Simo Häyhä: ‘White Death’: The Deadliest Sniper in History

The Winter War

The so-called “Winter War” broke out shortly after the start of World War II (1939-1945) when the Soviets had already annexed Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia and were eager to take over Finland. The Soviets proposed to Finland that it cede the border territories to them for security reasons in exchange for other lands. Given the refusal of the Finnish government, the Soviet Union began the invasion of the country on November 30, 1939.

The Winter War (1939-1940), also known as the First Soviet-Finnish War, lasted only 3 months, 1 week and 6 days. During that time, the Finnish side suffered some 26,000 casualties, while the Russian side accounted for 126,900 deaths.

Little did the Soviet Army know that they would be terrorized by a small-town shepherd by the name of Simo Häyhä. Simo Häyhä was a Finnish shepherd, and one of the deadliest elite snipers in history, if not the deadliest one. With a tally of 542 soldiers wounded, and from those, at least 259 deadly casualties, he was nicknamed “The White Death” by his enemies.

A Simple Shepherd

Simo Häyhä was born on December 17, 1905, in a town in southern Finland called Rautjärvi, very close to the border with the Soviet Union, although the date has not been fully confirmed. Simo was the seventh of eight children in a Lutheran family of Finnish farmers.

The young man combined his grammar studies at the Miettilä School with taking care of the family farm with his older brother. In his spare time, the boy enjoyed skiing, hunting and playing Pesäpallo, a Finnish version of baseball, considered a national sport in Finland.

At the age of 19, he had to attend compulsory military service and there he discovered new possibilities. He soon joined the Suojeluskunta, a volunteer militia that translates as “White Guard.” However, the sources as to when he joined the militia are varied, with some claims saying he first joined at the age of 17, while others sources claimed he joined at the age of 25.

Nevertheless, what is known is that Simo spend many hours perfecting his aim, and soon he began to join competitions. It is said that in these championships he was able to hit the same target up to sixteen times per minute at a distance of 150 meters. He was one of a kind.

His training as a sniper for the Finnish Army began a year before the outbreak of the “Winter War” against the Soviets. And very soon he ascended to the rank of corporal. Just over five feet tall and always sporting a broad smile, Simo Häyhä, a shepherd from the cold Finnish plains, became, thanks to his skill at camouflaging himself in the snow and his incredible aim, a nightmare for the Soviets and a legend among his compatriots.

The Soviet Invasion

In November 1939, shortly after the start of World War II, the Soviet Union invaded Finland. Simo Häyhä, as a member of the White Guard, was immediately called up to defend the country from the invading army. Joseph Stalin’s Red Army overwhelmingly outnumbered the Finns, but the Soviets were unprepared to meet the enemy on their soil. The military tactic used (to call it in some way), was pathetic and tens of thousands of USSR soldiers fell dead before the undetectable and battle-hardened Finns.

Soviet coordination was disastrous in an army that was not prepared to fight in the snow and sub-zero temperatures. They weren’t even wearing the proper white camouflage for this environment. For an expert like Simo, this was like shooting ducklings, and it didn’t take long for the game to be over.

One of the main differences in how the Soviets and Finns approached warfare was the way both armies moved across the terrain. While the Soviets opted to move their troops in large contingents, the Finns opted for guerrilla warfare.

Finnish resistance was fierce, and the Soviet performance, despite its overwhelming numerical majority, was dismal. Many of the Soviet units initially deployed were from Central Asia and were not trained or equipped for winter warfare. And not only that. Even Soviet Marshal Voronov himself noted that “troops were ill-prepared for operations in forests and for dealing with sub-zero temperatures.” In the frigid climate of Finland, the mechanisms of the semi-automatic weapons failed.

Moving along narrow paths in the woods or skiing silently, the Finnish troops fell like ghosts on the terrified Russian soldiers, only to disappear into the mist soon after. In the absence of adequate weapons, the Finns resorted to imagination to destroy enemy tanks, inventing the incendiary device that would later be known as the Molotov cocktail.

The White Death’s Technique

Simo Häyhä’s technique to finish off so many enemy soldiers was simply spectacular. He moved like a ghost, all in white, skiing just like he’d been doing all his life. The aim of a sniper is as important as not being detected.

During the battle, with each incursion into the snowy mountain that he skied with his comrades, Simo used an M28 Pystykorva sniper rifle with a 5-round 7.62 mm magazine, the Finnish variant of the Russian Mosin-Nagant M28 bolt-action rifle, one of the most popular long guns in history.

By this time Simo Häyhä had become one of the main assets of the Finnish Army. Dressed entirely in white and chewing on a piece of ice to keep his breath from giving him away, he used a rifle without a telescopic scope so that sunlight would not reflect off the lens revealing his position. He also covered himself with snow so that his shots wouldn’t kick up bits of dust that could reveal his position. And he compacted the snow on his arms to secure the weapon well and not miss the shot.

So with just the open iron sight, Simo Häyhä hit targets up to 300 meters away and claimed 542 victims. Although he didn’t count the casualties he took, his comrades did. By early December he had already killed 51 enemy soldiers in just three days.

He was nicknamed “the White Death” and the number of casualties may have been inflated by Finnish war propaganda. Every town at war needs heroes and the country’s press was in charge of narrating the exploits of the farmer who was finishing off the Soviet invaders. If the number of casualties achieved by the sniper is true, Simo Häyhä killed an average of five enemies a day during the three months and six days that his intervention lasted in the Winter War between Finland and the USSR.

During the short Soviet invasion of Finland, which was carried out to expand the Russian border “for security reasons” in territories that had belonged to the Tsarist Empire, in the framework of World War II, more than 26 thousand Finnish soldiers died defending their positions, but the Soviets fared no better: they had 126,900 casualties.

The Bitter End

No Soviet soldier could ever take the life of “the white death”, not even the artillery that endlessly bombarded the positions where they thought they had seen the elusive Finnish sniper. The Soviet military claimed astonished that he “seemed immune to bullets”. But even for those who seem invincible, their good luck leaves them one day, and for Simo Häyhä that day was March 6, 1940, when he was hit by an explosive bullet in his cheek that destroyed his lower jaw and dental arch, erasing his smile until the end of his time.

Simo remained in a coma for a week and had to undergo numerous operations to restore his face, which was completely disfigured. His wounds took 14 months to heal. He underwent 26 surgeries that left the relentless marks of war on his face.

He woke up a week later when his country signed peace in Moscow after handing over the West Karelia region and part of the Hanko Peninsula. The war was a disaster for Finland, which was forced to cede 11% of its land area and 13% of its economy to the Soviet Union.

After 26 surgeries, Simo was able to come out alive, but with his face disfigured as a constant reminder of the war.

He became a hero to his country and received the Medals of Freedom 1st and 2nd class and the Crosses of Freedom 3rd and 4th class for his role in the conflict. But he was never able to return to his farm since the territory where his home was based now belonged to the Soviet Union. Simo Häyhä, who had also been made a Knight of the Mannerheim Cross, was offered a new farm by the authorities in Valkjärvi, a small municipality in south-eastern Finland, near the border with the Soviet Union.

He spent his days hunting elk and raising dogs on a farm until he died in 2002 at the age of 96. In an interview, he confessed that his only secret was practice. And when they asked him about the number of deaths behind his back, he replied:

I did what they told me to do, the best I could. There would be no Finland unless everyone else had done the same

Simo Häyhä. The World’s Deadliest Sniper

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