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Finnish antitank units and tactics

in the Winter War

 

This page is based mostly on the book "Marskin panssarintuhoojat"
written by Erkki Käkelä, published by WSOY, Finland, 2000

 

 

 

The time before the war

 

In the 1920s, the antitank (hereafter AT in the text) duties was supposed to be handled by the infantry guns and the field guns. At that time, as the Soviet armored force was still small, the armored threat wasn't considered to be great. The consequence was that AT training and weaponry wasn't considered to be of importance.

In 1932, the Finnish military was alarmed by the development of the Soviet Tank Arm. The General Staff considered a 20 mm weapon to be sufficient. At the same time, the decision was made to start producing armor piercing (hereafter AP in the text) bullets for the small caliber weapons of the Army.

As the Army needed also an antiaircraft (hereafter AA in the text) weapon, the two requirements were combined and it was decided that the two weapons should have the same caliber. The result of this decision was a 20 mm automatic cannon 20 K/L-34, which wasn't a purpose build AT-weapon, instead it was designed as a gun suitable against both air and land targets. The gun eventually never saw action on land, as the gun saw service only in the Navy, where the gun performed well.

In 1934, 2 groups of Army officers began the work to evaluate the AT-issue. At their disposal they had the old Renault tanks, and three Vickers tanks, just acquired from Britain. The tests were made in the Karelian Isthmus both in the summer and winter, with the purpose to evaluate different obstacle types and AT-possibilities.
The summary of the work of the both teams (the other led by Col. T.Laatikainen and the other by Maj.Gen. A.Heikinheimo) was made in Fall 1935.

In 1936, the 37 mm Bofors AT-gun was chosen as the primary, and the 13 mm AT-mg as the auxiliary "short range" AT-weapon. The biggest problem was the lack of proper industrial capacity to produce these weapons, a handicap that took time to remedy.
The 13 mm AT-mg was later, in 1939, replaced by the domestic 20 mm L-39 AT-rifle, too late to take actively part in the war. The short range AT-weapons were supplemented by a range of "close defense" weapons (the satchel charge, the Molotov Cocktail and mines).

 

Already in 1932, it was realized that as the development and manufacturing of AT-weapons would take time, the close range AT-weaponry should be also developed. At the time the experiences were dating back to WW 1, where grenade bundles, "home made" mines and AT ditches were used.

While the Field and Infantry Regulations were published in 1927 - 1932, they lacked proper instructions regarding AT-defenses and tactics. They were also criticized being obsolete in the AT category. The first official Finnish Defense Force AT-instructions was published on October 18th 1933. The instructions advised not to underestimate the enemy motorized and armored forces. In 1935, an additional discourse by Col. Laatikainen was distributed to the troops, in where he had also covered the use of tanks by the enemy.

Many different types of training programs were held, involving "tank tours"(a few Vickers and Renault tanks toured the different military bases, where they gave performance shows, and brought some feel of realism to exercises), obstacle tests, mining exercises etc.

AT-mines as a part of making a mine barrier was tested for the first time in 1937, in a winter maneuver. While the Army had, when the war started, three different types of mines available (m/36, m/39 and m/S-39), the production had been and still was a problem.

 

After enough experience had been gathered, on February 21st 1939, the Ministry of Defense published a temporary AT-instructions booklet.

In March 1939, Colonel T.Raatikainen, the head of the Weapons Section of the Ministry of Defense made a trip to Germany and Hungary. After his trip, his opinion was that the accepted Finnish AT-weapons were already too light. Raatikainen said, that in the future AT-guns should have larger caliber than the 37 mm, as examples he mentioned 47 mm, 57 mm and 75 mm. But he couldn't convince the highest authorities, and besides, time was running out.

Even in distant Africa, when Italy used poison gas in Abyssinia, it had it's adverse effect in the AT-training in Finland. In 1938, the conscripted men had gas protection training nearly 4 times the amount of AT-training. Of course at that time no-one could say for sure, that poison gas wouldn't be used in the next war. But after roughly a year, that "wrong" allocation of training was sorely felt.

