(Editor’s Note: The History of Finland is not well know on this side of the Atlantic. Yet it is one of the most compelling stories of determination and will against aggression. Few nations have fought against the odds faced by Finland and most would be hard pressed to do as well. This book is the story about a man who today still holds the record for the highest scoring sniper in history, Simo Häyhä. While we will not see a translation of this work on this side of the pond for some time, we at Sniper Country felt his deeds and those of his countryman deserve recognition – SNP)
The book “Valkoinen Kuolema” (=White Death) is a non-fiction work about one man’s struggle to protect his home and country against an outside aggressor. It is also a book about self-determination and the bravery of one small nation against incredible odds. It describes a young man’s road to becoming one of the major snipers of World War II. The book (ISBN 952-5170-05-5), published by Revontuli of Finland, is written in a casual, easy to read style. Unfortunately for most readers, it is written in Finnish and, unless translated, unavailable. Because of this, the following review is somewhat longer than what we usually see on Sniper Country.
During WW II, the Soviet Union (USSR) invaded Finland twice. The “Winter War” began on November 30th, 1939, with a peace treaty being signed in March of 1940. In 1941, Finland was again drawn into the war, now called the “Continuation War.”
Simo Häyhä, a native of Finland, was born in 1906 and grew up on a farm in the town of Rautjärvi near the border to the Soviet Union. Häyhä was a short, lean man of 5 feet. Hard farm and forestry work had made Häyhä tough, and whatever time there was off from work was often spent hunting. He was also a calm and patient man, two traits that would help him immensely later on.
In 1925, Häyhä started his compulsory military training in the Finnish Army from which he received an honorable discharge as a corporal. As a civilian again, he was transferred into the “suojeluskunta” in his hometown. This was the Finnish equivalent of the National Guard or Militia, established for the country’s protection after Finland had gained independence from Russia on Dec. 6th, 1917. Here Häyhä underwent extensive training and target shooting, and also participated in many rifle competitions. His rifle was an old Russian Mosin-Nagant bolt action in 7.62x53R, the M91. Later he got to use the “pystykorva” (nicknamed after a Finnish breed of dog for its ear-like front sight guards), which had come into production in 1928 at “Suojeluskuntain Ase-ja Konepaja OY” (SAKO). This rifle, the M28/30, had a shorter but heavier barrel than the original, and used better material and hand fitting. It weighed 4.5kg (~10lbs.). Häyhä often practiced shooting at different distances and at as many targets as he could in a minute with his open sighted rifle. He could easily hit a target 16 times per minute at 150 meters. Häyhä was also introduced to the Suomi submachine gun in 9mm. This was a heavy but very reliable weapon that would prove itself invaluable in the coming communist invasion.
As the Winter War began, Simo Häyhä was called upon to go to war, and he knew that he would be fighting for a good cause – to try to stop the Russians from taking his farm, hometown, and country. At the beginning of the war, the Russians mounted massive attacks. But it turned out that most of their troops were very inexperienced. Coming from different parts of the large USSR, they often spoke different languages, a fact that added to the confusion. Their attacks were mostly along roads, while the Finns were spread out in the surrounding terrain.
Häyhä was stationed in the Kollaa area north of Lake Ladoga with 34 Infantry Regiment. The winter of 1939-40 was to become a very cold one with a lot of snow and temperatures mostly between -20 to -40 Celsius. Dressed in a white snow camouflage suit, Häyhä would disappear into the snowy surroundings. Just before Christmas, on December 21st, Häyhä made a personal record by killing 25 enemies in one day. By Christmas evening 1939, Häyhä had 138 confirmed kills.
Häyhä’s equipment for a day in the field was his warm winter uniform, white snowsuit, large mitts, 50 to 60 rounds of ammo, rifle, knife, a few hand-grenades, and some dry food and sugar cubes.
The book describes in detail an incident when Häyhä was hunting a Russian sniper that had killed several Finnish soldiers, among them 3 officers. The Russian belonged to the Red Army’s 56 Infantry Division, and was even a Communist Party member. He was equipped with a Mosin-Nagant M91 rifle with a 3x scope. He had made one sure kill that day, and now he was waiting for another target to show itself. The sun was setting, he was tired and rose to his knees. Häyhä, who had been waiting patiently, saw the sun reflecting in the Russian’s scope lens. The distance was about 450 meters. Häyhä had been ordered to try to eliminate the Russian sniper, and he did not fail. His bullet struck the Russian in the head, killing him instantly. Häyhä could have used a scope-equipped rifle, but he liked the open sights because he was used to them and he was able to keep his head lower and present a lower profile and target.
