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Women in WWII Took on These Dangerous Military Jobs

February 25, 2021 in History

By Sarah Pruitt

Looking beyond traditional nursing or clerical roles, some women served as snipers, bomber pilots and more.

Women served on both sides of World War II, in official military roles that came closer to combat than ever before. The Soviet Union, in particular, mobilized its women: Upward of 800,000 would enlist in the Red Army during the war, with more than half of these serving in front-line units. British forces included many women alongside men in vital anti-aircraft units. And Nazi Germany followed suit later in the conflict, when its flagging fortunes required the nation’s full mobilization.

Of the four major powers in the conflict, only the United States resisted sending any women into combat. Still, thousands of American women did join the military in various capacities during World War II, upending generations of traditional gender roles and longstanding assumptions about female capability and courage.

Soviet Union: Bombers and Snipers

The Night Witches (TV-PG; 1:55)

WATCH: The Night Witches

Soviet women served as scouts, anti-aircraft gunners, tank drivers and partisan fighters, but the two most dangerous—and celebrated—roles they played were as pilots and snipers.

In the fall of 1941, with invading German forces threatening Moscow, Marina Raskova (known as the “Russian Amelia Earhart”) convinced Joseph Stalin to authorize three regiments of female pilots. The most famous was the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, whose pilots hit so many of their targets that the Germans started calling them the Nachthexen, or “night witches.” Using rickety plywood planes, the women of the 588th flew more than 30,000 missions and dropped more than 23,000 tons of bombs on the Nazis; 30 of them were killed and 24 received the Hero of the Soviet Union medal, the nation’s highest award for valor.

Though nearly 2,500 Soviet women were trained as snipers, many others took on the role without formal training. Assigned to infantry battalions, female snipers were tasked with targeting German frontline officers and picking them off as they advanced. One sniper, Lyudmila Pavlichenko (aka “Lady Death”), killed a confirmed 309 Germans, including 36 enemy snipers, in less than a year of service with the Red Army’s 25th Rifle Division. Wounded four separate times, she was taken out of combat by late 1942; the Soviet government sent her to the United States, where she toured the country with Eleanor Roosevelt. She was 25 years old.

READ MORE: Meet the Night Witches, …read more


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