While most of the world shied away from putting women on the front line, the Soviet Union did not, including recruiting about 2000 women as snipers during WWII, one of which turned out to be one of the most successful snipers in history, Lyudmila Pavlichenko. She still holds the record for the highest confirmed kill total of any female sniper in history and is not that far off Simo Häyhä’s all-time mark of 542 confirmed kills (more on “White Death” Simo Häyhä, here).
In June of 1941, 24 year old Ukrainian Lyudmila Pavlichenko was attending Kiev University, studying history, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union. When this happened, she went down to the local recruiting office to sign up for the infantry. The recruiter she spoke with suggested she was better suited for a role as a nurse or in a clerical position. Not to be dissuaded, she pulled out her Voroshilov Sharpshooter badge and a marksman certificate, both of which she’d earned while a teenager as a member of the OSOAVIAKhIM, which was a society that trained non-military people as young as 14 years old in military tactics and other such things in case they would someday be called into service to “defend the Motherland”.
After seeing this, the recruiter allowed her to sign up for combat duty and she was subsequently given the rank of private and assigned to a subsection of the 25th Chapayev Rifle Division, the 54th “Stephan Razin” Rifles Regiment, in the Red Army. With her regiment, thanks to her prodigious skill as a marksman, she was immediately assigned to the 2nd company sniper platoon.
Over the course of the next year, she recorded 309 confirmed kills, including 187 in her first 75 days on the job during the fierce fighting at Odessa, before the Soviets were forced to withdraw. Among her total confirmed kills, she knocked off 100 officers and 36 German snipers, including supposedly one who himself was one of the more decorated snipers in history, recording over 500 confirmed kills according to a log found on his person. (I was not able to ascertain the name of that German sniper though and only a few reputable sources that cite him, so take that latter fact with a grain of salt.)
It should also be noted that Pavlichenko’s actual total number of kills was probably significantly more than 309 because in order for a kill to count towards her total, an independent party had to witness it. Her real total is thought to be closer to around 500.
Sniping being an extremely hazardous job, often with the sniper positioned in no-man’s land between the lines of friendly troops and the enemy (Pavlichenko often camped around 600-1000 ft. in front of her unit), Pavlichenko didn’t always come away unscathed. In June of 1942 during the siege of Sevastopol, she was seriously injured for the fourth time, this time by a mortar shell that had exploded near where she was hiding. Because at this point she’d become something of a celebrity and a public symbol, officials within the Red Army were unwilling to risk her being killed, so they put her on a submarine and got her out of Sevastopol and assigned her a new job as a sniping instructor and a public spokesman, with the rank of Major.
This probably saved her life as most of the rest of her division were killed within a month at Sevastopol, including her husband. (Again, I’ll just interject for a minute to point out that despite my sincerest efforts in researching this one, I couldn’t find anything about her husband, not even his name, and only a few reputable sources mention him dying at Sevastopol, so… you know, grain of salt). The few members of her division that survived Sevastopol were re-assigned in July of 1942 to other Red Army units and the 25th Rifle Division was officially disbanded.
While functioning as a public spokesman, Pavlichenko traveled to the United States and Canada, becoming the first citizen of the Soviet Union to be received at the White House by a U.S. President, in this case Franklin Roosevelt. She was not impressed by the U.S. media who were more concerned with her outfit than the war and her experiences in it.
I am amazed at the kind of questions put to me by the women press correspondents in Washington. Don’t they know there is a war? They asked me silly questions such as do I use powder and rouge and nail polish and do I curl my hair? One reporter even criticized the length of the skirt of my uniform, saying that in America women wear shorter skirts and besides my uniform made me look fat…This made me angry. I wear my uniform with honor. 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.
If you liked this article and the Bonus Facts below, you might also like:
- Simo Häyhä, “White Death”, Sniped Over 542 Soviet Soldiers in WWII
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- Pavlichenko’s rifle of choice during WWII was the M1891/30 Mosin-Nagant 7.62 mm rifle with a PE 4x telescope. The rifle held 5 rounds and could shoot at about 2800 ft per second with an average effective range of about 1800 ft (though as you’ll read below the Soviet snipers were supposedly reasonably accurate as high as 2600 ft away with this rifle).
- You’ll sometimes read that Pavlichenko actually used a SVT40 rifle during her service, but this is incorrect and is likely because this is the rifle she was often pictured holding after she was removed from front line service and made an instructor. This was not necessarily because she preferred the rifle, indeed she probably didn’t because it was a severely flawed weapon for sniper use, but simply because it replaced the Mosin-Nagant for a time while she was an instructor and serving as a public spokesman for the Soviet Union. Because of flaws like bright muzzle flash and poor accuracy at long ranges, the SVT40 was quickly phased out in favor of an upgraded version of the Mosin-Nagant with a PU scope.
- Simo Häyhä, “White Death”, also used a Mosin-Nagant rifle for sniping 542 Soviet soldiers. In his case, though, he didn’t use a scope as he felt this required him to raise his head too high, increasing the chances of getting spotted and killed. He also noted in an interview that the scopes Soviet soldiers put on the Mosin-Nagant were how he managed to spot many of the Soviet snipers specifically sent to kill him.
- Out of the 2000 women in the Red Army assigned to sniper duty during WWII, only 500 survived the war, which actually seems like a pretty good ratio considering how dangerous being a sniper was and is.
- Soviet snipers dominated WWII based on confirmed total kill score. On the whole they were estimated to average about a 50% hit-rate for a person standing 1/2 a mile away (about 2600 ft), 80% at 1600 ft, 90% at 700 ft and they could supposedly do this at a rate of 1-2 shots per minute, though of course in real battle shooting rapidly from one, often somewhat exposed, location would be a good way to get yourself killed. The Soviet’s high representation on the list of top snipers is likely largely due to having trained many of their snipers from the tender age of 14 in the OSOAVIAKhIM.
- The youngest female sniper in the Red Army was Klavdiya Kalugina who was just 17 when she signed up in 1943.
- The next best female sniper after Pavlichenko during WWII was Yekaterina Zuranova with 155 confirmed kills.
- After WWII, Pavlichenko finished her Master’s degree in History at Kiev University and, among other things, worked as a research assistant at the Soviet Navy headquarters.
- Among other accolades, during the war Pavlichenko was awarded the Gold Star of the Hero of the Soviet Union, rose in rank from Private to Major, earned the Order of Lenin, was presented with an engraved Colt 1911 pistol while visiting the U.S., and was presented with an engraved Winchester model 70 rifle while in Canada, the latter of which can be seen in Moscow at the Central Museum of Armed Forces. After the war she was also featured on two commemorative postage stamps in the Soviet Union.
- At the age of 14, Pavlichenko worked as a metal grinder at the Kiev Arsenal.
- Women didn’t just serve on the front line in the Red Army during WWII, but also served as soldiers in the Tsarist Army during WWI.
- Woody Guthrie wrote a song honoring Pavlichenko, “Miss Pavlichenko“.
- It should be noted that unlike what is stated in the song, not all German soldiers were members of the Nazi party in WWII (in fact, most weren’t), so it’s not technically correct to say “three hundred Nazis fell by your gun.” Also, the “Russia’s your country” line is inaccurate. As noted, she was Ukrainian, which is a particularly important distinction today.
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