The Women of the Red Army & Their Role in WWII

Women in the Red Army during World War II were a vital resource, and the Soviet Union's women were among the best snipers in the world.

Oct 10, 2021By Dimitar Danevski, BA Defense & Peace Studies
women in the red army ww2
Red Army Female Snipers before deployment, photo by Krasutskiy, 1943, via Rare Historical Photos

 

There are so many aspects of World War II that remain unknown; countless stories of ordinary people who made a direct impact on the outcome of the war have been lost through time, and the heroes of these stories do not receive the same attention as celebrated political leaders, army generals and soldiers. One topic that is constantly in the shadows is the role of women in World War II. During the war, the Red Army had over 800,000 enlisted women from all parts of the Soviet Union.

 

The Red Army’s Condition Before Operation “Barbarossa” 

t34 tank red army soviet union
T-34’s, Stalingrad, photo by Semyon Fridlyand, July 1942, via waralbum.ru

 

Women’s military service is not new, and it was not during World War II. Women served actively in the First World War in many nations’ armies. They usually had supportive or medical duties. However, with the start of World War II, everything changed. The Second World War was the most significant military conflict of the 20th century. It was a huge turning point in tactical evolution, strategy, way of thinking, and lifestyle. Nations were experiencing the need to incorporate every available resource into one direction – fighting the war. In 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union, commencing “Operation Barbarossa” with great initial success. The attack surprised the unprepared Red Army.

 

Despite this, the Soviets were still formidable. The Red Army’s numbers in tanks and planes were much higher than the German Army’s numbers. The drawback was that Soviet technology was outdated and stalling, compared to the modernized German Army. After the initial success of the Germans, it was necessary to find ways to utilize all available resources to stop their advance. One of the ways was allowing the service of women in the Red Army. The traditional and conservative ways of thinking about the role of women changed in the face of “Operation Barbarossa.” The Red Army was suffering high casualties and desperately looking for anything that could stop the Germans. The state of the Red Army was weak and confusing.

 

Reasons Behind the Condition of the Red Army

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Soviet medic attending wounded soldier, Moscow, photo by Anatoly Garanin, 1941, via waralbum.ru

 

In the late ’30s, Stalin conducted extreme purges, which was one reason for the Red Army’s lousy condition. Most of the officers were either shot or dismissed. Stalin’s political reasons for these purges were to ensure total control over the Army. Only people and officers loyal to him or the regime were safe. Konstantin Fyodorovich Chelpan, the chief designer of the T-34 tank engine, was among the executed people. Condemning intelligent and productive people proved to be a mistake, especially in the coming months. The invasion of Finland in November 1939 and the Polish campaign in the same year, further demonstrated the Red Army’s weakness. Morale was low, and there were logistical and technical problems. After seeing the Army’s unsatisfying performance, Stalin began thinking of reinstating some dismissed officers and laying out plans for improvements. The Soviet’s high command was also alerted by the frequent intensifying intelligence reports, which contained information about Hitler’s plans to attack the Soviet Union.

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In the months just before “Operation Barbarossa,” the Soviets were forming proper divisions and brigades. This move was made too late to have an impact in resisting the German blitzkrieg. The insufficient time for proper training, the shortage of ammunition, the inadequate formations of the divisions, the small and undeveloped number of T-34’s and KV-1 tanks, and inadequate military transportation were some of the main problems. At that time, the Soviet Union and the Red Army were lacking organizational hierarchy and effective professionalism. These shortcomings generated poor organization and positioning of the combat-ready troops.

 

The Soviet Woman

women wwii ammunition factory soviet union
Soviet factory women making shells, photo by Vsevolod Tarasevich, 1942, via Russia Beyond

 

The unusually rapid movement of German attacks inflicted enormous soviet losses. German advance was one of the main reasons women were injected fast into the Red Army – to fill the void left by the enormous losses of fighting men. The importance of the Red Army’s women and their role in World War II was tide-changing. The Red Army’s inability to replace fighting men was not the only reason women were allowed to serve. They also impacted events before Operation Barbarossa. Women were known for serving in other armies before and during World War II. In the western hemisphere, women usually served in the medical corps or the military industry as factory workers. Their role was primarily supportive. They worked at aircraft plants and ammunition factories.

 

In the Soviet Union, conservative opinions about women were rapidly changing. In Slavic culture, women’s primary responsibility lay in the domestic realm. However, that included a wide range of activities, many of which, in western societies, may be perceived as manly. This included chopping wood for fire, working in the fields with heavy-duty tools, driving tractors, and fighting in wars if need be. These things came with women’s upbringing, which was based on the principles of discipline, responsibility, care, love, and a strong sense of belonging. This mentality lasted for ages and is present to this day. This social and cultural factor is crucial for understanding women’s effect in the Red Army’s military operations.

