Review: The Soviet Invasion of Finland 1939-40
- Published: 01 May 2010 01 May 2010
- Last Updated: 12 July 2013 12 July 2013
Carl Van Dyke
Don't expect to get a first hand account of the Winter War in this book. Instead, while it is often a near day by day account of specific parts of the war, it is really a study of the early failure of the Soviet Army, and how that failure resulted in major changes in its military doctrine, politics and tactics. The book is well written, but is aimed more at the academic (or amateur) military historian studying the Soviet Union than the casual reader. Carl Van Dyke is said to be the first to extensively make use of former confidential Soviet sources, and that point alone it makes the book interesting. But like any academic field, this one has its own brand of jargon. Much of this involves the Soviet system itself, and that alone is a bit of a learning experience. While it is readable and understandable, it does take some work and attention to get through.
Van Dyke briefly sets the stage in the preface. The first chapter covers the diplomatic and strategic background of the war. This is followed by a chapter on the initial stage of the war, and a chapter on the mid-war reforming of the Soviet Army's doctrine. A chapter on the final Soviet victory by Timoshenko is followed by an interesting chapter on "Lessons Learned," and finally an epilogue. The bibliography is extensive and the book is heavily footnoted.
I have always wondered how it was possible for Finland to hold off an invasion by one of the largest countries in the world. There is no single factor, but a number of reasons are given for the poor performance of the Red army. Not to take anything away from the bravery and tenacity of the Finnish defenders, but at the beginning, it is clear that the Red Army was in virtual chaos. According to Van Dyke, at the start of the war the Soviet's had an advantage of 3 to 1 in manpower, 80 to 1 in tanks, 5 to 1 in artillery, and 5.5 to 1 in aircraft. What is not given is how the odds got worse as the war progressed. While the numbers were on the side of the Soviets, as Van Dyke says, the Finns were "motivated by the conviction that they were protecting the nation from an age-old enemy."
Touched on briefly in the preface, is how the Soviet Army had emerged from the revolution and civil war with the most "theoretically sophisticated doctrine in Europe," and how its principles of "decentralized command and organizational flexibility" contradicted Stalin's "centralized political system." In the conflict between the professional military and Stalin's political revolutionary principles, the military lost. The end result was Stalin's purges, and the dismissal, execution, or imprisonment of 36,761 army commanders and about 3000 naval commanders. The troops were untrained, and as a result of the purges, unlead. Perhaps more important to the problems of the Soviet military is the communist ideology and how Stalin had attempted to integrate his version into every aspect of military command and operations.
In addition to discussions of military tactics and doctrine, the book is a fascinating study of what happens when ideological purity is considered to be more important than military capability. Some of these ideological concepts are hard to understand, and harder to describe. Others are just hard to believe. While I don't want to take too much away from the book, a few should be mentioned. Among them is the concept of "combat socialist competition." Derived from the pre war "socialist competitions" that were designed to encourage workers to exceed normal factory production, Van Dyke briefly describes how such competition reduced cooperation between units, and lowered combat effectiveness. This competition was confused with the object of the war, which was fighting the Finns. Later, soldiers were required to attend meetings to listen to rhetoric designed to improve morale via the competition, as well as an explanation as to just what this competition meant. They had to sign contracts outlining the terms of the competition. The terms included inflicting harm on the enemy, preserving their equipment, and aiding other units among others. Failure meant the contracts could be legally enforced. One of the few first person accounts in the book is by a prisoner of the Finns. His attack having failed and his tank too damaged to return to the lines, he waited to be captured by the Finns. Having broken his contract, he knew that what awaited him back at his own lines was worse than the treatment he would get as a prisoner.
Other problems inherent in the Red army involved the vertical command structure that limited horizontal communication between units. Combined actions using artillery, armor, and infantry often disintegrated into "mob tactics." Amazingly, according to Van Dyke, even the structure of the Soviet Army was known only to the NKVD. Another example of the state of the Red Army is illustrated by a "law" announced by the Political Administration involving relations between Party and non-Party members of the Army. In the future, should a member of a unit show "extraordinary offensive spirit" the rest of the unit should support him, whether or not he was a party member. The fact that something like this would even be required is astonishing to me at least.
Propaganda was also important, but in the final analysis, may have been detrimental to the Soviets. The Finish Army was depicted as degraded and ineffective, and the Finish people would rise to join their Soviet brothers as soon as they could. The Soviets were told they had "moral" superiority: they would fight with their bayonets, while the Finns would only fight with bayonets when they were drunk. At the same time that the "invincibility" of the Soviet Army was being touted, problems with the troops were rising and authority over troops was being lost. It's interesting to contemplate that the "party" members telling them this, were also probably the ones ordering the NKVD to shoot anyone that lacked this "moral" superiority. When this propaganda was proven false, morale suffered greatly.
The Lessons Learned is interesting in that in focusing on the military lessons by the Soviets, I learned much of how the Soviet system operated during that time period. While it might be argued that a major cause of the failure was Stalin's purges, for obvious reasons, little was mentioned of this, and then not directly. The consequences of criticizing Stalin were well known.
There is much more in the book. Problems with supplies, intelligence, and the continuing lack of competent leaders plagued the Soviets. These problems and others were not really fixed until the middle of the Great Patriotic War according to Van Dyke.
I found very few problems with the book itself. There are some maps in the book, but I would have liked to have seen more. (Spoiled by the trip to Finland and Russia I suppose.) I would have liked to have seen more pictures, although this would probably have been out of place in a book of this type. Another minor annoyance is that there are a few propaganda "comics" that are reprinted in Russian, without translation. The footnotes and bibliography often contain references to documents in Russian as well, and although it's highly unlikely that I would ever go to the original Russian source, it might have been nice to see the document titles translated.
I recommend this book to those who want to see what the "other side" was going through in the Winter War, and how that experience brought about changes in the Soviet military. In addition to being about the Winter War, the book is a trip through the Soviet military mentality. It is at times both fascinating and repugnant. To me "foreign" might be the best adjective. It's not an easy book to read, and demands more attention than some, but is in the end worthwhile if you have an interest in the subject. As a final thought, I have heard an opinion that had the Soviets not done so badly in the Winter War, Hitler might not have been so quick to attack. On the other hand, the poor performance of the Soviets provided the impetus to reform the army and its doctrine. It's interesting to contemplate the result had the Army been forced to make such major changes in the middle of an attack by the Wehrmacht, rather than during an invasion of Finland.
(Reviewed by Kevin Beswisk)