Military history of Finland during World War II

Military history of Finland during World War II
Finnish ski troops in Northern Finland in January 1940.

From 1939 to 1945, Finland fought three wars: the Winter War alone against the Soviet Union, the Continuation War with Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union, and the Lapland War against Nazi Germany. In the end, Finland managed to defend its independence but had to cede nearly 10% of its territory, including its second largest city, Viipuri (from 1944 Vyborg), to the USSR.



The Grand Duchy of Finland, as the country was named until 1917.
Finland's concessions in the Winter War.

In 1809, Russia conquered Finland from Sweden in the Finnish War. Finland entered a personal union with the Russian Empire as a grand duchy with extensive autonomy. During the period of Russian rule the country generally prospered. However, in the early 20th century Russia tightened its grip on Finland, causing widespread resentment. When revolution broke out in Russia in 1917, Finland declared independence. In 1918 the Finnish Civil War broke out between the generally right-wing government supporters and left-wing rebels. The war ended with the victory of the government forces, supported by Germany, and the expulsion of Russian troops.

During the inter-war period, the relationship between Finland and the Soviet Union was tense. Some elements in Finland maintained the dream of "Greater Finland" which included the Soviet-controlled part of Karelia. The proximity of the Finnish border to Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) caused worry in the Soviet leadership.

On 24 August 1939 Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. In a secret clause of the agreement, Finland was part of the Soviet sphere of influence. On 12 October the Soviet Union started negotiations with Finland concerning parts of the Finnish territory, Karelian Isthmus, the Gulf of Finland islands and Hanko. No agreement was reached. On 26 November the Soviet Union accused the Finnish army of shelling the village of Mainila. It was subsequently found that the Soviets had in fact shelled their own village to create an excuse to withdraw from their non-agression pact with Finland. On 30 November the Soviet Union attacked Finland. The attack was judged illegal by the League of Nations and, as a result, the Soviet Union was expelled from that body on 14 December.[1]

Course of the war

Winter War

The Soviet forces arrayed against Finland greatly outnumbered the Finnish army. The Red Army enjoyed over a twofold advantage in the number of troops and even greater advantage in equipment, including a virtually complete air supremacy. The Soviet leadership also established a puppet regime, called the Finnish Democratic Republic, in an occupied border town in the hope that this would encourage the former "reds" of the Finnish Civil War to defect or to rebel.

The war, however, unfolded very differently. The country united against the aggressor and the puppet regime failed to have a noticeable effect. The Finnish army were fighting on their home turf in winter conditions with which they were very familiar. The high morale of Finnish troops, their flexible and creative tactics, the difficult terrain and harsh weather caused significant problems for the Red Army. The Soviets were routed in several key battles, the Battle of Suomussalmi being a prominent example. The war lasted for months rather than weeks, casualties mounted and the international prestige of the Soviet Union suffered. Finland negotiated for aid from Great Britain, France and Sweden. The two major powers sent some material aid, the most important being modern fighters that arrived just as the war was ending. Great expectations had been placed on Sweden as many hoped they would join the war on Finland's side. In the end aid was limited to materials, money and volunteers. Despite Sweden sending one third of its fighters and the largest volunteer contingent from a single country during the 20th century, failure to fulfill the high early expectations created resentment in Finland, noticeable in the two countries' otherwise close relations to this day.[citation needed]

By March 1940, sheer exhaustion led to the situation where both parties were willing to negotiate for a cessation of hostilities. The Finnish Army was running low on supplies and the Soviet Union desired an end to the costly war which had become an international embarrassment, ultimately resulting in the signing of the Moscow Peace Treaty. Although the Soviet goal of total conquest of Finland was not met the Finns did make significant territorial concessions with the total area lost approximating 35,000 km² (approximately 9% of the Finnish territory).[2]

Interim peace

The period of peace following the Winter War was widely regarded as temporary even when peace was announced in March 1940. A period of frantic diplomatic efforts and rearmament followed. The Soviet Union kept up intense pressure on Finland, thereby hastening the Finnish efforts to improve the security of the country.

Defensive arrangements were attempted with Sweden and Great Britain, but the political and military situation in the context of the Second World War rendered these efforts fruitless. Finland therefore turned to Nazi Germany for military aid. As the German offensive against the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa) approached, the cooperation between the two countries intensified. German troops arrived in Finland and took up positions, mostly in Lapland.

Operation Barbarossa began on 22 June 1941. On 25 June the Soviet Union launched a massive air raid against Finnish cities, after which Finland declared war and also allowed German troops stationed in Finland to begin offensive warfare. The resulting war was to be called the Continuation War.

Continuation War

Relative strengths of Finnish, German and Soviet troops at the start of the Continuation War in June 1941.
The village of Ivalo, destroyed by Germans.

