Establishment of the first headquarters of the Finnish Defence Forces on 2 February 1918
Finland's declaration of independence on 6 December 1917, the
Civic Guards were proclaimed the troops of the government on 25 January 1918 and
C.G.E Mannerheim was appointed as Commander-in-Chief of these forces the next day. Fighting between the White Guards (as the Civic Guards were commonly known) and the
Red Guards had already broken out about a week before around
Viipuri, in what became known as the
Finnish Civil War.
In the war, the Whites were victorious in large part thanks to the leadership of Mannerheim and the lead by example offensive mindedness of 1,800 German-trained
Finnish Jägers, who brought with them German tactical doctrine and military culture. The post-war years were characterized by the
Volunteer Campaigns that came to an end in 1920 with the signing of the
Treaty of Tartu, which ended the state of war between Finland and
Soviet Russia and defined the internationally recognized borders of Finland.
After winning the Civil War, the Finnish peacetime army was organized as three divisions and a brigade by professional German officers. It became the basic structure for the next 20 years. The coast was guarded by former czarist coastal fortifications and ships taken as prizes of war. The
Air Force had already been formed in March 1918, but remained a part of the Army and did not become a fully independent fighting force until 1928.
The new government instituted conscription after the Civil War and also introduced a mobilization system and compulsory refresher courses for reservists. An academy providing basic officer training (Kadettikoulu) was established in 1919, the founding of a General Staff College (Sotakorkeakoulu) followed in 1924, and in 1927 a tactical training school (Taistelukoulu) for company-grade and junior officers and NCOs was set up. The requirement of one year of compulsory service was greater than that imposed by any other Scandinavian country in the 1920s and the 1930s, but political opposition to defense spending left the military badly equipped to resist an attack by the Soviet Union, the only security threat in Finnish eyes.
World War II
When the Soviets
invaded in November 1939, the Finns defeated the Red Army on numerous occasions, including at the crucial
Battle of Suomussalmi. These successes were in large part thanks to the application of
motti tactics. While the Finns ultimately lost the war and were forced to agree to the
Moscow Peace Treaty, the Soviet objective of conquering Finland failed, in part due to the threat of
Allied intervention. During the war the Finns lost 25,904 men, while Soviet losses were 167,976 dead.
Finland fought in the
Continuation War alongside Germany from 1941 to 1944. Thanks to German aid, the army was now much better equipped, and the period of conscription had been increased to two years, making possible the formation of sixteen infantry divisions. Having initially deployed on the defensive, the Finns took advantage of the weakening of the Soviet positions as a consequence of
Operation Barbarossa, swiftly recovering their lost territories and invading Soviet territory in Karelia, eventually settling into defensive positions from December 1941 onwards. The
Soviet offensive of June 1944 undid these Finnish gains and, while failing in its objective of destroying the Finnish army and forcing Finland's unconditional surrender,
forced Finland out of the war. The Finnish were able to preserve their independence with key defensive victories over the Red Army. The
Battle of Tali-Ihantala being very significant.
The demobilization and regrouping of the Finnish Defense Forces were carried out in late 1944 under the supervision of the Soviet-dominated
Allied Control Commission. Following the
Treaty of Paris in 1947, which imposed restrictions on the size and equipment of the armed forces and required disbandment of the Civic Guard, Finland reorganized its defense forces. The fact that the conditions of the peace treaty did not include prohibitions on reserves or mobilization made it possible to contemplate an adequate defense establishment within the prescribed limits. The reorganization resulted in the adoption of the brigade -in place of the division- as the standard formation.
For the first two decades after the Second World War, the Finnish Defence Forces relied largely on obsolete wartime material. Defence spending remained minimal until the early 1960s. During the peak of the
Cold War, the Finnish government made a conscious effort to increase defence capability. This resulted in the commissioning of several new weapons systems and the strengthening of the defence of
Finnish Lapland by the establishment of new garrisons in the area. From 1968 onwards, the Finnish government adopted the doctrine of
territorial defence, which requires the use of large land areas to delay and wear out a potential aggressor. The doctrine was complemented by the concept of
total defence which calls for the use of all resources of society for national defence in case of a crisis. From the mid-1960s onwards the Finnish Defence Forces also began to specifically prepare to defeat a strategic strike, the kind which the Soviet Union employed successfully to topple the government of
Czechoslovakia in 1968. In an all-out confrontation between the two major blocs, Finnish objective would have been to prevent any military incursions to Finnish territory and thereby keep Finland outside the war.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 did not annihilate the military threat perceived by the government, but the nature of the threat has changed. While the concept of total, territorial defence was not dropped, the military planning has moved towards the capability to prevent and frustrate a strategic attack toward the vital regions of the country.