Winter War: spinning yarns of old wars in times of war
Updated: Mar 23, 2022
Contemporary wars are the perfect echo chambers for stirring up old war myths. Since Vladimir Putin unleashed his invasion of the Ukraine, the projection of old wars onto this war have proliferated. From Nineteenth Century favourites like the Crimean and American Civil Wars, to the parallel place names from the First and Second World Wars, old wars are headline news. The perception that wars fit some predictive pattern has been a hallmark of western military history. The field of war studies was more reflective in the nuances of war, while those working on Holocaust & Genocide and in the emerging schools of the politics and culture of violence schools adopt different benchmarks. Putin’s War has rejected the west’s noble ideas of war. He drew lessons from the west in Iraq, Afghanistan and former Yugoslavia, but has opted for wholesale brutality. Like Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, Putin has placed a mirror before the west and the reflection is unsettling. The response from western scholars has been to depict Putin’s war-making as inefficient, and have used earlier ‘failed’ wars to prove their arguments. In this context, the Soviet-Finnish War of 1939/40 has become the blue-print for the Russian-Ukraine War (2022).
Unremarkably, among the ranks of military history lining the bookshelves of Foyles or Waterstones, the Winter War (1939/40) is not a popular subject. In 1972 Pan/Ballantine published The Winter War for their campaign series. Like many of their books, they employed authors with expertise or those with strong scholarly credentials. The author Richard Condon had studied Finland in the Second World War at an American university. For at least a decade the book was all we had, and its interesting to note how many of his opinions have continued into more recent books. Contemporary studies have barely advanced Condon’s thesis; his account depicted a war of 108 days and how little Finland’s 3 millions held out against the Soviet Union’s 108 million. In the Cold War, when the book was published, numbers mattered.
Present: The 1939/40 War doesn’t hold parallels with 2022, not least because Finland lost and a loser in the present war has yet to be determined. The terrain and military systems have changed many times over since the events of 1941/45, including and up to all the subsequent conflicts of post-USSR Russia. The Russian way of war isn’t struggling with a 1939/40 War narrative, and the Ukrainians will not raise western war-making to a postmodern Thermopylae. Content to deliver wholesale destruction, Putin’s War has rendered the western way of war redundant. The Russians face more complex problems: having introduced, but not completed, a military reform programme; the manpower establishment was not properly worked-up to the new doctrinal paradigms; and the battle plans were drawn over the decaying infrastructure of the former Soviet defence system.
Past: For decades scholars focused upon the impact of Stalin’s purge of the generals (1938). The poor leadership was assumed to have been reflected in the Red Army performance during the 1939/40 War. Chris Bellamy’s Absolute War (2007) mapped the Soviet campaign and the military reforms that followed the war. He observed (p.70) that while the the higher echelons had been gutted, the campaign was planned and commanded by the Leningrad Military District without Red Army oversight. In other words, Stalin had ruled against the army and in favour of a localised peoples’ initiative. In Bellamy’s opinion this was a critical point of failure. The Red Army’s fighting forces, those lowly ‘Ivan’s’ still fought a hard war. It was estimated they suffered more than 200,000 killed, a
gainst Finnish losses of 70,000. However, this also closely resembles the old 3:1 attack-defence ratio ending speculation that the Soviets suffered exceptional losses. Thus the 1939/40 War doesn’t explain Putin’s invasion. However, did Hitler and his generals misinterpret the results from the 1939/40 War.
On 4 June 1942, Hitler hosted a conference with Field Marshall Mannerheim of Finland, then allied to Nazi Germany in the war against the Soviet Union. Remarkably their conversation was recorded and even more remarkably the recordings have been preserved:
The restoration, about 17 minutes, has recorded Hitler’s shock at having discovered the Soviet Union had extensive tank reserves. The late Bruno Ganz is believed to have used the records in his prepartion for The Downfall (2004). Listening to Hitler is a reminder of how German veterans spoke glowingly of meeting him. However, the importance of the recording is the confirmation of the failure of German military intelligence prior to Operation Barbarossa – the invasion of Soviet Russia 22 June 1941.
Before Barbarossa there had been Soviet espionage activity - Sorge, Lucy Spy Ring (spy cells) - passing Hitler’s war plans to Stalin. Misinformation was fed back into the German military intelligence system from sources in Finland, Poland and Moscow. Did poor intelligence feed a poor evaluation of Soviet capability or had the German generals already assumed ‘Ivan’ was a loser? According to the semi-official Germany and the Second World War: Volume 4, The Attack on the Soviet Union, on the eve of Barbarossa (p.323) there were gaps in German knowledge of the Red Army in particular: structures, manpower and equipment.
Shock and awe was unleashed with Stalin’s Moscow counter-attack on 5 December 1941. The Red Army had transferred 18 divisions, 1,700 tanks, and over 1,500 aircraft from Siberia and the Far East. We know more about the Red Army in the Far East from several sources, in particular the writings of Stuart Goldman, Nomonhan 1939: The Red Army’s Victory That
Shaped World War II, (2012). Even the story of the great counter-attack has been tempered by more nuanced research. For example, in my research for Birds of Prey (2021) I came across cases of the Red Army’s deep resistance that continued long after Bialystok’s surrender (July 1941) and spilled into the partisan operations in the Polish forests. We should, therefore be mindful of how the 1939/40 War led Hitler to conclude the Soviet Union and the Red Army were lumbering giants ripe for invasion.
Present: The 1939/40 War is not a blue-print for unpicking Putin’s War. However, it offers a deeper lesson: of misunderstanding a war in progress and forming incorrect conclusions framed by poorly understood historical analogy. Back in the day, the Soviet Union’s Frunze Military Academy taught the 1939/40 War as a study in leadership failure and those lessons were hammered into the collective mindset of officer cadets and Red Army culture. The legacy of that mindset is carrying Putin’s War. There are concerns that what is on display in the Ukraine, neither explains the Russian way of war or its mission. Thus far the west was caught out by Putin’s maskirovka (disguise), the unfolding mechanised genocide - a feature of Russian war making since Grozny (1996) - and the determination to prosecute war even against western sanctions. If we continue to misunderstand the Russian intentions we maybe in danger of making the same mistakes from the 1940s, but with more serious consequences.