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The story of Simo Häyhä: The White Death

Simo Häyhä, the man they called ‘The White Death’

When asked how he became such a good shot, Finnish soldier Simo Häyhä uttered the words that any marksman, be it air rifles, airsoft guns or live ammo shooters should live by:

“Practice.”

Simo arguably sold himself short with this simple retort; his confirmed tally as a sniper stands at somewhere between 505-542 kills (the exact figure is debated amongst historians), as well as some 200 more by SMG… in 100 days, no less!

So, how did an unassuming 24-year-old blonde man of just 5’3″ who had already served his military service go on to become one of the deadliest men to have lived? This is the story of how he made history:

The start of the Winter War

November 30th, 1939. Josef Stalin was on a mission to reclaim territory that was lost in the Russian Civil War of 1917. He was so convinced that the territory was necessary for the protection of Leningrad that he sent over 450,000 men across the border with the aim to conquer the entire country of Finland.

An arrogant and headstrong man, the Soviet dictator knew he possessed a significant advantage in men and resources, so expected to achieve his goal in a matter of weeks. Yet, the Soviet military entered the war lacking one thing that Stalin could not see; effective leadership, which was a problem very much created by Stalin himself.

Paranoia played a big part in Stalin’s decisions and even led him to purge most of the officer corps in the late 1930s after suspecting them of disloyalty. Those not killed were locked up in a gulag in Siberia as their commands were taken over by inexperienced hands who were mere “yes men”.

Finland realised that its survival was at stake, which led to volunteers flocking to bolster the ranks of its military forces, employing defensive lines and guerrilla tactics against the invasion. One of these men was Simo Häyhä, who, as previously mentioned, had already completed his military service. Upon leaving, he took up farming and sports shooting; the latter of which would help him to turn the tide of the Winter War.

“Belaya Smert”

The Finnish soldiers had the advantage of knowing the lay of the land and used nature to their advantage. The snow fell several feet deep, temperatures plummeted and the daylight hours were few. Simo and his comrades, dressed head to toe in white and travelling on skis, headed towards the near-endless forests that lined the borders to meet their Soviet opponents.

It soon became apparent that Simo had a knack for shooting and his number rose, as confirmed by those who watched him engage. What was probably most impressive is that Simo did not use a scope on his Mosin-Nagant M28/30 rifle; he aimed down the iron sights, picked off his target and then retreated to the snow bank or bush which acted as his cover, disappearing without a trace. He was even known to fill his mouth with snow to stop his hot breath from escaping and giving away his position.

Finnish Mosin-Nagant M28/30 rifle as used in the Winter War Finnish Mosin-Nagant M28/30 rifle as used in the Winter War

Soon, word spread among the Soviets of this mysterious, almost supernatural force that was picking off their army. They even gave this force a nickname; Belaya Smert. Translation: The White Death.

Failure to prepare

The winter was proving particularly difficult to the foreign invaders, who weren’t very well equipped for the conditions. To try and halt the onslaught of this Phenom, they took extreme measures which was often reserved for much larger units; artillery strikes. They bombarded the forest with hundreds of explosions, all trying to destroy the man who had already claimed the lives of hundreds of Soviets and racked up an average of five or more kills per day.

After the dust had settled from the strikes, patrols headed out to the bombed land to look for Simo. Those patrols never returned, and his body count continued to rise.

In some situations, Simo took a different approach to just picking off soldiers from a distance. He would take out whole squads by firing shots that all the targets could hear, but could not locate. When he was close enough to the targets, he would switch to his Suomi M31 submachine gun.

Fight fire with fire

Later in the war, the Soviets decided that the best way to take out this threat would be with another sniper. They drafted in several snipers to work as a unit as against this one man. They headed off as a squad one day, but none of them ever came back.

Finnish soldiers lying in position with their skis located next to them 12th January 1940: A Finnish ski patrol, lying in the snow on the outskirts of a wood in Northern Finland, on the alert for Russian troops

But by the time the 6th March rolled around, Simo’s luck had run out. A bullet ripped through his jaw; the trauma of which left him in a coma. Located by a friendly unit who said, “He had half of his head missing”, Simo underwent surgery to repair the damage and try and save this national hero. Belaya Smert survived this ordeal, regaining consciousness the day the Winter War ended on 13th March. Although left with some heavy facial scarring, he and his countrymen had won the war, and Stalin’s arrogance had cost his own military dearly. Although they managed to regain some territory, they failed to overrun the country, resulting in 320,000 men killed or wounded compared to Finland’s 70,000.

As for Simo, he was promoted from Corporal to Second Lieutenant by Gustav Mannerheim, the leader of Finland. No one in the history of the country has ever achieved such a rise in rank so quickly.

He was celebrated as a national hero, but returned to his quiet life, becoming a dog breeder and hunter in his later years. When asked about his service, he said: “I only did my duty, and what I was told to do, as well as I could.”

It was in 2002 that Simo, then 96, passed away peacefully in a war veterans' nursing home, but his achievements will never be forgotten!

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