Meet The Most Dangerous Woman of World War II

Meet The Most Dangerous Woman of World War II

Soviet sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko was an expert who took a heavy toll in enemy troops on the Eastern Front. The single crack of her Mosin-Nagant in no-man’s land was enough to strike terror into the hearts of German soldiers.

Working alone for a day outside the defensive perimeter along the Voznesensk-Odessa Highway, she climbed a tree inside a graveyard to obtain a better view of the terrain, depending on foliage to conceal her.

Barely had she settled before two shots from an enemy sniper’s rifle zapped into the trees only inches from her head. Realizing she was in dire straits, she let go and fell 12 feet to the ground, landing between two graves. Pain shot up her spine. She gritted her teeth and lay perfectly still, pretending to be dead until the sun went down and she could make her way back to her own lines under cover of darkness.

The cold rains of late September turned trails and roads into impassable bogs. Horses sank up to their collars, men to their knees, and vehicles to their axles. Scarcely a building in Odessa remained intact. Fires burned almost constantly as fighting raged. It was a target-rich environment for snipers like Pavlichenko, now promoted to senior sergeant, who chalked up another 87 kills.

On October 9, 1941, a shell splinter gashed her scalp. Her company commander fell dead, and Sergeant Major Leonid Kitsenko, a sniper and senior NCO of Pavlichenko’s sniper element, was wounded. Pavlichenko assumed command, a valiant figure wearing a dirty bandage around her head, cap pulled low to hold the dressing in place, face masked by blood, struggling to maintain consciousness.

“Cowards!” a political officer railed against her frightened comrades. “Look at the woman. Pavlichenko has the balls of a man.”

She was eventually moved to a medical battalion to recuperate and was released only days before Odessa fell to the Germans on October 15. German and Romanian casualties numbered 17,729 dead and 63,345 wounded, among whom were 187 killed one shot at a time by Lyudmila Pavlichenko.

More savage fighting lay ahead for her at Sevastopol, which subsequently came under siege. By this time, she was becoming celebrated throughout the Crimean region. The entire world would soon hear about “the most dangerous woman of the century.”

The battle for Sevastopol and the tip of the Crimean Peninsula jutting into the Black Sea raged fiercely for nine months. Russian snipers were cast forward of the main defensive line in a thin screen of modified “rifle pits.” Pavlichenko continued the practices that had made her so successful at Odessa. She generally crept into a hide at around 0300 and sometimes waited for as long as two days for a single shot.

Winter arrived with its miserable conditions, exacerbating her previous injuries. She lost weight, growing thin and gaunt. Streaks of white appeared in her raven-black hair. No one from the old days would have recognized her. She knocked off one or two enemy soldiers every few days. She was constantly on the move, transferred from sector to sector so her true eye and steady hand could be used to their best advantage.

As word of her exploits spread, the Communist Party used her to inspire ordinary people who were suffering horribly from cruel wartime conditions.

“If this beautiful young woman can endure,” went the spiel, “then how can we who are not at the front complain about food rationing and other hardships?”

Even the Germans became aware of her unerring eye. One afternoon she picked off an enemy radioman on a long shot in cold rain that impaired visibility. Such a shot could only have been made by “the Russian bitch from hell.”

A German officer stood up long enough to shout, “Lyudmila, leave your Bolshevik friends and come and join us.”

She killed him.

Through autumn and early winter snowfalls, Russians clung stubbornly to this spit of land on the Black Sea. The Russian sniper contingent—estimated to number less than 300 shooters—wiped out about 10,000 German soldiers, almost an entire division. Pavlichenko, who won a battlefield promotion to junior lieutenant, was the siege’s top scorer, followed by Sergeant Major Leonid Kitsenko, the senior NCO now recovered from his wound at Odessa.

Pavlichenko and Kitsenko became a team so effective that commanders described them as worth an entire division of infantry. They frequently returned from a hunt claiming three or four kills between them for the day. German snipers were encouraged in their trade by rewards for kills and by bounties on the heads of successful Russian snipers like Pavlichenko, whose fame had spread as far as Berlin. Not only was she deadly, but, even more humiliating to the Germans, she was a woman. As the Wehrmacht closed its steel bands around Sevastopol, German snipers made a point of trying to put an end to the Russian woman with the long-reaching rifle.

