The Republic of Finland is a sovereign state in the north of Europe. The 8th largest country on the European continent, with a population roughly equal to that of Minnesota. In 2015, the World Bank ranked the country 44th in GDP, behind Ireland, Chile and Pakistan.
With Sweden to the west and Russia to the east, the region has been a zone of conflict since the early 12th century, finally gaining independence as the result of the first World War and collapse of the Russian Empire.
In 1938, the Soviet Union demanded Finnish territory in exchange for land elsewhere, ostensibly as a security zone. Leningrad was at that time only 20 miles from the border. Finland refused, on November 30, 1939, 3 months after the outbreak of WWII, the Red Army invaded.
The “Winter War” is a David vs. Goliath story. The Soviets had three times as many troops, thirty times the number of aircraft, and a hundred times as many tanks. The Red Army officer corps, however, was dangerously inexperienced, with over 30,000 of its most experienced mid-level and senior officers imprisoned or executed following Josef Stalin’s “Great Purge” of 1937.
Expecting a short conflict, Soviet forces were poorly equipped for an extended winter war. Few if any possessed the white camouflage of the other side. For the Finnish side, morale was high, and Finnish forces inflicted far heavier casualties, than anyone had anticipated.
Simo “Simuna” Häyhä was a farmer and hunter, born in what was then the Grand Duchy of Finland, near the border with Russia. Häyhä enjoyed shooting competitions in Viipuri Province, and was quite good at it. It was said that his house was full of trophies. He joined the Finnish voluntary militia in 1925 at the age of 20. During the Winter War of 1939-40, Häyhä served as a sniper for the Finnish Army.
He was the “White Death”. Over the 100 days of his wartime service, Simo Häyhä racked up 505 confirmed kills, more than any sniper in history. Many of his kills went unconfirmed. The true count is probably closer to 800. An average of eight per day, in a place where December daylight hours number no more than six.
The Battle of Kollaa took place in temperatures ranging from −4° to −40°, Fahrenheit. In February, the temperature averages only 18.5°. Dressed in white camouflage, Häyhä would surround himself with hard-packed snow, his mouth filled with snow so no one would see his breath.
At 5’3″, he liked the shorter, White Guard version of the five shot, bolt action Mosin–Nagant, because it fit his small frame. He preferred the open “Pystykorva” or “Spitz” sight, so-called because of its resemblance to a Spitz dog. It made for a smaller target, as a shooter must raise his head ever so slightly higher, when using a telescopic sight.
The Red Army was desperate to kill this man. Russian counter-snipers and entire artillery barrages were sent to take him out. On March 6, 1940, Häyhä was hit on the left side of his jaw, by a high-explosive incendiary/armor-piercing (HEIAP) round, fired by a Russian soldier. The damage was catastrophic. Soldiers who went to pick him up, said “half his face was missing”. He regained consciousness eight days later, the day that peace was declared.
The bullet had crushed his jaw and taken away his left cheek, but he did not die. It would take several years to recover from his wound, but Häyhä went on to become a successful dog breeder and moose hunter, once hunting with Finnish President Urho Kekkonen.
Häyhä passed away in a war veterans’ nursing home in Hamina in 2002, at the age of 96. In 1998, someone asked how he became such a good shot. He answered “Practice.” He must have been a man of few words.
To this day, Simo Häyhä remains the most successful sniper in history, with a confirmed kill rate three times that of Chris Kyle, and five times that of Carlos Hathcock. Asked if he regretted killing so many people, he replied “I only did my duty, and what I was told to do, as well as I could.”