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White Death

Article #358 • Written by Jason Bellows

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In April of 1938, representatives from the USSR approached the Finnish government and expressed a concern that Nazi Germany could attempt to invade Russia, and such an attack might come through parts of Finland. The Finns replied that they were officially neutral, but any Nazi incursion on Finland's borders would be resisted. This did not mollify the Soviets. Hitler's manifesto, Mein Kampf, was published thirteen years previous with specific note that the Nazis would need to invade the Soviet Union. The Red Army was determined to "advance to meet the enemy" and refused to accept promises from the smaller country. As negotiations continued, the Soviets tried to coax Finland into leasing or ceding some area to serve as a buffer to Leningrad. In November 1939, however, all negotiations ceased, and on 30 November 1939 the Soviet Red Army invaded Finland.

In the municipality of Rautjärvi near the Soviet/Finnish border, 34-year-old Simo Häyhä was a farmer and hunter leading a flagrantly unexciting life. Upon news of the hostilities, he gathered up food, plain white camouflage, and his iron-sighted SAKO M/28-30--a variant of the Soviet Mosin-Nagant rifle--and went to defend his country. Before the four-month war ended, humble Häyhä would gain infamy among the Russian invaders, and come to be known as the "White Death."

Simo Häyhä's vacated farmhouse was littered with trophies he'd won for marksmanship. Reportedly, Häyhä could hit a target 150 meters away 16 times in one minute. He served his required year in the Finnish military starting in 1925, and was discharged as a corporal. Thereafter he joined the Civil Guard, the Finnish analog of the US National Guard. Over the years, Häyhä drilled with the Civil Guard until he was called back into service.

At the time, the entire population of Finland numbered around three million, while the USSR was nearer to 171 million. The Finns knew they were outmanned at about one hundred to one, and therefore opted for a defensive, guerrilla-style strategy. Häyhä's first active-duty assignment was with Jaeger Regiment 34 stationed along the Kollaa River.

The Winter War was brutally cold. Rarely did the temperature exceed zero degrees Fahrenheit, but the genital-constricting cold was inadequate to stop Häyhä. Usually he would 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.

Despite Häyhä's success, the Soviets were winning the war. The Finns were forced to fall back almost 40 kilometers, to the banks of the Kollaa River. The Finns knew that if the Soviets gained a path across the river they would be able to attack the defensive lines from the rear. An area known as Kollaa Hill suddenly became a high-priority target for the Soviets as a chance to cross the river. Jaeger Regiment 34, though in need of supply and reinforcement, was ordered to defend the hill. Both sides knew the Finns were outmanned, and what artillery they had was old and useless against the Soviet Armored Infantry. A Soviet division tried to take the hill from a Finnish regiment, but did not account for the defenders' indefatigability. They failed. The Soviets thought two divisions could overcome the same regiment, but the Finns adopted a formidable battle cry: "They shall not pass!" The battle carried on for weeks while the Finns lost soldiers and depleted their supplies, and the Soviet forces were reinforced. During the daylight hours, the Soviets would bombard the Finnish lines. The Finns would hunker down in shelter until nightfall brought an end to artillery fire, and then sneak out to make repairs during the bitter cold darkness. The Finnish forces lost several men to exhaustion as the battle continued unabated.

Finnish defenders sometimes took fallen, frozen Russian soldiers and posed them upright as psychological warfare.
Finnish defenders sometimes took fallen, frozen Russian soldiers and posed them upright as psychological warfare.

Early in the Battle of Kollaa, the Soviets employed tactics of overwhelming force, but the Finns developed a counter-strategy called "Motti" tactics, a name derived from the Finnish word for "encircled." The Finns would open their lines for the Soviet advance and allow the leading elements through. Once the Soviets passed, the Finns would rally, close the line again to prevent any aid from arriving, and attack the leading element from the sides and rear. As the Soviets lost units to this unconventional tactic, they were forced to alter their attacks to hold territory, and therefore slow the advance while increasing their investments of manpower and equipment.

21 December 1939 was Häyhä's personal record for a single day with 25 confirmed Russian kills. Around this time, Häyhä surpassed 500 confirmed kills between the rifle and SMG. When the Russians finally figured out there was just one guy with a rifle killing dozens of their men, they started referring to him as "The White Death."

