The old Finnish Army
Finland, as a sovereign state, goes back as far as 1809, when it was known as the Grand Duchy of Finland, attached to the Russian Empire but autonomous (and previously part of Sweden). In 1881, it raised its proper army, partly inheriting the military organization of the Swedish Armén. In general, it kept the allotment system (ruotujakolaitos), which was most beneficial to the Russian troops based in the Grand Duchy. Three corps were levied in the Napoleonic Wars, and among these a famous topographic corps which was transformed in 1821 into the cadet officer school. One of the battalions became the Young Guard Battalion. During the Crimean war, nine sharpshooter battalions were levied in case of an allied or Russian invasion.
In 1878, conscription was established, while the Finnish guard (former young guard) intervened in the 1830 November Uprising in Poland and the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, gaining an honorific title of Emperor’s guard in the process. However, during the “oppression years”, ties with the Russian Army were severed and the very unpopular conscription was replaced by a tax. At the turn of the century, whereas the Russian Empire weakened, independent voluntary defence organizations of opposite political sides were secretly created in Finland under the cover of being fire brigades. The liberal/right wing “White Brigade” and the socialist “Red Brigade” will find themselves opposed following the Russian revolution in 1917, leading to the Finnish Civil War and Independence.
The Finns in Word War I
Although Finland remained neutral, activists of the “white brigade” secretly travelled to Germany to be trained as Jaegers (jääkärit). They would prove instrumental, with full support from Germany, after Finland gained its independence in December 1917, when opposed to the Soviet-supported Red Brigade, which were declared illegal by the White government. The civil war raged three months until 15 May 1918, seeing the victory of the white government. In 1919, the Protection Guards became separate from the White Guard, which was then defined as a voluntary (paramilitary) organization, whereas the Finnish Army was officially created, mostly headed by officers that were former Jaegers. Their input was vital in shaping the newly created Finnish Army in the 1920s along the Prussian military tradition and German organization.
The Finnish Army in WW2
The first armored units were created in the 1920s when Finland, outside a few captured ex-Russian armoured cars, purchased 26 Renault FT tanks from France. These formed the first two battalions of tanks. A few were lent early on to the white Russians fighting in the North Western threater. Eventually, the Fins complemented their WWI era FTs with some 26 more modern Vickers-Armstrong 6 ton tanks. They operated within a core of nine field divisions, four brigades and a number of independent battalions. But despite this lack of armor, the Finnish Army had many antitank guns and all its ingenuity was demonstrated during the “Winter War”m when it forged its own legend.
The Winter War (1939)
This conflict earned its name as the Winter War as it was mainly fought between November 1939 and March 1940, in snowy conditions for the most part. It saw the Finnish army reorganized in three corps, one called the Army of the Isthmus, the other posted around the lake Ladoga and the rest in a defensive line from Petsamo to the arctic. Overall command was given to Marshall Mannerheim, who, despite the lack of armor, guns and planes, managed to hold the Soviet giant for several months and finally succumbed to overwhelming forces and exhaustion. Negotiations eventually led to the Moscow Peace Treaty and harsh territorial concessions, including Gulf of Finland islands, the Karelian Isthmus, Ladoga, Karelia, Salla, and the Rybachy Peninsula, plus the lease of the near-island of Hanko for 50 years.
During all these months of unrelenting Soviet attacks, the Finns not only defended themselves but also employed very efficient guerrilla tactics well tailored to the terrain and climate. Despite limited assets, small mobile columns used their superior mobility to surround and attack by surprise sections of advancing Soviet troops, often at night. The Soviet columns were divided into “Motti”, or pockets of resistance, where forced to fight while surrounded, condemn to die from hunger or the cold. Finnish infantry also became proficient in using Molotov cocktails, the most current way to deal with tanks, as well as satchel charges. The other, more conventional way was the AT rifle, largely available and able to deal with the thin armor of most Russian tanks at the time. This war is still a source of awe and fame internationally.
