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Finnish "by the book" tactics

in the Winter War

(in short)






The Finnish peacetime army was in fact a delaying army, it’s 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 it’s roots in imperial Germany, attack was the most favorable fighting style.

Trench war with it’s 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 defense.

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 it’s 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. That’s why it’s only fair to say that defense was the least familiar battle-style of the Finnish army when the Winter War began.


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The different attack styles were enveloping attack, frontal assault and flanking attack.


The enveloping attack was considered to produce the best results, and it should be aimed at the enemy’s weakest point, it’s flank and rear area. The enveloping attack requires that the enemy should be engaged along it’s front, so that extra reserves can’t be freed from the front-line units.

The frontal assault was to be executed only if an enveloping attack wasn’t 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 enemy.


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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, it’s mission was reconnaissance, neutralizing enemy air activity, artillery observation, supporting the attack at the "Schwerpunkt" and harassing the enemy rear area.

-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".


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Below are schematic examples of 3 different offensive tactics in the area north of Lake Ladoga

Pincer attack against a column

A pincer attack against a column
(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.

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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.

Flanking attack against a deployed enemy

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Breakthrough against a deployed enemy

A breakthrough 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.

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A schematic display of "creating Motti's"

The enemy column was cut in several places and surrounded. A detachment was positioned to stop any relief attempts.
   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 determined attack.

Creating Mottis

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.

A simple (pathetic?) animation of how a Soviet column could be trapped

For more information about this subject, go to "Motti's"


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Defense was to be static defense or delaying actions.


Static defense

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 wasn’t taken back.
    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 for counterattacks.
    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 weren’t a part of the main defense line and weren’t needed, by the doctrine, to be taken back. These were to improve observation and provide fire support.

    The forward posts were small positions, whose mission was to hinder enemy recon patrols, prevent surprise attacks and slow down an attack. They weren’t 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 MG’s) 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 in mind.

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 important.
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 (Los) .
    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 couldn’t 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.


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The Defense Line

A schematic display of a Finnish fortified defense line legends
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 & soil)
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". A model showing the principle of  positioning a mg
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.

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A Finnish strongpoint

1) The shelter / covered dugout (either concrete or wood&soil)
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 protection.
8) foxholes (for 1-2 men)
9) forward nests (for lookouts, sentries, smg-gunners and antitank men)

A schematic model of a strongpoint

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.

A simple schematic showing the spacing of strongpoints The distance between these separate strongpoints depended on terrain and available forces, being usually a few hundred meters.

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 mounts" etc.


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The strongpoints in Terenttilä, in the Taipale sector
(included as an example of how the strongpoints were positioned)

The location of Terenttilä in Taipale

An aerial photo of the area, facing north

The map on the left shows roughly the location of "Terenttilä", as does the photograph on the right.

Terenttilä areaWhile this is only a rough sketch, it shows the positions of the Finnish strongpoints in the Terenttilä-sector of the Taipale area.

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).


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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 wereThe enemy approaches from the left, and the friendly lines are on the right 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)The enemy approaches from the left, the friendly lines are 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. A schematic display of a granite antitank obstacle 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.)



The 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.)

The antitank obstacle in Summa
Picture source: "Talvisodan Historia 1", p.228


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Below are two schematic examples of defense deployments
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 and lmg'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) .

Finnish "V" defense


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Finnish "triangle" defense 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 the sides.

Note that usually the "reserves" that attacked the enemy detachments which advanced to cut the road were consisted of supply, medical and HQ personnel.


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Delaying actions

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 manner.

Passive actions were used when the objective was only to slow down the enemy.

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) .



See also:

Finnish antitank units and tactics in the Winter War


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