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Historical Badasses is a brand-new weekly offseason feature here at [DFO]; with 75% of teams now out of the running for the Super Bowl, it’s prime time to start entertaining you with tales of some of the coolest people to ever walk the Earth. Each week we’ll take a look at one figure throughout all eras of history and regions of the globe, in the hopes that maybe you’ll be inspired to follow in their footsteps. Actually, wait, don’t do that. A lot of people would die. That would be bad.
We’re in the middle of a cold snap as I write this first post in this brand-new series, so in light of the weather outside, I’d like to start off by talking about one of the greatest, most heroic Finns to ever live. Let’s talk for a little bit about Simo Häyhä, the sniper nicknamed “The White Death”.
Born: December 17th, 1905, Rautjärvi, Grand Duchy of Finland
Died: April 1st, 2002, Ruokohlati, Finland
Occupation: Finnish Army sniper, moose hunter, dog breeder
To begin with explaining just how much of a badass Simo Häyhä was in his lifetime, we gotta start with a little geopolitical history, folks.
Finland has not had a long history as an independent country; from the 12th century until 1809, it was controlled by the Kingdom of Sweden. After Sweden warred with Russia, Finland was annexed by the Russians and became a Grand Duchy, under control of Saint Petersburg, later Leningrad. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Finland finally gained independence, but remained constantly concerned about their proximity to the Soviet Union and the possibility of trying to regain lost territory.
At the onset of the Second World War, the Soviets were extremely concerned about the possibility of a German invasion eastward, based on Hitler’s plans as laid out in Mein Kampf. As such, they wanted to establish a buffer zone between them and Berlin, which included the Baltic nations of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia, but also Finland. While the Baltic states agreed to host Soviet military bases, the Finns refused, and for the winter of 1939-1940, the Russo-Finnish War, now known as the Winter War, raged across the north; despite all odds against them, the Finns actually ended up walking away mostly victorious at the end of the war.
Finland was, and still is, a tiny country compared to the Soviet Union; the Soviet invasion force initially had 450,000 ground troops, 2500 tanks, and 3800 airplanes, compared to the entire Finnish army, which had 250,000 ground troops, 32 tanks, and 114 planes. As such, the Finns had little choice but to rely on guerrilla tactics in order to defend their country, which for three and a half bitterly cold months, they successfully did. This is where Simo Häyhä comes in.
The man the Soviets came to know as “The White Death” was born a farmer, residing on the isthmus of Karelia in what is now Russian-controlled territory. In 1925, when Häyhä was twenty, he completed his one year of mandatory military training with the Finnish White Guard, and was discharged honourably as a corporal. Upon Soviet invasion in 1939, however, Häyhä was recalled to active duty, and as a member of the 34th Regiment, he proved himself to be absolutely invaluable to his country in the process.
Here’s how much of a badass Häyhä was:
- When not serving in the army, Häyhä participated in numerous shooting competitions, and his house was littered with trophies everywhere testifying to his prodigious skill; one of his most notable accomplishments was apparently hitting a target 150 metres away 16 times in a minute.
- His primary weapon was a Finnish-modified Mosin-Nagant M28-30 bolt-action rifle, with which he only used the regular iron sights, so as to reduce the size of the target for other shooters; plus, the flash of the sun on the glass of an added telescopic sight would give his position away.
- He would camp out in the woods, sometimes for days at a time, with only minimal amounts of food and ammunition brought with him.
- He packed snow around his position to help conceal him from the Soviets and to prevent muzzle flashes, and would put snow in his mouth to help keep his breath from fogging up. He also wore a mask over his face underneath his white camouflage uniform to shield his identity from the Soviets. His tiny stature – he only stood 5’3″ – also helped him to blend in to his surroundings.
- In just 98 days of battle, Häyhä racked up 505 confirmed sniper kills against the gigantic Red Army – over five kills a day.
- He killed an additional 200 men with the use of a Suomi K31 submachine gun as well.
- It’s believed there could be somewhere between an additional 150-200 kills that haven’t been confirmed that are almost certainly directly attributable to Häyhä.
- And this happened in the dead of one of the coldest winters in Finnish history, when the temperature stayed under zero degrees Fahrenheit for the entire three and a half months of battle.
- And this happened in the part of the year that has just a scant few hours of daylight happening every day.
- December 21st, 1939 was his best day as a sniper, with 25 confirmed kills happening in just a few hours of fighting.
- The Soviets, upon learning that one man was responsible for so much of their lack of success in the war, were terrified, and bestowed him the nickname of Belaya Smert, or “The White Death”. Later, so enraged at his effectiveness, Soviet commanders sent out counter-snipers to try and get rid of him. None ever returned.
- With the failure of counter-snipers, the Soviets turned to strafing areas with random artillery bursts in the hopes of getting him. This, too, did not work, save from slightly singing his coat one time.
On March 6th, 1940, a Red Army soldier shot Häyhä in the face with an explosive bullet (the use of which was deemed illegal by international military law in 1868); it ripped off half his lower jaw and removed his left cheek. Häyhä was declared killed in action initially when found by fellow soldiers, but instead was indeed alive, though badly wounded; he was in a coma in hospital for a week, and woke up on March 13th, the day the Winter War came to an end.
Häyhä’s wounds were severe enough that it took him years to fully recover; he had a total of twenty-six surgeries between 1940 and 1942, and doctors used bone from his hip to help craft a new jaw. He was discharged from the army after being promoted directly from corporal to second lieutenant, and was awarded seven military medals for his efforts.
In his post-war days, Häyhä chose to mostly stay out of the limelight; he worked on his brother’s farm for over twenty years, and continued with his hobbies of shooting and hunting, particularly moose, which he did with Finnish President Urho Kekkonen, which is pretty damn cool. He also won numerous other awards for dog breeding and marksmanship. Häyhä never married, living away from most other people for the majority of his life, though countless stories remember the man as quiet & humble but extremely friendly & kind to all those whom he interacted with.
Despite a life of hard work and the horrors of war, Häyhä lived to the ripe old age of 96, passing away peacefully in a war veteran’s retirement home. When reflecting on his experience in the war, he stated simply, “I did what I was told to do as well as I could.” And of course, to fully cement his status as a complete badass, whenever anyone asked about how he managed to kill so many Soviet soldiers, all he would do was give a wry little smile and say “Practise.”
Häyhä’s efforts in the Winter War allowed a badly, badly outnumbered Finnish side to claim victory, particularly in the Battle of Kollaa Hill, an incredibly important win that kept the Red Army from pushing northwards over the Kollaa River into the Mannerheim Line and deeper into Finnish territory. To put this in perspective: for a week in January 1940, 32 Finnish soldiers held the hill against 4000 Soviets; only four Finns survived the attack, but the Red Army retreated after having suffered over 400 casualties against the fierce combat from a vastly overmanned group.
At the end of the war, Finland conceded the southern half of Karelia, including part of the region where Simo Häyhä was born, to the Soviet Union, but the small country remained independent. Global opinion of the military might of the Soviet Union was never lower than it was at that point, and the outrage against the unprovoked incursion into neutral Finland was so strong that the Soviet Union was expelled from the League of Nations. Of the territory gained by the Soviets, one general remarked simply, “We have won enough ground to bury our dead.” It was a remarkable defeat of such a massive country, and almost certainly influenced the Nazi belief that their goal of conquering Stalingrad would be much simpler than expected – which as we all know turned out to be anything but. Simo Häyhä’s name will be revered by Finns for hundreds and thousands of years yet to come for his incredible skill and remarkable bravery on the battlefield. A true badass of an incredibly badass country.