Below we present the story of probably the most effective sniper in history, the Finnish soldier Simo Häyhä, nicknamed “The White Death” by his enemies. During the Winter War between Finland and the USSR between 1939 and 1940, Simo killed over 500 Russians using mainly a simple sniper rifle. His methods of conducting concealed warfare have passed into legend, and the heroic Finn remained a national hero and a model for future generations of soldiers until the end of his life.
In 1809, Finland lost its independence to the Russian Empire and existed on maps as the Grand Duchy of Finland, a state subject to the tsars. It regained its freedom only in 1917, taking advantage of the Russian Civil War, and remained a neutral country until the outbreak of World War II, while maintaining close diplomatic and military relations with Germany. Throughout this time, there was a threat of invasion from the Soviet Union hanging over the Finns, who had seceded from the USSR and were considered a province by the Soviet government. The Soviet Union also wanted to eliminate the potential threat of a German attack through Finnish territory in case of war. The Soviets made increasingly bold demands (mostly territorial) that proud Finns did not accept.
On November 26th, 1939, after the attack and capture of, among others, Poland, the Soviet Union staged a provocation in the small village of Mainila near the border with Finland. The Red Army shelled its own territory and then blamed the Finnish artillery, giving the Soviets a pretext to attack their smaller neighbor. On November 30th, the Soviet Union launched an attack on Finnish territory, with a force of 450,000 soldiers quickly reaching the defensive fortifications on the Karelian Isthmus called the Mannerheim Line. 80,000 Finns defended themselves bravely and skillfully, using camouflage, knowledge of the terrain, discipline, and expert artillery fire. Finnish commanders were not intimidated by Stalin’s forces, as evidenced by the words of Marshal Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, who said, “There are so many of them, and our country is so small, where will we bury them all?” However, they still faced almost half a million enemies, supported by airpower and tanks.
The Soviets did not know that the village of Rautjärvi, the hometown of Simo Häyhä, a local farmer and hunter in the rank of reserve corporal, was located near the front. Häyhä, who was an excellent marksman, immediately headed to the Mannerheim Line and was included in a small team of skiers tasked with hunting down Russians using speed and camouflage. The invaders were usually an easy target for Finnish marksmen, as they did not even have winter clothing (white uniforms) and their tanks were painted in dark colors.
Simo Häyhä went to the forest alone every day to hunt Red Army soldiers. Equipped with a snowy camouflage, armed with a Mosin sniper rifle and a Suomi KP submachine gun designed for close combat, he particularly looked out for Soviet commanders, political officers, sappers, and artillerymen whom he tried to eliminate first. He was quickly christened “White Death” because he was invisible to the invaders and deadly effective. The Russians were terrified of him and told each other stories about his abilities.
First and foremost, Häyhä was invisible to the enemy. Dressed entirely in a white snowsuit, with a white mask covering his face, he blended perfectly into his surroundings. To conceal his breath vapor, he held snow chunks in his mouth, and to avoid raising dust after firing, he poured water on the snowdrifts. He was capable of remaining motionless for hours, buried in snowdrifts in temperatures as low as -40°C, waiting for an opportunity to shoot. During this entire time, he mainly used a simple M/28-30 rifle (a modified version of an old Russian Mosin) without an optical sight – nevertheless, he was able to kill a man from a distance of up to 500 meters. He claimed that using a sight would require him to raise his head higher each time, which would expose him to detection by enemy shooters. Interestingly, Simo tried not to aim for the heads of his enemies. He believed that the chest was a larger and therefore more reliable target, and therefore he aimed for that point on the body before pulling the trigger.
Armed with a simple (but reliable) weapon and with an excellent knowledge of the terrain and his abilities, Simo Häyhä systematically and mercilessly dealt death to the enemies of Finland for over three months, killing an average of 5 Red Army soldiers per day, like a grim reaper.
Armia Czerwona starała się wyeliminować Fina, który bezkarnie dziesiątkował jej szeregi. Wysłany w celu zabicia Simo snajper został przez niego zastrzelony, gdy promienie słoneczne odbiły się od jego celownika optycznego zdradzając jego pozycję. Przez następne dni wojny najeźdźcy za pomocą artylerii bombardowali każde miejsce, gdzie tylko podejrzewano obecność Fina, licząc na to że genialny snajper zginie podczas brutalnego ostrzału – ten jednak zawsze potrafił ujść z życiem, tylko raz tracąc swój płaszcz przez zdetonowany w pobliżu szrapnel i innym razem odnosząc lekkie rany podczas ostrzału artyleryjskiego.
The Red Army tried to eliminate the Finn who was ruthlessly decimating their ranks. A sniper was sent to kill Simo, but he was shot by him when the sunlight reflected off his optical sight, revealing his position. In the following days of the war, the invaders bombarded every place suspected of harboring the Finn with artillery, hoping that the brilliant sniper would perish in the brutal barrage. However, he always managed to escape with his life, only losing his cloak once due to shrapnel detonation nearby, and sustaining minor injuries during artillery fire another time.
Simo’s last day of hunting for Red Army soldiers was on March 6, 1940, when he participated as an ordinary infantryman in covering the retreat of the Finnish infantry withdrawing from a Soviet counterattack. He killed his 505th enemy – a Russian soldier who had shot half of his face off moments earlier using a prohibited exploding bullet, the explosion of which deprived Simo of half of his jaw. The bloody and barely alive sniper was quickly evacuated from the front, and when he regained consciousness after an 11-day coma, the Winter War had already ended. His recovery took several months and required 26 surgeries.
It is stated that using his Mosin sniper rifle, he killed 259 Russians, and the same number using a regular Lahti pistol and a Suomi KP submachine gun – by the way, the later Soviet PPSh was a copy of this excellent Finnish rifle. Killing over 500 enemies took Simo about 100 days, which today seems absolutely incredible, especially since the famous Finn acted completely alone, having nothing but a simple weapon without modern sights.
During the Winter War, the Finns lost 23,000 people, while the USSR lost over 200,000 (the exact number is unknown), plus over 2,000 tanks and armored vehicles and almost 1,000 aircraft. As a result of the peace treaty, Finland lost 35,000 km² of its territory. The small and insignificant piece of land that the Soviet Union gained came at such a great cost that one of the Soviet generals commented on it with the words, “We have gained just enough land to bury the dead.”
Simo Häyhä passed away in 2002 near his hometown of Rautjärvi, the same place from where he set out 63 years earlier to defend his homeland against Stalin’s troops. After the war, he was promoted to the rank of second lieutenant and decorated with numerous medals. He devoted his time to hunting and dog breeding and never married. After the war, he was reluctant to talk about his experiences during the years 1939-1940, but towards the end of his life, he began to share his story more willingly. When asked to comment on his terrible record set during the Winter War in 1998, Simo modestly, as befits a hero, replied:
“I did what I was told to do – the best I could.”