Simo Häyhä. His friends called him Simuna. His enemies called him the White Death. The deadliest sniper in history, his victims were counted for several hundreds, all of them during the Winter War (1939-40), in which the Red Army of the Soviet Union struggled to defeat a far smaller Finnish Army, which relied amongst other factors, in the sharpshooting skills of men like Simo Häyhä. Discover his history below.

#1 Sniper, a warrior ghost must be

Snipers. Loved by their allies, hated by their foes. The cold-blooded, skilful, shooter has hooked our interest like few other modern army members, and has become protagonist for movies and videogames on its own right. Although snipers or sharpshooters existed since as early as the Napoleonic wars, it was the Second World War that saw their jump to fame and their training and use in all modern armies, thanks to the widespread use of telescopic sights. Camouflage, tracking, surviving and hunting skills complete the set of this widely feared warriors who kill without being seen.

Simo Häyhä. A man of short height
Simo Häyhä smiling to the camera, after he was awarded an honorary
rifle, on 17 February 1940. Source

#2 Simo’s origins

Seeing the photo of our friend Simmuna, you’d probably struggle to believe that this short and harmless-looking fellow could have posed such deadly threat to the Soviet soldiers. To understand this, we must go back to his beginnings. He was born on 17th December 1905, in Rautjarvi, Grand Duchy of Finland and back then an autonomous part of the Russian Empire. Nowadays, half of Rautjarvi is part of Russia once more. This makes Putin happy.

Simo, or Simuna to his buddies, was the son of farmers, and always declared his love for farming, but he also strived to cultivate his hobbies, particularly hunting and skiing. He proved very talented at breeding hunting hounds and also at brewing mixtures that masked his scent while tracking fox and moose. ‘Eau de rotten eggs’. C’est magnifique, Simo.

At the age of 17, he joined the White Guards, a militia supervised by the Finnish Army. Simo wouldn’t waste his time in proving how frightfully accurate his aim was, by wining several regional competitions there. The Guards were bolstered with veterans from the First World War, and the Civil War that had followed after Finland’s independence in 1918. Their experience was paramount in Simo’s training and, coupled with a lack of ammunition, forced the recruits to hone their skills above average. Lifesaving, as time would prove.

#3 The communist neighbour

Finland had a very communist neighbour, who claimed part of the enviable Finnish garden as their own, as belonging to the proletariat. And they were led by no other than Iosif Stalin, the fearful leader of the USSR, which having suffered several purges of its paranoical leader, was finally ready to take on a smaller fellow to vent their anger.

Stalin in 1937. Unknown author. Source

The fact remains as well, that anticipating a German invasion that indeed came a year later, the USSR demanded from the Finnish government an exchange of territory, in order to cushion Leningrad (St Petersburg). However, the Finnish government politely refused him.

#4 The hunters of the Winter War

The trouble was, Stalin wasn’t accostumed at being refused, and so the USSR attacked Finland on 30th November 1939. To exonerate themselves, the Soviet authorithies blamed Finland of shelling the Russian town of Mainila, a Soviet false flag operation. The Red Army mobilised 23 divisions, 450,000 men in total, plus 2500 aircraft and thousands of tanks, while Finland gathered the less impressive amount of 30 tanks and 100 planes.

At this junction the former Corporal Simo reenlisted in the 6th Battalion, Infantry Regiment 34, in the 12th Division, tasked to protect Kolla from the Soviet 8th Army, comprising 4 divisions. Simuna gloomily remarked: “I hadn’t expected the next shooting competition to be a war.”

Finnish and Soviet lines in the Winter War Kolla front
12th and 13th Finnish divisions facing the Soviet divisions. Kolla in between. Author: Peltimikko. Source

Despite the USSR’s advantage in men and material, Finland’s scarce roads, and its forested landscape, dotted with thousands of small lakes, stripped the Red Army of many of their apparent advantages over the Finns. In addition, the winter of 1939-40 was severe above the average, with temperatures plummeting to -40 degrees Celsius. The Soviet soldier lacked winter equipment like skis, or white camouflage uniforms. Why for? It was to be a triumphal parade to Helsinki, they had believed.

Death from freezing temperatures and frostbites were more likely to kill than any bullet though
Death from freezing temperatures and frostbites were more likely to kill, and indeed killed more than bullets. Unknown author. Collection: Finnish Wartime Photograph Archive (SA-Kuva). Source

On the other hand, the Finns, masters of cross-country skiing, knew the terrain by heart, and skilfully flanked the Russians, decimating their ranks and forcing them to retreat, despite the enemy’s mechanized superiority. Comrade Stalin, who had the same lack of military genius than Hitler and the same ego, had no qualms about pour more and more communist cannon-fodder, to attempt a breakthrough. Waiting for them was little Simuna, at a scarce 1,6m in height, and solely armed with his perfume to mask smells and a rifle M/28-30.

