Oct 26, 2015

My thesis: Forests, nationalism and Finnish armored doctrine

For those of you that read Finnish, my master's thesis in political history should now be available for download at the University of Helsinki digital repository. The title is "Onko hyökkäysvaunuilla mitään tulevaisuutta meillä?" Suomalainen panssariajattelu ja puolustusvoimien maastokäsitys 1919-1939; roughly translated: "Do tanks have any future with us?" [the title of a 1924 article]: Finnish armored thought and the armed forces' conception of Finnish terrain, 1919-1939. I use the term "armored thought" to capture the fact that the way the military sees the potential use of the tank influences more than just tank doctrine proper, but also anti-tank weapons and organization, and the whole role of both friendly and enemy tanks in battle.

The starting point for my thesis was a question: what happened to the Finnish armored force? In 1919, the newly founded Finnish government brought a stack of surplus war materiel from France, including some thirty Renault FT tanks. These were organized into what was officially called the Tank Regiment, but was actually a battalion. At the time, this gave Finland the largest armored force in Northern Europe, and that distinction was maintained for several years; Finnish armor outnumbered and outclassed the Soviets well into the 1920's. However, by the time the Winter War rolls around, the main strength of the Finnish armored forces is still those same Renaults. They were dug in as armored strongpoints and destroyed in battle. The Vickers 6-ton tanks that should have replaced them were bought too late; only a handful of them saw combat, and most were lost. At the same time, the rest of the army was suffering terribly from a complete neglect of anti-tank defenses that had only begun to be remedied when war broke out.

So what happened? How did the Finnish army go from being at the forefront of armored warfare in North Europe to facing the mechanized Soviet onslaught in 1939 with a handful of completely obsolete World War I tanks and desperately improvised anti-tank weapons? Why did we drop the ball on this so spectacularly? That's what I aimed to find out.


Previous research held that Finland's ex-czarist officers were to blame for the neglect of armored warfare. In the years before the Second World War, the Finnish army officer corps basically consisted of three groups. There were some older Finnish officers who had served in the Imperial Russian Army when Finland was a part of Russia. Their political opponents were the Jäger officers, who as young activists had left Finland covertly during the First World War and enlisted in the German army. The third group were some youg officers who had joined up during the Finnish civil war in 1918, and those joining up through the Finnish army itself. This last group were obviously very junior in the 1920s, but their influence would naturally grow.

The accepted story of Finnish armor has been that the ex-czarist officers were hostile to armored warfare and were convinced that tanks couldn't be used at all in Finland's forests. The trouble is that this claim is very poorly sourced. The better histories of the Finnish army tend to all refer to the same sources on this, chief among which is a 1924 article in Suomen Sotilasaikakauslehti, a military periodical. Written by a young lieutenant in the Tank Regiment, it obliquely refers to a general notion that tanks are unusable in Finnish terrain. The more specific claim that czarist officers were responsible can be found in the armored corps' histories, and most directly in the memoirs of Aarne Sihvo, the highest-ranking of the Jäger officers and a bitter enemy of the "czarists".

These sources aren't very persuasive, and there is also evidence against them. Moreover, in the "Jäger revolt" of 1924, the Jäger officers effectively staged a coup in the army and had the majority of the "czarist officers" thrown out. If the ex-Russian Army officers were to blame for the neglect of armor and the notion of the unusability of tanks, surely things would change when they were sidelined. But they didn't. So there are several problems with the accepted story.

My goal was to find out how Finnish officers thought about armored warfare between the world wars. Interwar armored doctrines are interesting because they're a great showcase for the relationship between technology and doctrine: technology sets a framework for doctrine (the tanks can only go so fast, for instance), but different armies with access to the same technology will create very different doctrines. I started from Elizabeth Kier's idea of an army's culture determining what doctrinal options it "sees". Did the Finnish army not see tanks as viable weapons of war in Finland? If so, why not, and why did their opinion change?

As material I used articles published in Finnish military periodicals from 1919 to 1939 dealing with armored warfare. When it became obvious that I was dealing with a wider matter than armor, I also looked at articles that dealt with the military geography of Finland. My method was discourse analysis. I wasn't all that interested in what the articles were saying about armored warfare, but rather how they were saying it: what kind of arguments were being used, what was not being said, and so on. My main perspective was the history of ideas. Military thought is often quite wrongly segregated from the rest of society. Especially the majority of earlier studies on Finnish doctrine tend to view the development of doctrine as simple, apolitical, technical problem-solving, where field regulations neatly succeed one another. I wanted to see if Finnish military thought and even armored doctrine could be linked to broader Finnish politics and culture of the era.

Another perspective I used was critical geopolitics. Critical geopolitics maintains that concepts of terrain and geography in general aren't objective reconstructions of natural facts, but rather ideological and political constructs. Geographical ideas are created for various reasons, and they both influence and are influenced by culture and politics. In this case, the Winter War did demonstrate rather conclusively that tanks could indeed be used in Finnish terrain. So why would Finnish officers think differently?

