The last train west chugged across the River Bug to the German-occupied side of the Russo-German border at 0200 on June 22, 1941. An hour later, as the short summer night lifted from central Ukraine, Hitler violated his nonaggression pact with Stalin and launched Operation Barbarossa. Three million Axis soldiers, 6,000 big guns, 2,000 Luftwaffe warplanes, and thousands of tanks flooded into the Ukraine.
Kiev, capital of Ukraine, was one of Hitler’s final objectives, along with Moscow and Leningrad. Lyudmila Mikhailovna Pavlichenko, 24, a history student at Kiev University, was walking to classes when a swarm of Nazi fighters buzzed in low and fast to chew up the block. She dashed for cover. That night, she made up her mind. “I am going to fight.”
She arrived at the recruiting office the next morning wearing high heels and a crepe de chine dress with her nails manicured and her dark, wavy hair groomed short. She looked more like a fashion model than a German killer. The recruiter laughed at her.
“Why don’t you work in the factories like other women?” he demanded.
The rapid industrial development of the Soviet Union and the worldwide depression of the late 1920s and 1930s combined to move large numbers of Russians from their farms to the cities. In the spirit of egalitarianism, young women were encouraged to work, go to college, and participate in military training. Like many girls and boys of the times, Lyudmila was fond of military sports and activities. She was an excellent natural rifle shooter and won a number of badges in regional rifle matches. As Hitler’s spreading war threatened to engulf the Soviet Union, she prepared by enrolling in a volunteer sniper school arranged by her local Komsomol.
At the recruiting office, she took out her sniper’s diploma, Voroshilov Marksman’s Badge, and other shooting and paramilitary honors and dropped them on the table in front of the recruiter who had laughed at her. The expression on his face changed.
“You’re going to get your fingernails dirty,” he said as he stamped her application. Accepted.
Pavlichenko was on her way to becoming one of 2,000 female snipers to serve in the Red Army, only 500 of whom would survive the war. Within a year, this petite, dark-haired beauty would become the most dangerous woman of the 20th century, the deadliest female sniper in any army, in any war.
Through bitter experience against Finnish sharpshooters like Sino Itayha, who picked off more than 500 Russian soldiers during the Winter War of 1939-1940, the Soviet Union learned the value of snipers and began to place more emphasis on its sniper training program. Special sniper units were embedded in nearly all major unit commands.
After undergoing truncated training in basic military and sniper tactics, young Lyudmila Pavlichenko, no longer the fashion plate in her baggy olive-drab man’s uniform with camouflage overalls, was issued a five-shot, bolt-action 7.62mm Mosin-Nagant rifle that had been adopted as the standard sniper’s rifle in 1932. With a 4-power telescopic sight, it could be fired with authority at ranges of 1,250 meters.
By July 8, the enemy was almost at the gates of Kiev, fighting in the forests less than 150 kilometers away. Russian women and children were conscripted to fight. Pretty teenage girls were found dead on the battlefield still clutching automatic weapons. Soviet soldiers who panicked and fled the fighting were shot by their own officers. Unfortunates taken prisoner were declared traitors and their families’ rations taken away, which often meant starvation.
Pavlichenko found herself assigned to the Red Army’s V.I. Chapayev 25th Rifle Division. Armed with her new rifle and a combat load of 120 cartridges, the young history student massed with thousands of other recruits and replacements at the Kiev railyards for transport to the front. Her unit was already engaged in desperate combat with Romanian and German forces in Moldavia, attempting to block the enemy’s southern approach to the Black Sea city of Odessa, the most important port of trade for the Soviet Union and the site of a Soviet naval base.
The railyards were in turmoil as soldiers with their packs and weapons piled into boxcars, open wagons, and anything else that could be moved by rail. Trains arrived and departed day and night, their steel wheels and shrill whistles signaling an urgency that Russia had not experienced since Napoleon’s invasion.
