It’s 1939, and the short but bitter Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union rolls on. Crack Finnish sniper Simo Häyhä pulls back the bolt on his Mosin-Nagant rifle, and the stealthy action is almost inaudible. He takes careful aim across the snow-covered landscape and draws a bead on a luckless Soviet soldier. He then gently squeezes his trigger. A shot echoes through the chilled air, and another enemy topples to the ground – stone dead.
Häyhä is not a professional soldier, though he wears his Finnish uniform with pride. He’s actually a life-long farmer and a keen hunter. But the young man has used the skills that a life on the land have taught him over the years to wreak havoc on the Soviets who’ve invaded his country. Once foxes, moose and wildfowl were Häyhä’s prey. But now he stalks human quarry.
Despite standing little more than five-foot tall, Häyhä has gained a fearsome reputation among his adversaries. Indeed, the Soviets have even come up with a nickname for the diminutive Finn. They call him “The White Death,” and with good reason. As we’ll see, his enemies will make the most determined efforts to kill their deadly nemesis – using everything from mortars to full-on artillery.
Before we get into the detail of our story about Häyhä, we should first take the time to explain this Winter War – also known as the Russo-Finnish War. It is, after all, one of the less well-known of the sprawling conflicts that made up World War II. Nevertheless, those months from the end of November 1939 to the following March saw as much fierce fighting as any other engagement in the wider global conflict.
We need to take a quick journey back into the sometimes-troubled history shared by Russia and Finland to understand why this conflict erupted. It started with the unannounced invasion of Finland on November 30, 1939 by a half-million strong Soviet army. This was just a couple of months after France and Britain had declared war on Nazi Germany – starting WWII.
When the Soviets poured across Finland’s eastern border, the latter country’s independence was of a relatively recent vintage. Finland had actually been a part of Sweden from the 14th century until 1809. But Imperial Russia had seized it from the Swedes during that latter year. The Russians made Finland a Grand Duchy and as such, the province had a measure of autonomy, but it was far from free.
The Finns took the opportunity to proclaim their independence after revolutionaries overthrew Russia’s Tsarist regime in 1917. Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks elected to accept the Finnish declaration, but that was far from the end of Finland’s problems. After independence, a ferocious four-month civil war between the left-wing Reds and the rightist Whites in Finland resulted in nearly 40,000 deaths. And eventually, the Whites prevailed.
The divided country did it’s best to muddle along after the Finnish Civil War was settled. But recriminations between the Reds and Whites persisted for many years. However, the Soviet Union’s invasion of the country in 1939 proved to be a powerful push towards unity. The nation stood as one in the face of this grave threat.
The Soviet menace to Finland originated in Stalin’s fear of Hitler. The U.S.S.R. and Germany had signed a non-aggression pact in 1939. Nevertheless, Stalin was highly suspicious of the Nazis’ long-term aims. The treaty specified that Finland should fall within the Soviet compass, and that turned out to be bad news for the Finns.
Stalin wanted to move the Russian-Finnish border some 16 miles to the west. This would create a wider buffer zone between Finland and Leningrad – or St. Petersburg as it is now – which was near the Finnish border. The Communist supremo also had his eyes on several islands in the Gulf of Finland and demanded the right to build a Soviet naval base on Finnish territory. And all of this was to deal with the perceived threat from Nazi Germany.
The Soviets did offer a quid pro quo deal to the Finnish government in 1939, however. In return for the land they wanted, the U.S.S.R. would cede some territory to the Finns. But Finnish politicians were wary of Stalin’s true intentions and they rejected the proposal. At this point, Finland was content to maintain its policy of neutrality as far as WWII was concerned, and the country aimed to hang on to all of its territory.
Negotiations between the two sides continued through 1939 and were punctuated by ultimatums from the Soviets. But no agreement was reached. A critical point came in September that year when Germany invaded western Poland and quickly overwhelmed the country’s army. Stalin was all the more determined to secure the Soviet Union’s position. And Finland watched these events in Europe with growing concern.
Another crunch point came on October 5, 1939. Menacingly, Stalin renewed his call for the Finns to accept his territorial demands. The U.S.S.R. had already occupied the eastern part of Poland that it had been secretly promised in the German-Soviet Pact. It had also seized control of the three Baltic countries, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. Evidently, Finland had every reason to be suspicious of Soviet intentions.
The Finnish authorities decided that it was time to mobilize the country’s military and to call up reserve forces. Nevertheless, negotiations with the Soviets continued through to early November, and Stalin persisted in his demands that the Finns should relinquish territory. But the Finnish government still rebuffed these terms with the overwhelming support of its people.
