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The Finnish Army

The Finnish Army

in the Winter War

Part I


In  Part I


Before the war


The birth of the Army


The Army of Independent Finland was formally born during the War of Independence, when the year 1878 Conscription Act was carried again into effect on February 18th 1918. This act enabled that virtually all healthy young males could be called up for armed service. In 1932 a new Conscription Act was carried into effect, that prescribed that the basic conscription service would be 350 days, and 440 days for the officers and NCO's, after which they would be included into the reserve. In addition to the conscription, all reservists could be called for refresher training.


The peace time field army of Finland consisted of 3 divisions (each having 3 regiments, 1 or 2 Jaeger battalions, 1 or 2 artillery regiments, and support units) and a Cavalry Brigade, which could be compared to a division in strength.

Between 1918 and 1939, some 509 000 men, born between 1894 and 1918, were conscripted. From these, almost 200 000 took part in refresher training during the 1930s (see the section below) .


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The new mobilization system


Between 1932 and 1934, the mobilization system was changed from the Cadre mobilization to a Regional mobilization. Now the task of raising the Field Army was passed from the units of the standing army to the military districts. This was done for various reasons, among them was the constant fear of a sudden invasion by the Soviet Union, and while the regional mobilization was faster in mustering troops, it also allowed the standing army to delay the enemy while the Field Army was being mobilized.

The large reorganization and planning had the effect that no refresher training's were held between '32 and '34. The new system required that all reservists of the military district would be trained in the same place. The objective was that every district could train it's reservists inside it's district, but the plans were abandoned as the Defense Forces simply didn't have the funds to redeem enough land for that purpose. So the solution was that several large refreshing training centers were built, to which the troops were transported. The men in a unit were usually from the same locality, resulting in good team-spirit. Morale was usually quite high, and the men quite enthusiastic.

After the start the system proved adequate enough, and in the refresher training between 1935 and 1939, some 22 regiment HQ's and 87 battalions of infantry, and 9 artillery regiment HQ's, 26 artillery battalions and 4 separate batteries were trained. That enabled the raising of 9 infantry divisions, while still leaving a trained reserve (the units were nearly always over-strength during the refresher training) . In plain figures, some 180 000 men went through the refresher training.


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The Civic Guard


A very important part of the National defense was the Civic Guard (Suojeluskunnat in Finnish). The patriotic Civic Guard was born just before the War of Independence. The organization was run by volunteers, and the position and duties of the organization was prescribed in a law that was passed in 1927, further specified by a statute in May 1928.

The Civic Guard was a part of the Defense Forces, and it's mission was to defend the country and uphold the legitimate social system. The Commander of the Civic Guard was subordinate to the President of the Republic, just like the Commander of the Armed Forces. Many career officers of the Army were working also in the General Staff of the Civic Guard or in the district HQ's or as site commanders.

In 1939, the unusually democratic organization (every member had the right to take part in the organization's inner issues) had 22 Civic Guard districts, which consisted of 279 Civic Guard sites. In the end of 1938, the organization had 111 493 regular members.


While the youth section of the Civic Guard had it's roots in the early phases of the organization, and it was formally organized in 1928. The goal wasn't to "train" militaristic boys, as one might think, instead the aim was to raise decent citizens that would understand the duty of a citizen to his country, when they left the organization in the age of 17. All over-militaristic close order drill and weapon training was left out. In 1938, the youth organization had over 28 500 young members ( at it's peak, during the Continuation War, the number was over 70 000) .


The members of the organization were regarded, for a good reason, better trained as the rest of the reservists. The Civic Guard was very important as an institution, in keeping up the military skills of it's members, especially in case of the officers, during the prewar years, when the Army had it's shoe string budget. The Guard had it's annual refresher training's, in which the members took part even in battalion's strength.

The organization had acquired large amounts of weapons in the prewar years, and it's arms stores proved invaluable when the mobilization of the Field Army began. Also, during the mobilization, the Civic Guard was extremely important in carrying out the mobilization.


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The material situation


The material situation was not as good as the psychological situation. As Finland had been a poor agricultural country, with many political wings, the Armed Forces hadn't received enough funds compared to their task.


