The last train west chugged across the River Bug to the German-occupied side of the Russo-German border at 0200 on 22 June 1941. An hour later, as the short summer night lifted from the central Ukraine, Hitler violated his non-aggression pact with Stalin and launched Operation Barbarossa. German artillery shells screamed across a 3,200-kilometre frontier from the Arctic to the Black Sea. Three million Axis soldiers (182 divisions), 6,000 big guns, 2,000 Luftwaffe warplanes, and thousands of tanks flooded into the Ukraine in what was to be the last German Blitzkrieg.
‘The sooner Russia is crushed, the better,’ Hitler cheered.
Kiev, capital of Ukraine and its largest city, was one of Hitler’s first objectives, along with Moscow and Leningrad. Luftwaffe Me-109 fighters and Ju-87 Stuka dive bombers began pounding and strafing the city only weeks after the invasion began. Lyudmila Mikhailovna Pavlichenko, 24, a history student at Kiev University, was walking to college when a swarm of fighters buzzed in low and fast to chew up the block. She dashed for cover. That night, she made up her mind. ‘I am going to fight,’ she informed her parents. Her father was a veteran of the Russian Revolution, on the side of the winning Reds. ‘I’ll be at the recruiting office tomorrow.’ Within a year, this petite, dark-eyed beauty would become the most dangerous woman of the twentieth century, the deadliest female sniper in any army, in any war.
Pavlichenko arrived at the recruiting office the next morning wearing high heels and a crêpe de Chine dress with her nails manicured and her dark, wavy hair groomed short. She was slim, fit and beautiful, with delicate features and dark brown eyes that seemed to burn into a man’s soul. Volunteers were lined up around the block.
The recruiter was an older soldier pulled off the line because of age or ill health. He looked up in surprise when she stood before him and announced her intentions. ‘I’ve come to enlist as a sniper.’ This smart-looking woman looked more like a fashion model than a German-killer. He laughed at her.
‘Why don’t you work in the factories like other women?’ he demanded. ‘You’re needed there what with our men marching off to the front lines.’
Although in the spirit of Soviet equality Russia was arguably less sexist than its Western allies, the Soviet military nonetheless harboured a deep prejudice against recruiting women for combat. The high command maintained women were meant to nurture, not to kill. Females served mainly in administrative, medical and support roles. However, the exceptional circum stances of war on the Eastern Front, with Russia’s survival at stake, attenuated objections to women serving on the front lines. By the time the Second World War ended, over 800,000 Russian women had served as pilots, machine gunners, tank crew members, partisans and snipers. Nearly 200,000 would be decorated; ninety-two eventually received the Hero of the Soviet Union accolade, the nation’s highest award.
The rapid industrial development of the Soviet Union and the worldwide depression of the late 1920s and 1930s combined to move large numbers of Russians from their farms to the cities. In the spirit of egalitarianism, young women were encouraged to work, go to college and participate in paramilitary training. Women learned to shoot weapons, pilot aircraft, drive trucks and survive in battle. Lyudmila Pavlichenko was one of them.
She was born on 12 July 1916, during the dark years of the First World War in the market city of Bila Tserkva (‘White Church’). The family moved to nearby Kiev when she was fourteen, where she completed high school while working as a grinder at the Kiev Arsenal Factory. A gifted but wilful student, a tomboy who would rather hunt small game with a catapult than play with dolls, she was an avid reader of travel and adventure stories.
Like many boys and girls of the times, she was fond of military-related sports and activities. Her taste for adventure included skydiving and flying small planes. She excelled as a remarkable natural rifle shot and won the coveted Voroshilov Sharp shooter Badge while competing in regional rifle matches. As Hitler’s spreading war threatened to engulf the U.S.S.R., she prepared by enrolling in a volunteer sniper school arranged by her local Komsomol (Party youth section). She put her diploma in a box and forgot about it until 22 June 1941, when the Nazis swarmed across the River Bug to attack the Ukraine.
By then she was in her fourth year as a history student working on an advanced degree. At the recruiting office, she took out her sniper’s diploma, Voroshilov Badge and other shooting and paramilitary honours and dumped them on the table in front of the recruiter who had laughed at her. The expression on his face changed. He looked at the documents and his eyes slowly lifted to regard with grudging respect the impudent young fashion plate across the table from him.
‘You’re going to get your fingernails dirty,’ he said as he stamped her application. Accepted.
With that, Pavlichenko was on her way to becoming one of 2,000 female snipers to serve in the Red Army, only 500 of whom would survive the war.
Through bitter experience against Finnish sharpshooters like Simo Häyhä, who picked off more than 500 Russian soldiers during the Winter War of 1939–40, the Soviet Union learned the value of snipers and began to place more emphasis on its sniper training programme. Special sniper units were embedded in nearly all major unit commands. Young Lyudmila Pavlichenko found herself assigned to the Red Army’s V. I. Chapayev 25th Rifle Division of the Independent Maritime Army.