The Finns felt they simply could not agree to Stalin’s demands. Handing over this land to him would mean the loss of some of their main defenses on the country’s eastern borders. Plus, the Finns did not trust the Soviets and believed that their ultimate aim might be to annex Finland lock, stock and barrel. Conversely, their much larger neighbor suspected that the Finns might side with Nazi Germany in any conflict – despite the country’s declared neutrality.
Naturally, many Finns were highly nervous about the course of events. The two chief negotiators – Juho Paasikivi and Vainö Tanner – urged their government to take a more flexible attitude in the negotiations with the Soviets. Even Finland’s armed forces head General Carl Mannerheim urged the politicians to make some concessions to Stalin.
When Mannerheim’s advice was disregarded by the politicians he went so far as to tender his resignation. However, he quickly took back his position as commander-in-chief after the Soviets launched their invasion. Some experts believe that the Winter War might have been avoided if Finland had been more accommodating. But it seems that the lack of trust between the two sides was insurmountable.
Without declaring war, the Soviets invaded on November 30 with an army of some 21 divisions – comprising around 450,000 soldiers. They also unleashed an air bombing campaign which saw explosives rain down on the Finnish capital of Helsinki. The country had a population of just 3.5 million and it was able to muster only some 200,000 defenders.
Given the odds, Soviet military commanders were confident of a short campaign followed by an easy victory. Stalin soon formed a puppet government for Finland after the invasion had started – appointing long-time communist Otto Kuusinen as leader. But scarcely a single Finn felt allegiance to him. Stalin believed that the Red Army would quickly overcome Finnish resistance and even thought that Finnish leftists would welcome their Soviet brothers.
In his 2008 book First Strike: Preemptive War in Modern History, historian Matthew J. Flynn wrote that Stalin “believed the Finns were weak and would collapse in a matter of days – their army crushed by superior Soviet forces.” But he was to be proved very wrong indeed. Stalin had vastly underestimated the Finns’ determination to defend their homeland.
The Soviet leadership had completely failed to recognize the ferocity with which the Finns would answer the invaders. And it was men like our sniper Simo Häyhä who for a time brought the Soviet onslaught to a halt. But before we describe his exploits during the Winter War, let’s first get to know more about who this Häyhä was.
Häyhä was born in 1905 to Juho and Katriina in the region of Karelia in a village called Kiiskinen. He was the second of eight children to be born on the family farm. This part of Karelia was the very territory Stalin would later demand and indeed it is part of Russia today. When Häyhä came into the world, Kiiskinen was in Finland, although at that the time the country was under the control of Imperial Russia.
The young Häyhä was keen on shooting, hunting and skiing – skills that would later stand him in good stead when he was facing hostile Soviet forces. He was also a keen basketball player. But it was hunting that seems to have been the youth’s main pleasure, and he honed his skills in stalking and shooting prey.
Häyhä’s biographer Taipo Saarelainen wrote on the Forces.net website in January 2020 about his subject’s youthful pursuit of hunting. The author wrote, “His specialty was foxes, one of the more difficult animals to hunt, due to their small stature, speed and ability to hide. He would test himself with birds which would flee at even the slightest sound, reflection or sudden movement.”
Saarelainen continued, “[Häyhä] developed techniques so he could remain silent and hidden for long periods to ensure he got his target and learnt about how a gun would react to wind and rain. Also, from all his experiences, he grew very adept at estimating distances, so he could prepare his rifle suitably when attacking the target.” Häyhä’s youthful hunting experience would prove highly useful when it came to armed combat. Men – not foxes – would then be his target.
Häyhä was first introduced to military discipline at the age of 17 when he joined the Finnish Civil Guard. At that point, his country had been independent from Russia for just four years. He quickly distinguished himself by winning various marksman competitions. Häyhä also received awards for his exemplary physical fitness and his skiing abilities.
Saarelainen – himself a Finnish Army sniper – related one incredible feat in his 2016 biography The White Sniper: Simo Häyhä. While in the Civil Guard, the marksman had scored 16 target hits at a distance of 500 feet with his bolt-action rifle in a mere 60 seconds. Saarelainen marveled, “This was an unbelievable accomplishment with a bolt action rifle – considering that each cartridge had to be manually fed with a fixed magazine that held together five cartridges.”
Häyhä was just a couple of weeks away from his 34th birthday when the Winter War broke out in November 1939. By then, he had more than 20 years of field craft to support his role as a sniper. Historian Lasse Laaksonen told the Narratively.com website in January 2020, “He knew the anatomy of the battlefield; he knew how to be quiet in the forest and how to handle the situation when the temperature was very low.” For reference, the temperature could drop to minus 20°F during the Finnish winter.