The defensive spending in the prewar years

In 1925, the Ministry of Defense made the first real acquisition plan (to improve the material situation of the Defense Forces) , requiring FIM 5 125 million. The plan wasn't accepted.
  One year later, the Defense auditing office ("Puolustusrevisioni" in Finnish) proposed a smaller plan of FIM 2 642 million. Although this so-called first "stopgap plan" ("hätäohjelma" in Finnish) wasn't approved either, the Defense Ministry and the General HQ made progress in their cooperation of drawing up detailed acquisition plans.

Only in the mid 1930s, the second "stopgap plan" of FIM 1 682 million, to be spent in the next 5 years, was proposed, although the real need was FIM 4 100 million. The plan was accepted by the parliament, but the time span was increased to 8 years.

For material acquisition (to replace old & buy new) , the Defense Forces received:

  • Between 1919-1930, a total of FIM 858 million.
    (Allocation: Army 50 %, Navy 30 %, Air Forces 20 %)
  • Between 1931-1934, the total sum was FIM 441 million. After that, the situation improved a bit, being a total of FIM 1 085 million between 1935 and 1938.
    (Allocation: Army 52 %, Navy 20 %, Air Forces 28 %).

By 1938, the attitudes of the political decision makers had changed, and the plan of FIM 2 710 million was approved with minor changes (of that, FIM 460 million in 1938, FIM 400 million annually in 1939-1943 and 250 million in 1944) . In early 1939, Mannerheim proposed an additional FIM 500 million for the year 1939, but the Government proposed an addition of only FIM 350 million to the Parliament, which was approved. In June 1939, the Parliament approved one more additional proposition of FIM 100 million, to be used to fortify the Aaland islands.

It's quite amazing that still in mid 1939, the government was reluctant to use all means available to increase defensive spending.

While the acquisition office of the Army had in 1939 more funds than ever before, but it was already too late to have a telling impact, as the plan was still in it's early phases when the war started. The domestic production had a slow start and the foreign purchases were mostly on it's way.

While using the "Money value conversion factor", found in website of the Scandinavian Nordea Bank (in Finnish)
The "Year 2000" figure represents roughly the contemporary purchasing power of the money figure on the left column.
(i.e. The same amount of items you could get with FIM 100 in the year 1924, costed in the year 2000 some FIM 152 (or Euro 25.60).)
in Year 2000 money value
The FIM 858 000 000 spent on material acquisitions between 1919-1930 I'm using an average value for the "money value conversion factor", between 1919-1930 (1.5745)
The sum equals in purchase power, FIM 1 350 920 000 or roughly Euro 227 208 000 spent in Defense Acquisitions in 12 years.
The FIM 441 000 000 spent in 1931-1934 The average "money value conversion factor" during 1931-1934 is 1.761 . So the sum on the left equals FIM 776 600 000 or roughly Euro 130 615 000 spent in Defense Acquisitions in a time 4 years.
The FIM 1 085 000 000 spent in 1935-1938 The average "money value conversion factor" during 1935-1938 is 1.73125 . So the sum on left equals FIM 1 878 400 000 or Euro 315 924 000 spent in 4 years.
The additional funding, the FIM 460 000 000 for the year 1938 and FIM 400 000 000 for the year 1939 + the FIM 350 000 000 (Mannerheim's proposal) The conversion factor for the year 1938 is 1.66 and for the year 1939 it is 1.619. Using these, the combined sum is FIM 1 977 850 000 or Euro 332 650 000.

So in total, the Finnish Defense Forces had spent on material acquisitions between 1919-1939 (in 21 years), roughly FIM 5 983 770 000 or about Euro 1 006 398 000 .




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From the Army's worst shortages, the following were perhaps the most important:


  • The Tank arm was almost nonexistent, from the 35 ordered Vickers 6-ton tanks, 27 had been delivered before the war started, and even these had been bought (to reduce costs) without guns, optics and radios, so none were operational on 30 November 1939. The 32 old WW I vintage Renault FT's were totally obsolete in 1939 without any combat value.

  • Also the shortage of antitank (AT) weapons was critical. The Army had in 1935 acquired the license to produce the 37 mm Bofors AT-gun, which had been chosen as the primary antitank weapon. The domestic production started in 1938, and only 50 guns were completed when the war started. The troops received the first AT-guns only after the mobilization had begun.
        The domestic 20 mm Lahti AT-rifle, which was proposed for the first time in 1936, wasn't approved until Fall 1939 as the light antitank weapon, but as the war begun, only a few prototype weapons were available (with a mere 27 Mio Finnish Marks, every Finnish battalion could've received 6 of these effective weapons, and a large supply of replacements) .

