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Posted on Nov 1, 2010 in Boardgames

41 CDG – Winter War: Finland, 1940

By Armchair General

Historical outcome and winning Reader Solutions to CDG #41, November 2010 issue.

Col. Siilasvuo’s 9th Infantry Division launched multiple attacks against the Red Army’s 44th Rifle Division (CDG Course of Action Two). Using motti tactics, the Finns ambushed the 44th’s flanks from their positions in the forest, cut off the Soviet division, broke it into small, isolated detachments, and then completely destroyed the enemy unit between January 4 and January 8, 1940. (Petho Cartography)The November 2010 issue of Armchair General presented the Combat Decision Game “Winter War: Finland, 1940.” This CDG placed readers in the role of Colonel Hjalmar Siilasvuo, commander of the Finnish army’s 9th Infantry Division as it faced a powerful Red Army invasion during the 1939-40 Winter War. Siilasvuo’s mission was to attack and defeat the Red Army’s 44th Rifle Division as it advanced toward the key village of Suomussalmi, located in central Finland. Although Siilasvuo’s Finnish defenders were greatly outnumbered by the Soviet force in troops, tanks and heavy weapons, they sought to capitalize on their much greater mobility and their superior skills in winter forest fighting to defeat the Red Army invasion in their sector. They realized that if they failed to stop the Soviet juggernaut from capturing Suomussalmi, the Red Army could continue its advance westward to seize the vital port of Oulu, denying Finland use of this major port for importing war supplies and effectively cutting the country in two. The success or failure of 9th Division’s mission, therefore, had major strategic implications for this tiny country under massive attack by its giant neighbor.

Although Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin successfully bullied the USSR’s western neighbors to bring half of Poland, the Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) and important sections of Romania (northern Bukovina and Bessarabia) under Soviet control, Finland balked at his demands. In response, on November 30, 1939, Stalin launched an invasion initially consisting of 450,000 troops, 2,500 tanks and 4,000 aircraft along Finland’s eastern and southeastern border with the USSR. To oppose the massive onslaught, Finland could mobilize only 300,000 troops – many of whom were committed to defending the Mannerheim Line facing Leningrad – a paltry 32 tanks, and barely 100 aircraft.


Unlike the Finnish army, which largely consisted of infantry forces, the Red Army was generously supplied with motorized transport, mechanized units and heavy weapons. However, the vast forested wilderness along Finland’s 600-mile-long eastern border forced the ponderous Red Army columns to remain road-bound and thereby vulnerable to surprise attacks by the more agile Finnish units.

The first month of the Soviet invasion went badly for Stalin’s troops. They were unable to break the Mannerheim Line defenses, and the outnumbered Finns – who enlisted the horrific winter weather as a vital ally – slowed or stopped Red Army advances struggling westward over the few primitive roads along Finland’s eastern border. In early December, 9th Red Army’s attack toward Suomussalmi ended in disaster when Siilasvuo’s division cut up and destroyed the Soviet 163d Rifle Division. Trying once again to take Suomussalmi, the 9th Red Army commander sent 44th Rifle Division along the Raate-Suomussalmi road.

By the first week of January 1940, the 17,500 riflemen of the 44th Rifle Division, supported by 40 tanks, 12 armored cars, 600 machine guns, and 120 artillery pieces and mortars, faced Siilasvuo’s 11,000 9th Infantry Division troops armed mainly with small arms, 116 machine guns, and a handful of artillery pieces and mortars near Suomussalmi’s eastern approaches.

Siilasvuo chose to attack the Soviet 44th Rifle Division using what the Finns termed motti tactics (CDG COURSE OF ACTION TWO: MULTIPLE ATTACKS). In Finnish, motti refers to a pile of logs held in place by stakes to be chopped or sawn at leisure into convenient lengths of firewood. Hence, motti tactics called for pinning an enemy unit in place, cutting it off from reinforcement and supply, fragmenting it into small, isolated detachments through multiple attacks and roadblocks, and then destroying its freezing, starving, demoralized detachments in due course.