Häyhä was fighting on what was called the Kollaa Front not far from Finland’s eastern border in the region of Karelia by the time of his 34th birthday in December 1939. He had the same advantages as his fellow Finnish fighters, though they faced overwhelming Soviet numbers and armor. The men were all fighting on land they knew well and many were billeted in well-prepared defensive positions. Indeed, they stood firm against the Red Army.
Not all the Finnish forces were deployed in fixed defensive positions. Some skimmed across the countryside on skis – attacking Soviet units they came across in a form of guerilla warfare. The battlefield in Karelia extended just 70 miles at its widest, and Soviet troops found themselves blundering through thick forests without roads. Finnish fighters would descend on them, extract a terrible toll, and then disappear into the pine thickets.
Hayha had his own fighting technique, as the other Finnish snipers did. As dawn broke on the frosty mornings, the farmer would hunker down in a specially prepared position – sometimes accompanied by a spotter. It was virtually impossible to spot Häyhä in his all-white clothing which perfectly camouflaged him among the white wastes of Finland’s winter landscape. Then it was a waiting game until an unwitting Soviet soldier revealed himself.
Clothing was also highly important in these punishing winter temperatures. Historian and author Vesa Nenye told the Narratively.com website, “[Häyhä] always dressed up very warmly.” He wore a fur-lined coat, and oversized gloves – with everything white. This allowed him “to remain comfortable for long periods of time, stalking the enemy, while the padded clothing can also offer further stability when taking aim.”
Apparently, Häyhä also had other tricks which helped him to avoid revealing his position. Narratively.com reports that he would pour water over the powdery snow in front of his position. This prevented a puff of snow rising in front of his muzzle when he fired – potentially giving away his location. He even put snow in his mouth so that his breath was too cold to create telltale clouds of condensation.
A particularly astonishing fact about Häyhä was that he never used a telescopic sight. Instead, he relied on the simple foresights that were standard on his Mosin-Nagant rifle. This meant that there would be no flash of sunlight on a telescopic sight’s lens – another way for a sniper to betray his position. Despite the use of basic sights, Häyhä himself claimed that he’d dispatched Soviet soldiers at distances of up to 1,400 feet.
But the question arises; just how successful was Häyhä as a sniper? According to his biographer Saarelainen, the marksman scored a staggering total of 542 kills during the 98 days he spent on the frontline right from the start of the war. And he reportedly killed 25 in a single day. Indeed, it’s little wonder that the Soviet soldiers nicknamed him “The White Death.”
This tally makes Häyhä far and away the most prolific sniper in history. By comparison, the next highest kill score goes to an anonymous British Royal Marine who’s said to have killed 173 Taliban combatants during fighting in Afghanistan. The late Chris Kyle – a U.S. Navy Seal – killed 150 during his tours in Iraq. Hollywood paid tribute to him in the 2014 movie American Sniper.
Of course, the Soviets made determined efforts to finish Häyhä’s deadly reign of terror. On one occasion, the Soviets had poured mortar fire into his position after he’d shot and killed an enemy sniper. Miraculously, Häyhä escaped unscathed. In another incident, the invaders trained artillery fire in his direction. A shell exploded near enough to rip a gash along his fur coat. But once again, he survived, and this time came out with nothing more than a scratch on his back.
But Häyhä’s luck finally ran out on his 98th day straight of combat. In March 1940 an explosive bullet smashed into the right side of his face. The sniper was severely injured and left in a coma for a week. Häyhä did recover, but he was badly disfigured and suffered pain for the rest of his life. Even so, the veteran returned to his farm and his beloved hunting. He went through 26 operations on his jaw and he had a speech impediment for the rest of his life.
A friend called Kalevi Ikonen spoke to the HistoryExtra website about his pal in June 2020. He said, “[Häyhä] spoke more with animals in the forest than with other people.” According to MailOnline, when asked in later years what he felt about all the death he’d caused, Häyhä replied, “‘I only did my duty, and what I was told to do, as well as I could.” The veteran lived on until 2002 – dying at the age of 96.
Unfortunately, the best efforts of Häyhä and his compatriots were not enough to defeat the might of the Soviet Union. After 105 days of resistance the Finns were exhausted – low on ammunition and hopelessly outnumbered. Some 120,000 Russians and 22,000 Finns were dead. By the terms of the Moscow Peace Treaty the defeated Finns lost some ten percent of their territory. The agreement was signed on March 12, 1940, on the very day that Häyhä emerged from his coma. But the country lived on as an independent land.