  • One of the worst unpleasant surprises in the war, was the situation of the Communications equipment. It was largely unknown, how difficult it would be to maintain communications with cables in a constant artillery bombardment. The lack of radios was a severe handicap, which was realized only when it was too late to improve the situation decisively. (Check out the page "Finnish Communications equipment...")

  • Artillery pieces and shells (check out the page "Finnish Artillery" and the links on it)


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The threat of war


On 6 October 1939, the negotiations in Moscow created an uncertain atmosphere in Finland, the efforts to improve the defensive capabilities of Finland were judged insufficient. In the following week, a partial mobilization was made, called as "an extra rehearsal" ("Ylimääräiset harjoitukset" in Finnish) to avoid international notice.
    After a few days, Marshal Mannerheim, the chairman of the defense council, made a motion, on 11 October, to the Minister of Defense, for a full mobilization. On the 12th, the Ministry of Defense gave an order of full mobilization, which started on 14 October 1939.

The Finnish President, who was, and is, the supreme commander of the Finnish Defense Forces, couldn't give the job away in peacetime. On 17 October 1939, an enactment was given, which made it possible "...during special circumstances, the President can appoint a Commander-in-Chief, who will act as the supreme commander of the Defense Forces..." (my own translation, so it may not be an exact translation) , and on the same day, President Kallio, appointed Baron Carl Gustav Mannerheim, as the new Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. 


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The High Command of the Finnish Defense Forces in start of December 1939

The High Command of the Finnish Defense Forces, early Dec 1939

(Diagram source: "Talvisodan historia 1", WSOY 1991, p.150)


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The Mobilization


The Military provinces, where divisions were raised The Finnish field army mobilized 9 divisions in addition to the 3 brigades, which consisted of units of the standing army, and a large number of separate battalions and other smaller units.

The Finnish units were raised in provinces. This meant that the reservists knew each other, which resulted in a feeling of togetherness. This helped a lot in the war of nerves and molded the men into a spirited combat force.

(The map on the left shows approximately the military provinces where the divisions were raised. The separate battalions were raised mostly from the border area inhabitants and border guard units.)

In order to provide replacements for the field army, a Field Replacement Brigade "KT-Pr" (coming from the Finnish word Kenttätäydennysprikaati) was formed during the mobilization. It was consisted of 9 infantry battalions and 3 mortar companies. However, the circumstances on the fronts in mid-December forced all units and battalions of the KT-Pr to be used in various parts of the front as combat troops. 3 battalions were transported to Ilomantsi, 3 to Northern Finland and 3 to the Isthmus.

The deployment of Finnish forces on 30 November 1939 The army was divided into three Corps, the II and III Corps in the Isthmus creating the Isthmus Army, and the IV Corps in the Ladoga Karelia, N and NE of Lake Ladoga. The troops in northern Finland were named the North Finland Group P-SR (Pohjois-Suomen Ryhmä in Finnish) , divided into two subgroups, the Lapland Group LR (Lapin Ryhmä in Finnish) defending a front from Petsamo to Salla, and the North Karelia Group P-KR (Pohjois-Karjalan Ryhmä in Finnish) defending the front from near Kuhmo to near Ilomantsi. Between those two groups were the 15th and 16th separate battalions (Er.P 15 and Er.P 16) . The gap between P-KR and the bulk of the IV Corps was defended by small Task Forces (combined into Group Talvela in early December) , which were attached to IV Corps.

The North Finland Group was very weak. The Lapland group had only the 17th separate battalion (Er.P 17) , the 10th separate company (10.Er.K) , the 5th separate battery (5.Er.Ptri) and a field replacement company. The North Karelia group had 3 separate battalions and the 4th separate battery and a replacements battalion. The P-SR had in it's direct command 2 separate battalions (Er.P 16 and Er.P 15) , and in it's reserve the 9th division (only 2 regiments, the JR 27 and JR 25) , and two replacement battalions.


Two divisions, 9.D (9th division) and 6.D were reserved as Commander-in-Chief's reserves, as was the KT-Pr (which had battalions both in south and north Finland) , and the Os.Hanell which was originally intended to be used in the Aaland islands.