 

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The AT-gun Training Center

 

On 16 October, 1939, the Ministry of Defense issued an order that an AT-gun Training Center (Pst.Tyk.Koul.K, "Panssarintorjuntatykkikoulutuskeskus" in Finnish) was to be raised in Hämeenlinna, to help the forming of AT-units and train the crews. Captain I.A.Lehtinen was assigned as the commander.

After the war, Capt. Lehtinen is often referred as the creator of the Finnish AT-arm. In 1938, he made a trip to Göta Livgardet in Sweden, where he familiarized himself with the Swedish AT-gun training, the Swedish 37 mm m/34 -gun and it's ammunition. It can be said that among the Finns his knowledge was superior.

Later, in 1939, he made a trip to Sweden and Denmark, this time the incentive was AT-weapon tests.

Capt. Lehtinen was the author of the first AT-training manual, which was distributed to the troops during the late stages of the mobilization.

The task of the center was to train AT-gun platoons, that could be used in front-line duty immediately. As the political situation was already very severe at the time, the training couldn't take long. As training equipment, the Center received two 37 K/36 guns, and it was decided that as soon as more guns would arrive from the Tampella factory, they should be used to equip AT-gun platoons, and sent to the front immediately.

 

On 11 November 1939, the war time material composition of the AT-gun platoons was approved, and a month later, also the Personnel allocation of the Training Center was made official.

Around Christmas 1939, the staff of the Training Center under the command of Capt. Lehtinen was some 72 men (including all officers, NCO's, Privates, technicians etc.) forming the following sub-units:

  • HQ
  • HQ-platoon
  • Officer's platoon
  • Rifle company
  • AT-gun company

Capt. Lehtinen made himself the training programs, both for the rifle company and the gun company.

When a new batch of men arrived, they first received a short but hectic 5-day training in the rifle company. This was made in effort to unify the infantry skills of the men, who had usually different levels of training (some were conscripts, while some were reservists, and some more skilled Civic Guard members etc.). The instructors worked in three shifts, and the volunteers were hard pressed.

After the short training in the rifle company, the platoon was moved to the gun company, and received full battle gear. Again, intensive training followed. The field training was demanding, getting more tougher on the way. Local civilian/army vehicles passing by played the role of enemy "tanks", and were targeted whenever possible.

As the shortage of AT-shells was appalling, the gunner training was enhanced by attaching a rifle barrel in a tubage. Also some tests were made by attaching a rifle directly on the barrel. All this was made to prepare the crews for the live firing practice. While not a very effective training method, this was the only way, as the number of live shells per platoon was strictly regulated.

Before the live firings, the gunner and the assistants were chosen. The gunners were required to be marksmen with the rifle, and of course accurate gunners. Usually the ones who had performed well in handling the gun and in the indoor aiming training (the gunner candidate tried to track graphics on a special board that were of the shapes of a square,"S" and "8") had a good chance to be selected.

The number of live shells that a platoon could fire ranged from 8 to 13, which was the absolute maximum. That is only 4-7 shells per gun crew, which is hardly enough by any standards. The Center used at first only 37 K/36's, but later on also captured 45 mm guns were used. Only the leaders, gunners, loaders and the assistant loaders were allowed to fire live rounds.

The training in the Center was at first based mostly on foreign manuals and Lehtinen's own evaluations. Lehtinen requested from the platoon leaders, that were sent to the fronts, to send any first hand experiences to him. These letters were valuable in guiding the training slowly into the right direction.

 

By 30 November, the Training Center had supplied the Isthmus Army with 15 AT-gun platoons (some horse-drawn) from which 9 platoons were given to the II Corps and 6 platoons to the III Corps. The IV Corps, in Ladoga Karelia, had received one AT-gun company with 4 AT-gun platoons

When the war ended, Lehtinen and his staff had, before and during the war, trained and sent to the fronts a total of 94 AT-gun platoons, 2 separate gun teams, trained 170 men as replacements, and some 30 platoon leader replacements.

