Saturday, March 30, 2013

Interesting facts from the 'Winter War'

As part of my ongoing research for a couple of forthcoming Weekend Wings articles, I've been reading 'A Frozen Hell' by William R. Trotter.  It's a history of the so-called 'Winter War' between Finland and the Soviet Union in 1939-40.  In the light of my own (regrettably all too extensive) experience with military inefficiency, foul-ups and mistakes, I was amused to read the following about the Soviets' so-called 'ski troops'.

Just before their departure for the Suomussalmi campaign, the soldiers of the Soviet Forty-Fourth Division were issued thousands of brand new manuals on the subject of ski warfare.  What good this was supposed to do is unfathomable, since the Forty-Fourth Division had not been given any skis.  Nor would the manuals have done the Russians much good if they had been so equipped.  The diagrams in the manuals showed skis attached to the common soldiers' feet by means of conventional civilian bindings, with tight, secure heel straps.  The Finns, however, knew that the cardinal rule of ski fighting is never to fight on skis if you can possibly avoid it.  Finnish ski boots, pieksu, had turned-up toes and no heel straps so that a man could hop out of his skis, or back into them, in a matter of seconds.

Other worse-than-useless schematics in the Soviet ski combat manual showed men attempting to throw hand grenades in the conventional overhanded manner while still strapped in their skis.  The Finns had perfected a method of dropping down into a tight crouch and hurling their grenades with a side-arm pitch.  Anyone following the diagram in the Russian manual could expect his grenade to land anywhere except the intended target.

Quite the silliest series of drawings in the Russian booklet depicted the 'proper' technique for bayonet fighting on skis.  In order to bayonet an opponent, a soldier must work up a high coefficient of friction between his feet and the ground beneath them.  Since skis are designed for the express purpose of eliminating such friction, the very idea of bayonet fighting on skis quickly reduces itself to an absurdity.

Sounds like some South African instruction manuals I can remember!  I daresay many veterans, from many armed forces, can recall similarly stupid foul-ups.

I recommend the book.  It's very interesting reading.  If you don't like the e-book version, used paper copies are available.



Anonymous said...

An old friend of the family, (gone
now) fought the Russians in that war.

He was an American but had Finnish
roots. Left the states and sailed to Finland in time for a month of fighting. He was made a machinegunner and issued a Lahti Saloranta LMG.

He did not stay on for "The
Continuation War."

Trotter's book is on the bookshelf
about five feet to my right as
I type this.

Stretch said...

A Frozen Hell along with Ballantine Book's The Winter War are side by side on my shelf.

I believe were it not for the Winter War Russia would not have survived the Nazi assault in '41. The changes made by the Reds, particularly in regards of military competence vs. political orthodoxy of its officer corps, made all the difference.

Peripatetic Engineer said...

The narrow roads through heavy forest were perfect for the Finnish "motti", or cordwood, tactic. They used small, mobile units to block the Russian column and then segregate the column into smaller sections which they then defeated in detail.

The Winter War gave us Molotov Cocktails, Simo Hayha and Larry Thorne.