Finnish "by the book" tactics
in the Winter War
The Finnish peacetime army was in fact a delaying army, its
primary mission was to buy time for the mobilization of the field
army, as the most expected scenario was that the enemy would launch
a surprise attack.
As the field manual of the Finnish army had its roots in imperial
Germany, attack was the most favorable fighting style.
Trench war with its attrition battles was to a small army
a situation that should be avoided at all costs. A bold attack at
the right time and place, could lead to success. Delaying actions
were planned to be executed in an active manner, and any passive defense
was thought to be only temporary, to which you had to be resort in
preparing an offense. After all, offense was thought to be the best
Of course, an attack against a strong enemy on open terrain, when
the enemy has artillery and air superiority, was considered foolish.
Because of that reason forests were considered the best terrain to
conduct attacks, as even a big numerical and technical superiority
is not decisive. Also, Finns were very familiar with forests, maneuvering
in them with ease. As classic tactical examples to which was referred
to, were "the battle of Joutselkä" (in 1555, where a small
Finnish force, mainly peasants, attacked a strong Russian army beating
it with a pincer attack on its flanks) and from foreign battles
"Cannae" and "Tannenburg".
Part of the reason to the officer's way of thinking was in peacetime
tactical-, fighting- and battle exercises, which were usually only
attack or delay-attack exercises. This was only natural, as passive
defense situations are hardly very motivating and action filled. Thats
why its only fair to say that defense was the least familiar
battle-style of the Finnish army when the Winter War began.
Back to Top !
The different attack styles were enveloping
attack, frontal assault and flanking
The enveloping attack was considered
to produce the best results, and it should be aimed at the enemys
weakest point, its flank and rear area. The enveloping attack
requires that the enemy should be engaged along its front, so
that extra reserves cant be freed from the front-line units.
The frontal assault was to be executed
only if an enveloping attack wasnt possible. It should also,
if possible, transform into a local enveloping attack.
The flanking attack differs from the
enveloping attack only in the respect that, regardless of the actions
along the front, it was projected directly at the the flank of the
Back to Top !
Order of Battle
The attacking troops were distributed into battlegroups and
general reserves. The battlegroups, who usually had their own
reserves, conducted the breakthrough. The general reserves were used,
depending on the situation, in either strengthening the tired forward
units, continuing the stalled attack or saved to chase the enemy.
Depending of the terrain, supply routes, good approaching route
and the enemy positions, a "Schwerpunkt" should be projected
where it could have the best success.
-The artillery was divided into support groups (giving direct
support to battlegroups) and general support groups which were
to be used along the whole attack-sector. The artillery was to support
and protect the preparations of the attack, firing a preliminary bombardment
and "escorting" the attack. Counter battery fire was considered
to be a part of the battlegroup protection.
-If air support was available, its mission was reconnaissance,
neutralizing enemy air activity, artillery observation, supporting
the attack at the "Schwerpunkt" and harassing the enemy
-If armor support was available, it should be reserved until the
front-line was breached, and it was to clear the way for the infantry
and "take them along".
Back to Top !
Below are schematic
examples of 3 different offensive tactics in the area north of
A pincer attack against
(Example; Raate-road on 1 - 7 January 1940)
This tactic requires units to have high mobility
in bad terrain. It's not enough to have just skis, sledges are
equally important to transport infantry heavy weapons and the
wounded. The flanking "hook" can't be too long, as the
effectiveness of a unit drops rapidly.
A road bound enemy has to actively participate in
the forest fighting, because losing the initiative will result
in defeat or heavy losses.
Back to Top !
A flanking attack
against a deployed enemy
(Examples; the counterattack of the Finnish 4th Corps on
12 - 14 December 1939 , and 6 - 10 January 1940)
This tactic required plowed supply routes to the
units making the attack. If an attack was to be conducted in the
same day, 5 km (depending of course also from the terrain) was
the practical limit for a flanking maneuver.
If a sufficient force could be sent, adequately supplied,
could be given the opportunity to rest before the attack and surprise
achieved, this was a very effective tactic.