 

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The General Directive to the Isthmus Army

 

After Marshal Mannerheim requested opinions and suggestions about the general use of Finnish AT, Major General L.Oesch, Chief of General Staff, noted that the Finnish AT-capability of the troops defending the Mannerheim Line (main resistance line) in the Karelian Isthmus was inadequate. It was Oesch's opinion that the Soviet tanks couldn't be destroyed in front of the line, and the bulk would be able to penetrate the defenses.

Oesch pointed out that the main objective was to separate the tanks from the following infantry in front of the line. The tanks should be allowed to advance over the first strongpoints and trenches into the defenses. These penetrated tanks should be attacked relentlessly by AT-teams and AT-platoons using close combat AT-weapons regardless of the terrain (as it's relatively difficult to closely observe the surrounding battlefield from within the tank, tanks are vulnerable to close defense AT-teams without friendly infantry nearby).

Mannerheim approved this as the general directive to be used in the Karelian Isthmus, and it proved out to be effective.

 

But although the General HQ issued the above directive, it has to be noted that during the war, the General HQ had only little to do in improving AT-tactics. That was usually done by the front-line troops themselves, at divisional level, and by the AT-gun Training Center. The HQ of the Isthmus Army can be credited as merging good ideas into a workable concept.

 

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"Short range" AT-defense

 

During December, the Finnish units (mainly in company, battalion and regiment level) started to form "close defense AT-teams", which were of squad - platoon strength. While these units had official names "AT-platoon" and "AT-section", they weren't equipped with guns, instead the weaponry of these "ad hoc AT-units" consisted mainly of Molotov Cocktails, satchel charges, mines, hand grenades and "blinding devices"("sokaisuvälineillä" in Finnish). These units were often called "bomber units" or "close defense units".

Of course, the number of these units depended on the number of Soviet tanks in the area. While in Ladoga Karelia, a "bomber unit" in a company was a rarity, the situation in the Isthmus was totally different. While there also were official instructions to form these type of units, they were also formed by initiative. On 5 December, the HQ of the Isthmus Army ordered that such "close defense units" should be formed in company, battalion and regimental level, and in divisional level larger units were to be formed from attached Separate battalions or border guard units. These units (especially in the regimental and divisional level) had usually a few pioneers in them. This was important, as the close defense units were responsible of making the satchel charges etc. which were then transported to the units in the front-line.

In the company and battalion level, the AT-teams operated close to the front-line. The regiment -level teams were used along roads or at points suited for armor, giving more depth to the defense. The units at divisional level, were kept in reserve and used in the most threatening points.

As the close defense units were formed at the fronts by the order of the local commander, they didn't have any official composition regarding weaponry or equipment. The rule was, that when a soldier was ordered to a close defense unit, he was equipped by his weapon, creating a large mix of small arms in the units. The rifle was of course the main weapon, but the number of smg's and lmg's (if any) depended on the situation and the commander.

While there were these small "bomber units" even in the front-line companies, one shouldn't overlook the other infantrymen, as they too took part in the AT-defense, if any equipment was available.

 

The task of the close defense AT-teams was risky at best. The task of getting close to an enemy tank was hard and required courage and patience. You had to throw the satchel charge accurately and with just enough force to land it on top of a tank, to ensure a kill. You could also run to the tank and place it on the rear deck, but this was even more riskier. In some cases the soldier died from the blast of his own satchel charge if it fell down from the tank, or if he couldn't move to a safe distance.

It should also be noted, that in the early phases of the war (December - late January) it was considerably easier for the Finnish AT-teams to destroy Soviet tanks, as the tanks usually attacked without supporting infantry. In the last month of the war the enhanced Soviet training, conducted during January, was paying off, making it hard or nearly impossible for the "bomber units" to get close to the tanks. As a result, the few AT-guns had to be deployed closer to the front-line, causing increasing casualties (see the "long range AT-defense").

From the actions in Summa, on 19 December 1939, as described by the commander of JR 15 Lt.Col Ilmari Karhu.
I've tried to translate the text as exact as possible.
(The notes in (parentheses) are my additions, meant to clarify some points.)

