Churchill and Mannerheim

The Finnish marshal who led heroic resistance against the Soviets was similar to Churchill in many ways.
Carl-Gustav Mannerheim
Home » Author articles » Churchill and Mannerheim

There are a number of things that Winston Churchill and Marshal Carl-Gustav Mannerheim – the father of modern Finland – have in common, which engendered in each a certain admiration for the other. They were both aristocrats, cavalrymen, immensely well-travelled (including in India), Great War soldiers, and committed anti-Communists who made profoundly stirring public pronouncements and who continued to lead their countries into their late old age. Although they only met twice – and for most of the Second World War they were formally enemies – they had a very healthy respect for one another, albeit one that Churchill could not admit publicly after June 1941 when Finland went to war against Britain’s ally the Soviet Union.

Before that point, the resolutely anti-Communist Churchill admired those who fought against the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution, of whom Mannerheim was in the forefront. In his book The Aftermath – the fifth volume of his Great War memoirs covering the postwar world published in 1929, Churchill mentions Mannerheim’s command of the White Finnish forces that successfully defeated what he describes as ‘a Red Terror’.[1] Yet he does not mention the part he himself played in failing to help Mannerheim in his plan to march on St Petersburg (then called Petrograd) in 1919.

On 5 May 1919, Churchill sent a telegram from the War Office to  Sir Henry Wilson, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, who was at the Paris Peace Conference, saying that Wilson should not offer British support to Mannerheim to attack Petrograd, because he feared it would be ‘a hopeless failure.’[2] In 14 June Churchill treceived a telegram from General Sir Hubert Gough, whom he had sent to lead a British mission to the Baltic. ‘Mannerheim is dying to attack Petrograd,’ Gough reported. ‘But on the other hand, Mannerheim’s own position in Finland is not too firm and he is certainly risking it by any such action.’[3] On 5 July Churchill told the War Cabinet that Britain had turned down Mannerheim’s requests for military aid because it would probably be ‘an enterprise of a highly speculative character.’[4]

Of course we can never know whether Mannerheim might have succeeded in the summer of 1919 where the Wehrmacht failed in its nine hundred-day long siege of the city in the early 1940s, but Churchill was not going to help Mannerheim, despite later in life saying that he had wanted ‘to strangle Bolshevism in its cradle’. On 24 August 1919, Churchill told Lloyd George, the prime minister, Arthur Balfour, the foreign secretary, and Lord Curzon, the lord president of the council, ‘We have not thought it right to take any responsibility for encouraging the Finns to attack Petrograd and meanwhile Mannerheim has disappeared.’[5]

Mannerheim might have given up the Regency a month earlier, but he was still capable of undertaking important private visits for the Finnish Government. On 20 December 1919, Churchill and Sir Henry Wilson had a long meeting with Mannerheim on his return from Warsaw, where Mannerheim – now a private individual – had undertaken a secret mission to encourage the Polish Government to attack the Bolsheviks in the spring. At the meeting in London, presumably held in the War Office, Mannerheim told the two men that the White Russian leader General Denikin ‘was going to be beaten out of the field.’[6] In his diary, Wilson noted of ‘Mannerheim the Finn’ that, ‘He hates and distrusts the Russians but has sufficient intelligence to see that if Denikin is beaten it will be the Finns or the Poles’ turn next.’[7] (That night Churchill and Wilson dined at The Other Club at the Savoy Hotel, where they sent a telegram to fellow Club member Sir John French congratulating him on escaping a Sinn Fein ambush in Dublin, in which one Sinn Feiner was killed and a detective wounded in the subsequent shoot-out.)

On 10 February 1920, Lloyd George publicly ridiculed plans that Churchill supported for a grand alliance of Finns, Denikin’s White Russians, the Baltic States, Poles, Japanese and Romanians, to, in his words, ‘scorch Bolshevism out.’[8] The prime minister rhetorically asked MPs in a debate, ‘Is there anyone here or anywhere else who will do it? Will Finland do it? General Mannerheim may be a very influential man, but he is not Finland.’ Lloyd George added that the Baltic States were making peace with the Bolsheviks, the Japanese ‘certainly will not’ fight, and Romania had trouble on her frontier with Hungary. Without British or American support, all hope of strangling Bolshevism evaporated.

Thereafter there was no interaction between Churchill and Mannerheim until they met for dinner on 30 January 1936 at the home of Patrick (later Sir Patrick) Donner, the Conservative MP for Islington West and supporter of Churchill over the India Bill. Donner was of Swedish-Finnish descent, and his father Ossian Donner had been the first Finnish envoy to London from 1919 to 1925. Mannerheim used the opportunity of what he later called this ‘interesting conversation’ to complain to Churchill that the Swedish edition of Churchill’s book The World Crisis presented the story of the Finnish War of Liberation ‘in a strongly pro-German spirit’. This, according to a letter Mannerheim wrote Donner on 27 April 1936, left Churchill ‘unpleasantly surprised’ and he asked Mannerheim to write him a more accurate version for future editions.[9]

