The Finnish Motti is an excellent example of distributed operations. It was the most famous tactic of the Finnish-Soviet Winter War of 1939. Finnish light infantry encircled vastly larger numbers of Soviet troops on narrow roads, cut them into isolated pockets, and destroyed them one unit at a time.
The Soviets won a pyrrhic victory in the Winter War after overwhelming the Finns through sheer numbers. Even still, the Finns fought so well that the Soviet victory was marginal. The Finns saved their sovereign and independent government through military ingenuity. The Soviets suffered at least 400,000 casualties, compared to the 20,000 Finnish dead.
After independence from Russia 1918, Finland’s revolution turned into a civil war between the Reds and Whites. The Whites, led by General Mannerheim defeated the communists and established a democratic republic. Mannerheim would later led the Finns in the Winter War and Continuation War from 1939 to 1945.
In the 1930s, fearing the threat of the Stalinist USSR, the Finns fortified the Karelian Isthmus, which was a natural chokepoint between Lake Ladoga and the Baltic Sea. This was dubbed the Mannerheim Line and Russian forces needed to pass through the isthmus to invade. The longer northern border was densely forested and frozen over during the winter months.
The defensive line consisted of trenches, machine gun nests, and some 100 concrete and earthen bunkers of various quality. Some where called million bunkers, due to their expensive costs. But the Finns mostly used natural terrain, earth, lumber and camouflage. The defense was more mobile and flexible than a traditional fortified line like the more famous French Maginot Line. Their heaviest artillery was in the coastal batteries to fend off a naval invasion on the Baltic flank.
The Finns believed the ithmus was the only serious invasion route. The lands north of the Lake Ladoga had few roads and was heavily forested.
In 1939, the Soviet Union and Nazi German signed a non-aggression pact and divided Poland in September. A month later, Stalin demanded that Finland surrender key territories to the USSR. The Finns refused. On November 30th, 1939, the Soviet Union invaded Finland and began the Winter War. The Soviets formed the communist puppet regime called the “Terijoki Government” and refused to recognize the ruling Finnish republic.
The Soviets initially attacked with 23 Divisions (roughly half a million men), which included substantial numbers of tanks and mechanized equipment. Ultimately, the USSR attacked with more than 1 million soldiers. An industrialized country of 171 million invaded a small unindustrial rural country of 3 million.
The professional Finnish military was very small and called upon a large number of reservists to serve as light infantry. Most Finns still lived in the countryside, and were skilled with rifles, winter survival tactics, skiing, and knew the local countryside. The Finnish military called up 180,000 soldiers, but they were underequipped and had little artillery, armor, or aircraft. For logistics, the Finns mostly used horses and required their militiamen to supply their own weapons, clothing, and food. Lacking anti-tank guns, Finns used Molotov cocktails to disable tanks and other vehicles.
The Soviet Union was widely condemned in the attack and many foreign countries offered rhetorical support for Finland. The Swedes and Norwegians sent a considerable amount of supplies and almost 10,000 volunteers despite their countries formal neutrality.
The Soviets sent a massive invasion force North of Lake Ladoga to bypass the Mannerheim Line and encircle the Finnish Defenders. The Soviets were unable to cross the Kollaa in the North and had great difficulty breaking the fortified Mannerheim Line in the South. The war came to a bloody stalemate, as the Soviets only breached the line after four months, just as the peace treaty was signed. The Soviet northern attack routes were stopped by the Finnish defense in depth in the northern forests.
The Finns held out against absurd odds for 105 days until both sides signed a peace treaty.
The terrain in rural Finland consists of dense forests, which are covered in deep snow during the winter. The Finns used white camouflage and many fought as ski troops to quickly move around the difficult terrain. The Soviets were largely confined to narrow dirt roads.
The Finns ambushed the Russians on the roads with double envelopments. The Finns encircled the Soviets and subdivided them into isolated pockets, which were destroyed individually. The Soviets rarely broke out of these traps.
Finnish harassment attacks mixed guerrilla warfare with decisive battle. Once a Soviet unit was trapped, Finnish infantry would search for gaps in the Soviet line and created salients to penetrate and divide Soviet formations. The Soviets were initially confused, unable to reinforce neighboring units, and were systemically destroyed.
