The United Kingdom and France initially had a noncommittal attitude towards the Winter War. This changed as the Finnish front lines continued to hold and as general pressure continued to grow. The Western Allies believed that providing military assistance to Finland would give them an opportunity to cut off Sweden’s ore shipments to Germany. The Allies wanted to avoid war with the Soviet Union. In the end, they were prepared to take that risk. Norway and Sweden were unwilling to allow Allied troops to pass through their territories. When Finland signed a peace treaty on 12 March, the Allies considered it to be a great loss to them.
The Western Allies believed that they needed time
After declaring war on Germany on 3 September 1939, the United Kingdom and France believed that their ground forces were not sufficiently prepared for military operations. To gain time to arm their armed forces, the Western Allies chose exhausting Germany with a naval blockade, i.e. a commercial blockade, as their strategy.
The greatest violator of the blockade was the Soviet Union, which continuously delivered oil, food and other supplies to Germany to maintain a friendly relationship with it. Germany and the Soviet Union were not allies, although they had signed a non-aggression pact known as the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact between them on 23 August 1939. The pact also included a secret protocol regarding the two countries’ spheres of influence in Europe.
Sweden continued to sell iron ore to Germany. During the open water season, ore could be easily transported from Luleå to Germany across the Baltic Sea. The Western Allies were unable to operate on the Baltic Sea. In winter, shipments had to be first transported by train from Kiruna to the Port of Narvik and from there by ship to Germany. On this route, the Royal Navy could make it difficult for the shipments to reach their destination, although the cargo ships tried to stay within Norway’s territorial waters.
The Western Allies wanted to avoid open conflict with the Soviet Union
The Western Allies made every effort to avoid open conflict with the Soviet Union. However, their interests also included tying the Soviet Union to a war in the north in order to weaken its ability to deliver products and goods to Germany.
The Allies were also interested in keeping the Soviet Union tied up in the south. In this area, their targets were the Caucasus Mountains and particularly the oil fields of Baku. Italy was an obstacle for these plans. It had declared itself a neutral country after the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939. However, Italy had a close relationship with Germany, having signed a pact of friendship and alliance, also known as the Pact of Steel, with it in May 1939.
The United Kingdom considered the coast of Norway to be of vital importance
In a report drafted by the committee, dated 30 October 1939, the Kiruna–Gällivare and Narvik areas were identified as potential targets for an invasion by the Red Army that were important to the United Kingdom. The coast of Norway was a vital area for the United Kingdom.
Among the Nordic countries, Norway was special to the United Kingdom. Norway had already been informed in September that the United Kingdom would treat any aggression against Norway by any country as it would an attack against the British Isles. The Chiefs of Staff Committee did not consider it to be necessary to change this fundamental fact. In contrast, the committee did not consider providing military assistance to other countries to be possible. The Chiefs of Staff Committee still maintained this stance in a report that was dated 21 November 1939.
A war in the north was also considered to indirectly weaken Germany
In practice, the Chiefs of Staff Committee opposed a draft plan by the British Foreign Office in which the Scandinavian countries would keep the Soviet Union tied up in the north. In the British Foreign Office’s opinion, another war could have been fought in Scandinavia simultaneously with the large-scale war in Europe. This second war would have consumed the Soviet Union’s resources and hindered the export of strategic supplies, particularly the export of iron ore from Sweden to Germany. In the extreme case, these operations were considered to lead to a war with the Soviet Union.
In the minds of the people of the British Foreign Office, the main responsibility for fighting a war with the Soviet Union would fall to Finland as well as Sweden and Norway as Finland’s supporters. The Allies would support these countries in secret. The plan also included guarantees that would be made to Sweden and Norway against the eventuality of an invasion by Germany.
The Western Allies initially had a cautious approach to the Winter War
When the Soviet Union invaded Poland on 17 September, the United Kingdom and France remained rather passive despite having guaranteed Poland’s sovereignty in the face of ‘an invasion by a European country’. The explanation the two countries gave to the public for their passive approach was that their guarantees to Poland applied in the case of an attack by a European country.