She received truncated training in basic military and sniper tactics, such as observation techniques, camouflage and concealment, shot placement and target selection. There was no time for anything else. Although the Red Army’s five million soldiers made it the world’s largest, it was ill-equipped and inefficient and found itself in chaos as the Germans advanced as much as 450 kilometres within the first week of the attack. By 8 July, the enemy were almost at the gates of Kiev, fighting in the forests less than 150 kilometres away.
Tales of horror and raw courage filtered back to Kiev as Pavlichenko and her fellow replacements prepared to move to the front to join the 25th Rifles – of a Soviet tank ablaze from antitank shells charging German positions until its crew burned to death; of a pilot who plunged his damaged warplane into a convoy of German fuel trucks; of rear guards who fought to the death rather than surrender or withdraw . . .
Russian women and children were conscripted to fight. Pretty teenage girls were found dead on the battlefield, still clutching automatic weapons. Soviet soldiers who panicked and fled the fighting were shot by their own officers. Those unfortunates taken prisoner were declared traitors and their families’ rations taken away, which often meant starvation.
Before being sent to the front, Pavlichenko was issued the standard infantry weapon, derived from one that had been in Russian and then Soviet service since 1891 – a five-shot, bolt-action 7.62-mm calibre Mosin-Nagant 91/30 rifle that fired a 9.59-gram bullet at 854 m/sec and was effective out to 550 metres. Adopted as the standard sniper’s rifle in 1932, it could be fired with authority up to 1,250 metres with the addition of a telescopic sight.
Pavlichenko’s 4-power fixed PE scope, a copy of scopes manufactured by Carl Zeiss, had a 4° field of view, was nearly a foot long and added about half a kilogram to the rifle’s weight. Thumb screws allowed adjustments for windage, drift, lead and angle of elevation.
Armed with her new rifle and a combat load of 120 cartridges, no longer a fashion plate but garbed out in her baggy olive drab male’s uniform, with camouflage overalls, sniper’s hood and net face mask in her pack, the young history student turned prospective German-killer massed with thousands of other recruits and replacements at the Kiev rail yards for trans port to the front. Her unit was already engaged in desperate combat with Romanian and German forces in Moldavia as it attempted to block the southern approach to the Black Sea city of Odessa, the most important port of trade in the Soviet Union and the site of a Soviet naval base.
The rail yards were in turmoil as soldiers with their packs and weapons piled into boxcars, open wagons, and anything else that could be moved by rail. Trains arrived and departed day and night, their steel wheels and shrill whistles signalling an urgency that Russia had not experienced since Napoleon’s invasion.
Apprehensive, her nerves drawn tight, Pavlichenko rooted into a boxcar between a grizzled sergeant with bad oral hygiene and a kid of about seventeen who cried a lot. For two days, the train rumbled across Bessarabia towards Moldavia and the Dniester River, where the 25th was making its stand, stopping only long enough to refuel and allow troops to stretch and boil up a few pots of potatoes and cabbage.
Moldavia, formerly part of Romania, was an ancient land known for its castles and wine. Stalin had recently absorbed it as part of his non-aggression pact with Hitler. The Dniester River formed the boundary between Moldavia and the Ukraine. The river entered the Black Sea about 150 kilometres west of Odessa.
Summer dust in clouds obscured the horizons as the troop train neared its destination. Russian forces were on the move by any means available, not only by train but also by trucks, touring cars, horses and wagons, carts, bicycles and on foot. Late in the afternoon of the second day, Pavlichenko and her comrades heard the distant thunder of duelling artillery.
‘I knew my task was to shoot human beings,’ Pavlichenko later reflected. ‘In theory, that was fine, but I knew that the real thing would be completely different.’ She was to discover, as others had, that there was a big difference between shooting at a target and shooting at a pair of eyes that jumped out at you through the telescopic sight. She wondered if she possessed that kind of courage, the answer to which she would find within days after her arrival in the wooded, hilly country between the Dniester and Odessa. Her No. 2 Company, 54th Razinsky Regiment, 25th Division, was retreating from the vicinity of the Prut River to dig in on the distant approaches to Odessa.
The Romanian General Staff had issued its Directive 31 when Barbarossa began, in it stipulating that its Fourth Army and elements of the German Eleventh Army would defeat the Russians between the Dniester and the Tiligulskiy Banks to occupy Odessa. Odessa was heavily defended by the Soviet 25th, 95th, and 421st Rifle Divisions, supported by the 2nd Cavalry Division, an NKVD (Internal Security) regiment, three squadrons of bombers and fighters and contingents of artillery. Fortunately, the city could not be completely surrounded due to the superiority of the Soviet Black Sea fleet.
Three separate lines formed the Russian defence, the first a thin line of trenches, pillboxes and anti-tank ditches some 50 kilometres outside the city. If it fell, the Russians would withdraw to an alternative defensive line 8 kilometres from Odessa. The final protective line meant house-to-house fighting inside the ancient city originally founded by the Empress Catherine the Great in 1794.
