LADY DEATH – World’s Deadliest Female Sniper – The date is September, 1941, and Adolf Hitler has launched an invasion of the Soviet Union. Operation Barbarossa has sent three million Nazi soldiers streaming west towards Moscow, and the Soviets have been caught completely by surprise. Desperate battles to slow the advance rage all across the eastern front, but in one small corner of the war, all is still.
Barely perceivable under a homemade ghillie suit made of rags permeated with clumps of dirt and grass, a Soviet sniper hides. In a service made up almost entirely of men, this sniper is a woman, and the path that has led her to this moment has been a difficult one in the male-dominated Soviet military.
With the German invasion though the Soviets need all the trained shooters they can get,and there are few men in the Soviet Union- let alone anywhere in the world- who can out shoot Lyudmila Pavlichenko. The wind blows gently across the Russian steppes, and in the distance the roar of artillery and cannon fire tells of the desperate battle to stop the German advance.
Here though all is still- until suddenly, Lyudmila spots it- a slight rustling in abush a few hundred yards away, and then slowly. . . very slowly, she sees something: the telltale shape of a German helmet. Lyudmila swings her scope onto her target, the brush is thick and she can only just make out the outline of the steel helmet.
She aims a few inches above the helmet after gauging the wind and range, knowing that at such extreme range her bullet’s trajectory will initially cause it to rise, but then drop off again. By aiming above her target she knows that at this range the bullet will fall and strike right between the Nazi’s eyes.
Slowly, she moves her finger into the trigger well of her rifle and starts to slowly apply pressure. Suddenly though, Lyudmila stops. Something isn’t right here. She knows she is being hunted by the other side, in the short few months she’s been eliminating Nazi invaders she’s killed dozens- and the enemy has taken note.
She has already killed four enemy snipers sent to kill her. Lyudmila smells a trap, and she releases the pressure on her trigger. Moving so slowly as to be nearly imperceptible, she crawls forward and into a bush thick with brambles- knowing she is being hunted makes her feel exposed. The brambles scratch at her face, arms and legs, and every breath she takes sends sharp thorns piercing into her flesh- but Lyudmila ignores the pain. An hour passes, then another.
The thorns have caused countless tiny rivulets of blood from the many stabs on her flesh,each new breath driving them into her skin once more. Six hours pass, and then finally- movement. A Nazi sniper adjusts in the bush just a few feet from the helmet Lyudmila has been carefully watching this entire time, his patience exhausted.
She fires. Another Fascist invader is dead. Lyudmila Pavlichenko was born in a village near present-day Ukraine in 1916. Even as a child she eschewed the things she was supposed to embrace as a girl, and instead enjoyed playing rough and tumble games with the boys. Growing up, she was constantly being told to act like a lady, to which Lyudmila replied with scorn.
When she moved to Kiev with her parents as a teenager, she grew sick of her neighbor’s son bragging about his shooting skills, and thus she joined a local shooting club determined to prove she was superior. Practicing as often as she could and encouraged by her father, Lyudmila soon became a crack shot and racked up countless wins in local and even national shooting competitions, earning her trophies and ribbons.
At age sixteen Lyudmila was wed to a doctor and gave birth to a son, Rostislav, though the marriage would be very short-lived. While at Kiev she attended the local university, but also trained with a local paramilitary organization that all Russian youth were expected to train with- though typically only the boys.
Here Lyudmila further honed her sharpshooter skills, earning more awards and growing areputation as a crack shot. Then on June 22nd, 1941, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union and Lyudmila knew she had todo her part. Showing up at the military recruiter’s station, the officer immediately commented that she would serve as a nurse- only for Lyudmila to cut him off and inform him that she wanted to carry a rifle and to fight.
The officer laughed and asked Lyudmila if she even knew anything about rifles, and in response she dumped several of her awards and ribbons on his desk. Despite her obvious qualifications though the recruitment officers implored her to serve as a nurse instead, until finally agreeing to give her a chance to prove her worth.
Her first combat experience would come in Moldova, though initially a shortage of rifles meant that Lyudmila was forced to help dig trenches. She would later write in her memoirs, “It was very frustrating to have to observe the course of battle with just a single grenade in one’s hand. ”Then suddenly, an artillery round burst nearby, sending shell splinters ripping through the area.
