Most Dangerous Woman on Earth II

The single crack of Pavlichenko’s 7.62-mm Mosin-Nagant in no-man’s land was enough to strike terror into the hearts of German and Romanian soldiers. Whenever she went to the rear, infantrymen gawked in disbelief that this slip of a girl could be the ruthless killer whose reputation was beginning to spread throughout the Ukraine. By 29 August, twenty-eight days into the Odessa offensive, her body count stood at 100, or 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. In effect, she was already becoming the world’s most accomplished bringer of death.

A small cemetery held by the Russians near Il’lchevka State Farm was strategically important because of the Voznesensk– Odessa highway that ran across the farm. Snipers were deployed ahead of the defensive perimeter. Working alone for the day, Pavlichenko climbed a tree inside the graveyard to obtain a better view of the terrain, thinking the foliage would conceal her.

Barely had she settled in than the sharp crack of a rifle sent a bullet scything through the leaves inches above her head. A second shot followed in the echo of the first. Realizing she was in dire straits, with at least two enemy snipers zeroing in on her, she let go and fell twelve feet to the ground, landing on grass between two graves. Pain shot up her spine. She gritted her teeth against it and lay perfectly still, pretending to be dead, knowing that to move even a finger would draw more fire to finish her off.

Hours passed. The midday sun baked her body. Stinging, biting insects crawled on her face.

Finally the sun went down. She crept from the cemetery under cover of darkness and back to her own lines, where she spent two days in bed and more than a week afterwards hobbling around with the aid of a makeshift crutch.

The enemy continued to pound Odessa. No quarter asked, none given. Russia suffered an unrecoverable blow when the northwestern heights fell and Germans occupied the area south of the Sakhoy Bank, which allowed their artillery to reach any sector of Odessa and the Soviet defences.

Choking summer dust stirred up by boots, horses and tank tracks hung in clouds as high as city buildings, turning to mud when the cold rains of late September began. Downpours lasted for days and turned tracks 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. Fighting raged in Mikhailovsky Square, on the Potemkin Stairs and around the imposing dome of the First Orthodox Church. Fires burned almost constantly. It was a target-rich environment for snipers like Pavlichenko, now promoted to senior sergeant. She chalked up another eighty-seven kills.

On 9 October 1941, a shell splinter gashed her scalp during fighting in the Dainitskiy sector. Her company commander, Junior Lieutenant Petrenko fell dead. 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, from which she was released only days before Odessa fell on 15 October. In accordance with Stalin’s scorched-earth policy, Russian sabotage groups destroyed as much of the city as they could and land-mined the rest while the Black Sea Fleet evacuated more than 350,000 soldiers and civilians under cover of darkness. The Soviets lost 16,578 dead and 24,690 wounded during the siege. German and Romanian casualties numbered 17,729 dead and 63,345 wounded, among whom were 187 killed one shot at a time by Sergeant Lyudmila Pavlichenko.

More savage fighting lay ahead for her at Sevastopol, which by this time was also soon to come under siege.

Lyudmila Pavlichenko the sniper cannot be considered apart from the times and circumstances that created her. Without the war, she would likely have lived out her life as an obscure history teacher somewhere in the Ukraine. As it was, however, with 187 confirmed kills, she was becoming celebrated throughout the Crimean region by the time her 25th Rifles escaped Odessa to reinforce Sevastopol. The entire world would soon hear about ‘the most dangerous woman of the century’.

Sevastopol, lying at the tip of the Crimean Peninsula jutting into the Black Sea, was one of the most defensible locations on the Eastern Front – ringed by mountainous terrain whose rugged lines of ridges provided the city and harbour with natural protection. German forces would have to push through the narrow and desolate Isthmus of Perekop and then drive across the Crimea, often being compelled by the terrain to attack frontally along narrow strips of land. The battle for the isthmus, and the advance to the city and the Soviet fleet harboured there, began on 24 September 1941, and raged fiercely for the next nine months. It would require six German divisions and two Romanian brigades with air support and some of the heaviest artillery ever built to defeat the Russian enclave.

