Women In The Red Army In World War II – Analysis


The Second World War is full of various stories and events that leave no one indifferent. It was the biggest global conflict ever on several continents, a clash of totalitarianisms (communism and fascism and their derivatives), the Holocaust and the suffering of millions of Jews, the use of nuclear weapons, mass mobilization (total war), massive aerial bombing of cities and the huge role of women.

The role of women is specific. Women played a key role in the industrial sector and other sectors of the economy to support the war effort while men were on the battlefields.

The phenomenon of Soviet women warriors

However, more than in any other belligerent state, women in the Soviet Union participated in large numbers in armed combat side by side with their male comrades. With due respect to all other specifics of war (except for the suffering of victims), photos of women fighting in trenches, driving tanks and flying airplanes leave the strongest impression. In the moments of greatest threat to the “first state of workers and peasants”, women were expressly emancipated and equalized with men.

The appearance of Soviet women warriors is even more fascinating when you consider that shortly after the end of the war, they were again demoted from the Red Army to the civilian sector. For example, in 1945, newsreel footage was shown in Soviet and Allied cinemas showing female Soviet traffic police in Berlin elegantly directing traffic after Soviet troops occupied the former capital of the Third Reich. It is a deliberate graphic simplification of the role of women, which was far more serious and dangerous in the war.

The high degree of mobilization of girls and women into the Red Army is a consequence of the mortal threat to the Soviet Union caused by the German invasion. Women began to be mobilized in the army in large numbers at the end of 1941, and the mobilization intensified during 1942. At the same time, it should be known that Russian women were also engaged in wars earlier in history. For example Amazons from Greek mythology inhabited the southern Russian steppe. In confirmed reality, archaeological evidence shows that women-warriors were a normal occurrence in the nomadic Asian tribes of Iranian origin, the Scythians and Sarmatians, who resided in Ukraine and southern Russia. Russian women fought as soldiers in many Russian wars throughout history. It is worth highlighting the First World War, the Russian Civil War and the participation of Russian volunteers in the Spanish Civil War on the side of the Republicans.

The October Revolution of 1917, according to the view of its creator Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and his comrades, replaced the old and brought a new world – a new order in which women were supposed to be completely equal with men. As with many other things (eliminating classes and poverty), in reality it turned out to be a utopia. Women did not become equal to men in the first socialist state in the world. Soviet society remained patriarchal, sexist, and women had an undoubtedly subordinate role compared to men. Considerably more subordinate in relation to the position of women in capitalist countries. As a rule, the communist authorities hindered attempts to emancipate women because they considered it a threat. The total war between Hitler and Stalin changed that for a while.

GKO gives the green light for the mobilization of women

Although women were recruited into the army during 1941, the mass mobilization of women began in the spring of 1942. The highest Soviet body that managed the war effort of the USSR was the State Committee for Defense (GKO). It was the Soviet war cabinet. It consisted of Joseph Stalin, Minister of Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav Molotov, Minister of Internal Affairs Lavrentiy Beria, Politburo member Kliment Voroshilov, and supervisor of the aviation and nuclear industry Georgy Maljenkov.

On March 25, the GKO ordered the Soviet Ministry of Defense to mobilize 100,000 young women members of the Komsomol (Communist Youth of the USSR). The goal of mobilizing women was to replace soldiers in anti-aircraft defense and reconnaissance units. While some of the mobilized girls and women were assigned to the non-combat sector, the majority were assigned to anti-aircraft defense units, and the rest were sent to infantry divisions and brigades that were withdrawn from the battlefield due to heavy losses in the battles with the Germans.

Functions of women in the army

Based on this decision of the GKO and the decision of April 23, more than 550 thousand Komsomol members were recruited into the army. It is not clear how many (if any) of them were conscripted into the 300,000 female soldiers who were conscripted into the anti-aircraft forces during the rest of the war. Women made up 25% of the air defense units of the Red Army. Women mostly operated searchlights and anti-aircraft batteries, and some were aircraft pilots (fighters and bombers). Women were extremely important as medical personnel of military formations. There were 300,000 nurses and 500,000 medical assistants.

In May 1942, GKO ordered the recruitment of an additional 25,000 women into the navy – the Red Fleet. Women served as radio and telephone operators and in the military traffic police that regulated the traffic of hundreds of thousands of soldiers in complex military operations. Also, women performed the most difficult war roles, such as tank drivers, snipers, and three women’s air regiments were established. In accordance with the decision on General Military Training introduced by the GKO on September 17, 1941, about 200,000 young Soviet women in young national units were trained as signalwomen and snipers. An additional 100,000 women served in partisan units in the German rear as members of the Soviet resistance movement in the occupied territories of the USSR.

Although the contribution of women to the Soviet war effort is enormous, both on the front line and behind the scenes in the civilian sector, it is still not recognized in either Russian or world historiography. Women were not only paramedics, doctors, drivers, signalwomen, but real warriors who fought in the front lines against the Axis invaders. It is interesting that women were often better than men in battle. The 100% female military units included three airborne regiments: the 1st Separate Women’s Volunteer Brigade based in Moscow, the 1st Women’s Reserve Regiment and the Central Women’s Sniper Training School. Given that women are generally quieter, calmer, more patient and more resistant to the cold than men, they proved to be better snipers because they shoot targets more accurately.

