Order of the Cross of Liberty
The Russians called him “White Death.” During the 1939–40 Winter War, in the space of 100 days, Finnish sniper Simo Häyhä killed a confirmed 505 Russian soldiers (the unofficial total runs as high as 700). And he did so in December, January and February, the depths of the Finnish winter, when the temperature drops well below zero and there are scant hours of daylight.
Considered the most efficient sniper in history, Häyhä later said simply, “I did what I was told to as well as I could.”
Häyhä was born in December 1905 in the Finnish municipality of Rautjärvi, along the Russian border. As a young man he farmed, hunted and excelled in local shooting competitions. In 1925 he joined the Finnish army for his year of mandatory service, and during marksmanship training he was able to hit a target 500 feet away at a rate of 16 rounds per minute. He left active duty as a corporal and joined the Civil Guard, the Finnish equivalent of the U.S. National Guard.
On Nov. 30, 1939, as Soviet forces invaded Finland in a territorial dispute, the Finnish army recalled Häyhä to service. It assigned him as a sniper to Jaeger Regiment 34, tasked with defending the Kollaa River, where in places the Soviets outnumbered the Finns by as much as 100-to-1. Since the Soviets used the roads when invading, the Finns fought by hiding in the surrounding wilderness, letting the invaders cross the border and then attacking them from behind. The situation perfectly suited Häyhä’s skills.
Operating alone, dressed in white camouflage in temperatures ranging as low as -40 F, Häyhä secreted himself in the Finnish forests, up trees and behind knee- or waist-deep snowbanks. He used a bolt-action Finnish variant of the Russianmade Mosin-Nagant rifle, preferring its iron sights to a telescopic sight, as he knew the latter would reflect sunlight and could fog up in the cold. A telescopic sight also requires a sniper to expose more of his head, presenting a larger target. Häyhä was also known to use a 9mm Suomi KP/-31 submachine gun. He carried with him only a day’s worth of supplies and ammunition. Häyhä carefully packed the snow in front of his position so as not to disrupt it when he fired. He also packed his mouth with snow to keep his breath from visibly steaming.
Häyhä’s tactics were hugely successful. On Dec. 21, 1939, alone he recorded 25 confirmed kills. The Soviets placed a price on his head and targeted him with artillery and teams of counter-snipers.
Ultimately, on March 6, 1940, a Red Army sniper got Häyhä in his sights and hit the Finn with a dumdum bullet that tore off the left side of his lower face. Häyhä later claimed to have shot and killed the man who had shot him before allowing himself to be carried off by his fellows. He then lapsed into a coma, waking up on March 13, the day the Winter War came to an end. It took him years to recover from his disfiguring wound.
Even before he was wounded, Häyhä had been awarded the Cross of Kollaa Battle Medal, the Medal of Liberty (1st class and 2nd class) and the Order of the Cross of Liberty (3rd and 4th class), the highest of Finland’s three orders. Shortly after the war Finnish commander in chief Field Marshal Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim personally promoted Häyhä from corporal to second lieutenant. No one else has gained rank so quickly in Finland’s military history.
In later life Häyhä spent his time breeding dogs and hunting moose. He died on April 1, 2002, at age 96.
The treaty that ended the war granted the Russians significant territorial concessions—about 11 percent of prewar Finland, including Häyhä’s home village of Rautjärvi and Finland’s second largest city, Vyborg. But they had sustained heavy casualties for those concessions. A Russian general later remarked that the land the Soviets had conquered was “just enough to bury our dead.”
Originally published in the May 2013 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.