Clouds of dust obscured the horizon as troop trains reached their destination near the Dniester River that formed the boundary between Moldavia and the Ukraine, where the 25th was making its stand. Pavlichenko and her comrades heard the distant thunder of dueling artillery.
“I knew my task was to shoot human beings,” Pavlichenko later reflected. “In theory, that was fine, but I knew that the real thing would be completely different.”
The Soviet 25th, 95th, and 421st Rifle Divisions and their support formed three separate defensive lines of trenches, pillboxes, and antitank ditches some 50 kilometers outside the city of Odessa. Pavlichenko’s No. 2 Company was in the center of the first defensive line when the German offensive against Odessa began on August 8, 1941, preceded by thunderous barrages of enemy artillery.
Pavlichenko and other soldiers from her company hugged the ground overlooking a narrow, open field. A number of enemy soldiers, easy targets, moved about on the near side of a hill. However, to her dismay, she found her finger frozen on the trigger. Perhaps she did not have the courage to be a sniper after all.
The sudden crackle of rifle and machine-gun fire from the opposing tree line signaled a probe. Pavlichenko heard a sound like a hammer striking a melon, followed by a cry of pain and surprise. To her horror, she saw that a young soldier she had befriended on the troop train had taken a round through the head, exploding it in a pink mist of blood and brains.
“After that,” she recalled, “nothing could stop me.”
She killed her first German a day or so later. She and a spotter crawled through thick undergrowth outside the defensive perimeter and set up a hide overlooking the enemy’s most likely avenue of approach. Russia was the first military to employ snipers in teams consisting of a shooter and an observer.
Through her scope she picked out three Germans stealthily moving in and out of shadow, unaware that they were being watched. This time she did not hesitate. As soon as her target paused to look around, she took a deep breath and squeezed the trigger. Even before the impact of the bullet slapped him to the ground, she had already acquired and killed the second German. The third panicked and fled before she could finish him.
“There was no change of expression on her pretty face,” her spotter reported, predicting, “Russia is going to be talking about Lyudmila Pavlichenko.”
The pretty sharpshooter from Kiev University hardened and quickly adapted to the harsh and dangerous climate of battle as the enemy reached the main line of Russian resistance and began shelling Odessa with a reinforcement of 10 heavy artillery batteries. She and other Soviet snipers were granted virtual free rein in carrying out their mission of scouting and slowing down, harassing, and demoralizing the German advance by long-distance suppressive fire against targets of opportunity.
Pavlichenko proved to be as relentless as she was strikingly attractive. Day after day, she and an observer crept into no-man’s land to ply their bloody trade. Fortified by her sense of mission, she often crawled into a hide and remained for up to 18 hours at a time, living on dry bread and water, conducting bodily functions in place, all just to get the one shot-one kill of the sniper’s trade. Her body count grew almost daily in a cat-and-mouse game played out in the wreckage and rubble of war.
Crafty and deceptive, with a strong sense of survival, she employed various ploys and tricks to keep going when the lifespan of the average sniper was about three weeks. Captured snipers from either side were summarily executed on the spot.
Thunderstorms or artillery barrages that masked the report of her rifle were her favorite times to hunt since her targets were less alert to her presence and her location more difficult to pinpoint. She rarely fired more than once from the same position and never returned twice to the same hide. She tied strips of cloth to bushes in danger areas to flutter in errant breezes and distract enemy observers. Sometimes a clothing store mannequin disguised as a tempting target lured enemy snipers into exposing themselves.
The single crack of Pavlichenko’s Mosin-Nagant in no-man’s land was enough to strike terror into the hearts of German and Russian soldiers. Whenever she went to the rear, infantrymen gawked in disbelief that this slip of a girl could be the ruthless killer whose reputation spread throughout the Ukraine. By August 29, just 28 days into the Odessa offensive, her body count stood at 100, an average kill rate of nearly four per day. Few snipers in any war had been so successful in such a short period of time. She was rapidly becoming the world’s most accomplished harbinger of death.