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Tactics in the Winter War

The Finnish and Soviet "by the book" tactics


Based mostly on the book
"Suomalainen ja Venäläinen taktiikka Talvisodassa"
"The Finnish and Soviet tactics in Winter War" in English



Before the Winter War, the Finnish and Soviet tactics had one thing in common. Both were strongly emphasizing the attack, aiming for the encirclement and destruction of enemy forces.
The Soviet tactics were, of course, much more demanding in this respect, as were their resources bigger for executing such attacks.
After all, while the wartime mission of the Soviet Red Army was officially the defense of the "Socialist state of the peasants and workers", it had adopted the policy of "moving every enemy attack from Soviet soil to the aggressors land". This way of thinking, combined with gigantic resources (both in men and equipment), a fast growing war industry, propaganda and the communist dream of worldwide revolution, it really was the most fearsome attack-oriented army in the world (before the German lightning campaign in France).

The Finnish Field regulations and battle manuals gave only guidelines and advises to various situations while the Soviet Field regulations were more strict and demanding. In other words, to the Finnish officers a high degree of personal initiative and independence was given and to the Soviet officers it was said to be given.

In the use of artillery, the Finns followed a strict policy of concentrating available artillery and the Red Army believed in the policy of dispersing available artillery to several units (at least all regimental and divisional organic artillery).

Winter and forest were regarded as allies by the Finns, whereas the Soviets regarded them to be hindrance for their operations.

Of course, while the actual/practical tactic on the battlefield usually evolves by unofficial literacy, experience, and by individual thinking and initiative, outside the official Field regulations, the leading principles remain. Even when radical changes are made during a war, the peace time "by the book" rehearsals have a prolonged effect in tactics.



Schematic displays of "by the book" attack formations and defenses

Soviet division vs. Finnish regiment Finnish regiment defends
1) forward posts (mission: prevent recon & delay attack)
2) forward strongpoints (in key terrain points)
3) The front-line of the "Main defense line"
4) front-line company reserve
5) barrier line (to contain a breakthrough)
6) battalion reserve on the support line (company)
7) artillery support groups (battalion)
8) regimental reserve (battalion)
9) general artillery support group (as needed)

Soviet division attacks
1) supporting tank group (supports Attack Group battalions)
2) Attack Group battalions (with artillery sub-support groups, regiments side by side, battalions deployed in 2 or 3 echelons)
3) Long-range tank group (advances to enemy rear)
4) The Support Group (engages the enemy)
5) divisional reserve (one battalion)
6) artillery attack-support group (supports attacking regiments)
7) Long-range artillery support group (targets: counter battery fire, enemy reserves, HQ's, road junctions, AA-positions, destroys enemy fortifications)

Finnish division vs. Soviet regiment Soviet regiment defends
1) the sapper - chemical obstacle area (small infantry detachments with artillery support, max. 12 km from the MDF)
2) Security zone (channels enemy advances & deceives)
3) The main defense line (MDF, see 1) above)
4) Battalion defense perimeter (all around defense, width 1,5 - 2,5 km, depth 1,5 - 2 km, no gap between perimeters)
5) artillery support (battalion)
6) Regiment defense zone (width 3 - 5 km, depth 2,5 - 3 km)
7) Attack group (attacks any breakthrough or weakened enemy)
8) Artillery support group (as needed)
9) Long-range support group (counter battery and counter preparation fire, barrages on advancing enemy)

Finnish division attacks
1) the combat elements of the attacking regiment
2) reserve of the attacking regiment
3) artillery support groups
4) regiment engaging enemy (one battalion on reserve)
5) divisional reserve (one regiment, advances through the breach in the defenses or strengthens the attack)
6) general support group (as needed)


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The unique characteristic of the Red Army
-the political officers-


What was truly unique for the Red Army, was "the political work, ensuring the effectiveness of the troops".
This was performed mainly by a special political officer, the "commissar", but also every commander was expected to participate also.

The goal of this work was:
- to strengthen and raise the spirit and fighting ability of the Red Army, and to gather it's soldiers into a tight group around the Party of Lenin and Stalin, and the government of the Republic of Soviet Socialistic States
- to increase the patriotism in every commander, leader and soldier of the Red Army and teach them to always be ready to do their sacred duty of defending the State
- to strengthen discipline, courage, self-sacrifice, initiative and determination in every soldier, leader and commander, make them unfailing in battle and ready to endure all hardship in combat.

"The political officers were to be always, everywhere and in everything, be the models of strong political knowledge, enlightenment, discipline, firmness, courage, initiative and determination. It was also their duty to supervise the flow of supplies, the well-being of the men, the flow of the mail, prevent espionage and rumors etc. They were also responsible to provide the men entertainment shows, where the own stars of the Red Army, musicians and dancers would perform".
Also, to a certain degree, "political work should be done among captured Prisoners of War".

Additional information

In addition to their political propaganda role commissars were authorized to interfere in commanding troops. While controlling the loyalty of commanders they had the authority to change or even cancel the commanders orders.

A commander could simply be arrested after a commissar's denunciation. Such situation came from the Civil War in Russia of 1918-1921 when Red commissars sometimes shot Red commanders without a trial for a true or supposed disloyalty to the Soviet power. Same type of executions took place in the Red Army both in the Winter War and in the Great Patriotic War. The example of commissars was followed by officers of the Peoples' Commissariat of Home Affairs (the Russian contraction is NKVD) and counter-intelligence officers.

As an example, in the Great Motti of Kitilä in December 1939 a counter-intelligence officer shot the commander of the 1st Battalion/34th Tank Brigade, 56th Rifle Corps, Captain Ryazanov as "a coward and a panic-monger". The level of guilt of the Captain had indeed been formidable: he had offered to break out to friendly lines instead of waiting for the Finns the eliminate the motti.

The control of the commissars, a constant threat to be arrested or executed, hung over the Red Army commanders as the sword of Damocles and greatly suppressed their initiative. This in its turn led often to poor performance, bitter defeats and terrible casualties.

1. Sovietsko-finskaya voyna 1939-1940 (Soviet-Finnish War 1939-1940) (which I have referred to before).
2. Uniforma Krasnoy Armii i vermahta (The Uniform of the Red Army and the Wehrmacht) P.B. Lipatov, 1995, Moscow, Tekhnika - Molodezhi Publishers

Information provided by:
Andrey Sysa
St. Petersburg, Russia

(According to the Decree of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR of 9th October 1942 the institute of the political officers was abolished and an undivided authority of the army commanders was at last restored. The commissars returned to their direct duties - political propaganda. It is remarkable that hence the Red Army had no major defeats or retreats.)


For more detailed information:

Go to Finnish tactics

Finnish tactics

Go to Soviet tactics

Soviet tactics


Special articles:

The Motti's

Finnish antitank units and tactics


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