Stalin issued strict orders that cowards would be shot by NKVD troops. It was forbidden in Pavlichenko’s company even to think about death, much less talk about it.
No. 2 Company was in the centre of the first defensive line when the German offensive against Odessa began on 8 August 1941, preceded by thunder barrages of enemy artillery that pounded hills and left stands of timber splintered into smoking kindling. Pavlichenko and other soldiers from her company hugged the ground overlooking a narrow open field. Visible through her rifle scope in the pale morning sun were a number of enemy soldiers moving about on the near side of a hill. Easy targets. However, to her dismay, she discovered she could not squeeze the trigger on them. Her finger seemed frozen stiff. Perhaps she hadn’t the courage to be a sniper after all.
Nearby lay a young soldier with whom she had become acquainted on the train ride from Kiev. A nice boy with a sunny disposition. The sudden crackle of rifle and machine-gun fire from the opposing tree line signalled a probe. Pavlichenko heard a sound like a hammer striking a melon, followed by a cry of pain and surprise. To her horror, she saw that her friend had taken a round through the head, exploding it in a pink mist of blood and brains. ‘After that,’ she later recalled, ‘nothing could stop me.’
She killed her first Germans a day or so later during the four-day fight for Hill 54.2 near Belyayevka, which her regiment was defending. She and a spotter crawled through thick under growth outside the defensive perimeter and set up a hide over looking the enemy’s most likely avenue of approach. Russia’s was the first military to employ snipers in two-person teams consisting of a shooter and an observer.
Through his Model 40 trench periscope, Pavlichenko’s spotter picked up movement in a wooded area about 300 metres away. Pavlichenko shifted into a better position, the outline of her form broken up by her one-piece overall into which she had woven natural foliage.
Her 4-power scope picked out three Germans stealthily moving in and out of shadow, unaware that they were being watched. She had zeroed in her weapon at 300 metres for point of aim and point of impact. Taking into account variables such as wind speed (light), bullet weight, breath control and trigger squeeze, she cross-haired slightly off centre of mass on the lead enemy soldier. Military snipers usually aimed for the chest area and depended on tissue damage, organ trauma and blood loss to make the kill.
The barrel of her gun danced in front of her eyes from the excitement. She took a deep, calming breath and waited for the right moment. This time she did not hesitate. As soon as her target paused to look around, she squeezed her trigger. The impact of the bullet slapped the German around and dropped him to his knees. Even before he plunged face down in the forest, dead, she acquired and killed a second German. The third soldier panicked and fled before she could finish him. ‘There was no change of expression on her pretty face,’ her spotter reported, then predicted, ‘Russia is going to be talking about Lyudmila Pavlichenko.’
Anger at the Germans for having invaded her homeland turned to hate as Axis soldiers broke through Soviet defences and closed in on the city. The enemy reached the main line of Russian resistance within two weeks after the offensive launched and began shelling Odessa with a reinforcement of ten heavy artillery batteries.
The pretty sharpshooter from Kiev University hardened and quickly adapted to the harsh and dangerous climate of battle. She and other Soviet snipers were granted virtual free rein in carrying out their missions of scouting and slowing down, harassing and demoralizing the advance by long-distance suppressive fire against key targets of opportunity. The roar of artillery, the scream of dive bombers and the clatter of machine-gun fire continued unabated for days, broken only by the occasional lull. Smoke and dust smudged the sky in thick clouds and columns.
A sniper had to possess patience, perseverance, nerves of steel and a steady trigger finger. Pavlichenko proved to be as relentless as she was strikingly attractive. The perfect killing machine. Day after day, she and an observer crept into no-man’s land to ply her bloody trade. Fortified by hatred and her sense of mission, she often crawled into a hide and remained for up to eighteen hours at a time, living on dry bread and water, conducting bodily functions in place, all just to get the one shot, one kill of the sniper’s trade. Her body count grew almost daily.
Her preferred targets were enemy officers, followed by communications specialists, NCOs, dog handlers that were often used to track snipers, and, of course, enemy snipers, a deadly cat-and-mouse game played out in the wreckage and rubble of war. Losers received no second chance.
Crafty and deceptive, with a strong sense of survival, she employed various ploys and tricks to keep going when the life-span of the average sniper was about three weeks. Captured snipers from either side were summarily executed on the spot.
Thunderstorms or artillery barrages that masked the report of her rifle were her favourite times to hunt since her targets were less alert to her presence and her location more difficult to pinpoint. She rarely fired more than once from the same position and never returned twice to the same hide. She tied strips of cloth to bushes in danger areas to flutter in errant breezes and distract enemy observers. Grenades, mines and smoke booby traps provided further protection against intrusion. Sometimes a clothing store mannequin disguised as a tempting target lured enemy snipers into exposing themselves.
She proved unequalled in the cold-blooded act of sniper psychological warfare. Consistently taking out the second man in a patrol or column struck panic in advancing squads or platoons to the point that no one wanted to be placed in that position. Occasionally, she deliberately shot a man in the legs so that his pleas for help would entice other targets into her sights.