October-December 1939: The Not-so-Phoney War at Sea & in Poland and Finland.   Leave a comment

HMS_Royal_Oak_(08) (1)

Above: HMS Royal Oak at anchor in 1937

The Royal Oak & the Graf Spee; Orkney to Montevideo:

Eighty years ago, On 14 October 1939, HMS Royal Oak was anchored at Scapa Flow in Orkney, Scotland, when she was torpedoed by Lieutenant-Commander Günther Prien’s submarine U-47. It got through a fifty-foot gap in the defences of Scapa Flow and fired seven torpedoes at the 29,000-ton battleship, of which three hit the ship, capsizing it. After the sinking of HMS Courageous the previous month, this was an almost equally spectacular symbolic success for the Kriegsmarine. Of Royal Oaks complement of 1,234 men and boys, 835 were killed, 810 in only thirteen minutes that night, the others dying later of their wounds.  While the loss of the outdated ship, the first of the five Royal Navy battleships and battlecruisers sunk in the Second World War, did little to affect the numerical superiority enjoyed by the British navy and its Allies, the sinking had a considerable effect on wartime morale. The raid made an immediate celebrity and war hero out of Günther Prien, who became the first German submarine officer to be awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. Before the sinking of Royal Oak, the Royal Navy had considered the naval base at Scapa Flow impregnable to submarine attack, and U-47s raid demonstrated that the German Navy was capable of bringing the war to British home waters. The shock resulted in rapid changes to dockland security and the construction of the Churchill Barriers around Scapa Flow.

002 (2)One task of the U-boats was to place magnetic mines in the sea-lanes around the British Isles; this could be done by low-flying Heinkel He-IIIS and by E-boats (motor torpedo boats, shown in the painting on the right) and destroyers. Lacking a large surface fleet, the German Navy used small vessels for fast hit-and-run attacks.

By the end of November, these had sunk twenty-nine British ships, including the destroyer HMS Gipsy and had also put the brand-new cruiser HMS Belfast out of action for three years. Through the immense bravery of bomb-disposal experts Lieutenant-Commanders R C Lewis and J. G. D. Ouvry, who removed the two detonators, one of which was ticking audibly, from a mine spotted in the Thames Estuary, the secrets of the steel-hull activated device were discovered. Within a month, Admiralty scientists had discovered ways of counteracting the mines by fitting electric cables around ships’ hulls, to create a negative magnetic, or ‘degaussed’ field. Soon afterwards a means of blowing up the mines, using wooden-hulled trawlers towing buoyant electrical cables, was also invented.


The map above shows the early stages of the Battle of the Atlantic, from 1939 to 1941, with the green line showing the areas of severe U-boat impact. While in the U-boat Germany had deployed a potentially war-winning weapon and it also had three purpose-built ‘pocket-battleship’ commerce raiders and two powerful modern battleships, the Bismarck and the Tirpitz, launched early in the war, there were always too few to challenge the Royal Navy directly. Instead, as in the First World War, Germany was once again made use of its limited naval resources to attack Britain’s sea communications. Its formidable capital ships were used as raiders against British commerce. Tracking down and destroying these threats severely stretched British resources. It was the spotting, disabling and forced scuttling of the German pocket battleship the Admiral Graf Spee that was the RN’s greatest victory during the so-called Phoney War. Operating off South American coast, Captain Hans Lansdorff’s ship had enjoyed considerable success at the beginning of the war, sinking ten ships totalling more than fifty thousand tons. The term ‘pocket’ battleship is somewhat misleading, however, since although a limit of ten thousand tons had been imposed on German warships by the Treaty of Versailles, once the Graf Spee was loaded up with her six eight-inch, eight 5.9-inch and six 4.1-inch guns, as well as ammunition and stores, she weighed more than half as much again.

