South African Military History Society


The Russo-Finnish War of 1939-40 - The Winter War - has never been accorded the importance in military history that it rightfully deserves. The reasons why were explained by Avran Pelunsky in his curtain raiser at the society's 8th November lecture meeting.

It is widely believed that the Soviet Union was taken completely by surprise when the Germans invaded in June 1941. In fact, the USSR had realised by 1938 that it must eventually attract Hitler's aggressive attentions. The commands of the Soviet forces had been weakened by Stalin's purges, and the pursuit of socialism had plunged the economy into chaos and limited the resources required for equipping and modernising.
Accordingly, the Soviets sought to strengthen their defensive position. In August 1939 they signed a treaty with the Germans, then about to invade Poland, that enable them to push their borders some hundreds of kilometers westward. In the following months they invaded Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. They then demanded concessions from Finland, whose south-eastern border was within artillery range of the USSR's second city, Leningrad. Finland had formerly been a semi-independent Grand Duchy in Russia's Tsarist Empire, but in 1918-19 it secured German help in a war for complete independence. It did not ease Soviet fears that there was no significant Nazi influence in Finland in 1939.

The Soviets proposed that the Finnish border be moved 70km further from Leningrad; that they be allowed to establish bases to control access to the Gulf of Finland; and that the Rybachi peninsula in the extreme north be conceded so as to protect Russia's ice-free Arctic port of Murmansk. In return, Finland was offered land along its eastern border, where the country was at its narrowest. Despite these terms being comparatively reasonable, considering the danger faced by the USSR, and notwithstanding the recommendations of Britain, the USA, France, Sweden, and Field Marshal Carl Gustav Mannerheim, the hero of the war of independence, Finnish nationalism triumphed and the demands were rejected.

Soviet forces invaded in November 1939. Although the Rybachi peninsula was occupied, and headway was made in the centre of Finland's eastern border, the fighting was mainly against the Mannerheim line, the string of defences stretching from Lake Ladoga in the east, to the head of the Gulf of Finland. The USSR expected a quick victory, but instead sustained a humiliating defeat. The Soviets fielded 1,2 million men against Finland's 150 000, and lost 200 000 against only 20 000. However, at 16 per cent of total forces, the losses of the two sides were about equal.

The Finns capitulated in March 1940, just in time to save Britain and France from making an enemy of the USSR by coming to their aid. The war highlighted the Soviet's military weaknesses, and progress was made in rectifying these before the German attack in June 1941. Even more important, the pitiful performance of the Red Army caused Hitler to misread its capabilities, and thus contributed to his eventual downfall.

The subject of the main lecture was The Mexican War of 1846-48. The speaker, Flip Hoorweg, described how the government of the United States, by provoking and winning a war with Mexico, was able to double the size of its national territory.

In the early 19th century the borders of Canada, Mexico and the USA were not fully established. Canada was a British colony, and only the eastern part of what is now the United States comprised the union. The mid-western territory of Louisiana was obtained from the French by purchase. The south-west bordered on the newly independent state of Mexico, run by the shifty General A I de Santa Anna, and US President James K Polk identified this unstable and unruly neighbour was a dangerous source of weakness for his country. Mexico inherited the territorial remnants of the Spanish Empire in Tejas, now Texas, Upper California and New Mexico. Texas had been settled by North Americans, who established an independent republic in 1836. However, President Polk was not keen on having a weak republic on his south-western border, and he incorporated it into the Union in 1845. He also wanted the New Mexican and Californian territories to enhance US security. When negotiations with Mexico were rebuffed owing to unresolved problems with the southern border of Texas, Polk ordered troops into the disputed area and annexed Texas on 29th April 1846. When clashes with Mexico continued, Congress approved a declaration of war the following month. At the same time a treaty with Britain allowed the annexation of the Oregon territory in exchange for half of Vancouver Island.

The US standing army numbered only 11 000, but could call on militia, and volunteers, and could achieve rapid expansion in wartime. It was spread over more than 100 frontier and coastal forts. Units larger than a single company seldom trained together, but were well-trained and led. The army was mostly infantry, but a feature was its so-called "flying batteries", which gave it a mobile artillery element the Mexican Army lacked. The latter was a much larger force, but was unpredictable in performance and concentrated on static defence. Major General Zachary Taylor, who later became 12th president of the USA, captured Monterrey, Mexico's second city, and won a brilliant victory at Buena Vista. The bulk of his command was then transferred to Major General Winfield Scott, who shipped his combined force to Vera Cruz, the Gulf port city serving Mexico City.
After a long march from the disease-ridden coast, and fighting numerous actions, Scott took the Mexican capital of 4th September 1847. This achievement has since been compared with that of General Douglas MacArthur's Inchon/Seoul campaign of 1950. The US forces lost a mere 2020 men killed in action, but a massive 11 155 died from disease.

The Mexican War had important connections with the US Civil War, in that many of the junior officers engaged were commanders a decade and a half later. Names such as Lee, Davis, Sherman, Grant, Thomas and Longstreet were to become household names in the US, although their owners were often fighting on different sides.



13 December
CR Leslie Ayres - Women Disguised as Men in War (Part 2)
ML William Lane - The War Diaries of Burgher Jack Lane - From Modder River to Paardeburg
17 January
CR Hamish Paterson - His Majesty's U-Boat
ML Louis Jean Tavlet Fashoda 1898: Britain meets France in Africa
(Please note that 17th January is the third Thursday of the month)
14 February
CR Heinrich Janzen - The German Cruiser Prinz Eugen
ML John Murray - The Channel Dash 1942


13 December
Annual Dinner

Cape Town

13 December
In Recess
17 January
Rodney Constantine - The Guerilla War in the Cape Colony during the Anglo-Boer War (part 2)

George Barrell (Scribe) (011) 791-2581

Contact number in Cape Town: John (Jochen) Mahncke (021) 797-5167

Contact number in Durban: Dr Ingrid Machin (031) 201-3983

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