Aviation sector – women’s sector

Before the war, in the 1930s, many women members of the Soviet political-military organization Osoaviakhim showed an interest in flying. Stalin recognized this and encouraged the development of aviation and promoted women pilots, which was an indicator of the superiority of the socialist order compared to “rotten” Western capitalism.

In September 1938, a three-member female crew (Valentina Stepanovna Grizodubova, Polina Denisovna Osipenko and Marina Mikailovna Raskova) set the world record for the longest aerial flight by a female crew. They flew a Tupolev ANT-37 twin-engine aircraft from an airport near Moscow to the Khabarovsk Krai province in the Russian Far East. The length of the flight was 5,908.61 kilometers and the flight lasted 26 hours and 29 minutes. Due to bad weather conditions, they missed the airport in Komsomolsk, the others ran out of fuel and crashed in the forest near the Sea of Okhotsk. Raskova was ordered to jump out of the plane to avoid injury, and wandered for ten days before locating the downed ANT-37 and two female passengers. Fortunately, they all survived the landing. They waited by the wreckage so that Raskova would find them. All three were declared Heroes of the Soviet Union in November 1938. At the gala dinner, Polina Osipenko drew a parallel between the work of women on collective farms and what they could do in the army. Stalin agreed. This event prompted Stalin to initiate the mass mobilization of women into the Red Army in the spring of 1942.

Even earlier, on October 8, 1941, GKO issued order 0099, which approved the establishment of air units: the 586th fighter, 588th night-bomber and 587th short-range air-bomber regiments. The 587th Regiment later became the 125th Guards Bomber Regiment, and the 588th became the 46th Guards “Taman” Night Bomber Regiment (the term “Taman” is used due to the unit’s participation in operations on the Taman Peninsula during 1943). The 586th Fighter Regiment had Yakovljev Yak-1 fighter planes, the 125th Guards Bomber Regiment Sukhoi Su-2 light bombers, and the 46th Night Bomber Regiment the old Polikarpov Po-2 (U-2) multipurpose aircraft. Three regiments made up the Soviet Air Group 122 and it was commanded by the famous pilot Marina Raskova. The idea was for the fleet to consist only of women. Women were not only pilots but also mechanics and aircraft maintenance personnel. This was indeed realized in practice, although not in a 100% ratio, because later men joined Air Group 122 as commanders and other personnel. Admittedly, the 46th night-bomber regiment consisted exclusively of women and was under the command of Yevdokia Beršanskaya.


The best way to attract members of the fairer sex to the military units was the Komsomol. On October 10, 1941, when Moscow was most seriously threatened by German occupation, the authorities invited students to dig anti-tank trenches west of the city. Girls were also invited and were recruited into air units. Quite expectedly, it was easier for girls to serve in air formations than to dig trenches, which was hard physical work. Women’s choice of aviation was not given publicity and it took place spontaneously.

On October 17, all the collected girls who had been selected for service in Air Group 122 boarded a train to Moscow and were sent to a secret location. When the train started, it was revealed to them that they were going to the town of Engels in the Saratov region on the left bank of the Volga. The recruited girls spent nine days on the train with little food. At a train station there was a bunch of fresh cabbage and the girls ate it voraciously. That’s why they got the nickname “bunny” as they called each other after all.

“Night Witches”

​The combat results of all three air units of Group 122 (also called the Raskove Regiment) were outstanding. The 46th Guards Night Bomber Regiment became the most popular because it was the worst equipped. The old Polikarpov Po-2 (U-2) aircraft were flimsy devices made of wood and canvas. Piloting them was an adventurous experience. The regiment was nicknamed the “night witches” because that was what the Germans called them. In order to suddenly bomb the Germans, bearing in mind that the Po-2 planes were easily flammable wooden boxes with no defensive weapons, female pilots would sometimes shut down the engine and glide before dropping the bombs. They would start the engine after dropping the bombs. This was the standard tactic of all Soviet light bombers at night. It “increased the unexpectedness of attacks and reduced losses”. In the case of the Po-2, the result was a hissing sound like a witch’s broom rustling, followed by explosions. Soldiers were superstitious.

During the war, the “night witches” earned 21 Hero of the USSR medals, the highest award for heroism and efficiency in battle.

The most famous Soviet female pilot served together with three other women in an all-male squadron. Lidija Litvak was a flight instructor who joined Group 122 but was later assigned to the 437th Fighter Regiment which was a mostly male squadron except for four women. Since their male pilot colleagues did not trust them to fly with them in combat operations, the women formed their own squadron that fought in the Battle of Stalingrad. Litvak achieved 12 solo aerial victories (shooting down German aircraft) and four victories with other female pilots in a total of 66 combat flights. It disappeared on August 1, 1943 when it was shot down by one or two German pilots. She was only 22 years old.

