Simo Häyhä was born on December 17th 1917 in the farming town of Rautajärvi near the Soviet border. Despite humble beginnings this man would accumulate the highest recorded number of confirmed sniper kills in history; 505 using a modified Mosin Nagant M28 rifle with open sights and is also credited with at least 200 more kills using the Suomi 9mm submachine gun. All of these kills occurred within 100 days during the Winter War of 1939.
Häyhä endured a tough life on his farm. His experience of the extreme cold of winter and his love of shooting would equip him well for his future career in the Finnish Army. In 1925 he signed up for a one year service with the Finnish Civil Guard. This experience introduced him to the Russian-built Mosin-Nagant bolt action M91 and later the better-performing M28/30 9mm Suomi submachine gun. Häyhä was eventually able to hit a target 16 times per minute at about 500 feet away, making him an excellent sniper.
The Winter War
On the 10th of November 1939 the Soviet Union attacked Finland with 425,000 troops on a broad front from Koivisto in the south to Petsamo in the north. Being a member of the Civil Guard, Häyhä was called into service, serving under the 6th Company of JR 34 on the Kollaa River.
The 6th Company was under the command of Major General Uiluo Tuompo, the Finns faced both the 9th and 14th Soviet Armies, and at one point were fighting against as many as 12 divisions— about 160,000 soldiers. At one stage during the battle of the Kollaa River, there only 32 Finns fighting against over 4,000 Soviets troops. Despite being outnumbered they were still victorious at the conclusion of the battle.
The invading Soviets weren’t as organized as one would expect: they spoke many different languages, and they weren’t used to the harsh Finnish winters either. In fact, during the winter of 1939-40 the conditions were severe, with the temperatures ranged from -40 to -20 degrees Celsius.
Soviet tactics would let them down once again. They would advance their infantry and mechanized columns down prepared roads. The Finns would use “motti” tactics, making use of the surrounding countryside for cover, using camouflage and concealment to attack the Soviet Soviet trucks or tanks at the front and rear of the advancing column, trapping the units in-between before assaulting the centre section.
Simo Häyhä becomes the “White Death”
Häyhä used a Finnish militia variant of the Russian-made Mosin-Nagant rifle, the White Guard M/28-30 “Pystykorva” (literally Spitz, due to the sight’s resemblance) chambered in 7.62x54R, the Finnish Mosin-Nagant cartridge, because it suited his small frame (5 ft 3 in/1.60 m).
He preferred to use iron sights rather than telescopic sights to present a smaller target for the enemy (a sniper must raise his head higher when using a telescopic sight), to increase accuracy (a telescopic sight’s glass can fog up easily in cold weather), and to aid in concealment (sunlight glare in telescopic sight lenses can reveal a sniper’s position).
With his Mosin-Nagant M91 rifle, he would dress in white winter camouflage, and carry with him only a day’s worth of supplies and ammunition. While hiding out in the snow, he would then take out any Russian who entered his killing zone.
The Soviets tried several ploys to get rid of Häyhä, including counter-snipers and artillery strikes. On March 6, 1940, Häyhä was shot in his lower left jaw by a Russian soldier during combat. The bullet had an explosive charge which blew off his lower left cheek. He was picked up by fellow soldiers who said “half his cheek was missing”, but he was not dead: he regained consciousness on March 13, the day peace was declared.
Shortly after the war, Häyhä was promoted from Alikersantti (Corporal) to Vänrikki (Second Lieutenant) by Field Marshal Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim. No one else has gained rank so quickly in Finland’s military history.
It took several years for Häyhä to recuperate from his wound. The bullet had crushed his jaw and blown off his left cheek. Nonetheless, he made a full recovery and became a successful moose hunter and dog breeder after World War II, and hunted with Finnish President Urho Kekkonen.
When asked in 1998 how he had become such a good shooter, Häyhä answered “Practice.” When asked if he regretted killing so many people, he said, “I only did my duty, and what I was told to do, as well as I could.” Simo Häyhä spent his last years in Ruokolahti, a small municipality located in southeastern Finland, near the Russian border. He died April 1st 2002 aged 96.
Simo Häyhä epitomises the popular Finnish term “Sisu”. Sisu is a Finnish word generally meaning determination, bravery, and resilience. Sisu is about taking action against the odds and displaying courage and resoluteness in the face of adversity. Deciding on a course of action and then sticking to that decision against repeated failures is Sisu. It is similar to equanimity, except the forbearance of Sisu has a grimmer quality of determination than the latter. The noun Sisu is related to the adjective sisukas, one having the quality of Sisu. “Having guts” is a fairly literal translation, as the word derives from sisus, which means something inner or interior. One closely related concept to Sisu is grit; which shares some its denoting elements with Sisu. Sisu is also related to concepts such as perseverance and hardiness, qualities that Simo Häyhä had in abundance.
- THE SNIPER: SIMO HÄYHÄ, By Tapio A.M. Saarelainen, 2000
- Finland at War 1939-45, Phillip S. Jowett, 2006
- Kill Shot: The 15 Deadliest Snipers of All Time, Charles Stronge, 2011
- The Hundred Day Winter War: Finland’s Gallant Stand Against the Soviet Army (Modern War Studies), Gordon F. Sander, 2013.