If someone asked you whether or not women were allowed in combat roles during the Second World War, what would you say?
Most people would answer no.
But actually, the answer is yes. During the Second World War, Russian women played a huge part in fighting against the Germans, in both non-combat and combat roles.
I have a huge problem with the history of women being erased, and I would like to share with you some of the research I did while working on my upcoming release Sky Knights.
At the start of the Second World War, the Soviet Union didn’t want to allow women in the military. Never mind that many women of Russia had fought in previous conflicts such as the February Revolution, in which fifteen formations were created – including the 1st Russian Women’s Battalion of Death. Women had to petition for their right to fight alongside their male counterparts.
Thousands of women volunteered to fight and were rejected, when the Germans started Operation Barbarossa in 1941. However, numerous losses in the early days of the war made the top brass change their mind.
Women filled all types of different positions, from non-combatant roles to combatant.
I wanted to tell a story about some of these women, who were every bit as heroic in real life as one would expect them to be in a fictional novel.
Women were nurses. They had to carry weapons with them to protect their wounded charges as they rescued them from the front lines. Natalia Peshkova was one of these nurses, who was not only wounded three times in the line of duty, but was once separated from her unit and had to disguise herself in order to make it back safely. She was awarded an Order of the Red Star for bravery.
Women were tank drivers. Mariya Vasilyevna Oktyabrskaya is one example, the first female tank operator to win the Hero of the Soviet Union medal. She was the wife of a military officer who was killed in combat. She sold every last one of her possessions in order to donate a tank to the military – under one condition: she got to drive it. She named her T-34 “Fighting Girlfriend” and fought in many battles that established her as a skilled and fearless driver. She would jump out of her tank during battle and repair it if necessary, in spite of danger to herself and orders not to. She was hit in the head with shell fragments in battle, and died after two months of being in a coma.
Women were snipers. An example is Lyudmila Mykhailivna Pavlichenko. She was born in the Ukraine, and studied history at Kiev University. She became a sniper, and her number of confirmed kills was 309 by the end of the war, 36 of which were enemy snipers. She became an instructor, and trained Soviet snipers until the end of the war. She fought even more fiercely after her friend and fellow sniper Leonid Kutsenko was badly injured in battle and later succumbed to his injuries.
Women were partisans – those who fought guerilla-style warfare in order to disrupt supply and communication lines. One of the most famous partisans was a woman named Zoya Anatolyevna Kosmodemyanskaya who carried out dangerous missions behind enemy lines. During one of these missions, she is said to have been captured by Germans and tortured for information. She didn’t give the Germans any information, including her name. She was executed, and is said to have said to the Germans before she was hanged: “You’ll hang me now, but I am not alone. There are two hundred million of us. You can’t hang us all.”
And yes, women were aviators. Some of the real life female pilots during the Second World War enacted feats of daring just like Ira and Dounia do in my story. Lydia Vladimirovna Litvyak was the first woman to hold the title “fighter ace.” She was awarded the Order of the Red Star for her valour in battle. One of the pilots of a German plane she shot down wanted to meet the pilot that had outflown him, and refused to believe it was her until she described their dogfight in detail. Her aircraft was shot down, and her fate remained unknown for a long time. She was posthumously awarded Hero of the Soviet Union by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990. She was known as the White Lily of Stalingrad.
I’ve told you the very brief accounts of several of these heroines of Russia during the Great Patriotic War to show readers that my account of the bravery of Russian women is not exaggerated in the least. Nor is their number. 8% of Soviet forces were women by the end of the war.
And for all their bravery, many of them have been forgotten, as their part in the war was deliberately overlooked by those in political power. Many women who received medals during the war couldn’t wear them after the war for fear of being stigmitized rather than lauded as heroes.
For my part, my novel Sky Knights is an attempt to bring attention to women in history, because so often, their stories aren’t told.