Matt Franz : Zealous For Knowledge

Lessons From The Winter War

History has largely forgotten the Winter War. But it is one of the great David vs. Goliath triumphs of the modern era. In December 1939 Stalin attacked Finland with an army three times larger than the Allies  landed in Normandy a few years later. The Soviets expected a quick, effortless victory. They “possessed more than three times as many soldiers as the Finns, thirty times as many aircraft, and a hundred times as many tanks” (source).

But they severely lacked experience, particularly in the cold northern forests of Finland. Stalin’s great purge of 1936-1938 had drained the Red army’s supply of talent. Over 30,000 officers had been imprisoned or executed.

The Russians resolved to use their overwhelming numbers to win. They sent wave after wave of infantry charging into Finland’s heavily fortified position on the Karelian Isthmus. A handful of entrenched Finnish machine guns mowed them down.

The Russians sent fleets of tanks forward. The Finns skied through the forest chopping down trees force apart groups of tanks into isolated pieces. Then, they threw Molotov cocktails at the tanks’s air vents. The vents sucked the flaming gasoline inside, killing the crew and destroying the tank. All it cost the Finns to destroy a fleet was a  couple gallons of gasoline.

At one point a group of Russian raiders slipped unnoticed behind Finnish lines and attacked from the rear. They took the Finns by surprise just as they we’re sitting down to eat a meal of hot sausage soup. The Russians had been subsisting on a diet of cold bread and tea. As soon as they smelled the soup they abandoned their plan, ignored their commanders, and stopped to eat. This gave the Finns precious time to reassemble and mount an organized counter attack, saving their war effort.

After months of fighting, the Russians signed an armistice. The Finns conceded the Karelian Isthmus, which Russia continues to hold today. Technically, it was a victory for Russia. But it was a moral victory for Finland. After Stalin died Khrushchev launched an inquiry into the true toll of the war. They concluded that Russia lost over 1 million men in Finland.

What can we learn from this?

William Trotter, author of Frozen Hell, said “Don’t rely too much on technology. Technology is important. Material strength is important. But skill – how you use your equipment – is even more important. And ultimately will. If you don’t have the will to fight, nothing else matters.” (source)

Yvon Chouinard says “The more you know the less you need.”

The Finns knew more but had less. They knew the land and how to survive in it. They didn’t have tanks, but they did have warm food. They didn’t have airplanes, but they could ski over deep snow. The Finns proved that there’s no amount of technology that can compensate for missing fundamentals.

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