The world’s deadliest sniper: Simo Häyhä
With at least 505 confirmed kills during the Winter War of 1939–40 between Finland and the Soviet Union, Simo Häyhä (1905–2002) has been labelled the deadliest sniper in history. Here, Tapio Saarelainen shares the story of the Finnish sniper and how he achieved his nickname 'White Death'...
According to an American study, an average of 7,000 rifle-caliber shots were required to achieve one combat kill during the First World War. During the Vietnam War this number had increased to more than 25,000. So, for Simo Häyhä’s more than 505 kills, more than 13,550,000 bullets would have been needed in Vietnam. He remains the deadliest sniper who ever lived.
Who was Simo Häyhä?
Simo Häyhä was born on 17 December 1905 to Juho and Katriina (née Vilkko) Häyhä in the hamlet of Kiiskinen in Rautjärvi municipality. This area was in the old Finnish region of Karelia, which is now Russian territory. He was a farmer by profession and enjoyed several different hobbies, including snow-skiing, hunting and shooting.
Häyhä fought for Finland against the Soviet Union in what history refers to as the 'Winter War', the conflict that occurred in the winter of 1939–40. The Winter War broke out when he was 33 years old and on 17 December 1939, he celebrated his 34th birthday on the Kollaa battlefield. He served a total of 98 days with 6th Battalion, Infantry Regiment 34. The war lasted only 105 days, but Simo Häyhä did not see its end – he was wounded and hospitalised during the last week of the conflict.
During his 98-day reign of terror, Häyhä was unseen and unheard, yet was all the while targeting Russian soldiers with deadly accuracy, once even killing 25 men in one day. With snipers presenting such a high-value targets on the battlefield, Simo’s reputation as a marksman soon reached the Russian front lines; they referred to him as “The White Death”.
On one occasion, after Häyhä had once again killed an enemy sniper with a single shot, the Russians in turn tried to kill him by shooting indirect fire, a mortar bombardment, at the vicinity of his firing position. Incredibly, Häyhä was not wounded or killed, making it out without a scratch. On another occasion, an artillery shell landed near his firing position and tore apart the back of his greatcoat; Häyhä survived this with only a minor scratch to his back.
Yet for a soldier who spent so much time on the front line, Häyhä reported that he was never scared. He treated his job like he treated hunting and was always thinking of new ways to remain hidden and fool the enemy. He developed clever techniques, such as pouring water into the snow in front of him so that the muzzle blast would not expose his location by disturbing the light snow. He also became a master of using sounds, smoke and artillery fire to cover his movements when changing positions. With maps very scarce during the war, Häyhä relied on his memory to find the best hiding positions.
His gun was an M/28-30, one that he had owned before the war, without even a telescopic sight. It was a basic weapon, but one that he had mastered through years of experience
Preparation and tactics
Häyhä’s skill was compounded by his extensive preparations for shooting. During the night, he would often visit his ‘favourite’ firing positions, making whatever preparations and improvements he felt necessary. His behaviour might be described as obsessive because of his dedication to the job at hand: he would clean his weapon much more often than most soldiers; and perform both maintenance operations before and after a completing a mission. Especially in the -20°C temperatures of the Finnish winter, proper gun maintenance was essential to avoid it jamming.
His gun was an M/28-30, one that he had owned before the war, without even a telescopic sight. This rifle was the standard issued one for Finnish infantry in the late 1930s and Häyhä preferred the reliability of the model and the consistency of its shot. It was a basic weapon, but one that he had mastered through years of experience. His weapon was 'zeroed' [the sights adjusted] for 150 metres, the most common combat distance of the time, which enabled him to rapidly adjust to the proper setting as needed.
One strange myth that surrounds snipers is that they would climb trees to shoot the enemy. Häyhä would laugh when asked about this. Not only would it make it far more difficult to keep a steady aim at the enemy, but if he was ever discovered he would have no escape route. Instead, Häyhä used overhanging branches for cover, which provided better protection and allowed him to keep a steady aim.
Häyhä’s skills had been developed from his youth which was spent very close to nature, going on regular hunting trips in the forests. He had often hunted timid birds in clearings and pine forests, birds which reacted to even the slightest sound, reflection or sudden movement. As a hunter, when everything depends on the situation, target and terrain, Häyhä would have needed sharp vision and the ability to spot and recognise targets. There are no foolproof methods in hunting, as each situation and condition is unique.
Häyhä knew that when a hunter shoots at his target, he must be able to observe the impact, as any game will try to escape if the first shot is not lethal, unless the game is injured beyond movement. Any animal will try to defend itself until dead or unable to move; this grim reality also applies to humans on the battlefield. Häyhä’s hunting experiences taught him was how to read and use the terrain and he was the ultimate master in exploiting the terrain of the battlefield to his advantage.
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In addition to these skills, Häyhä's father had taught him a very important hunter’s skill: the ability to estimate distances. This was not a skill he was born with – he had a lot of practice, first by estimating the distance to a target and then pacing out by steps. In most cases his estimate was almost perfect: when checking out his estimates, a typical variation from the actual distance was one or two steps either way at distances of approximately 150 meters. As a young man, he also learned to estimate the effects of wind and rain on shooting and conditions in forest.
With Simo’s unique character and a lifetime of preparation, he was a nightmare for the Soviet troops in the winter forests of Finland, until he was wounded on 6 March 1940, in the forests of Ulismaa in the Kollaa region. He was hit by an explosive bullet during a Russian attack; he lapsed into a coma from which he would not awake until one week later, by which time the armistice had already been signed. Following his injury, Häyhä suffered from lasting facial scarring and near-constant pain for many years.
After the war had ended, Häyhä returned to his farm. His war exploits were legendary in Finland and he became something of a celebrity, but he preferred his own company. Kalevi Ikonen, a friend of Häyhä, said: “Simo spoke more with animals in the forest than with other people.” Considering, however, that he underwent a total of 26 surgical operations on his jaw, and his speech was never fully restored, it is not difficult to understand why he may not have wanted to interact with others more than was necessary. Until he moved into the Kymi Institute for Disabled Veterans in 2001, he lived alone. He died in 2002 aged 96.
Simo Häyhä was the most successful sniper who ever lived because he understood everything going on around him. He was a skilled trekker and hunter who knew exactly how to stay hidden. His gun was one he had used for years and he knew exactly how it would react in its environment, and his personality was ideally suited to sniping, with his willingness to be alone and ability to avoid the emotions which many would attach to such a job. Considering his small stature, he was born to hunt and sniping lent itself to him well. During my many interviews with him in the twilight of his life, he was always keen to remind me of his most valuable insight. “War is not a pleasant experience,” he said, “but who else would protect this land unless we are willing to do it ourselves.”
Tapio Saarelainen is the author of The White Sniper (Casemate, 2016). Saarelainen is a career officer in the Finnish Army who has spent two decades training snipers for the Finnish Army and contributed to the Finnish Army’s manual for snipers. In his youth he competed in rifle shooting. The author has spent much time investigating Simo Häyhä’s life and accomplishments and interviewed Simo dozens of times between 1997 and his death in 2002.
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in February 2017