Women’s History Month: Lyudmila Pavlichenko AKA “Lady Death”

Lyudmila Pavlichenko was the deadliest of the 2,000 or so female snipers deployed by the Soviet Red Army in World War II. In just under a year of combat, Pavlichenko notched 309 confirmed kills, after which she was pulled from the front and sent to the US, Canada, and Great Britain to drum up support for a second Allied front against Germany.

Lyudmila Pavlichenko
Red Army sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko had 309 confirmed kills in just under a year of combat. (Olga Shirnina/mediadrumworld.com)

Born near Kiev, Ukraine, in 1916, Pavlichenko was a university student in Kiev when Adolf Hitler’s Wehrmacht stormed across the Soviet border in June 1941. She immediately enlisted in the Red Army. Pavlichenko had won medals in a civilian marksmanship program and kept up her skills by shooting at a local sniper school.

With this background, Pavlichenko applied for the infantry. Nonetheless, the recruiter tried to convince her to become a nurse. Pavlichenko insisted she be allowed to fight, prompting the army to test her. She was taken to the front, handed a Mosin Nagant rifle, and told to shoot two Romanian soldiers. Two shots: two kills. Pavlichenko was trained as a sniper and attached to the 25th Rifle Division. She never claimed the first two kills as part of her official count, since she said it was a test, not real combat.

“Lady Death”

Pavlichenko served in the Siege of Odessa and later in the Siege of Sevastopol during the Crimean Campaign. Her first 75 days of combat yielded 187 kills. By the time she arrived at Sevastopol, she was known as “Lady Death” and the Germans started targeting her with counter-snipers. One of those duels lasted for three straight days. After eliminating the German sniper, Pavlichenko said that he had made “one move too many.”

Lyudmila Pavlichenko SVT-40 sniper rifle
Lyudmila Pavlichenko with her SVT-40 sniper rifle. (Olga Shirnina/mediadrumworld.com)

Pavlichenko was known for tying the occasional strip of cloth to surrounding trees and brush to distract the eyes of enemy spotters. She also planted mannequins to serve as bait. She once made the mistake of climbing a tree to get a better view and was grazed by a German sniper round. Pavlichenko allowed herself to fall twelve feet to the ground, lying still for hours. She eventually crawled away after nightfall. Pavlichenko won every sniper duel in which she was engaged, accounting for 36 German snipers.

By May of 1942, Pavlichenko’s score stood at 257 confirmed kills, and she was promoted to Lieutenant. Pavlichenko became so famous, thanks in no small part to Soviet propaganda, that the Germans started addressing her directly by loudspeaker at Sevastopol. A common message stated “Lyudmila Pavlichenko, come over to us. We will give you plenty of chocolate and make you a German officer.” When that failed, the Nazis threatened to catch her and tear her body into 309 pieces, one for each kill. In a later interview, Pavlichenko laughed, expressing her delight that the Germans knew her score.

She was evacuated from the Sevastopol by submarine before the city fell in July 1942 after being wounded when shrapnel from a mortar round hit her in the face. The Soviet command understood that losing Pavlichenko would be a major propaganda victory for the Nazis, so they decided to use her for their own purposes.

Touring the West

Pavlichenko was withdrawn from combat and, in late 1942, embarked on public relations visits to Great Britain, Canada, and the United States where she became fast friends with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who invited her on a nationwide tour. She told one reporter that “Every German who remains alive will kill women, children, and old folks. Dead Germans are harmless. Therefore, if I kill a German, I am saving lives.”

Lyudmila Pavlichenko with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson.
Lyudmila Pavlichenko with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson. (Connie Gentry)

In a speech in Chicago, Pavlichenko said “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?” Her comment was greeted by roars of approval, though the second front in Western Europe was still over a year and a half away.