A camouflaged trench in Summa, Dec 14th, only a few days before the first major attack is launched
Picture source: "Talvisodan Historia 2", p.55

The main task of the troops during the mobilization was to erect adequate field fortifications. While the work had already begun in the previous summer, by thousands of volunteers, the troops continued it. The first priority was tank obstacles, that's only obvious as the lack of AT-weapons was appalling. Shelters came in second, as the lack of billeting equipment (tents) was severe, and the actual trenches came only third. From early November onwards, the attention shifted to mg and lmg-nests, which formed the backbone of the defenses. The work on the trenches came last, so the result was, that on many points, the communication trenches were unfinished when the war started.

Also, the bulk of the  insufficiently trained men (results of the shoestring budget of the 20s and 30s) , got an adequate training during the mobilization, increased the team-spirit even further and gave the men belief in their ability to resist an invasion.

In all, the Finnish Defense Forces had, when the war started, a combined strength of 337 000 men (including all services) .


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The smaller units


The battalion was in the Finnish Army the most widely used tactical unit, being light enough to maneuver in covered terrain, and strong enough to pack adequate punch.

Apart from the battalions in the divisions and brigades, a large number of independent/separate battalions were raised. From the peace time Army units (conscripted forces) , 4 Jaeger battalions were raised (JP 1 - JP 4) .

The largest group of the independent battalions, were the Separate battalions (abbreviation Er.P #) , of which 25 (Er.P 1 - Er.P 24 and Er.P 112) were ready when the war broke out (the number increased during the war) . The separate battalions were usually raised from local reservists in the border localities along the Finnish-Soviet border, increasing their effectiveness when fighting in their home localities.

Also 4 bicycle battalions were raised (PPP 5 - PPP 8) .

As a note, no Sissi-battalions had been raised when the war broke out. The raising of these units began only after the war had already started. To my best knowledge, 5 Sissi-battalions were raised during the war.

The 23 separate companies, which were ready when the war started, break down into the following unit types;
  10 were separate companies (Er.K #) raised in the border areas, 9 of which were attached to the Delaying troops in the Isthmus (Er.K 1 - Er.K 9) and one in Petsamo (Er.K 10) .
  9 were separate bicycle companies (1.Er.PPK - 7.Er.PPK and Er.PPK 4) , which were used in coastal defense, 8 of which were stationed along the Baltic Sea coast, and one to the Lake Ladoga coast defense (Er.PPK 4, shows in the IV Corps column in the table below) .
  4 were separate machine gun companies (Er.KKK 1 - Er.KKK 4) , which were also used in coastal defense.


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The allocation of troops before the war, on 25 November 1939

(Note that some small changes were made before the war broke out, but still the table gives nearly an exact idea of the strength allocation of the Defense Forces, when the war broke out)


The Isthmus Army


IV Corps






Gen. HQ



Unit Type II Corps III Corps Reserve
Inf. Div* 3 2 - 2 - - 2 9
Inf. Reg** 9 6 - 6 - 1*** 5 27
Inf. Bgd 2 1 1 - - - - 4
Inf.  Bn**** 8 2 2 6 8 8***** 1 35
Inf. Co ¤ 5 4 - 1 1 12 - 23
Cav Reg 1 - - - - - - 1
Art Reg 3 2 - 2 - - (2) ¤¤ 9
Art Bn ¤¤¤ 4 3 1 - - 2 ¤¤ - 8
Art Btry 3 2 - 1 2 - - 8
Eng. Co ¤¤¤¤ 11 6 - 7 - - 9 33
Sign U ¤¤¤¤¤ 7 6 2 6 - - 6 27
*=excluding the 1.D (which was formed from the infantry brigades, listed in the table as "Inf.Bgd")
**= note that these regiments belong to the divisions above it, so these are NOT additional regiments
***= JR 22/8.D attached to Os.Hanell
****= Separate battalions (Er.P #), Jaeger battalions (JP #) and Bicycle battalions (PPP #)
***** = 7 Separate battalions (Er.P 18 - 24) and PPP 8 (attached to Os. Hanell)
¤ = Separate companies (Er.K), Separate mg-companies (Er.KKK) and Separate bicycle companies (Er.PPK)
¤¤ = II/KTR 6 and I/KTR 9 attached to Os. Hanell (Navy).  The II and III/KTR 9, in 9.D, had no guns (Gen.HQ)
¤¤¤ = heavy artillery battalions and brigade artillery battalions
¤¤¤¤ = all Engineer companies
¤¤¤¤¤ = Signals companies and Wire laying companies
(Table source: "Talvisodan historia 1", WSOY 1991, p.165)


Continue to Part II


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