Come mid-January, the Soviets were still fighting for Kollaa. In an effort to break the deadlock, the advance was halted for the Soviets to resupply. After two days to regroup, the attack resumed with renewed fervor to break the Finnish lines. One component of this attack was the Battle of Killer Hill where 32 Finns faced an onslaught of four thousand Soviets. Each side gained and lost ground over several days. Eventually the Soviets opted to refocus their efforts on another target--presumably due to having lost four hundred men in the engagement. Of the original 32 defenders of Killer Hill, only four survived to see the battle victoriously ended.

Even as France and Great Britain sent offers of aid to the Finns, the frustrated and desperate Soviets rallied for one final push. Air raids and artillery barrages escalated. Ground troops pushed forward only to be attacked, usually by smaller forces at all sides. The Soviets, however, were now acquainted with the Finnish Motti tactic, and knew better than to pursue the attackers into the woods, become isolated, and be systematically killed. This time they opted to dig in and entrench whatever position they could. Little circles of Soviet forces cropped up through the countryside, too well armed for the Finns to dislodge or destroy, but also without supplies and unable to advance.

On 6 March 1940, newly promoted Lieutenant Simo Häyhä was with a small group of ski-troops, fighting against a much larger Soviet force. As noon neared, Häyhä had forty confirmed kills for the day, but his luck changed. A single explosive round hit him in the upper-left side of his jaw. The men who evacuated Häyhä reported "half his face missing," but loaded him on a train toward care. He remained comatose for four days. He awoke with a shattered jaw only hours after the signing of the Moscow Peace Treaty which officially ended the Winter War.

Hähyä in 1940 following his injury
Hähyä in 1940 following his injury

The terms of the treaty allowed the Soviets to retain a large swath of Finland's territory, including Häyhä's home of Rautjärvi. Häyhä was but one of 422,000 Finns left homeless by the war. One Soviet general remarked, "We have won enough ground to bury our dead."

Some historians have speculated that in the early days of World War II, Hitler and his advisers looked at the Soviets' heavy losses against Finland and concluded that the Soviets might not be able to properly defend Leningrad, and it could be taken with little fight. If so, this may have been the Nazis' greatest logistical error.

As for Häyhä, he was awarded five medals after the war, wrote a book about his service, and was occasionally invited to appear at events honoring military service. Described as quiet and congenial, when asked the secret of how he accumulated 505 confirmed sniper kills, he would smile and reply, "Practice." Simo "The White Death" Häyhä died of natural causes in 2002 aged 92 96.

Article written by Jason Bellows, published on 04 May 2014. Jason is a contributing editor for DamnInteresting.com.

Podcast sound design by Alan Bellows. Podcast narration by Simon Whistler. Edited by Melissa Wiley.
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46 Comments
numnumrockz
Posted 05 May 2014 at 07:13 am

awesome story :D


Surja
Posted 05 May 2014 at 08:09 am

Really Damn Interesting.. and I think.. First!


William Galiczynski
Posted 05 May 2014 at 08:44 am

Gotta love a good sniper story, particularly when it has a one-on-one showdown. Thanks for the great read!


Girum Tebeje
Posted 05 May 2014 at 08:59 am

DI as always...


PaulJ
Posted 05 May 2014 at 12:17 pm

Gruesome, yes, but DI none the less. Thanks, Mr. Bellows, for a great read. The sweet spot is that he died of natural causes at the age of 92. A reward well earned... If you're into that kind of thing...


TomS937
Posted 05 May 2014 at 12:46 pm

I spent 8 summer weeks in Finland as a foreign exchange student when I only had a dozen and a half trips around the sun under my belt. My Finnish brothers mentioned that they could hold their own against the Soviets. I never got this much detail out of them. Damn Interesting!

BTW, the older brother's favorite question was "Do you want to wrestle?" It didn't really matter what the answer was. I would invariably find myself rapidly immobilized in a headlock yelling "Uncle!" The only acceptable way out of that particular pickle.


Grammar Nazi
Posted 05 May 2014 at 03:03 pm

I believe the caption for the final picture contains the typographical error, unjury.


phaetalistic
Posted 05 May 2014 at 04:11 pm

Whoa. Finnish soldiers posed the frozen dead Russians upright?

Thats really cool in a terrible way. But hell, if it was my home being invaded by a hugely superior force, I would have done it too. Anything to make them go away and leave you alone.

Wonder how long they stood if the Russians didnt take them down? Till the thaw? I didnt even know flat frozen people were able to be stood upright.

