Today in Military History: March 6, 1940:»White Death» Finnish Sniper Simo Häyhä Taken Down by Russian Marksman
Simo Häyhä, (1905-2002), dubbed the «White Death» by Russians
Finnish super-sniper during Russo-Finnish War (1939-1940)
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)
The military history of the human race comprises not only stories of large groups of men and machines clashing, but also the small histories of individual men fighting an enemy. Today’s posting is one of those small stories.
In the opening months of the Second World War, as Germany conquered Poland, the Soviet Union decided to bully a different neighbor in order to obtain more land and another outlet to the Baltic Sea. That country was Finland (known to its inhabitants as Suomi). From the 12th century until 1809, Finland was part of Sweden, though Finland shared its eastern and southern borders with Russia.
However, two wars between Sweden and Russia in the early 18th century convinced the Finns that their destiny lay with neither Sweden nor Russia. In 1809, the nation was promptly subsumed into the Russian Empire as the Grand Duchy of Finland after another war between Russia and Sweden. After 100 years of Russian rule, the Finns began agitating for independence. After the February and October Revolutions of 1917, Finland broke away from the Russian Empire (Soviet Union). In 1919, the Finns set up an independent republic, but were constantly on guard for Russian interference in their national affairs.
Northern Europe in November, 1939. Denmark, Finland, Norway and
Sweden were neutral at the beginning of the Second World War
In August 1939 Nazi-Germany and the Soviet Union signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, where Finland and the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) were given to the Soviet «sphere of influence». After the invasion of Poland, the Soviet Union sent ultimatums to the Baltic countries, where it demanded military bases on their soil. The Baltic states accepted Soviet demands, and lost their independence in the summer of 1940.
In October 1939, the Soviet Union sent the same request to Finland, but the Finns refused to give any land areas or military bases for the usage of the Red Army. This caused the Soviet Union to start a military invasion against the Finns on November 30, 1939. Soviet leaders predicted that Finland would be conquered in a couple of weeks. However, even though the Red Army had huge superiority in men, tanks, guns and airplanes, the Finns were able to defend their country for about 3 1/2 months and still avoid invasion successfully.
This conflict, known variously as the «Winter War» or the Russo-Finnish War, ended on March 13, 1940 with the signing of the Moscow peace treaty. Finland lost the Karelian Isthmus to the Soviet Union after the war. The Winter War was a big loss of prestige for Soviet Union, and it was expelled from the League of Nations because of the illegal attack. Finland received lots of international goodwill and material help from many countries during the war
At the beginning of the Winter War, the Soviets held a huge advantage in nearly every relevant category: more soldiers (425,000 to 250,000 Finns), tanks (2500 to 32), and airplanes (3800 to 114). The Russians, however, were so certain of a quick victory over the Finns that many Soviet troops were not even issued white camouflage uniforms for winter use. [Apparently, the Soviets had forgotten the lessons learned by French Emperor Napoleon during his invasion of Russia in 1812.] The Finnish Army, though outnumbered, put up incredible, heroic resistance to the Soviet juggernaut.
One of the most incredible stories of the Winter War was a Finnish soldier named Simo Häyhä. He was born in 1905, in the town of Rautjärvi, on the Russian border. He worked as a farmer and a hunter. In 1925, the 20-year-old Häyhä enlisted in the Finnish Suojeluskunta. [The exact translation of the term is «Protection/Defense Corps,» but it was a home guard militia that functioned similarly to a National Guard. It was known generally as the «White Guard» when it fought against the Communist Red Guard, and opposed leftist groups during the Finnish Civil War of 1918. According to one website, the White Guard was comparable to American minutemen in the Revolutionary War.]
Häyhä received training in marksmanship, and he excelled in local shooting competitions. After serving his mandatory one year of training, he was mustered out with the rank of corporal. He returned to his farm and continued his bucolic life.
But, when the Soviets invaded Finland in November of 1939, he was called back to the regular army. He brought with him his favorite rifle, the Mosin-Nagant Model 28-30. Originally a Russian-designed and manufactured firearm, thousands of earlier models were left behind after Finland achieved its independence from Russia. The Finnish White Guard made several improvements to the basic Mosin-Nagant design, and developed the M/28-30 version.
Finnish White Guard-designed Mosin-Nagant M/28-30
On display at the Military Museum of Finland, Helsinki
Assigned to the 6th Company of Jaeger (rifleman) Regiment 34, Häyhä soon got to work doing what he did best: shoot at and hit things with deadly accuracy. He worked alone in the Finnish forest and tundra, where the temperature wavered between -4 to -40 degrees below zero. Häyhä wore his warmest clothing, dressed in a white camouflage outfit, and wore a mask to both keep his face from freezing and to conceal it from the enemy.
The Finnish marksman used a number of tricks to achieve his objectives. First, he never used a telescopic sight on his rifle; the sun might flash on its lens and give away his position, plus using such a sight required a sniper to raise his head to peer through it, exposing his head to danger. Therefore, Häyhä used the regular iron sights on his rifle.
Another stratagem involved packing snow around his hidden position, again to cut the glare of the sun, and to suppress the flash of the rifle. Thinking out every possibility, Häyhä would put snow in his mouth, to keep his breath from fogging the air in the cold, cold battlefield and possibly giving away his position. Finally, at 5′ 3″ tall, Simo was easy to overlook.
Häyhä spent about 100 days on active duty during the Winter War. In that time period, he was credited with 505 official kills. The Russians gave him the nom de guerre of Belaya Smert (white death). His main targets consisted of Russian officers, artillery crews, and NCOs. As his kill total grew higher, the Soviet command sent out counter-snipers to take him out; none ever returned. The Russians grew so enraged by his successes that they began using artillery barrages to blanket whole stretches of forest and tundra to try to take out belaya smert. This tactic also failed.
«White Death» In action vs. Russians; photographer and date unknown
Image courtesy of http://orzzzz.com/top-6-deadliest-snipers-of-all-time.html
Unfortunately, Häyhä’s luck ran out on March 3, 1940. A Russian marksman sent out to hunt him got lucky, and using a variety of explosive bullet, struck Belaya Smert in the left cheek. According to Häyhä himself, though badly wounded, he picked up his rifle and killed the Russian who had just shot him. A fellow Finnish soldier who found him said that «half his face was blown off» (a slight exaggeration, but close). The lower left side of Simo’s face was badly injured. He spent the next 10 days in a hospital unconscious. On the day he awoke – March 13, 1940 – a treaty to end the Winter War was signed in Moscow. The «White Death» was out of a job…
Simo Häyhä was discharged from the army, promoted from corporal to second lieutenant, and went home to quietly live the balance of his life. He devoted the balance of his life to moose hunting and dog training, and died on April 1, 2002 at the age of 96.
Footnote #1: In 1998, Häyhä was asked how he became such a good shooter, his response was terse and to-the-point: «Practice.» He was asked if he regretted any of the deaths he had caused, Häyhä replied, «I only did my duty, and what I was told to do, as well as I could.»
Footnote #2: After the end of the Winter War, Russia and Finland fought a second war, known as the «Continuation War» (1941-1944), with Finland fighting as an ally of Nazi Germany. Then, Finland fought another war, known as the Lapland War (1944-1945) to expel German troops from their nation.
Footnote #3: It took several years of surgery for Simo Häyhä to recover from his wounds. He carried the scars to his dying days.
2nd Lieutenant Simo Häyhä, c. August, 1940
Photograph courtesy of Finnish Military Archive