Pavlichenko landed by ship with the 25th Division during a lull in the fighting. The battle-worn and under-strength reinforcements from Odessa were immediately hurled into the struggle.

In the fighting around Sevastopol during the Crimean War of the previous century (1853–6), Russians developed the art of sniping from ‘rifle pits’ in no-man’s land. As then, and as at Odessa, Russian snipers at Sevastopol in 1941–2 were cast forward of the main defensive line in a thin screen of modified ‘rifle pits’. Sometimes alone, at other times working with a spotter or fellow sniper, Pavlichenko continued the practices that had made her so successful at Odessa. She generally crept into her hide at around 0300 and sometimes waited for as long as two days for a single shot.

Winter was coming. Morning ice appeared on brown grass and the bare limbs of trees. Miserable conditions exacerbated her previous injuries. One day at the front was like a month or even a year in peacetime. She lost weight, grew thin and gaunt and developed the haunted ‘thousand-yard stare’ that marked a combat veteran. Streaks of white appeared in her raven-black hair.

Nonetheless, she persevered. Clad in trousers and baggy camouflage known as a mochalniy suit with its large hood and loops to permit the use of foliage, 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. No one from the old days in Kiev would have recognized in her the young college student in heels and crêpe de Chine.

The new Pavlichenko, sniper, became familiar to the entire country 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 their spiel, ‘then how can we who are not at the front complain about food rationing and other hardships.’

Even the Germans were aware of her and her unerring eye. One afternoon, she killed a radioman in a squad rushing from a shell-gutted farmhouse towards a barn filled with mouldy hay. It was a long shot in cold rain that impaired proper visibility. A shot like that 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.

The Soviet outer defences collapsed on 28 October, leaving the entire Crimea with the exception of Sevastopol itself in German hands. Through autumn and into early winter snowfalls, fighting see-sawed as counter-attack followed attack and the Russians clung stubbornly to their spit of land on the Black Sea. German artillery and mortars pounded the city relentlessly until it was little more than a pile of rubble with scarcely a building left standing. Day by day, Soviet forces that originally numbered some 235,000 soldiers dwindled in the attrition of lead and steel.

Snipers were, as usual, an integral part of the city’s defence. During the siege of Sevastopol, which eventually lasted until July 1942, a Russian sniper contingent estimated at fewer 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, now recovered from his wound at Odessa.

After the Russian withdrawal into the city, Pavlichenko and Kitsenko became a team so effective that commanders described them as worth an entire division of infantry. They often returned from a hunt claiming three or four kills between them for the day. On at least one occasion, they were seen embracing with more than comradely enthusiasm.

Continuing horror stories of German atrocities helped fuel Pavlichenko’s rage. Special Einsatzgruppen units made a fulltime job of killing Russian prisoners of war, as well as civilians and Jews. At Kiev and elsewhere, Jews were shot and thrown into mass graves; hundreds of thousands were murdered in this way. In Minsk, SS pulled 280 Russian civilians from jail, lined them up in front of a ditch and mowed them down. Following the fall of Kiev on 26 September 1941, cattle trucks hauled off 38,000 Russians to slave labour camps; most of them never returned. In an attempt to depopulate the Ukraine to make room for German settlers, occupiers encouraged starvation and the spread of diseases by neglecting sanitation measures and prohibiting food being sent to needy areas. ‘This enemy consists not of soldiers but to a large extent only of beasts,’ Hitler declared. ‘This is a war of extermination.’

German snipers were encouraged in their deadly trade by rewards for kills and by bounties on the heads of successful Russian snipers like Pavlichenko, whose fame had spread as far as to Berlin. Twenty kills earned an expensive wristwatch, forty a hunting rifle, and sixty a personal hunting trip with Hermann Göring. Few German snipers involved in the siege of Odessa and Sevastopol lived long enough to earn a hunting trip. Pavlichenko alone was to slay thirty-six enemy snipers.

