How a Finnish farmer became the legendary ‘White Death’ who killed more than 500 Soviet soldiers.
Clint Eastwood’s new film American Sniper centres on a Navy SEAL named Chris Kyle who killed a 160 people during four tours in Iraq. That made him the most lethal sniper in the history of the US military. Since the film was released it has transpired that there is a Royal Marine sniper who has killed 173 people.
However, these men were far from being the most lethal snipers of all time. That grisly honour goes to Simo Häyhä, a Finish soldier who fought for his country against invading Soviet forces in 1939. Häyhä was a farmer and a huntsman notable only for the marksmanship trophies. He joined up at the start of the war and found himself as part of a unimaginably brutal war.
The Soviets had three times as many soldiers as the Finns, thirty times as many aircraft, and a hundred times as many tanks. Yet the Red Army was weakened by Stalin’s purges that had killed most of its officers. In addition, many of its soldiers came from warmer climates and were not used to the kind of brutally cold weather they would face in Finland. Nor did the Soviets have enough cold weather equipment. As a result despite their numerical advantage the Soviets made slow progress against the Finnish forces and wracked up casualties as they did it. By the wars conclusion the Red Army had lost 300,000 men more than 4 times the Finnish losses.
505 of those casulties were down to Häyhä including 25 in a single day. His method was to:
…don his warmest uniform and wrap it with a white snowsuit, mitts, and mask, wrap a few days’ worth of food in cloth, pocket fifty to seventy rounds of ammunition, and hike out into the bush with his rifle and a submachine gun. He would find himself a vantage point in some brush or in the boughs of a tree, and wait–sometimes for days–for a target of opportunity. The invading Soviets tended to adhere to established roads, and Häyhä would entrench himself in the terrain within view. Often he would choose to forfeit possible targets to engender a sense of security and lure more appealing prey like officers and supply trains into his sights.
The Soviets began to react to Häyhä’s success by ordering artillery strikes on suspected sniper nests, and employing counter-snipers. One Russian sniper killed several Finnish soldiers and three officers, and was on the hunt for a particularly troublesome Finn with a Mosin-Nagant M91. He made one kill early in the day, giving Häyhä a general location of his adversary. Häyhä slowly crept through the snow to gain position. When the sun began to set, the Soviet sniper decided that his chance was past and rose to his knees. The sun glinted on his 3x scope; Häyhä was still patiently waiting and caught sight of the movement. Häyhä put a single shot through the Soviet’s head from 450 meters.
What makes this spree particularly remarkable is that it lasted just a few months. In March 1940, only a few days before a peace agreement was reached, Häyhä’s face was struck by an explosive round resulting in an injury that would leave him disfigured for the rest of his life. Then even worse, he would see that peace agreement cede Finnish territory Russia which included his home. He did, however, have the consolation of seeing himself become national hero and being awarded five military medals.