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Posted on Sep 9, 2010 in Armchair Reading

CDG 41 – Winter War, Finland, 1940

By Andrew H. Hershey

You take on the role of Col. Hjalmar Siilasvuo, commander of the Finnish Army’s 9th Infantry Division, with orders to attack and defeat the Red Army’s 44th Rifle Division before it can capture the village of Suomussalmi, which would open the door to capturing the strategically important city of Oulu.

The Soviet Union invaded Finland on November 30, 1939, bringing 450,000 men, 2,500 tanks, and nearly 4,000 aircraft to crush its small, western neighbor. Finland had but 300,000 troops, 100 planes and a total of just 32 tanks with which to stop the juggernaut.

Working in the Finns’ favor was the fact they had a superior officer corps and well-fed troops with high morale who were used to the bitter winters in their country. The paranoid Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had purged 30,000 high-ranking officers from his military and replaced them with politically loyal but inexperienced junior officers; innovative thinking and personal initiative were brutally discouraged. The men those officers led were too lightly clothed for Finland’s fierce winter, and the Finns destroyed their own homes and bunkers to deny the invaders protection from the elements.

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The swift-moving Finns, often mounted on skis, used their nation’s dense forests for cover from which they struck without warning. Among their favorite targets were Soviet field kitchens, in order to keep their opponents hungry, cold and demoralized.

The Reds had captured the village you are now defending on December 7, but your Finnish 9th Infantry Division recaptured it, destroying the 163d Rifle Division of the 9th Red Army in the process. Now, the Russian Bear is trying again to capture Suomussalmi, using the 44th Rifle Division, consisting of 17,500 men armed with bolt-action Mosin-Nagant 91/30 rifles, over 40 T-28 tanks, a dozen armored cars, 120 artillery and anti-tank guns, 600 machine guns, and 150 mortars. Most of the division employs motorized transport, supplemented by some horse-drawn wagons.

This transport, however, restricts them to a narrow road running west through dense forest from Raate to Suomussalmi, and for days their long column has been halted by a roadblock near Lake Koumasjarvi defended by a single company under the command of Captain Makinen.

Compared to your opponent, your 11,000-man force is weak: three infantry regiments—JR 27, J4 64, and JR 65—plus Reconnaisance Battalion 2, Pioneer Battalion 22, and a 400-man guerrilla unit, supported by the eight 76mm guns of Artillery Regiment 4, two 37mm anti-tank guns, 116 machine guns and 40 mortars. Your foot soldiers are armed with rifles and excellent Suomi submachine guns, along with "Molotov cocktails," gasoline-filled bottles with cloth fuses.

With this force, you are expected to engage and destroy the 44th Rifle Division. You summon your officers and lay out three options.

Course of Action One: ROADBLOCK
Reinforce Captain Makinen’s company at the roadblock with two full regiments, one at the obstruction and another in reserve. Frequently rotate men between the two positions so your front-line troops are always fresh. The heavy machine guns, anti-tank guns and artillery will support this force. The remaining regiment and accompanying battalions will form company- and battalion-size combat teams to strike from the forest and harass the flanks of the Soviet column, which is strung out for kilometers along the road. Field kitchens, fuel transport and command posts will be especially targeted.

This plan will allow your outnumbered forces to make hit-and-run attacks, disrupt the column and prevent the Reds from maneuvering through the forest to outflank the roadblock—not that they are anxious to go into the forest, anyway, knowing that death comes swiftly to those who do.

The drawback, as Captain Lassila of JR 27 expresses it, is that "this plan plays into the Reds’ hands by confronting the Soviet main force head-on," and their superior numbers and support weapons will ultimately overwhelm the roadblock. Captain Makinen disagrees, pointing out that his single company has already stalled the Reds because, strung out along a narrow road as they are, they can’t mass their weapons and men without going into the the forest, which they aren’t likely to do.

Course of Action Two: MULTIPLE ATTACKS
In this plan, Captain Makinen’s company will continue to hold the roadblock, supported by the division’s artillery. The rest of the division will form four large combat teams to launch multiple attacks against the Soviets’ flanks and rear. In the process, they will destroy the Purasjoki River bridge to cut off retreat or reinforcement, so they can chop up the Soviet division into small, immobile fragments to be destroyed at leisure.

