Born in present-day Ukraine in 1916, Lyudmila Pavlichenko fought for the Red Army during WW2 and became the deadliest female sniper in history. Known as ‘Lady Death’, her name struck fear into the hearts of German soldiers. Her reputation on the frontline was warranted with 309 confirmed kills to her name, racked up in just a matter of months - a number placing her amongst the greatest snipers of all time.
From a young age, Pavlichenko demonstrated sporting prowess, competing in several athletic disciplines. She chanced upon shooting after hearing a boy boasting about his achievements. ‘That was enough to send me running to the range,’ she once wrote. She soon developed a love of the sport and joined a shooting club. She soon earned a sharpshooter badge as well as a marksman certificate and whilst attending Kiev University, Pavlichenko decided to develop her skills further, enrolling in a sniper school.
When Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, 24-year-old Pavlichenko raced to the recruiting office in Odessa, Ukraine. The recruitment officer attempted to persuade her into a different career path, suggesting she become a nurse instead. He soon backed down after she revealed her shooting certificates and credentials.
Pavlichenko was enrolled into the Red Army’s 25th Rifle Division as a sniper. In total, 2,000 women became snipers in the Red Army during WW2, of just 500 would survive.
With a shortage of weapons and supplies, Pavlichenko had to make do at first with no rifle at all, just a frag grenade. ‘It was very frustrating to have to observe the course of battle with just a single grenade in one’s hand,’ she wrote in her memoirs. Finally, a fallen comrade too injured to fight on handed Pavlichenko his Mosin-Nagant bolt-action rifle. It wasn’t long before Pavlichenko was provided with the opportunity to open her 'personal account with the enemy.’
Two Romanian soldiers were digging themselves in just a few hundred yards away from Pavlichenko’s position. After being given the all-clear to shoot, she steadied her aim and claimed her first kills. She described the moment as a ‘baptism of fire’ and although the two Romanian’s didn’t count towards her final tally being just mere ‘trial shots’, her comrades now regarded Pavlichenko as one of them.
'The only feeling I have is the great satisfaction a hunter feels who has killed a beast of prey.’
In the coming months, Pavlichenko perfected her art. Leaving camp in the early hours of the morning and returning only at night, she’d head to advanced positions close to the enemy and lie motionless waiting for an opportunity to shoot. ‘You need great self-control, will-power and endurance to lie fifteen hours at a stretch without moving,’ she later wrote. ‘The slightest twitch may mean death.’
She played countless games of cat and mouse with opposing German snipers, one duel lasting three days, which she described as 'one of the tensest experiences of my life.' In the end, her enemy 'made one move too many' and became one of 36 snipers who fell to her gun. She felt no remorse for her kills, ‘The only feeling I have is the great satisfaction a hunter feels who has killed a beast of prey.’
She didn’t have it all her way though. A romantic liaison on the battlefront ended with her lover dying in her arms, an event she never moved on from which eventually caused depression in her later years.
When the order came to evacuate Odessa, Pavlichenko headed to Sevastapol on the Crimean Peninsula, where she’d spend the next eight months fighting for the defence of the city, as well as training up new snipers.
'If we catch you, we will tear you into 309 pieces and scatter them to the winds!
She was promoted twice, first to Senior Sergeant upon confirmation of reaching 100 kills, second to Lieutenant when the tally went upwards of 200. The Germans so feared Lady Death that they attempted to bribe her. ‘Lyudmila Pavlichenko, come over to us. We will give you lots of chocolate and make you a German officer,’ Pavlichenko once recalled hearing over a loudspeaker.
When charm didn’t work, they moved onto threats and on Pavlichenko's last day on the frontline, they shouted, 'If we catch you, we will tear you into 309 pieces and scatter them to the winds!' Pavlichenko was pleased to know that even the enemy had her tally correct.
Pavlichenko was wounded four times in battle, shrapnel to the face in June 1942 heralded the end of her time in combat. Soviet High Command now saw Pavlichenko as too valuable to lose, her evacuation from Sevastapol by submarine was ordered.
After a month's recovery time in a hospital, Pavlichenko had a new role to play - to drum up support for a second front in Europe to aid Russia in their fight against the Germans. In late 1942, she was sent to tour Canada, the U.S. and Great Britain.
In the U.S. Pavlichenko became the first Soviet citizen to be received by a U.S. President after Franklin D. Roosevelt welcomed her to the White House. The First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, invited Pavlichenko to tour the country and speak to Americans about her combat experiences to help raise support for the war.
At first, the American press seemed more occupied with what Pavlichenko wore than her achievements on the field of battle - journalists fired questions at her about whether women could wear makeup on the frontline or asked her why she wore a uniform that made her look fat. The papers dubbed her the ‘girl sniper’, belittling her achievements with condescension and sexism.
‘Gentlemen. I am 25-years-old and I have killed 309 fascist occupants by now. Don’t you think, gentlemen, that you have been hiding behind my back for too long
Pavlichenko’s gracious handling of the questions soon turned to understandable frustration, ‘I wish you could experience a bombing raid,’ she once responded to a journalist, ‘you would immediately forget about the cut of your outfit.’
Confused by American priorities she finally told Time magazine, ‘I am amazed at the kind of questions put to me by the women press correspondents in Washington…I wear my uniform with honour. It has the Order of Lenin on it. It has been covered with blood in battle. It is plain to see that with American women what is important is whether they wear silk underwear under their uniforms. What the uniform stands for, they have yet to learn.’
By the time her publicity tour reached Chicago, an emboldened Pavlichenko took to the stage and goaded the men in the audience, ‘Gentlemen. I am 25-years-old and I have killed 309 fascist occupants by now. Don’t you think, gentlemen, that you have been hiding behind my back for too long?’ A moment’s silence befell the crowd before being replaced by a rousing roar of support.
Back home, Pavlichenko was promoted to major and awarded the Gold Star of the Hero of the Soviet Union as well twice receiving the Order of Lenin. Although her tour of the West did not achieve its goal of securing an immediate second front in Europe, Pavlichenko returned home a hero and continued training up Soviet snipers for the frontlines.
After the war, she finished her education at Kiev University and became a historian. In 1957, Eleanor Roosevelt visited Pavlichenko in Moscow during a visit to the Soviet Union. With Cold War tensions on the rise, Roosevelt could only visit Pavlichenko with a minder. The story goes the two old friends were able to catch a moment together, away from the Soviet handler, whereby they regaled stories of the summer they toured America together.
Aged just 58, Pavlichenko passed away due to a stroke, after suffering years of PTSD, depression and alcoholism, factors said to have contributed to her early death.
Miss Pavilichenko's well known to fame,
Russia's your country, fighting is your game,
The whole world will always love you for all time to come ,
Three hundred Nazis fell by your gun.'
‘Miss Pavlichenko’ by American folk singer Woody Guthrie (1940s)