What if…? – A Scandinavian Second World War

Finland, a small Nordic country in northern Europe, or Scandinavia as the area is more commonly known. It is bordered by fellow Scandinavian countries to the North and West, Norway and Sweden whilst to the East lies Russia..From the 12th Century until 1809 Finland had been part of the Kingdom of Sweden and served as an ideal battleground for Russian and Swedish Armies. After Russian power rose towards the 19th Century, Finland found itself under control of the Russians, becoming the duchy of Finland within the larger Russian Empire. Following the Russian Civil War and the establishment of the Soviet Union under the Bolsheviks, Finland finally gained its independence in 1917.

Enjoying peace throughout the inter war years, the Finns watched as Germany invaded Poland in 1939, feeling safe around its fellow Scandinavian neighbors who had both declared neutrality. The Soviet Union on the other hand took the opportunity to begin taking back what it had lost during the civil war, and assisted in the invasion of Poland. In the months following, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were absorbed into the Soviet Union. Finland was all that remained.

Facing the might of the Soviet Union the former Russian possessions did not dare take up arms to defend their independence and Stalin had every reason to believe that the Finns would do the same, yet all the Soviet commanders gravely underestimated the Finnish desire for independence and their ability to defend their own country against any invader. In the Winter of 1939 the Soviet Armies crossed the border with the specific intention of establishing a Soviet republic, essentially a puppet government loyal to Moscow. Many Soviet commanders joked that their armies could merely march in and take the country without a fight. Intelligence on Finnish positions were poor, plans were roughly drawn out and the tactics intended to be used by the Soviet troops were crude, simple and defied logic. Soviet soldiers were sent out onto the snow covered fields of Finland wearing dark green overalls, making easy targets of themselves to the Finnish snipers. Formations were not given the necessary equipment to survive out in the open during the harsh Finnish winter, but yet they pushed on past the border.

Finnish soldiers manning the trenches of the Mannerheim Line

As the Russians advanced towards Finnish defensive lines, they soon found themselves woefully under prepared to face the bloody nose they were about to receive from the Finns. The Finns were determined to defend their homeland and fought back tenaciously with what little they had. Whilst the Soviet armies were lavishly supplied with artillery, tanks, planes and machine guns, the Finns had to make every bullet count, and they surely did . Finnish troops out in the forests staged ambushes against Russian supply lines, cutting off huge formations and inflicting heavy casualties leaving the Soviets to freeze to death out in the open. Close to the old Russian capital, St Petersburg, now named Leningrad, machine gun nests, pillboxes and anti tank positions had been constructed to face the heavy onslaught they expected to receive. This line of fortifications was nicknamed the Mannerheim line, named after the Finnish Field Marshall and commander of the Finnish Army Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim.

The Soviets sent wave after wave of soldiers against the defenders, only to be cut down by devastating fire from the Finns. as Days led to weeks the Finns faced tremendous pressure to hold on whilst the Soviets tried effortlessly to break the Finnish lines with infantry and tanks hurled against the Mannerheim line. World opinion flocked in aid of the Finns who valiantly held on against all the odds, yet help did not come as the Finns had hoped. Small amounts of arms came from the Allies, whilst Sweden, Italy and other nations sent volunteers to fight against the Soviets.

Russian soldiers in their dark uniforms standing out against the snow in Finland

In the West the allies debated what assistance they could offer. With common sense the allies knew it was only a matter of time until the Finns would have to concede, unless of course they were reinforced with an allied army. But the allies already faced a war with Germany. The French administration, whose public had reluctantly agreed to go to war with Germany, saw an opportunity to garner public opinion in favor of the war in the form of helping Finland defend itself and setting upon an anti communist crusade against the Soviet Union. The French and British began to form a plan which, if used, would have surely changed the Second World War making it a Scandinavian war, rather than a continental European war.

The Allies had different aims in their thinking, yet they both came to the same conclusion. The French wanted to fight, but not on French soil. Following the destruction of Flanders during 1914-1918 the French wanted to fight the Germans as far away from France as possible and so Scandinavia started to become an attractive option. But why would the Germans get involved in Scandinavia when it was the Russians that the Finns were fighting? That’s where the British view came in. During the First World War the British had imposed an economic blockade on Germany which was largely successful and so it wanted to repeat this again in 1939, but Germany managed to get some supplies from the Soviet Union, whilst a large amount of its iron ore, essential for building machines of war such as guns, tanks and planes, came from Sweden, the country neighboring Finland. So the allies devised a plan where a joint Anglo-French army would land in Norway, march through Sweden, passing by the iron ore mines and coincidentally setting up defensive positions stopping the flow of iron ore, and then send troops into Finland. The allies knew they would be violating the neutrality of Sweden and Norway, but they wanted to defeat Germany as quickly as possible, and they hardly had any other ideas for defeating the Nazis, but if they crippled the war industry, Germany may be forced to the negotiating table.

Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim – Commander of the Finnish army

The allies knew the Germans would respond in force in order to keep the supplies flowing and so they were willing to sacrifice Sweden and Norway in order to defeat the Germans. As Soviet forces began to break Finnish lines, they flirted with peace agreements with the Soviets whilst the British, and particularly the French, begged the Finns not to make peace, that an army would soon be reaching them to fight the Soviets. But the allies were playing Finland in order to give them more time to make a decision. Promises were made to Finland which were little more than lies. Even in the plans drawn up, only a small insignificant portion of troops would have been sent to Finland, the rest would have been kept in Norway and Sweden, Finland on the other hand would have been left to face the Soviets more or less alone.

Thankfully before this plan was ever carried out the Finns sued for peace with the Soviets, sacrificing portions of territory, but most importantly retaining its independence and right to choose its own government. Upon hearing the calls for peace from Finland, the French almost declared war outright on the Soviet Union, but calmer heads were able to keep the French prime minister from doing so.

So, imagine what if the French and British had invaded? well Scandinavia would have most definitely suffered similar destruction caused to Western Russia and Germany after the Second World War was over. The dictators, Stalin and Hitler, would surely have worked together, replicating the Polish model of invasion, to take the Scandinavian countries under their grasp while the allies would have suffered possibly yet another set back. It is very unlikely that the allies would have ever achieved success in the plan and may possibly have made things worse by declaring war on the Soviet Union as well, facing an almost impossible situation. Let us just be thankful that Finland was able to remain independent at the expense of some territory to heal the battled ego of the Soviets. It was a cruel twist of fate that Finland would later invade the Soviet Union in 1941 along with the Nazis in order to take back this land lost, yet even when the tide turned in the Soviets favor, they were still able to negotiate a peace and remain independent, remaining so to this day.

Written By Jonny Morris

Germans in Norway, this could have been Sweden as well had the Allies intervened

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