As Finland races towards NATO membership in the face of Russian aggression, it’s time to remember how this Baltic country was invaded by its powerful neighbor more than 80 years ago.
In November 1939, a centuries-old border dispute between the two countries resurfaced when Russian tanks rolled into Finland. The Soviet offensive touched countless foreign hearts; it was a classic David versus Goliath tale. The result was a flood of international volunteers who fought across the snowy expanses to aid the Finns in what was dubbed the Winter War.
One of the approximately 13,500 men to enlist was my father, Bonar Dunlop. Originally from New Zealand, he had come to London to study art at the Royal Academy. He enlisted in early March 1940, frustrated by the British Phoney War. A few days later he was sailing with about 160 other volunteers in a convoy from Leith in Scotland to Norway. Although he only managed to send two letters from Finland, he then wrote an account broadcast by the BBC Pacific service.
The contingent had a rough journey in Finland: “For four days we traveled solidly in hard-seated railway carriages from Bergen across and up the Scandinavian Peninsula, then we staggered and slid down the unknown ice of the river which forms the border between Sweden and Finland. , so it was a rough and unstable band which the Finns were surprised to see entering their country.
But it was too late. A few days earlier, Finland had signed a treaty with the Soviet Union. “We found a grieving country bearing all the signs of the war it had suffered. Everything was white, from the snow itself to the white-painted trucks and trains and the soldiers’ white camouflage uniforms. Their blue and white flags were flying at half mast and people looked discouraged and sad, even the children. For the first two months, I barely saw a Finn smile… It was not so much their desire to reclaim historic Karelia and other parts ceded to the Russians… but their deep-rooted distrust of Moscow.
He hammered home this point: “The Finns seemed to possess the uncanny instinct of smelling a Muscovite wherever there was one in the forests.” Indeed, this ingrained suspicion of their neighbors was justified less than an hour before the armistice went into effect, when the Soviets fired an intense hour-long barrage backed by bombs. The result was hundreds of casualties among Finnish troops who were just beginning to celebrate their survival after months of fierce fighting.
[See also: Why is Finland joining Nato?]
In the meantime, the volunteers arrived in Lapua, in southwestern Finland, where the international brigade was stationed. “Here stood a motley gathering of adventurers and soldiers of fortune…with three miserable cigarettes every other day and food that was usually the driest and toughest.” We began our training which meant weapons drills in 50 degree frost, skirmishes and mock battles in three feet of snow, and sentries at night when the breath seemed to freeze as we marveled at the Northern Lights twinkling above our heads. I often went on skis with a companion, racing through the forest in deep snow and sometimes also in dazzling sunshine. The country is beautiful.
In a letter to his mother, he writes: “A week ago we did a big trek across the country, which lasted two days and one night. The most pathetic sights I saw in Finland were the refugee trains from Karelia (the region captured by Russia), filled with every item imaginable with the people herded into cattle trucks. When we arrived at Savonlinna it lifted our spirits to no end as it is a lovely town…Today a certain Lord Balfour appeared on the scene very mysteriously and offered to bring back to England at least a letter from each man.
An experienced rider, my father found himself in the horse transport section, rounding up wandering Russian mounts with which he transferred Karelian refugees and their meager belongings by cart to distant farms. “Molotov [the Soviet foreign minister] left its mark here very distinctly, with many houses shattered,” my father noted.
The statistics for the three and a half months of war were horrendous. About 25,000 Finns died, and surprisingly more than 200,000 Russians (the true total is unknown), along with several thousand more captured and wounded. These figures described the Finns’ formidable resilience and fighting skill, despite a desperate lack of means and ammunition: “They had reduced the fighting technique in their country to a very fine art” – just like the Ukrainians today . One of their many ingenious guerrilla tricks had been the mass-produced gasoline bomb used to attack Soviet tanks. It became known as the “Molotov cocktail”.
However, Stalin’s overwhelming numbers of infantry, along with some 4,000 tanks and intense carpet bombing, proved relentless – and ultimately victorious. And this, in spite of very insufficient equipment. Many Russians died of hypothermia, and invading troops on skis often had their feet bound in cloth—weapons were not their only shortage. What was not lacking was vodka, doused on the front for warmth, stamina and intoxication. Sounds familiar.
My father, when Norway was under Nazi control, traveled hundreds of miles around the Arctic Circle trying to find a ship for Britain. Thwarted, then mowed down, he deliberately surrendered to be imprisoned and thus fed. Eventually he found his way to a tutoring job and an art school in the neutral city of Stockholm, where Nazi occupations held him for 18 months. Incredibly, his ultimate outing was on the “Stockholm Express”, a secret mail flight for feisty Swedish ball bearings (also spies) to Britain in exchange for planes full of gold bars or US dollars . Strapped into the Mosquito bomber’s bomb bay with a handful of Norwegian refugees, it was officially listed as “ball bearing”. Hardly an exalted end to a memorable adventure.
[See also: Finlandisation is not an option for Ukraine]