Imagine living in a time where bombs and missiles are always falling from the sky. The sounds of machine guns are heard every day plus explosions light up the night. You are in a war zone where every man and nation from all over the world is involved. These World War 2 women experienced this in the battlefields of Europe.
They were the pioneers of women being involved actively in the armies of the 20th century. These ladies were heroes in their own right some died in active duty leaving a celebrated legacy.
They took a weapon and went to the battlefield. These World War 2 women were brave and pioneer that cemented their legacy in history. They were heroes to their people and country. So let’s check out these women heroes of WWII, one by one. Because when you know them, you can know the impact they made on history.
10. Hannie Schaft
A Dutch resistance fighter commonly referred as the girl with the red hair that rebelled against the German occupation of her country, the Netherlands.
She was born in 16th September 1920; she was interested in politics from a young age. Therefore for her to pursue studies in law at the University of Amsterdam was the most logical thing to do.
In 1940 the Germans invaded forcing the Netherlands to surrender. But the Germans had a condition for all university students, that they sign an allegiance form to the Germans. Hannie Schaft and almost 80% of all the university students’ refused therefore they were not allowed to continue their studies.
When the Germans started targeting Dutch Jews, she sought to help them by giving them fake identities to have free movement. She mostly did courier work like transporting weapons and documents.
As she became more involved in the Dutch resistance the missions become more risky like assassinations and blowing up German positions. In one such assassination mission, she was with a fellow resistance fighter; they shot at their target when the Germans spotted them. They couldn’t make out who Hannie was but her red hair was visible. This was where the name, the girl with the red hair became her main characterization.
This eventually led for her to become a wanted person by the Germans.
To ensure that she doesn’t get caught she dyed her hair black and wore glasses. This disguise worked for a while but when she was caught in 1945 at a German checkpoint. She had a pistol and a banned socialist paper.
Schaft was later identified as the girl with the red hair. She was interrogated and tortured but didn’t provide any information to the Germans.
Eventually the Germans set out to execute her and on 17th April 1945 Dutch Nazi officials murdered her. Two men were assigned that task. One shot her only wounding her. She told him, “I shoot better!” this is where the other man delivered the final shot.
She was a great resistance figure to the Dutch that she is even commemorated to this day. A statue was erected in her honor. She’s among the iconic World War 2 women in the Netherlands.
9. Mariya Oktyabrskaya
Hell has no fury than a scorned woman. This best describes Mariya and how she found herself in the battlefields of the Second World War.
She was born in 16th August 1905 in Ukraine during the Soviet era. In 1925 at the age of 20 years she got married to a Soviet soldier Ilya Oktyabrskaya. When Germany invaded in 1941 her husband went to serve in the frontline.
Unfortunately she got news that her husband llya died in August 1941 fighting the Nazis. This angered her greatly that she took an action that would alter her life and be forever remembered in history. She sold all of her possessions and decided to purchase a tank (T-34) that she would use to personally fight the Nazis.
She personally wrote a letter to the Soviet leader Stalin to be allowed to drive the tank and name it the Fighting Girlfriend. Stalin offered approval and she underwent 5 months of tank training. Most male soldiers thought this was a publicity stunt.
The training was over and the Fighting Girlfriend saw action in 1943 with the 16th Guards Tank Brigade. Her courage was evidenced here as the Fighting Girlfriend was able to breach German lines earning admiration from her male counterparts.
In another battle she risked her life to continue fighting. Her T-34 tank was hit and the tread damaged, instead of waiting for help she got out of the tank and repaired it herself. She managed to do this and continued fighting. This move on her part was insane, risky and crazy because bullets and missiles were still flying around, it’s a war.
Sadly the 17th of January 1944 would be last time the Fighting Girlfriend would terrorize the Germans. It was during a night attack on a heavily fortified German position. Her T-34 was spearheading the assault and German fire was focused on her. They managed to destroy the treads stalling the tank, as usual Mariya got out of the tank to repair it.
This is where she was wounded badly, shrapnel managed to hit her head rendering her unconscious. She was rushed to a medical facility where she was in a coma for two months but eventually succumbed. Mariya died on 15th March 1944 at just 38 years old. She was awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union for her bravery and heroism.
8. Nancy Wake
A World War 2 veteran that was an active French resistance fighter, this former journalist replaced her camera for the gun.