As a curiosity, I happened to read James C. Scott's Seeing Like a State while working on this thesis, and it definitely had an influence. Military doctrine is also a product of "state sight"; the war of the future that doctrine is created to fight is necessarily imaginary, and based on theoretical abstractions. For a cadre conscript army like Finland's, even most of the army's own formations only exist in theory before actual mobilization. What my thesis ended up being was a look at one abstract model: the Finnish army's changing concept of the military geography of Finland.


I found that the accepted view of the ex-czarist officers' hostility toward tanks is almost certainly wrong. While these officers ran the army high command, the Tank Regiment featured in their wartime planning. Hell, they're the ones who bought the damn things in the first place! In the early- to mid-1920's, there are several articles on mechanization, machine warfare and armor in the periodicals, expressing a variety of views from a Fulleresque obsolescence of the infantry to a dogmatic rejection of armor as unsuitable to Finland. Several young officers from the armored regiment took to the pages to defend their branch of service. It's also at this time that Sihvo adapts the French 1919 tank regulations to Finnish use, publishing several books on the subject. There were both pro- and anti-tank views being aired, as it were.

By contrast, after the "Jäger coup", this discussion dies down. A consensus forms that tanks can't be used in Finnish terrain at all, and both the armored corps and anti-tank defences are completely neglected. It's paradoxical that the Jägers, many of whom strongly identified as a young, dynamic force sweeping away the old, stagnant "Russians" and their outdated military thinking should have been so hostile to modern warfare. During the civil war, Sihvo had called the ex-czarist officers the "men of the retreat system", as opposed to the fervently offensive-minded Jägers. Elsewhere in Europe, young, dynamic revolutionary movements often went together with a modernist cult of the machine and the future; it's no accident that J.F.C. Fuller was a Fascist, or that armored doctrine was developed in such forward-looking ways in Germany and the Soviet Union. In Finland, by contrast, a system of military thought developed that almost harked back to the attaque á outrance of early World War I days. Why?

The key is terrain. Finnish officers formulated a view of Finnish terrain as diametrically opposite to Central Europe. One writer compared it to a photograph and a negative: compared to Finland, Central Europe had exactly the opposite proportion of forests. Central European tactics and organization were developed for this open environment, while Finnish tactics and doctrine had to work in the Finnish forests. The officers of the 1920's held that positional and machine warfare were impossible in the forests, as the dramatically reduced visibility drastically favored the offensive, and the tree cover effectively neutralized artillery, both by detonating the shells too high and early, and making resupply so difficult that sustained barrages couldn't be fired. Tanks couldn't be used in the woods at all, so neither armor nor anti-tank defences were necessary. So in effect, in the Finnish forests it would be as if the First World War had never happened.

This view is quite extraordinary, and completely wrong. Below is what a Finnish forest looks like after heavy artillery fire in the Winter War (SA-kuva):

Tanks were also used by both sides, and en masse by the Soviets. Both the Winter and Continuation wars saw prolonged periods of positional warfare, and the deployment of the entire conventional arsenal of machine warfare. While the war to the north of the Ladoga was very much forest fighting, in the crucial theater of the Karelian Isthmus, a brutal battle of attrition was fought that was exactly the kind of warfare Finnish officers of the late 1920's and early 30's had considered impossible.

I believe there are several reasons why they thought this. One was a lack of funding in the 20's, and a lack of ambition by officers, which led to most marches being carried out over roads and most battle exercises being fought over exercise grounds. There were very few large-scale manoeuvres. So it seems likely that many officers actually had very little practical experience of forest fighting. Similarly, practical knowledge of the effects of modern artillery fire on Nordic forests was in short supply.

Bizarrely, what little practical evidence there was contradicted the notion of the military exceptionality of the Finnish forest and the unique ability of the Finns to operate in it. In the Finnish civil war, both sides had effectively been restricted to the roads for both movement and combat, since poorly trained Finnish troops were entirely unable to operate effectively in the woods. The Renault tanks of the Tank Regiment had not only been tested in the terrain of the Karelian Isthmus and found usable, but the regiment had regularly toured Finnish military bases, demonstrating the tanks' ability to function in all environments. Yet this practical experience was ignored.

More importantly, though, there is a long tradition of Finnish thought (pdf) that identifies the Finns as "people of the forest", as opposed to Swedish-speakers or Russians. The unique nature of Finnish terrain has been synonymous with the uniqueness of the Finnish people, and still is: in his unprecedented televised address last month, Finland's current prime minister appealed to Finns' "unique relationship to nature". Finnish army officers, after all, weren't just concerned with training conscripts for war. The Finnish nation had only very recently been invented, and one important reason why Parliament had chosen a cadre system of conscription over several other alternatives was that a centralized national army would be more effective in indoctrinating conscripts into a proper Finnish nationalism. In order to achieve this, army officers used nationalist writings from the 19th century, which were steeped in the mythology of "forest Finland". The majority of the officers, especially the Jägers who stayed in the army after the civil war, were fanatical nationalists. Most of them also had at best a rudimentary military education.

