It was the legendary war reporter Martha Gellhorn who alerted me to the Winter War. In just a few pages of The Face of War, she describes how between late November 1939 and March 1940 the Finns, impossibly outnumbered and with barely any equipment, halted the Red Army in its tracks. It was a classic guerrilla campaign, characterised by stealth and determination in the face of a much larger enemy, fought in perishing cold and almost total darkness.
I have long wanted to follow in their trail, and to experience the white vastness of Finnish Lapland. But for all the husky and reindeer rides available nowadays, the logical mode of transport must be skis. We’re all skiers now. How hard can it be?
I leave London, reaching Helsinki at 4pm due to the time difference. Much of the day is eaten up, but then Finland really is at the top-right-hand corner of Europe. It also shares a border of nearly 1,350km with Russia – geography that surely must affect its inhabitants’ point of view. And then I remind myself of the history.
There were undeclared codicils in the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact of August 1939, laying out how Stalin and Hitler expected to divide up central Europe. Finland was allotted to the Russians (along with Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), and once the second world war was underway, they began their imperial grab. Much of the fighting happened in Karelia, between Helsinki and (then) Leningrad. But in the interests of reliable snow, and a compelling story in itself, I travel yet further north to Rovaniemi, on the Arctic Circle.
There’s a rather unexpected welcome: Rovaniemi is the Finnish home of Father Christmas. Most visitors actually do head out on husky and reindeer rides, it seems.
I meet Jarkko Leinonen, CEO and founder of outdoor-pursuits company Santa’s Adventures. And a survival instructor – he’s agreed to throw in a few winter survival skills, for authenticity’s sake. We drive east towards the Russian border. I was expecting a ghostly monochrome world of snow-clad trees, with minimal light bouncing between clouds and snow. The tarmac road would offer the only depth of colour – grey. Instead, thanks to the gradually strengthening early-spring sun, the snow has slid off the trees, leaving some green. Lakes, luminescent in the sunshine, are everywhere. In fact, there is a surprising amount of light, which only drains fully from the sky at 8pm.
Up here, Stalin’s plan was to slice Finland in half and help himself to Lapland. The Red Army was ordered to cross the country to the Gulf of Bothnia and Sweden in two weeks. The Finns had very few heavy weapons to counter Russian tanks and airpower. But they could move through the terrain and hide, lying in wait. Then, in a series of pinprick manoeuvres, they would strike, destroy and disappear among the trees.
By mid-December, the Russians had reached Mäntyvaara. It was as far as they got.
We arrive at Mäntyvaara and Leinonen presents me with some 2.4m skis. They’re not quite the wooden planks of the second world war, but perhaps their 1970s equivalent. Then there’s a pair of what are essentially stiffened Wellington boots, with a felt inner and a square toe, held in place with those old spring bindings around the heel. Hmmm.
We head up into never-ending woods, pine mostly, some birch, on metre-deep compacted snow. The only sound beyond my breathing and the slight crunch of ski poles is the tiny roar of a breeze in the upper branches.
At the top of the hill, Leinonen says: “Welcome to one of the bloodiest places in the whole of the Winter War.” The Soviets planned to secure the road here, so they occupied the hill in preparation for a victory on December 20 – to mark Stalin’s birthday a couple of days earlier. But a battalion of Finns, resting after deployment elsewhere, was camped below. They decided on a frontal assault, up the slope we’ve just climbed. The darkness probably conferred an advantage at first, but eventually the fight reduced to hand-to-hand combat on the hilltop in glacial gloom. In the end the Russians fled, at a loss of around 300 men.
Uphill is one thing, downhill quite another. With unclipped heels and no edges, the skis are very hard to control. I can only imagine what it would be like with full military kit on my back. We head east, sliding among the endless trees, emerging occasionally onto the open ground of a summertime field. The route takes us 5km through a spooky, silent landscape – ideal for the stealthy battle the Finns had to fight.
We dig a pit in the snow to cook a meal, and chat. It turns out Leinonen was the commander of a stay-behind patrol in the 1990s. If the Russians had rolled west, he would have hidden – here somewhere, presumably – in a low 12-man shelter like the one visited by Gellhorn in 1939 on the front line, his brief to cause as much mayhem in the rear as possible.
Eventually we come to the settlement of Joutsijärvi, on the Salpa Line, built during the Interim Peace when the Winter War came to stalemate. It is also where the Finnish story becomes complicated. After this war, the Finns allied with the Germans, later fighting alongside them against the Russians in their Continuation War (1941-44). Eventually, in the Lapland War in 1944, at Stalin’s insistence, the Finns harried the Germans on their retreat to Norway. We visit a Finn-built bunker, overlooking the river of the Salpa Line. Now it contains a small museum with shell cases, bayonets and stick grenades left over from the conflict.
From here we follow a different route back, sliding over the rolling terrain. It’s important not to work up a mega-sweat, as it’ll freeze. However, I discover that getting back upright after a fall constitutes extreme exertion. And I make a note to self: trees are not the most efficient way to brake.
The biggest toll on the Red Army was the merciless, punishing cold. Ruefully Leinonen says: “When they stopped, they shared bodily warmth. When they got up, they discovered who among them had frozen to death.”
It’s only right I should get an understanding of such bare survival; back at his base near Rovaniemi, Leinonen has arranged for me to dig a snow cave. When we arrive, he indicates a huge mound of snow, spiked with sticks. If I ever wondered what it would be like to arrive somewhere exhausted, only to have to make myself shelter, I now discover. I dig a low entrance and start scooping out snow, on my knees at first, then my belly, outstretched, grunting with the effort, hauling and kicking cubic metres of snow. Eventually I am on my back, gouging a curved ceiling, until I reach the stick points (pushed in to 30cm). In two hours of cramped, tiring work, I have created a cave. I leave a sleeping platform, higher than the entrance (as warm air rises, it cannot escape: it’s how snow caves work).
During the Winter War, the troops’ ultimate reward was the sauna – something I am offered after my efforts. It’s simple, but the warmth is incredibly welcome and the vicious air evaporates in the hiss of water boiling off a stove. Then, the obligatory dip in the lake. My hands almost freeze to the stepladder, and the water is unbelievably cold – but, oddly, unmemorably so. A minute later, in the frigid air, it is forgotten.
I enjoy the sleep of the dead. The temperature reaches -26ºC that night, but I am bagged in my snow hole at -5, woken only by the crunch of a forest animal going about its business.
I set off from Leinonen’s camp over Vaattunkivaara hill, a national park with summer hiking trails. The strain of yesterday’s exertions returns and I breathe heavily as I push against the hillside. Even in the subzero air I am down to a shirt. The 10-degree slope is at the limit for the skis, so I follow each fold in the ground, laboriously sidestepping up the steep, compacted snow. But from the summit, the view carries over a landscape that heaves and sighs to the horizon, forests patched with snowbound lakes. And then I set off downhill and spend far too much time on my backside. Leinonen meets me at Raudanjoki River.
Passing back through Helsinki, I reflect on the Winter War. For all their efforts, the Finns lost territory when they accepted terms in March 1940, as hundreds of thousands of Russians amassed at the front line. But the war crystallised their national identity (Finland only became independent from Russia in 1917): interestingly, if they had lost Lapland, Finland might have ended up more like the Baltic states, reduced and Russified, with the front of the cold war at Sweden. An independence worth the hardships they must have endured – and which I have only just tasted – operating, and surviving, in such frozen, hostile terrain.