In November 1939, the Soviet Union invaded their much-smaller neighbour Finland. It marked the start of the so-called Winter War. This war, lasting for just a little over three months, saw many heroic Finnish soldiers stand up against the better equipped and much larger Red Army behemoth. One of those soldiers that truly distinguished himself was the sniper Simo Häyhä. In merely 98 days, he managed to kill 542 Red Army soldiers, a staggering number. It didn’t just propel him among history’s most successful snipers, no. In just 98 days, Simo Häyhä managed to shatter any sniper victory score, a record that has not been matched by anyone before or since. And what is more, Simo managed to achieve this using no other equipment than any ordinary Finnish soldier had at his disposal. Including a rudimentary iron sight instead of scope on his rifle.
Simo was born on December 17 1905, in the small municipality of Rautjärvi, south-eastern Finland. Nowadays, close to half the territory of his place of birth is Russian territory, signalling the significant geopolitical changes that would take place during Simo’s life. He was the seventh of eight children. His parents ran a relatively modern agricultural business on a significant plot of land.
Two of his brothers passed away young, leaving him with two brothers and three sisters. Throughout his childhood, he enjoyed working on the farm whilst attending school. He had a relatively small posture, only 5ft3, but what he lacked in height he made up for in physical strength. He was practically oriented with no serious academic interest. During his spare time he hunted, skied in the mountains close by his elderly home and essentially enjoyed nature.
During his teenage years Finland suffered quite a bit of turmoil. Up until 1917 its administrative status was Grand Duchy of Finland, part of the Russian Empire. Yet when in 1917 the subsequent Russian revolutions ended the Romanov-rule, within Finland too left-wing mass movements began questioning the direction Finland should take.
Without getting too much into the internal politics – from January to May 1918 a civil war waged in Finland. Three months of incredible bloodshed between the so-called Finnish Whites, consisting of liberal and conservatives, and the Finnish Reds, supported by the Russian Soviets. Long story short, the Finnish White Army under Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim’s command won the civil war.
In 1922, at the age of 17, he joined the local Finnish civil guard. He finished middle school and intended to take over his father’s farm once he became too old to operate it.
In the civil guard Simo’s talent was discovered: marksmanship. He practiced with the Mosin-Nagant M1891, a Russian-built five-shot bolt action internal magazine fed military rifle. And he was quite adept at it. Finnish militias distributed this Russian gun and ammunition for free among its members. From December 1925 to March 1927, Simo fulfilled his mandatory military service, completing his time at the rank of Corporal.
Still, after completing his military service he still participated in many marksmanship competitions. Throughout the 1930s he won multiple awards and medals. Anecdotes survive which state Simo once managed to shoot 16 targets per minute, at a 150-meter distance, whilst reloading his gun because a Mosin-Nagant could only holster five shots at a time. An awe-inspiring feat. The Finnish Civil Guard’s preferred gun in competitions was the so-called SAKO M28-30, a Finnish-built improved Mosin-Nagant. In 1937, 440 of them were manufactured to be used in the World Shooting Championships in Helsinki, which saw Finland earn the most medals. Its barrel was heavier than its Soviet counterpart, and according to gun enthusiasts, the Finn models 28 and 39 were generally regarded as the ‘cream of the crop.’
When not participating in shooting competitions, Simo mainly worked on his farmland or went out hunting with his dog Kille, hunting wildlife in the area. His farmhouse was filled with hunting and marksman competition trophies.
With tensions within Europe and between Finland and the Soviet Union ever-growing, the government emphasised military service among the Finns. They were well aware of the danger that loomed just across the border. In the summer of 1938, Simo received special sniper training in the Utti Training centre of the Finnish Army. It was the first time he received official military sniper training, and his superiors recognised him for his skill and natural sharpshooting talent. There’s no doubt the many years of hunting and shooting competitions honed his skills. Combined with a healthy dose of talent, Simo mastered any gun in any climate, even relatively basic rifles the Finnish army used during the 1930s.
The sniper training came just in time, though. Because of it, Simo contributed significantly to the enormous losses the Soviet Union’s Red Army suffered during the Winter War. In November 1939, the Soviet Union launched their invasion of Finland after a false flag attack. 34-year-old corporal Simo was called to the front. Recognised as a skilled marksman thanks to his time in the Civil Guard, he was deployed as a sniper.
Before we get to his actual combat experience, I want to have a look at his equipment and his tactics. His preferred rifle was the trusty SAKO M28-30. According to the website of Mosin-Nagant, one of the main improvements of this gun was the ‘rear sight design’. This meant the marksman could more easily pick up a target and fired shots tended to be more accurate. The gun rarely jammed in the cold weather, and its stocks were made of Arctic birchwood, proving resistant to the Finnish severe winter cold. Now, scopes were scarce, especially during the initial stages of the war. If Finnish soldiers used telescopic sights at all, soldiers looted them from Red Army soldiers.
Simo preferred to use an iron sight, even when the opportunity presented itself for him to use a scope. For one, because he was convinced the sun could reflect off of the scope. But secondly, he simply felt an open-sighted rifle worked better with his small 5ft3 frame. Furthermore, an iron sight didn’t require him to raise his head ever so slightly when aiming. Since a sniper’s subtle movement can give him away, this appeared to be a sensible approach. Other considerations were that scopes could fog up, which you wouldn’t want happening at crucial moments.
