Today marks the 17th anniversary of the passing of the deadliest sniper in history. During the Ruso-Finnish Winter War of 1939-40, Simo Häyhä, a Finnish sniper and competitive shooter, racked up 505 confirmed kills, some put the number as high as 542 in just 100 days of combat.
The Finnish soldiers called him “The Magical Shooter”, the Soviet soldiers had a more apt nickname for him. They called him the “White Death”.
After being seriously wounded in the war, Häyhä would live quietly as a farmer until he passed away in 2002 at the age of 96.
Häyhä was born on December 17, 1905, in Rautjärvi, Viipuri Province, Finland, in a Lutheran heritage family of farmers as the second youngest among eight children.
Prior to joining the military, he was an accomplished hunter, shooter, and skier although he made his living as a farmer. He first joined the Finnish military in 1925 at age 17 as a member of the Finnish voluntary militia White Guard (Suojeluskunta), similar to the U.S. National Guard.
After his service, he returned to farming but he purchased his issued rifle, as Finnish soldiers were given the option to, an early series SAKO M/28-30 (Sn.35281/Civil Guard district number S60974). The rifle was a Finnish variant of the Mosin–Nagant rifle, known as “Pystykorva”, the Spitz, chambered in the Finnish Mosin–Nagant cartridge 7.62×53R. The Finns nicknamed it “The Spitz” since the front sight resembled a Spitz dog breed.
Häyhä lived near the Finnish base and was a frequent competitor in the shooting sports that the Finns would conduct there. And reportedly, his house was full of competitive shooting trophies. He was able to shoot and hit 16 targets at about 150 meters in a minute using a bolt-action rifle.
War With the Soviet Union:
The Russians wanted a war with Finland and tried to provoke the Finns in late November 1939 with a massive artillery bombardment of the border. Josef Stalin tried to blame the Finns for some untold “aggression” which fooled no one in the rest of the world.
On November 30, the Soviets invaded Finland with over 160,000 troops. Although severely outnumbered, the Finns were well led and prepared. Stalin had purged his officer corps in 1937 and executed thousands of his officers. The result was he had politically loyal but tactically inept leaders. And they would pay the price in Finland.
Another factor was the Russians weren’t prepared for the winter war. Their troops wore the green greatcoat of the military. This made them stand out perfectly, silhouetted against the white snow. It made snipers like Häyhä pick them off with ridiculous ease.
With the cold, ranging from -20C to -40C, the Finns would allow the Soviets to attack on the roads and then envelop them and attack from the rear, causing huge casualties. Häyhä was called back into service, serving under the 6th Company of JR 34 on the Kollaa River.
At one point Häyhä and his fellow troops, just 32 in all were facing 4000 Soviet troops. And amazingly enough, they held their ground. In the early days of the fighting, a Soviet sniper had killed three junior platoon leaders and an NCO. Häyhä’s platoon leader told him to take out the sniper.
As the sun was setting, the Soviet sniper considered the day’s fighting done and carelessly abandoned his position. As he did so, the fading sunlight glinted off his sniper scope. Häyhä put a round right thru his face. Later another Soviet sniper kept his unit pinned down, once again, Häyhä was summoned for and began to search out his quarry. Using another Finnish lieutenant as a spotter, Häyhä took him out with a single shot from 400 meters.
Soviet commanders then sent a countersniper out to get him but he too was dispatched with a single shot. The Soviets answered with a mortar barrage down on Häyhä’s position. When he began to take out the Soviet artillery spotters with ease, they unleashed a massive artillery barrage on the Finnish positions.
Unlike most snipers, Häyhä didn’t fire from the prone position, he preferred sitting up. He was a diminutive 5’3, so still didn’t offer a big target. But he’d pile up the snow in front of him and then pack down or pour water on the snow in front of his muzzle. That way, the enemy couldn’t see the telltale disturbance and blasting of the snow.
He’d place his gloves on the snow and place his rifle on top of them to lessen the recoil. But perhaps the most amazing thing about his exploits is that Häyhä eschewed the use of telescopic sights, doing all of his shooting with just the iron sight of the rifle. He also would fill his mouth with snow, so enemy snipers couldn’t see his breath. In one day he once killed 25 Soviet soldiers.
A Finnish Army document detailed how deadly Häyhä’s sniping was on the Soviets during the Winter War. On December 22, 1939, he was given credit for 138 kills in 22 days; on January 26, 1940, it mentions the total count as 199 with another 61 kills in 35 days; on February 17, 1940, his total had risen to 219 with another 20 kills in 22 days; and finally on March 7, 1940, on the day after he was severely wounded, the Finns listed the total number of kills as 259 with another 40 kills in 18 days. He was credited with almost the same number of kills with a submachine gun.
Häyhä had developed his knack for competitive shooting with his days as an accomplished hunter to hone his craft in the most deadly fashion. And he had learned to be spot-on with his range estimation, something he’d practiced hard at. With his rifle zeroed at 150 meters, he could estimate and make the changes needed faster and more accurately than his enemy could.
He was a hero in the Finnish army and was presented a special rifle, a custom-built precision weapon gifted by a Swedish businessman and friend of Finland, Eugen Johannson.
The Russians finally got to Häyhä when a Soviet sniper sent an explosive bullet into the cheek of Häyhä on March 6, 1940. It tore off his jaw and most of his left cheek. Amazingly enough, he survived and regained consciousness on the day the war ended. He had to endure 26 surgeries on his face, which took several years. He never fully recovered his speech. Finnish Field Marshal Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim elevated Häyhä from the rank of alikersantti (Corporal) to vänrikki (Second lieutenant).
After the war, he returned to farming, becoming a very successful dog breeder and moose hunter, and lived to the ripe old age of 96, passing away on April 1, 2002. He was asked a few years before his death how he became such an expert sniper…he replied, “practice.”
Photos: Wikipedia, Video: Weird History/YouTube.com