In the Battle of the River Plate on 13 December, off the coast of Uruguay, the German ship took on the eight-inch guns of the cruiser HMS Exeter, along with the six-inch guns of the light cruisers HMS Ajax and the New Zealander-crewed HMS Achilles, badly damaging the first two ships. However, she was eventually outfought by the three British cruisers and was forced into the harbour of Montevideo, capital of neutral Uruguay, on 15 December by the pounding she had received. Langsdorff then magnanimously released the Allied sailors he captured from ships he had sunk, who reported they had been well-treated. Then, mistakenly trusting to BBC radio broadcasts about the imminent arrival of the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and the battlecruiser HMS Renown, and unable to hire a small plane to see whether this was in fact so, Langsdorff then sailed the Graf Spee to the entrance of Montevideo  harbour just before dusk on Sunday, 17 December and scuttled her. The explosions were watched by over twenty thousand spectators on the shore and heard on the radio by millions around the world. In fact, only the cruiser HMS Cumberland had managed to reach Montevideo; the BBC had patriotically participated in releasing a giant ‘fake news’ story. Five days later, Langsdorff shot himself.

Back to Europe: Poland, the Baltic States & Finland:


Meanwhile, in Poland, by 5 October, resistance to the Nazi-Soviet Pact forces had ended; 217,000 Polish soldiers taken captive by Soviets, 619,000 by Germans; up to 100,000 escaped via Lithuania, Hungary and Romania to join Free Polish forces under General Wladyslaw Sikorski, Prime Minister in exile in Angers, France. Seventy thousand Polish soldiers and twenty-five thousand civilians had been killed, and 130,000 soldiers lay wounded. A hundred thousand Poles in the Russian ‘sector’ were arrested by the NKVD and sent to concentration camps, from which hardly any returned. Adolf Hitler travelled to Warsaw by special train to visit victorious troops. Then, on 10 October, Admiral Erich Raeder urged Hitler to consider invading Norway as a way of protecting the transportation of iron ore from northern Sweden to Germany and establishing U-boat stations along the fjords, especially at Trondheim. Hitler ordered the OKW to start planning for an invasion in January 1940. At that point, Hitler did not want to divert troops from the attack he was planning in the west and was persuaded to do so only by signs that the Allies were planning to invade Norway themselves, possibly using aid for Finland as a cloak for their actions.

Both the Nazi-Soviet Pact and its coda in Moscow the following month had given Stalin a completely free hand in the north, and he moved swiftly to capitalise on it. Because of Guderian’s advance to Brest-Litovsk, the Germans had ended up with rather more of Poland than their agreement with Stalin entitled them to. However, Stalin did not complain about this, but merely indicated that, as compensation, he would like Lithuania added to the Soviet ‘sphere of interest’. Hitler agreed and by the end of the year there were Red Army units in all three of the Baltic republics. There were also Russian troops in Finland, though only just. Hoping to protect Leningrad against any future German attack, Stalin tried to turn the Gulf of Finland into a Soviet seaway, even though its northern shore was Finnish and most of its southern shore Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian. These Baltic states, although independent since the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk were bullied into agreements that allowed the Red Army to be stationed on their territory.

Finland, however, was another matter, even though it had a tiny fraction of Russia’s population and an eight-hundred hundred-mile border with her. Stalin and the Soviet leadership coveted the eastern portion of Finland not just because they feared that Leningrad might be vulnerable to attack, but because they wanted a port on the Baltic Sea. Although the Russian Empire had previously ruled Finland as a Duchy, to the rest of the world the Soviet Union’s declared ambitions seemed like aggressive aggrandisement after their capture of eastern Poland. In this case, there could be no pretence of moving into Finland to help out their neighbours. In October, when it became clear what Soviet intentions were, British policy was confused. In spite of the Nazi-Soviet attack, the British had been trying to negotiate a trade agreement with the Soviet Union in order to acquire much-needed timber, and there was still a view that Stalin should not be confronted unnecessarily. Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, even went as far as to tell the Cabinet, on 16 October, that it was in British interests that the USSR should increase their strength in the Baltic, thereby limiting the risk of German domination in that area. But rewarding the USSR’s aggression also presented obvious dangers in northern Europe, not least that the whole of Scandinavia might then be at risk of Soviet domination. There was also a lingering sense of moral duty at stake as well and the aptly named Mr Snow, the British minister in Helsinki, commented in a despatch of 21 October on the potential for Soviet occupation of Finland that:

I assume condonation of so cold-blooded a crime to be out of the question on the part of protagonists (Britain and France) in the idealist war against aggression and that, in view of earlier Soviet treachery, a complete breach with the Soviet government would command nation-wide support, while condonation would not only involve our profession in complete discredit in Scandinavia and elsewhere burt also at home and in our hearts as well.

