Being the world’s most successful sniper with 505 confirmed sniper kills is no small accomplishment…achieving it in temperatures of -40 degrees Celsius makes it downright legendary. Simo Häyhä most certainly was a living legend during his life with the incredible results he accomplished during the Winter War.
Not all heroes are made equal and Häyhä was most certainly not your typical Hollywood-style badass. Living a quiet life as a farmer and hunter, he loved nature and shooting. Being a successful marksman already before the war, he was reportedly able to put 16 bullets through a target, 150 meters away, in under a minute. All this knowledge was put to very good use as the Red Army invaded Finland at the beginning of the Second World War.
The reason behind the Soviet invasion was the fear of a German invasion coming through Finland, and the Red Army-s aim was to create a larger buffer zone around Leningrad (now St. Petersburgh) by occupying Finland. The Finnish army was outnumbered beyond hope, so they were forced to rely on their knowledge of the area, which in combination with the extremely harsh local winter made for a good base for a successful guerrilla-style defensive strategy. Snipers like Häyhä did fit very well with this plan…
Dressed in white camouflage from head to toe and with his trusty (ironically Russian designed) Mosin-Nagant rifle at his side, he would go out alone with minimal equipment hunting the enemy. Sometimes laying in ambush for days in the -20 to -40 degrees Celsius cold, he proved to be absolutely deadly to the invaders. Preferably using iron sights for aiming, he averaged about 5 sniper kills a day, sometimes reaching as much as 25 confirmed kills. All of this is even more respectable if we consider that the days were very short at this time of the year, limiting sunlight to a few hours a day only.
He was much feared by the Soviet forces, especially after they realized that it was only one man who kept taking them down by the dozen. His nickname „White Death” came actually from within the Red Army, who were also very keen on taking out this significant threat. They deployed counter-snipers (who Häyhä simply took out), and in their desperation even did try to carpet bomb the predicted sniper nests – with little effect.
After fighting through this short but brutal war, his luck eventually did run out after about 100 days, when he was hit in the head with an explosive bullet. While this did blow a large part of his left face off – sending him in a coma – he did wake up on the day the Winter War ended, and eventually made a full recovery. While the treaty meant that the invading forces could keep around 22.000 square miles of Finnish soil, they suffered very heavy losses for basically little gain. An estimated 340.000 casualties with hundreds of destroyed tanks and planes stand testament to that, compared to the total of 70.000 Finnish casualties.
Despite his heroic efforts Häyhä became one of the many Finns losing their homes to the treaty. This did not stop him however to live a full and happy life as a hunter and dog breeder after his recovery. Famously when he was interviewed on what his secret was on being this good with the rifle, he smiled and simply said: „Practice.” He died in 2002, age 96 in Finland. May he and his former enemies rest in peace.
Lyudmila Pavlichenko – Lady Death