The Rise and Fall of an Infamous Marxist Icon
by Chris Oakley
Summary: In the first seven chapters of this series we looked at Hitler’s conversion to Marxism; his rise to the leadership first of the KPD and then of Germany itself; his transformation of Germany into a Communist state, his aggressive expansion of the German armed forces; his intervention in the Spanish Civil War; his involvement in the German-Austrian invasion of Italy; his decision to attack northern France following the Spanish naval defeat at Sardinia; his authorization of the air raid on Calais that wrecked much of the combined Anglo-French naval fleet; and the Franco-Italian assault on Volksarmee occupation forces in the Po Valley. In this chapter we’ll review the German counterattack and the final Soviet victory over Finland in the 1938-39 Winter War.
The tables had definitely turned in the war in Europe; while the previously successful Germans now found themselves in dire straits, their Soviet allies, who heretofore had been on the defensive against the Finns, had regained the upper hand in the Winter War and were now aggressively pushing their way through southern Finland as the Finnish army tried to regroup in the face of Zhukov’s merciless onslaught. Some of the more daring Red Army field commanders were even entertaining hopes of making a dash for the Finnish capital, Helsinki. Saturation raids by Red Air Force bombers were a fact of life for most Finnish cities not yet occupied by the Soviets, and the Red Navy’s Baltic fleet was having a field day picking off Finnish naval and merchant vessels whenever such craft dared venture out of port.
General Ivan Chernyakovsky, one of Zhukov’s top field commanders on the Finnish front, was spearheading an advance column on the right flank of the Soviet lines when he received an urgent telegram from the Kremlin instructing him to return to Moscow immediately for reassignment. This was a puzzling request to Chernyakovsky, whose troops were making excellent progress in their assigned sectors of the front, but all the same he complied with it and flew back to the Soviet capital the day after he received the telegram. He learned the reason for his summons when he arrived at the Kremlin-- Stalin wanted him to take command of the Red Army expeditionary corps that would invade Poland after the end of the war with Finland.
That end was drawing uncomfortably close for the Helsinki government; they’d staked a great deal on the Mannerheim offensive, and its ultimate failure had left the Finnish armed forces in a rather precarious state. The Finnish air force was in particularly dire straits, operating at less than a third of its former strength and losing pilots faster than it was able to train them. Foreign aid enabled the Finns to make good some of their losses in terms of aircraft, but it was hardly enough to compensate for the shortfall under which the Finnish air force was laboring at that point in the war.
In unguarded moments General Mannerheim confided to his closest friends that he was becoming discouraged about Finland’s prospects for holding out against the Soviet Union. At least once in mid-December of 1938 Mannerheim offered his resignation as commander-in-chief of the Finnish armed forces, but the Finnish government declined to take it, citing the need for Mannerheim’s leadership as Finland battled for its survival.
By December 20th STAVKA1 had drawn up a preliminary strategy for a two-pronged pincer movement to encircle Helsinki. Instead of directly assaulting the Finnish capital, Stalin had decided that his troops should lay siege to the city and starve its residents into submission. His gamble was that if the people of Helsinki became hungry enough, tired enough, and scared enough they would pressure their government into suing for peace; once all supply lines into or out of the city had been cut, the Red Army could simply sit and wait for the city’s defenses to collapse.
The final go-ahead for this offensive, code-named Operation Snow Queen, was given on Christmas Eve; the pincer manuver was scheduled to begin by New Year’s Day 1939. Morale among the Soviet troops involved was high; many of them were already looking forward to the day when they would go home and regale their family and friends with stories of their tours of duty on the Finnish front.
In the West, meanwhile, the French and Italian armies continued to hammer away at the German occupation forces in the Po Valley; they were aided in their offensive by anti-Communist insurgent cells inside the Volksarmee occupation zones in northern Italy. Many of these cells were started up spontaneously, while many others were organized by the counterintelligence section of the Italian army with an assist from the British covert activities unit Special Operation Executive(SOE).
SOE was the brainchild of British army major Colin Gubbins, a veteran of the 1919-1923 Irish revolution. In the long struggle with the Irish rebels Major Gubbins had learned a great deal about guerrilla warfare, and now he eagerly applied those lessons to the campaign to eject the Communist bloc from northern Italy. Whenever possible, Major Gubbins supplemented the manpower of the local partisan units with his own teams of "black ops" agents trained in the arts of sabotage, murder, forgery, and arson; between these agents and the Italians’ own insurgent forces, Volksarmee occupation troops trying to retain their foothold on Italian soil found an already arduous job that much tougher.
One of the anti-Communist guerrillas’ most daring attacks against the Germans came on December 27th, 1938 when two of the larger cells in Venice joined forces to raid the Volksluftkorps fighter base a few miles west of the port city. The first squad hit just before dawn, blowing up the base’s control tower and fuel supplies and destroying most of its aircraft inventory; the second struck only fifteen minutes later, setting fire to the officers’ quarters. While the base’s security personnel were trying to put a stop to these assaults, SOE operatives set off improvised bombs at the base command post, killing the base commandant and most of his senior staff.
The guerrilla forces finally halted their attack around 10:30 AM and retreated into the countryside, leaving behind a score of wrecked planes, 15 Germans dead and 38 more seriously injured, and hundreds of gallons of aviation fuel in flames. Heinrich Stuckart was enraged by the Venice air base’s destruction and vowed to bomb Rome to cinders in retaliation for the guerrillas’ actions; Walter Ulbricht, determined to crush the Italian anti-Communist rebellion, dispatched Stasi counterinsurgency squads into the Italian hinterlands to hunt down and kill as many guerrillas as they could find.