Snow went on to conclude that, in the event of a Soviet invasion of Finland, the choice for the British would be between a breach of diplomatic relations with Russia or a declaration of war. Snow’s despatch was in stark contrast to the more pragmatic views expressed by his Foreign Office colleagues over the question of the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland. It is an important historical document because it demonstrates that there was a genuine belief among British diplomats that this was an ‘idealist war against aggression’ which was not confined to romantics outside the corridors of power in Whitehall. Meanwhile, Stalin had summoned the Finns to Moscow to be presented with Soviet demands. They sent the leader of the Social Democratic Party, Vainö Tanner, who was described as being tough, tactless, stubborn and frequently bloody-minded. Meanwhile, they mobilised. Stalin and Molotov wanted a thirty-year lease on the naval base of Cape Hanko, the cession of the Arctic port of Petsamo and three small islands in the Gulf, as well as moving back of the frontier on the Karelian Isthmus, which was only twenty miles west of Leningrad. In return for these 1,066 square miles of territory, the Russians were willing to give Finland 2,134 square miles of Russian Karelia around Repola and Porajorpi. On the face of it, the deal did not look unreasonable, but when considered strategically the key nodal points the Soviet leaders were demanding made it clear that Finnish sovereignty would be hopelessly compromised, and the Finns decided to fight rather than submit to the alteration of its frontier.


Source: The Penguin Atlas of World History, volume two. 

The British chiefs of staff were asked to consider the practical question of war with the Soviet Union in the light of the possible Soviet invasion of Finland. Their report lacked the moral fervour of Snow’s despatch, though it acknowledged that:

At present the sincerity of France and Great Britain is being questioned, and force is being added to German propaganda, particularly in Italy and Spain, because we have not declared war on Russia in spite of the fact that that she has already interfered with the liberty of small states in much the same way as Germany … The question thus seems to resolve itself into whether any advantage which might accrue from the support of neutrals, consequent upon a stand by us against Russian aggression, will outweigh the the disadvantage which we should incur by the undoubted increase in our military commitments and by the probability that we should weld Germany and Russia more firmly together. … we and France are at present in no position to undertake additional burdens.

However, it concluded, ‘if’ the War Cabinet decided Britain should make a stand, it was important to choose ‘the right moment’, for example when the vital iron ore deposits of Sweden were under threat. 

The Soviet Suppression of Eastern Poland:


Meanwhile, on 26 October, Poland was handed over to civilian administration, by which time 531 towns and villages had been burnt by the German Army, killing thousands of POWs. Secure in the knowledge that the Western Allies would do nothing in practical terms to prevent them benefiting from their aggression, the Soviet authorities moved quickly to consolidate their control over the population of eastern Poland. A crucial part of the process of repression was a sham pretence of democracy, with the first ‘elections’ held as early as 22 October. Only candidates approved of by the Soviets could stand for election – and in some cases that meant there was no choice at all. The Soviet authorities often deliberately selected potential candidates from ill-educated, often illiterate peasants. Another crucial part of enforcing change was the systematic destruction of the old educational system. Those teachers who managed to keep their jobs in the new system were required to instruct their pupils in a variety of previously alien ideas – speaking out against the Catholic Church and in favour of Stalin and Communism. And behind this reversal of the previous belief system was the ever-present sense of threat. But the Soviet authorities didn’t just rely on fear to transform the Polish educational system; they also used incentives. The Polish General Anders learnt of one technique that the Soviets used to make the children understand that their world had changed:

A Bolshevik commission… visited a school for small children, most of whom were hungry owing to the shortage of food. “You are used to saying prayers,” said the Russians. “Now pray to your God to give you some bread.” The children were then made to pray. A long pause – “You see, you get nothing. Now ask the great Stalin for the same thing.” Almost immediately tea, sandwiches and sweets were brought into the classroom. “Now you see who is the better and the more powerful.”