During the summer and autumn of 1941 the Finnish Army was on the offensive, retaking the territories lost in the Winter War. The Finnish army also advanced further, especially in the direction of Lake Onega, (east from Lake Ladoga), leading to the occupation of Russian East Karelia (it never had been a part of Finland - or even, before 1809, of Sweden-Finland). This caused Great Britain to declare war on Finland on 6 December. The German and Finnish troops in Northern Finland were less successful, failing to take the Russian port city of Murmansk during Operation Silver Fox.

On 31 July 1941 the United Kingdom launched raids on Kirkenes and Petsamo to show support for the Soviet Union. These raids failed.

In December 1941, the Finnish army took defensive positions. This led to a long period of relative calm in the front line, lasting until 1944. During this period, starting at 1941 but especially after the major German defeat in the Battle of Stalingrad, intermittent peace feelers took place. These negotiations did not lead to any settlement.

On 16 March 1944, the President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, called for Finland to disassociate itself from Nazi Germany.[3]

On 9 June 1944, the Red Army launched a massive attack against Finland. The fact that the enemy had vast numerical superiority, and had managed to surprise the Finnish army, led to a retreat approximately to the same positions as the Finns were holding at the end of the Winter War. Eventually the Soviet offensive was fought to a standstill (see Battle of Tali-Ihantala) while still tens or hundreds of kilometres in front of the main Finnish line of fortifications, the Salpa Line.

The dire situation in 1944 had led to Finnish president Risto Ryti giving Germany his personal guarantee that Finland would not negotiate peace with the Soviet Union for as long as he was the president. In exchange Germany delivered weapons to the Finns. After the Soviet invasion was halted; however, Ryti resigned. Due to the war, elections could not be held, and therefore the Parliament selected the Marshal of Finland Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, the Finnish commander-in-chief, as president and charged him with negotiating a peace.

The Finnish front had become a sideshow for the Soviet leadership, as they were in a race to reach Berlin before the Western Allies. This, and the heavy casualties inflicted on the Red Army by the Finns, led to the withdrawal of most troops from the Finnish front. On 4 September 1944 a ceasefire was agreed, and the Moscow armistice was signed on 19 September. In the armistice agreement Finland was obliged to expel German troops from the country. This led to the Lapland War.

Moscow armistice

The Moscow armistice was signed by Finland and the Soviet Union on 19 September 1944 ending the Continuation War, though the final peace treaty was not to be signed until 1947 in Paris.

The conditions for peace were similar to those previously agreed in the 1940 Moscow Peace Treaty, with Finland being forced to cede parts of Finnish Karelia, part of Salla and islands in the Gulf of Finland. The new armistice also handed the whole of Petsamo over to the Soviet Union. Finland also agreed to legalize communist parties and ban fascist organizations. Finally the armistice also demanded that Finland must drive German troops away from its territory, which was the cause of the Lapland War.

Lapland War

The Lapland War was fought between Finland and Nazi Germany in Lapland, the northernmost part of Finland. The main strategic interest of Germany in the region were the nickel mines in the Petsamo area.

Initially the warfare was cautious on both sides, reflecting the previous cooperation of the two countries against their common enemy, but by the end of 1944 the fighting intensified. Finland and Germany had made an informal agreement and schedule for German troops to withdraw from Lapland to Norway. The Soviet Union did not accept this "friendliness" and forced Finland to take a more active role in pushing the Germans out of Lapland, thus intensifying hostilities.

The Germans adopted a scorched-earth policy, and proceeded to lay waste to the entire northern half of the country as they retreated. Some 100,000 people lost their homes, adding to the burden of post-war reconstruction. The actual loss of life, however, was not catastrophic. Finland lost some 1000 troops and Germany about 2000. The Finnish army expelled the last of the foreign troops from their soil in April 1945.


The war had caused great damage to infrastructure and the economy. From the autumn of 1944, the Finnish army and navy performed many mine clearance operations, especially in Karelia, Lapland and the Gulf of Finland. The sea mine clearance lasted until 1950. The mines caused many military and civilian casualties, particularly in Lapland.

As part of the Paris Peace Treaty, Finland was classified as a belligerent and fascist power. The Soviet Union imposed heavy war reparations on Finland and took the Porkkala area near the Finnish capital Helsinki as a military base. The reparations were initially thought to be crippling for the economy, but a determined effort was made to pay them. They were actually paid off years in advance, in 1952. Porkkala was returned to Finnish control in 1956.

In subsequent years the position of Finland was unique in the Cold War. The country was heavily influenced by the Soviet Union, but retained democracy and a market economy. Finland entered into the Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance (YYA Treaty) with the Soviet Union, which in theory guaranteed mutual assistance, but the Soviet Union largely respected Finland's wishes to remain uninvolved in the Cold War. Arms purchases were balanced between East and West until the fall of the Soviet Union.


