we travelled in hard-seated railway carriages from Bergen across and up the Scandinavian peninsula, then staggered and slid over the unfamiliar ice of the river which forms the frontier between Sweden and Finland, so it was an uncouth and unsteady band that the Finns were astonished to see enter their country.”

But it was too late. Days earlier, Finland had signed a treaty with the Soviet Union. “We found a country in mourning bearing all the signs of the war it had undergone. Everything was white, from the snow itself to the white-painted lorries and trains and the white camouflage uniforms of the soldiers. Their blue and white flags flew at half-mast and the people looked disheartened and sad, even the children. For the first two months I hardly saw a Finn so much as smile… It was not so much their desire to win back historic Karelia and other parts surrendered to the Russians… but their deeprooted distrust of Moscow.”

He hammered home this point: “The Finns seemed to possess the uncanny instinct of smelling a Muscovite wherever there was one in the forests.” Indeed, this ingrained suspicion of their neighbours was justified less than an hour before the Armistice came into force, when the Soviets fired an intense, hour-long barrage backed up by bombs. The result was hundreds of casualties among Finnish troops who were just starting to celebrate their survival after months of bitter fighting.

[See also: Why is Finland joining Nato?]

Meanwhile the volunteers arrived in Lapua, in south-west Finland, where the international brigade was stationed. “Here was a motley gathering of adventurers and soldiers of fortune… with an issue of three miserable cigarettes every other day and food that was usually the driest, hardest tack. We started our training which meant arms drill in 50 degrees of frost, skirmishing and mock battles in three feet of snow, and sentry duty at night when one’s breath seemed to freeze while wondering at the Northern Lights flickering overhead. I often went off on skis with a companion, making runs through the forest in deep snow & sometimes also dazzling sunshine. The country is magnificent.”

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In a letter to his mother, he wrote: “A week ago we made a great trek across country, lasting two days and a night. The most pathetic sights I have seen in Finland have been the refugee trains from Karelia (the region captured by Russia), packed with every imaginable article with the people herded together in cattle trucks. When we reached Savonlinna, it raised our spirits no end, for it is a charming town… Today a certain Lord Balfour has appeared on the scene very mysteriously & offered to take back to England at least one letter from each man.”

As a skilled rider, my father ended up in the horse transport section, rounding up errant Russian mounts with which he transferred Karelian refugees and their meagre belongings by cart to remote farms. “Molotov [the Soviet foreign minister] has left his mark here very distinctly, with many houses blown to smithereens,” my father noted.

The statistics for the three and a half months of war were horrific. About 25,000 Finns died and, staggeringly, more than 200,000 Russians (the true total is unknown), as well as many more thousands captured and wounded. These figures spelled out the formidable resistance and fighting skill of the Finns, despite a desperate lack of resources and ammunition: “They had reduced the technique of fighting in their country to a very fine art” – just like the Ukrainians today. One of their many ingenious guerrilla ruses had been the mass-produced petrol bomb used to attack Soviet tanks. It became known as the “Molotov cocktail”.

However, the sheer numbers in Stalin’s infantry, as well as some 4,000 tanks and intense carpet-bombing, proved relentless – and ultimately victorious. This was despite sorely inadequate equipment. Many Russians died of hypothermia and troops invading on skis often had cloth-bound feet – weapons were not their only shortage. What wasn’t missing was vodka, swilled on the front for warmth, stamina and inebriation. Sounds familiar.

My father, with Norway under Nazi control, trekked hundreds of miles into the Arctic Circle in an attempt to find a ship to Britain. Thwarted, and by then broke, he deliberately turned himself in to be imprisoned and thereby fed. Eventually he found his way to a tutoring job and art school in neutral Stockholm, where Nazi occupations kept him for 18 months. Incredibly, his ultimate exit was on the “Stockholm Express”, a secret courier flight for spiriting Swedish ball bearings (also spies) to Britain in exchange for planeloads of gold ingots or US dollars. Strapped into the bomb bay of the Mosquito bomber together with a handful of Norwegian refugees, he was officially listed as “ball bearings”. Hardly an exalted end to a momentous adventure.

[See also: Finlandisation is not an option for Ukraine]

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