In every war there are heroes who show exemplary skill and bravery in the face of the enemy. In all the history of warfare, however, there has never been a sniper quite like the Finnish Simo Hayha. Fighting during the terrible Winter War that pitted tiny Finland against the full might of the Soviet Red Army, Hayha was conscripted to fight in the icy eastern border of his homeland and defend it at all costs. Once there, he put his prodigious peacetime marksmanship and hunting skills to the test against Soviet infantry, countersniper teams, and even full on artillery strikes until he had earned himself a potent nickname: The White Death.
Pre-War Life: How a Sniper Was Made
Simo Hayha’s early life was fairly standard for any Finn living during the tumultuous years of the early 1900′s. He lived out his childhood on a farm in the wilderness of Finland, where he learned dedication, survival in the harsh winters, as well as enduring patience that would serve him well in the years to come. At the age of 20 he entered the Suojeluskunta, or “White Guard”, which was a voluntary militia designed to protect the homefront. This militia guard introduced him to the shooting sports and encouraged him to practice his marksmanship, which would prove quite fortunate only a short while later. As he improved in skill, Hayha became well known for winning many shooting contests in his local province and his small farmhouse was filled with marksmanship trophies that he had earned. He also hunted regularly, stalking game through the the woods and fields that would soon become an entirely different kind of hunting ground.
The Winter War begins and a Sniper is Born.
Although Hayha used several weapons during his service, a rifle just like this one made him the infamous White Death.
Unfortunately for Finland, their southeastern border was within a mere 40 kilometers of the city of Leningrad (later the site of one of the bloodiest sieges in recorded history), and the Soviet Union wished to have a greater buffer zone between their city and the Finns. Once negotiations ran short, the Soviets began their march with many hundreds more tanks, planes, and thousands more troops than the Finnish army could possibly muster.
Simo Hayha entered into this bloodbath early into the conflict and began to put his sharpened skills as a hunter and marksman to use shooting Soviets. Although he had no weapon that could harm tanks or planes, he did use a Finnish version of the Russian Mosin-Nagant rifle. Not only was this rifle suitable for his own lighter build and small size, but the 7.62×54 ammunition it used could be easily scavenged from enemy soldiers using similar weaponry. Although he also used a Suomi K31 submachine gun and killed many men with it when pressed, it is his achievements with the Mosin that became truly legendary.
Although the infamous Russian Winter had saved the Motherland many times in her history, Simo Hayha used the heavy snowfall and extremely low temperatures (often as low as -20 or even -40 degrees Fahrenheit) to mask his presence and give him easy targets to select. He dressed in an all white suit with a greyish facemask to protect himself from the biting winds and setup a position with a full day’s worth of rations and ammunition so that he could maintain a proper hunting ground. Using the wind and snow for cover, he would wait patiently until the chance for a perfect shot came when he would kill and drive back Soviet troops attempting to invade his domain. Long hours spent stalking animals and shooting at targets turned him into the perfect sniper with knowledge of camouflage, stealth, and aim. His exploits at the Kollaa River (where some 160,000 Red Army soldiers were sent to overrun the small Finnish force stationed there) earned him the nickname The White Death. Despite the overwhelming force sent to the Kollaa, Hayha and the rest of the men under Major General Uiluo Tuompo managed to hold on and even drive back the 9th and 14th Soviet armies.
The danger increases
However, as the fearsome reputation of The White Death spread through the rank and file of the Red Army the higher command began to send in their specialized countersniper units to eliminate this threat to morale. Coordinating with artillery barrages designed to flush him out, Hayha’s hunters attempted to bring him down with all the skill and weaponry at their disposal. It was not enough to overcome the prodigious skill of Simo Hayha however, and he proceeded to kill many of his opponents as they sought to track him down. He credited this partially to the fact that he never used a scope when making shots. Even an 800 yard kill (one of the longest on record before the era of modern optics) was made with nothing more than the iron sights on his rifle. As a result, he did not have to raise his head to look through or worry about glare from the lens which often gave away the countersnipers sent after him. Beyond that was his own skill in stealth and camouflage which enabled him to hide until the last possible moment.
Heyha shown healed but scarred after his ordeal surviving the countersniper’s explosive round.
Eventually however, his heroic defense was ended by the Soviets. As Hayha fought yet another countersniper, he took an explosive round to the side of his face that blew a cheek apart and left him with an extremely serious wound. He took the time to kill the man who had shot him before finally hobbling back to camp where he was sent off for treatment. He had only been fighting for 100 days before taking this final wound, but in that time he had already racked up a confirmed kill count of over 500 enemy dead and left a permanent impression on the Soviet Army. Years of training and patience had paid off, and he had achieved feats that few snipers even in our modern era have neared.
He did not recover until the day when the Winter War was ended, but unlike some who had trouble readjusting to civilian life Simo Hayha gladly returned to his farming lifestyle. He had always been a jovial and happy man even during the war, and he showed remarkably little psychological harm from killing literally hundreds of people in under half a year. Like many heroes from that era, he downplayed his efforts during the war as simple duty to country and never made much of his legendary status. He lived a life of peace and quiet until the day of his death in 2002 at the age of 95.
What can we take from his example?
Although not everyone can be born on a farm, join a militia, and fight on their own home ground there are certainly some excellent lessons to be gained from his example.
- Training is key. He literally spent a lifetime honing his skills as a hunter and marksman. A farmer from the local Finnish militia was superior to specialized Soviet countersniper teams because he lived and breathed the arts of sniping in a way few people ever have. Although you may not be able to achieve his level of skill, training in proper use of your weapons will make you much more formidable in the event of an emergency.
- One man can make a world of difference with the proper support. Simo Hayha is well known, but he served alongside many thousands of courageous Finns who didn’t have the luxury of sniping from a prepared position. Hayha was the long arm that shattered the morale of the enemy, but he needed the support of a base for food, supplies, and the guns to watch his back while he slept. No amount of skill in sniping would have saved Simo Hayha from bleeding to death from his facial wound without the help and care of caring doctors and field medics who kept him alive so that he could go home and live in peace. Likewise, you will need a group of supporting people with a wide variety of skills. At the same time you should never underestimate the power of a single well-placed individual even against overwhelming odds.
- A fearsome reputation can be a blessing and a curse. In a disaster, you would not want to be another “White Death” with dozens of people searching to specifically eliminate you. However, a small local reputation as someone not to be messed with might turn aside the low-end cowardly looters and scum who wouldn’t want to incur your wrath. It is a delicate balancing act, and one that requires some thought in an emergency.
Simo Hayha is a legend amongst snipers, and an example to all of us of how much training and skill can do in a pinch. Be ready for what may come, so that you can make a difference as Hayha did decades ago.