Hand-in-hand that autumn with this attempt to ‘re-educate’ the population of eastern Poland went close cooperation with the Germans in the form of the practical work of the German-Soviet border committee. This group had been set up after the 27 September meeting between Ribbentrop and the Soviets and charged with the task of formalising the precise route of the boundary between the two states. At the end of October, all the various sub-committees were gathered in German-occupied Warsaw to receive instructions. This meeting, hosted by the German Ambassador, was (wrote Andor Hencke in 1945) …

… the first opportunity since the change of policy to return the hospitality of the Russians had extended to us. On the Reich Foreign Minister’s express orders, special emphasis was placed on making the two-day stay of the Soviet officials … as pleasant as was possible in the Polish capital.

Hans Frank, recently appointed Nazi ruler of this part of German-occupied Poland, even hosted a luncheon party for the Soviet delegation. In his speech to the committee, Frank expressed ‘delight’ that one of his first tasks as governer-general was to welcome the Soviets. He added that the committee shared the aim of restoring peaceable day-to-day life to the (former) Polish territory, on whom the blind Polish government had inflicted incredible misery. The head of the Soviet delegation, Alexandrov, replied by saying that the spirit in which these negotiations had been conducted was one of cooperation for the benefit of the German and Soviet nations, the two greatest peoples in Europe. Frank was eventually executed for the war crimes he committed in Poland. Meanwhile, in eastern Poland, the process of ‘Sovietisation’ continued at the national level as the delegates who had been ‘elected’ immediately requested that the territories captured by the Red Army be ‘incorporated’ into the Soviet Union. The Supreme Soviet soon agreed to this request and, on 28 November, all the inhabitants of eastern Poland duly became Soviet citizens whether they liked it or not. Going hand-in-glove with radical administrative change was the terror. Altogether, between September 1939 and June 1941, around eleven thousand people were arrested.

Winter Warfare & the ‘White Death’ in Finland:


Also on 28 November, the USSR abrogated its 1932 non-aggression treaty with Finland, and two days later, with the British still not certain about what their policy should be, the Soviets began an invasion of another of their neighbouring countries. With 1.2 million men and without a declaration of war, they commenced bombing Helsinki as the prelude to a bitter 105-day struggle. The Red Army commanders assumed that they would have a quick victory, as in eastern Poland. They planned on the war lasting a mere twelve days, and the general assumption amongst the Western Allies had been that the Red Army – with nearly a three-to-one advantage in troops – would make short work of the Finns. But what had worked for them in eastern Poland, pretending that they had only moved into this territory to ‘help’ the local population, was not about to work in Finland. The Russians had 1,500 tanks and 3,000 aircraft. The Finns had ten divisions, only thirty-six pre-World War I artillery pieces per division, and a few aircraft.

The Soviet commanders divided their attack into four parts: the Seventh and Thirteenth Armies would smash through the Finnish defences on the Karelian Isthmus known as the Mannerheim Line and capture Viipuri (Viborg), the second city of Finland. Meanwhile, the Eighth Army would march around the northern shore of Lake Lagoda to fall on Viipuri from the north. The Ninth Army would attack the waist of Finland, slicing it in two, and in the far north, the Fourteenth Army would capture Pertsamo and Nautsi, cutting the country off from the Arctic Sea. The comprehensiveness of the plan has been described by one military historian as imaginative, flexible and totally unrealistic. By contrast, as one historian has noted, the Finns lacked everything except courage and discipline. Mikhail Timoshenko, a soldier in the Red Army’s 44th Ukrainian Division, recalled how effectively the Finns used guerilla tactics against the invading Soviets:

In small groups, of say ten or fifteen men, the Finns were sneaking up to our bonfires, firing short bursts from their machine-guns and then immediately running away again … when we sent out men to follow the tracks that we’d observed in the snow, they didn’t return. The Finns lay in wait for them and killed them all in ambush. We realised that it simply wasn’t possible to wage war against the Finns … personally I thought there had been some kind of misunderstanding – the decision made no sense to me. Why had they sent our division where there was no enemy, when it was so dreadfully cold? When people were freezing to death? 

