Convinced the territory was necessary for the protection of Leningrad, Stalin sent over 450,000 men across the border, with the intention of conquering the entire country after the Finns refused to back down. Headstrong and arrogant, the Soviet dictator knew he possessed quantitative advantages in men and material, and he expected to win the day in short order.
Yet, due to his paranoia, the Soviet military entered into the war lacking the one element capable of seeing Stalin’s vision through. Competent leadership. A problem created by Stalin himself.
He had purged most of the officer corps in the late 1930s, suspecting them of disloyalty. The few not executed found themselves staring between bars of a gulag in Siberia, as their commands were taken over by nervous inexperienced hands under control of political commissars. And as the invasion started, this unknown situation would sorely test Lenin’s adage that “quantity has a quality all its own” in the most brutal of ways.
Finland realized its national survival was at stake, and volunteers swarmed to fill its military forces as they employed guerilla tactics and used defensive lines against the invasion. Among those volunteers was a young 24-year-old blonde, stubby fellow of just 5’3″ who had already served his mandatory year in service, and upon leaving, became a farmer and competed as a sport shooter. Now he was back and ready to help the cause. And this time, over a period of a hundred days, he would achieve a unique place in history and earn a nickname that instantly made him recognizable.
His name was Simo Hayha.
As the snows fell several feet deep, temperatures plunged and the daylight hours became few. Simo, like his comrades, dressed head to toe in white clothing, set off, often on skis, to meet the Soviets among the endless forests near the border.
His talent as an expert shot was recognized quickly and his scores rose, confirmed by observers watching him engage. Soon he was leaving his mark everywhere he lined up his sights, except he didn’t use scopes as he felt it exposed him more. Instead, he stared down the iron sights of his Mosin-Nagant M28/30 rifle, and picked off exposed targets at will. Then he would scurry away from the bush or snow bank serving as his hide and vanish as quickly as he appeared.
After experiencing his talent, the Soviets took note, and thereafter began speaking of the ghost-like figure that killed them in bunches with respect and fear using the words “Belaya Smert.” Translation: The White Death.
With the winter proving to be especially difficult to the ill-equipped invader, the last thing they needed was a supernatural-like solitary killer choosing when and where he would end their lives, so they often took extreme measures reserved for much larger units. Whenever men fell to those single shots, massive artillery strikes or air attacks shattered the forest with hundreds of explosions, trying to destroy the one who already had hundreds of Soviets to his credit and racking up an average of five or more kills per day.
It never worked.
His future victims returned patrolling the blasted land only to hear those single shots begin ripping into their ranks once again… Or silence.
In other cases, instead of just harassing them, Simo took out whole squads from that single rifle, firing shots that all the targets heard, but could never locate. If he was close enough and the targets too many for his bolt action, he switched to his backup, a Suomi M31 submachine gun, to further the carnage, though kills with this weapon didn’t count toward his score as a sniper.
Late in the game, the Soviets realized the best way to eliminate a sniper is with another sniper. With this in mind, they brought in several snipers to operate as a unit against this one man. They could not operate alone as they stood no chance against him. So one day they set off into the brisk air, scoped rifles slung on their backs, to eliminate this menace once and for all.
None came back. All of them were dispatched in a short space of time by Simo.
He continued on in his reign as master of the battlefield, killing scores and remaining untouchable, when on March 6, his luck ran out. A bullet tore through his jaw. Located by a friendly unit who said, “he had half his head missing,” Simo underwent surgery to repair the massive damage to his face. He survived, with the left half of his jaw drooping and deformed, regaining consciousness the day the Winter War ended on March 13.
Stalin’s foray had cost his military dearly. They achieved some territory but failed to overrun the country, losing over 320,000 killed and wounded to Finland’s 70,000.
As For Simo Hayha, he was decorated and promoted from Corporal to Second Lieutenant by Finland’s leader, Gustav Mannerheim. No one in the country’s history has ever achieved such a rise in rank so quickly.
Celebrated as a national hero, he returned to a quiet life and in later years became a hunter and dog breeder. A modest man, he always stated, “I only did my duty, and what I was told to do, as well as I could.”
His official confirmed tally as a sniper stands at 542 kills with a rifle as well as some 200 more by SMG in 100 days.
Truly remarkable… And never matched.
When asked how he became such a good shot, Simo uttered the simple word that all snipers live by.
In 2002, old age finally claimed the prize that an entire country could not. Simo Hayha, the ‘White Death,’ and deadliest of them all, was 96.
Previously published on SOFREP 1.20.2013 by Mike Perry.