Lessons from the Winter War: Frozen Grit and Finland’s Fabian Defense


Whether on the soccer pitch or the field of battle, humans have a natural tendency to root for the underdog. Our sacred texts, medieval ballads, and regimental histories are filled with gut-wrenching tales of desperate men facing overwhelming odds. From the battle of Thermopylae to the siege of the Alamo, from the gunfight at Camaron to the clash at Rorke’s Drift, there is something about such lopsided contests that continues to exert a powerful sway over our collective imagination.

All too often, however, it is certain climactic battles-or flashes in the pan of martial history that capture our interest, rather than the more protracted and less cinematic struggles between two unevenly matched armies. An exception might be the campaigns of Quintus Fabius Maximus during the Second Punic War. The redoubtable Roman’s efforts have bequeathed to us something of an awkward nomenclature — the adjective Fabian — now used to designate nationally driven scorched-earth tactics or strategies of delay and progressive attrition.

There are countless other fascinating examples of Fabian warfare that could and should be drawn upon by contemporary strategists. Alfred the Great’s hit-and-run campaign against the marauding Danes, launched from his swampy sanctuary deep in the Somerset Marshes, provides one such example, as do the less fortunate attempts of Hereward the Wake (the Northern English Lord who inspired the legend of Robin Hood) to coordinate a region-wide resistance against the brutal occupation of William the Conqueror. The Duke of Wellington’s fostering of a Spanish “ulcer” during the Napoleonic Wars and Josip Tito’s war against Axis forces during World War II are both equally rife with lessons.

Yet one of history’s most dramatic tales of Fabian defense is found much further north, in the dark pine forests stretching beyond the Arctic Circle and in the mass graveyards that still dot the banks of the Karelian Isthmus. Karelia, renowned for its natural beauty, is one of those many bucolic but benighted stretches of territory that by the tyranny of geography have found themselves repeatedly ravaged by great power conflicts.

Finland’s Winter War with the Soviet Union, waged over the course of 105 days from November 1939 to March 1940, should be an object of study for all students of military strategy. Finland, a weak, sparsely populated, and diplomatically isolated nation, succeeded in imposing staggering costs on a far more potent aggressor. Indeed, the respective kill ratios and casualty rates are perhaps some of the starkest in the annals of 20th century warfare. While Helsinki is estimated to have lost approximately 25,000 soldiers during the Soviet offensive, the invader’s fatalities have been pegged at close to 200,000, with hundreds of thousands more crippled by frostbite. This was a war of extremes, whose battles were fought during one of the coldest winters on record, in snowbound woods where daylight only lasted a few hours and temperatures regularly plummeted far below freezing. In such conditions, any exposed flesh ran the risk of being immediately afflicted by frostbite, while stacks of bodies froze in minutes, acquiring the solidity of brick walls. Raging blizzards and howling winds regularly disrupted radio transmissions, prevented aerial reconnaissance, and deviated the trajectory of artillery fire. Finland eventually buckled under the weight of Stalin’s onslaught and found itself obliged to part with large tracts of territory. Its citizen army had so severely gored the Soviet bear, however, that the Nordic nation preserved its independence and was spared the grim fate of the Baltic states. The conflict also put a severe dent in the prestige of a Red Army still reeling from the savage leadership purges of the 1930s. Moscow’s pained post-mortem of the conflict triggered endless bouts of internal recrimination before eventually leading to some much-needed military reforms.

Stalin’s initial multi-pronged assault comprised over 600,000 troops along with thousands of tanks, planes, and heavy artillery pieces. Facing this massive onslaught was a Finnish Army that stood at less than half the size of the invading army, even following the full mobilization of nine divisions worth of reserves and conscripts. In addition to this severe numerical inferiority, the Finns had only a few tanks, barely any planes, and a perilously low level of munitions for their minute artillery force. The war almost immediately took on two very different forms, both of which unfolded concurrently. While a more conventional positional conflict war raged along the Mannerheim Line — a stretch of Finnish fortifications erected across the Karelian Isthmus — a “war of detachment” was waged by Finnish ski troops against Soviet columns deep in the forested regions of Finland’s interior.

Along the Mannerheim Line, the outnumbered and outgunned Finns were subjected to some of the heaviest artillery barrages since the Battle of Verdun in World War I. During one artillery bombardment, over 300,000 shells fell on Finnish positions within 24 hours. According to some contemporary accounts, the Russian artillery salvoes could be heard in Helsinki over a hundred miles away. Following such apocalyptic barrages, Soviet troops would rush to storm enemy bunkers, only to find them eerily silent, with the Finnish defenders lying seemingly unscathed, but dead from sheer concussion.