Only one in eight of Timoshenko’s regiment of four thousand left Finland unharmed. Ordered in by Stalin, most of them had been disposed of by spirited Finnish counter-attacks. Not until February 1940 did the Red Army prove able to bludgeon its way forward to the line wanted. In response to the invasion, there was widespread outrage in Britain and France at the way the Soviet Union had exploited their ‘non-aggression’ pact with Germany to attack Finland. During the Russo-Finnish War, anti-Russian feeling ran so high Britain and France considered sending a joint expeditionary force to the aid of the Finns. Unlike its successful propaganda campaign to confuse the West about its motives for occupying eastern Poland, there was no obvious moral justification for the outright invasion of Finland and it now became clear to western eyes that there was little difference, if any, between Nazi aggression in Poland and Soviet aggression in Finland. Both were instances of one big country bullying a smaller one. Under pressure from public opinion and still concerned about the potential threat to the rest of Scandinavia, the British government offered some very limited help to the Finns in the form of a dozen Blenheim bombers and a potential loan of half a million pounds.

It soon became clear, however, that the Finns would not be able to hold out against the Red Army for any significant length of time. The reason why they were causing the invaders so many problems in the early months of the campaign was primarily the weather, and that would soon change. The British assessment was that once the snows melted in the spring the Red Army’s immense manpower superiority would soon tell. As a result, the chiefs of the general staff were once again called upon to consider direct military action in defence of the Finns. But the British government finally decided not to mount a full-scale expedition, which could only have been deployed with the consent of the Norwegians and the Swedes, which was refused, but the fact that it was mooted at all started people thinking. In the event, several hundred British volunteers, passionately opposed to the Soviet aggression, did travel to Finland to fight alongside the Finns. Britain was not prepared to fight, as Mr Snow had put it, an idealist war against aggression. Only when British self-interest was threatened, in the form of Swedish iron ore deposits, did opening up the war in Scandinavia take on a moral dimension. Three-quarters of Germany’s iron ore came from northern Scandinavia; if the allies could get hold of  this by controlling this region, Germany would be starved of a vital resource. Both sides saw this at much the same time, but as usual it was Hitler who moved first the following Spring.

By then, the autumn and winter events in both Poland and Finland had demonstrated the continuing diplomatic impotence of Britain and France, with many in their populations concluding that the appeasing spirit of the thirties had not yet been entirely expunged from their governments’ souls, and the Norway campaign was to represent a definite defeat and a turning point for the Western powers in this respect. Grand Admiral Erich Raeder urged Hitler on 10 October to consider invading Norway as a way of protecting the transportation of iron ore from the Gallivere mines in northern Sweden to Germany, establishing U-boat bases along the fjords, especially at Trondheim. Hitler ordered the OKW to start planning for an invasion in late January 1940. At that point Hitler didn’t want to divert troops from the attack he was planning in the west, however, and was persuaded to do so only by signs that the Allies were planning to invade Norway themselves, possibly using aid for Finland as a cloak for this.

Although the Fourteenth Army took its objectives in the first ten days, nothing else went right for the Russians for the next two months. The Seventh Army, comprising twelve divisions, three tank brigades and a mechanised corps, could not break through, gun emplacements, anti-tank ‘dragons’ teeth’ and well-camouflaged pillboxes of the Mannerheim Line, which was fiercely defended. The frozen ground was so hard that the Red Army occasionally to use dynamite to move enough earth to build makeshift trenches. Even though the Finns had never faced tanks before, and were woefully under-equipped with anti-tank weapons, they devised makeshift ways of stopping the Red Army’s advance, including, ironically, enough, ‘Molotov cocktails’. This proved easier in the early stages when Russian tanks were not supported closely enough by Russian infantry, and in the dark that descended early in the Arctic winter and stayed until late. They also turned the captured weapons on the Red Army’s tanks. The seventy-two-year-old ‘Defender of Finland’ after whom the line was named, Field Marshal Baron Carl von Mannerheim, proved an inspired leader throughout the campaign, keeping his reserves in the south and correctly predicting the Russians’ next moves, possibly because he had been an officer in the Tsarist Army throughout the Great War. Told by Moscow that the Finnish proletariat would welcome them as liberators, the Russian soldiers were shocked when the entire nation seemed to unite behind ‘the defender of Finland’ instead.