#5 The White Death

Discouraged by their initial heavy losses, the Red Army dubbed all Finns as Belaya smert (White Death). A nickname later used exclusively for Simo Häyhä. ‘Death’ was a bit excessive for a nickname, in the opinion of his fellow Finns, who simply called him, Magic Shooter. His hunting and marksman abilities turned him into a living nightmare for the Russians, who repeatedly failed to remove him with artillery strikes. Aware he wasn’t the biggest or strongest man in the party, Simo counted on painstaking preparation to outwitt his hunters. He was the first to wake up in the mornings to oil the rifle’s barrel, in order to prevent it from freezing and jamming. Then he wrapped it with white gauze for camouflage, and dusted off the trigger mechanism.

A rifle of the same model that Simo Häyhä used
M/28-30 rifle. The irony of it was that the M/28-30 was a variant of the Russian Mosin-Nagant. Author: MKFI. Source

Then Simo would crawl to the foxholes he had prepared the night before, where he would soak the soil under the rifle’s muzzle, to prevent the shot from lifting snow dust and reveal his position. He would have also piled a snow wall behind him, to blur his silhouette with it.

Simo estimated the distance, taking into account humidity and wind, and adjusted his iron sight. The amazing fact, was that he never used a scope, believing the sunlight reflection would expose him. Closing his left eye, Simo slowed his breath, and aimed always at the middle of the target, to maximise his chance of a hit. Then the White Death pulled the trigger.

Decades later, when asked if he suffered nightmares, Simo responded “War was never in my dreams”. He never allowed his feelings to interfere with the mission. And his mission was to kill. He declared he never felt hatred towards the invaders, because his only task was to concentrate, keep the rifle stable, shoot, and reload; for as long as there were enemies present.

I did what I was told to, as well as I could. There would be no Finland unless everyone else had done the same

Simo Häyhä

The White Death claimed many lives, including enemy snipers. He patiently attempted different approaches to his target, until the bullet in his clip ended up finding its way. Not only he was deadly with M/28-30 rifle, but he aslo displayed frightful proficiency with the Suomi sub-machine gun. Overall, the White Death ripped 542 souls during the 98 days that he served. The highest death toll from a single sniper. Ever.

This fantastic 5 minute video explains Simo’s tactics in more detail

Simuna was a lone wolf, and unlike applicants boasting of their skills in their CVs, he refused to brag and seldom talked or even revealed his exploits. On 21st December 1939, after he had shot down 25 Russians, he was awarded a custom-built rifle, intended for the most distinguished shooter of the corps.

#6 It’s not enough

The Red Army stagnated after several defeats, but on February, they had gathered plenty of reinforcements, and attempted a breakthrough in Kolla. Their intention was to reach Ladoga’s northern shore, thus outflanking the vital Mannerheim line in the Karelian Isthmus.

Winter War front line in the Karelian Isthmus
Karelian Isthmus and the fortified Mannerheim line. In the eastern shore of Lake Ladoga lays Kolla. User Jniemenmaa. Source

The enemy’s numbers were superior, its artillery overwhelming. The Soviets fired 35.000 to 40.000 shells every day, while the Finns could barely respond with 1.000. Finland’s diplomacy worked against the clock to find allies but meanwhile Simuna and the 12th Division were on the verge of collapse. Their effort was so critical, that nowadays, the phrase ‘Kolla holds’, is used in Finland as synonymous of perseverance.

In the early hours of 6th March 1940, Simo was hit by an explosive bullet that shattered his cheek and lower left jawbone. He was immediately evacuated and was believed to be dead. However, the unconscious Magic Shooter was recognised and removed from the truck carrying the Finnish casualties. He regained consciousness on 13th March, 1940, after the Treaty of Moscow was signed, ending the hostilities. For Simuna however, it was the start of a long recovery process, including 26 surgical operations to reconstruct his jaw, using bone from his hip, and leaving him permanently disfigured.

Simo Häyhä was promoted to second Lieutenant. August 1940. Finnish Military Archives. Source

#7 The twilight of the White Death

When Nazy Germany invaded the USSR on 22nd June 1941, Finland sided with them in a bid to recover its former territories. The dutiful Simo felt it was his obligation to keep serving his country, but having become a hero and Finnish symbol, his petition was rejected. He returned to farming and hunting, never forgetting to regularly keep in touch with his fellow Kolla veterans. After the end of the war his country was packed with Soviet spies and collaborators, only too eager to report the capitalist pigs who had killed so many of them during the war. No wonder the man who wiped out more than 500 of them, wished to keep a low profile.

In the 70’s, Simo bought an apartment in Ruokolahti, unable to manage a farm by himself any longer. He didn’t have many friends and later was appointed a nurse to care him. Eventually, budget cutbacks forced him to move to the Kymi Institute for Disabled Veterans. The hero of the Finns, White Death to the Russians, after narrowly escaping death, and enjoying a second chance at life, spent his last peaceful years talking about the weather with the nuns, surrounded by his fellow veterans. They never mentioned the war.

Simo Häyhä's resting place
Simo Häyhä passed away in 2002. His tombstone reads: Home-Religion-Fatherland. Author: Klokster. Source
I absolutely recommend to watch Enemy at the Gates’! Starring Jude Law, Joseph Fiennes and Ed Harris. Although it doesn’t feature Simo Häyhä, the main character, the legendary sniper Vasily Zaytsev, has many of his traits based on Simo, as well as on the real Zaytsev.
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