Female snipers

The most successful sniper was Lyudmila Pavlichenko. She killed 309 Axis soldiers. However, she probably killed a much larger number of enemies since only third-party verified kills are recognized. She fought in the siege of Odessa in 1941 and during the siege of Sevastopol in 1941-42. After being wounded by a mortar shell in the battle for Sevastopol in June 1942, she was evacuated to Moscow. After recovering from her injuries, she trained other Red Army snipers and served as a spokeswoman for the Red Army. In 1942, she toured the United States, Canada and Great Britain, where she lobbied for the opening of the Second Front in Western Europe. It was also received by President Roosevelt.

During a meeting with journalists in Washington, Pavlichenko was stunned by the questions posed to her by curious journalists. “One reporter even criticized the skirt length of my uniform, saying that in America women wear shorter skirts.” She was asked if she wore makeup in combat. Then she challenged the sexist journalist to a fight. When asked about underwear, she replied: “I am proud to wear the uniform of the legendary Red Army. It is sanctified by the blood of my comrades who fell in the battles with the fascists.”

Many women showed their willingness to make the greatest sacrifice for their homeland. Snipers usually work in pairs, and so did Maria Polivanova and Natalia Kovšova. Together they killed more than 300 Germans before they surrounded them near Novgorod south of Leningrad on August 14, 1942. They fired until they ran out of ammunition and waited for the Germans to close. Then they activated hand grenades and thus blew themselves up together with several fascists. They were among the 92 Soviet women who received the Hero of the USSR award during and after the war.

After the mass entry of women into the Red Army in 1942, from 1943 onwards there were two to three thousand women in each Soviet army and 20,000 on each Soviet front. The German view of women warriors was more conservative than the Russian one, although the Russian use of women was temporary. The Germans, especially the SS troops, were shocked to find the corpses of women at the front. Women were sometimes more efficient than their male counterparts. Despite the great intensity and brutality of the war, women did not lose their femininity and were more beautifully dressed and tidy than men. They had a civilizing effect on their colleagues. They certainly had an impact on logistical changes. GKO appreciated their contribution, so in April 1943, it approved an additional 100 grams of soup per month for female soldiers, which was above the norm for male soldiers.

Women in the Battle of Stalingrad

Female soldiers also played an important role in the Battle of Stalingrad, which was clearly acknowledged by the commander of the Soviet 62nd Army, Vasiliy Chuikov, and the commander of the Stalingrad Front, Andrei Yeryomenko. In the biggest battle of the war, women not only did auxiliary work but also main military duties like men. It was mostly women who dug three lines of defense around the 478 km long city: trenches, observation posts, dugouts, firing points, anti-tank obstacles. About eight thousand female volunteers signed up for the air force in Stalingrad as early as April 1942. Between 20,000 and 60,000 women were involved in the battle. The “rat war” in the city was fought in the chimneys, attics, basements and warehouses of factories, favored the snipers. It was the Battle of Stalingrad that showed the advantage of female snipers, who not only had a hawk’s eye, but were more willing to calmly wait for their targets for hours in the cold.

Tanja Černova was the most effective sniper. When the Germans attacked the Soviet Union, she was visiting her grandparents who lived in Belarus. After learning that the Germans had killed them, she joined the Soviet partisans. She would fight against the German occupiers in Belarus. She arrived in the city on September 24 and in three months she killed between 24 and 80 Germans (depending on the sources). She participated in the successful attack on the German military headquarters. Černova was known to be vengeful, calling German soldiers “breaking sticks”. During the Soviet counterattack, she was tasked with killing the German commander Friedrich Paulus. During the action, another colleague who was in front of her stepped on a mine, which seriously injured them. The next day she was evacuated from the battle across the Volga. Later she did not return to the battles.

Back to the old times after the war

According to British intelligence reports, at the beginning of 1945, between 1 and 2 million female soldiers served in the Red Army on European battlefields. British intelligence concluded that the actual number was closer to 2 million. By all accounts, that British assessment is correct.

Most of the women who served in the military, including the air force, were demobilized after the German capitulation. Although women did practically everything in war like men, their enormous war contribution did not mean social emancipation. There were practical reasons why Stalin and his comrades decided to do so. After the USSR’s huge losses in the war, 27 million dead, the pronatalist policy required women to return home, give birth and raise Soviet children. Many women with accomplished military careers were happy to call it quits and return to more feminine way of life.

However, the army decided that even those women who remained in the army would not be promoted to higher positions. When two female pilots belonging to the “night witches” and also heroines of the USSR appeared at the Zhukovsky Air Force Engineering Academy in Moscow, they were separated from the side and the commander politely told them to enroll in a civilian university. Although women could perform combat tasks in the difficult days of the Great Patriotic War, they could not achieve great careers in peacetime. Their role during the war was recognized, and after the war, they were recognized during the celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8. Soviet women were constantly told by the government that their front was home front and not war.

Matija Šerić

Matija Šerić is a geopolitical analyst and journalist from Croatia and writes on foreign policy, history, economy, society, etc.

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