From January 4-8, 1940, Siilasvuo’s 9th Infantry Division, operating in battalion-sized task forces, cut off 44th Rifle Division from its base at Raate and then used motti tactics to conduct multiple attacks along the flanks of the Soviet division to fragment, isolate and destroy it in detail. (See Battle of Suomussalmi map.) Few Soviet soldiers escaped – over 16,000 died and 1,000 were captured. The Finns destroyed or seized 43 tanks or armored cars, 70 artillery pieces and 278 vehicles. The Soviet division commander, General Alexei Vinogradov, escaped but was subsequently shot on Stalin’s orders.

Despite 9th Infantry Division’s victory and the Finns’ heroic resistance, the Soviets’ overwhelming numbers eventually won the war for Stalin. In February 1940, the Soviet dictator reorganized Red Army leadership, instituted military reforms, and threw hundreds of thousands more troops into the invasion. The Soviets breached the Mannerheim Line in mid-February, and the Finns reluctantly sued for peace. The agreement was signed in Moscow on March 12, 1940.

After Hitler’s June 1941 invasion of the USSR, Finland renewed its fighting, alongside its ally, Nazi Germany, in what is called the Continuation War. However, as Germany’s East Front fortunes waned, Finland was forced to negotiate an armistice with Stalin in September 1944. Perhaps because of his bitter experience fighting the Finns in the 1939-40 Winter War, Stalin did not attempt to occupy the country (as his victorious armies did in Eastern Europe) and Finland retained its independence.

ACG judges based their selections for winning Reader Solutions and those receiving honorable mention on submissions that chose COURSE OF ACTION TWO: MULTIPLE ATTACKS, or those whose explanations demonstrated a solid understanding of Winter War motti tactics. (See “After Action Report.”) COA Two maximized the advantages the outnumbered Finnish troops held with regard to weather, terrain, mobility and experience operating in Finland’s harsh environment while also permitting them to avoid directly confronting the Red Army’s superior numbers and firepower. This plan allowed Siilasvuo’s soldiers to isolate and fragment the Soviet division, destroy its troops’ morale and ability to fight back, and annihilate the enemy piecemeal.

COURSE OF ACTION ONE: ROADBLOCK risked the Finns playing into the enemy’s hands by directly confronting the main Red Army strength – particularly tanks and artillery – and by not ensuring that Soviet reinforcements arriving from Raate would be blocked.

COURSE OF ACTION THREE: WITHDRAW AND ENCIRCLE was based on the presumption that Red Army leaders would ignore 163d Rifle Division’s experience and would therefore repeat the same mistakes. Voluntarily giving up Suomussalmi placed a strong Soviet unit in a vital location from which it could launch an attack on Oulu.

After Action Report
Key Points for Winter War “Motti” Tactics

  • Enlist weather and terrain as allies.
  • Cut off enemy troops from outside support and reinforcements (roadblocks, blown bridges).
  • Avoid attacking enemy strength (tanks, artillery, machine guns, anti-tank guns).
  • Immobilize enemy columns with roadblocks front and rear.
  • Use superior mobility to launch multiple surprise attacks on enemy’s vulnerable flanks.
  • Fragment enemy columns into small, isolated elements incapable of mutual support.
  • Target enemy leadership and enemy units’ means of support (fuel trucks, field kitchens, shelters).
  • Destroy isolated, demoralized, starving and freezing enemy motti at leisure.


1 Comment

  1. I chose COA3 withdraw and encircle and thus chose wrongly. At the risk of sounding like a poor loser I find it hard to agree with or even properly understand the CDG’s makers assessment of this option:

    “Voluntarily giving up Suomussalmi placed a strong Soviet unit in a vital location from which it could launch an attack on Oulu.”

    1. Oulu is not on the map. How are the contestants supposed to realise that giving the Soviets Suomussalmi would threaten Oulu? (There is nothing in the text that suggests this unless I have missed something.)
    2. If the Soviets do proceed against Oulu, what prevents us from using COA#2 on the road to Oulu further away from Russian lines, where they are even more vulnerable?
    3. Doesn’t history argue against this assessment of COA#3? Historically, the Russians took it and it was just a deathtrap for them.

    Explanations would be very much appreciated. I really enjoy CDG and try my best to learn from it.



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