It should be noted that, at the beginning of the war, the Finnish forces had only cartridges, shells, and fuel supplies to last 19–60 days. The extreme variety of origin of these weapons did not help either. But, fortunately, they were able to maintain their store of ammunition and weapons throughout the war thanks to a steady amount of captures from the Soviets. So much so that, at the end of the war, they had more PPSH submachine guns and Mosin Nagant rifles than their own Suomi KP/-31 submachine-guns and Mauser rifles. It should be noted that Finland, which faced a 1/20 ratio in regards to armor, re-established the balance only due to massive captures of Soviet vehicles of all kind, from heavy tanks to armored cars, especially in the Nothern Ladoga area. This process would continue during the Continuation War.
The Continuation War (1941-1944)
Re-armed, re-equipped and fully supported by the German Army, the Finnish army was reorganized to prepare to play its part in “Operation Barbarossa”, mostly in the Karelian sector, where the new Army of Karelia was formed on 29 June 1941. By autumn, it was able to take back the territories lost in 1940 and pushed into Soviet territory. However, in early 1942, the High Command decided to stop all offensives and prepare defensive positions. The Finnish army did not budge from its positions from the Gulf of Finland to Kainuu until the end of 1944. During the initial offensive, Finnish troops were able to capture many Soviet tanks, so much so that almost all types of Soviet AFVs built before 1943 could be seen with the Finnish swastika and the typical three-tone camouflage.
The Lappland war (1944-45)
When it became obvious that Germany was loosing the war, there was a significant change in attitude towards German troop occupying Lappland.
Links & resources
WW2 Finnish Tanks
Finnish Tanks in 1939
Finnish Koiras (14 in service). This was the gun-armed version. The MG armed was named “Naaras”.
Machine-gun armed version of the Renault FT in Finnish service, the Naaras (18 in service). Most were dug in as pillboxes in the defensive lines, negating the mobility and armor issues compared to Russian tanks.
Finnish Vickers Mark E (6-ton). 26 were purchased in 1938, rearmed with the effective Swedish Bofors 37 mm (1.46 in) guns. They only took part in a single action until the very end of the Winter War, in late February 1940. The 4th Armored company was equipped with 15 Vickers and prepared to engage 20 T-28 tanks of the 120th Armored Regiment. However, only five were committed to the fight (four lost vs. eight T-28s armed with low-velocity howitzers), the others never made it into the action due to mechanical breakdowns caused by the cold weather. The remainder were later rearmed with Soviet 45 mm guns and were known as the T-26E and soldiered on in the Continuation War.
List of captured vehicles used during the war
T-26s were the most abundant of all the Soviet tanks and the most captured during the Winter War. 47 were repaired, of which 34 were pressed into service on the front line, mildly appreciated since their engine was more reliable than that of the Vickers model. Some T-26As (twin turreted) and OT-26s were converted with spare 45 mm armed turrets. Their service time was limited and most had been retired at the end of the summer of 1941.
These comparatively rare infantry tanks were also heavily engaged in the Winter War. The few models photographed under Finnish colors had extra protection for the gun mantlet, like this T-28M in winter paint.
This 50-ton monster became operational just before the Continuation War. Some were captured in 1941-42. However, a single prototype was also tested in December 1939 with the 91st Tank Battalion.
Finnish T-34B, Continuation War, 1942.
The most prolific tank of all time was not available before the end of the Winter War. Therefore like the KV-1, almost all were captured in 1941-42. However, some T-34/85s were also captured.
This “fast tank” was the second most current Soviet tank during the Winter War and proved unable to cope with the Finnish terrain and deep snow. Many were captured and some were even transformed into the first and only WW2 Finnish tank, the BT-42. Two were active in the summer of 1941 as the “Christie detachment” or heavy tank battalion (Raskas Panssarijoukkue), which also counted three BT-5s (R-97, 98 and 99).
These “fast tanks” were also captured in some numbers (900 were committed by the Red Army). After September 1941 (when the Christie detachment was disbanded) BTs were no match for the new generation of Soviet tanks. There is no record of captured BT-2s, although some fought in the North Ladoga lake sector. In fact, many more Soviet tanks could have been reused by the Finns, but their fate in the “Mottis” (pockets) prevented that. Indeed they were often dug in in low turret position and the Finns had no efficient towing capabilities, plus most had been already damaged beyond repairs by Molotov cocktails and satchel charges. BTs in general were considered having an even lower technical reliability than T-26s and limited range because of a high fuel consumption. 62 were listed in the Armor Centre repair facility, but only 21 were fully repaired, stockpiled and eventually scrapped.