Captain Makinen objects, saying his men have already born the brunt of the Soviet attacks for several days. Given time, he fears the enemy will eventually bring enough to bear to overwhelm his small force. However, Lieutenant Colonel Fagernas of JR 64 likes the plan, saying it "capitalizes on our greatest strengths—morale, mobility, leadership and unchallenged control of the forests."

Course of Action Three: WITHDRAW AND ENCIRCLE
A third option is to withdraw into the forests around Suomussalmi and let the Reds take what’s left of the village. The buildings have virtually all been burned down, so the enemy will find no protection there. The 9th Division can then encircle them while continuing raids against their kitchens, fuel supplies and command posts. They will be isolated, freezing, starving and demoralized, and the 9th will destroy them just as it destroyed the 163d Rifle Division at Suomussalmi earlier.

Major Kari of the JR 64 Regiment, shocked, objects. Instead of hitting the Reds while they are strung out along the road and vulnerable, this will allow them to concentrate in a defensive position, making full use of their superior firepower.

Colonel Siilasvuo, which of these three paths will you follow? Or has yet another option suggested itself to you?

Click here to download the pdf of Command Decision Game # 41, Winter War, Finland 1940, and submit your solution.

Andrew H. Hershey holds a doctorate in medieval history from the University of London. He contributes to the USMC Gazette and is a four-time winner of its Tactical Decision Game design contests. He also designs World War II tactical-level wargames for Heat of Battle and Le Franc Tireur.

4 Comments

  1. The second option holds the most promise by blocking the advance, cutting them off from their escape / supply route and lastly, surrounding and destroying them. This can be achieved especially since the 44th Div is restricting its movement to the narrow road, limiting it’s ability to maneuver. While the whole Finnish artillery regiment, anti-tank guns and one infantry regiment are used to bolster the roadblock position, the other assests should be used to attack, harass and eventually cut off the division.

  2. I concur Option 2, You have to command Captain Makinen ot suck it up and Sacrifice for the homeland he needs to hold his position. Time is of the essence, keeping the Soviet Invaders strung out is the best option to prevent them from massing their Armor, divide and conquer. The Army moves on its stomach. Cold and Hungry troops rarely get the upper hand. Capturing Soviet Land Anti-Tank Mines would also make their lives miserable a deep fast Interdiction in there rear guard would probably cause a change of command and further help to lower Soviet Moral.

  3. I concur Option 1. The Reds are unable to mass there men and weapons. With them strung out we can hit them with fierce and overwhelming firepower destroying equipment and denying food, then melt back into the woods. This will degrade the Reds moral. Food will be come scarce. The Russian Bear might be the predator, But like most animals, the prey will strike if they are cornered.

  4. I would choose another COA. I would first split my whole Division into the infantry regiments. The first group would be focused at the roadblock with a few heavy artillery and heavy machine guns, to stop and block the the Reds, not allowing any of the of vehicles to move behind the destroyed ones. Then I would have one of my infantry divisions to stalk the rear of the Red’s column. It would also destroy the bridge once the Reds passed over it. Once the column has stopped, since the front of it has hit the roadblock; I would order my regiment to attack the rear of the column with their mortars and Molotov cocktails, canning the Red column like sardines. Finally this is when my final regiment would come into play. This regiment would be placed between my first and second regiment along side the road. It would be given majority of the artillery, machine guns and Molotov cocktails, to finish off those who are now canned and have no movement available. They would be ordered to pick off the officers first. If possible, one strafing run from an airplane would also be highly effective. Since at this point the Reds would be very demoralized, not being able to see their enemy or not having the option of retreat, you could expect a large amount of surrenders. There would probably be a time to offer them to surrender in large numbers if the engagement went on longer than hour. This would also be a time to refresh your troops with a warm meal and rearrange you artillery to fresh targets. If the Reds denied surrender your artillery could probably finish the job.

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  1. CDG Command Center » Armchair General - [...] November 2010 Winter War, Finland, 1940 PDF Pullout [...]
  2. January 2011 Issue – Long Live Death » Armchair General - [...] Command Decision # 41: Winter War: Finland, 1940 [...]

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