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The Strange, Centuries-Long History of Ski Troops

From 1200 to 2020, soldiers in the Northern reaches of Europe have strapped on uniforms, guns ... and skis.

Ski troops in a trench during the Winter War
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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Ski warfare reached its peak of notoriety during World War II, but strategists and soldiers have been making use of the alpine equipment for centuries. The first recorded use of ski troops dates back to the Battle of Oslo during the Norwegian Civil War, when reconnaissance troops were sent out on skis.

Related: WWII's Siege of Leningrad Was One of History's Most Destructive

Historical records of further ski based-militarism are scarce until the 16th century, when Sweden began organizing ski corps. Gustav Vasa, the first king of modern Sweden, was deeply invested in using the elements to his advantage. The still-running Vasaloppet race commemorates his efforts and one of his most notorious moments, when he legendarily fled from the previous monarch, Christian II, on skis.

In addition to putting skiers to work as reconnaissance gatherers and sharpshooters, a new sport began to evolve—the biathlon. Troops, repeatedly drilled in rifle shooting while skiing, began putting their skills to the test as a competition.

As Sweden and other Scandinavian countries became expert at combining skiing with soldiering, other European countries began to face their might. During the Napoleonic Wars, Norwegian ski troops faced down Swedish forces—who, despite their efforts over the last 200 years, had only 18 pairs of skis ready for one notable battle.

Around this time, skis began transforming from the historic asymmetric pair to the modern matched set. The military usage of skis during the 19th century declined, as warfare in Scandinavia was limited after the end of the Finnish War and the Napoleonic era.

Related: Simo Häyhä: The Finnish Sniper Who Took Down 500 Soldiers Within 100 Days

Although Scandinavian countries primarily remained neutral throughout World War I, other European nations had learned their lessons from centuries of clashes. The Italian Army raised 88 battalions meant to fight through in the year in the heights of the Alpines, where soldiers would encounter intense weather of all forms. These soldiers scaled cliffs, skied inclines, drilled tunnels, and detonated summits to protect the northern reaches of Italy from enemy combatants. Four Alpini regiments continue to train soldiers in ski warfare to this day.

Important though the efforts of the Alpini Battalions were, nothing can compare to the men who fought atop skis during the Winter War of 1939. This subset of World War II pitted the Finns against the Soviet Union, who aimed to take advantage of Nazi Germany’s aggression to expand their own boundaries.

Norwegian soldier on skis, 1801
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  • A Norwegian soldier depicted on skis, 1801. 

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Finns, unprepared for such an event, drafted an enormous portion of their male population, strapped skis on them, and put them to the test. The Soviet Union’s powers—whether man, fire, or transportive—far exceeded that of the Finns. Despite this, and thanks in no small part to the Finnish ski troops, Finland was able to stop the advancement of Soviet forces.

Most notably, at the Battle of Suomussalmi, 45,000 Soviet soldiers, including a tank brigade, went up against 11,500 Finns armed with inferior weaponry. But the Finnish troops moved quickly with their skis and sleds, utilized unusual and sometimes unorthodox strategies, and were able to intercept key messages between Soviet forces.

Thanks in no small part to their maneuverability, the Finns pulled off a shocking win and lost only 750 troops. Though this was not the end of the Winter War, it quickly became a rallying moment for the troops and is now seen as a stand-in for the war at large.

Additional sources: Alpen Glow

Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons