Eighty years ago, Finland accepts the brutal truth of Soviet military superiority and Britain scores diplomatic points off Italy together with bonus points off Germany

The Finnish delegation led by prime minister Risto Ryti arrived in Moscow to negotiate with the Soviets. The battle had firmly turned against the Finns and the town of Vipuri was about to be cut off. They had little alternative to accept harsh Soviet terms, which exceeded by some measure what Stalin had demanded before the war. Karelia was ceded to the USSR which cost 12% of the Finnish population its homes. The new land border  was – intentionally – indefensible. Finland lost 80% of its high quality wood pulp capacity and a third of its hydroelectric generation, which was diverted to supply Leningrad.  The Finns granted the USSR the right of transit for troops to Norway. Finland had escaped the full conquest, enslavement and wholesale murder inflicted on Poland by Stalin but this was mild consolation. The British government could indulge in enthusiastic public hand-wringing over the treaty but was spared the embarrassment of making good on its vague promises of military assistance to the Finns, which would probably have ended in a debacle comparable to every major British operation (except the Libyan campaign) for the next two years. It is an open question whether intervention would have pushed  the USSR towards a full alliance with Nazi Germany.

Britain could enjoy a  happier outcome to its sudden surge of diplomatic resolve towards Italy; it also inflicted a brief but painful humiliation of Germany. Confronted by the detention of a dozen ships carrying vitally needed coal from Germany, Count Ciano, the Italian foreign minister, showed himself unusually willing to discuss the matter in a straightforward manner with the British ambassador. This coincided with a visit by Joachim von Ribbentrop to Rome who was thus confronted by a conspicuous erosion of German influence with Mussolini. The Italians speedily agreed to discontinue seaborne imports of coal from Germany in a significant – but as it proved very brief – concession to Britain. This helped inspire Chamberlain to try to resuscitate the secret channel to Mussolini, which had been so active in the first months of his premiership when appeasement had been the order of the day, as a conduit to Berlin and a negotiated end to the war. (The full, hitherto almost unknown story is in my Fighting Churchill, Appeasing Hitler).

Never has the saying that revenge is a dish best eaten cold been more appropriate than when the Sikh Udham Singh finally caught up with the former Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, Sir Michael O’Dwyer at a joint meeting of the East India Association and the Royal Society for Asian Affairs at the Caxton Hall in Westminster presided over by the Lord Zetland, the Secretary for India. O’Dwyer bore much of the responsibility for the Amritsar massacre in 1919 when British troops had killed hundred of unarmed protesters. O’Dwyer had successfully defended his conduct in a libel action and, whilst he rose no further in the Indian Civil Service, had never suffered any penalty for his actions. Udham Singh shot O’Dwyer dead and wounded Zetland.


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