She was actually born in New Zealand on 30th August 1912 but the family didn’t settle there, they moved to Australia. Her rebellious nature and desire to be free from parents was evidenced when she ran away from home at just the age of 16 years. She got a job as a nurse and by 1932 she left Australia to explore Europe.
She landed in Paris, France and got a job as a journalist on the Hearst newspaper. This was at the time Hitler and the Nazi party popularity was rising in Germany.
Her assignments included reporting on the rise of the Nazi party and Hitler in 1935 Germany. Her visits to Vienna showed the scale of brutality of the Nazi gangs. They would beat up Jewish men and women and this act left a lasting impression on Nancy Wake.
She was angry and vowed to resist this new rising power in Germany. This beautiful woman eventually got married to a wealthy French industrialist Henri Fiocca in 1939. They were both pivotal in the coming resistance.
In 1940 the war started with Germany invading Belgium, Netherlands and France who were forced to surrender. France was now controlled by the Germans, Nancy Wake was first an ambulance driver that she used to ferry Allied soldiers and Jews out of France to Spain.
The couple, Henri and Nancy, became part of the French resistance. But the Gestapo uncovered her and put a price tag of 5 million francs for her capture. Her husband persuaded her go to England to evade capture.
In England she worked in the French Section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in 1943. What she learned was pivotal to the success of D-Day and liberation of France. In 1944 she was parachuted to France to meet the French Resistance fighters to organize/prepare them for France liberation. She was also a liaison between the fighters and the British. She did this although she was the most wanted person by the Germans.
Nancy and the fighters became involved in the destruction and blowing up of German posts, convoys, bridges and supply lines. In one such mission she had to fight a German soldier in hand combat where she killed him using a judo-chop technique. She also travelled for 300 kilometers on a bike for a 72 hour period to deliver a message to London passing through German checkpoints. Her radio had been damaged by German fire.
She was nicknamed by the Germans as the White Mouse because she evaded capture. She utilized bribes, her feminine/flirtatious nature and her ability to create a convincing story to avoid capture. Unfortunately after the war she was told news that her husband was executed by the Germans because he wouldn’t betray her.
The story of Nancy Wake is that of courage, love, determination and doing the right thing. She had awards/ medals from various countries such as the Officer of the Legion of Honor from France and the Medal of Freedom from the United States.
Nancy Wake died at the age of 98 on 7th August 2011. She showed how World War 2 women were central in the war effort and victory.
7. Marina Raskova
She was the architect of the all-female military aviation unit of the Soviet Air Force that ran successful missions against Hitler’s Germany.
She was born in 28th March 1912 to middle class parents who wanted her to become a musician. Unlike most Soviet aviators she never showed interest in flying at a young age and it wasn’t her goal. She eventually quit on her music ambitions and started studying chemistry.
By 1931 she had graduated and was working with the Soviet Air Force in the Aero Navigation Laboratory. By 1933 aged 19 she became the first female navigator in the Soviet Air Force.
She therefore had a pilot’s license and became a teacher or instructor at the Zhukovskii Air academy. Before the war Marina Raskova was a Soviet heroine due to her record breaking flights. One such flight was the Flight of Rodina from Moscow to Komsomolsk. She did it with other two female aviators and was the first women to receive the Hero of the Soviet Union medal.
Then the invasion of the Soviet Union happened in 1941 where Raskova role was pivotal. Due to her influence she managed to persuade Soviets Joseph Stalin to form an all-female flying regiment. She divided these aviators into three regiments: 586 Fighter Regiment, 587 Bomber Regiment, and 588 Night Bomber Regiment.
Their mark on the war was made with female regiment aviators like 21 year old Lilya Litvak (White Rose of Stalingrad) causing havoc in the skies.
Although they had planes that were slow and less advanced than the German fighter planes. They mostly conducted their missions or bombing raids at night, and the Germans nicknamed them as the Night Witches.
Marina Raskova was not only the architect or commander but was actively involved in the war or missions. On one mission she was on the frontline and was leading two damaged planes back to safety. Her plane was hit therefore she was forced to make a forced landing in banks of River Volga.
She died on the 4th of January 1943, she received a state funeral and buried in the Kremlin. As part of remembering or commemorating her, streets are named after her and postage stamps have her portrait.
6. Lilya Litvyak
A Russian female fighter pilot that served in the Second World War and credited with the record of most kills by a fighter pilot. She was part of the soviet air force and heeded the call to serve when the Germans invaded in 1941.
