War in the East: race to the Finnish

, | Game diaries

Finland’s involvement in World War II includes one of the great David vs. Goliath stories of all time. Invaded in November 1930 by Stalin’s Red Army, the woefully outnumbered and outgunned Finns humiliated the Russians, inflicting heavy casualties, and initially thwarting all their objectives. The lightly armed Finns conducted a clinic in mobile winter warfare, typified by the Battle of Suomussalmi where two entire Soviet divisions were annihilated while trapped on a forest road. Finnish casualties were fewer than 500. The war introduced the world to the untranslatable Finnish word sisu: a national strength of will that exemplified the performance of the country’s military. The Red Army eventually overcame this heroic resistance through a combination of improved leadership, coordination, and mostly just overwhelming numbers. But the Peace of Moscow signed in March 1940 fell far short of Stalin’s initial goal of the conquest of the entire country. The war captured the world’s imagination (although secured virtually no material assistance) and has been recounted in multiple books in many languages. Former PC Gamer columnist and wargaming guru William Trotter wrote an excellent account, Frozen Hell, almost twenty years ago, and a classic popular history, White Death by Allen Chew, was recently reprinted after initial publication way back in 1971.

After the jump, the darker side of the story

Unfortunately, the rest of story has a slightly darker side, although its general perception is perhaps not entirely fair to the Finns. Having been the victims of unprovoked aggression in 1939, the Finns negotiated an alliance with Germany and invaded the Soviet Union a few days after the start of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941. Although their war aims were essentially limited to the recapture of territory lost in the Peace of Moscow, the Finns were tarred by their cooperation with the hideous Nazi regime. Their complicity in German attempts to cut the Lend-Lease route through Murmansk brought them to the verge of conflict with the Western Allies. From a public relations standpoint, there isn’t much worse than having your leaders photographed with Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler. The Finnish relationship with the German war effort was complex, and Finland was forced out of the war in 1944, making a separate peace after the Soviet summer offensive recaptured previous losses. This whole episode is known in Finland as the Continuation War, perhaps to emphasize its link with the original Soviet invasion, and much less has been written about it, especially in English, where there has been little available until the publication last month of an outstanding book, Finland’s War of Choice, by Henrik O. Lunde, a retired American military officer of Norwegian birth. Lunde tells a fascinating tale of conflicting goals, uncoordinated operations, and unrealistic plans which gives the Finnish theater an air of unreality bordering on absurdity. It’s a tale that unfortunately doesn’t translate particularly well to cardboard and paper, or its digital doppelganger.

The fundamental difference between historical wargames and historical strategy games is the latter’s limitation on player freedom in the name of historical plausibility. Nowhere is this difference more pronounced than in the realm of production and politics. Wargames like War in the East are operational-level games, and thus don’t allow the German player to control things like unit production. But even true strategic-level wargames take great care not to upset the illusion of historicity. There are so many historical factors inherent in things like production schedules and technological research that changing them substantially ventures into the realm of speculative historical fiction.

Obviously, this fiction is what many strategy gamers enjoy about gaming, and while no one thinks that conquering the world as Wurttemburg in Europa Universalis is plausible, it is imaginatively attractive for many. For others, it’s a blemish on a style of game that’s all about working within reasonable historical parameters. Yes, maybe Charles XII could have won at Poltava. No, he couldn’t have conquered Africa. Or the Aztecs. And certainly not the space orcs.

But wargame designers sometimes lose sight of this and end up making not very good games with superficially accurate historical parts. The Finnish part of the Eastern Front has always presented a problem for designers because of the limitations of that theater: supply, weather, terrain, and above all, politics. The Finns were caught in a classic squeeze: whereas they had won the world’s sympathy (but again, little meaningful support) when the Soviets were seen as the West’s enemy, the German invasion and subsequent Anglo-Russian alliance made them political pariahs. For this and other reasons, Finnish cooperation with the Germans was always of the “yeah, but…” variety. Which is pretty hard to game.

