When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, hundreds of thousands of Soviet women hurried to join the war effort, enlisting as nurses, clerks, cooks — and snipers. Over 2000 women were trained as sharpshooters and deployed to some of the most dangerous battlegrounds, far from company, and required to lie still for hours to avoid detection and await the perfect shot.
Stories of their lethal nature and sacrifice abound — former kindergarten teacher Tanya Baramzina notched 16 kills on the Belorussian Front before parachuting behind enemy lines, where she killed another 20 before being captured and executed.
The Soviets went further, calling upon their young women not just to support the male soldiers but to join the fight. Around a million women fought in various branches of the Soviet military. Some nursed and supported, as in other countries, but others drove tanks, operated machine guns, and flew fighter planes, being given the title ‘the Night Witches’. 2,484 of them became snipers. Of those, around 500 survived the war.
Klavdiya Kalugina, one of the youngest female Soviet snipers (age 17 at the start of her military service in 1943). She ended the war with 257 confirmed kills.
The rifles used by the snipers were hand-picked for their accuracy and quality. They were fitted with optical scopes, including a model adapted from a German design. This was a weapon specially selected to be both accurate and reliable. In 1940, the army tried introducing an alternative in the form of the SVT-40 semi-automatic sniper rifle. Unfortunately, this gun proved less accurate than snipers needed it to be. It also had a muzzle flash which could give away a sniper’s location. As a result, the Mosin-Nagant remained the weapon of choice for most Soviet sharpshooters.
Joining up as a sniper was a strange experience for many women. Though the Soviet army as an institution accepted them, some individuals did not. Families urged their daughters to stay safe at home rather than fight. Some officers looked down upon the women under their command, not believing that they could be effective combatants. But others were supportive, especially after they saw these women in action. At recruiting offices, women had their braids cut off and were put into men’s uniforms, as there were none tailored to fit women. They were then sent off to training. Some were specially selected for sniping because they demonstrated skill. In other cases, this was simply the most convenient place to send them. Maria Ivanovna Morozova found herself at a sniper school because it was near where she was stationed.
Training was intense but also hurried. The USSR needed to get troops to the front to counter the German invasion. The women trained as snipers soon found themselves on the front, often hunting their prey amid cities ruined by siege. Snipers usually worked in pairs. Together, they found a place to hide away from the main Soviet forces. There they lay concealed by scenery and camouflage, watching for an opportunity. When an enemy presented himself, they would try to take him down with a single shot to the head. Then they would wait patiently again for their next target, silent and still, or move on if they believed they were in danger.
Perhaps the most remarkable of these women was Lyudmila Pavlichenko, one of the deadliest snipers in military history.
Born in Ukraine, Pavlichenko moved to Kiev in 1930 at the age of 14. There she joined a local shooting club, learning the skills that would prove vital in the war. By the time the war started, she had married, had a child, divorced, and studied for a masters degree in history.
When the war came in 1941, Pavlichenko was among the first wave of volunteers to join the army. She was in the field as a sniper from August 1941 to June 1942, fighting in Odessa and Sevastopol. During those 11 months, she racked up a remarkable 309 confirmed kills, including 36 enemy snipers.
After being wounded by mortar fire, Pavlichenko was withdrawn from combat. She had become famous through news stories around the world, and so was sent abroad to raise funds for the Soviet Army. While touring the United States with Eleanor Roosevelt, Pavlichenko was bombarded with absurd questions from the press about fashion, hairstyle and whether she wore makeup into battle. She endured them at first, but as the tour progressed her patience thinned, and she began to boldly chide the Americans for their condescension.
“Gentlemen, I am 25 years old and I have killed 309 fascist occupants by now. Don’t you think, gentlemen, that you have been hiding behind my back for too long?” – 1942, Chicago.