The White Death: The Truth About The Greatest Sniper You've Never Heard Of

When a half-million Soviets invaded Finland on November 30, 1939, they believed that taking the country would be an easy task and the perfect 60th birthday present for their leader, Josef Stalin. According to Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, although Finland declared itself neutral during WWII, the USSR feared the Nazis could attack them through Finland as the country refused to push its borders away from Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). The invasion became known as the "Winter War," which lasted for several months and was surprisingly challenging for the USSR.

The USSR had 6,000 tanks and 3,000 airplanes, while Finland had just a few tanks and only 100 planes, All Interesting Things reports. However, the USSR had underestimated the tiny nation. When the Soviets invaded Finland, their soldiers wore dark uniforms, making them easy targets for the sharpshooters. The Finnish soldiers wore a white camouflage, which was more suitable for hiding in the snow than the enemies' black uniforms.

The invasion caused a stir in the media, as Finland was a neutral country. When images of airplanes dropping bombs on Finland reached the media, Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet Foreign Minister, claimed they were dropping food and supplies. The Soviets called the bombs "drink to go with the food" (via Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty).

Despite the Soviet power, the Finnish had a weapon the Red Army could never have: Simo Häyhä, the "White Death."

Simo Häyhä killed over 500 people

Simo Häyhä is believed to have killed 542 Soviets during the Winter War and is considered the deadliest sniper in history, per Forces. Years later, when someone asked if he regretted killing those people, he said, "I only did what I was told to do, as well as I could," reported Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty. Häyhä used an old-fashioned rifle, a humble weapon compared to the Soviet's guns.   

According to Forces, Häyhä owned an M/28-30 rifle many years before the war, and he enjoyed its reliability. Reportedly, the rifle did not even have a telescopic sight! He was also aware that, with temperatures dipping to -20 degrees during the winter in Finland, it could affect the gun so he was careful with the maintenance.

Surprisingly, Häyhä was not an intimidating person. He was a 5-foot-tall farmer who was described as mild-mannered and unassuming and only served the army during his mandatory year of military service (via Ideapod). His hobbies included snow-skiing, hunting, and shooting, which became valuable skills during the war.

Simo Häyhä was a talented hunter

Häyhä claimed he was never scared and treated his job like hunting. His main concern was to make sure the weapon was stable, and his feelings would not affect his work. The soldier had no problems being alone during the war and spent hours preparing his shooting positions and made sure the enemies could not track his steps (via Forces).

While growing up, Häyhä learned from his father to stay nearly 150 meters from his target and how rain, wind, and snow could affect the shooting. During the night, he would visit his fire positions and prepare the location for the next day, and he would often hide behind overhanging branches. Häyhä spent most of his life going on hunting trips into the woods, which gave him an advantage against the enemy. 

The sniper developed techniques to hide his location and used sounds, smoke, and artillery fire to cover his movements, per History Extra. Häyhä had an impressive memory and paid attention to the landscape shape, shadows, and tree trunks. If anything changed, it could be a sign that the Soviets had been there.

There was a rumor that Häyhä used to hide in trees to shoot his enemies, but he laughed that off. The sniper said that climbing a tree would limit his moves, and he would not have an escape route if enemies caught him, Forces reported.

He was wounded and nearly died

Häyhä was an impressive soldier, and the Soviets were known to have feared him. According to History Extra, he reportedly killed 25 enemies in one day. However, his most remarkable achievement was when he killed a Soviet with a single shot, and the enemies attacked him with indirect fire and bombs. Häyhä escaped without a wound — but he wouldn't always be that lucky.

Eventually, the Soviets won the "Winter War," which lasted for 105 days. Häyhä is the most memorable name in that war, but he wasn't unstoppable, and 98 days after the war started, he was hit by an explosive bullet and was in a coma for a week. When he woke up, the war had finished. He survived but had lasting facial scarring and felt in constant pain for years.

Häyhä's skills as a sniper became legendary, but he didn't want to pursue fame. After the war ended, the retired soldier returned to his farm, where he preferred to stay alone. "Simo spoke more with animals in the forest than with other people," a friend once said (Ideapod).

He became a famous moose hunter, and the Finnish president Urho Kekkonen joined him on a hunting trip. Häyhä died in 2002 at age 96.