Lilya was born in 18th August 1921 where by the age of 15 she performed her first solo flight and graduated from the Kherson military flying school. She became a flight instructor at Kalinin Air club.
When the invasion happened, she volunteered to join the aviation unit but her lack of experience was a hindrance. She therefore exaggerated her experience as a pilot to serve in the Soviet Air Force. She was part of a female regiment of fighter pilots in the 586 Fighter Regiment.
Her first mission was over the Port City Saratov where she flew defensive missions. Her first kill came about when her unit was transferred to the battle of the city of Stalingrad. On 13th September 1942 she had her first two kills becoming the first woman to shoot down an enemy plane.
As she began to rack up more kills and missions her fame rose throughout Europe. She was mostly referred to as the White Rose of Stalingrad because of how she used to pick roses and place them in the cockpit before any mission.
Unfortunately 1st August 1943 was her last mission, in the Battle of Kurskshe she came under attack in Ukraine. She was pursued by as many as eight (8) German fighter planes where they all disappeared in the clouds. It’s most likely she was hit and crashed although controversy still exists concerning her death.
She was 21 years old by this time and had achieved 12 solo victories over the German Air Force. She was awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union medal. There is a museum dedicated for her with all her achievements in war.
5. Major Lyudmila Pavlichenko
She was the most famous and successful female sniper of the Soviet Union during the Second World War. In 1941 this young woman that joined to fight Hitler’s army when they invaded the Soviet Union.
Born in 1916 in modern day Ukraine, from a young age she was an amateur sharpshooter and was in the OSOAVIAKhIM shooting club. Before the invasion started, Lyudmila Pavlichenko was a history student at Kiev University.
When the invasion started, she halted her studies to join military service but the recruiter wanted her to be a nurse. Her refusal of this request managed her to be part of a unit to fight the Germans. She was part of the Red Army and was involved in battles of Greece and Moldova.
In her first 75 days as a Red Army soldier she had managed to kill 187 Germans. She was such a feared sniper that the Germans actually nicknamed her ‘Lady Death.’
But in 1942 she was wounded taking shrapnel to the face. She was retired from active service having 309 kills including 29 German snipers.
Lyudmila = was widely publicized as a hero as postage stamps had her portrait. She eventually toured Canada and the USA, meeting President Franklin D. Roosevelt and First lady Eleanor Roosevelt. She was well received in both countries with crowds gathering to see and listen to her.
She cemented herself as one of best World War 2 women snipers that terrorized the Nazis.
Lyudmila eventually went back to Kiev University to finish her history studies. By this time she had already been awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union medal. She died at the age of 58 on 10th October 1974.
4. Mariana Dragescu
She was a Romanian military pilot who was part of the White Squadron which was an all-female medical evacuation unit. This unit was involved in the 2nd World War and the planes were piloted by women.
She was born in Southern Romania on 7th September 1912. By 1935 at the age of 23 she graduated from aviation school becoming among the first Romanian women to have a pilot license. By 1938 she joined the Royal Aero Club and by 1940 she was part of the White Squadron.
When the war started Romania was allied with Germany and by 1941 Mariana Dragescu and the White Squadron were involved in the invasion of the Soviet Union. They were involved in transportation, rescue missions and especially evacuating the wounded.
The war wasn’t going as planned as Germany was in retreat mode from the Allies. This is where Romanian officials staged a coup in 1944 and joined the allies. Under this new alliance she continued her role in the Romanian Air Force.
As the war was coming to an end Mariana Dragescu had successfully managed to fly more than 15,000 soldiers to safety. She was able to fly them from the battlefields of Europe to medical facilities.
Unfortunately under the Romanian Communist regime her role and the White Squadron contribution were mostly ignored. When the Communist regime fell in 1989 their story became widely recognized and honored.
In 2003 she was awarded the Order of the Star of Romania. She actually served on both sides of the warring factions. Mariana was the longest living member of the White Squadron, but on 24th March 2013 she died at the age of 100 years. She was a pioneer among World War 2 women that took to the skies.
3. Yevdokiya Zavaliy
She was a 16 year old girl that lied about her age so that she can take part in World War 2. She was born in 28th may 1926 in Ukraine during the Soviet era in the Nikolayev Region. Her first introduction to the reality of war came about when her village was bombed by German warplanes and seeing soldiers injured lying in pools of blood. Zavaliy didn’t just stand by but immediately helped the injured soldiers by bandaging their wounds with bed sheets.