The attack on Finland by the Red Army on 30 November 1939 seems to have come as a surprise to the British government. The main starting point in its consideration of possible countermeasures was that it had to avoid being pulled into a war with the Soviet Union.
The conclusions of a meeting of the War Cabinet on 2 December stated the following: ‘Indignation with Russia was likely to increase in this country, and it might be difficult to politically avoid a more open condemnation of her action in Finland in view of its similarity to German aggression in Poland.’
A short war would have prevented public opinion from rising in favour of Finland. One of the parties that predicted a short war was the evening paper Evening Standard, which wrote on 2 December that the Finnish General Headquarters had issued its first and last situation report on the previous day.
In-principle decision by the United Kingdom and France on assisting Finland
In France, the general outcry appears to have been even greater after the initial confusion. The French Parliament constantly pressured Édouard Daladier’s government to assist Finland. Both France and the United Kingdom supported the resolution of the Council of the League of Nations, dated 14 December, with which the Soviet Union was expelled from the organisation.
The evening of the same day, France proposed collaboration to the United Kingdom in assisting Finland. Lord Halifax, the British foreign secretary, assessed on 15 December that neither Sweden nor Norway were in any imminent danger from either the Soviet Union or Germany for as long as Finland held its ground. In fact, he was of the opinion that the Allies would benefit from providing assistance to Finland. It would be an efficient way to prevent the Soviet Union from accessing the Atlantic Ocean. First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill considered assisting Finland to provide a good opportunity to cut off Sweden’s ore shipments to Germany.
The Anglo-French Supreme War Council discussed assisting Finland in a meeting held in Paris on 19 December. The parties agreed on providing assistance, but the specific form of assistance remained undecided. The Chiefs of Staff Committee, formed by each country’s chiefs of staff, was in charge of the planning.
Both France and the United Kingdom negotiated assistance separately
Despite their mutual coordination, both countries communicated the political and military information on potential assistance to Finland through their own diplomats and military representatives. On the Finnish side, Envoy G. A. Gripenberg pressed for information from the British government in London, while Envoy Harri Holma did the same with the French government in Paris. In Helsinki, the government representatives received information from British Ambassador T. M. Snow and French Ambassador Charles Magny.
It appears that the British and French governments were dissatisfied with their ambassadors’ ability to pass information. The United Kingdom replaced its ambassador in late February and appointed Gordon Vereker to the post. France also tired of its own ambassador in late February. Magny paid a parting visit to Foreign Minister Tanner on 29 February.
Both countries sent their own military representatives to the Finnish General Headquarters. They also held discussions with the commander-in-chief, Field Marshal Mannerheim. The British military representative was Brigadier C. A. Ling and the French representative was Lieutenant Colonel Jean Ganeval.
The discussions with the two countries’ representatives regarding a possible military operation by the Allies in Scandinavia proved to be conflicting from Finland’s point of view. The information was not consistent in all respects. In the early stages of the Winter War, both countries sold some ordnance to Finland without mutual coordination. Finland later addressed its requests for ordnance jointly to both countries. However, the final decision on delivering the supplies was made by the country from which the weapons would be delivered.
Providing military assistance to Finland changed the Allies’ strategy
In a report submitted on 31 December by the chiefs of staff, they stated that they were ready to change the Western Allies’ strategy. Launching an offensive in Scandinavia was considered to be a major strategic change. Until then, the strategy had been to remain on the defensive on land and in the air until the countries considered their materiel to be sufficient against Germany. The planned offensive operation was considered to have the potential to become a decisive success for the allies.
France supported a naval and landing operation to Petsamo
Finland proposed a naval operation against Russian-occupied Petsamo to the Western Allies. In order to obscure the visible role of the Allies, the operation would have been conducted mainly with vessels of the Polish Navy that had made it to the west. France was enthusiastic about the plan. A landing operation to Petsamo was kept a part of the French plans throughout January.