A soldier next to her was struck and became too wounded to use his rifle anymore. Lyudmila gladly accepted the weapon and began at last to make the Nazis and their allies pay for invading her homeland. Lyudmila however wished to serve as a sniper, not an infantryman, and once more insisted on being given an opportunity to prove herself.
That opportunity came when a week later she was sent out into the field to eliminate two Romanian soldiers who were cooperating with the enemy, and dropped them both from a quarter mile away. Calling it her “baptism by fire”, Lyudmila was at last accepted as a full-fledged sniper. Earning 309 confirmed kills, thirty six of which were enemy snipers sent to eliminate her,
Lyumila’s reputation quickly grew and she became known as Lady Death. The Germans feared Lyudmila so much that when sending their own snipers after her didn’t work, they began to try to bribe her. Soldiers riding inside armored vehicles would broadcast out through loudspeakers offers for a commission in the German army and chocolates- a very rare delicacy in war-time Europe.
When the bribes didn’t work, they soon turned to threats, with promises of being torn to 309 pieces if captured- the number of kills attributed to the Lady Death. Lyudmila would be wounded many times throughout two years of combat, but remained at the front lines despite her injuries. It wasn’t until an aerial bombardment on her position sent shrapnel into her face that Lyudmila was pulled off the front lines.
By this time her value as a sniper was far outweighed by her value as a propaganda tool,and the heroic tales of Lady Death were known all across the Soviet Union, inspiring both men and women to resist the fascist invaders. She was forced away from combat and turned to teaching a new generation of Soviet snipers,but with the war going poorly for the Soviets, she was eventually sent on a tour of the United States in an attempt to garner support from America for the war effort.
In America, Lyudmila was appalled at the behavior of the reporters who hounded her relentlessly. She was asked about her uniform, if she wore makeup to battle, and countless other inane and very sexist questions. She was expected to act like a lady, and yet Lyudmila had killed hundreds of men and watched nearly as many of her own comrades die.
To her, Americans were soft, their land untouched by war and their men and women living in safety and comfort while the world burned in war. She became sullen and depressed, and her handlers pondered returning her to the Soviet Union. Then Lyudmila was invited to the White House where she met President Franklin Roosevelt and his wife, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Eleanor and Lyudmila immediately connected, and in a life full of pain and difficulties,her friendship with the First Lady would prove to be a rare spot of light. In photos of Lyudmila the only times she is found smiling is when she is standing with her friend, Eleanor Roosevelt. Together the two women went on a tour of the United States.
With the war gaining in intensity it was growing more and more certain that America would need to join the fight against the Nazis. Lyudmila spoke of her experiences to both reporters and military leaders, and ever-present at her side stood the First Lady. At one meeting in Chicago she spoke of her exploits having killed over 309 Nazi invaders,and then to the delight of Eleanor Roosevelt chastised the assembled men, saying, “Don’t you think, gentlemen, that you have been hiding behind my back for too long?”
Lyudmila would return to the Soviet Union shortly before the US joined the war, and continued to train snipers for its duration. After war’s end, she returned to Kiev and earned her history degree, serving as a historian for the Soviet Navy. Lyudmila however was a troubled woman, haunted by the carnage she had seen during the war and the death of a lover who bled out in her arms on the front lines.
Plagued by PTSD, Lyudmila became an alcoholic, attempting to find what peace she could at the bottom of a bottle. Despite ever-worsening tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, in 1957 former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited Moscow on a goodwill trip. After meeting with Soviet leadership she demanded to know the whereabouts of her old friend, and initially her request to meet with her were denied.
Soon the Soviets learned why Mrs. Roosevelt is legendary as one of America’s most formidable First Ladies, and caved under her incessant demands to be allowed to meet with Lyudmila. Watched over by a Soviet minder meant to keep an eye on Lyudmila’s interactions with Eleanor,Lyudmila distracted the minder for a moment and pulled Eleanor into a private room, slamming the door shut behind her.
In a moment of privacy Lyudmila threw her arms around her dear friend, and locking the door against the shouts of both the Soviet minder and Mrs. Roosevelt’s American Secret Service guards, the two happily reminisced about their favorite memories touring the US together. Lyudmila Pavlichenko, Lady Death, would die in Moscow in 1974 at 58 years of age.
She would be honored with multiple medals and two postage stamps issued in her honor and bearing her image. A deeply troubled woman, her unique friendship with the American First Lady proved that no amount of ideological differences should ever drive two nations apart. Today she is still remembered by Russian and Ukranian women, who continue looking up to her as a role model and example.
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