“Winter War miracle” – Finland marks 80th anniversary of brutal conflict with the Soviet Union

Finland and Russia lost tens of thousands of military personnel and civilians in the short brutal war - and organisations caring for veterans are looking for ways to keep the Winter War spirit alive.

File picture of Lightbringer Winter War Memorial in Helsinki / Credit: News Now Finland

Finland is marking the 80th anniversary of the start of the Winter War on 30th November 1939.

The conflict began when the Soviet Union attacked Finland without a declaration of war, sparking 105 days of fierce fighting which left tens of thousands dead, wounded and captured on both sides – although the Russians suffered the heaviest losses by far at the hands of Finnish forces.

This weekend wreaths will be laid, and a candle lit for every day of the war, at the National Memorial to the Winter War – Lightbringer – in Helsinki’s Kasarmintori Square.

There are hundreds of men and women still alive today who took part in the Winter War, and thousands more who participated in the other two conflicts which proceeded it during the time of World War Two: the Continuation War of 1941 to 1944; and the Lapland War of autumn 1944.

Troops on the march, Lappeenranta, 19th December 1939 / Credit: SA-Kuva

“I’m quite sure this will be the last kind of milestone anniversaries, we have them every ten years and next time for the 90th anniversary I don’t think we’ll have any war vets from the Winter War left” says Sakari Martimo from the Military Veterans Foundation, one of three organisations representing the interests and welfare of Finland’s war veterans.

Although the number of surviving Winter War veterans is dwindling, with just 700 to 1000 left, the last Finnish war veterans from the WWII era are expected to live until 2036, and Martimo explains the reason why.

“When the Lapland War against Germany broke out, we had to take care of all the cows and horses and evacuate them to the south. This task was given to children of school age, 10 and 12 years old. Since they were officially working for the Finnish Defence Forces, and in an area of operations, they were also entitled to have this status of war veteran” he says.

Troops laying mines in the road at Summa, 14th December 1939 / Credit: SA-Kuva

The Winter War miracle 

The Winter War came just 20 years after the bitter divisions of Finland’s Civil War, but the country pulled together when faced with a common enemy from the east.

Sakari Martimo describes this as the ‘Winter War miracle’.

“Although we were really poor and our military was really poorly equipped, we were able to repel the attacker. That’s the thing we call the miracle of the Winter War” he tells News Now Finland.

A national sense of unity, and cohesion of purpose, saw the Finns through the most serious external threat the young had ever faced.

“If you put all the resources the Soviet Union had and the very small resources we had, they would have given us five days, seven days, one week and we would have been overwhelmed. But it took roughly four months and the Soviets were not able to overrun Finland, because of the national spirit. And that’s why we call a miracle – the culmination of the narrative of the Finnish nation” Martimo, himself a former career military officer, explains.

Battalion commander Captain Ahde gives instructions to a patrol in Kollaanjoki (now part of Russia) 1st January 1940 / Credit: SA-Kuva

Looking to the future

While the primary task of the organisations looking out for the welfare of veterans and their spouses is to do what they can to support those still alive, they’re already looking to the future.

The next objective is to educate younger generations and keep the spirit and memory of the veterans alive.

“We have to talk more about the tradition of this war, so we won’t have any kind of gap. So we will end the first task” of caring for the veterans and their widows or spouses “and then start the new task” says Martimo.

“The same generation that fought three wars, they rebuilt Finland. Cities were bombed. We had a lot of wounded people, dead people, and that same generation was able to bring us back to normal life” he says.

“We are really grateful for that generation and that’s why we really want to praise them and keep the fire under the kettle, not to forget them.”

Lotta Svärd Women’s Auxilliary Corps volunteers at Air Surveillance Centre in Sortavala (now in Russia) / 7th January 1940 / Credit: SA-Kuva

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