After Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, over 2,000 women were trained
as sharpshooters. The most notorious was Lyudmila Pavlichenko, who got the nickname “Lady Death”.
Lyudmila Pavlichenko was born in Balaya Tserkov, a town close to Kiev. At school Pavlichenko
was a tomboy; naughty in the classroom and very competitive. She would not let boys outdo her
in anything. When a boy from her class boasted of his achievements at a shooting range, she wanted
to show that a girl could do as well. So, she joined Osoaviakhim, a paramilitary youth group that taught
weapons skills and shooting. After taking a job in an arms plant, she continued to practise her
marksmanship. Then she enrolled at Kiev University to study history. There, she competed on the
track team as a sprinter and took courses at a sniper’s school.
She was in Odessa when the war broke out and Romanians and Germans invaded. Hundreds
of Soviet women sprang to join the war effort, enlisting as nurses, clerks, cooks. Pavlichenko, however,
volunteered to become a sniper. Officials tried to enlist her as a nurse but she would not give in.
To prove that she was as skilled with a rifle as she claimed, a Red Army unit held an ‘audition’ at a hill
they were defending. They handed her a rifle and pointed at two Romanians who were working with
the Germans. “When I picked off the two, I was accepted,” Pavlichenko said. It was her first, though still
She was immediately enlisted in the Red Army’s 25th Chapayev Rifle Division as a private.
Pavlichenko, certain of her skills, wanted to proceed immediately to the front. Yet, in the morning,
on her first day on the battlefield, close to the enemy she was paralyzed by fear. She was unable
to raise her weapon. A young Russian soldier set up his position beside her. But before they had
a chance to settle in, a shot rang out and a German bullet took out her comrade. Pavlichenko was
shocked into action. “After this nice boy was killed just next to me, nothing could stop me,” she
recalled. She got the first of her 309 official kills on the same day, in the evening, when she picked off
two German scouts trying to reconnoiter the area.
Pavlichenko fought in Odessa where she got the majority of her kills, which included 100
officers. Then German advances forced her unit to withdraw, landing them in Sevastopol. As her kill
count rose, she was given more and more dangerous assignments, including the riskiest of all -
countersniping, where she engaged in one-on-one duels with enemy snipers. Pavlichenko never lost a
single duel, killing 36 enemy snipers in hunts that could last all day and night. In Sevastopol, German
forces badly outnumbered the Russians, and Pavlichenko spent eight months in heavy fighting. In May
1942, she was cited by the War Council for killing 257 of the enemy. When she received the citation,
Pavlichenko, now a sergeant, promised, “I’ll get more”.
The Germans tried to bribe her, blaring messages over their radio loudspeakers. “Lyudmila
Pavlichenko, come over to us. We will make you a German officer.” When the bribes did not work, the
Germans threatened to tear her into 309 pieces - a phrase that delighted the young sniper. “They even
knew my score!” She was wounded on four separate occasions, suffered from shell shock, but
remained in action. Yet, soon after she was promoted to lieutenant, the Soviets pulled her from
combat. They needed Pavlichenko to train new snipers. But Lyudmila did not do it for a long time.
In late 1942 just two months after leaving the battlefield, Lyudmila was sent to the US. She met
President Franklin Roosevelt and she became the first Soviet citizen to visit the White House. Her task
there was to try to promote the idea of a “second front” in Europe. Getting American support and
involvement would help Soviet troops. Later Eleanor Roosevelt asked the Ukrainian officer to
accompany her on a tour of the country and tell Americans of her experiences as a woman in combat.
She also visited American sharpshooters to lecture them about duels.
Pavlichenko was the most successful and feared female sniper in history, with 309 confirmed kills to her credit.