The United Kingdom rejected the idea from the beginning. It stood firmly by its stance that the Allies should land at Narvik and continue from there by rail first to the Gulf of Bothnia and then to Finland. Securing the routes would also mean gaining control of the Kiruna ore fields in Sweden.
The chiefs of staffs of the Allies discussed sending troops to Finland during their meeting in Paris between 31 January and 1 February. At this stage, France was still advocating an attack through Petsamo. The United Kingdom stood by its refusal. The British believed that the soldiers should be deployed to Finland via Norway and Sweden by transporting them first on ships to Narvik and then on trains via Kiruna to the shore of the Gulf of Bothnia and from there to Northern Finland.
The Allies decided upon military assistance in a meeting on 5 February
The final decision to deploy troops to Finland was made at a meeting of the Anglo-French Supreme War Council in Paris. Prime Minister Daladier of France had already abandoned the plans for Petsamo before the meeting. He considered the Narvik–Gulf of Bothnia operation supported by the British to be better with respect to the greater war. The operation would achieve two goals: assisting Finland and taking control of the Swedish ore fields.
The military assistance had two objectives
The leaders of the Western Allies also approved a military plan that would tie a significant proportion of the troops to protecting the routes from a possible attack by Germany in Norway and Sweden. While securing the rail routes, the troops could take control of the Kiruna ore fields. According to the decision, the troops transported to Finland would be deployed to Northern Finland. In this regard, the decision was not ideal for Finland, which required fresh troops on the Karelian Isthmus specifically.
The Red Army’s forces had taken the offensive on the Karelian Isthmus on 1 February, after a month-long period of trench warfare. The General Headquarters interpreted that a large-scale offensive had begun. However, the attacks in question were only preparatory attacks preceding a breakthrough attack. The actual large-scale offensive on the Karelian Isthmus started on 11 February.
Sweden and Norway’s refusal to allow passage presented a problem
Sweden and Norway remained the main problem for the military plan. They had already refused the Allies’ requests to allow Allied forces to pass through their territories three times. This time, the Allies decided to demand for a right of passage. Finland was to submit an official appeal for aid by 1 March. Based on the appeal, the Allies could invoke a resolution of the League of Nations, dated 14 December 1939, in which the members of the organisation were encouraged to assist Finland in defending itself against the Soviet invasion.
On 20 January, the Allies issued their third notes to Sweden and Norway concerning the transport of their troops to Finland through the Swedish and Norwegian territories. Sweden and Norway once again answered in the negative, later giving the same response to the fourth note issued by the United Kingdom at the beginning of March.
In March, the British War Cabinet was in principle prepared to deploy troops even without the outright consent of Sweden and Norway. However, the aim was to avoid taking military action against the forces of these countries. In addition to submitting an official refusal, Sweden also made it clear to the Western Allies that if they invaded Sweden, it would destroy and demolish the railway between Kiruna and Narvik.
Sweden stood by its refusal to allow passage to Allied troops
The Finnish political leadership was first informed of the decisions of the Anglo-French Supreme War Council on 7 February. Foreign Minister Tanner utilised this information to pressure Sweden during his meeting with Swedish Foreign Minister Günther and Prime Minister Hansson in Stockholm on 13 February. They both categorically refused the proposal for active Swedish troops to be deployed to Finland and also stated their negative stance on allowing passage to Western troops.
The United Kingdom was in charge of planning the operation
The responsibility for planning the military assistance sent by the Western Allies fell to the United Kingdom. However, both countries would be responsible for transporting their own forces. The Polish troops would be transported together with the French troops. According to the British operation plan, the first ships would depart on 12 March. France had already begun assembling the forces that would be deployed to Finland in mid-January. Some of the British forces were units that were initially planned to be deployed to France.