Like I explained earlier, in order to formulate doctrine, a model of the terrain and forces involved has to be created. In the mental model of the Jäger officers, their Finnish conscripts were natural forest fighters, and the Finnish landscape was composed almost exclusively of impassable forests where "Central European" tactics and machine warfare wouldn't work at all. This "mental forest" was one where tanks simply couldn't operate. It was this that led to the idea often expressed in the late '20s and early 30's in the periodicals that tanks were unusable in Finland. So far from the former Imperial Russian officers being to blame, it was in fact the nationalist ideology of the Jägers that gave rise to the "anti-tank fallacy" of the interwar period.


Previous research has maintained that Finnish thinking on armored warfare changed in the 1930's, when Finland's military attaché in Moscow, Aladár Paasonen, reported on the growing mechanization of the Soviet army. In response to Paasonen's report, trials were arranged in the Karelian Isthmus, which demonstrated that tanks could, after all, be used in Finnish terrain. This caused a complete shift in Finnish doctrine, but the re-equipping of the army was still a work in progress when the Winter War broke out.

Again, this is at best partially true. The shift in thinking had actually started earlier, because the decade of neglect for the armored corps ended in 1933 when field trials were arranged to determine the successor of the obsolescent Renault FTs. Similarly, an anti-tank regulation - a translated Soviet manual! - had been published, along with a program of anti-tank training for the infantry. On the other hand, it's puzzling why it took the Finnish army so long to react to Soviet mechanization, which had started in 1928. While Finnish periodicals had actively followed international discussions on tank doctrine in the earlier 1920s, by the time of the internationally influent Salisbury Plain experiments in 1928-29, the Finnish defence press was ignoring tank warfare.

What we do know is that in the early 1930's, there was a cultural shift in the Finnish army. The Finnish army had been massively influenced by Germany, both through the military training of the Jägers and the numerous German army officers who acted as consultants in the early years of the Finnish army. Interestingly, Sihvo was a prominent critic of the German influence: he felt that the Finns were nothing but expendable colonial troops to the Germans. His biographer believes this is the main reason why Sihvo, an illustrious public figure at the time, was forced into resigning from the army in 1919. In the early 30's, concerns similar to Sihvo's were given official acceptance in a memorandum drafted by the army high command, under two successive Jäger chiefs of staff. The memorandum decried the fact that more than a decade after independence, Finland still didn't have its own army, but rather a force created to serve the needs of a foreign power. I believe that this reorientation gives rise to the change in Finnish military thought in the 1930's in general. Later in the decade, the first actual large-scale trials of forest fighting demonstrated that the Finnish army regimental organization was unsuitable to forest warfare. It was also found that the effectiveness of artillery in the forest was far greater than had previously been assumed.

This general shift in thinking seems to also have led to the armor question being re-examined. This didn't actually mean that any new information was produced. The 1934 trials in the Isthmus were held using some new Vickers tanks and the single Carden-Loyd tankette in Finland - but the majority of the tanks were Renaults. Effectively, the Finnish armored corps demonstrated in 1934 what they had already demonstrated in 1920 and the following decade: that Renault FTs could be used in Finnish terrain. What was unacceptable in the 1920's became acceptable in the 1930's, and Finnish armored thinking changed.


The fact that practically identical trials in 1920 and 1934 had opposite effects on Finnish doctrine highlights the way in which military thought cannot be seen as simple, technical problem-solving. As Elizabeth Kier said, understanding military culture is crucial to understanding the development and change of doctrine. Specifically, an examination of the army's conception of Finnish terrain through critical geopolitics and the history of ideas is crucial to understanding how the army saw the useability of tanks and the necessity of anti-tank defenses. To understand what doctrines armies arrive at, we have to understand how they see.

And that, in brief and unscientific form, was pretty much my master's thesis. It clocked in at 97 pages, and was both incredibly stressful and incredibly rewarding to write. The whole project took off in a completely unexpected direction by the time I found myself reading articles on the effectiveness of various kinds of artillery munitions in forests, but it was worth it. Overall, though I'm very much a fan of new military history, I feel that my thesis also demonstrates that re-examining topics of "old military history" like doctrine and tactics with a cultural studies approach and apparatus can be worthwhile, at least in providing new perspectives.


Leon said...

I'm also wondering if the Jaeger-officers were influenced by the success of German 'stormtrooper' tactics late in WW I. Germany wasn't in the position to field an armoured force comparable to the French and British and put their efforts into new infantry tactics.

Michael Halila said...

I don't know how aware the Jägers will have been of stormtrooper tactics, since they were trained fairly early in the war and only saw fairly light service on the eastern front, but this is something I'll definitely be looking at if there's ever a followup to this. My impression from the material is that they'd have considered stormtrooper tactics irrelevant to Finland, since they believed that the kind of static front that stormtroopers would infiltrate couldn't ever develop here.