On a side note: There was an article about the Finns kicking the Russian's rears with way way less firepower in American Rifleman last October.
http://www.americanrifleman.org/articles/finnish-arms-winter-war

From that article: "The Winter War proved a costly victory for the Soviets. The Red Army lost approximately 126,875 dead or missing, 264,908 wounded and approximately 5,600 captured. In addition, they lost about 2,268 armored vehicles. The Finns suffered greatly to preserve their freedom. In the four months of combat, Finnish losses numbered approximately 26,662 dead and more than 39,000 wounded"

It also goes into great detail of the difference of the guns and manufacturing therof. Nice read for any war or antique firearm buff.

(I got my NRA member sticker right next to my ACLU member sticker on the back of my car. You should see the double takes I get.)


Colin
Posted 05 May 2014 at 04:55 pm

What a great yarn, gruesome but a tale of admirable courage, those Finns just have to be admired.


Johannes Sumuvuori
Posted 07 May 2014 at 03:12 am

There are two errors. First, the French or British did not offer help. On the contrary, under the allied pact they sided with USSR and were in war with Finland! This is so far the only time when a democratic government has declared a war against another, when the British declared war on Finland. No actual, physical hostilities occured however. Also, the Soviets had been planning to invade Finland ever since the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between Germany and Russia. While Germany would get Poland, USSR would not interfere and the Russians would get Finland. At that point Germany did not openly threaten the Russians at all, though Stalin probably did not trust the pact. Later of course Hitler broke the M-R pact and the deal was off, and things got really complicated.


HiEv
Posted 07 May 2014 at 08:09 am

Man, I wish I'd had stuff like this to read in my history classes in school. It would have made learning about this stuff far more interesting.

That said, you should probably end paragraph two with "Russian invaders." That way you don't end up introducing the nickname twice and it's more dramatic after hearing all he did. Sure, we all know it's coming, but you want to build dramatic tension in the backstory before giving the release we knew was coming.

Thanks for the article!


Smoothwalker
Posted 08 May 2014 at 03:57 am

Killer story, very well done


Johannes Sumuvuori
Posted 08 May 2014 at 04:30 am

Johannes Sumuvuori said: "There are two errors. First, the French or British did not offer help. On the contrary, under the allied pact they sided with USSR and were in war with Finland! This is so far the only time when a democratic government has declared a war against another, when the British declared war on Finland. No actual, physical hostilities occured however. Also, the Soviets had been planning to invade Finland ever since the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between Germany and Russia. While Germany would get Poland, USSR would not interfere and the Russians would get Finland. At that point Germany did not openly threaten the Russians at all, though Stalin probably did not trust the pact. Later of course Hitler broke the M-R pact and the deal was off, and things got really complicated."

Correction: apparently the France and GB at the time did express in political rhetoric that sending help to Finland was an option, although no offical offer for help was made. This was before the expansion of the Second World War.


T-101
Posted 08 May 2014 at 06:25 am

I also like how the article is numbered #358, the Finnish telephone country code.


Jason Bellows
Posted 08 May 2014 at 08:22 am

T-101 said: "I also like how the article is numbered #358, the Finnish telephone country code."

This was definitely a very purposeful, subtle joke. Not a coincidence at all. Deliberate. Yeah.


utkarsh trivedi
Posted 08 May 2014 at 01:19 pm

Have always loved sbiper stories


Aaron
Posted 08 May 2014 at 10:43 pm

William Galiczynski said: "Gotta love a good sniper story, particularly when it has a one-on-one snowdown. Thanks for the great read!"


Ard RI
Posted 09 May 2014 at 11:44 am

WOW!!! What a hero!


Joseph Simone
Posted 12 May 2014 at 11:06 am

Häyhä was 96 when he passed away, not 90; born in 1905. You correctly noted he was 34 when the invasion started.


tennenrishin
Posted 13 May 2014 at 10:35 am

He Finnished the Soviets.


srinivasa manikantha
Posted 20 May 2014 at 02:22 am

really nice article....actually i am a fan of your website!! :)


daniel
Posted 27 May 2014 at 11:19 am

phaetalistic said: (I got my NRA member sticker right next to my ACLU member sticker on the back of my car. You should see the double takes I get.)"

You either believe in freedom or you don't.


hoanganhlam
Posted 28 May 2014 at 02:22 am

interesting :)


Bill
Posted 28 May 2014 at 06:01 am

I've read other articles about Simo. Once method he used to avoid detection was to pat down the snow in front of his position so the blast from his gun wouldn't kick up any loose snow. The high daily scores were usually achieved with his submachine gun. He stayed still as a squad of Soviets moved up then mowed all of them down at close quarters. Then he moved to a pre-prepped position and waited for their comrades coming to their rescue to repeat the process. Guy had cold blood with gonads the size of grapefruit!