"In the afternoon the (Soviet) attack was repeated with even more strength. Reports from different directions told that nearly 100 tanks were in the Summa-village. Our AT-guns were still stunned by the morning attack. The tanks were roaming virtually free within our lines, as our bombers (meaning "bomber units") couldn't get close to the tanks in broad daylight, in the open terrain. The men were just laying flat in their foxholes and waiting for the dusk. The tanks were firing at the trenches and the bunkers.
The situation was oppressive. Could the infantry stay in the positions letting the tanks pass and stopping the enemy infantry, as was ordered (see: the general directive). The first attack reached the support line. It was of course manned, but it's AT-defense was very weak.
The time passed slowly. Wild rumors were going round.
Finally it grew dusk. The evening came. The midnight came. The support line was still intact. Some tanks immobilized by mines were in front of it. But how was it with the main defense line?
Reports were arriving. The enemy infantry hadn't been able to follow the tanks inside our defenses. At dusk the "bombers" could approach the tanks. The tank busting began. Some twenty were destroyed and the rest withdrew. The attack had been beaten back. The troops in this sector were reassured that the tanks weren't invulnerable. Confidence among the troops grew."

Source:"Talvisodan Historia 2", p.58"

(The Soviet troops reached the Mannerheim Line in Summa around 6 - 7 December. On 12 December, the first probing attacks were launched. On 16 December, the usual artillery bombardment intensified, continuing until 17 December, when the first attack supported with tanks was launched, but it was repulsed leaving 23-24 destroyed tanks behind. On 18 December, only small probes were launched after the Finnish artillery had fired a strong barrage into a big formation dispersing it. The main attack was launched on 19 December, which was repulsed. Some smaller attacks were made in the following days.

During the week, the Finnish 5th division had repulsed the attacks made by two Soviet divisions, the 138th and 123rd. The Finns counted 52 destroyed tanks, from which some 20 were heavy (meaning medium T-28 tanks). )

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The employment of a "close defense" platoon
(The schematic is based on a somewhat similar drawing in "Marskin panssarintuhoojat", p. 157)

A schematic display of a deployed "bomber" unitThe "close defense"-platoon deployed along the the most likely routes (marked by "1" on the map), digging camouflaged foxholes for two men (the larger blue dots on the map) on both sides of the route, with a smaller foxhole some 2 m away, where the satchel charges and Molotov Cocktails were stored (for safety reasons, of course).

The tactic was simple; when the leading tank reached the last foxhole (marked by "2" on the map) or hit an AT-mine in a minefield (marked by "3" on the map), the two man team attacked the leading tank. While the other one "blinded" the tank with blinding devices or a Molotov Cocktail, the other one finished it off with a satchel charge. The explosion was the sign for the other teams, which attacked the closest tank. The requirement for this tactic to work was, that the enemy wasn't able to use their tanks 'en masse', and most importantly that attacking infantry was pinned down by the front-line strongpoints.

 

Two Soviet tanks lying near the Finnish communications trenches in the Lähde sector, near Summa.
Photographed on 21 December 1939. The tank on the left seems to be a T-28.
Two knocked out tanks, photographed from a trench. Two knocked out tanks, photographed from a trench.
Source: "Summa", p.73

 

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"Long range" AT-defense

 

As mentioned earlier in the text, the 37 mm Bofors gun was chosen as the primary AT-weapon. As it was a cannon, capable of penetrating enemy armor at distance, I'm referring to this as "long range AT-defense", while it's a matter of opinion if ranges of up to 900 m can be considered "long range".

Even before the Winter War started, the idea of giving the AT-defense depth, already existed. The AT-guns were to be used behind the front-line, while the front-line troops would use their short range weapons. As mentioned earlier, after the Red Army adopted improved tactics where the infantry supported the tanks more efficiently, it forced the Finns to deploy their guns closer to the front-line, where the nearly constant artillery fire started to extract casualties. Also, the shorter ranges increased the chance that the gun was spotted from a tank, and targeted. This resulted in a gunnery duel, which didn't end until the other was destroyed.