 

The Unofficial Tide Changers

Soviet women digging a tank trap near Moscow, photo by Dmitri Baltermants, 1941, University of Michigan Museum of Art, Michigan

 

When Germany attacked the Soviet Union, the women were the ones who bared the primary responsibility to help when help was most needed. These actions were before they became Red Army soldiers. The women were organizing themselves into large groups. They were digging tank ditch traps, laying booby traps, and making obstacles with improvised materials. Their actions made them the main unofficial “engineer” corps. They stepped in when the Army could not. The women did everything that they could in stopping the German advance. When the Nazi Army broke through one defensive line, there was another. The German breakthrough was so fast that they left Soviet resistance pockets behind their lines. Along with these pockets of regular army units, there were also partisan groups initiating guerilla actions.

 

Soviet women were part of these guerrilla groups. As guerrillas, they sewed clothes and equipped the fighters with anything they needed. They took care of the injured, and were the main cooks. Also, they were the primary logistical support in smuggling messages that contained sensitive information and helped in any diversionary operations. These actions were crucial for the tide change in the war after the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943. They bought time for the Red Army. They enabled the Soviet Union to begin massive mobilization programs and start producing many tanks, equipment, and planes. Tractor factories became tank-producing plants. All of that would not have been possible without the help of the unsung female heroes.

 

The Female Pilots of the Soviet Union

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“The Night Witches” with their Po-2 planes in the background, 1942, via TASS

 

At the start of the war, the Soviet Union’s aviation was a shambles. Many German fighter pilots destroyed Red Army’s Airforce planes when they were still on the ground. Even if they were in the air, Soviet early warplanes were no match for the Luftwaffe’s (German Air Force) Messerschmitt Bf – 109 fighters. There was a severe lack of training and few spare parts for the already outdated Soviet planes. Many German pilots became fighter aces on the eastern front with over 100 victories. Women were volunteering for pilot training only to hear the Soviet high command refuse. Marina Raskova was the first female navigator of the Red Army’s Airforce. She used her connections to push for the formation of three flying, all-female regiments. Thanks to her convincing capabilities and the Red Army’s desperate need for help, her request was granted. The Soviet Union became the first nation in the world to allow women to conduct combat flying operations.

 

Soviet women pilots flew more than 30,000 combat operations. Many of these operations produced aces and heroes. One of the regiments (46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment) was uniquely conducting night operations. The regiment flew with old biplanes (Polikarpov Po -2), and their pilots developed a night tactic for terrorizing the German lines.

 

They would fly at high altitudes, reach the German lines and go behind them. Then they would turn the engines off and glide to bombing altitude. With no engine sound at night, they were almost like ghosts. When they reached bombing altitude, they unleashed their deadly load of bombs, causing havoc and confusion among the Germans. When they ended their bomb run, they turned on the engines and immediately returned to a safe altitude, and eventually back to Soviet lines. The Germans even gave them a nickname – “The Night Witches.”

 

Female Snipers in the Red Army

pavlichenko sniper red army woman soviet union
Lyudmila Pavlichenko, photo by Israel Ozersky, 1942, Sevastopol, via TASS

 

During the German advance, the Red Army developed and used a defensive strategy called defense in depth. It was a concept designed to exhaust the enemy’s main attacking force before annihilating them. Snipers had a vital role in this. Their role was to provide long-range fire supremacy, conduct anti-sniping missions, and eliminate high-ranking officers. The Soviet Union’s women proved to be among the best snipers in the world. Their decision-making and stealth capabilities were incomparable. There were more than 2,400 women snipers serving in the Red Army. Their kill ratio was among the best in the Army.

 

One of the most famous snipers in the war was Lyudmila Pavlichenko. She had 309 confirmed kills. As a result of this, the Germans nicknamed her “Lady Death.” Before moving to the Sevastopol area of operations, she operated in Odessa and Moldavia, carrying out the most dangerous missions. She was known for her deadly accuracy and effective anti-sniping missions. Sometimes these missions could last for days under dreadful conditions. The Germans knew her value and feared her. They even tried bribing her into joining them. Because of her importance, she was withdrawn from the front lines and assigned to train other sniper candidates. She was also partly assigned to carry out propaganda assignments in the United States. Although Lyudmila was the most successful female sniper in the world, all the Soviet female snipers were famous for their rigid effectiveness. They could adapt to any given situation, and played a crucial role in defending their motherland.

 

The Women of the Red Army: Conclusion

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Red Army Female Snipers before deployment, photo by Krasutskiy, 1943, via Rare Historical Photos

 

The women of the Red Army challenged social and cultural barriers, redefining a women’s place in society. They proved they could be pilots, engineers, snipers, riflemen, partisans, special operation duties, and medical duties. Without their actions, this would have been a different world. Their value and impact changed history and intensified the urge to understand subjects like equality and morality.



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By Dimitar DanevskiBA Defense & Peace Studies Dimitar holds a BA in Defense and Peace Studies from the Ss. Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje, North Macedonia. He worked as an advisor in the Department of Defense of North Macedonia and has a deep interest in the World War II era. His interests span from military philosophy to the in-depth analysis of military tanks, battles, and especially WWII military aviation. In his spare time, he builds model kits and plays blues guitar with his band.