Another interesting read is about the Finnish Air Force during the Winter War. The USA had sold them Brewster Buffalo fighters earlier and the Finns had those modified for winter operations and up-gunned before the invasion. The Finns had a field day against the Soviet pilots and shot down huge numbers with few losses.


HTV
Posted 01 June 2014 at 03:45 pm

Bill said:
Another interesting read is about the Finnish Air Force during the Winter War. The USA had sold them Brewster Buffalo fighters earlier and the Finns had those modified for winter operations and up-gunned before the invasion. The Finns had a field day against the Soviet pilots and shot down huge numbers with few losses."

Brewsters were purchased during the Winter War. They were assembled in Sweden and arrived too late to take part of the fighting in Winter War. They were however very succesfull during Continuation War.


CptPicard
Posted 08 June 2014 at 02:25 pm

Another interesting read is about the Finnish Air Force during the Winter War. The USA had sold them Brewster Buffalo fighters earlier and the Finns had those modified for winter operations and up-gunned before the invasion. The Finns had a field day against the Soviet pilots and shot down huge numbers with few losses."

And even more interestingly, the Brewsters were completely inferior airplanes to what the Soviets had. For example in order to take down a bomber, a Brewster had to make use of altitude advantage to gain the speed to even catch up to them...

During the Continuation War, when we had much better German hardware, the Finnish Air Force managed to produce some of the entire WW2's best pilots.


fsjec6
Posted 12 June 2014 at 12:23 pm

In English it was called the Winter War and the Finns basically wiped out the Soviets. But then slaughters were something Stalin was good at sending peope to anyways.


Chris
Posted 30 June 2014 at 12:08 pm

I have a question. It is said that "21 December 1939 was Häyhä's personal record for a single day with 25 confirmed Russian kills. Around this time, Häyhä surpassed 500 confirmed kills" and yet until the injury in March the following year he had 505 confirmed kills, including 40 the day of his injury. Something doesn't add up with these figures and dates. Can you please clarify?


mildmanneredpate
Posted 06 July 2014 at 11:35 am

DI


arth
Posted 24 July 2014 at 12:44 pm

I am still waiting for someone from Hollywood to make a good movie out of the story of this man.


CptPicard
Posted 28 August 2014 at 01:51 pm

By the way, the background of the picture at the top is a bit misleading. Finland is not that mountainous anywhere except the very northernmost Lapland, and then it's practically Norway.


bob
Posted 13 September 2014 at 06:51 pm

my great great grandpa was related to him


Geoff Riches
Posted 06 October 2014 at 11:27 pm

Well well, amazing chap, amazing story, I bet he never thought he was brave at all, just doing his duty for his Country, his survivors must feel very proud. well written and condensed.


Ben
Posted 12 November 2014 at 03:48 pm

A bunch of swedes went over to fight with Finland. More here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sweden_and_the_Winter_War


Erkko
Posted 25 November 2014 at 06:07 am

"A bunch of swedes went over to fight with Finland."

And a bunch more deserted from Finland to Sweden in the face of war. There had been an estimated 31,000 to 35,000 deserters, approximately half of whom managed to escape, and nearly 3/4 of them were Fenno-Swedes, many of them from the radically leftist Munsala region, from which the phenomenon got its name, the "Munsala Rowing Club".

It's a bit of hush-hush history within Finland due to the high political standing of the Fenno-Swedes in the society. If you try to set up a wikipedia article for it, they instantly vote to delete it.

The deserters were collectively and colloquially called the "pinecone brigade", or the "forestry guard", after the habit of the poor and the less able to collect pine cones from felled trees to sell them as a last resort income. These days collecting pine cones can net you a whole lot of money because there's high demand from tree farms.


Illumina-tion
Posted 26 November 2014 at 09:16 pm

This is unbelievably interesting... DI to say the least. Erkko's comment about Sweden was interesting as well... I wonder why Wiki is so secretive about the Swedes. I had no idea White Death was so important to that war. Kudos!


VegasYooper
Posted 17 December 2014 at 05:51 pm

Thanks for a great article and for all the informative responses. I'm of Finnish ancestry and I've read a bit about the Winter War. The Finns were unreal with men like Hayha and Lauri Tornii, later known in US special forces as Larry Thorne. The book 'A Frozen Hell' by William Trotter is a great account of the conflict.