Also, after the war it was noticed that many battalion commanders, which had AT-gun platoons at their disposal, weren't familiar of how AT-guns should be used and had the tendency to spread them around, decreasing their effectiveness. Also, the commanders above company level had a tendency of overestimating the speed and cross-country capability of the gun teams. While the organization of the AT-gun platoon was quite clear, it was quite common throughout the war, that a regiment / battalion commander gave an order to a single gun team (just shows the low overall number of AT-guns at the commander's disposal).

In Ladoga Karelia, where there were really few guns compared to the size of the area, the gun teams were usually kept in reserve, and used where needed. This created confusion in the AT-gun platoons, as it was often unclear to which unit they were attached and who's order to obey. As the gun teams operated in many different areas, in confusing situations, they could sometimes be left for days without proper shelter or food e.g. if the local supply officer wasn't aware of their presence.

 

While the number of Finnish AT-guns was relatively low, they still caused the largest casualties for the Red Army tanks. As the 37 K/36 was the most numerous AT-gun, it was also "The" tank killer of the Winter War.

Each of the gun platoons had two gun teams. The detailed composition is visible in the chart below, as is the composition of the gun teams. The motorized and horse-drawn gun platoons were nearly identical, the difference is mainly in the transport equipment and personnel. Originally, all men were armed with rifles, but after many complains from the crews and especially from the gunners (the rifle is a too long and cumbersome weapon, as the crews were in action on their knees or crouching) on 5 February, the General HQ issued an order that a platoon should be armed with two smg's.

 

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The deployment of an AT-platoon

 

The deployment of the guns of an AT-gun platoon
(Source: "Marskin panssarintuhoojat", p.165)

The schematic on the right is based on a drawing that a commander of an AT-gun platoon sent to Capt.Lehtinen, commander of the AT-gun Training Center.
The letter was sent from the Isthmus front, and it shows how the two guns were sited inside the forest, behind the two strongpoints. The forest was cleared along the chosen lines of fire, with as much indistinctness as possible. The distance of the gun nr.1 to the strongpoint "1" was some 300 meters. The platoon commander regarded the deployment to be good.

 

The commander of the AT-gun Training Center, Capt. Lehtinen, who received letters from the AT-gun platoon commanders, started soon to emphasize that the guns should be in reverse slope positions, and if possible in terrain unsuited to tanks (many guns had been overrun by Soviet tanks during the war).

A picture showing the towing carriage of the 37 PstK/36The AT-gun platoons weren't well suited for the Finnish winter and terrain. In a snowy terrain, the crews could move their guns without horses or trucks, but only for short ranges. In forest, the trucks were mostly useless, and horses had to be used. But the horses were quickly fatigued in deep snow, if they even could pull the guns at all, and it was very hard to move the guns without a special towing carriage. Of course, that was a bigger problem in north Finland, than it was in the Karelian Isthmus. The Winter War showed also that AT-guns weren't suited for offensive operations in the Finnish winter. It proved impossible to move them in the first echelons, as the attacks were almost always made through rugged terrain.

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The motorized AT-gun platoon
(composition verified 16 October 1939)

The "official" composition of a motorized AT-gun platoon
(Source:"Marskin panssarintuhoojat", p. 53)

The platoon had a total strength of 30 men
(including privates, NCO's and the officer)

The tasks of the men in a gun team

The tasks of the 8 individual soldiers (led by a NCO) in the gun team was distributed as follows:
- gunner (nr. 1)
- loader (nr. 2)
- assistant loader (nr. 3)
- substitute (nr. 4)
- spotter (nr. 5)
- ammunition carriers (nr. 6, 7 and 8)

In case the NCO was either killed or wounded, he was succeeded by nr.2 (loader) which in turn was replaced by nr. 3 and so forth.