On November 11, she confronted her greatest challenge when 60,000 Axis soldiers launched a four-day attack against a mountainous sector of Sevastopol’s defenses. As was her custom, she crawled into her hide well before dawn on a clear, frosty morning and settled down to wait for a target. Her usual partner Kitsenko was assigned elsewhere.

In the early morning light she glimpsed a helmet in a copse of trees and detected a flutter of branches. She herself had sometimes used the old trick of tying a line to a bush and shaking it to draw fire and pinpoint an enemy sniper’s location. She held off and waited, tensed and edged for action.

Several times during the next few hours as the sun climbed higher she detected movement but never a clean target. She knew this movement was simply a distraction to entice her to reveal her position. The soldier out there knew what he was doing. She held her ground.

The enemy sniper got off the first shot. Her peripheral vision caught the suspicious shifting of a shadow, just in time to see the blink of a muzzle flash. A rock within touching distance of her head disintegrated.

A second shot snapped at her head. She wriggled backward out of her hide and, crouching low and using the reverse slope for cover, scrambled to a nearby rocky outcropping and burrowed into a thicket of briars interwoven with old-growth timber. The site provided a view of the lowland between her and the ridgeline occupied by her deadly foe.

She dared not move. Clouds rolled in, and snow began to fall. Cold, stress, hunger, and thirst plagued her as the strange standoff continued all through the afternoon in a high stakes poker game in which each shooter challenged the other to blink.

Ultimately, the German proved the less patient. Succumbing to curiosity, he made the mistake of lifting his head to take a better look across the clearing. Pavlichenko’s crosshairs locked onto his forehead. He seemed to be looking directly at her when she massaged her trigger. It was her first shot of the duel. No other was required.

A Russian patrol later confirmed that the dead man was an expert sniper whose “kill log” had recorded the deaths of more than 400 Allied soldiers since Dunkirk.

Pavlichenko and partner Kitsenko continued to create mayhem all through what the Germans referred to as the “Winter Crisis.” At some point in the spring of 1942, Lyudmila and Leonid Kitsenko apparently married. It was recorded shortly thereafter that Pavlichenko’s “husband, also serving with the Red Army, was killed in the [Sevastopol] siege.”’

Fellow snipers noted Lyudmila’s increased bitterness following Kitsenko’s death. In late May, the Southern Army Council cited her for killing 257 Germans. During a meeting of her sniper unit, she vowed to raise her score to 300 within the next few days—and kept her word.

From June 2-6, 1942, the Luftwaffe dropped 570 tons of bombs on the beleaguered ruins of Sevastopol and its harbor. Shrapnel riddled Pavkichenko’s worn, young body. She was moved to a field hospital and evacuated by submarine late at night before the Germans took the city on July 1. She was not to see personal combat again.

Her final official tally stood at 309 kills. Since she often worked alone, however, and every kill had to be verified, her actual number may have been nearer 500. In comparison, Russia’s other famous World War II sniper, Vasili Zaitsev, killed 225 enemy soldiers during the Battle of Leningrad.

Due to her fame, Lyudmila was sent to the United States and Canada at the end of 1942 to drum up war support. She delivered speeches in 43 American cities and was the first Soviet citizen to be received at the White House, where she had dinner with President Franklin Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor. Celebrities all over the continent lined up to be photographed with her. Folk musician Woody Guthrie recorded a song dedicated to her, “Miss Pavlichenko.” She was featured in a 1943 comic book, War Heroes.She played with Laurence Olivier in the documentary film Chernomortsy.Actor Charlie Chaplin gallantly kissed her fingers one by one, saying, “It’s quite remarkable that this small, delicate hand killed Nazis by the hundreds.”

The most dangerous woman in the world rode out the rest of the war as a sniper instructor near Moscow. Highly decorated, she was discharged with the rank of major in 1945 and returned to Kiev University to complete her postgraduate degree. She served out her life as a historian and was active in veterans’ affairs until she died of natural causes on October 17, 1974, at the age of 58. Sevastopol named a street after her, not far from where Sergeant Major Leonid Kitsenko died.