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The White Death

A record-setting Finnish sniper (505 kills in 100 days during WW2), and just using iron sights.

Simo Häyhä at the start of the Winter War, 1939

The 20th century was filled with worldwide conflict and if you consider the casualties both civilian and militant we can conclude that it was the bloodiest century we will ever experience. As a result of war, many people were forged into what I consider to be superhuman beings with their talents shining out on the battlefield. Although quite morbid many of these people showed determination and went above and beyond the call of duty of their country.

Many countries in WWII experienced fighting a force that was superior in both numbers and quality. One of these countries was Finland who faced the might of the Red Army on their border on 30 November 1939. Being heavily outnumbered and out-teched the Finish soldiers had to show resilience and bravery in fighting a force more than double in strength compared to their own.

These circumstances were the perfect breeding grounds for many heroes. A mighty challenge required a mighty contender. Noone took this challenge up as well as Finnish sniper Simo Häyhä. Who in the face of an enemy superior to him in every way still managed to become the world’s deadliest sniper.

The Making of Häyhä
Häyhä was born in the municipality of Rautjärvi right on the Russian border. He grew up in a very large family of farmers being one of 8 brothers and sisters. As most people in such areas of Finland Häyhä took up the hobby of skiing and hunting, both more out of necessity rather than passion.

The young Häyhä would soon discover his proficiency with the rifle after many months spent hunting in the Finnish tundra which led his parents into entering him in a shooting competition. After this, his career as a sharpshooter skyrocketed. It was reported that his room was full of trophies but due to him being shy and reserved he didn’t want to be in the spotlight for long so these achievements were rarely mentioned.

The start of the war would force Häyhä into the spotlight with him joining the Finnish army in 1939. His talent was instantly recognised and all the resources available were given to him. Even so, Häyhä would only use standard Finish army rifle with iron sights to achieve all of his sniper kills.

The White Death
Häyhä would become infamous to the invading forces. The nickname “The White Death” was given to him by the troops of the Red Army due to his characteristic white camouflage suit. His style of sniping was unorthodox which allowed him to be very proficient in his role. Firstly no scopes were used to achieve any of Häyhä’s kills as he never trained with scopes. For him, they were more of a liability due to them freezing up in the cold as well as reflecting sunlight which endangered his position.

Further steps were taken to conceal his position. Häyhä would crawl through the snow to his sniping position in temperatures as low as −40 °C and spend the whole day in one position. He would pack snow around his rifle to mitigate the puff of snow which would be created by the recoil of a shot as a further precaution. As well as this he would also pack his mouth full of snow to remove the steam created by his breath. Combining everything together meant that Häyhä was virtually invisible.

Soviet counter-snipers especially tasked with killing Häyhä were employed by the Soviet high command but due to his sniping style, many of them would die to the hands of the assailant they were trying to kill.

By the end of the war, Häyhä would be credited with exactly 505 kills all of which all would be achieved in less than 100 days which still stands as the record for the most sniper kills performed by one man. If you put in the context of his situation, being outnumbered with outdated gear and not much live war experience, his achievements become even more impressive.

When he was interviewed in 2002, over 60 years after the events, he was asked if he regrets killing so many people. To this he said:

“I only did what I was told to do, as well as I could.”
By the end of the war, the Finish army would have to concede to the more superior Red Army. Victory was achieved by the Soviets but not without a high price. The Finns fought fearlessly and with the defensive advantage managed to kill 5 Soviet soldiers for each Finish one killed showing the world that technological advantages can be countered with good tactics.

An important lesson can be learned from the attitude of the Finns and especially the attitude of Häyhä. Against all odds, Häyhä would crawl out every morning to a hiding spot to combat an enemy which had the advantage over him. Determined to keep his country safe Häyhä went above and beyond the call of duty and proved to the world that Finland wasn’t a pushover.

We can apply this attitude to our everyday life. If a task seems too hard or an objective seems too big we must take it step by step. Just like Häyhä crawled through the snow every day not knowing if he’ll make it back with the sole objective to do the best we can so should we. Instead of the crawl we must get up and start the challenge we pose ourselves with the only goal being to do “as well as [we can]”. By chipping away at it we will make the challenge appear much more achievable. In spite of what you might think, you are capable of much more if you move outside your comfort zone but you can only discover this if you challenge yourself.


Book Reviewer
There is a very good book by Väinö Linna called 'Tuntematon Sotilas' (Unknown Soldier) and three films of the same name that demonstrate the mindset, motivation and sheer bloodymindedness of the Finnish Soldiers in the Second World War, having spent time with a few Finns, I don't think they've changed that much.
He got several dozens with a Suomi submachine gun,including one fight where he was covering a known approach route for the Russians and he wiped out near enough to a platoon of the enemy. The act was duplicated in one of the recent Finnish war films (can be seen on Youtube).

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