Back to Top !
attack against an enemy, which has strong wings and a weak center
(Example: The battle at Tolvajärvi on 12 December 1939)
An opportunity to execute an
attack of this type was very rare. Frontal assaults are very costly
if not properly supported. Only if the enemy has deployed strongly
on the flanks (either to prevent flanking attacks or to make one)
and has a weak center, is this reasonable. If successful, it's
effective as the supply "veins" can be severed and the
enemy attacked from behind.
Back to Top !
display of "creating Motti's"
|The enemy column was cut in several
places and surrounded. A detachment was positioned to stop any relief
After the enemy column was broken into small pockets,
the weakest ones were destroyed first, while letting the cold and
hunger to weaken the stronger ones (since the lack of artillery
prevented the physical "softening") . Every night, the
perimeter was tightened until the pocket was annihilated with a
On the right is a VERY simple animation of how it
happened. The strong enemy forces push the delaying defenders
back, until the enemy is stopped at a chosen point. All the time,
the enemy column is harassed as much as possible. After the defender
has massed proper forces and supplies, the attacks on the sides
of the column can begin. After the column is cut to pieces, the
lone pockets of resistance are destroyed one by one.
For more information about this subject, go to
Back to Top !
Defense was to be static defense or
Static defense was to be stubborn. Positions should be held as long
as the defenders would receive an order to withdraw. The defenders
should hold their positions at all costs and take lost parts of the
front-line back either by a counterstrike or a counterattack
(in this text; counterstrike was usually carried out by a sub units
own reserves without artillery preparations and as quick as possible,
and a counterattack was usually planned and supported) .
In depth the static defense position should consist of forward
posts, forward strongpoints and
a main defense line.
The Main defense line was the best
fortified position in where the main forces fought. It was formed,
depending on terrain, by strongpoints and separate MG-, LMG-, mortar-
etc. positions. It should have at least some depth. The enemy was
to stopped in front of the main line of resistance by concentrated
fire. In case the enemy succeeded in capturing a part of the line,
the lost part should be taken back as soon as possible, and defense
was considered unsuccessful if, at the end, the line wasnt taken
The rear edge of the main defense line was the
support-line where the enemy should, at latest, be stopped
in case of a breakthrough. It also gave the reserves a support point
The main defense line was strengthened by barrier-lines
connecting the support line with the front-line. It's primary mission
was to prevent the enemy to widen any breakthrough.
Forward strong points could be located in terrain
key-points, in front of the main defense line. They werent a
part of the main defense line and werent needed, by the doctrine,
to be taken back. These were to improve observation and provide fire
The forward posts were small positions, whose mission
was to hinder enemy recon patrols, prevent surprise attacks and slow
down an attack. They werent to be defended very stubbornly,
and the distance from the main resistance line was determined by terrain.
The backbone of the defense was fire from automatic infantry
weapons, machine guns (MG) supported by light machine guns (LMG) .
To maximize their effect, they should; 1) have clear fields of fire,
2) be located in protective positions, 3) be positioned to give flanking
fire (the goal being to catch the enemy in the crossfire of multiple
MGs) and 4) be able to cover any defensive obstacles (tank
& infantry obstacles) with their fire.
The defense positions should be always located with the former requirements
The deployment of troops along the defense line, was to ensure the
repulsing of an attack, but also give the line enough depth to contain
any possible breakthrough by local reserves.
The reserves were to be located where it could quickly execute a
counterstrike or -attack against a breakthrough or at least block
the advance of the enemy. They reserves should be far enough from
the front-line, to ensure free movement to any direction.
When fortifying defensive positions, the terrain should always be
the key factor. Defensive positions should be protected by obstacles
who in turn should be covered by fire.
- In forested areas, the time determined the defensive positions.
If there was only a little time to deploy, the main defense line should
be located along the edges of the woods, which offered good fields
of fire, but were subject to enemy artillery and observation. Strongpoints
should be relatively close each other and automatic weapons were extremely
If there was time to prepare the defense, the line should be located
in the forest and foliage should be removed to improve line of sight
Because fighting in forested areas has a very strong
impact on morale, should the defense be extremely active, especially
on a small scale.
-Artillery actions were divided into harassment- & counter
preparation fire and defense support.