The Finnish front extended from Leningrad all the way to the Kola Peninsula at the tip of Europe, where the German Army of Norway, as it was designated, tried to capture the Soviet port of Murmansk, and where the Allied Arctic convoys were delivering critical goods to a USSR nearing collapse. The Germans were constrained by Hitler’s irrational fear of a British invasion of Norway, and concern for the safety of the Finnish nickel mines at Petsamo, which were significant industrial assets for the German war machine. It’s all compelling stuff for a game aiming for “strategic scope”.

But most invasion of Russia games just include the area around Leningrad, because that ties into primary German objectives. The war in the Arctic was about cutting the Lend-Lease route, and after 1941 the northern route became less important as materiel started flowing through the Persian Gulf (and the Soviet Pacific ports). One game that didn’t skimp on the Finns is GDW’s 1984 monster boardgame Fire in the East. Here’s a picture of part of the northern map.

I once tried playing Fire in the East as a multiplayer postal game in the mid-eighties. It was a spectacular failure, mostly due to my lack of time (familiar story) and I don’t remember any specifics about the Finnish campaign. Still, all that continuous rough terrain, swamp, and those rivers suggest Murmansk was a tough target. In real life, the Germans never made it past the Litsa River.

Rules for Finnish involvement in Operation Barbarossa games usually boil down to one thing: the Finns can’t do anything meaningful militarily until the fall of Leningrad. This was essentially the precondition which the Finns set for any commitment that made them uncomfortable. Of course, once Leningrad fell, other problems on the Finnish front would essentially solve themselves, so it was a low-risk demand.

A historical strategy game would solve this problem by giving the German player the freedom to ignore Finnish concerns, perhaps with some penalty, or it would incorporate a diplomatic element. The problem with the first solution is that without Finnish cooperation, it would have been essentially impossible to supply troops anywhere in Finland, not to mention those north of the Arctic Circle. So the “penalty” would be watching your troops freeze to death. As for diplomatic options, the only choice would be to have Finland become a full-blown Axis ally, which is unrealistic for the reasons mentioned above. No amount of “diplomacy” is going to assuage British (and American) fears that you are about to help hand the world over to Nazism.

This leaves games about Finns and Barbarossa with serious problems. The Finns were anything but militarily irrelevant. Their offensives in Karelia were impressive and achieved their territorial objectives. But once the Finnish East Karelia offensive captured Medvezhyegorsk on 8 December, they were essentially done. They were aided, of course, by the fact that the Soviets had additional concerns. Lunde says:

German pressure from the south forced the Soviets to weaken their forces along the Finnish border in order to make units available to contest the advance of Army Group North. By the time the Finns began their operations, the Soviets had redeployed nearly all their reserve formations. The Finns were thus confronted by only seven divisions plus the two brigades at Hanko, giving them a 4:1 superiority in infantry and a 9:1 superiority in artillery. They could also remain relatively assured that the forces opposing them would not increase markedly in the near future as the Soviets were throwing all they had at the approaching Germans.

This is an excellent gaming dilemma: where do you send your reserves, and how badly are you punished if you’re wrong? It helps if you have good intel. The Soviets did, and acted accordingly. The new Finnish defensive line west of Lake Ladoga was reached on September 9, although significant offensive operations in that sector had ceased prior to that. Lunde again:

The Soviets quickly realized that the Finnish offensive on the Karelian Isthmus had ended. They had remnants of six divisions and several separate battalions and regiments defending Leningrad from the north. They quickly withdrew two of these divisions on September 5 and committed them against the Germans.

For a game like War in the East, this is already a bit hard to replicate. The Finns and Germans don’t have separate objectives, so in game terms, there is no reason for the Finns to stop fighting, ever. German Field Marshal Ritter von Leeb, commander of Army Group North, pointed out the obvious.

Leeb observed that […] what was essential was to have the Finns undertake operations to tie down the maximum number of Soviet troops on their fronts. If they did not do that the Soviets could create serious problems for the Germans by withdrawing substantial forces from the Finnish front for use against his Army Group.