The Russians sustained heavy losses during the Winter War. The Finns often used what was called “Motti”-tactics. This meant that on certain stretches of the front they would evade the attacking Russians and let them through the lines. Then the Finns would join from opposite sides and attack the enemy from the back. In the so-called “General Motti” action in late February 1940, the Russians lost 310 officers and several thousand men. During the battles, Russian soldiers being turned around by Finnish gunfire, were seen running, incoherently screaming “Belaja smert” (= “White Death”). The war had now been drawing attention abroad, and volunteers were arriving from several countries.
On February 17, 1940, in a ceremony at the local military headquarters, Häyhä received an award for his accomplishments in the form of a specially built Sako M/28-30 rifle. At this time, Häyhä had already broken the 500 mark for downed enemies.
On March 2, 1940, the Russians started a large offensive with enormous firepower of artillery, tanks, infantry, and aircraft. It continued for several days. On March 6, by noontime, Häyhä had killed an even 40 enemies, but this day the Finns had sustained heavy losses. That afternoon, a Russian bullet, fired from 20 meters, struck Häyhä in the left side of his upper jaw, exiting. He was luckily brought back from the line of fire and eventually taken to hospital by train. Häyhä’s war had ended. He woke up from a coma on March 13th, 1940, the day peace was declared. It was concluded that the bullet that struck Häyhä was explosive. Large quantities of this ammunition were later found in enemy possession.
After the war, Häyhä was recognized for his service. First he received the Kollaa Cross. The first two of these medals were given to Field Marshal Mannerheim and President Kallio, the third to Colonel Svensson, Häyhä’s highest commanding officer. The fourth medal went to Simo Häyhä. On top of this, he was also honored with 4 other medals. The most remarkable honor was that Häyhä, on August 28th, 1940, was promoted straight from a sergeant to an ensign by Field Marshal Mannerheim. Mattila, Häyhä’s farm, ended up 1.5km on the wrong side of the border. 430 000 people in Finland were left without a home, among them Häyhä and his family. Although the Russians had gained 10% of the Finnish territory, it came at a high price. They had lost one million men in the short conflict. “We gained 22,000 square miles of territory. Just enough land to bury our dead”, a Russian General later remarked.
When the book was written in the summer of 1998, Simo Häyhä, at age 93, was still alive and well. When being asked how he had become such a good shot, his answer was short:
The book ends with a chapter on snipers and sniping throughout history. The author points out that although weapons technology has changed during the last 100 years, the requirements on the sniper has not diminished. Undoubtedly, the large frontal assaults by the Russians during this war accounted for many of the kills credited to Häyhä (one Finn soldier, in another work about this war, was quoted as saying “I like fighting Russians – they fight standing up!”). In modern warfare, with better trained troops and less emphasis on human wave attacks, it is unlikely that the record of over 500 confirmed kills made by Häyhä will ever be broken. However, this does not lessen one’s awe of Häyhä’s feat, nor from those of today’s sniper.
(Editor’s note: For those of you unfamiliar with the Winter War here are some pertinent facts: The Soviet army which invaded Finland in late 1939, massed approximately 1,500,000 troops. By the time peace was declared in March of 1940, Russia had managed to steal 22,000 square miles of Finnish territory. For it they paid an extraordinarily high price. The Soviets lost 1,000,000 of those men, killed by Finn soldiers or by the harsh winter. They also lost 1000 aircraft and 2,300 tanks. For their efforts they managed to wrest away the homes and property of some 420,000 Finnish nationals, but at a price of 40 Russian soldiers killed for every Finnish soldier killed. 25,000 Finns died as a result of this conflict with another 55,000 wounded. The message is clear. Large aggressors may win the war, but they generally lose the battle. This war cost them dearly. Hitler, seeing how “small” Finland stood up to the Russian bear, decided to invade the Soviet Union as a result of the failing of her Army. In a twist of fate, Death on a major scale was then visited upon Russia for her transgressions, and likewise on Germany for hers. We at Sniper Country wish to salute Finland and her aging veterans who, caught between two warring tyrants, decided that their freedom was worth any cost. With little help from the outside world, this innovative nation kept its sovereignty through its own will and determination.)