Imagine a woman so feared by her enemies that she was known as “Lady Death.” It was said that she loomed over the enemy like a demonic angel, but in reality, she was neither.
This “Hero of the Soviet Union“ (her nation’s highest top award for valor in combat) stood only 5′ 1″ (155 cm), yet she towered above her peers with her performance on the battlefield. By the age of 25, Lyudmila Pavlichenko was already the most successful female sniper in history, with 309 confirmed kills. She had been wounded in battle four times, the last time when shrapnel from a mortar round struck her face. Bleeding profusely, she continued to fight until her superiors pulled her out of the field.
The German Army knew of her well. At first, they tried to bribe her to win her over to their side. They would announce over the radio and loudspeakers messages like:
“Lyudmila Pavlichenko, come over to us. We will give you plenty of chocolate and make you a German officer.”
The battle-hardened Soviet officer was having nothing of that. Gradually, realizing the offers of chocolates and a German commission didn’t appeal to her, the enemy turned to threats. One message stated, “If we catch you, we will tear you into 309 pieces and scatter them to the winds!”
Unshaken, she commented that she was happy to hear that the enemy accurately knew her record.
Her life started in 1916 in Belaya Tserkov (Bila Tserkva), a sizeable Ukrainian city south of Kyiv. Yes, she was a proud Ukrainian.
She had described herself as a tomboy, always competitive, especially with the boys. Young Lyudmila, or Luda, as she was called, enjoyed proving that girls could be at least as good, if not better, than boys. At the age of 14, she and her family had relocated to Kyiv. It was there that she enrolled in sharpshooter classes and earned her Voroshilov Sharpshooter Badge. This was a kind of civil award and accompanying marksmanship certificate.
Growing a bit older, she took jobs in local arms plants until she enrolled in Kyiv University in 1937. By all accounts, she was a good student, choosing a major in history with the ultimate goal of becoming a teacher. During her university years, she competed on the track team and kept up with her marksmanship by taking classes at a sniper school.
The War Years
June 1941, Adolf Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, and the German Wehrmacht invaded the Soviet Union.
At the time her homeland was invaded, Pavlichenko was 24 years old and in her final year of University. Without hesitation, she made her way to a local recruiting office to enlist in the fight. The staff there wanted her to become a nurse, but she had her mind set on joining the Infantry. Fortunately, the Soviet Army accommodated her.
After joining the conflict, the future “Lady Death” proved her abilities with a rifle by killing two Romanian collaborators from a distant Soviet defended hill. Seeing her potential, she was enrolled in the Red Army’s 25th Rifle Division as a sniper. Pavlichenko was one of 2,000 female Soviet snipers during the war and one of only 500 who survived to the end of the conflict.
She fought on the front lines during the Siege of Odessa. While there, she racked up an astounding 187 kills and was promoted to Senior Sergeant. October of 1941 saw the Romanian Army seize control of Odessa, and Luda and her unit withdrew to Sevastopol to defend that city. It was there that she fought in the Siege of Sevastopol for eight grueling months. The Soviets took enormous casualties, and Pavlichenko used the time to grow her kill count to 257. This earned her a promotion to Lieutenant.
Her reputation grew, and she was given more and more difficult missions—this included counter sniping. The role of a counter-sniper is to observe, locate, and neutralize enemy snipers. She essentially became a sniper hunter. And she was good at it. She won every engagement she was in with other snipers. One engagement lasted three long days. At that point, Pavlichenko said the enemy “made one too many moves,” and they became one of the 36 snipers she took out during the war.
Pulled Out of Combat
As noted above, after racking up 309 confirmed kills and being wounded by shrapnel in Sevastopol, she was seen as too valuable of an asset to the Soviet Union and was taken out of her combat role and given a new job, propaganda.
It was late in 1942 when the world’s deadliest female sniper arrived in Washington, DC, and became the first Soviet citizen welcomed to the White House. She met with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, becoming fast friends. Mrs. Roosevelt invited her to join her on a tour of the US so Pavlichenko could speak to Americans about her experiences as a woman in combat.
She was 25 years old and spoke absolutely no English, but this young woman from Ukraine was off on a speaking tour with the First Lady of the United States. She gave speech after speech in front of curious American crowds. But, instead of wanting to hear about her combat experiences, many were more curious about her style or lack of makeup.
The press didn’t take her seriously, and the New York Times went as far as to refer to her as a “Girl Sniper.” Other press outlets talked about her uniform and criticized her long skirt as having a “lack of style.” One reporter told her to her face that in America, women wore short skirts and that her long, olive skirt made her look fat.
She was asked by the press if women were allowed to wear makeup on the front lines. Lady Death said there were no rules against it but asked in reply, “Who has time to think of her shiny nose when there is a battle going on?”
Understandably, she grew tired of these outlandish, disrespectful and sexist questions. During a speech in Chicago, a bold Pavlichenko made her point clear:
“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 statement drew immediate applause and roars of approval from the crowd.
Following speaking tours in Canada and Great Britain, she returned to the Soviet Union. She was promoted to major and awarded with the Hero of the Soviet Union medal and the Order of Lenin (the country’s highest civilian designation) twice.
Pavlichenko never returned to combat; instead, she spent her time until the end of the war training other Soviet snipers. After the war, she returned to Kyiv University, where she completed her studies and ultimately became a historian.