Combined with the distinctive Finnish snowy camouflage outfit with fur lining against the cold, he blended in with his surroundings. He put snow in his mouth when in hiding, preventing his cold breath from revealing his position. Considering Finnish winters could easily reach -40C, laying still for hours wasn’t a comfortable task. He mastered camouflage in the snowy Finnish mountains and landscapes, hiding in nature. It helped that the surroundings of where he was deployed, namely the Karelian Isthmus was a 70 mile-long stretch of land with few roads, many hills and vast woodlands.
According to his biographer, Tapio Saarelainen, in his biography The White Death, Simo’s success can be attributed to the following:
“Simo Häyhä was the best sniper who ever lived because he understood everything going on around him. He was a skilled trekker and hunter who knew exactly how to stay hidden. His gun too was one he had used for years and he knew exactly how it would react in its environment, and his personality was ideally suited to sniping, with his willingness to be alone and ability to avoid the emotions many would attach to such a job.”
Simo’s tactic was quite curious. Often, he took provisions for several days to trek into the wilderness on his own. He’d pick out strategic points, dig in and wait patiently. Sometimes for hours and hours on end, in the freezing Finnish winter, hidden among the snow. He’d pour water over the snow he rested his rifle on. It would freeze, and when he’d shoot there wouldn’t be a fluff of snow giving him away. When a Soviet patrol or infantry platoon passed, they were sitting ducks for the skilled marksman.
During the next 98 days, Simo managed to kill 542 Red Army soldiers. That’s an average of over five per day. Not to mention the fact that winters in Finland enjoy just a few hours of daylight. Perhaps his reputation is best summed up by the Soviets’ nickname; they referred to him as the ‘White Death.’ His Finnish comrades referred to him as the ‘Magic Shooter.’
He initially served in the 6th Company of the 34 Jalkaväkirykmentti, an Infantry Regiment. He participated in the battle at the Kollaa River. A much smaller Finnish force managed to fend off four significantly larger Soviet divisions for months. The Finns had several advantages; one of the most significant ones must have been the fact Red Army soldiers didn’t wear camouflage clothing, making them easy pickings. During the war Simo received the Order of the Cross of Liberty, one of Finland’s three official state orders. He received the third and fourth class crosses of liberty as well, and in February he was awarded a SAKO M28-30 rifle with his name engraved on it.
Lieutenant General Woldemar Hägglund commanded the Finnish forces, facing the 1st and 14th Soviet Armies. Writer Paul Feist describes this campaign as the ‘Miracle of Koolla,’ with at one point a few thousand Finns facing over 160.000 Red Army soldiers. He writes about the ‘Battle of Killer Hill,’ where 32 Finns fought off 4000 advancing Red Army soldiers. I have been unable to find an account that verifies this Battle of Killer Hill took place. Yet the Finns certainly gave the Soviets a run for their money, inflicting nearly eight times the amount of casualties they themselves suffered.
On March 6 1940, one week before the Winter War officially came to an end, things took a turn for the worse. A Red Army soldier shot Simo through his left jaw with an explosive bullet. Initially thought to be dead, he was put on a pile of dead bodies. His comrades nearly buried him if it wasn’t for an attentive soldier noticing his twitching, and dragging him out of the pile. He was unconscious, and the bullet blew half of his face away. In a near poetic twist of fate he awoke from his coma one week later, on the day the Winter War was concluded. As testament of Finnish perseverance, by the time the war was concluded Koolla was still in Finnish hands, against all odds. Still, the Finns ended up ceding nearly 10 percent of their land to the Soviet Union.
Life after the Winter War
Simo had to recuperate for several years because of his severe injuries. He wanted to serve in the Continuation War against the Soviet Union, lasting from June 1941 to September 1944, but was refused due to his injuries and recuperation. It took 26 surgeries but he recovered and lived for many decades after the war.
Over the years he participated in marksmanship competitions, winning many medals and awards. He enjoyed moose hunting, reportedly even hunting with the Finnish president Urho Kekkonen and made a living from dog breeding. The facial injuries certainly did not hold him back in pursuing an active lifestyle.
Being a sniper still means killing enemy combatants. Although it’s easy to sensationalise lives and achievements such as those of Simo’s, he himself appeared to have looked at it through a stoic lens. He felt he simply performed his duty. And he did a great job at it. He gave many interviews after the war. In a 1998 interview when asked how he managed to become such a skilled marksman, he answered simply with ‘practice.’ The follow-up question was if he felt regret for killing so many people, to which he said he ‘simply did what he was told to do, and did so as well as he could.’
So if we put Simo’s record in perspective, how successful of a sniper was he? Just keep in mind: he managed to achieve it with the most rudimentary of military equipment. The Red Army’s top sniper was Ivan Sidorenko, just 21 years old when the Second World War broke out. Throughout the war, he claimed at least 500 kills. The famous Canadian First World War sniper Francis Pegahmagabow had at least 378 confirmed kills to his name, mainly Germans. During that war the greatest Australian sniper was Billy Sing, with 150 confirmed kills. Still, these numbers are pale in comparison to those of Simo.
Simo spent his final years in the small village of Ruokolahti in south-eastern Finland. In an interview he stated he was a ‘happy and fortunate man.’ He always ‘slept well, even during battles on the front.’ The legendary sniper passed away on April 1 2002, at the age of 96. His honorary rifle is still on display in the Military Museum of Finland. He still finds recognition in popular culture. The Swedish metal band Sabaton created a song about him, and the 2016 film named the White Death is based on his life.