How “White Death” Simo Häyhä Became The Deadliest Sniper In History

Published March 27, 2018
Updated September 16, 2018

Simo Hayha hid in snowbanks and held snow in his mouth to conceal his position, in order to get the most confirmed kills any sniper has ever gotten.

Simo Hayha

Wikimedia Commons Simo Hayha, after the war. His face was scarred by his wartime injury.

At the dawn of World War II in 1939, Josef Stalin sent over half a million men across Russia’s western border to invade Finland. For three months, the two countries fought in the Winter War, and in an unexpected underdog victory, Finland emerged victorious; no doubt due, in part, to a tiny farmer-turned-sniper named Simo Hayha.

Upon invading, Stalin, armed with roughly 750,000 soldiers, believed that Finland would be an easy win as their numbers were laughable in comparison. Finland’s army was only 300,000 strong, with just a handful of tanks and just over 100 aircraft. The Russians had nearly double everything, with almost 6,000 tanks, and over 3,000 aircraft. There was simply no way they would lose.

However, the Finnish had something that the Russians didn’t: Simo Hayha.

Standing just five feet tall, the mild-mannered Hayha was far from intimidating and actually quite easy to overlook, which is perhaps what made him so suited for sniping. As all citizens did, he had served in the Finnish army for a year before returning to his quiet life of farming and hunting small game. He was noted in his small community for his ability to shoot, though before the war he’d had no reason to show it off.

Simo Häyhä Becomes The White Death

Simo Hayha With Rifle

Wikimedia CommonsSimo Hayha and his new rifle, a gift from the Finish army.

However, that changed once Stalin’s troops invaded. As a former military man, Hayha was called into action. Before reporting for duty, he pulled his old gun out of storage. It was an antique, Russian-made rifle, a bare-bones model with no telescopic lens.

Along with his fellow Finnish military men, Hayha was given heavy, all-white camouflage, a necessity in the snow that blanketed the landscape several feet deep. Wrapped in the heavy white coverings, the soldiers could blend into snowbanks without a problem.

Armed with his trusty rifle and his white suit, Hayha went to work. Preferring to work alone, he supplied himself with a day’s worth of food, several clips of ammunition, and sneak quietly through the woods. Once he found a spot with good visibility, he would lie in wait for the Russians to stumble through his path.

And stumble through they did.

Over the course of the Winter War, which lasted roughly 100 days, Hayha killed between 500 to 542 Russian soldiers, all with his antiquated rifle. While his comrades were using state-of-the-art telescopic lenses to zoom in on their targets, Hayha was fighting with an iron sight, which he felt gave him a more precise target. He also noted that several of his targets had been given away by the glint of light on their sniper lenses, and he was not going to go down that way.

Finnish Snipers Hiding

Wikimedia CommonsFinnish snipers hiding behind snowbanks in a fox hole.

He’d also developed an almost foolproof way of not being sighted.

On top of his white camouflage, he would build up snow drifts around his position to obscure him further. The snow banks also served as padding for his rifle and stopped the puff of snow from being stirred up by the force of the gunshots. As he lay on the ground in wait, he would hold snow in his mouth to stop his steamy breaths from betraying his position.

Before long, Hayha had gained a reputation amongst the Russians as the “White Death,” the tiny sniper who lay in wait and could hardly be seen in the snow. When the Finnish High Command heard about Hayha’s skill, they awarded him with a gift: a brand new, custom built, sniper rifle.

Unfortunately, 11 days before the Winter War ended, Simo Hayha was finally struck. A Soviet soldier caught sight of him and shot him in the jaw, landing him in a coma for 11 days. He awoke as the peace treaties were being drawn up with half of his face missing.

However, the injury hardly slowed Simo Hayha down. Though the recovery period for being hit in the jaw with explosive ammunition did take several years, Hayha made a full recovery and lived to the ripe old age of 96.

Following the war he continued to use his sniping skills and became a successful moose hunter, regularly attending hunting trips with Finnish President Urho Kekkonen.

After learning about how Simo Häyhä earned the nickname the “White Death”, check out the story of Balto, a dog that saved an Alaskan town from death. Then, check out these harrowing photos from the Crimean War.

Katie Serena
Katie Serena is a New York City-based writer and a staff writer at All That's Interesting.
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