The Deadliest Sniper in History, Simo Häyhä – The White Death

Häyhä after being awarded the honorary rifle model 28.
Häyhä after being awarded the honorary rifle model 28.

There have been many great snipers in history and who can take the title of the greatest is a topic of debate. However, if you are going purely on skill level, accuracy, and the overall kill record, there is no sniper in history as deadly as the man who was nicknamed “The White Death”. Yes, we are talking about none other than Simo Häyhä, the Finnish sniper, generally regarded as one of the greatest war heroes of our time.

He got his nickname from the Red Army, the very people he was fighting against, which just goes to show what a phenomenal sniper he must have been. Simo Häyhä was a Finnish marksman of the highest order, and his weapon of choice was the Finnish M/28-30 rifle, which he used in the Winter War (1939). He has been credited with a mindboggling 505 reported kills, which is actually the highest number of confirmed sniper kills in the history for any major war.

He was absolutely deadly with a rifle in his hand and is widely known to be the most successful and skilled sniper that the world has ever seen. He defended Finland from the invading Soviet Union, during the Winter War in World War II and was “The White Death” for over 500 men!

His life in the beginning

Simo Häyhä was born in the farming town of Rautajärvi in 1905, and he used to work on a farm during his childhood years. His childhood on the farm along with the wilderness of Finland ensured that young Häyhä grew up to be an extremely patient yet tough man.

In 1925, 20-year old Häyhä served in the Finnish army for a year, which was mandatory for all Finnish people. His one year in the army taught him a lot, and he made the best of his time there, even being promoted to the rank of corporal in only a year! After completing his mandatory year in Finland’s army, Häyhä decided to join a military organization known as the Finnish Civil Guard.

Honing his shooting skills

I see you! “The White Death” was deadly accurate with a rifle
I see you! “The White Death” was deadly accurate with a rifle

It was during his time in the Civil Guard that Häyhä was trained as a sniper. He used to get regular target practice, and shooting quickly became very interesting for Häyhä. He would practice shooting at targets in his free time, and used a Russian-built rifle, the Mosin-Nagant bolt-action M91. He then upgraded his rifle to the M28/30, which certainly performed better, and another of his favorites was the 9mm Suomi submachine gun.

His training and his passion for shooting ensured that Häyhä became a prolific shooter quickly, and was able to shoot and hit a target accurately 16 times per minute, at a distance of 500 feet. And he only got better and better, which led to the spectacular results during the Winter War.

The Winter War

The Finnish defeated the Soviets thanks to the exceptional Sniping skills of Simo Häyhä
The Finnish defeated the Soviets thanks to the exceptional Sniping skills of Simo Häyhä

When WWII broke out, the Soviet Union decided to invade Finland and made their move in late 1939. Häyhä was still a member of the Civil Guard during that time and was soon called into service under the 6th Company of JR34, which was deployed on the Kollaa River. His commander was Major General Uiluo Toumpo, and they were up against the 9th and the 14th Soviet armies. The Finnish forces were up against extreme odds, and were hugely outnumbered.

Being so outnumbered they should have lost the war quickly and decisively, but they put up an extreme fight and managed to cause severe losses to the Red Army. This was largely possible because the Soviets weren’t well organized. Many of them spoke different languages and were poorly trained. To make matters even worse for the Soviets and even out the odds for the Finnish, the winter of 1939-40 was exceptionally harsh, with snow falling every day, and temperatures plummeting to -40 degrees Celsius!

The Finnish used smart tactics and took advantage of the harsh conditions to good effect. They used the famous “Motti” tactics, where they would hide in the wilderness surrounding the roads, which the Soviets had to use in order to invade the land. The Finnish gave up ground and let the Soviets advance, and then sped around to attack them from behind, which gave them the upper hand.

However, after reorganization and adoption of different tactics, the renewed Soviet offensive overcame Finnish defenses at the borders. Finland then agreed to cede more territory than originally demanded by the Soviet Union in 1939.

The man known as “The White Death”

Simo Häyhä was 96 years old when he passed away!
Simo Häyhä was 96 years old when he passed away!

 Many wars have seen great heroes, but Simo Häyhä is definitely regarded amongst the greatest war heroes of all time. His contribution to the Winter War was remarkable.

Häyhä would camouflage himself in white winter clothes, carrying his Mosin-Nagant M91 rifle, and only took a single day’s supply and ammunition.

He would then hide in the snow, and remain hidden for long periods of time in temperatures ranging from -20 degrees to -40 degrees! He would then kill any Soviets who made the mistake of entering the zone where he was camping. To made himself harder to detect he only used iron sights on his rifle, instead of the scopes. This was because scopes sometimes flashed if they were caught in the glare of the sun, which would reveal his position to the enemy.

His deadly accuracy as a sniper was definitely not ordinary since he hardly missed a single shot that he took. He knew how to preserve his ammunition and in just over 100 days, Häyhä managed to kill over 500 enemy soldiers! His track record as a sniper can be ascertained by the fact that the Soviets gave nicknamed him “The White Death”. They were so afraid of Häyhä that they decided to send in their own counter snipers along with artillery attacks to kill him, but without success.

However, on 6th March 1940, when the Soviets were randomly directing artillery fire at the area where they thought Simo Häyhä was camping, they managed to get a lucky shot with an explosive round, which hit Häyhä in the jaw. The impact of the hit knocked Häyhä unconscious and he fell into a coma for eleven days, waking up on the day the war ended. He went on to live until the age of 96.

David Herold

David Herold is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE