SIMO HÄYHÄ - WHITE DEATH
By Chris Hall
On the 30th of November 1939, the Soviet Union launched an attack on neighbouring Finland. Fresh off of their victory in the invasion of Eastern Poland, the country with the largest military in Europe turned to a country of just under four million. Having only brought enough supplies for two weeks, the Red Army was confident that the small nation would be easily beaten. However, the Finns certainly wouldn’t go down without a fight. In a true David and Goliath scenario, the Eurasian superpower was met with great resistance. Within the Soviet Army, one Finnish soldier in particular gained notoriety; his reputation as the deadliest sniper on the Finnish forces earned him the nickname ‘Belaja smert’ – White Death. White Death became the man most feared by one of the largest destructive forces in European history.
Simo Häyhä didn’t have the beginnings one would expect from such an infamously strong fighter. He came from an agricultural background, taking up hunting as a hobby. During his time as a hunter, he would develop his marksmanship and sharpshooting abilities to their limits, earning several trophies for his precision and skill with a rifle. At just 20 years old, Häyhä joined a Finnish volunteer militia known as the ‘Suojeluskunta’ (White Guard). Almost 15 years later, the Winter War began, providing the scenario he needed to make his mark on history.
The Soviet Union’s attempted invasion of Finland was flawed in many ways. As in several other scenarios of asymmetric warfare, such as the Vietnam War, local forces used their knowledge of the local area to their advantage. The snowy terrain in Finland meant that the uniforms of Soviet soldiers would stand out clearly, making them easy targets. The Finnish soldiers were not so naïve, dressing in full white uniforms and even wearing skis to facilitate movement. The long columns in which Soviet troops moved meant that key individuals within each regiment could be easily picked off, without much penetration needed. Snipers proved especially effective for this, as their camouflage meant it was incredibly difficult to notice them from a distance, and skis allowed them to quickly dart between the trees, avoiding fire. Despite the destructive potential of all snipers on the Finnish side, Häyhä stood head and shoulders above his peers. Within the first 22 days of war breaking out, he had killed 138 Soviet soldiers. By the end of his time fighting in the war, he had taken down over 500, almost 300 of which were through sniping. He had gone beyond the point of being an ordinary soldier, instead becoming a legendary figure on the battlefield.
Such a reputation doesn’t come without its costs; the Red Army feared him specifically, and so worked on ways to target him. They trained snipers of their own and used several waves of artillery strikes at his positions. Häyhä’s time fighting in the War was cut short when he was struck by an explosive bullet, dealing serious physical damage to his face and head. By the time he regained consciousness, the war had ended. In the meantime, however, the Finnish government had used his name in propaganda campaigns, as a symbol of resistance against a far larger power. He became an unofficial sign of Finnish patriotism and solidarity, helping to unite a country which had had a civil war just 20 years earlier. As much as he was feared by the Soviets, he was looked up to and respected by his own people.
Finland was defeated after just three months, but many Finnish people still saw the Winter War as a victory. They suffered far smaller losses and the divided country had united behind the war effort. The Soviet Union had embarrassed itself on the world stage, harming its diplomacy and potentially leading to Operation Barbarossa just over a year later. With this war as a backdrop for his success, Simo Häyhä had firmly established his place in Finnish history. Even when his real name is forgotten, his story, legacy and battlefield nickname will live on. White Death has been immortalised as a sign of Finnish strength against impossible odds.