It was the five divisions of the Russian Ninth Army in the centre of the country that suffered the most. Although on the map the vast wastes might seem to favour an invader, the many forests and lakes channelled the Russian forces, unfamiliar with the terrain, into a series of ambushes as temperatures dipped to minus-fifty Celsius. The Leningrad-Murmansk railway line had only one siding going off towards the Finnish border, and although the Russians took Salla in central Finland, they were flung back before they reached Kemijarvi. The Finns burnt their own farms and villages, booby-trapped farm animals, and destroyed anything that could provide the Russians with food and shelter. Equipped with skis and local knowledge, they laid land-mines on tracks through the forests, which were, of course, soon covered with snow. Wearing white camouflage uniforms, which the Russian soldiers did not have, the Finns were nicknamed ‘Bielaja Smert’ (‘White death’) by their bewildered enemy. Further south, the Russian 163rd and 44th Divisions were annihilated around the ashes of the village of Suomussalmi in a ferociously brilliant Finnish operation. There, a logging, fishing and hunting community of four thousand people was captured by the 163rd (Tula) Motorised Rifle Division on 9 December, which was then cut off by the Finnish 9th Brigade under Colonel Hjalmar Siilasvuo.


Above: Finnish troops on exercise, in advance of the war against the Soviet Union in the winter of 1939/40. The Finns had initial success against a Red Army that vastly outnumbered and outgunned them.

Because their leaders had assumed an easy victory, many of the Russians had been sent into sub-Arctic Finland in December lacking winter clothes and felt boots, as the Finns discovered by listening to their radio transmissions, which were equally astonishingly sent en clair rather than encode. Freezing, starving and cut off from retreat by the Finnish 9th Brigade for a fortnight, the morale of the 163rd Division broke on Christmas Eve and they fled eastward across the frozen Lake Kiantarjárvi. The Finns bombed the ice sending tanks, horses, men and vehicles into the freezing water. ‘They are still there,’ the Finnish historian of the War has recorded. The Red Army 44th Division that had come to rescue them were within earshot of the debácle but, although hearing their comrades dying, they were not given orders to move. On New Year’s Night, they became the next victims of the White Death, as the barometer again dipped to minus-thirty Celsius. By constantly mortar-bombing their sixty field kitchens at mealtimes, the Finns kept the Russians short of hot food, and when the Russians lit fires the Finns machine-gunned them from the treetops, easily picking out the dark silhouettes of the men against the snow. The standard Red Army rifle, the single-shot bolt-action 7.62mm 1902 Moisin-Nagant, became inoperable in conditions below minus-fifteen Celsius, and armoured vehicles either had to be kept running, at a ruinous expense in fuel, or they would seize up and block the narrow passageways through the forest. General Kurt Wallenius of the Finnish Northern Army declared:

We don’t let them rest; we don’t let them sleep. This is a war of numbers against brains.

Sleep for the 44th was next to impossible because of the vehicle engines, terrified horses, Finnish professional trackers and hunters who made excellent snipers, and even the sharp reports the trees as their very sap froze. Those who resorted to vodka found that, despite the initial sense of warmth, body heat was ultimately lost. The slightest wounds exposed to the air froze and went gangrenous. Frozen corpses were piled up, one on top of the other, as the Finns methodically moved from sector to sector, wiping out Russian resistance. By 5 January, a thousand Russian prisoners had been taken, a further seven hundred soldiers had escaped back to the Russian lines, and over twenty-seven thousand had been killed, all for the loss of nine hundred Finns. As one of his officers remarked to Colonel Siilasvou, the wolves will eat well this winter. The Finns captured 42 tanks, 102 field guns and 300 vehicles at Suomussalmi, as well as thousands of the conical-shaped Red Army hats (budenovka) that they later used in deception operations. The Finns captured more military hardware than they received from outside sources. On 14 December, the USSR was expelled from the League of Nations, which supported Finland’s struggle, and the Western Allies’ Supreme War Council debated sending aid, though by the time they agreed on it (5 February) it was too late.