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The horse-drawn AT-gun platoon

The "official" composition of a horse-drawn AT-gun platoon
(Source:"Marskin panssarintuhoojat", p. 79)

The platoon had a total strength of 32 men
(including privates, NCO's and the officer)

The shortage of motorized vehicles forced many of the AT-gun platoons to be equipped with horses instead of trucks. The composition of the horse-drawn AT-gun platoon was later on judged to be successful.

But as horses need more everyday care than motor vehicles, any human casualties caused problems, as someone was then responsible of two tasks. Of course, the platoons operations were even more difficult, if the horses themselves were wounded or killed.

The gun crew had the same fighting strength 1+8 (and crew tasks) as the gun teams in the Motorized AT-gun platoon (see above).

 

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Field artillery

 

While (indirect firing) artillery isn't usually regarded as a very effective in an AT-role, the Finnish artillery was very essential also in the AT-role.

While plagued with the chronic shortage of shells, the Finnish barrages were exceptionally accurate. While the main task of the barrages was to pin down or disperse any infantry attacks, that were following the tanks, some lucky hits on individual tanks was scored. The more tighter group, in which the attacking tanks were deployed, the more effective even a short barrage was. Even a 76 mm artillery shell was powerful enough to destroy a light tank, or severe the tracks from even a bigger vehicle. A hit by a heavier shell almost always disabled a light T-26 or BT tank.

No detailed records were kept from the effectiveness of the Finnish artillery, instead war diaries usually only note: "a barrage was fired at an attacking enemy formation, tanks dispersed". Some figures were recorded, and e.g. on 18 Dec, 12 Soviet tanks were knocked out by the Finnish artillery barrages in the "Lähde"-sector near Summa. By the end of December, the Finnish artillery had either knocked out or damaged 11 tanks in Kollaa (located in Ladoga Karelia).

The above figures are probably caused by indirect fire. As the Red Army failed to achieve deep penetrations, the Finnish artillery seldom had to defend their positions against tanks. Of course, some light 76 mm artillery pieces were used in direct firing positions (AT-role), to substitute the low number of AT-guns.

 

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The organization of AT-units in the 4th division
late in the war

The AT-units of the Finnish 4th Division from late January 1940 onwardsThe first officer, which was assigned to be the AT-officer, was assigned in the 4.D, which was fighting in the Karelian Isthmus. Capt. E.Lauhiala was assigned to this task on Jan 17th, and this new organization (concentrating the AT-troops under a central command) was the work of 4.D Chief of Staff, Maj. S.Simelius and the 4.D Artillery commander, Maj. L.Klärich.

The new AT-officer took over the command of the 4th AT-company ("4.Panssarintorjuntakomppania" in Finnish) and the 2nd separate company (2.Er.K, "2. Erillinen komppania" in Finnish). The 2. Er.K was originally the 2nd border company (2.Rajakomppania), which was attached to the 4.D as a separate company.

According to Capt. Lauhiala, this reorganization took place only after sufficient experience had been gained from the enemy's use of armor. From the two AT-companies, the 2.Er.K was responsible for the close AT-defense on the sector of the 4.D. The arrangements, which are shown in the schematic above, were made in late January. On 8 February, the 4.D got an AT-rifle detachment, armed with 2 "Boys" AT-rifle. The AT-rifle detachment was subsequently attached to the 2. Er.K.

Each of the regiments received one 2-gun AT-gun platoon, which were either 37 mm Bofors guns, or captured 45 mm AT-guns. The 37 mm AT-gun crews had received the basic training in the AT-gun Training Center, but the shortage of instructors forced the 45 mm AT-gun crews to be trained directly by the regimental AT-gun platoon, or by the 4.AT-company.

The close defense platoons (Torj.J) were consisted of 3 close defense sections (Torj.R), each section having one NCO and 9 men.

 

The composition of the "Pst.kiv.R"
(AT-rifle section)

1. Fire team
2. Fire team
  • section leader
  • AT-rifle gunner
  • 1. assistant
  • 2. assistant
  • smg or lmg gunner
  • 1. soldier (satchel charge)
  • 2. soldier (satchel charge)
  • 3. soldier (satchel charge)
  • 4. soldier (satchel charge)
  • 5. soldier (satchel charge)

The AT-rifle section had also 1 NCO and 9 men, and the section was divided into 2 fire teams. The detailed composition is shown in the table on the right, and it proved to be successful.