The extreme nature of this war is also reflected in the colorful cast of characters that took part in its many battles. The commander-in-chief of the Finnish forces, Carl Mannerheim, was a brilliant strategist, but something of an anachronistic figure, an austere aristocrat and former adventurer of the Great Game, who seemed the embodiment of another era. Serving under him was the humbler Simo Hayha, history’s most deadly sniper, nicknamed “the White Death” by the Red Army and credited with more than 500 kills.

Perhaps most importantly, the Winter War continues to contain a number of important lessons, many of which appear particularly relevant in an era characterized by a revival of great power competition, in which small nations seek to devise new means of offsetting the threats posed by larger and more powerful predatory powers.

Leveraging Weather and Geography

The Finns proved singularly adept at leveraging their homeland’s harsh environmental conditions and geography in the course of their struggle for national survival. Finnish troops were nearly all highly experienced skiers and possessed a degree of mobility Soviet soldiers could not match. Silently gliding out of pine forests, bedecked in snow capes often haphazardly assembled from bed linens, Finnish ski troopers continuously surprised, circumvented, and harassed their beleaguered opponents. Despite the earlier warnings of a few isolated voices within the Soviet Commissariat of Defense, the Russian and Ukrainian soldiers catapulted by their thousands into the frozen taiga had received little to no arctic training. Few could effectively use snow shoes, let alone ski. Easily detectable in their khaki uniforms, countless Soviet troops vanished into the frozen wilderness, never to be seen again. When reading about the truly astonishing levels of attrition at the hands of ski troopers, one is reminded of the maneuverability “overmatch” Mongol horse archers enjoyed over their foes for much of the 13th century.

Perhaps some of the most useful insights into this unique way of war can be gleaned by perusing the writings of Finnish veterans later recruited as winter warfare advisors for the U.S. Army. In their view, it was not sufficient to adapt to a harsh geography. Rather, the goal should to develop new forms of operational art that enable one to leverage that same geography against an ill-adapted foe. Writing in the 1950s, these grizzled veterans thus advised the U.S. 10th Mountain Division the following:

Snow and ice, under winter conditions, are actually to be considered as an aid to operations and an aid to the rapid movement of troops, not as a hindrance which is the common conception.

In winter warfare, they noted, mobility rapidly became the main concern and source of comparative advantage.  With much of the landscape blanketed under heavy layers of snow, ski troopers could afford to explore multiple axes of approach, whereas Soviet infantry and armored units were confined to narrow forest roads and logged tracks. Their long, winding columns could then be ambushed and cut apart piecemeal in what the Finns grimly dubbed “motti tactics” — a motti referring to a traditional measure of chopped firewood. This was facilitated by the fact that:

Infantry on skis could go anywhere and retain freedom of maneuver. As the lakes, rivers, and marshlands freeze during the winter, they cease to be natural obstacles and thus the battlefield becomes larger than during other seasons. Camouflaged ski troops are highly mobile and can mount surprise attacks on the flanks and rear of the enemy to cut off communications and supply lines, in turn aiding its destruction.

The Finns’ ability to remain absolutely silent by sometimes using reindeer to transport heavier material cross-country rather than motorized vehicles allowed them to spring ambush after ambush on increasingly jumpy Soviet patrols. Many of these attacks occurred during the long arctic nights, during which Soviet camp fires provided convenient targeting beacons for Finnish snipers. As an added benefit, Red Army soldiers soon began to suffer from severe sleep deprivation, with all the attendant effects on their morale and battlefield effectiveness.

Interestingly, the instrumentalization of geography remains at the heart of Finland’s defense strategy to this day. Strategists in Helsinki still plan for an in-depth defense of their homeland, with the aim of drawing any potential invader into the hinterlands where they would be ground down by small units equipped with anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs), lightweight artillery, and multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS). While American strategists have only just begun to rediscover concepts of archipelagic defense, Finnish planners have long developed sophisticated operational concepts around the defense of their many narrow inlets and small islands that incorporate a mixture of mine warfare assets, underwater listening posts, fast attack craft, and coastal jaeger units armed with anti-ship missiles and mortars.

With almost the entirety of its territory falling under the coverage of advanced Russian air defense systems, Helsinki has adopted an equally pragmatic attitude toward the defense of its airspace. Rather than choosing to engage in a fruitless competition for air dominance, the Finnish Air Force focuses on redundancy and survivability: dispersing air strips, practicing emergency highway landings, and erecting a highly mobile air defense grid. This approach to national defense, with its cold-blooded attention to self-reliance and national resiliency, is a direct product of the nation’s geography and its fraught history. It is also closely intertwined with its refusal to join NATO, for the time being, at least. Indeed, the Finns remain acutely aware of the fact that they must continue to plan for their own defense, just as during the long, hard months of the Winter War. In many ways, this realization has only sharpened their thinking on matters pertaining to asymmetric warfare and territorial defense. As the United States and certain of its key Asian allies devote ever more attention to forward base hardening, resiliency, and deterrence through protraction, there are no doubt many additional interesting lessons to derive from Finland’s Fabian defense model.

