History’s Badasses: The White Death
“I only did my duty, and what I was told to do was: to do as well as I could.” – Simo Häyhä
Last time on History’s Badasses, we talked about Annie Oakley, the amazing markswoman of the Wild West who spent her life honing her incredible skill with a rifle, toured for years with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, and campaigned for women’s rights.
This time, we’re talking about a man you might not have heard of: Simo Häyhä. He’s widely regarded as one of the most skilled and successful snipers ever to live, and has over 500 kills to his name. During World War II, he defended Finland from Soviet Invasion, and was so widely feared by the Soviet Red Army that they gave him the nickname, “The White Death”. This is his story:
According to most historians, Simo Häyhä was born in 1905 in the farming town of Rautjärvi (Ironlake) in Finland, a town that sat right on the Russian border. He spent his childhood working on the family farm, and grew up with intimate knowledge of the harsh Finnish countryside.
In 1925, he served a mandatory one-year term in Finland’s army, and made the best of it he could. By the time he was honorably discharged, he had already been promoted to corporal!
After that, Häyhä joined the Finnish Civil Guard, and began training as a sniper. He had always loved marksmanship, and spent the majority of his time shooting at whatever targets he could find. Eventually, he got so good that he could hit a target 500 feet away 16 times per minute – making him one of the best snipers in the Finnish army.
Simo’s life changed forever when the Soviet Union attempted to invade Finland in 1939. Häyhä and the rest of the Finnish Civil Guard was called into service. He fought under the 6th Company of JR 34 on the Kollaa River, under commander Major General Uiluo Tuompo. This little group of Finns faced the 9th and 14th Soviet Armies. The Soviets sent over 160,000 soldiers to invade Finland at first, and would eventually send over 1,200,000 men in total (just shy of the entire Red Army), plus 1,500 tanks and 3,000 planes.
By contrast, the Finns had about 112 decent anti-tank guns, 100 planes (some of which incapable of flight), and some-odd 85,000 men. In some parts of the country, it’s estimated that there were just 42 Finns defending the same area against over 4,000 Soviets!
Things weren’t looking good for the Finns, but they took their patriotism to battle, and used what was called “Motti”-tactics. The Soviets always invaded using the roads, and so the Finns would hide in the surrounding wilderness and flank the Soviets when they least expected it.
“The White Death”
Simo was determined to fight as hard as he could for his country. He donned his white winter camouflage, wore a mask, and carried his Mosin-Nagant M91 rifle and just enough supplies and ammunition to last him a day at a time. Then, he would stake out a hiding place in the snow, and take out any Russian soldiers who dared to enter his territory…
…without a proper scope.
Häyhä knew that scopes had a tendency to flash and glare in sunlight, which would reveal his position to the enemy. So, he forwent the scope in favor of some simple iron sights. To further conceal his position, he even put snow in his mouth to hide his breath from being seen in the frozen Finnish air.
Over the course of just one hundred days, he racked up kill after kill – 500 in total. His personal best was 25 kills in one day. The Soviets feared him so much that they nicknamed him “The White Death” and launched hundreds of counter-sniper and artillery attacks against him. They all failed. On top of everything else, he also mowed down two hundred men in one go with a submachine gun, bringing his total count to 700 men in those 100 days of war.
Finally, in 1940, Simo was hit in the jaw by an explosive round from a counter sniper. He fell into an 11-day coma. He survived, though, and woke from it on the day the war ended. Despite having outnumbered the Finns, the Russians lost 1,000,000 of their original 1,500,000 troops they had sent to invade. 700 of those kills can be attributed to Simo Häyhä alone.
A Russian general was later quoted as saying they had conquered “just enough [land] to bury their dead”.
Later Life & Legacy
After the war, Häyhä was promoted from corporal to second lieutenant – a rank-jump that had never before been seen in all of Finnish military history. He recovered from his injuries (though was left slightly disfigured) and received several awards for his contribution to the war. Thanks to Simo Häyhä and other immensely courageous, gritty Finnish soldiers like him, the Soviet Union never successfully invaded Finland. Simo was an unstoppable force, who used cunning, patience, and precision to defend his home and freedom from communist totalitarian oppression.
Häyhä lived until the ripe old age of 96, and became a moose hunter and dog breeder after World War II. He died in 2002, and was buried in Ruokolahti. The world has never seen anyone like him since.
In the end, Simo Häyhä always said that he attributed his success to one thing: