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.

A contemporary Finnish sniper in winter gear, possibly Simo Häyhä
A contemporary Finnish sniper in winter gear, possibly Simo Häyhä

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 96.