The Importance of Devising Creative Approaches to Enemy Attrition:

Tiberius Gracchus, when in Spain, upon learning that the enemy were suffering from a lack of provisions, provided his camp with an elaborate supply of eatables of all kinds and then abandoned it. When the enemy had got possession of the camp and had gorged themselves to repletion with the food they found, Gracchus brought back his Army and suddenly crushed them.

On Ambushes, The Stratagema of Frontinus.

One lesson is the importance of looking beyond frontal unit-on-unit combat to devise more creative and cost-effective approaches to enemy attrition. During the Winter War, the Finns proved particularly adept at channeling, diverting, and demoralizing Soviet troops.

Owing to the harshness of that particular winter, hundreds of Finland’s lakes were covered with thick layers of ice that provided the invading force wide expanses to mass troops at a safe remove from the sniper-infested forests. Finnish bomb-makers soon designed rudimentary mines with jagged edges, which could be discreetly “embedded” into or under the ice sheets. These would be detonated when enemy formations crossed the lake, consigning hundreds of unfortunate Soviet soldiers, many of whom could not swim, to a watery grave. As a result, Red Army commanders began to refuse to move large numbers of troops across frozen bodies of water, instead channeling their troops into nearby forests where Finnish snipers and machine gunners would patiently lie in wait.

One of Finnish commanders’ most effective strategies, however, was the weaponization of their enemy’s hunger. As any avid winter sport practitioner knows, strenuous physical activity in extreme cold requires a high protein diet. The average Soviet grunt during the Winter War was often granted little more than a hunk of bread and some tea. Meanwhile, the Finns had an elaborate system of sled-driven cooking units serving nutrient-rich gruel and preserved meats. During one incident later called the “sausage war,” the 44th Ukrainian Division broke through Finnish lines only to discover an abandoned field kitchen that had been serving sausages. Mad with hunger, the Ukrainians rushed to gorge themselves on the meat. Their culinary detour allowed the Finns to regroup and counterattack, which led to the decimation of the unit. Soon after, orders were given to prioritize the targeting of Soviet field kitchens to exacerbate their hunger and psychological frailty even further.

Like the Roman scouts of Fabius Maximus, Finnish rearguard units excelled at strategies of delay and sabotage, rigging recently evacuated territory with dozens of booby traps, forcing Red Army units to comb through each hamlet house by house, barn by barn, in the nerve-wracking “delousing” operations so familiar to counterinsurgency specialists. In some cases, villages were simply set aflame in a bid to prevent the assailants from finding shelter from the elements for the night.

Small Nations, Predatory Powers, and the Value of Conscription:

“Switzerland does not have an army, it is an army.”

Prince Klemens Metternich

Last but not least, Finland’s remarkable performance during the Winter War demonstrates the continued value of conscription for small, lightly populated countries not shielded by military alliance structures. The Finnish people’s savage resistance or “sisu” (a Finnish term that can loosely be translated as grit) brings to mind the actions of Vietnamese “dan qan” (citizen soldiers) during the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War. Vietnam’s citizen soldiers, who had received small arms training from the regular units of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN), played an important role in delaying China’s advance, disrupting its lines of communications, and displaying an unparalleled mastery of jungle warfare.

Much like Britain’s famed “stiff upper lip” during the Blitz, the “sisu” exhibited by the people of Finland during the Winter War is now nested at the core of the Nordic nation’s national mythos. For Finnish defense planners — like their counterparts in nations such as Singapore and Israel — conscription is viewed as essential to preserving both their country’s military strength and its national unity (sisu) in the face of larger prospective adversaries. Unlike most Western European nations, which moved away from territorial defense at the end of the Cold War, Finland still requires military service of its citizens. Conscripts are not only drafted into the regular Army, but also into the Border Guard, which falls under the tutelage of the Interior Ministry. In both cases, raw recruits are rapidly provided with extensive amounts of survival and winter warfare training, with the goal of enabling them to operate deep in the wilderness, if necessary. Select units, such as the Special Border Jaegers, are designed to fight behind enemy lines in the event of a large-scale land invasion.

When examining Finland’s force structure and concepts of operation for territorial defense, one can’t help but wonder why a country such as Taiwan, which arguably faces a far more severe conventional threat, chose to go such a different way and abandon conscription. Beyond the political expediency of such a gesture (conscription has always been deeply unpopular), there appears to be no clear strategic rationale for this seismic shift in the island nation’s defense posture. Furthermore, it appears to have already proven ruinously expensive.

In these times of creeping revisionism and growing uncertainty, maybe it’s time more of us — both in the United States and overseas — looked towards hardy little Finland for inspiration in matters of asymmetric balancing.


Iskander Rehman is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Project for International Order and Strategy (IOS), at the Brookings Institution. He can be followed on Twitter @IskanderRehman.