Picture: Finnish Military Archives (Public domain)

Simo Häyhä (17.12.1905 – 1.04.2002), often referred to by his nickname, ‘The White Death’ (‘Valkoinen kuolema’), was a Finnish military sniper in World War II during the 1939–1940 ‘Winter War‘ against the Soviet Union. Häyhä is often regarded as the deadliest sniper of all time, as he is believed to have killed over 500 enemy soldiers during the ‘Winter War’, the highest number of sniper kills in any major war. In his private war memoir ‘Sotamuistoja’, Häyhä estimated that he shot around 500 Soviet soldiers: the memoir was written in 1940, a few months after he was wounded, and remained hidden for decades, only to be discovered in 2017. It described his experiences in the ‘Winter War’ from 30 November 1939 to 13 March 1940. Prior to his military service, he was a farmer, hunter, and skier. He was successful in shooting competitions in the Viipuri Province however, he did not receive formal sniper training until a year before the war in 1938. During his Civil Guard training, Häyhä once hit a target 16 times from 150 metres away in just one minute, an unbelievable accomplishment with a bolt action rifle, considering that each of the five cartridges had to be manually fed with a fixed magazine. Häyhä served as a sniper in the Finnish Army during the 1939–40 ‘Winter War’ between Finland and the Soviet Union: he was dressed completely in white camouflage, whereas the Soviet troops were not issued camouflage uniforms for most of the war, making them easily visible to snipers in winter conditions. The Red Army was highly disorganized because Joseph Stalin had purged military experts in the late 1930s, as part of the ‘Great Purge’. All of Häyhä’s kills were accomplished in less than 100 days, at an average of five per day: his kill count as a sniper was based on his own reporting with the confirmation of his comrades, and only those who were verified to be dead were counted. No count was taken when several snipers shot at the same target and when enemy soldiers were killed with a submachine gun. Häyhä’s achievements were used as a tool of propaganda at an early stage of the war: the Finnish press quickly built a hero’s myth around him, forging nicknames like ‘White Death’ or ‘The magic shooter’. On 6 March 1940, a week before peace was declared, Häyhä was severely wounded after an explosive bullet fired by a Red Army soldier hit the left side of his face: initially considered dead, as in his fellow soldiers’ words “half his face was missing,” it took him 14 months and 26 surgeries to recover from his wounds. The bullet had removed his upper jaw, most of his lower jaw, and most of his left cheek. Häyhä wished to serve also in the ‘Continuation War’ (1941–1944), but he was excused due to the severity of his facial injuries, from which he was still recovering. According to Jalmari Helander, who wrote and directed the script for the 2022 action film ‘Sisu‘, the film is partly inspired by Häyhä’s legendary reputation.

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