Today we are publishing Avenging Angels by the Russian historian Lyuba Vinogradova, the second in a brace of books about female soldiers fighting for the Soviet Union in World War II – the first, Defending the Motherland, was published in 2014, and explored the lives of women fighter and bomber pilots. Avenging Angels focuses on their earthbound but equally deadly counterparts: Soviet women snipers. Both were translated by Arch Tait. Historian and writer Anna Reid’s Introduction to Avenging Angels, here reproduced, is the ideal primer to this lesser-recorded slice of military and social history . . .
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The Soviet Union sent more women into combat during the Second World War than any other nation before or since. Estimates vary widely, but one can safely assume that a minimum of 570,000 women served in the Red Army during the course of the war, and more likely 700,000–800,000. Add in female partisans and volunteers to civilian militias, and the total rises to around a million.
In the chaotic weeks following the German invasion of June 1941, Soviet women, like men, volunteered in huge numbers, queuing to register for whatever war work was available. Though an estimated 20,000 were able to join up immediately, simply by personally approaching local commanders, the majority were initially channeled into factory or civil defence work. Full-scale conscription of women into the military did not begin until March 1942, to make up for enormous losses suffered during the initial German Blitzkrieg and the defences of Moscow and Leningrad. By 1943, however, women were fully integrated into all services. Most acted in relatively traditional roles: as nurses, secretaries, drivers, telephonists, signallers, mechanics and cooks. But a substantial minority took up arms: as anti-aircraft and machine-gunners, sappers, scouts, bomber and fighter pilots and aircrew, snipers, tank crew and ordinary infantry. They won promotion as the war progressed, so that by 1945 female platoon, company and even battalion commanders were common enough to attract little comment.
Nowhere else did women fight in anything like these numbers, if at all. In Britain, though over half a million women wore uniform, the only ones allowed actually to operate weapons were 56,000 “Ack-ack girls” who manned mixed-sex anti-aircraft batteries from the summer of 1941 onwards.
Though the “girls” quickly proved their worth, they met with considerable official opposition, and remained symbolically banned from triggering their guns’ fi ring mechanisms. Prompted by the British example, America secretly trained 395 female anti-aircraft gunners from December 1942. But the experiment was abandoned within a few months, for fear, according to the head of army personnel, that neither “national policy nor public opinion are yet ready to accept the use of women in field force units”.
In Germany, the National Socialist ideology of “children, kitchen, church” for women was so strong that they were not fully mobilised even into civilian war work until 1943. They were not drafted into the army until 1944, and as late as November of that year Hitler issued an order reiterating that no women be weapons trained. Three months later, with the Red Army at the gates of Berlin, he finally authorised the creation of an all-female infantry battalion, with the aim of discouraging desertion from the crumbling Wehrmacht. It had not yet formed when Germany surrendered.
Various explanations have been put forward for the Soviet Union’s unique willingness to use women in combat. Cultural and historical factors may have played a part: the long roll-call of female revolutionaries under the last two tsars, the tens of thousands of women who served on the Bolshevik side during the Russian Civil War, the Soviet constitution’s (theoretical) embrace of sexual equality. The overwhelming factors, however, were probably simply Soviet women’s own strong incentive to fight – they had seen their own country invaded, and friends and family killed – and the military’s desperate need for extra manpower, following near-overwhelming losses in the opening months of the war.
Avenging Angels is a companion volume to Lyuba Vinogradova’s earlier Defending the Motherland: The Soviet Women Who Fought Hitler’s Aces. Both centre on her interviews with women who took on some of the war’s most high-profile combat roles – as fighter and bomber pilots, and as snipers. Vinogradova’s concern is not to assess their contribution to the war effort, nor to Soviet gender politics, but to capture their individual stories, the particular lived experiences that are left out of conventional top-down military history writing. What, she wants to know, was being a sniper on the Eastern Front actually like?
Even for young women raised amidst the turmoil and hardships of Stalin’s Russia, joining the army came as a social, emotional and physical shock. At training school, peasant girls from dirt-poor villages had their cherished braids lopped off, and encountered tea and bed linen for the first time in their lives. Gently raised students from Moscow’s Conservatoire found themselves taking orders from illiterate Tatar shepherds. Once at the front they had to learn to deal not only with enemy fire, but with cold, gnawing hunger, lice, oversized boots, rudimentary sanitation and sexual assaults by drunken male officers.
Like their male counterparts, most female snipers found their first “kills” traumatic, particularly because they were administered not during the heat of battle, but during periods of static warfare, when the victim emerged from his trench to wash or clear snow. Some were transferred to non-combat jobs, but the rest grew used to killing, competing to increase their “tallies”. During assaults they doubled as infantry, running forward and firing with the men, or as medics, moving the wounded and administering first aid. Many, of course, were killed or wounded themselves. Overall casualty rates are unknown, but judging by the sample Vinogradova gathers here, they were very high. Most of her interviewees had lost multiple “sniper partners” by the end of the war.
On demobilisation, women were expected to revert to traditional gender roles. As Pravda put it in March 1945, they had “very energetically proved themselves as pilots, snipers, submachine gunners. But they don’t forget about their primary duty to nation and state – that of motherhood.” The return to civilian life was hardest in the countryside, where post-war famine, caused by a combination of food requisitioning and poor harvests, killed somewhere between 1 and 1.5 million. Everywhere, female veterans learned to keep quiet about their war service, lest neighbours deride them as discarded “front-line wives”. (Members of America’s Women’s Army Corp were similarly insulted, routinely labelled sluts or lesbians.) Like their whole age cohort, they were lucky if they found husbands, the large majority of their male contemporaries being dead.
As well as paying tribute to a unique class of soldier, Vinogradova’s work makes an important contribution to today’s debate about what roles women should play in warfare. As the U.S. Air Force officer and historian Reina Pennington points out, “At a time when there is still wide debate about whether women can serve in combat and what they might do if allowed to serve, we are still surprisingly ignorant about what women actually have done in wartime combat situations. ” To remedy that, there are no better exemplars than the soldiers whose stories are collected here.