In defense support, special blocking barrages were
prepared into such points that couldnt be covered with MG-fire
and to points where the enemy was expected to attack. Also barrages
into the main resistance line should be prepared in case of a breakthrough.
Back to Top !
The Defense Line
| This is a schematic display of a
Finnish "by the book" defense line. Of course
the terrain determined the actual outlook of the defenses, but
the idea remained the same.
The cornerstone of the defense is machine guns with interlocking
fields of fire. The weakness of this was that the defenses could
be easily identified (by aerial photographs) and gave away the
locations of strongpoints and the positions of heavy weapons.
This was even more dangerous as the mg-positions usually didn't
have enough protection from artillery.
1) fortified machine gun position (either concrete or wood
2) machine gun position
3) wire obstacles
4) AT-obstacles (rock rows)
5) infantry positions (trenches)
| You can identify the Finnish concrete bunker from the observation
cupola and the shielding "wing wall".
| From this excellent
model (taken from the Military Museum, Helsinki, Finland) , you
can see the location of a Finnish strongpoint (a concrete bunker
of 2 machine guns and the trenches of the supporting infantry)
near the antitank and the wire obstacles. The mg-bunker being
able to fire along the length of the obstacles to the right.
Unfortunately, this picture is not so good as I hoped, sorry.
Back to Top !
| 1) The shelter / covered dugout (either concrete
2) a shallow communications trench into the strongpoint
3) a foxhole for the dugout sentry
4) communications trench
5) rear defense trench
6) permanent combat trench
7) small dugout (usually for 1-3 men) offering some overhead
8) foxholes (for 1-2 men)
9) forward nests (for lookouts, sentries, smg-gunners and
The shape of a strongpoint was a like a rounded triangle,
but as the above schematic shows how the basic strongpoint
was supposed to be, it was the terrain that determined
the layout. One strongpoint had usually a complement of
1/2 - 2 platoons, i.e. 15 - 60 men. From the permanent
combat trench -circle, some foxholes and nests were extended
forward and/or to the sides, which housed sentries (who
in the dark hours relied in hearing the enemy) , antitank
men and submachine (smg) gunners. Especially at the ends
of the obstacle line (between 2 strongpoints) , which
were laid between strongpoints, the foxholes housed smg-gunners.
Note that this is only a model of how it should have
been. Especially in the Karelian Isthmus, the entrenchment
efforts had been concentrated during the mobilization
and the time before the war to build the AT-obstacles,
so the work on the normal field entrenchments weren't
in many places even begun, when the war started.
Also, after a few weeks of fighting, nearly all of the
strongpoints had lost some or most of their shape in the
constant bombardment by the Soviet artillery. Every day
hundreds of shells were poured into each strongpoint,
smashing wire obstacles, detonating mines and slowly grinding
the trenches. Nearly every night, Finnish reserves had
to go to the front-line strongpoints and dig the trenches
open. New wire obstacles had to be erected (usually so-called
"Spanish mounts", which were built by the reserves
and transported to the front-line) and so forth.
The distance between these separate strongpoints depended
on terrain and available forces, being usually a few hundred
The space between the strongpoints was booby trapped
and had some barbed wire obstacles. That could be wire
stretched from tree stump to tree stump or "Spanish
Back to Top !
in Terenttilä, in the Taipale sector
(included as an example of how the strongpoints were positioned)
The map on the left shows roughly the location
of "Terenttilä", as does the photograph on the
this is only a rough sketch, it shows the positions of the
Finnish strongpoints in the Terenttilä-sector of the Taipale
The shapes of the strongpoint, displayed on this map,
doesn't reflect the truth (regardless of the level of entrenchment
/ size / troop strength, all those defensive positions/bases
were called "strongpoints") . In realty, entrenchment
efforts in the Taipale-area had been concentrated in the
"Kirvesmäki"-sector (just east of "Patoniemi"-cape
visible in the picture above) , so the strongpoints in Terenttilä
were still heavily under construction when the Red Army
reached the River Taipale.
The only concrete fortification in this particular area,
that the map shows, is a bunker with a single mg near the
house "Hiekkala", in front of the strongpoint
(there were 7 concrete fortifications in the the Taipale
area, between Kirvesmäki and the coast of Lake Ladoga) .
