Friday, May 14, 2010

Book Review: A Frozen Hell

Recently I finished reading A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940
by William Trotter. I'd rate this as one of the best books on military history that I've read.

Trotter does a very good job of covering the background to the Winter War, explaining both the then-recent history of Finland and the geopolitical situation in the months leading up to the war. He also provides a good background on Stalin's motives as the aggressor.

Notably, Trotter devotes an entire chapter to Marshall Carl Gustav Emil Mannerheim, Finland's military commander. Mannerheim was an interesting character. Born of Swedish-speaking Finiish nobility in 1867, he served in the Tsar's army from the 1880s through the end of World War I, until Finland's independence. He was a bit of an anachronism, but for Finland, he was the right man at the right time, though not without his faults. For example, during the Continuation War (1941 - 1944) he had a problem with micro-managment which may have lead to his being surprised by the Soviet 1944 Karelian offensive. Being overly focused on minutae lead to his missing larger developments.

The Winter War is a classic David-and-Goliath story. This is true not only because of the disparate sizes of the belligerants, but also because of the disparity in armaments. The Finns held on against the gigantic Soviet onslaught for over three months not only in spite of incredibly lop sided numbers, but also lacking any significant armor, minimal artillery, and hardly any airpower. Even looking at weapons organic to infantry units, the Finns were ill-equipped. Supplies of anti-tank weapons and ammunition were low. It was a combination of the Finns' sisu (guts/grit/intestinal fortitude), excellent leadership, and mind-boggling Soviet incompetence which enabled the Finns to hang on against staggering odds and dish out far more than they got.

The Soviets' poor performance can be ultimately blamed on poor leadership. Much of that can be blamed on Stalin, whose purges gutted the Red Army's officer corps during the mid-1930s. Political reliability was valued more than military competence. Thus, unrealistic, idealogy-driven assessments of the Finns lead to unrealistic military goals, insufficient planning, and hampered battlefield decision making, since tactical decisions had to be approved by unit political officers. Political correctness took precendence over reality. One might not that we could learn something from this in confronting the social and economic issues of 2010 America.

If you're looking for a good recounting of the story of a war with which too many Americans are unfamiliar, pick up a copy of A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940.

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