Finns know a thing or two about forest life.
They live in the most forested country in Europe. Thus, a reflection of elements of forest life in their military tactics against the Soviets in the Winter War should not come as a great surprise.
The Soviets were vastly superior to the Finns in the war in terms of strength. They had a lot more soldiers, and thousands more tanks and warplanes. It was an asymmetric warfare.
However, with the help of a tactic called motti, the Finns were still able to corner the Soviets, inflicting great sufferings on them.
The Finnish word motti refers to a bundle of logs held in place by stakes that will be chopped to make firewood of convenient lengths. In the context of war, motti describes a tactic that the Finns used to immobilise, segment, surround and destroy the Soviet troops that were many times as large as them.
How motti was put into action
A motti operation was carried out in three phases:
1) Scouting: It is only to be expected that locating the enemy and gathering as much information about them as possible is the first step of making a successful attack.
The key pieces of information to be gathered during reconnaissance include the total length of the enemy column and the number of major segments it is divided in. Other information such as positions and types of the artillery assets, armoured combat vehicles and field kitchens is also collected.
Once this knowledge was gained, the Finns launched attacks to divide the enemies into segments or mottis.
2) Segmentation: Finnish ski troopers were way more mobile in the forested, snow-covered areas than the Red Army.
They were able to swiftly move up and down the entire length of the enemy column while navigating through the deep forests. They created strong roadblocks at each end of the column as soon as it reached a position suitable enough to mount an attack.
This halted the movement of the Soviets who used heavy artilleries and thus opted mostly for roads to advance. They were neither able to go forward nor move backward without extensive preparations. In other words, they were segmented and trapped in the frozen wilderness.
This gave the Finns a brief superiority. They then carried out multiple attacks at the weakest and most vulnerable points along the entire column to break the enemy force into more fragments.
This was aimed at further weakening the mottis.
3) Annihilation: The final stage of the motti tactic would begin once the enemy troops were broken into smaller and more manageable segments.
It was easy to deal with such fragments individually by launching attacks from all sides so that there would be no way for the enemies to escape. The Finns were quick to destroy the smaller and weaker mottis first.
The larger mottis –which were powerful with ample supplies of weapon and ammunition– were often systematically destroyed. The radio teams were killed, leaving the soldiers unable to communicate with fellow troops or officers of higher ranks.
This caused the Red Army members to feel a psychological pressure coupled with a strong sense of helplessness.
The field kitchens of the larger mottis were also targeted and this cut off the food supply. Trapped in woodlands in freezing temperatures, the Soviets were not only fighting hunger but were also highly apprehensive of surprise sniper attacks. It was not long before their power of resistance dwindled.
Those who did not succumb to bullet wounds either starved or froze to death.
The motti tactic gave the Finns large-scale victories, especially in the battle of Suomussalmi, which was fought as part of the Winter War.
The Suomussalmi area in Kainuu region had many lakes, dense forests and few roads. The Soviet troops had to travel along roads as they were carrying heavy artilleries.
They did it out of necessity, but it made them completely vulnerable to the motti tactic and doomed them to death.
The Soviets suffered a terrible and unexpected defeat in the battle of Suomussalmi. The real death figures are disputed but thousands of Soviet soldiers were said to have died.
In contrast, only several hundred Finnish troops were killed.
After the battle was over, the Finns seized arms and ammunition, and captured dozens of Soviet trucks, tanks and artilleries.
The Finns achieved another major victory in the battle of Raate Road where they employed the motti tactic.
A tactical masterpiece
“So impressive were the victories scored through the use of motti tactic that even today, the battle of Suomussalmi is taught as a tactical masterpiece at the United States Military Academy and Britain’s Royal Military Academy Sandhurst,” American author William R Trotter wrote in his book 'A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War 1393-1940'.
He wrote that there is no evidence that motti tactic was in Finland’s pre-Winter War training curricula. “My own research leads me to believe that individual officers might very well have coined the phrase informally at some point in the late 1930s.”
The motti tactic was not a game-changing invention by the Finns. They were cunning enough to use the concept of a component of forest life in their combat strategies against an overwhelmingly superior opponent.
They made up in astuteness what they lacked in manpower and firepower.
*NOTE: This article is the third of an 8-part series on the Winter War to be published from 30 November (the day the conflict started) til 13 March (when it ended). Next read: 'Molotov cocktail: A synergy between Soviet bread and Finnish drink' coming out on 26 December.