How The Winter War’s “Ghost Soldiers” Helped Secure World War II For The Allies

Published September 19, 2017
Updated July 14, 2020

The widely overlooked conflict of the Winter War changed world history forever.

Finnish troops with gas while on skis
Frozen body in Winter War
Finnish soldier with Molotov Cocktail
Winter War Tracerfire
How The Winter War’s “Ghost Soldiers” Helped Secure World War II For The Allies
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While few in the West even remember its name, the Winter War launched a chain of events that just might have brought down Hitler, handed the Allies victory during World War II, and thus shaped the last 75 years of world history.

It was 1938 and the Soviet Union sought to bolster their newly-christened city of Leningrad from a possible German attack on the eve of World War II. But there was one little thing that prevented them from creating a wide buffer around the city: the country of Finland.

The USSR then demanded the chunk of Finnish territory along the Gulf of Finland that came closest to Leningrad. Moreover, the Soviets sought to ultimately conquer all of Finland and install a puppet government.

However, committed to neutrality, Finland refused to cede any land. Negotiations continued through 1938. But in 1939, an "unknown party" later revealed to be the Soviets themselves bombed a Soviet guard post near the border, causing four deaths.

Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet Foreign Minister, claimed that Finland was responsible and demanded an apology. When Finland denied any involvement and ordered a joint Finnish–Soviet commission to look into the matter, Molotov deemed their response hostile.

The USSR then severed its non-aggression pact with Finland. The Winter War began four days later.

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin insisted that the conflict would be resolved within just two weeks. However, weakened by the dictator's removal of officers during the Great Purge of 1936, the Soviet army lacked leadership and strength.

What's more, the USSR also greatly underestimated their enemy. What the Finnish army lacked in weapons (30 times fewer aircraft than the Soviets and 100 times fewer tanks) and manpower (three times fewer soldiers), they made up for in heart and morale.

Finland also had the advantage of being very familiar with the terrain that they were now defending. For starters, it was very snowy and very cold. Having appropriate clothing for the conditions gave the Finns an advantage over the ill-prepared Soviets, roughly 10 percent of whom died of frostbite.

Given such conditions, the Winter War lasted 14 weeks instead of Stalin's predicted two. The Red Army's casualties were substantial, and even more than their ranks, it was their reputation that suffered some humiliating setbacks after failing to quickly dominate an opponent with far smaller forces.

Nevertheless, the Soviets did prevail, taking the territory they sought on March 5, 1940. The Finns then immediately proposed an armistice — but the Soviets declined. Instead, the Soviets kept the pressure on as they made further territorial demands of the Finns.

Finally, on March 12, the Finns had little choice but to accept the Soviets' new terms and sign the Moscow Peace Treaty. Ultimately, Finland lost 11 percent of its land and a sizeable chunk of its economic strength. Even with volunteer soldiers from other countries, and most of the world on its side, Finland lost the Winter War.

But the consequences for the USSR may have been even worse. Based in part on the surprising amount of trouble that the weakened Soviets had with the small Finnish force, Adolf Hitler decided to break his own non-aggression pact with the Soviets and invade the USSR in June 1941.

It's this decision, many scholars claim, that brought the downfall of the Third Reich and victory for the Allies in Europe.

After this look at the Winter War, see some of the most powerful World War 2 photos ever taken. Then, discover the most pervasive World War II myths that we all need to stop spreading.

Erin Kelly
An All That's Interesting writer since 2013, Erin Kelly focuses on historic places, natural wonders, environmental issues, and the world of science. Her work has also been featured in Smithsonian and she's designed several book covers in her career as a graphic artist.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Kelly, Erin. "How The Winter War’s “Ghost Soldiers” Helped Secure World War II For The Allies.", September 19, 2017, Accessed May 18, 2024.