In 1809 Finland lost its independence to the Russian Empire and existed on maps as the Grand Duchy of Finland, a state subordinate to the tsars. Finns regained their freedom only in 1917, taking advantage of the civil war in Russia and remained a neutral country until the outbreak of World War II, however, maintaining close diplomatic and military relations with Germany. All this time, there was a threat of invasion by the Soviet Union over the Finns. The Soviets made bold demands (mainly territorial), which the proud Finns did not accept.
On 26 November 1939, after the attack and conquering, amongst others, of Poland, the USSR made a provocation in a small village Mainila near the border with Finland. The Red Army itself fired at its own territory, and then Finnish artillery was proclaimed as the perpetrators, giving the Soviets a pretext to hit the smaller neighbour. Finland’s territory was attacked on November 30th, with 450,000 Soviet soldiers, quickly reaching a collection of fortifications on the Karel Peninsula called the Mannerheim Line. 80,000 Finns defended themselves bravely and cleverly, using masking, knowledge of the terrain, discipline and skillful artillery fire. The Finnish commanders were not scared of Stalin’s troops, as Marshal Carl Gustaf Mannerheim said: “There are so many of them, and our country is so small, where will we bury them all?” However, they still had almost half a million enemies against them, supported by aviation and tanks.
The Soviets did not know that the village of Rautjärvi, the home town of Simö Häyhä, a local farmer, hunter, and a reserve corporal, was located near the front. Häyhä, who was a great shooter, immediately set off on the Mannerheim Line and joined a team of several skiers to hunt Russians with speed and with the ability to mask. The invaders were usually an easy target for Finnish shooters because they did not even have winter uniforms (white) and their tanks were painted in dark colours.
Simö Häyhä went to the forest alone every day to hunt for the Red Army soldiers. Equipped with a snow camouflage, armed with a Mosin rifle and Suomi KP machine gun designed for close combat, he particularly looked for Soviet commanders, political officers, sappers and artillery gunners whom he tried to eliminate in the first place. He was soon baptized as “White Death” because he was invisible and lethal for the invaders. The Russians were terrified by him and told each other stories about his skills.
First of all, Häyhä was invisible to the enemy. Dressed in a snowy suit, with a white mask covering his face, he blended perfectly with his surroundings. In order to hide the evaporation of his own breath, he kept lumps of snow in his mouth, and in order not to arouse dust after the gunfire, he poured water over the snowdrifts. He was able to stand still for hours while buried in masses of snow in a crackling frost of up to -40°C, waiting for the opportunity to shoot. All this time he used mainly a simple M/28-30 rifle (a modified version of the old Russian Mosin) without an optical viewfinder, which had only a shell and a bristle. In spite of this he was able to kill a human from a distance of even 500m. He claimed that if he had a real sniper rifle, he would have to lift his head higher each time, which would expose him to the detection of an enemy shooter. Interestingly, Simö tried not to point at his enemies’ heads. He believed that the chest was a larger, and therefore more reliable, target, and therefore tried to select this point on the body before pressing the trigger.
Equipped with simple (but proven) weapons, Simö Häyhä for over three months, methodically and ruthlessly was killing Finland’s enemies like a death itself, with an average of 5 Red Army soldiers killed a day!
The Red Army tried to eliminate the Finn, who had decimated its ranks with impunity. Russians sent many snipers to kill Simö, but all of them failed. One of them was killed by the Finnish hero when sunlight bounced off his target sight, revealing his position. During the next days of the war, the invaders bombarded every place where the presence of the Finn was suspected, hoping that the brilliant sniper would die during a brutal fire – but he was always able to escape with his life, only once losing his coat through a snorkel detonated nearby, and at other times carrying light wounds during an artillery fire.
The last day of Simö’s hunt for the Red Army soldiers’ was on March 6, 1940, when he, as an ordinary infantryman took part in covering the retreat of the Finnish infantry retreating from the Soviet counter-attack. He killed his 505th enemy, a Russian, who shot half of Häyhä’s jaw a moment earlier using a banned exploding missile. A bloody, barely alive sniper was quickly evacuated from the front and when he regained consciousness after 11 days of coma, the Winter War was over. His recovery lasted several months and required 26 operations.
It is said that he killed 259 Russians with the Mosin rifle, as well as the same number using a simple Lahti pistol and the Suomi KP machine gun – incidentally, the later Soviet Pepesha was a copy of this great Finnish rifle. It took Simö about 100 days to kill more than 500 enemies, which today seems absolutely incredible, especially as the famous Finn was acting completely alone, having nothing but a simple weapon without modern weapon sights.
During the Winter War the Finns lost 23 000 people, while the USSR – about 200 000 (the exact number is still unknown), plus over 2000 tanks and armoured vehicles and almost 1000 planes. Finland lost 35 000 km² of territory under the peace treaty. The small area of the land was acquired by the Soviet Union at such an enormous cost that one of the Soviet generals commented on it with the words “We have obtained just enough land to bury the dead“.
Simö Häyhä died in 2002 near his hometown of Rautjärvi, the same town from which he had set off 63 years earlier to defend his homeland against Stalin’s troops. After the war he was promoted to the rank of a lieutenant and sprinkled with medals, took care of hunting and breeding dogs and never married. After the war, he was not eager to talk about his experiences from 1939-1940, but at the end of his life he began to share his story more willingly. When asked in 1998 to comment on his deadly record during the Winter War, Simö modestly replied, as the hero befits, “I did what I was told to do – as best I could“.