Just prior to WWII in Europe, the Soviet Union (Russia) and Germany jockeyed for strategic ground running from the Arctic Ocean through eastern Finland, through the Baltic states, splitting Poland, and down through Romania to the Balkans. The part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact) that agreed to split Poland is better known, but the Baltic states and Finland were to be part of this process too. The Baltic states were too small to fight off the Russians and gave in to lop-sided agreements. The Finns stood up for their borders and refused to give the Soviet Union the access to bases that they wanted. The Soviet Union invaded eastern Finland in late November 1939. The Russian goal was to secure the Gulf of Finland, the strategic rail lines from Murmansk to Leningrad (St. Petersburg), and the area around Lake Ladoga north of Leningrad. The Winter War would last a little over three months to early March 1940.

Battle of Raate Road

On 5 January 1940, The Finns began a counter-offensive on the Raate Road, near Suomussalmi that ended up destroying or capturing most of the Russian 44th Rifle Division. In an attempt to relieve the over-extended 163rd Rifle Division near Suomussalmi, the 44th had been halted at a roadblock southeast of Suomussalmi around the present day intersection of roads 912 and 843. The Russians hunkered down along the road between Suomussalmi and Raate in what the Finns called motti formations, a logging term doubling in meaning that the 44th’s sub units could be broken into smaller chunks, enveloped, and cut up individually like so many logs. The Finns operated in small units all along the road and spent days conducting close range grenade attacks and terrifying the Russian officers with highly selective sniper fire. The Russians were out of their mind with cold, hunger, and fear. A single sniper round fired by a Finn marksman would unleash totally undisciplined “mad minutes” from the Russians, normally killing nothing, but trees. Soon, ammunition ran short and re-supply from the air turned the starving troops into in-fighting hordes. After 2 days of this nightmare, the 44th dissolved in death, capture, or flight. It was the high water mark for the Finns and showed the Russians that taking the grossly outnumbered, but skilled Finns would not be a cake walk. Although the Finns lost the war and had to concede land within their borders to the Soviet Union, they retained their sovereignty. The weakness of parts of the Soviet Army also planted the seed of contempt in the German Army’s mind that would later lead the Germans to break the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and invade Russia in the summer of 1941. In his history of the Winter War entitled, Frozen Hell, William R. Trotter has an entire chapter dedicated to the Battle of Raate Road.

Battle of Raate Road Motorcycle Ride

If you find yourself in Finland, try following the road from Kemi to Suomussalmi and on to Raate for a daylong ride. I rode the E75 from Kemi to Oulu and on to Helsinki a few years ago and I can highly recommend the area. If finishing around Kemi look for campgrounds on the Gulf of Bothnia between Oulu and Kemi. Its a beautiful place to wake up (in the summer anyway).