December 15, 2014

The Winter War: More than a Prelude

The Winter War: More than a Prelude

Seventy-five years ago, on December 14, 1939, the Soviet Union was expelled from the League of Nations for invading its northwestern neighbor, Finland. The Winter War ended a few months later, with minor territorial gains for the Soviet Union, at the price of over 300,000 dead and wounded Soviet soldiers. As a rather unsuccessful venture, the war with Finland was a taboo topic for most of Soviet history. The following is an excerpt from memoirs by Vasiliy Efremov, who fought in this forgotten war.

The war in Finland was its own war, and if anyone thinks of it as an episode in the run-up to World War II, they are mistaken.

The Finns are excellent fighters both on land and in the air. They were on their home turf, defending their native land, and that gave them a special strength. They were tied by blood to this land, raised to live in these harsh, albeit beautiful, landscapes, among the forests, lakes, swamps, and cliffs. We, on the other hand, had yet to adapt to all of it.

Fighting in the air was also made difficult by having to find one’s way among identical forests and lakes, without open roads, and by the weather that ranged between snow and blinding sun, not to mention temperatures of 40 below and lower.

[…] Suddenly I hear the crackle of shots—the people running across the field have opened fire on my plane. They were Finnish soldiers. They keep coming closer; I jerk the plane, applying and releasing the gas, pumping the pedals to their limit…

Bit by bit the plane starts to move forward, haltingly, gathering speed. Meanwhile, the Finns have reached the hut, shooting incessantly, raising pathways of snow with their bullets. But the plane, dodging these paths, is moving ever faster; at last I raise it into the air, come around, bear down on the Finns, right where they lie on the snow-covered lake, and fire several rounds from all four guns.

Then, having made sure that I was flying toward Suojärvi Lake as the old man in the hut had showed me, I line my plane up with the lakeshore and mark the time. Two, three, four minutes pass—nothing familiar in sight. The snow is coming down harder. Time passes slowly, and it feels like twenty minutes must have passed; the watch shows six. No, still nothing familiar, even though I know almost every lake here, every bit of high ground. I start to wonder if the old man might have led me astray. It’s tempting to veer southeast, I’m sure to find comrades there. It’s been 11 minutes…

And then, right in front of my plane’s nose, a long thin smokestack rises out of the snowy field: that’s our little lumber mill, and there’s the village where we live, and the airfield behind it.

I landed with almost no visibility. And as it often happens up North, as soon as I taxied into my spot, the snow stopped, the clouds started to break up, and soon we could see the entire light-blue northern sky.

It goes without saying that everyone at the airfield was happy to see me. After all, I’d overshot my expected flight time, and my chase pilot did me no favors by reporting that I had intentionally abandoned him and was probably never coming back. And yet there I was.

Horses pulling a disabled plane

Translation: Eugenia Sokolskaya

Text source:

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

The Winter War was featured in Russian Calendar section in the November-December 2014 issue of Russian Life.

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