Not only was she deadly, but, even more humiliating, she was a woman. As the Wehrmacht closed its steel bands on Sevastopol, German snipers made a pact to put an end to the Russian bitch with the long-reaching rifle.

On 11 November, 60,000 Axis soldiers launched a four-day attack against a sector of the city’s defences where mountainous terrain was prohibitively difficult. It was one of Pavlichenko’s favourite hunting grounds precisely because it offered good cover and concealment. As was her custom, she crawled into her hide before dawn on a clear, frosty morning with the smell of snow in the air and settled down to wait for a target of opportunity. Her usual partner, Kitsenko, was assigned else where.

In the early morning light something moved in a copse of new-growth trees that rimmed the military crest of a ridge about 400 metres to her front. She glimpsed a helmet through her binoculars. Snipers were often unable to resist the temptation of an easy kill. Pavlichenko held off and waited. The movement of the helmet seemed unnatural. Then she detected the flutter of branches to the left of where the helmet had disappeared, just enough movement to attract her attention. She herself had sometimes used the old trick of tieing a line to a bush and shaking it from a distance in order to draw fire and pinpoint an enemy sniper’s location.

She waited, tense and edged for action. The sun climbed higher, its rays sparking jewels from the frost in the lowlands. Several times over the next few hours she detected movement – but never a clean target. She knew these were simply distractions to encourage her to compensate by shifting the barrel of her rifle or the tilt of her camouflaged head, small adjustments only a trained eye would notice. The guy out there knew what he was doing. The prudent sniper under such circum stances might withdraw to fight another day. Pavlichenko, however, held her ground, not only because of pride, although that certainly figured in the equation, but also because her worthy adversary had undoubtedly killed many of her comrades and would kill others unless she stopped him.

Her peripheral vision caught the suspicious shifting of a shadow, just in time to see the blink of a muzzle flash. The crack of the enemy’s high-powered rifle reverberated from the distant ridge line. A rock within touching distance of her head disintegrated into a stinging shower of particles.

A second shot snapped at her head, again only centimetres away. She wriggled backwards out of her hide and, crouching low and using the reverse slope of her knoll for cover, scrambled towards a nearby rocky upcropping where she burrowed into a thicket of briars interwoven with old growth timber. The site provided a view of the lowlands between her and the ridgeline occupied by her deadly foe.

She dared not move. Her eyes snapped from side to side, scanning. Cold, stress, hunger and thirst plagued her as she lay in wait for the German – and he lay in wait for her. A high stakes poker game in which each challenged the other to blink.

The strange stand-off continued all through the afternoon. Clouds rolled in and snow began to fall. Pavlichenko determined she would not miss her shot if the opportunity presented itself. The name of the game was patience coupled with accuracy.

Artillery thundered like a storm on the horizon. Small birds and animals scurried about.

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

Later, a Russian patrol confirmed that the dead man was an expert sniper whose ‘kill log’ supposedly recorded the deaths of more than 400 Allied soldiers by his hand at Dunkirk.

Pavlichenko and partner Kitsenko continued to create mayhem with their rifles all through what the Germans referred to as the ‘Winter Crisis’. Although starving, cold, and suffering from injuries both old and recent, the two fought on in the snow. By spring 1942, Lyudmila was an ‘old timer’ serving as a front-line sniper leader near the embattled Imgarmansky Lighthouse and taking novices under her wing to teach them how to become sharpshooters.

At some point, probably in early May 1942, Sergeant-Major Leonid Kitsenko was killed, either by an enemy sniper or by the ubiquitous shelling. Although little has been recorded about the relationship between Lyudmila and Leonid, it is assumed that they were at some point married. It has been noted, almost in passing and without providing a name, that Pavlichenko’s ‘husband, also serving with the Red Army, was killed in the [Sevastopol] siege’.

