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Book Review: Two Planks and A Passion: An Off-piste History of War

Published: The Scotsman (Section: Critique) 01 Nov 2008

Continuum, 436pp, GBP 25

COULD THE OUTCOME OF THE Second World War have been decided by the humble ski? That’s the bold but surprisingly convincing claim made by Roland Huntford in Two Planks and a Passion.

Serious historians are sometimes scornful of attempts to find causal links between major world events and apparently irrelevant minutiae. And perhaps they’re right. Perhaps the myriad twists and turns of human experience really are too complex to be explained in such reductive terms. Every now and then, though, a book like this comes along and makes an outlandish claim seem beguilingly plausible.

A journalist and author with a lifetime of skiing experience, Huntford begins his story 20,000 years ago, at the peak of the last Ice Age, when Palaeolithic Cro-Magnon man used skis, sledges and snowshoes to move around a cold, snowy world and left cave paintings behind to prove it.

An expert on polar exploration, having written books on Scott, Amundsen, Shackleton and Nansen, Huntford also argues that skis were central in the race for the South Pole, pointing out that Scott’s team failed not because they encountered unseasonably cold weather, as Scott claimed, but because they couldn’t ski even half as well as their Norwegian counterparts.

It’s in his examination of the so-called Winter War of 1939-40, though, where Huntford really breaks new ground. As he puts it: “A few thousand Finnish skiers who happened to be soldiers probably decided the fate of the world as we know it.”

When Stalin invaded Finland in November 1939, ostensibly to move his western border further away from Leningrad, but undoubtedly with the conquest and subjugation of the entire Finnish nation in mind, the result seemed like a foregone conclusion. In theory, the 600,000 Red Army soldiers he unleashed should easily have defeated the Finnish army of just 150,000, particularly as the Soviets enjoyed almost complete air superiority. Soviet high command expected the fighting to be over in just 12 days.

However, there was one crucial difference between the two armies: the Finns had skis; the Soviets did not. Had Stalin paid attention to the history of winter warfare in northern Europe, he might have happened upon the story of the Swedish King Gustav Vasa who, when he found himself at war with Ivan the Terrible in the winter of 1555-6, advised his commanders to “conscript all skiers” and “exploit your advantage in narrow, [forest] paths, where the enemy cannot operate on a broad front”.

Stalin, although a voracious reader of history books throughout his life, just happened to be reading the wrong history books towards the end of 1939, and so the Finns were able to win one of the greatest against-the-odds victories of all time.

As if determined to prove King Gustav right, the Soviet troops advanced in slow-moving columns along existing roads and tracks. The deep snow made it difficult for them to operate anywhere else.

The Finns, meanwhile, made full use of the difficult terrain, popping up out of nowhere to ambush the unwieldy Red Army then speeding away on skis before a counter-attack could be organised.

Their tactic of choice involved dividing the enemy columns up into “mottis” (a Finnish word meaning a pile of logs waiting to be sawn up) by immobilising tanks at either end and then machine-gunning all the soldiers unfortunate to be trapped in between them.

Realising why his side was suffering such heavy losses, a Red Army commander, Khadzhi-Umar Mamsurov, attempted to improvise a skiing unit by acquiring ski-savvy volunteers from Leningrad, but in the end these men proved worse than useless when it emerged “they could not even read a compass or map properly”. The Finns – hunters and foresters who spent much of their everyday lives on skis during the winter – were in their element; the Soviets, emphatically, were not.

When the fighting eventually ended, on 13 March 1940, the Red Army had lost an unbelievable 250,000 men, against just 25,000 Finns. The Soviets acquired a large chunk of Finnish territory, but Finland got to keep its independence and Stalin and his cronies had been humbled before the watching world.

The ramifications of this unexpected turn of events were huge. Firstly, Huntford argues, the Winter War played a big part in persuading Hitler to invade the Soviet Union in 1941 (if the Soviets can’t even beat a minor power like Finland, so the logic must have gone, what chance do they stand against the might of Nazi Germany?) But Huntford also explains how the lessons learned in Finland caused Stalin to reorganise his army in the intervening period, doing away with the cumbersome dual chain of command that had hitherto meant every unit had to be overseen by a political representative, and returning decisionmaking power to the officer corps.

Had it not been for Finns on skis, in other words, Hitler might not have invaded the USSR, and when he did, the USSR might not have had a military strong enough to withstand the Nazi onslaught. All of which raises the uncomfortable question: if these two murderous regimes hadn’t turned on each other in 1941, but continued to terrorise the peoples of Europe in tandem, what, if anything, could Britain and America have done to stop them?

Discounting nuclear attacks on major cities, the answer is probably: nothing. So next time you find yourself in an après-ski bar in Austria or France, cheeks glowing after another great day on the slopes, raise a glass to the brave skier-soldiers of Finland. If it wasn’t for them, skiing in the Alps might still be verboten for us Brits.

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