Simo Hayha – “The White Death”

“All successful snipers use natural camouflage, it is the way forward. What made Simo Hayha’s achievements even more remarkable was that he used only iron sights, no telescopic sights.”

Simo Hayha was a simple man with a simple background, but when the vast Soviet armies invaded his home country, Finland, Simo picked up a rifle and shot them in their hundreds.

Born in the countryside near the small town of Rautjarvi in 1905, he would grow up to be named by his enemies as the White Death, a natural hunter and rifle shot who went on to snipe well over 500 kills in the Winter War with Russia from 1939 until 1940.
When Simo Hayha came into this world, Finland was part of the Russian Empire known as the Grand Duchy of Finland. As he was growing up in the wilds hunting game, tracking and shooting, the Russian Empire collapsed and it was during the First World War in 1917 that Finland gained its independence – on territory that the Russians would want to claim back at the earliest opportunity.

They did not wait long.

During the power struggles of the thirties and forties many countries had an eye on territorial claims, expansion of their country’s borders and boundaries. Sides were slowly emerging as pacts were made, with agreements on who was having what after the victory and the subsequent land carve up.

The Russians had made a pact with the Germans, they would assist them during the invasion of Poland then pull back and sit on their own defences letting Germany move on across Europe’s lands doing the fighting. The two had a non- aggression pact not to fight each other and part of the agreement was that Finland would once again belong to Russia. It is worth noting however that Finland also had a non-aggression pact… with Russia!

Simo Hayha - The White DeathIn 1922 Simo joined the National Guard and soon became known for his shooting prowess as he shot his way up many leader boards and was awarded the title of “Master Marksman”. Three years on saw him being conscripted into the Finnish Army, in which he served his time, earning the rank of Corporal before his discharge and return to the woods and forests around his family farm.

Fast forward to the first of September 1939…

The Second World War had started; Poland lasted a matter of days (thirty six to be exact) as the armies of Germany and then Russia from the seventeenth had rolled over the Polish defences and crushed them. Summons were sent and demands made on the Finnish, who, after a month of negotiations and not favouring communism, rejected them.

After aggressive politics had failed, Russia invaded in November 1939, however the easy rollover victory they had just encountered in Poland did not come quickly this time as the Russians had not counted on the best asset the Fins had; their Scandinavian winter.
Russia, as it had done in the past and most recently against the Polish, relied on its superiority of numbers. Indeed it greatly outnumbered Finland in manpower and weaponry, still relying on very little tactics other than a full frontal assault with complete disregard for casualty numbers, as the dead and dying were trampled by the men behind until the target was overwhelmed and taken.

The Finnish Army was no match for this, instead having to rely on less manpower and material but making the most use of the land. Much of Finland was blanketed in deep, freezing, snow and advance routes would be naturally channelled by lakes, swamps and marshes, making progress difficult for the attackers and easily predictable for the defenders.

Routes were blocked by vast bunkers and defences. These would stop the Russian advanced guard in it tracks and then small hunting or ‘Jager’ parties of men would ski around the blocked up troops sat freezing in the snow and destroy them. The Finnish made it hell for Russian troops who soldiered there that winter of ‘39. With their lines of advance and supplies backed up for miles and miles they became sitting ducks.

Simo Hayha - The White DeathDaylight hours were few during the winter months and the Russians had to endure freezing, long cold dark nights fraught with danger from ambush and attack, with dwindling and destroyed supplies.

Simo Hayha had joined the 34th Jager (Hunter) Regiment, based in the forests protecting the Karelian Isthmus on the Kollaa front. This front stretched along the Kollaa River near Lake Ladoga and was to block the Russian invaders from carrying out a right-flanking manoeuvre on the Mannerheim line of defences. It seemed he would spend his time switching between sniping and infantry soldiering, as he tallied an impressive 200 plus kills, using his infantry weapons too!

Once his shooting ability was noticed he was issued a M/28-30 sniper rifle, a Finnish copy of the Mosin –Nagant, and began to receive specific tasks. Known for his enduring patience and field craft skills, clad from head to toe in whites (including his rifle), he would use natural features along with the snow to conceal his firing position.

All successful snipers use natural camouflage, it is the way forward. What made Simo Hayha’s achievements even more remarkable was that he used only iron sights, no telescopic sights.

Along his section of the front line numerous casualties were mounting from an enemy sniper. The usual targets; Officers and NCOs, signallers and such that you would expect at the top of a sniper’s list. Simo was sent to flush him out.

Tending to make his final approach in the darkness of the night, he would build up his final fire position and sit, rigid, waiting for his target. On this occasion he waited all day, his only sustenance was cubes of sugar and, as the long shadows began to fall casting nights spell he noticed movement. The enemy sniper had foolishly called off the watch before darkness and stupidly emerged from his hide. Simo put a round straight through his head!

As news of his exploits grew in both armies, the enemy tried to flush him from his hiding places using artillery. On many occasions the hillsides and forestry blocks were shelled time and again in order to disrupt sniper activity. Simo Hayha was wounded on one such occasion, but managed to escape, though peppered with shrapnel.

Rarely using a number two, Simo hunted the wilds like he did when he was growing up; alone and out in the elements with his rifle, comfortable in the cold and snowy conditions he was at his best. As his tally grew so did the size of the opposition. The battleground was changing, many more artillery pieces were brought up to blast the way clear for the Russian hordes to advance and the once large, formidable forestry blocks began to resemble the Western Front of the Great War.

This made the terrain easier to clear, manoeuvre and see into and it was inevitable that the Finnish would be defeated in the end by the sheer weight of mass the Russians threw into battle. With the defences now much cleared the Fin’s desperately resorted to standard infantry warfare over partisan and it was during one such attack that Simo’s days of fighting came to an end.

Simo Hayha - The White DeathSimo was leading a section attack, countering against Russian advances when, during close quarter combat he was shot in the face. The bullet went through his mouth taking out his left jaw and cheek bone, instantly knocking him out. His comrades took him to safety. He was alive but for him the war was at an end.

By mid-March it was all over, an armistice was signed and Finland lost territory and assets to Russia.

The Winter War lasted less than one hundred days but, in that short period of time, men such as Simo Hayha outfought their enemies, defended their homeland from the communists and gained high tallies.

Simo Hayha’s confirmed final score is believed to be 505, which is over five kills a day average, Though over the years there has been some argument, the figure of 542 gaining acceptance.

Making a full recovery after the war, but remaining badly disfigured Simo Hayha returned to the hills and forests and hunted moose. Unmarried, he died aged 96 in 2002.

“I only did my duty, and what I was told to do, as well as I could.”