Women in combat

Kevin Doonan

Jan. 24, 2013: the United States government finally lifts its 1994 ban preventing U.S. female soldiers from assuming combat roles. An estimated 14 percent of the United States Armed Forces are women. “Today every American can be proud that our military will grown even stronger, with our mothers, wives, sisters and daughters playing a greater role in protecting this country we love,” President Barack Obama said subsequent to the lifting of the ban.

Each and everyone of us is indoctrinated with the legend of Rosie the Riveter. In elementary school we are taught how she represented the growing equality between the sexes as well as symbolic of American women’s wartime contribution. Relatively unheard of in the west though, is the tale of Rosie the Riveter’s counterparts across the ocean and the role they played in the bloodiest conflict of all time.

Soviet female combatants died in droves along side their male counterparts fighting the Nazis in Eastern Front trenches, a theater of the war characterized for its staggering brutality. Female Soviet soldiers gained distinction specifically as proficient snipers and fighter pilots, but also fought the Germans manning machine guns and working in tank crews.

Historians have established a remarkable trend regarding the stark difference between the conduct of German soldiers on the Eastern and Western Fronts. Without receiving any known orders from the high command, German soldiers who were shipped between the two fronts, drastically changed the way they functioned. Historians have traced a multiplicity of individual soldiers who fought with a measure of civility on the Western Front. But when those same soldiers were shipped to the Eastern Front, they would cut loose, raping, pillaging, and enacting all manner of war crimes. Then the same soldiers would be freighted back to the Western Front and immediately revert to pseudo-civility. The most plausible explanation for this abrupt change is the indoctrination of German soldiers with the notion of Slovak people as subhuman, though even this general explanation still leaves one wanting. It was in this context of unimaginable brutality and revolting defilement that the Russian female soldier existed.

To this day, the most distinguished female sniper in the world was a member of the Red Army who spent her wartime days picking off soldiers brandishing the swastika. Lyudmila Mykhailivna Pavlichenko served, along with 2,000 other women, as a Soviet sniper during WWII, and by the end of the war she had 309 confirmed kills.

Before the Nazi war machine assailed their Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact cosigners, Pavlichenko had been an amateur markswomen and history student at the Kiev University.
In 1941, when the Soviet-German War broke out, Pavlichenko volunteered as an infantrymen and was assigned to the Red Army’s 25th Rifle Division, which fought the Wehrmacht and the Romanian Armed Forces at Odessa and throughout the Crimean Peninsula.

Pavlichenko was later wounded in 1942 during the siege of Sevastopol, at which point she was pulled from active duty having already become a symbol of heroism for the Soviets. When Pavlichenko recovered she toured the United States and Canada, giving public speeches and was received by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt, making her the first Soviet to be a presidental guest at the White House. While touring the United States, Pavlichenko made a speech in Chicago. In her speech Pavlichenko famously pointed out she, at the age of 25, had killed 309 fascists, and asked the men in the audience if they felt they had spent enough time hiding her shadow to clamorous applause.

During the war Pavlichenko became a major and received the Gold Star medal along with the tittle of Hero of the Soviet Union, the highest distinction in the Soviet Union. Pavlichenko’s face was also plastered all over Soviet postage stamps. She served the remainder of the war as a sniper instructor.

After the war ended, Pavlichenko completed her education and worked as a historian until she died at the age of 58 in 1974.

Another intriguing female Russian soldier who gained distinction during WWII, was a fighter pilot named Lydia Litvyak. Litvyak, also known as the “White Lily of Stalingrad,” flew on 66 combat missions and was awarded the most distinguished Soviet honors including the tittle of Hero of the Soviet Union and the Order of Lenin. Today Litvyak is still considered to be the world’s foremost female ace. By 1943 Litvyak had received the Order of the Red Star and was chosen to take part in an elite tactic of “free hunter.” Litvyak working with another Red Army pilot would track down and eliminate enemy fighters of on their own accord.

The object of Litvyak’s fate is still disputed. A first hand account form one of her fellow Red Army aviators was unable to verify whether or not she was shot down. What is certain is that Litvyak never returned to base after an Aug. 1, 1943, engagement with a German bomber and its escort. According to Litvyak’s comrade, while she was engaging the German bomber she failed to notice a detachment of fighters swoping around to attack her from above. Although she was able to survive the initial assault, Litvyak was forced to flee into nearby cloud cover, with Luftwaffe fighters hot on her heels. Litvyak’s comrade last saw her, through a gap in the clouds, pursued by eight German fighter planes, her plane trailing smoke.

After the war, a 39 year hunt was conducted to locate the White Lily of Stalingrad’s crash site. A body was discovered and authenticated as Litvyak’s, but only after a controversial and unverified autopsy. Some historians maintain Litvyak was captured alive and served time as a German POW. Years latter, a friend of Litvyak identified a woman on Swedish television as White Lily of Stalingrad.