Finland's flag.
Finland battled Soviet troops during the Winter War from 1939 to 1940. Image by AP

No, Finland didn’t win the Winter War with ‘a bullet and a prayer’

Meghan Williams March 18, 2022
WHAT WAS CLAIMED

Finland defeated Russia with a single bullet in the Winter War of 1939-40.

OUR VERDICT

False. There is no evidence, experts say. The war ended with signing of the Moscow Treaty where Finland ceded about 10 per cent of its territory to the Soviet Union.

A social media video, with more than one million views, claims that Finland won the 1939-40 Winter War against the Soviet Union with a single bullet and a prayer.

Despite the video’s wide circulation, the claim is false. Historians told AAP FactCheck the single bullet theory is fabricated and has no historical basis.

In reality, the war lasted for more than 100 days and left more than 150,000 dead. The war ended with a negotiated peace settlement in which Finland lost about 10 per cent of its land to the Soviet Union but remained independent.

The video “How Finland defeated Russia with a bullet and a prayer”, which originated on TikTok before being posted on Facebook, features a woman who tells a church congregation how the vastly outnumbered Finnish army supposedly fended off the might of the Soviet Union.

In the video, the woman says Finnish broadcasters encouraged the nation to pray to God for help. She goes on to tell how a small number of men defending the Finnish border came into contact with the advancing Soviet forces.

She later claims that one of the Finnish soldiers fired his rifle with the bullet hitting a truck-driving Russian soldier in the head. He slumped forward with his head resting on the truck’s horn, she says.

Luckily for the Finns, the Soviet army’s signal for retreat happened to be a continuous “beep” of a truck’s horn, she says.

“And so, with one bullet, and with one prayer, they fended off the Russian army,” the woman concludes.

Antero Holmila, associate professor of history at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland, told AAP FactCheck in an email the story is “totally untrue”, “has no historical basis” and “does not even exists as a myth or legend in Finland’s historical narrative”.

Pasi Tuunainen, adjunct professor at the University of Eastern Finland and author of Finnish Military Effectiveness in the Winter War, 1939-1940, told AAP FactCheck that he had never heard of the single-bullet story.

“The war ended in a negotiated settlement,” Prof Tuunainen said in an email.

“The peace treaty was signed in Moscow after 105 days of fighting. Finland was forced to cede about 10 per cent of its territory to the Soviet Union.”

The Winter War, also known as the Russo-Finnish War, comprised of a series of battles in the early stage of World War II between Finland and the Soviet Union between November 30, 1939 and March 12, 1940.

In the lead-up, the Soviets had called for a land swap in order to shift the border away from Leningrad (now St Petersburg) in case of a Nazi Germany offensive through Finland. The Soviet Union’s Red Army launched its attack when Finland’s government, suspicious of Soviet intentions, refused to exchange land.

After 105 days and a robust defence from the Finnish army, the Winter War ended with the signing of the Moscow Treaty and the transfer of southeastern Finland to the Soviet Union.

The total number of deaths reported varies. Finland’s Ministry of Defence estimates 21,396 Finns killed and 1,434 missing with the Soviet Army left with 200,000 dead. In the book, Finland in World War II, the total killed or missing is estimated to be 27,000 Finnish soldiers and 130,000 Soviet soldiers.

Contrary to the video’s claim, Prof Holmila said while there are several possible interpretations “if one looks at the general history books about WWII, it’s been seen as Finland lost the war.”

The Facebook user who uploaded the TikTok video later claimed that the single-bullet story referred to the Battle of Pelkosenniemi in Lapland, which was one of many battles in the Winter War. She provides a link to this webpage in the original post’s comments as evidence.

A booklet, produced by The Local Federation of East Lapland, makes no mention of the horn retreat at the Battle of Pelkosenniemi, but states the Soviet army retreated after hearing “the noise of combat behind them”.

“The bullet story seems to be repeated as one among many war stories,” Prof Holmila told AAP FactCheck. Whether the Red Army retreated from the Battle in Pelkosenniemi because of a truck’s horn, the sound of combat from behind, or a combination of both is a “case of fog of war and non-stop confusion that is typical of every single battlefield.”

The Verdict

The claim Finland defeated the Soviet army in the Winter War with a single bullet is false. Historians told AAP FactCheck the Winter War was fought over 105 days, left more than 150,000 dead and is generally regarded as a victory for the Soviet Union.

False – The claim is inaccurate.

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