The loss of the two divisions at Suomussalmi was compounded by the reversals at the Mannerheim Line and the victory of General Paavo Talvela, who destroyed the 139th and 75th Red Army Divisions at Tolvajárvi on Christmas Eve. But the Finns could not follow up these successes for lack of troops and once the snows melted the following March, the Finns military advantage also vanished and their government was forced to make peace with the Soviet Union on slightly worse lines than the Kremlin had demanded in October. This Winter War may have been a small war in a far-away country, but it was nonetheless significant, sending a humiliating message around the globe for the USSR, and affecting Hitler’s decision to invade the USSR in the following year. It demonstrated to members of both the British and German High Command the ineptitude of the Soviet military leadership. The German staff, in particular, concluded that the Soviet ‘mass’ is no match for an army with superior leadership. With hindsight, Mikhail Timoshenko endorsed this view:

The Germans, naturally enough, came to the conclusion that the Red Army was weak. And in many respects they were right.

Conclusion – Learning the Lessons of Poland & Finland:

Hitler, in particular, believed that he had learnt lessons about the performance of the Red Army. Yet they were substantially the wrong ones. Stalin’s purging of the officer corps in 1937 had seriously weakened the Red Army. Yet although the Soviet forces were staggeringly badly led at the start of the Winter War, they learnt quickly. In Finland, the Soviets came to understand the importance of co-ordinating armour, infantry and artillery. However heavy the Russian losses, there were always fresh troops to fling into the struggle. As one Finn put it after the battle of Kuhmo, there were more Russians than we had bullets. When the fighting became purely attritional on the Isthmus, the Finns simply could not carry on bleeding like the Russians could. The Winter War showed that men fought harder when patriotically defending the Soviet motherland than when in attack. This was eventually to apply to the German fatherland as well, but instead of this lesson, Hitler learnt the almost banal one that Stalin had shot a lot of good generals in the late 1930s. He was not the only one, however, as Churchill observed that Finland had exposed for all to see the incapacity of the Red Army.

Meanwhile, all remained quiet on the western front. To most people this inactivity was inexplicable. Western journalists, who had been expecting something like 1914, began writing about the ‘phoney war’ and even Germans remarked on the contrast between the Blitzkrieg in Poland and Sitzkrieg in the west. But whereas the French were deliberately holding back, feeling (at least initially) that the the best form of counter-attack was defence, the German generals had orders from the Führer to attack at the earliest possible moment. Their problem was that they simply couldn’t get the troops ready for the offensive, a replay of the Schlieffen Plan, before May 1940. The sixth-month hiatus on land between the end of the Polish campaign in October 1939 and Hitler’s sudden invasion of Denmark and Norway on 9 April was certainly a period in which there was little going on in the West on land and in the skies, so that the British and French populations were lulled into thinking that the war was not truly a matter of life and death for them in the way it obviously was for the Poles, and their daily existence was carried on substantially as usual, in all its bureaucracy, inefficiency and occasional absurdity. The National Labour MP Harold Nicolson recorded in his war diaries that the Ministry of Information censors had refused to publish the wording of a leaflet, of which two million copies had been dropped over Germany, on the grounds that …

We are not allowed to disclose information that might be of value to the enemy.


Andrew Roberts (2009), The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War. London: Penguin Books.

Laurence Rees (2008), World War Two: Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, The Nazis and the West. London: BBC Books (Ebury Publishing).

John Swift, et. al. (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

Richard Overy (1996), The Penguin Atlas of the Third Reich. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Colin McEvedy (1982), The Penguin Atlas of Recent History. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

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