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Noted in Passing: Motti

Motti is Finnish military slang for a totally encircled enemy unit. The tactic of encircling it is called motitus, literally meaning the formation of an isolated block or “motti”, but in effect meaning an entrapment or envelopment.

The word means “mug” in many Finnish dialects; an alternate translation refers to a cubic meter of firewood, a relatively small area in which an encircled enemy could be “cut down” like trees. motti is thus related to kessel. A motti in military tactics therefore means the formation of “bite sized” enemy units which are easier to contain and deal with.

This tactic of envelopment was used extensively by the Finnish forces in the Winter War and the Continuation War to good effect. It was especially effective against some of the mechanized units of the Soviet Army, which were effectively restricted to the long and narrow forest roads with virtually no way other than forwards or backwards. Once committed to a road, the Soviet troops effectively were trapped. Unlike the mechanized units of the Soviets, the Finnish troops could move quickly through the forests on skis and break columns of armoured Soviet units into smaller chunks (e.g., by felling trees along the road). Once the large column was split up into smaller armoured units, the Finnish forces attacking from within the forest could strike the weakened column. The smaller pockets of enemy troops could then be dealt with individually by concentrating forces on all sides against the entrapped unit.

A motitus is therefore a double envelopment manoeuvre, using the ability of light troops to travel over rough ground to encircle enemy troops on a road. Heavily outnumbered but mobile forces could easily immobilize an enemy many times more numerous.

By cutting the enemy columns or units into smaller groups and then encircling them with light and mobile forces, such as ski-troops during winter, a smaller force can overwhelm a much larger force. If the encircled enemy unit was too strong, or if attacking it would have entailed an unacceptably high cost, e.g., because of a lack of heavy equipment, the motti was usually left to “stew” until it ran out of food, fuel, supplies, and ammunition and was weakened enough to be eliminated. Some of the larger mottis held out until the end of the war because they were resupplied by air. Being trapped, however, these units were not available for battle operations.

The largest motti battles in the Winter War occurred at the Battle of Suomussalmi. Three Finnish regiments enveloped and destroyed two Soviet divisions as well as a tank brigade trapped on a road.

More at Motti: Pocket

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • John Venlet June 7, 2021, 12:38 PM

    As my Finnish friend says, when we drive through the two tracks of Northern Michigan, and the U.P., this is motti land.

  • Richard Palmer June 7, 2021, 6:03 PM

    Armeniius used similar tactics to destroy three Roman legions at Teutoberger Forest in 9 AD (see “Quest for the Lost Roman Legions’ by Tony Clunn).

  • gwbnyc June 7, 2021, 6:10 PM

    Simon, the caretaker of our church when I was a boy was russian, spoke passable broken english. sometimes looked upon as a comical figure, sometimes razzed a bit by some of the boys.

    anyway, our good reverend John Frieling after witnessing a mild razzing episode took us aside and gently told us Simon was captured by the Finns during the Winter War (with a hasty history thereof provided). he explained that rather than going back to Russia only to be killed, he somehow made it to the US, leaving his wife and family in Russia and never seeing or hearing of them again. I have no idea what the interim years contained or how long a period that was.

    later in my life I read that the thousands of repatriated russians were executed at the Finnish border often by pistol shot. the NKVD executioners wore leather butcher aprons and caps to protect them from the sheer amount of gore produced, going about it in shifts.

    and so Simon lived out his solitary life in a churchyard.

  • Casey Klahn June 7, 2021, 7:22 PM

    Double envelopment. I love it when we talk dirty like this.

    The Finnish wars with the Russians from 39-40 and on until the Finns kicked their own Nazi allies out in 45 are the kind of strategic study every thinking man ought to study. The use of ski troops and Ranger-style tactics by the Finns embarrassed the numerically superior Russians, whose preparation for war at that point in time, was abysmal.

    The Finns handled the Rooskies well enough that Gen Marshall was convinced that the US needed ski troops, and a couple years later there was my father, ass deep in snow at 10,000 ft in Colorado. That was the 10th Mountain Division, and the Finns are forever woven into their narrative.

    The best way to adopt a field shooting position, on snow, is to dive into the prone, splaying your skis out at a wide angle, and to rest your rifle on a rucksack. You can push the rucksack forward in the snow as you crawl forward. Bipods won’t work on snow – leave them off. The much-photographed image of ski troopers resting their rifles on crossed ski poles and firing from the standing is more Hollywood than practical. It only suppresses the enemy because you can’t hit anything that way! No, you don’t fire tommy guns while schussing down the slopes like bucking James Fond. An actual serious rifleman will practice shooting on snow because just adopting the firing position is much, much harder than on grass or dirt.

    One last note. I discovered when I went to Finland that they don’t have mountains. I’ll be damned – the Norwegians and Swedes have them, but Finland is forests and lakes and rolling hills. Good to read a map.

  • Cris June 7, 2021, 8:12 PM

    ‘A Frozen Hell’ by William Trotter is a great introduction to the Winter War.

  • Grizzly June 7, 2021, 8:58 PM

    The anecdote (perhaps apocryphal) passed down to me regarding the Winter War, one which captures the Finnish spirit, is this: Two Finnish soldiers are viewing a much larger Russian position from a distance. One of them says, “God, so many Russians!” The other one replies, “Yes, I know what you mean. I don’t know where we are going to bury them all.”