The Soviet 163rd Division, equipped with an armored brigade, captured the town of Suomussalmi on December 7th. They intended to advance to the city of Oulu and cut Finland in half. Units from the Finnish 9th Division, with some 11,000 men stopped the Soviet offensive, routing the163rd Division and destroying the 44th Rifle Division (a total of some ~50,000 troops). The Soviets lost over 25,000 dead compared to 450 dead Finns.
In December, the Finns routed the 163rd Division and recaptured the town of Suomussalmi. By the end of December The Russians sent the 44th Ukrainian Rifle Division and the 3rd NKVD Regiment to reinforce the beleaguered 163rd.
In January, The 44th advanced down the Raate Road and were stretched out and poorly organized. They were not able to scout the forested flanks and were bogged down in the poor weather and deep snow.
A detachment of 300 Finns ambushed the lead elements and halted the entire column. The Finns used mines, roadblocks, ambushes, and snipers to isolate the Soviet division into six isolated segments. The 6,000 Finnish light infantry destroyed the 25,000 men of the 44th Rifle Division in detail. The Soviets lost over 20,000 men compared to 250 Finns killed.
The Finns took their time, keeping the Soviets trapped. Each of the four major Finnish squadrons held vital chokepoints (such as bridges) to prevent Soviet movement. Most of the Finns covered the rear to prevent Soviet resupply, reinforcements, or retreat.
The Finns used unorthodox tactics to break Soviet units. They targeted field kitchens as their number one target. Without supplies and hot food, many of the Ukrainians died of starvation and hypothermia. Most were too weakened to put up major resistance as the days went by. Every night, Finnish ski troops, operating in pairs, would raid the Soviets. The ski troops would blind the Soviets with lights, spray sub-machine gun fire and hit them with grenades before disappearing into the black forest. Sniper teams massacred Soviet Officers and Noncoms early in the battle leaving many Soviet units without leadership. Snipers often targeted men near campfires, making the cold weather conditions even harsher on the Soviets. The Finns mopped up the bands of Soviet survivors until they were all killed or captured.
The Finns captured much of the 44ths equipment, including tanks, trucks, horses, rifles, field artillery, hundreds of trucks, and provisions. This was immediately redistributed to the poorly equipped Finnish military.
Similar battles were fought on the Kollaa River, as the lone Finnish 12th Division miraculously stood against 12 Soviet Divisions of the 9th and 14th Soviet Armies. Tactically and strategically, the Finns were absurdly outnumbered and outgunned. One battle along the Kollaa at “Killer Hill” saw a single platoon of 32 Finns stand against an entire Soviet regiment of 4,000. The Finns held.
There were many similar battles fought in the Winter War and Continuation War.
The Soviets were unprepared and poorly led. Stalin deliberately used southern Soviet troops, mostly Ukrainians, who were unskilled in winter and dense forest fighting. Stalin, brilliantly, executed most of his capable generals prior to the war and replaced them with political cronies. The Soviet troops over-relied on mechanized equipment which could not maneuver off-road.
The kill ratios are stunning. Amongst many other facts, this war produced the the highest scoring sniper in the history – Simo Häyhä. He made 505 confirmed kills, plus more unconfirmed, with a bolt-action Mosin Nagant M28 rifle. He only used iron sights, as reflections from a scope would have given away his position. Häyhä made his stand at the Kollaa River.
The Russians devastating losses forced them to recognize the sovereignty of the Finnish Government. The threat of a British and French Allied reinforcements for Finland helped secure a reasonably favorable peace treaty. The Allies were not a serious threat to the Soviets in retrospect, but Soviet intelligence was very poor and believed it to be a much more pressing threat.
The Finns sacrificed 10% of their land for peace, surrendering the Karelian Isthmus and Baltic islands. The Soviet destroyed the remaining fortifications on the Mannerheim Line. By bleeding the Russians dry, the Finns prevented the USSR from taking over the entire country.
Later Premier Khrushchev remarked that the USSR lost the war and a million men. He said it was a “moral defeat” for Stalin.