4 – Simo Häyhä
Crazy comes in many forms. If refusing to believe that the war is over despite overwhelming evidence that it is or having no fear of death whatsoever count as madness, then sitting in the snow for hours on end to win the war does as well. That’s where Simo Häyhä enters our story. He was known as “White Death” by the Soviets, whom he fought in Finland’s Winter War of 1939-1940, a conflict that really pushes the definition of a cold war.
The Winter War was a conflict that ran alongside the Second World War rather than as a direct part of it, though the ripples from it strongly influenced the wider conflagration. The Soviet Union had invaded Finland such after the outbreak of World War 2 in September 1939 with the goal of providing a buffer zone for their major city of Leningrad, but – somewhat predictably for a war fought in the far north of Europe from November to March – became bogged down in freezing temperatures and heavily damaged the reputation of the Red Army. Later historians have suggested that the poor performance of the Soviets in this war encouraged the Nazis – who at the time were allied with the Russians via the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact – to later invade the USSR.
One of the biggest obstacles that the Red Army faced was Simo Häyhä. He was the star sniper of the Finnish forces with over 500 confirmed kills, the most of any sniper in history. In fact, his success in halting the Soviets through targeted assaults from long-range greatly influenced later Red Army tactics, resulting in them placing great faith in their own snipers.
On the all-time sniper kill list, Häyhä is followed by 10 Soviet soldiers. His accuracy, brevity and perseverance were his strengths: he managed all 505 of his kills within the Winter War – which only lasted 3 and a half months – and the majority of them in daylight, which was only a small window of the day in such a northern location, as well as in extreme cold. Häyhä averaged 5 kills a day, but on some days he racked up more than 25, all of them without a telescopic sight – he thought that using a scope in such bright conditions, caused by the reflections off the snow, made him an easier target for enemy snipers. His gun was his own, bought 15 years before the war on the completion of his one year of mandatory military service. He had used it for all the intervening years for sport hunting and knew it like the back of his hand, ensuring that he was accurate and could maintain it in the punishing Arctic cold.
Häyhä would sit rather than lying prone – the usual sniper pose – because he thought that it improved his accuracy, and was able to get away with it because of his short height, just 5 feet 3 inches. He would wear all white camouflage and pack snow around himself and his gun to disguise the smoke and muzzle flash, sitting in the freezing snow with ice in his mouth to mask his own breath. With 505 confirmed kills, most achieved in just 3 months while dressed as a snowman, we think that more than qualifies Simo Häyhä, the White Death, for inclusion on our list.