The White Death and the Winter War

12289628_186635555011868_6330162049398519489_nSimo Hayha was born in 1905 in Rautjarvi, Finland, close to the border with Russia. In a time and place where hunting for food was still a necessity, Simo learned how to hunt and handle weapons from an early age. As a result he was an excellent shot and a very capable trapper, knowing his territory well. From his background in farming, he did his military service in 1925 at the age of 20, serving with the Suojeluskunta, the Finnish “White Guard” who were renowned for their success in the Finnish civil war of 1918.

Following the Russian Revolution in 1917, Finland had gained independence. When the Socialist party government, supporters of Communism subsequently ordered the disbanding of the White Guard forces, the Red Guard launched a revolution, and backed by Russian interests, a bloody civil war was sparked. The White Guard, a band of volunteers trained in part by Imperial-Jaeger forces, the White Guard was led by General Mannerheim and thanks to an infusion of Imperial weapons was able to achieve victory in a bloody conflict that had divided Finland in two. Following their success, the White Guard resumed their duties as a volunteer defence force for the following 15 years.

During his period with the Suojeluskunta, serving in Viipuri province, Hayha was able to hone his marksmanship and put it to good use, winning a large number of trophies for his sporting skills, rising to the rank of Alikersantti (Corporal/Under-Sergeant) before returning to his home and peaceful life. Hayha also signed on with the Civil Guard, which was the Finnish equivalent of the National Guard or Reservist, requiring him to attend regular drilling and shooting training.

In 1939 as Germany’s aggression in Europe grew, Finland was approached by Russia, ostensibly with concerns that Germany would initiate invasion of Russia through Finland, at the point closest to St Petersburg, a distance over the border of only 32km. This plan had been outlined in Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ some years earlier, as a necessity should they ever go to war. Russia demanded Finland hand over this part of their territory in exchange for land elsewhere, amongst other things. Finland refused, and stood adamant by their neutrality, aware that invasion by Germany was almost inevitable, and that to cede the land demanded by Russia would place the border closer to their Viipuri province, and force the dismantling of one of their primary strategic posts on the Karelian Isthmus, as well as leasing land at Hanko Peninsula and allow the Russians to establish a military post there for 30 years.

The land that Russia offered in return was more substantial in size of territory but Finland stood to lose not only their own defences, but the lion’s share of their industrial towns, which would force damage to their economy. They refused the deal. Russia and Nazi Germany had signed the non-aggression Molotov-Ribbentropp pact a few weeks before, in August 1939, containing an undisclosed clause dividing the Eastern countries into two “spheres of interest”. Finland were assigned to Soviet Russia. Other countries, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were forced into signing similar treaties to that offered to Finland.

As negotiations concluded unsuccessfully, just a few weeks later, an incident took place where the Russian guard post close to the border was shelled causing several casualties. Russia’s reaction was for Molotov to point the finger firmly towards Finland, who denied involvement. In a move reflecting that of Austria-Hungary some years before, an unmeetable ultimatum was issued, demanding Finland apologise and move their border forces back by around 15km. Finland refused and calling Russia’s bluff, countered with a demand for a joint investigation between the two nations into the incident. Russia claimed the response was aggressive and dismissed the pact anyway. Taking their ball home, Russia invaded Finland two days later. Later evidence showed the incident to be the work of the Russian NPKD, in an effort to provide an excuse for Russia to dismiss the non-aggression pact they had recently signed with Finland and retaliate.

As Russia’s initial invasion was successful, they installed their own puppet government, which was largely ignored by Finland in favour of the legal government. Mannerheim called up his Civil Guard, and territorial forces, and dug in. Russia expected the invasion and submission of Finland to take no more than a few weeks. They were wrong.12249991_186635888345168_3361826550771741029_n

So, after setting the scene a little, let’s reintroduce our little pal, Simo Hamya, who aside from interim training exercises had pretty much lived a quiet life of hunting and farming, farming and hunting. As Russia invaded he was required as part of the Civil Guard to re-enlist. Initially as his previous rank, he quickly rose through the ranks. Armed with an adapted short version of the Mosin-Nagant ‘Pystykorva’ (Spitz) rifle, the M28/30 due to his small stature (he was only 5’3”) and using only the front iron sights to focus his range, as a telescopic would not only have forced him to raise his head, but also can be reflective in the winter sun and reflective glare from snow, Hamya trundled off each few days, dressed in his own white winter camouflage over-suit, and armed only with enough ammo to make a difference, and a few days’ worth of food jammed in his pocket, he would choose a position, hidden from the enemy and wait. Often he would let targets by without a shot, to lull the enemy into a false sense of security, before picking a key target as his prey.

Hamya would then aim and kill. Because of his skill, he didn’t miss. He was well-known for his accuracy and his comrades kept a score of his daily tally. He rapidly earned the nickname “White Death” On one occasion he sat in wait while a counter sniper tried all day to locate him. As darkness started to fall, his enemy decided the sniper must have given up and raised himself up to his knees, provided a glare for Hamya to focus on. Just seconds later, the counter-sniper lay dead. Shot through the neck from 450 yards away. His tally continued to rise, and within just 100 days, stood at a confirmed 505 kills. Other sources claim a higher figure based on Hamya’s additional submachine gun kill estimates.

Eventually after nearly four months of trying to wipe out this formidable adversary, the Russians resorted to artillery fire. And one day a shell hit Hamya, blowing half his face off. He was found and taken for treatment where he remained in a coma for a week. He wasn’t expected to live, but eventually came out of his coma and recovered. His complete recovery, including the loss of the most part of his left cheek and a smashed jaw, took a long time. But Hamya lived to the age of 96, passing away in a war veterans’ nursing home, after a peace-time occupation of moose-hunting and dog breeding. When asked for the secret of his amazing skill, he replied “practice”.

Finland was eventually forced to accept term less favourable than those originally offered by the Russians in exchange for a peace treaty. They were fighting an inevitably losing battle, based on sheer numbers of Russian forces in comparison to their own small defences. But they lasted a lot longer than the few weeks anticipated, and caused a lot more damage to the Russian Red Army than the latter expected, a source of great embarrassment to the Russians. Germany and Sweden both for their own agendas also wanted to see an end to the Winter War.

At the end of the “Winter War” Hamya had risen to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant (Vanrikki) and had received several decorations for his skill and contribution to the winter war effort. Although famous enough to be the focus of several books, films and documentaries, he remains an unsung hero of that winter in Finland when he showed the Russians that it was a bad idea to mess with his country.

Phoebe