Ensconced in the snow, his white camouflage suit rendering him invisible to the invading Soviet soldiers he stalked, Simo Häyhä steadied himself to fire. During the 1939–1940 Winter War, in temperatures as low as –40 °C, the Finnish sniper undertook a killing spree that saw him single-handedly take the lives of at least 700 men in less than 100 days. Over 500 of these he shot using a standard, bolt-action rifle with non-telescopic sights. Is it any wonder he earned the nickname White Death among his enemies? Meet the man who would take Rambo to the cleaners.
The sharpshooter who would later be credited with the highest number of confirmed kills in any war in history came from humble rural beginnings. Born near the present day Finnish-Russian border, Häyhä was a farmer and hunter before entering combat, though it’s no shock to learn he already had his share of marksman’s trophies. His skills sharpened by the sort of training only life can offer, this tough little outdoorsman was always going to be a handful, and when the Red Army invaded Finland three months after the outbreak of WWII, Häyhä heard the call of duty.
Little was the operative word. Häyhä stood just 5 ft 3 in (1.6 m) tall, which was one basis for his choice of weapon, an M/28 or M28/30 Soviet Mosin-Nagant rifle that suited his small frame. He also rejected a scoped rifle in favour of basic iron sights for other reasons: it meant he presented less of target as he could keep his head lower; it negated the risk of his position being exposed by sun glare in a telescopic lens; and lastly open sights were not prone to fogging up or breaking, which was a concern in the snow and ice of the Winter War. Häyhä was a professional.
Of course an iron-sighted rifle also made aiming more difficult, but with 505 confirmed kills as a sniper – the other 200 he shot using a sub-machine gun – Häyhä clearly had a keen eye. Another tactic this greatest of gunmen used to conceal his own position from the enemy was to compact the snow before him so that his shot would not disturb the snow, and in true commando fashion he also kept his mouth was full of snow so that his breath did not give him away.
Despite such measures, Häyhä’s fearful reputation preceded him, and the advancing Soviets tried several strategies specifically designed to dispose of this deadly lone menace. Teams of counter-snipers and artillery units were deployed with the sole purpose of eliminating White Death, but the snow-covered forests of Finland were his hunting grounds, not theirs.
Eventually, however, the Finnish sharpshooter’s exploits caught up with him. On March 6 1940, he was shot in the face while on the frontline by a Russian soldier. The exploding bullet went through his jaw and blew off his left cheek, with the soldiers who picked him up and brought him back to base reporting that “half his head was missing”. Yet Häyhä – said to be a quiet, affable man – was still able to survive, awakening from his coma on March 13, the day peace was declared.
The heroic stand taken by Simo Häyhä and his fellow Fins against Soviet forces that outnumbered them by as much as 100:1 is often referred to as The Miracle of Kollaa. When the war had ended, Häyhä was promoted straight from corporal to second lieutenant. He went on to become a successful moose hunter and lived to the age of 96. When he was asked about his service, he stated, “I only did what was ordered, and did it as well as I could.” Asked what the key to his success was, his short answer was, “Practice… and clear days.”