Oleg Kiselyov: “Soldiers at times had no idea of how to grab a rifle”

A cycle of interviews by the 80th anniversary of the Second World War. Part 15: Winter War

In the second part of the interview with Realnoe Vremya, historian Oleg Kiselyov talks about the pros and cons of the armies of Finland and the USSR and political outcome of the Winter War in 1939-1940.

When freezing cold temperatures set in, crowds of frozen people appeared in Soviet units”

Mr Kiselyov, were the Finns perhaps too confident of the power of their own army when they rejected the USSR’s territorial proposals? By the way, your colleague Aleksey Isayev noted the Finnish army’s good battle worthiness. How was it in fact?

The Finns had a well-prepared infantry and quite a serious mobilisation resource. As Finland is a small country with a small population, what they had was prepared quite well.

But, again, we should understand that Finland had big problems with armament. What they had was obsolete — there were almost no tanks, aviation was weak both in quantitative and qualitative terms. So we can’t call this army fit for war, it was good only for its theatre of military actions. And after the Finnish government dug in its heels, same Mannerheim, according to one of the members of Tanner’s Finnish government, literally flew into a rage and said to same Tanner that nobody in the government understood anything and the Finnish army couldn’t support the policy it follows and couldn’t oppose the USSR head-to-head.

Finnish military plans were made on the premise that the country wouldn’t have to fight the USSR head-to-head. The Finns hoped they might have some allies or some serious power that would be behind them. While the situation in the autumn of 1939 left Finland and the USSR head-to-head, and if somebody in the Finnish political elite had some illusions about the army’s capability to oppose the Soviet Union, there were few such people. Same Mannerheim said that Finland couldn’t resist the USSR for long and he turned out to be right — all the successes of the Finnish army lasted for just a little more than three months.

Let’s talk about these three months of the Finns’ success, it seems that even the USSR didn’t expect it. Was it a result of the Red Army’s weak preparation for severe freezing cold temperatures and forest conditions of the war?

All together played a role in the Red Army’s defeats. Firstly, it was its low battle worthiness, more precisely, its infantry. The Finnish were prepared for actions on their territory better. They knew how to fight in forests, applied guerrilla tactics because they had been preparing to fight on their territory anyway. There was no sense for the Soviet Union in keeping big power of its army in the same Karelia, and this is why there never were big military contingents there. Yes, regular units in Karelia weren’t bad regarding their training and didn’t give way to the Finns, but there was a handful of them among the fighting ones.

Secondly, the low quality of Soviet infantry coincided with severe natural conditions — geographical, climatic and so on. De facto the Soviet Union had been preparing for the war for a bit more than a month. There weren’t created any infrastructure for military actions in Karelia where the Red Army had serious defeats. Not the Finns but the Soviet troops’ own infrastructure during the first two weeks: for instance, ours were very often hungry because Karelia always had problems of roads, and foodstuffs simply couldn’t be delivered to the units. And, by the way, precisely the issue of supply of the army with the wherewithal is a common theme in Soviet documents.

And when freezing cold temperatures set in, crowds of frozen people appeared in Soviet units. Why were they frozen? Because soldiers came back without felt boots, there were big problems with gloves — people could tear or lose their gloves, while there weren’t extra pairs. The Leningrad Military District didn’t have due reserves of many things to provide the army of 500-600,000 people with the wherewithal at the first stage and a million people at the second. As the war became a surprise for the USSR (because the Soviet Union hoped to come to an agreement), a lot of different problems it created itself was no surprise. Of course, it influenced military actions.

Why was the encirclement of the Red Army’s units by the Finns quite a serious problem? It was enough for them to block the roads that supplied goods, and that’s it, it was considered the connection was encircled. As they couldn’t create infrastructure, they could have created reserve ammunition and foodstuffs. However, the army fought with what it had: it used what was delivered, but as soon as supplies stopped, it didn’t have any foodstuffs 2-3 days later and had to save ammunition. In other conditions, it could have been possible to sit in the conditional encirclement without problems, but since the units didn’t have any reserves, it became a real problem.

The Red Army was getting ready to fight against the other opponent”

It is surprising for the Red Army that was getting ready to fight against a serious opponent, Germany.

This is the point that they were getting ready to fight against the other opponent. The Leningrad Military District was a periphery, nobody was ever going to fight there. The last place they could fight in was in the Karelian Isthmus. For instance, in Belarus, which didn’t suffer from too many roads either, had 44 kilometres of roads per hundred of square kilometres. While Karelia already had 2-3 kilometres of roads per the same hundred of square kilometres. Nobody dealt with the development of infrastructure of the Leningrad Military District. For instance, there was no airway from Leningrad to Murmansk in the USSR.

You know, it is impossible to place the rifle division in the middle of the forest and say: “Come on, go and attack!”. Such a division requires a lot, and if it didn’t exist, it proves once again that the USSR wasn’t going to conquer Finland. The Soviet Union didn’t care about Finland, it needed Leningrad not to be on the front line on the first days of the war.

By the way, due to the unpreparedness of the Leningrad Military District for war until 1935, the Finns could have easily reached Petrozavodsk in case of war because the USSR had just one rifle division across Karelia.

