Simo Häyhä. His friends called him Simuna. His enemies called him White Death. The deadliest sniper in history, his victims were counted for several hundreds, during the Winter War (1939-40).
#1 Sniper, a warrior ghost must be
Snipers. Loved by their allies. Hated by their foes. Gamers, like in ‘Call of Duty’, call them campers, as they seldom forsake their position and are difficult to hunt. Those f****** campers.
Hollywood is teeming with sniper movies, mostly Americans. Weapons are widely available there to sharpen your skills, shooting empty bottles I guess. The cold-blooded, skilful, shooter has hooked our interest, and turned into a legend. The most famed proved their skills during WW2, with the widespread use of telescopic sights.
#2 Simo’s family
Probably you wouldn’t believe that this tiny farmer, named Simo Häyhä, could had posed any threat. He was born on 17th December 1905, in Rautjarvi, in the Grand Duchy of Finland, an autonomous part of the Russian Empire. Nowadays, half of Rautjarvi is part of… Russia, again.
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, hunting and skiing. He proved 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. There, Simo would prove his shooting skills, by wining several regional competitions. The Guards were bolstered with veterans from the First World War, and the Civil War that followed 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. Lifesaving, as time would prove.
#3 Simo’s communist neighbour
Finland had a very communist neighbour, who claimed part of the enviable Finnish garden as their own, belonging to the proletariat. They were led by this Italian-looking guy.
The Soviet Union (USSR) demanded an exchange of territory, in order to cushion Leningrad (St Petersburg), accurately forecasting a German invasion, but since the Finns believed it was a crappy bargain, politely told Stalin to fuck off.
#4 The huntsmen of the winter war
The USSR attacked Finland on 30th November 1939, blaming them for the shelling of Mainila, a Soviet false flag operation. They mobilised 23 divisions, 450,000 men in total, 2500 aircraft and thousands of tanks. Finland also gathered an impressive number; 30 tanks and 100 planes.
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 ominously remarked: “I hadn’t expected the next shooting competition to be a war.”
Despite the USSR’s advantage in men and material, Finland’s scarce roads, and its forested landscape, dotted with thousands of small lakes, handicapped the Red Army’s manoeuvrability. In addition, the 1939-40 winter was severe, as temperatures plummeted to -40 degrees Celsius. The Russians lacked winter equipment like skis, and white camouflage uniforms. Why for? It was to be a triumphal parade to Helsinki, they believed.
In 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.
Meanwhile, Mario ‘Stalin’ Bros kept pouring more communist cannon-fodder, to attempt a breakthrough. Yet, opposing the Russian bear stood little Simuna, at a scarce 1,6m in height, fending them off with his ‘eau de eggs’… and maybe his ability with the rifle M/28-30 slightly contributed.
#5 The White Death
The Red Army dubbed the Finns, White Death. (Belaya smert). A nickname later used solely for Simo Häyhä. ‘Death’ was a bit excessive for a nickname, according to his fellow Finns, who simply called him, Magic Shooter.
His hunting and marksman abilities made him a nightmare for the Russians, who repeatedly failed to remove him with artillery strikes. Aware he wasn’t the biggest dude in the nightclub, Simo always made careful preparations. Before anybody else, he woke up to oil the rifle’s barrel to prevent it from freezing and jamming, wrap it with white gauze for camouflage, and dust-off the trigger mechanism.
Simo crawled to the firing foxholes he had prepared the night before, and soaked 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 conceal his silhouette.
Simo estimated the distance, taking into account humidity and wind, and adjusted his iron sight. 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. 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”
The White Death claimed many lives, including enemy snipers, patiently attempting different approaches, until the bullet in his clip ended up piercing his target’s flesh. He displayed proficiency with the Suomi sub-machine gun as well. Overall, the White Death ripped 542 souls during the 98 days that he served. The highest death toll from a single sniper ever.
Simuna was a lone wolf, and unlike applicants exaggerating their skills in their CVs, he refused to brag, and seldom revealed his exploits. On 21st December 1939, he shot down 25 Russians, and was awarded a custom-built rifle, intended for the most distinguished shooter of the corps.
#6 Simo Häyhä‘s tactics didn’t suffice
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.
The enemy’s numbers were superior, its artillery overwhelming. They 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, but meanwhile, Simuna and the 12th Division were on the verge of collapse. 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, but later the unconscious Magic Shooter was found, and removed from the truck carrying the Finnish casualties.
Simuna regained consciousness on 13th March, 1940, after the Treaty of Moscow was signed, ending the hostilities. For Simuna, 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.
#7 The White Death hangs the rifle
During WW2, Finland attempted to recover its former territories by siding with Nazi Germany, but Simo was rejected enrolment. He returned to farming and hunting, while keeping in touch with his fellow Kolla veterans.
After WW2 the country was packed with Russian spies and collaborators, eager to settle scores and report the western pigs who killed Stalin’s liberators during the war. No wonder the man who wiped out more than 500 communists, wished to keep a low profile.
In the 70’s, Simo bought an apartment in Ruokolahti, unable to manage a farm 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, the 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.