Fellow snipers noticed Lyudmila’s increased bitterness following Kitsenko’s death. Anger burned deeper into her being. 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.

During 2–6 June 1942, the Luftwaffe dropped 570 tons of bombs on the beleaguered ruins of Sevastopol and its harbour. As preparation for the final assault, heavy artillery that included some of the largest guns ever built, such as the 600-mm Karl mortar and the 800-mm Gustav railway gun, fired 42,595 rounds, the equivalent of 2,449 tons of munitions. On 7 June, the Germans attacked and breached the outer defensive rings round the city to seize most of the bay’s northern shore. While strong pockets of Soviet resistance held firm in the rear and on the flanks, no one harboured any illusion about how much longer the Russians could last. The fight was down to its last days.

Shrapnel riddled Pavlichenko’s worn young body during the hell of raining bombs and shells. Unable to continue her vendetta, she was moved to a Severnaya Bay champagne factory converted as both an ammo dump and a field hospital. She was not to see personal combat again. Because of her growing status, she was evacuated by submarine at night before Germans entered the city on 1 July. Her final tally stood officially at 309 kills, including more than 200 officers and 36 enemy snipers. Since she often worked alone, however, and every kill had to be verified independently, the actual number may have been nearer 500. In comparison, Russia’s other famous Second World War sniper, Vassili Zaitsev, killed 225 German soldiers during the Battle of Stalingrad.

While the Germans declared victory over Sevastopol on 4 July 1942, it took them twenty-seven more days to mop up. Russia suffered 18,000 killed or wounded and 95,000 captured. Only 25,157 were successfully evacuated. German casualties numbered 24,000 dead or wounded; the Romanians listed another 1,597 killed and 6,571 wounded. Pavlichenko’s 25th Rifle Division was declared combat ineffective and disbanded, its banners sunk in the Black Sea and its remaining soldiers reassigned to other units.

Due to her fame, Lyudmila Pavlichenko was sent to the United States and Canada at the end of 1942 to drum up war support. She delivered speeches in forty-three 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.’

Interviewed by Time (28 September 1942), she gently derided American women and the American media:

I am amazed at the kind of questions put to me by the women press correspondents in Washington. Don’t they know there is a war? They asked me silly questions such as do I use powder and rouge and nail polish and do I curl my hair. One reporter even criticized the length of the skirt of my uniform, saying that in America women wear shorter skirts and besides my uniform makes me look fat.

‘The most dangerous woman in the world’ saw out the war as a sniper instructor at the Central Women’s Sniper School near Moscow. Her military awards included: Order of Lenin with Gold Star; the Bravery Medal, awarded to snipers with forty or more kills; and the title Hero of the Soviet Union, the highest distinction any Soviet citizen could receive. Of 11,635 HSU recipients, only 92 were women, 50 of whom received the award posthumously.

She was discharged with the rank of major in 1945 and returned to Kiev University to finish her postgraduate degree. Russia issued two postage stamps in her honour and named a Ministry of Fisheries vessel after her. She served out her life as a historian working for the Navy Central Staff and was active in veterans’ affairs.

She married a second time, in 1943, and gave birth to a son. Husband and son remained out of the spotlight to the point that almost no records exist about them. Lyudmila rarely spoke publicly of her sniper career. She published several magazine articles and a book about her division’s role in the defence of Sevastopol, but, other than one small section in a Russian book published posthumously, wrote little about her own exploits. One of her only recorded comments resulted from a 1968 visit to London where a reporter asked about her feelings at Sevastopol.

She killed without hesitation, she responded, and with not a twinge of regret afterwards. ‘If you are going along a road with your child and you see a snake, what do you do?’

She died of natural causes on 27 October 1974, at the age of 58 and was buried in the Novodevicheye Cemetery in Moscow. Sevastopol named a street after her, not far from where Sergeant-Major Leonid Kitsenko died.


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