The American media, however, refused to take Pavlichenko seriously. 1942 America just could not fathom the idea of a female warrior. Newspaper reports often focused on the fit of her uniform, which was described as being unstylish, or saying it made her look fat. Other reporters asked inane questions about whether she wore makeup while at the front. To the last question, Pavlichenko replied that there were no rules against makeup, but asked “Who had the time to think of her shiny nose when there is a battle going on?”

Despite her dismissal by the press, Pavlichenko made a positive impression on Americans. Folk singer Woody Guthrie even wrote a song about her entitled Miss Pavlichenko. The opening verse goes:

Miss Pavlichenko’s well known to fame

Russia’s your country, fighting’s your game

The world will always love you for all time to come

Three hundred Nazis felled by your gun

The recording is easily found online if you want to listen to it.

Returning Home

Upon her return, Pavlichenko was promoted to Major and made a Hero of the Soviet Union, the USSR’s highest honor. Pavlichenko was then assigned to train snipers and boost morale on the home front. She even had her own postage stamp, issued in 1943. She was one of roughly 500 female snipers to survive the war, a rate of only 25 percent.

Soviet female snipers
The Red Army deployed approximately 2,000 female snipers during World War II. Only about 500 survived. (Olga Shirnina/mediadrumworld.com)

The Eastern Front Catastrophe

The Second World War was a truly global conflict. It literally touched every nation on Earth, whether they were belligerents or not. The European Eastern Front was a particularly savage theater of history’s most destructive war. The titanic clash between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany was a continent-spanning death match, where no quarter was asked, and none was given.

Adolf Hitler aimed to exterminate the Soviet and Polish people, only sparing those he needed for short-term slaves. As the tables turned in 1943, the Soviets gave it right back. The German-Soviet War was a catastrophe that we can barely imagine today. Depending on the source, 24 to 40 million people died in the Soviet Union alone, most of whom were civilians.

That doesn’t count the additional 7.7 million deaths in other Eastern Front nations. Nor does it include the 4 million German soldiers killed in the East, which accounts for roughly 75 percent of World War II German military deaths. So, all told, the Eastern Front killed between 35.7 and 51.7 million people in less than six years, counting the Soviet-Finnish Winter War of 1939-40.

Lyudmila Pavlichenko
Pavlichenko won 36 sniper duels against the Germans. (rarehistoricalphotos.com)

Postwar

After the war, Pavlichenko returned to university, earning her degree in history. Eleanor Roosevelt later insisted on being allowed to visit Pavlichenko in Moscow and it was eventually arranged in 1957, though under strict supervision. Lyudmila Pavlichenko died of a stroke in 1974 and another postage stamp was issued in her honor in 1976. 

A Deserving Hero

Lyudmila Pavlichenko was undeniably a Soviet war hero in a time when such figures were desperately needed. Looking back with decades of hindsight, it’s easy to point out why Hitler’s plan to subjugate the USSR was a madman’s pipedream. Long years of study have shown the undertaking’s inherent weaknesses and examined why the invasion failed. Those reasons are myriad, and space prohibits examining them here.

Lyudmila Pavlichenko Sevastopol
Lyudmila Pavlichenko, supposedly during the Siege of Sevastopol. (rarehistoricalphotos.com)

But those elements were not at all clear in 1941 and 1942, when the Red Army suffered defeat after seemingly cataclysmic defeat. Hitler estimated that the Soviet Union would fall in six weeks. The US command gave them perhaps six months. The Soviets were past masters at propaganda, and they gave their people heroes to look up to. Lyudmila Pavlichenko was among the most deserving of the title, and truly an amazing inspiration for future female warriors.

If you’d like to read more about the war on the Eastern Front, I recommend the works of David Glantz, Robert Citino, Dennis Showalter, and Stephen Fritz.

William "Bucky" Lawson is a self-described "typical Appalachian-American gun enthusiast". He is a military historian specializing in World War II and has written a few things, as he says, "here and there". A featured contributor for Strategy & Tactics, he likes dogs, range time, and a good cigar - preferably with an Old Fashioned that has an extra orange slice.

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