Guns, Blood & Skis: the History of Ski Warfare

Posted By: Zeke Piestrup on August 7, 2009 4:58 pm

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You can’t spell skirmish without ski. The history of skiing and its early development is intertwined with bloody conflicts.  Hard to imagine today, as skiing is an exercise in joy, an affirmation of life’s awesomeness that is confirmed in an amphitheater of nature.  Yes, I’m getting all hippie on you, but it’s because we’re about to take a trip through skiing’s darker side. Let’s point our poles, without stabbing anyone, in highlighting a few major conflicts of skiing’s bloody past.

Next page: The Gothic War

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The Gothic War

The Eastern Roman Empire vs the Ostrogothic Kingdom of Italy
535-554

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No, the Gothic War is not a battle between Marilyn Manson and My Chemical Romance, but it was a war lead by the Roman Emperor Justinian.  For Justinian, the offensive was intended to lead to a restoration of the Roman Empire.  But Justinian ultimately failed in his attempt to regain provinces of the former Western Roman Empire that had been lost a century prior to invading barbarian tribes.  One of those tribes Justinian battled were the Scrithiphini, or “gliding Finns”, a reference to their skiing ways. 

Next page: Polish-Muscovite War

photo: Totila razes the walls of Florence (illumination from the Chigi ms of Villani’s Cronica)

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Polish-Muscovite War

Polish-Lithuania Commonwealth vs Tsardom of Russia
1605-1618

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It was a war born of opportunity.  In the early 1600s, Russia was being torn apart by civil war.  The aristocracy of Polish-Lithuania lead eastern assaults against the rulers of Russia, known as the Muscovite dynasty.  By 1610, Polish forces captured Moscow and Polish king Sigismund III Vasa’s son Prince Wladislaus was elected Tsar.  However, megalomania is never in short supply with king-types, and Sigismund soon took the Russian throne for himself.  But, the pro-Polish Russian faction was definitely not down with the pro-Catholic, anti-Orthodox Sigismund.  He was soon ousted and by 1618 the war was over and Russia retained its independence.

Next page: The Norwegian-Swedish War

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The Norwegian-Swedish War of 1814

Norway vs Sweden
1814

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It was the last war Sweden ever faught.  Per the Treaty of Kiel and the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Norway was to be ceded by the King of Denmark-Norway to Sweden.  Obviously the folks of Norway were not down with this idea.  Prince Christian Frederik of Denmark stepped in, called a constitutional assembly, declared an independent Norway, and named himself as King.  The Norwegians then raised up an army of 30,000 men to battle the more experienced Swedish Army of 45,000.  But, the Norwegians fought fiercely, aided greatly by four ski infantry divisions.  As the battle dragged on, both sides felt pressure to resolve the conflict diplomatically.  Eventually a cease fire agreement was signed.   King Christian Frederik of Norway was forced to abdicate, Norway’s sovereignty was upheld with its constitution intact.

Next page: War In Snow and Ice of WWI

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War In Snow and Ice of WWI

Alpini of the Italian Army vs Austria-Hungary
1914-1918

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The Alpini are Italy’s elite mountain corps, first forming in 1872 to defend Italy’s northern mountain borders.  By the advent of World War I, Alpini battalions were increased from a peacetime number of 24 to 64 strong.  It became known as the “War in snow in ice” and the bloody battles between Italy and Austria of World War I took place in the highest mountains of the Alps.  Ski-mountaineering skills were essential to both sides during the conflict.  The warring factions squared-off in dozens of King of the Mountain battles.  It was a race to conquer mountain-tops, as once a position was established, dislodging the enemy from the peak became nearly impossible.  Although, rather quickly, a new technique was devised.  Tunnels were drilled under the peaks, filled with explosives, and then detonated, blowing entire heads of mountains (and the soldiers who occupied them) into smithereens.

Next page: Battle of Suomussalmi

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Battle of Suomussalmi

Finland vs The Soviet Union
1939-1940

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The Winter War began on the night of November 30, 1939, with The Soviet Union’s illegal of invasion of Finland.  The Soviets planned to capture Oulu, effectively dividing Finland in half, which would have forced the Fins to fight the war on multiple fronts.  The two mechanized divisions of the Soviets numbered 45,000 men, more than four times that of the Fins.  But, the Fins had something the Russians did not: skis.  The more mobile and agile Finnish troops were able to launch quick surprise attacks that eventually divided the Soviet divisions into smaller groups.  The result was a near complete annihilation of the Soviets.  The few Russians who were able to escape left behind a ransom’s loot for the Fins — 43 tanks, 71 field guns, 260 trucks, and over a thousand horses.

Next page: The Great Patriotic War of WWII

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The Great Patriotic War of WWII

The Soviet Union vs Germany
1941-1945

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Learning from their bloody defeat at the hands of Finland, the Soviet Union soon employed ski battalions of their own.  Working in concert with their army of skiers was the Aerosan, a propeller-powered snowmobile running on skis.

On the night of March 26, 1943 the 111′th Independent Ski Battalion of the Red Army was conducting reconnaissance of German positions.  The Russian skiers were spotted, and the Nazis quickly attacked, sending the vastly out-numbered Russians into full-on retreat mode.   But, a reinforcement of Aerosleds quickly arrived on the scene to back up the ski battalion.  The Germans suffered great losses in the showdown.  The aerosleds backing up the ski battalion forced the Nazis to pull a 180 and retreat back to their previous position on the west shore of Lake Onega.

Next page: India & Pakistan

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India & Pakistan

1947-present

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Since the end of British colonial rule of the Indian empire, India and Pakistan have been at each other’s throats.  It’s a conflict rooted in religion, with the Hindus of India on one side and the Muslims of Pakistan on the other.  By independence time in August of 1947, the rulers of Jammu and Kashmir, the Mahajara, were to decide which faction to join, India or Pakistan.  Well, they dragged their feet on a decision, and now 60+ years later the territory of Jammu and Kashmir is still under dispute.  Pakistan believes Jammu and Kashmir should belong to them because a majority of the state’s population is Muslim.  India thinks the state should go to them, since the Maharaja agreed to join India, albeit two months after the August deadline, in October of 1947.  Today, bloodshed in Kashmir is commonplace, which for skiers is a big bummer because Gulmarg is in Kashmir.  In the past 20 years, more than 47,000 people have been killed in fighting in Kashmir.

photo by John Carolin: Indian troops training near Gulmarg

 Guns, Blood & Skis: the History of Ski Warfare Zeke Piestrup ( More Posts)

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