Someone
Posted 25 December 2014 at 04:10 am

we'd ever have won a war without NaziGerman..in ''Continuation War'' when the ''Russia'' began a major offensive attack ,it was the German flying aces who stopped Russian attack.

old Finnish soldiers said that those pilots never missed their targets ,they destroyed almost all Russian tanks.

would be nice if you would write these also.

(I am not a Nazi side or ever accept them,they have good soldiers but their behavior was more cruel than today's terrorist organization ''Isis'')


henrik
Posted 25 December 2014 at 04:18 am

Aboutt he swedish volounteers. About 12000 swedes and 700 norwegians signed up, 8260 of them was approved. Considering how much harder information was to spread, and that group was not allowed to advertise due the government was scared of the germans, thats a pretty good amount. Since sweden officially wasnt in war, they werent allowed to use any uniforms and such. But since many high in the military was for helping finland, they fixed gear and just removed patches and such. Also sweden gave 8 planes to finland at the start of the winterwar, and the swedish volounteers borrowed 17 planes from the swedish airforce, which was 1/3 of it at the time.

Officially sweden was neutral, but was a good way for those that wanted to defend the neighbours to get a chance to help.


BOB
Posted 10 January 2015 at 05:08 pm

I met a British sniper survivor In hospital whilst undergoing leg ops same as ( Pete) in a team of 4 hunting natzi snipers shooting field troops in open areas while watching men drop signaling crossfire and did a 1 inch square 4 corners shot to heart while hiding in a tree, he was observed robbing the shot field troops and was wearing British boots as natzi clobber was inferior, (Pete survived an ambush by machine gunners and helped by red cross who talked the captures captain out of shooting the only susurvivor with severe legs blown!! Hence I met him in hospital went for tea at his and saw all his highly polished, ammo on the fire place, Good old Red Cross, oh and Pete,n mates,. Saw him walking in town once, Mr Wobbly but very much alive!!!!!,


Kusco
Posted 29 January 2015 at 08:28 am

Great article. Another point you missed is that he often did not use a scope. As that made him a lager target, and of coarse a gleam. Hence why he was so successful in hiding in plane site and was not shot until the end of the war.


Topsu
Posted 02 February 2015 at 10:01 am

Quote: "the Finns developed a counter-strategy called "Motti" tactics, a name derived from the Finnish word for "encircled.""

Not true. The word "motti" in Finnish is a measure of wood, equivalent to one cubic metre. The logic behind the term is that the Soviet invaders were sorted and arranged into "mottis", a measure (or "portion") that could be handled, contained and destroyed. Think of a "motti" as a "bite size" piece.


Karl
Posted 03 February 2015 at 11:35 am

Surviving exploding ammunition is nothing short of miraculous.

Here's a video about that ammunition, he would most likely have been hit with a Soviet PZ round:

https://www.full30.com/video/82efb579fd3c93d177205966ef3d3c9d


David
Posted 15 February 2015 at 02:34 am

Against the backdrop of European history from 1860 to 1939 there is the rise of Finland. Finland never existed as a nation and was little more than a Grand Duchy of Sweden until the Kalevala was discovered. This is a massive epic poem, possibly one of the greatest discoveries in world literature of recent times.
Up to the point of its discovery, anyone who was anyone in what became Finland was Swedish. Sweden was anxious to have a buffer state between it and Russia and was right to be concerned about the bellicose noises coming out of Russia after the 1917 Revolution.
The story of the creation of Finland is an example of how a nation is created once that body of people discovers a great heritage, a language of its own, and nationhood is only around the corner.
It is a terrible tragedy that Britain found itself at war with Finland during WW2.
Years ago, I met an attractive Finnish lady who had the classic Swedish complexion. Bright sapphire blue eyes topped by flowing blonde hair. She told me she was going on holiday back to Helsinki and I asked her if she could find and purchase a book with the Kalevala on one side and a translation into English on the other. She drew a blank but came back with two texts, the Kalevala and a good translation in paperback. The spine of the Kalevala is written in large uppercase vertically on the spine.
She puzzled at the words and the language.
"David.....it is not Finnish as I know it."
"Yes...." I said. "That is because the language of the Kalevala is ancient, Runic and it was remembered through chant and song."
It is wonderful. Well worth study.


Simo
Posted 08 April 2015 at 01:35 am

Simo häyhä movie will be come out 2017, the film will be directed by Olli Saarela


rene k. b.
Posted 09 May 2015 at 01:24 pm

ausgezeichnet!can't wait for the movie..(if I'm still alive)


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