'The White Death', the extraordinary story of a Finnish sniper by Richard Denham and Count Dankula
The following is a guest post by Richard Denham, author of Weirder War Two.
The Soviet invasion of Finland was supposed to be a walk in the park. It wasn’t.
The Finns were outnumbered, outgunned and technologically inferior to the Red Army but they put up an incredibly brave resistance. The ‘Winter War’ as it was known was a three-month conflict that began in November 1939. The attack was part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a secret agreement between Hitler and Stalin to carve up eastern Europe between them, Hitler was given western Poland and Lithuania, while Stalin was given eastern Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Finland.
Despite a ten-year non-aggression pact signed between Finland and the Soviet Union in 1932, on 30th November 1939 the Soviets bombed Helsinki, and the Winter War began. The Soviet invasion was declared illegal by the international community and they were dismissed from the increasingly ineffectual League of Nations as a result. The British and French were outraged, and the Soviets were expelled from the organisation. But Britain and France had to tread carefully. They were already at war with Nazi Germany, and taking on the Soviet Union too would have been suicidal. Most assumed Finland would crumble after a few weeks. There was nothing to be done to save the Finns from the Soviet onslaught.
The Finns were experts in winter combat, wearing white camouflage and engaging in daring hit and run tactics before escaping, often on skis. The most famous of these soldiers was the sniper Simo Hayha, who killed at least 505 Soviet soldiers during the war and remains, to this day, the sniper with the highest body count in the Second World War and beyond.
After realizing this was the work of one man, the Red Army named this terrifying ghost ‘The White Death’ and were desperate to stop him. He was eventually shot in the jaw by an enemy sniper, from a team of snipers sent specifically to kill him. His injuries were horrific, but Hayha didn’t die; he remained comatose. The Finns held out long enough to force the Soviets to reach a cease-fire. Simo regained consciousness four days later on 13 March, the day the Winter War ended. He became a Finnish hero and lived peacefully until he died at the age of 96 in 2002.
The image of outnumbered ski-troops fighting an overwhelming mechanized enemy became one of the period’s most romantic. When asked, in 1998, why he was such a good shot, his answer was, ‘Practice.’
Later, the Finns were caught between a rock and a hard place. Finally, they felt forced to become co-belligerents with Nazi Germany, from motives of self-survival against the threat once more from Stalin, though they did not join the Axis.
In the west the Allies understood Finland’s unique position. The British formally declared war – probably to assuage Stalin – but America didn’t bother. It is thought that the Finns’ courage had an even more world-changing consequence: the poor performance of the Soviets was noted in Germany. Perhaps it stirred stronger ambitions in Hitler: perhaps the effectiveness of the Finns in the Winter War convinced him that an attack on Russia could succeed. Perhaps his eye turned, earlier than he originally planned, to the east.
The Soviet Union continued to deny the existence of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact long after the war, dismissing it as Western propaganda, until finally doing the honourable thing in 1989.
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Simo Hayha was recently selected by YouTube star Count Dankula as one of his 'Mad Lads' and he has produced a fantastic video explaining the remarkable Finn in more detail. Why not check out the video and the rest of the 'Mad Lads' series below.