Mannerheim with Hitler in 1942

Churchill made the changes that Mannerheim proposed, and on 3 July 1936 Mannerheim thanked him from Helsingfors ‘or your great kindness in the matter, which, as you will surely understand., is lying us Finns close at heart.’ He signed off in his own handwriting, ‘I am, Dear Mr Churchill, sincerely yours, G Mannerheim’.[10] Six days later Churchill replied that it was a pleasure to make the alteration, adding, ‘I have often thought about our talk at Patrick Donner’s house. I hoe we shall meet again, and be united in our endeavours to prevent the whole world being ruined and afterwards Bolshevised by another hideous war.’[11]

Of course it was not to be, and on 30 November 1939 Finland and the USSR were embroiled in the terrible Winter War. Having failed to support Finland in her struggle against Russia in 1919, in 1940 Churchill wanted to investigate ways in which the Finns could be supported in this new struggle. At a Cabinet meeting on 12 February 1940, Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, suggested sending a British Army officer, Brigadier Christopher Ling, out to Helsinki, ‘to give moral support to Marshal Mannerheim, and to provide us with full and accurate information.’[12] Churchill recognized that the Finns needed thirty or forty thousand men to help fight the Russians, but told ministers that ‘it would be impracticable to pass anything like this number of volunteers through Sweden,’ which of course was neutral. He added that the Finns required ‘men who could work in the snow and of these we had so far only collected 360.’  Even though the subject of ‘Aid to Finland’ was on the agenda at every Cabinet meeting for sixty days, ‘Nothing came of it at all.’[13]

This particularly outraged Harold Macmillan, a Conservative MP and a follower of Churchill, who knew and admired Mannerheim and who quoted Mannerheim in his memoirs saying that the Winter War was witnessing ‘a Thermopylae every day’, and that the Finns were so short of artillery shells that they could not afford to fire them during Russian attacks on the Mannerheim Line.[14] It reminded Macmillan, who had fought valiantly in the Western Front trenches of the Great War, of the terrible shell shortage crisis of May 1915 that had helped bring down the Asquith Government.

A full five months after Mannerheim had declared what Finns call the Continuation War on the USSR days after Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, Churchill was finally forced by Joseph Stalin to declare war against Finland. Churchill was privately opposed to this, as is clear from his extremely polite telegram sent to Mannerheim via the American minister in Helsinki on 28 November 1941, stating, ‘ I am deeply grieved at what I see is coming, that we shall be forced in a few days out of loyalty to our ally Russia to declare war upon Finland.’[15] He hoped that Finland might be able to stop its advance against Russia at the 1939 borders of the two countries, adding, ‘I wish I could convince Your Excellency that we are going to beat the Nazis,’ and that, ‘My recollection of our pleasant talks and correspondence about the last war lead me to send this purely personal and private message for your consideration before it is too late.’

Mannerheim’s reply was similarly gentlemanly, and similarly uncompromising. ‘I thank you for your courtesy in sending me this private message. I am sure you will realise that it is impossible for me to cease my present  military operations before my troops have reached positions which in my opinion would give us the security required,’ i.e. ones beyond Finland’s 1939 borders. He added that he would be ‘deeply grieved’ if his attempt ‘to safeguard Finland’ led to war with Britain, ending, ‘It was very kind of you to send me a personal message in these trying days, and I have fully appreciated it.’[16] Was there ever such a polite declaration of war between two countries? When it was formally made on 3 December, Churchill stated at the War Cabinet meeting that he ‘wished it to be placed on record that in his view this declaration of war on Finland … would not assist either our cause or that of the Russians.’[17]

‘I have always thought that this was an error,’ Harold Macmillan later wrote of the British declaration of war. ‘It had little practical effect. It’s only object was to appease the Russians. But was the gesture necessary?’ He pointed out that the Americans did not remove their diplomatic representatives from Helsinki when they entered into alliance with Russia after Pearl Harbor, but instead did all they could to persuade Mannerheim to disengage from his alliance with Hitler, which eventually took place in September 1944 when Finland signed a peace with the Soviets that rendered up Karelia and Petsamo. The peace terms were, in Macmillan’s words, ‘hateful and wounding, but not dishonourable’ for Finland. He went on to point out that of every single one of Russia’s western neighbours, Finland was the only one to retain her freedom after the war.

Mannerheim stepped down as Commander-in-Chief in January 1945 and as Regent-President in March 1946, aged 78. No actions were taken against him by the West for having been Hitler’s ally for three years, as Churchill and every other objective observer recognized that he was the savior of his country at a time when it was intolerably squeezed between the two most evil and violent totalitarian dictatorships in history.

Andrew Roberts is the author of Churchill: Walking with Destiny.

[1] WSC, The Aftermath p99
[2] CV 4 Part I p641
[3] J.E.O. Screen, Mannerheim: The Finnish Years (2000) p62
[4] CV 6 Part II p727
[5] OB IV p322
[6] OB 4 p363
[7] CV 4 Part II pp779-80
[8] OB 4 p379
[9] Churchill Archives Centre CHAR 8/528B/186
[10] Churchill Archives Centre CHAR 8/528B/194
[11] Churchill Archives Centre CHAR 8/528B/193
[12] CV 6 part I p750
[13] Leopold Amery, My Political Life III p347
[14] Harold Macmillan, Blast of War p153
[15] WSC, Grand Alliance p474
[16] ibid
[17] OB 6 p1250