Few soldiers are as legendary as Finland’s Simo Häyhä. Known as the deadliest sniper in history, Häyhä served for just under 100 days during the 1939-1940 Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union.
In that short time, he is credited with killing over 500 men.
At long range, Häyhä was lethal; his M28/30 sniper rifle (the Finnish version of Russia’s legendary Mosin-Nagant) accounted for half his estimated 500-542 kills. At close quarters, he was equally deadly with his Suomi KP-31 sub-machine gun, with some 250 Soviets falling victim to it. Not surprisingly, Soviet troops soon assigned Häyhä an appropriately sinister nickname: White Death.
Häyhä's transformation into history's most accomplished sniper traces back to 1925, when, at twenty years old, he his mandatory year in Finland's Army and afterward joined Finland's volunteer militia known as the White Guard. Häyhä's time with the militia sharpened what were already remarkable shooting abilities; as a farmer and hunter, he was a natural marksman who regularly collected trophies at local shooting competitions. By the end of his term, Häyhä had been promoted to the rank of corporal.
After his discharge, Häyhä returned to his farm—and joined the Finnish Civil Guard where he received additional training in sharp-shooting. Eventually, Häyhä was able to hit a target 16 times in just with a bolt-action rifle.
When the Winter War broke out on November 30, 1939, Häyhä was nearly 34 years old. By the war’s end on March 13, 1940, he would become a legend. While most snipers used telescopic sights, Häyhä did without. Using a scope forced a sniper to lift their head a few inches higher than ordinary sights, making them an easier target for enemy snipers. Telescopic sights were also vulnerable to extreme cold. Häyhä’s solution was simple: Even in the poor light of a Finnish winter, he would rely on iron sights and the naked eye.
His fatal abilities were attributed not just to his sharp-shooting eye. Häyhä also had a seemingly natural knack for camouflaging himself. Aside for forgoing a telescopic sight, Häyhä took advantage of the snow that covered the land during the Winter War. While wearing an all-white camouflage uniform, Häyhä would build up snow drifts before settling into position for the day’s mission. The uniform and the snow were a key part of his infamous nickname, the White Death.
How Häyhä avoided hypothermia is difficult to understand. Not only did the sniper cover himself in snow and barely move in the below-freezing temperatures, he sometimes even filled his mouth with snow to avoid the tell-tale steam of breath rising from the drifts.
As the Soviets soon realized, the freezing weather, the dim lighting, and the outdated technology didn’t affect his aim.
Finnish Army documents () reveal just how deadly Häyhä was as a soldier. The war began on November 30, 1939. According to these documents, Häyhä had racked up his first 138 kills by December 22–only 22 days for 138 kills. The entry for January 26, 1940 ups his count to 199, an extra 61 in 35 days. By February 17, he was up to 219. In the 18 days after that, Häyhä killed another 40 enemy soldiers.
These stats reflect only his sniping kills. Häyhä was just as deadly up close. His sub-machine gun accounted for another 250 kills. By March of 1940, he’d racked up an astonishing 500+ kills. Yet on March 6, his military career came to a sudden and near-fatal end.
Häyhä was a primary target of the Red Army; Soviets were keen to eliminate this seemingly unstoppable soldier who had spread so much fear, injury, and death among their ranks.
They’d tried everything, pummeling Häyhä's presumed locations with artillery fire. Soviets also employed counter-sniping, flooding an area with snipers whose primary mission was to kill the White Death.
On March 6, 1940, the Red Army nearly succeeded. A Soviet sniper spotted Häyhä and shot at him with an explosive bullet, striking him in his lower left jaw.
The shot should have killed him. Häyhä, though severely wounded, somehow survived. Found by Finnish troops, he was brought into a field hospital. He wasn’t a pretty sight. One of the soldiers who brought him in bluntly described his injuries, saying “half his face was missing”. But once again, Häyhä had beaten the odds: permanently disfigured, but alive nonetheless.
Häyhä was lucky. Only 11 days after he was shot, the Winter War ended on March 13, 1940–the same day Häyhä regained consciousness. Finland honored the soldier for his service. Starting as a private in 1925, he’d only made ‘Alikersantti’ (corporal) when the Winter War started. After it ended, Corporal Häyhä was commissioned, becoming a “Vanrikki” (second lieutenant) with multiple decorations. He would spend the next few years recovering from the shot to his head, but Häyhä would eventually regain his health.
Finland fared poorly in the Treaty of Moscow, ceding 11% of its land. But thanks to Simo Häyhä and hundreds of other soldiers, the Soviets took that land at great cost. Chairman Nikita Khrushchev later estimated that around one million Soviet soldiers’ lives had been lost in their attempt to conquer Finland, although scholarly sources cite between 300,000 and 400,000 casualties, approximately 150,000 of whom perished. Meanwhile, Finland only suffered some 26,000 fatalities.
After the war, Häyhä became a successful moose hunter and dog breeder. Against him, the moose stood no chance. Finland’s President Urho Kekkinen was also a keen hunter and Häyhä, once a nobody from the Finnish border country, became one of the President’s regular hunting partners.
Entering a veteran’s nursing home in Hamina in his old age, Häyhä spent his remaining years quietly. He died on April 1, 2002 aged 96, a national hero in his native Finland and a legend in military history. Asked how he’d been so successful he answered simply: “Practice.”
All photos: Alchetron