 

At the end of the war, many of the Finnish divisions had organized their AT-units according (not necessarily identical, but close) to the example of the 4.D, but not all.

E.g. the 4th separate AT-company ("4.Er.Pst.K", "4.Erillinen panssarintorjuntakomppania" in Finnish), which was under the direct command of the IV Corps (in Ladoga Karelia), was forced to use the AT-gun platoons (I - IV AT-gun platoons) in many different directions.

The I and II platoons were attached to the 13th division, while the III platoon operated in the Tolvajärvi area, and the IV platoon in Ilomantsi. While the platoons were formally under the command of the company commander, in reality the commander was more of an administrative leader, training replacements, than in direct command of the platoons.
(The 13.D was defending the Lake Ladoga coastline, Tolvajärvi is some 60 km north of Lake Ladoga's NE corner, while the Ilomantsi battle grounds are roughly some 40 km north of Tolvajärvi. So the distance between two platoons of the same company could be even 100 km.)

 

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The first surprises

 

Among the first surprises for the Finns, was the wide use of tanks by the Red Army. In 1930s, as the Finnish General Staff had evaluated the Finnish defenses, it had predicted that the Red Army would use it's tanks mainly on the Karelian Isthmus and even in there mostly on the roads only. The Winter War proved that prediction dead wrong. The surprise was even greater, when the Red Army troops in the narrow roads of Ladoga Karelia and middle-north Finland had relatively strong tank support (as was also the sheer number of Red Army troops in these directions). Also, as much of a surprise as the huge number of tanks was, so was their wide use on the frozen lakes, swamps, and even over the frozen sea.

 

 

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Improvisations

 

this is a small log I'm talking about!The lack of AT-weapons forced the front-line troops to improvise. All along the front, the troops used small logs and iron bars to immobilize tanks by jamming them into the tracks. This was by no means an effective or safe method, but usable in dire situations. Small logs were split and and carved from the inside and after filled with explosives, a hand made mine was ready.

And while there were AT-gun platoons and teams, "close defense" units, it's fair to say that during the Winter War, almost the whole AT-defense was in fact mostly improvised, improving and developing during the war as more experience was gained by the troops. The initial shock caused by the masses of Red Army tanks faded quite quickly, but still, the little AT-training before the war did cost a lot of Finnish lives.

Early in the war in Petsamo, where the terrain was mostly open and where the troops had no AT-guns or AT-mines, the enemy advance was slowed by blowing the road up, or by blowing rocky walls on to the road. Sometimes the enemy armored advance was slowed by make small dirt piles on the road, which looked like badly camouflaged mines. After spotting these, the lead tanks halted and shelled the suspicious bumps. This bought the withdrawing Finns precious minutes.

As an other example of improvisation, on 17 December 1939, in the battle near Porojärvi (some 70 km SW of the Finnish Arctic Ocean coast, next to the Norwegian border), one gun of the 5.Er.Ptri (equipped with 4 obsolete 87 mm guns, 87K/95-R, which were guns without recoil system) was positioned to fire any tank advancing on the road. The lead tank appeared behind a rock, only some 60 m from the gun, and the crew managed to fire their gun. Luckily the tank was immobilized (knocked out?) with the first shot, but before the crew could pull the gun back into the position (guns without recoil system jump backwards with each shot, making their rate of fire relatively slow) the advancing Soviet infantry pressed forward. The crew managed to grab the breech lock with them before abandoning their gun.
(Source: "Petsamo Talvisodassa", p.106-107)

 

Only on 18 December, the Finns fighting in the north near Petsamo, received their first AT-unit.
The 51st AT-gun platoon (equipped with two 37 mm Bofors guns with the personnel strength of 1 officer, 3 NCO's and 28 men) led by 2nd Lt. Osmo Nissinen. The arrival of this unit was a big morale booster to the defenders, giving the defenders at last some ranged AT-capability.
(The 51st AT-gun platoon was dispatched from the AT-gun Training Center on 15 December).