This essential tension between what the Finns wanted and what the Germans needed is the whole simulation problem. It’s made more urgent by Lunde’s assessment that they could have made a significant difference.

The handful of mauled Soviet divisions north of Leningrad could have been brushed aside easily by the Finns, particularly if they had not transferred forces to East Karelia or if those transfers had been delayed until after the requested German operations on the Karelian isthmus. Such operations would also have closed the one opening in the German encirclement — across the southern part of Lake Ladoga.

But they didn’t. Instead, they halted and did not participate in the shelling or bombing of Leningrad. Their presence north of the city preserved the blockade from that direction, but the Germans were never able to close the ring around Leningrad completely. And that was that.

War in the East simulates this with the “Finnish No Attack Line”. If you look at the screenshot above, you’ll see that dotted line with the text above it. Finnish units cannot attack hexes south of that line. They can move south of it, but attacking is verboten. Which means that if the Russians put any units at all along that line, the Finns are stuck.

I’m not really sure what the point of this is. If you’re just trying for completeness without concern for gameplay, why didn’t you include central Finland and Lapland? There were plenty of German and Finnish forces there. On the other hand, if you’re making a game, you’re violating one of my basic game principles, and I’m sure you didn’t mean to do that.

If I were a designer, I would leave the Finns out of eastern front games entirely. One of my two design beliefs is that anything which plays the same every time should be omitted from the game. Because there is no opportunity for the Finns to change their posture, the Russians need never fear an attack on Leningrad from the north. So if you’re doing this for historical reasons, you might as well just require the Soviets to keep the same units on that front which they did in real life, and keep them off-board. Just adjust the reinforcement schedules. As a player, you have no decisions to make. Moving units should require decisions. So you should have no units to move.

I know the argument: it’s historical, so it needs to be included, because omissions or abstractions are inherently bad. Hey, I hear you. Which is why I want to make sure we end on this extended excerpt from Lunde’s book, about the planning and execution of the attack on Murmansk.

[Mountain Corps Norway commander General Eduard] Dietl had given Hitler an accurate description of the difficulties facing Mountain Corps Norway when the two met on April 21, 1941. One aspect of his concerns was the total lack of east-west roads. To overcome this obstacle Dietl was assigned Reich Labor Leader Welser.

Dietl received maps of the operational area in May and these showed that things were not as difficult as he had depicted to Hitler. Only a small border strip in the zone of operations showed a complete lack of roads and tracks. A few kilometers inside, the country roads and tracks were marked. The maps showed one road leading from the bridge over the Titovka River to Litsa village. Then there was another from Lake Chapr to Motovka. Finally, there was a road leading from Motovka north to Litsa village. All these roads connected to the main road leading east to Murmansk. The operational plans of the Mountain Corps were made on the assumption that the roads shown on the maps existed.

It may well be that OKW showed Hitler these maps and this may have caused him to believe that his Bavarian friend had painted an overly pessimistic picture of the transportation problems confronting Mountain Corps Norway. This may have led him to disregard Dietl’s recommendation that the main offensive take place from Salla towards Kandalaksha and that a defensive posture be adopted on the Arctic front.

By midday on June 29 the Germans discovered that the roads shown on the maps from Chapr Lake to Motovka did not exist and aerial reconnaissance also showed that there was no road from Motovka to Litsa village. The 2nd Division soon discovered that there was also no road from Titovka to the lower Litsa River. The explanation for this serious miscalculation seems to stem from an analysis of the maps at OKW. The analysts had assumed that the Soviets used the same map symbols as the countries in central Europe. As a result, they had interpreted the dotted double lines on the Soviet maps as depicting roads or tracks. What these maps actually showed were telephone lines and the routes used by Lapps in their winter migrations.

Migration routes, eh? I’d be interested to see if 2by3 Games includes this in the patch that fixes that glaring omission with the water wells. And the bare-chested fighting.

Click here for the previous War in the East entry.