The Polish government-in-exile wanted to strengthen its position
One of the reasons provided by the Polish government-in-exile, based in Angers, France, for deploying its troops was that having Polish forces in Finland would serve as living proof of Poland’s existence. Their troops would fight as a united front with the Allies and strengthen Poland’s position among the Allies.
The news of Finland’s peace overtures increased the activity of the Allies
In addition to planning the operation, the British were also in charge of maintaining contact with Finland. Nevertheless, France was still in close contact with representatives of the Finnish
government. The news of Finland’s peace overtures increased the French government’s activity. The British occasionally had to correct the information provided to Finland by the French regarding the number of troops and their transport schedule, among other things. The British agreed with the French on the fact that Finland’s withdrawal from the war would be a great loss to the Western Allies.
In a meeting of the British War Cabinet on 1 March, the United Kingdom was prepared to deploy half of the hundred bombers requested by Finland to Finland. This decision was later specified to state that the deployment of the troops required Finland to submit an official appeal for Western assistance.
The Finnish government wavered between Western assistance and peace negotiations
Both the Allies and the Soviet Union pressured the Finnish government to make its own decision. Finland was given deadlines by which it had to declare its stance. New deadlines were set after the first ones had passed.
In the Finnish government’s view, the Soviet Union’s terms for the peace negotiations were unreasonable. On the other hand, receiving Western assistance seemed uncertain because of Norway and Sweden’s refusal to allow the troops passage. The government was very uncertain whether the Anglo-French forces would make it to Finland in time. Furthermore, the numbers reported by the British and French representatives differed from each other. The third unpredictable factor was whether the Finnish front would hold on the Karelian Isthmus. The news from the front was worrying.
The fighting on the Karelian Isthmus had shifted to the third and last defensive line
On 15 February, the commander-in-chief had given the forces on the western Karelian Isthmus permission to retreat from the Mannerheim Line to the Interim Line southeast of Viipuri (Vyborg). From there, the troops were pulled in the evening of 27 February to the Rear Line, which ran across the Karelian Isthmus from Viipuri via Tali (Paltsevo) to the Vuoksi (Vuoksa) River.
At the beginning of March, the two countries had already moved on to fighting over the control of Viipuri, the second largest city in Finland. An offensive by Red Army forces across the frozen Vyborg Bay caused new crises for the Finnish troops defending the Isthmus. The enemy forces that made it to the northern shore of Vyborg Bay blocked the road between Viipuri and Hamina on the east side of Säkkijärvi (Kondratjewo). The bridgehead seemed to grow day by day despite all countermeasures.
On the eastern Karelian Isthmus, the Red Army was trying to advance to the rear of the defending forces by capturing the ridges of Äyräpää (Baryshevo) and attacking across the Vuoksi River in Vuosalmi. The troops who had been transferred to Vuosalmi from the main defensive line at the Vuoksi River–Lake Suvanto (Sukhodolskoye)–Taipale (Burnaya) River waterline were for the time being able to constrain the bridgehead captured by the enemy to a small area.
The Finnish government chose peace negotiations
The Finnish government ended its wavering between the two alternatives of Western assistance and peace negotiations for good on 5 March. The government decided to send a negotiation delegation to Moscow. Late in the evening on 12 March, the delegation signed a peace treaty with the Soviet Union that was harsh for Finland. Hostilities ceased at the front lines at 11am Finnish time on 13 March.
The Allies were disappointed with the peace treaty signed by Finland
The Western Allies considered the Moscow Peace Treaty to be a great loss. They showed their bitterness by talking about Finland’s surrender. This term is still in use in some Western historical studies on the Second World War.
The United Kingdom and France recalled the munitions being transported to Finland and demanded that Finland also return any weapons that had already arrived in the country. The matter concluded in a compromise. Finland was not required to return all ordnance it had procured from the West.
The harsh peace that ended the Winter War determined Finland’s position in the Second World War. Finland was left out of the Allies. With Sweden standing by its previous stance, the only options left to Finland were Germany and the Soviet Union.