But neutralizing the insurgent cells proved easier said than done: every time one cell was eliminated, another sprang up in its place, and for the most part the guerrillas knew the Italian countryside better than the Communist troops did. Further complicating matters for the Communists was the fact the regular Italian army was using squads of its legendary Alpini mountain troops to make hit-and-run assaults along the edge of the German front lines in northern Italy.
On December 29th, 1938 the headquarters of the Soviet expeditionary force in Finland received a coded message from the Kremlin authorizing them to commence Operation Snow Queen. One group of Zhukov’s infantry and armored troops began pivoting northeastward to meet another group swinging northwest; both groups inflicted great casualties on the Finns as they pushed towards their designated linkup point five miles north of Helsinki. By New Year’s Day at least half of the Finnish capital’s road and rail links to the outside world had been cut and many of the rest were under heavy Soviet artillery fire.
On January 5th, 1939 the western arm of Zhukov’s pincer met the eastern arm at the appointed spot north of Helsinki, effectively trapping most of the city’s population and its defenders in an isolated pocket with steadily dwindling food and water supplies. The commandant of the capital’s army garrison, who’d steeled himself for a full-throttle Soviet push into the heart of the city, was naturally surprised when Zhukov’s divisions halted their advance shortly after linking up. All too soon, however, he would realize the method behind the Soviets’ madness as the blockade around Helsinki tightened and stockpiles of both civilian and military essential supplies continued to shrink.
The Red Army blockade of Helsinki, supported by Soviet air force tactical strikes and the occasional offshore bombardment by Red Navy warships in the Gulf of Finland, would last almost two months; during that time, food supplies in the Finnish capital would dwindle so low the city’s residents found themselves living-- as a journalist for one of Finland’s largest newspapers later put it --"on everything from glue to mice to pencil shavings to, sometimes, one another." The Finnish air force tried to avert starvation by airlifting food supplies into the capital, but more often than not the delivery planes were intercepted and destroyed by Soviet fighters(an action that would be heartily condemned by Stalin’s successor Nikita Khrushchev in the opening paragraphs of Khrushchev’s famous 1956 speech denouncing the excesses and atrocities of the Stalinist era in Russia).
On March 2nd, 1939, with the people of Helsinki wracked by famine, the Finnish army low on most vital supplies, and outside help largely being choked off by the Soviets, Finland’s government sued for peace. Within hours of that decision, Stalin telephoned General Chernyakovsky and gave him the green light to attack Poland. The Second World War, already racking much of western and central Europe, had now spread to the east.
By the first week of February 1939, as the siege of Helsinki was turning that city into nearly a ghost town, the Anglo-French alliance had taken most of the Po Valley in Italy back from the Communists and were making progress in the Adriatic Plain and the Italian Alps too. Some of the more optimistic Allied field commanders in the Italian theater were even starting to express cautious hopes that it might be possible to mount an invasion of Austria before the end of the year.
But those who thought the tide of the Italian campaign might have permanently turned against the German-Austrian coalition got a rude shock on February 10th, 1939 when four new Volksarmee divisions stationed along the Austrian-Italian border plunged southward into the center of the Franco-Italian lines in northern Italy in the first phase of a new campaign Hitler had dubbed Fall Vergeltung("Case Retribution").2 The assault force split the Franco-Italian battle lines in two and allowed beleaguered Volksarmee forces elsewhere in northern Italy to gain some much-needed breathing space to regroup before going on the offensive themselves. New and improved versions of the Stuka made their debut in this operation, providing tactical air support for the German ground forces as they struck at the Western lines. In Rome, Mussolini greeted news of the German attack with horror; the threat of Communist forces capturing Rome, which had been receding since the start of the Allied campaign in the Po Valley, was becoming serious once more.
Sure that if the Communists took Rome they would sack the Vatican and put Pope Pius XI to death, Mussolini met with the pontiff at the Holy See on February 21st and urged him to evacuate himself and his aides to safer ground at the earliest possible moment. Pius, however, argued that such an act would send the wrong message to his fellow Catholics in Rome, making them feel as if he was abandoning them; more to the point, he added, if word were to get out that a man as prominent as himself -- or Mussolini --was fleeing the city, it might touch off a mass panic among Rome’s citizens, Catholic or not. Therefore his only choice was to stay in the city; he had to set a proper example for his flock and stick it out to the end. Besides, with the right diplomatic approach, it might be possible to persuade the Communists to let Rome’s Catholics continue practicing their religion even if the city did fall.
Mussolini was rather skeptical of Pius’ attitude in this matter, and said as much to the pontiff near the end of the meeting. For weeks afterward, as the Germans and their Austrian allies continued to hammer away at the Franco-Italian forces, the Duce would keep trying to make the Pope change his mind about preparing to evacuate if worst came to worst; Pius in turn would keep refusing to budge. It was an argument that would go on for months.
At precisely 5:15 AM Moscow time on the morning of March 3rd, 1939, General Ivan Chernyakovsky, commander-in-chief of the Soviet expeditionary force to Poland, picked up a radio microphone and gave a simple two-word directive to the men under his command: "Vperedii, tovarishini!(Forward, comrades!)" Nobody needed to ask what he meant by those words; they’d been anticipating them for weeks, and soon as they heard him say them they thrust across the Polish border like a single well-oiled machine. Like it or not, Poland had just become a direct combatant in the struggle between the Western powers and the Communist bloc....
To Be Continued
1The Red Army general staff.
2The attack was so designated because Hitler saw it as retribution for the defeats Italian anti-Communist rebels had inflicted on his armies.