Role During the Winter War
The Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union (USSR) that commenced on November 30, 1939, with a Soviet invasion of Finland saw Häyhä serving as a sniper for the Finnish Army.
He fought in the Battle of Kollaa, part of the Soviet-Finnish Winter War, which took place from December 7, 1939, to March 13, 1940, in Karelia, Ladoga, Finland, serving under 6th Company of JR 34. Defying the weather conditions with temperature ranging from −40 °C (−40 °F) to −20 °C (−4 °F), Häyhä dressed up completely in white military camouflage thrived in eliminating as many of the Soviet soldiers as he could.
The Red Army at that time was in a much unorganised state thanks to the ongoing Great Purge or the Great Terror organized by Joseph Stalin, General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The soldiers of the Soviet Army were not equipped with white camouflage suits for much of the war and thus became more vulnerable targets of the Finnish snipers.
The number of Soviet casualties in the hands of Häyhä that he accomplished in less than hundred days in a time during the year with not much of daylight hours is estimated to be more than five hundred. This makes the average count of kills to more than five a day.
Häyhä himself counted the number of Soviet soldiers killed by him which was affirmed by his comrades. Count of kills was considered only after ascertaining such deaths. Having said so, it was still difficult to verify the count of kills by the deadly sniper as all his targets were on the Soviet side.
On February 17, 1940 his division commander A. Svensson awarded him an honorary rifle and it was during this time that Svensson credited Häyhä of confirmed sniper kills of 219 men as also a same number of fatalities through submachine gun.
Finnish military chaplain Antti Rantama, a figure of the Winter War, mentioned in his diary that starting from the war till March 7, 1940, Häyhä accomplished 259 sniper kills and a same count of kills through machine/submachine gun.
A Finnish Army document accounts Häyhä's sniper killing counts starting from the very onset of the Winter War. On December 22, 1939, it mentions 138 kills in 22 days; on January 26, 1940, it mentions the total count as 199 with another 61 kills in 35 days; on February 17, 1940 the total is shown as 219 with another 20 kills in 22 days; and finally on March 7, 1940 at the time when the sniper himself got severely injured the total number of kills is mentioned as 259 with another 40 kills in 18 days.
Such casualties faced by the Red Army in the hands of the unseen and unheard terror, Häyhä, led them to nickname the ace marksman as the ‘White Death’. Eventually the ‘White Death’ became a famous subject matter with Finnish newspapers often featuring the invisible Finnish war hero in their columns.
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Counter snipers and artillery strikes were used by the Soviets to eliminate Häyhä who was continuously posing a threat for the Red Army men. In one such effort of the Soviets on March 6, 1940, a Red Army soldier thrived in firing an explosive bullet that hit the lower left jaw of Häyhä severely. Häyhä’s fellow soldiers mentioned that "half his face was missing".
He remained senseless for a few days and regained consciousness on the day the Moscow Peace Treaty was signed between Finland and the Soviet Union that is on March 12, 1940.
Following the war, Finnish Field Marshal Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim elevated Häyhä from the rank of alikersantti that is Corporal to vänrikki (Second lieutenant)
Weaponry & Techniques used by HÃ¤yhÃ¤ in Eliminating his Targets
He was given a Civil Guard rifle that was an early series SAKO M/28-30 (Sn.35281/Civil Guard district number S60974). Iron sights were given more preference by him instead of telescopic sights as the former allowed the sniper a smaller target for the opponent; are more reliable in icy-cold weather conditions while the telescopic sights tend to become haze in such weather conditions; and is easier to hide while lenses of telescopic sight can reflect sunlight giving an inkling of the position of the sniper.
He also didn’t want to use the Soviet scoped rifle (m/91-30 PE or PEM) as he was not trained in using them.
Many a times he would hide himself by piling dense mounds of snow in front of his position. Such heap of snow also provided padding for his rifle. While sniping he would also put snow in his mouth so that fumes from his breath does not reveal his position to the enemy. In order to moisten the jolt of his weapon Häyhä used to keep gloves between his rifle and the ground.
Life After the Winter War
Häyhä took several years to fully recover from the explosive bullet injury that mashed his jaw and damaged his left cheek. Following the Second World War, he evolved as a successful dog breeder and moose hunter while continuing his life as a farmer. He also hunted with the eighth and longest-serving President of Finland Urho Kekkonen.
Once he was asked whether he repented taking life of so many people. To this he answered that he was only following instructions and doing his duty and made effort to give his best.
The last years of this ace sniper was spent in a municipality of Finland called Ruokolahti, located in the region of South Karelia. He passed away on April 1, 2002 at the age of 96 in a war veterans' nursing home in a town and a municipality of Finland called Hamina. His remains were interred in Ruokolahti.
The song ‘White Death’ by the Swedish power metal band ‘Sabaton’ that found place in their fifth studio album ‘Coat of Arms’ released on October 21, 2010, was about Häyhä.