 

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The Results

 

While the Finnish Army didn't have a very strong AT-arm, the tanks of the Red Army suffered huge losses in the Winter War.

Probably the largest number of kills, that a platoon scored in one day, was made in the morning of 13 March 1940, when the two 25 mm AT-guns of the 164th AT-gun platoon knocked out over 10 tanks (the exact number is not known, but it's probably between 13 - 17). The second largest score in one day was credited to the 37th AT-gun platoon, which on 5 February knocked out 9 tanks in Summa.

As the largest unofficial score for a gun team, achieved during the war, was 57 kills. It was scored by a gun team of the II platoon of 4.Er.Pst.K, led by 2nd Lt. Toivo Kausto, equipped with a 37 K/36 -gun. Most of the kills were made when the gun team took part in the destruction of the "Motti of East-Lemetti". Of course, since the figure can't be verified it isn't necessarily 100 % reliable, but it can be close to the truth as that particular Motti had 105 tanks, from which 34 were destroyed and 22 damaged. In addition to the tanks, the team destroyed a couple of infantry guns and some mg's.

While the Red Army had some 2 000 tanks against Finland at the start of the war, on 13 March 1940, when the war ended, the Red Army had 2 998 operational tanks against Finland. Thus in all the total number of tanks employed in the Winter War is around 6 000 !

In 1990, a Russian study was published in Finland (made by Professor M.Semirjaga), and according to it, the total tank losses of the Red Army was 3 543 tanks (this figure is the same, as in the memo that was after the war handed over to the Chief of General Staff, Army Commander 1st Class, Boris Shaposhnikov). The figure includes losses of all reasons, which in case of the Karelian Isthmus mounts up to 1 275 tanks.

Note also, that it wasn't only the light tanks that suffered heavy losses, also the T-28 medium tanks were prey for the Finnish AT-guns. E.g. the 20th Tank Brigade (with 90th, 91st, 95th Tank Battalions and 301st Armored Car Bn) under the command of Brigade Commander S.V.Borzilov, which was transported on October 8th 1939 to the Karelian Isthmus, started the war with 105 medium T-28 tanks. The brigade saw action in the Summa area and received during the war, as replacements, 67 tanks, but when the war ended it had only 71 tanks left.
(105+67-71=101 tanks lost. Of course most of the losses were repairable, but still some 100 tanks is a very large figure).

(The Finnish intelligence department of the General HQ, had estimated that some 1 500 tanks had been destroyed, underestimating the sheer size of the Red Army's armored force. E.g. the Finnish General HQ had estimated that the Red Army had had 3 300 tanks against Finland, and so near the war's end, the most optimistic officers were sure that the Red Army was running out of tanks.)

The below table by M.Kolomiets shows by detail the Red Army tank losses in the Karelian Isthmus (not including tank losses in other fronts).

 

 

The Red Army tank losses in the Karelian Isthmus during the Winter War
(Source: "Marskin panssarintuhoojat", p.216)
(Original source: Maksim Kolomiets, "TankoMaster"-magazine, issue 2/97)
 

Time
Period

 

Army

Combat losses

 

technical
failures

 

all losses

 

beyond repair / complete losses

artillery mines, satchel charges burned sunk missing total
Nov 30th
- Feb 1st
7.A 199 90 92 13 1 395 375 770 62
13.A 76 16 62 - 1 145 195 340 69
Feb 1st - Feb 25th 7.A 264 137 84 43 9 537 259 796 96
13.A 116 40 43 8 2 209 152 361 64
Feb 25th- Mar 13th 7.A 242 82 101 37 15 477 192 669 61
13.A 58 18 54 9 7 141 102 243 29
The total 955 383 436 110 35 1904 1275 3179 368

 

 

 

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Finnish tactics

Soviet tactics

The Motti's

Finnish AT-weapons

 


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