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    The USSR’s Extraordinary Women Snipers

    Sputnik / Maksim Blinov
    During the Second World War, the USSR used more women in combat than any other country. Among them were hundreds of remarkable snipers.

    Soviet Snipers

    Snipers played an important part in Soviet military doctrine during World War Two. From the late days of the First World War, a form of combat emerged that put the emphasis on short-range firepower. Machine guns and semi-automatic weapons provided plentiful hitting power but with more limited range and accuracy. Much of the shooting happened up close. But Soviet military thinkers saw an important role for specialist long-range snipers.

    They could pick off targets of opportunity, especially leaders. Field officers and NCOs were hard to replace during a war so taking them out seriously undermined the enemy. Under the oversight of Marshal Kliment Voroshilov, the USSR started purposefully developing its sharpshooters during the 1930s. They proved invaluable following the German invasion of 1941. For the next two years, with the Soviets on the defensive, they were able to pick off German officers advancing through the Soviet Union, seriously impairing the Nazi advance.

    © Sputnik / Dmitry Korobeinikov
    Calling Up Women For Combat

    Industrialized global warfare, as seen during the World Wars, called for the involvement of massive numbers of human beings. At the time, most societies were still starkly divided along gender lines, with certain jobs being seen as solely for men and others for only women. When they started running out of men to join the military, many nations began employing women in supporting roles, from producing ammunition to nursing to administering military bases.

    The Soviets went further, calling upon their young women not just to support the 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. 2,484 of them became snipers. Of those, only around 500 survived the war.

    Members of the Sydir Kovpak partisan detachment (Image: War Museum)

    The main weapon of the World War Two Soviet sniper was the Mosin-Nagant rifle. Since its introduction in 1891, many variations on this bolt action rifle had been produced. Most snipers used a specialist version with an optical sight. 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.

    The Female Sniper’s Life 

    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 safely at home rather than to 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 theirs braids cut off and were put into men’s uniforms, as there were none tailored to fit women. Then they were sent off to train. Some were specially selected for sniping because they demonstrated a 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.

    The 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.

    Sometimes, snipers dueled, hunting each other through the cities. Sasha Shliakhova, who killed many German soldiers, died after her red scarf gave her presence away to an enemy sniper.

    Lyudmila Pavlichenko (Tribute)

    Perhaps, Lyudmila Pavlichenko was the most remarkable, one of the deadliest snipers in military history. Born in Bila Tserkva, 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.

    Summary: In June 1941, when Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, Lyudmila Pavlichenko left her university studies and ignored the offer of a position as a nurse to become one of Russia's 2000 female snipers volunteered to join the army.  She was in the field as a sniper from August 1941 to June 1942, fighting in Odessa and Sevastopol against German invaders. Less than a year later she racked up a remarkable 309 confirmed kills, including 36 enemy snipers. She was promoted to the rank of major.

    She was withdrawn from active duty after being injured by mortar fire. She was also regarded as a key heroic figure for the war marksmanship. She had become famous through news stories around the world, and so was sent abroad to raise funds for the Soviet Army. On her return to the USSR, she was employed to train others as snipers, passing on her skills and experience. After the war, she went back to school to finish her education at Kiev University and began a career as a historian.   She died on October 10, 1974 at age fifty-eight.

    Lyudmila Pavlichenko, moving in jungle around the Black Sea before a day she was awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union in 1943.
    Pavlichenko was the most successful of the female Soviet snipers, but she was just one among thousands, an extraordinary group of women who overcame the prejudices of male counterparts to help bring their nation victory.  US journalists criticized the war heroine for looking overweight in her uniform, and not wearing make-up.

    Asked by Americans how she felt about killing, Pavlichenko explained: “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.” Celebrated by US songwriter Woody Guthrie and in a biographical Russian/Ukraine movie Battle for Sevastopol in 2015, Pavlichenko was born a century ago, on July 12, 1916 in Bila Tserkva, near Kiev in Ukraine.

    Her family moved to Kiev in 1930, where she worked as a metal grinder in a munitions factory. She also joined Osoaviakhim, a paramilitary youth sport group that taught weapons skills and etiquette. After a neighbour’s son boasted of his shooting ability, Pavlichenko “set out to show a girl could do as well. So I practised a lot.” She enrolled to study history at Kiev University in 1937, also competing as a sprinter and pole vaulter, and training at a sniper’s school.

    Lyudmila Pavlichenko was the most successful female sniper in history, earning the nickname ''Lady Death'' (Image: mediadrumworld.com)
    Pavlichenko was in Odessa when Hitler broke ties with Joseph Stalin to send German troops and Romanian allies into the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. As an early Red Army volunteer, she was intent on becoming a sniper. Although she praised Soviet gender equality to US audiences, Pavlichenko also admitted, “They wouldn’t take girls in the army, so I had to resort to all kinds of efforts to get in.” Urged to instead enlist as a nurse, she proved her rifle skills at an impromptu Red Army unit “audition” at a hill it was defending at Belyayevka, near Odessa. Handed a Mosin-Nagant bolt-action rifle with a P.E. 4-power scope, she was pointed to two Romanians who were collaborating with Germans.

    “When I picked off the two, I was accepted,” she said, although the deaths were not counted in her kill tally “because they were test shots.” Signed with the 25th Chapayev Rifle Division, she was one of 2000 female snipers in the Red Army, of whom about 500 survived the war. But on her first day on the battlefield, Pavlichenko was briefly paralyzed by fear, unable to raise her weapon until a young Russian soldier beside her was shot dead.

    “He was such a nice, happy boy,” she recalled. “And he was killed just next to me. After that, nothing could stop me.” As Pavlichenko made her name by killing 187 Germans in her first 75 days at war around Odessa and Moldova in July and August 1941, at her home town Bila Tserkva, Nazi 6th Army General Walther von Reichenau had ordered his men to aid Nazi death squads with killing Jews. By August 19, only 90 children and a few women survived, held in a school to be executed three days later. As Germans advanced across the Odessa region, Pavlichenko’s division withdrew to Sevastopol in the Crimea by October, where she was given increasingly dangerous assignments, including counter sniping duels.

    One duel lasted three days: “That was one of the tensest experiences of my life,” she said, recalling the willpower and endurance required to maintain positions for 15 or 20 hours at a stretch. Her Nazi pursuer eventually “made one move too many”, becoming one of 36 enemy snipers Pavlichenko claimed. Wounded four times, she was removed from battle when shrapnel from a German bomb hit her face. Desperate to stem her kill count, Germans had also blared radio messages asking “Lyudmila Pavlichenko, come over to us. We will give you plenty of chocolate and make you a German officer.”

    Then they vowed to tear her into 309 pieces, pleasing Pavlichenko as “they knew my score”. Pavlichenko was transferred to training new snipers, but two months later was sent to the US to enlist support for a “second front” in Europe, to divide German forces and relieve pressure on Soviet troops. Visiting President Franklin Roosevelt, Pavlichenko was the first Soviet citizen welcomed at the White House. After, Eleanor invited her on a tour to tell Americans of her experiences as a woman in combat.

    Newspapers noted she “wore no lip rouge, or makeup of any kind,” and that “there isn’t much style to her olive-green uniform”, which one reporter criticised as too long, implying it made her look fat. Also asked if Russian women could wear make-up at the front, Pavlichenko replied: “There is no rule against it, but who has time to think of her shiny nose when a battle is going on?” Pavlichenko died in Moscow in 1974.

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