People in our country got used to consider that the Soviet Union is a country of unlimited possibilities and unlimited resources, but it was far from being so in the 20-30s. The USSR had plenty of economic and other problems, and it was quite costly for the Soviet budget to maintain a big army. Nevertheless, the Soviet Union, as any progressive state by its character, aspired to have a progressive army, but the country was very keen on the technical perspective of the army in the 30s. In other words, a lot of attention was paid to tanks, aviation. And in this respect, the USSR was almost one of the strong countries of the world in the late 30s. However, again, everything has a price — infantry training, mobilisation reserves were limping, but the USSR overlooked all this. What is more, during those years, the Red Army had a territorial recruiting principle, and, in fact, we didn’t have a system of constant and quite profound training of reserve of armed forces.

In addition, a lot of restrictions for conscript soldiers on social grounds accumulated in the USSR. And when the issue of precisely mass recruitment of the army was raised in the late 30s, we began to feel it during the conflict with the Japanese on Khasan Lake and the Khalkhin Gol River — mobilisation units demonstrated quite a low combat efficiency exactly in the infantry. Quite serious organisational changes began in the USSR army already in the summer of 1939. But all this didn’t have the time to play a big role at the beginning of the Winter War, and we joined the war with the Finns with the army we had, with all disadvantages it had in the 20-30s. 25-45% of manpower in the mobilisation divisions didn’t serve in the army, in other words, the soldiers didn’t know how to grab a rifle!

I’ve just recently read a document on the defeat of the Soviet 139th Division by the Finns in Tolvajärvi. It was the first serious defeat of the USSR in the Winter War, and the prosecutor who led the investigation of this defeat writes that soldiers even had no idea about how to load a rifle, and such soldiers accounted for up to 25% in the division. And divisions with up to 40% of such soldiers arrived on the Finn front.

Commander of the 8th Army, our legendary militant Grigory Shtern, who became a victim of repressions soon, asked Moscow to refuse the existing principle of recruiting whoever in general. He wrote that they already had a chance not to conscript the men who didn’t serve in the army because the situation wasn’t terrible and urged to send only career officers to the front. One can even make up several volumes of his telegrams to Moscow in this respect. Shtern commanded the army in the battles of Khalkhin Gol and saw that when the 164th Division arrived for replenishment, they had 40% of civilians, that’s to say, people who either hadn’t served in the army or had some short-term training. But it is also a big question what these people did in this training. And they had to go into a battle with these people!

“After the war, Finland joined the Rome–Berlin–Tokyo Axis and created us plenty of problems in 1941-1944”

In February Semyon Timoshenko chaired the army, and the Soviet troops began to attack in the same Karelian Isthmus. Were these troops completely different in terms of possibilities?

Not completely different, of course. In the Karelian Isthmus, the Soviet side could decide when it would attack and defend, and this provided certain tactical opportunities. If it wasn’t possible to size the Mannerheim Line, the Red Army could stop and start to fix the mistakes that appeared during 2-3 weeks of battles. And, first of all, the Red Army began to deal with manpower training. Those divisions that began to be sent to the front in December were like hell, but those that started to be sent to the front gradually from January were different. They were prepared, drilled in training, and these troops were different. Of course, it is hard to prepare a professional army for a month, but it is possible to improve the training level. But the armies fighting in the north of Ladoga Lake didn’t have such an opportunity. In the middle of December, the Finns seized the initiative so to speak and constantly pounded our army there, and it was already they who dictated us the conditions — if we would defend or attack. And same Shtern had to let soldiers fight on the go, and there were more important things than somebody’s training, every soldier counted.

Of course, when the power ratio was one Finn soldier to four Soviet soldiers, here all Finnish miracles ended. And we shouldn’t forget that the Red Army had technical supremacy over its opponent.

In March, the Soviet troops seized Vyborg, and the sides made peace according to which the Soviet border extended by 90 km further from Leningrad. What do you think about the fears of the USSR of interference of the armies of France and Great Britain in the war on the Finns’ side?

But Vyborg wasn’t seized completely — the war ended when this city was being seized. Undoubtedly, there were factors of England and France’s interference in the Soviet-Finnish conflict, there were attempts. Nevertheless, the Finns were announced the conditions, which were close to the ultimatum, the USSR didn’t move by a millimetre from them as early as in February, and the Finns were claimed that the longer they would be thinking, the stricter further conditions would be. So was it. In the end, the Finns accepted the USSR’s conditions in March 1940. Their army was on the limit of its possibilities, the front was collapsing, the defence line was disrupted in the northeast of Vyborg, and the Finns had nothing and nobody to defend with. In this case, they needed help immediately or never, but there wasn’t any, and they had to decide whether to lose a big territory (the best-case scenario) or lose what the USSR asked for. Of course, the conditions were different from what the USSR had asked for during the talks. But in the end, the Finnish government got the most important thing — the USSR refused the idea to place Kuusinen in Helsinki. When the Finns understood it, they felt better, though the conditions of the treaty were tough.

This is why I say that Finland lost this war. Yes, the USSR didn’t get what it tried to get during the war, but Finland unconditionally accepted all conditions of cessation of hostilities it offered. Otherwise, it can hardly be called Finland’s defeat.

Generally speaking, despite the hard war, the USSR won it — it got the territories.

From the military perspective, the USSR won, undoubtedly, with huge, severe losses of the Red Army, but it won. If we look from a political perspective, here the result is less clear because, as we all know, Finland, in fact, joined the Rome–Berlin–Tokyo Axis and created us plenty of problems in 1941-1944. And in this respect, the outcome of the “Finnish war” is less clear.

History in general has few examples when the state that began a war got what it wanted after the war ended. There is some correction anyway, and the state looks at the real situation when making peace, not at its whims.

By Sergey Kochnev
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