Blog 56 15/09/2017 Lady Death: The Deadliest Female Sniper of WWII
Lady Death: The Deadliest Female Sniper of WWII
My research about women behind enemy lines has uncovered some remarkable heroines. Lyudmila Pavlichenko, known as Lady Death, is one such person. Born in 1916 in Bila Tserkva in what is now modern day Ukraine, she was the most feared women on the Eastern Front. She was fourteen when her family moved to Kiev where she worked as a metal grinder at the Kiev Arsenal Munitions Factory. When a neighbour’s son boasted about his skill with a rifle, the feisty Lyudmila was determined to prove that a girl could do just as well as a boy and joined a sporting organisation which taught weapons skills and etiquette to the youth of the day – quite an unusual combination by today’s standards but not so at that time in the Soviet Union. In no time at all, the athletic tomboy who wouldn’t let the boys beat her in anything, quickly developed into a skilled sharpshooter.
Lyudmila was 24 years old and a student at Kiev University when the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union began and as she was in Odessa at the time, she promptly applied to join up and fight for her country. Initially, she was denied entry because she was a woman. “She looked like a model, with well-manicured nails, fashionable clothes and hairstyle,” a recruiter later said. When asked “Do you know anything about rifles?” she showed him her marksman certificate and sharpshooter badge but they urged her to become a nurse. After much persuasion, the Red Army gave her an “audition”. Not at a shooting range, but the real thing – this was war after all. Her commanding officer gave her a rifle and pointed to several Romanians storming a hill for the Germans. With remarkable ease and startling accuracy, she picked them off in no time and was immediately accepted into the Red Army’s 25th Chapayev Rifle Division.
Whilst Lyudmila might have passed her audition with flying colours, understandably, her first few kills were not easy. On her first day on the battlefield she was gripped by fear and unable to raise her rifle – a Mosin-Nagant 7.62 mm with a PE 4x telescope – but when her comrade, a young soldier, set his own rifle up next to her and was immediately killed, the reality of war kicked in. “He was such a nice, happy boy,” she said. “And he was killed just next to me. After that there was no stopping me.” In Moldavia and Odessa, she soon showed her skills in battle killing 187 Germans in 75 days. As the enemy advanced, Lyudmila’s unit was deployed to Sevastopol in the Crimean Peninsula. It was there that she was given her most dangerous assignments – counter-sniping – facing off one-on-one with the enemy, some of whom were highly decorated. Counter-sniping is dangerous and exacting. It required enormous willpower to sit for hours on end without being detected, often up to 14 hours at a time. “This was one of the tensest experiences of my life,” she said of her enemy stalker. “Finally, he made one move too many.”
In May 1942, after eight months of heavy fighting, she was cited by the War Council of the Southern Red Army for killing 257 of the enemy. The indefatigable Lyudmila merely replied “I’ll get more.” In no time at all, she was so well-known to the Germans that they tried to lure her over to their side by addressing her over the loudspeaker and offering to make her a German officer and give her plenty of chocolate if she defected. When she refused, they then vowed to tear her into 309 pieces – her total kill at the time. “They even knew my score,” she said.
Late in 1942, after sustaining shrapnel to the face and four other injuries, she was pulled from combat and promoted to Lieutenant. She was then sent to the United States, Canada and Britain to raise support for the Russian Front. When asked by the press to talk about her exploits as a sniper she told them, “The only feeling I have is the great satisfaction a hunter feels who has killed a beast of prey. Every German who remains alive will kill women, children and old folks. Dead Germans are harmless. Therefore, if I kill a German, I am saving lives.”
Apart from forming a close bond with Eleanor Roosevelt who travelled with her, her experience in the United Sates was frustrating to say the least and the “silly questions” the reporters asked began to irritate her. The New York Times dubbed her the “Girl Sniper” and other newspapers wrote that she “wore no lip rouge or make-up of any kind” and “there isn’t much style to her olive green uniform.” In New York, she was presented with a “full-length raccoon coat of beautifully blended skins, which would be resplendent in an opera setting” but which would likely “go to the wars on Russia’s bloody steppes when Lyudmila Pavlichenko returns to her homeland.” Malvina Lindsey, “The Gentler Sex” columnist for The Washington Post wondered why she didn’t make more of an effort with regard to style.
Such comments make me wonder just how much things have changed as female high achievers today still face these sorts of comments. However, emboldened by Eleanor Roosevelt herself, Lyudmila started to speak her mind. After another reporter criticized the long length of her uniform skirt, she told Time magazine “It has the Order of Lenin on it. It has been covered with blood in battle. It is plain to see that with American women what is important is whether they wear silk underwear under their uniforms. What the uniform stands for, they have yet to learn.” In Chicago, she stood before a large crowd and said “Gentlemen, I am 25 years old and have killed 309 fascist occupants by now. Don’t you think that you have been hiding behind my back for too long?” When her words sank in, the crowd erupted in a roar of support.
She left America with many gifts – mostly rifles and guns, and the folk singer Woody Guthrie wrote a song in her honour, but she still continued to speak out on gender equality and race, stating that “In the Soviet Union, I am looked upon as a citizen, as a fighter, as a soldier for my country.” She pointed out that “women in the Soviet Union have complete self-respect and that they were honoured not just as women, but as individual personalities, as human beings. That is a very big word,” she said. “Because we can be fully that, we feel no limitations because of our sex. That is why women have so naturally taken their places beside men in this war.”
After a brief tour of England on her way back to Russia, she was promoted to major and awarded her country’s highest distinction, the title, Hero of the Soviet Union, and commemorated on a Soviet postage stamp. After the war she returned to her studies and became an historian. In 1957, she caught up with her friend, Eleanor Roosevelt who was on a tour to Moscow, and the two chatted amiably about their time together in America. Lyudmila Pavlichenko died in 1974 and is buried in Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow. She was immortalized in the film “Battle for Sevastopol” in Russia and “Indestructible” in the Ukraine. Out of 2,000 female snipers who fought for the Red Army, only 500 survived. Whilst Lyudmila’s kills total 309, it is highly likely she killed more. This number represents those witnessed by a third party.
Conspiracy of Lies
From the author of The Embroiderer comes a powerful account of one woman’s struggle to balance her duty to her country and a love she knows will ultimately end in tragedy.
1940. With the Germans about to enter Paris, Claire Bouchard flees France for England. Two years later she is recruited by the Special Operations Executive and sent back into occupied France to work alongside the Resistance. Working undercover as a teacher in Brittany, Claire accidentally befriends the wife of the German Commandant of Rennes and the blossoming friendship is about to become a dangerous mission.
Knowing that thousands of lives depended on her actions, Claire begins a double life as a Gestapo Commandant’s mistress in order to retrieve vital information for the Allied Invasion of France, but ghosts from her past make the deception more painful than she could have imagined.
Part historical, part romance and part thriller, Conspiracy of Lies takes us on a journey through occupied France, from the picturesque villages of rural Brittany to the glittering dinner parties of the Nazi Elite, in a story of courage, heartbreak and secrecy.
The Embroiderer is a beautifully written novel spanning the 19th and 20th centuries, set against the backdrop of the Greek War of Independence. It was published on 5th November 2014 and is available to buy in paperback and as an ebook.
You can order from all good bookshops and online retailers.
Published byEbony Publishing