Finland and Nazi Germany

During the Continuation War (1941–1944) Finland was co-belligerent with Nazi Germany, and dependent on food, fuel and armament shipments from Germany. The country did, however, retain a democratic form of government. During the war Germany and Finland were united by a common enemy, the Soviet Union, yet Finland kept its army outside the German command structure despite numerous attempts to tie them more tightly together.

About 19,000 Soviet prisoners of war died in Finnish prison camps during the Continuation War, which means that about 30% of Soviet POWs taken by the Finns did not survive. The high number of fatalities was mainly due to malnutrition and diseases. However, about 1000 POWs are believed to have been executed.

Finnish Jews were not persecuted, and even among extremists of the Finnish Right they were highly tolerated, as many leaders of the movement came from the clergy. Of approximately 500 Jewish refugees, eight were handed over to the Germans, a fact for which Finnish prime minister Paavo Lipponen issued an official apology in 2000. The field synagogue operated by the Finnish army was probably a unique phenomenon in the Eastern Front of the war.[4] Finnish Jews fought alongside other Finns for their country's freedom.[5]

Approximately 2600 to 2800 Soviet prisoners of war were exchanged for 2100 Fennic prisoners of war from Germany. In November 2003, the Simon Wiesenthal Center submitted an official request to Finnish President Tarja Halonen for a full-scale investigation by the Finnish authorities of the prisoner exchange[6] In the subsequent study by Professor Heikki Ylikangas it turned out that about 2000 of the exchanged prisoners joined the Wehrmacht, but among the rest there were about 500 political officers or politically dangerous persons, who most likely perished in concentration camps. Based on a list of names, there were about seventy Jews among the extradited, although they were apparently not extradited based on ethnic grouping.[7]

When the Finnish Army occupied Russian East Karelia between 1941 and 1944, several concentration camps were set up for Russian civilians. The first camp was set up on 24 October 1941, in Petrozavodsk. About 4000 of the prisoners perished due to malnourishment, 90% of them during the spring and summer of 1942.[8]

Finland and World War II overall

During World War II, Finland was in many ways a unique case. It was the only European country bordering the Soviet Union in 1939 which was still unoccupied by 1945. Of all the European countries fighting against the Nazis, only three European capitals were never occupied: Moscow, London and Helsinki[citation needed]. It was a country which sided with Germany, but in which native Jews and almost all refugees were safe from persecution.[9] It was the only co-belligerent of Nazi Germany which maintained democracy throughout the war. It was also the only belligerent in mainland Europe to do so.

Although Finland was never de jure member of Axis powers, as it never signed the Tripartite Pact, it was a companion of Germany from the beginning of Operation Barbarossa 1941 to separate peace with the Soviet Union in 1944. Finland, however, was never a strong supporter of Nazi Germany and felt that an alliance with Hitler would help ensure that the country would remain independent.[10] Finland was led by its elected President and parliament during the whole 1939-1945 period. As a result, some political scientists name it as one of the few instances where a democratic country was engaged in a war against one or more other democratic countries, namely the democracies in the Allied forces.[11] However, it is worth pointing out that nearly all Finnish military engagements in World War II was fought solely against an autocratic power, the Soviet Union, and the lack of direct conflicts specifically with other democratic countries leads others to exclude Finnish involvement in World War II as an example of a war between two or more democracies.[12]

See also


  1. ^ League of nations' expulsion of the USSR 14 December 1939. League of Nations, Official Journal 1939, p. 506 (Council Resolution); p. 540 (Assembly Resolution.) RESOLUTION Adopted by the Council of the League of Nations, 14 December 1939, 
  2. ^ History of Finland: A selection of events and documents, Pauli Kruhse's homepage, 
  3. ^ The American Presidency Project: Franklin D. Roosevelt - XXXII president of the United States: 1933-1945. [1]
  4. ^ Jews in Finland During the Second World War - Vuonokari, Tuulikki; university paper at the Department of Translation Studies, University of Tampere, 2003.
  5. ^
  6. ^ The Simon Wiesenthal Center, press information
  7. ^ Ylikangas, Heikki, Heikki Ylikankaan selvitys Valtioneuvoston kanslialle, Government of Finland
  8. ^ Suur-Suomen kahdet kasvot - Laine, Antti; 1982, ISBN 951-1-06947-0, Otava
  9. ^ Hannu Rautkallio, Finland and Holocaust, New York, 1987
  10. ^
  11. ^ Farber, Henry S. and Joanne Gowa, "Polities and Peace", International Security, Vol. 20 no. 2, 1995.
  12. ^ Bruce Russert, "The Fact of Democratic Peace," Grasping the Democratic Peace, Princeton University Press - Princeton, NJ, 1993.


  • Kirby, D. G. (1979), Finland in the Twentieth Century: A History and an Interpretation, C. Hurst & Co. Publishers, ISBN 0-90-5838157 

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