I didn't include it on this map, as I couldn't pinpoint
it accurately enough.
There was also a number of forward posts in the area
between the strongpoints and the River Taipale. Also, in
the field between the forest and the river, there were some
small forest islets, but I choose to leave them out.
"Sikiöniemi" is also a name of
a house, "Kansakoulu" is the elementary school,
"Pärssinen" is the name for the group of houses,
where there was a ferry across the river. (I included the
names in case someone reads something from some other source
about the battles in the area, but who doesn't have a map).
As the Finnish Army lacked AT-weapons, the tank/AT
obstacles played a major role in the Finnish defense plans. During
the years before the war, three different types of obstacles were
chosen as the primary ones. These were
the AT-ditch (on the left, ), where a ditch is dug, that is so wide
that a tank can't drive over it, and so deep that a tank can't "climb"
the vertical wall on the defenders side. One of the most effective
types of obstacles, but demands careful placing and either a lot of
men with shovels or effective machines.
(In Taipale, where an at-ditch was dug, it proved out
that it was badly misplaced. The Finnish troops couldn't cover the ditch
by fire, and as the Finnish artillery lacked shells, the ditch (several
meters wide) offered the Red Army good shelter from small arms fire,
and an excellent gathering area in where to prepare attacks).
As an other obstacle type, quite similar with the
previous, was the "slope cut" (on the right)
in where earth is removed from the base of a slope in order to produce
a vertical wall, that is impossible for the tanks to scale.
As the third, and the most used one, were the
"rock rows". It was like a poor man's version of the concrete
tank obstacles (German "Dragon teeth" etc.) used by the
major powers in WW 2.
The distance between the trenches and the AT-rocks
was not to exceed 200 meters, so that friendly small arms fire can
protect the stones from enemy sappers. The
obstacle consisted of 4 rows of granite slabs, that were firmly sunk
in the ground (40 - 60 cm). The first three rows should be 80 cm and
the fourth 100 cm high. (These requirements were enough to stop the
Finnish Renaults dating back to WW1, but proved out to be made
of too small stones to effectively stop modern Soviet tanks,
especially in winter conditions.)
AT-obstacle in Summa
The defense positions are on the left. This obstacle proved
to be unsuccessful, as many reports were given by the front-line
units, that the Soviet tankers were driving along the obstacle as
if to "mock the defenders".
(Note that the rocks on the leftmost row, on the defenders side
of the obstacle, are a little bigger than on the three other rows.)
Picture source: "Talvisodan Historia 1",
Back to Top !
Below are two schematic examples of
used in the areas north of Lake Ladoga
The defenses were close to the roads, which provided usually the
only lines of supply.
- The areas not guarded by a continuos line were patrolled by squad
- platoon sized powerful patrols, armed with automatic weapons (smg's
- If the enemy tried to cut of the road, the Finnish reserves and
troops from the "front-line" units attacked it before
they could dig in (very important as the Soviet soldiers were hard
to budge after they had entrenched themselves) .
Back to Top !
||This type of defense was adopted if the
enemy showed exceptional activity or if the defending forces were
too weak to stretch the defense line far enough.
Also in this kind of defense, strong patrols were sent to guard
Note that usually the "reserves" that attacked the enemy
detachments which advanced to cut the road were consisted of supply,
medical and HQ personnel.
Back to Top !
Delaying actions were used when the objective was to "buy time"
or prepare for an attack, and the concentration of necessary forces
was not ready.
In order to mass a strong main force, the delaying
elements were usually small. Depending on the objectives, delaying
actions could be conducted either in a passive or active
Passive actions were used when the objective was only to slow down
Active actions were used when the objective was to tie down the
forward elements and rear echelons of the attacker and possibly forces
in other sectors by deception. Also small scale attacks and ambushes
on the forward elements of the enemy were used.
Part of the delaying actions was the construction of flanking positions
to threaten the flanks of the enemy, building obstacles and traps
to slow the enemy and large scale destruction of usable constructions
(scorched earth) .
Finnish antitank units
and tactics in the Winter War