The Winter War of 1939-1940, also known as the Russo-Finnish War, pitted the enormous but poorly led army of the Soviet Union against the much smaller but well-trained Finns. During the war, Simo Häyhä, a Finnish sniper and competitive shooter racked up 505 confirmed kills in just 100 days of combat. Some even put the number as high as 542.

Simo Häyhä’s Early Life

Simo Häyhä would become a legend during the war. Finnish soldiers called him “the Magical Shooter.” But the Soviet soldiers had a more apt nickname for him: “White Death.”

Simo Häyhä was born on December 17, 1905 to Juho and Katriina Häyhä in the hamlet of Kiiskinen in Rautjärvi municipality. The area was in the old Finnish region of Karelia, which is now Russian territory. Häyhä grew up 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.

Simo Häyhä with his sniper rifle during the Winter War of 1939-1940
Simo Häyhä with his sniper rifle during the Winter War of 1939-40.

After his compulsory one-year of 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 Finns nicknamed it “the Spitz” since the front sight resembled a Spitz dog breed. The Spitz, chambered in the Finnish Mosin-Nagant cartridge 7.62×53R. 

Häyhä lived near the Finnish base and was a frequent competitor in the shooting sports that the Finns would conduct there. Reportedly, his house was full of competitive shooting trophies, and he was able to shoot and hit 16 targets at about 150 meters in a minute using a bolt-action rifle. Standing just above five feet tall, the soft-spoken Finn was hardly intimidating but that would change. 

Finland Gives the Soviet Bear a Black Eye

The government of Finland declared itself neutral at the start of World War II and believed the Soviet Union wanted to annex its territory. On the other hand, the Soviet Union feared Finland would allow itself to be used as a base from which enemies could attack. Stalin wanted a buffer zone to protect Leningrad. 

A fake border incident gave the Soviet Union the excuse to invade on November 30, 1939.

The Soviets invaded Finland with over 160,000 troops. Although severely outnumbered, the Finns were well-led and prepared. On the contrary, Stalin had purged his officer corps in 1937 and executed thousands of his officers. The result was a class of politically loyal but tactically inept leaders. And they would pay the price in Finland.

Further, the large Red Army was ill-equipped, poorly led, unprepared, and unable to deal with the Finnish terrain and winter weather. The Russian troops wore the green greatcoat of the military. This made them stand out perfectly, silhouetted against the white snow. It allowed snipers like Häyhä to pick them off with ridiculous ease.

A Finnish MG position during the Winter War against the Soviet Union.

Though small the Finnish Army used its knowledge of the terrain to great effect. It inflicted huge losses on the Soviets who were embarrassed on the international stage over their performance.

However, by early February 1940, the Finnish Army was exhausted, its ammunition nearly out, and its defensive lines close to being overrun. So, Finland was forced to sign the Treaty of Moscow on March 12, 1940. Under the treaty, it ceded 11 percent of its territory to the Soviet Union, more than the Soviets demanded prior to the start of the conflict.

But the losses suffered by the Soviet troops were horrifying. A Soviet general later remarked that the land they had conquered was “just enough to bury their dead.”

Simo Häyhä’s Wartime Exploits

With the cold plummeting to minus 45F, the Finns would allow the Soviets to attack along 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.

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At one point Simo Häyhä and his unit of just 32  men faced 4,000 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.

Hayha demonstrates his firing position in a foxhole. (Tapio Saarlainen)

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 through his face.

Later another Soviet sniper kept Häyhä’s unit pinned down. Once again, Häyhä was summoned and began to search out his quarry. Using another Finnish lieutenant as a spotter, took the Soviet sniper 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 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.

A Finnish Army document detailed how deadly Simo Häyhä’s sniping was: 

  • On December 22, 1939, he was given credit for 138 kills in 22 days; 
  • On January 26, 1940, his count rose to 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; 
  • 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 as a submachine gun and in a single day, he killed 25 Soviets.

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).

Simo Häyhä’s Dedication to His Craft

Unlike most snipers, Häyhä didn’t fire from the prone position; he preferred sitting up. And since he was diminutive 5’3, he didn’t offer a big target.

He’d also 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.

In the obsession with his craft, he would go out at night, improve his favorite shooting positions, and performed meticulous maintenance on his rifle so that it would never jam, especially in the cold conditions. 

He’d place his gloves on the snow and 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.

Häyhä had developed his skill through competitive shooting and in his days as an accomplished hunter to hone his craft in the most deadly fashion. His hunting experience taught him how to read and use the terrain and in doing so, he was able to exploit the terrain of the battlefield to his advantage.

His range estimation, something he’d practiced hard at was outstanding. With his rifle zeroed at 150 meters, he could estimate and make the changes needed faster and more accurately than his Soviet enemies could. As all snipers are today, he was an expert on the effects that wind or rain had on his bullet as it traveled to the target. 

After the war, he was asked about the myth that he and other Finnish snipers would set up in trees. Häyhä laughed at this. He told his interviewer that it would make it far more difficult to keep a steady aim during contact and if he were ever discovered he would have no escape route. However, Häyhä did use overhanging branches for cover, which provided better protection and allowed him to keep a steady aim.

In an interview with author Tapio Saarlainen for his book The White Sniper he quoted the accomplished sniper as saying, “War is not a pleasant experience but who else would protect this land unless we are willing to do it ourselves.”

He told Saarlainen that snipers didn’t aim for headshots. “The head is a small size compared to the torso and for that reason, Häyhä always fired at the center of the torso. Shooting an enemy should only be done so when the probability of killing the enemy is at its highest, and if aiming at his head, a slight misjudgment leads to a miss which can give away your position with no gain taken,” Saarlainen wrote.

Simo Häyhä 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.

After the war, he returned to farming, becoming a very successful dog breeder and moose hunter. Simo Häyhä lived alone until 2001. He passed away at the age of 96, on April 1, 2002.

A few years before his death, he was asked how he became such an expert sniper. He replied, “practice.” You can watch a video on Häyhä below. 

 

This article was originally published in November 2019. It has been expanded and edited for republication.

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