This is where she met the commander of the unit and persuaded him to take her, but lied that she was 18 years old for the officer to agree. Her first role was to be a nurse as women were not allowed to serve in the battles. During her role as a nurse she managed to teach herself on the use of guns.
Her drive to be an active soldier was so strong that she shaved her head and wore men’s military uniform. This was enough for most soldiers to mistake her to be a man.
Her disguise managed Zavaliy to be sent to the frontline. Senior Sergeant Yevdokim Zavaliy with the 6th Airborne Brigade was sent to battle near Goryachy Kluch. She took part in other battles under this new male identity.
In one such battle (Mozdok late 1942); her troops were starving due to lack of food and limited ammunition supplies making them vulnerable. This is where Zavaliy showed her heroism and leadership as she mounted a night raid across a river to a German camp, where she stole ammunition and provisions before sailing away.
Zavaliy lie was eventually exposed when in the battle at Kuban Region she was injured seriously. During treatment doctors discovered that she was a woman but due to her many successes she wasn’t court martialed or ordered to be a nurse. She was okay to continue her military service and was also promoted to commander.
A 17 year old Yevdokiya Zavaliy became commander of a submachine gunner platoon in 1943. Under her command this platoon achieved success in the Battle of Crimea and they were always on the forefront. The German feared her so much that they nicknamed her ‘Frau Black Death.’
Eventually at just 21 years old Zavaliy retired from active service in 1947. She settled in Kiev with 40 medals such as the Medal “For Courage”. She died on 5th May 2010 as a World War hero.
2. Hazel Ying Lee
The first Chinese-American military pilot that was central in the Second World War. Born in 1912 in Portland, Oregon to Chinese immigrants at a time where discrimination for the Chinese was rampant. After her high school education she got a job as an elevator operator because it was the only job available to Chinese-Americans.
At age 19 she joined the Chinese Flying Club of Portland and later earned her pilot license. This motivated her to fly professionally but opportunities were few in America for her. This is where she moved to china hoping to join the Chinese Air Force and help in fighting the invading Japanese. But she was turned down because she was a woman; instead she was given a desk job in Canton.
As the Japanese moved through China taking over territories, Canton fell and Hazel Ying Lee fled to Hong Kong. She later moved back to the US where the Women Air force Service Pilots (WASPs) program was introduced in 1943. This is where World War 2 women like Hazel made their mark.
Their role was to deliver military aircraft to ships and docks where they would be used in the warzones of Europe. Although she did these flights at night and during the winter with open cockpits, she didn’t stop flying.
She was such a skilled pilot that in 1944 she was one of the 130 women selected to fly the faster and advanced pursuit airplanes. They were to deliver these warplanes to assigned points in the US. At one such mission Hazel Ying Lee faced her death.
She was on assignment to deliver a warplane but bad weather had delayed her. When the weather cleared, the flight controllers told her to take off but other warplanes were coming in to land. This led to Hazel Ying Lee colliding with the other plane bursting into flames. Hazel Ying Lee was pulled out from the plane with severe injuries and 3 days later she was dead.
Hazel Ying Lee and the WASPs were recognized for their role and service to America.
1. Roza Shanina
A 19 year old young woman who was a Soviet sniper that served during the Second World War. She was born on 3rd April 1924 in Russia to Anna (mother) and Yegor (father). Her father had served in the First World War. She had other siblings that served in the Second World War but unfortunately three of her brothers were killed in action.
On 22nd June 1941 Nazi forces invaded the western border of the Soviet Union. By the end of the year (1941) Nazi forces began bombing Arkhangelsk where Roza was studying. This is where she joined the Soviet army as a volunteer for air raid duty. But when her brother died in the Siege of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in December 1941 she had the desire to go to the frontline.
But women were not allowed to join and serve but due to the high losses the Soviet army suffered, women were allowed to serve. She joined the women sniper unit created and excelled as she became a skilled sniper. By 1944 she had graduated and given a job as a sniper instructor but she wanted to go and serve in the frontline. She declined the job and opted to be in active duty.
This was the beginning of her fame and legendary nature where she had 59 confirmed kills. At just the age of 20 this young woman was an elite sniper. Although being a legend she wasn’t invincible, at one instance she was shot by enemy fire on her right shoulder.
Her braver and courage led her to become the first woman to be awarded the Order of Glory because she killed 13 enemy soldiers while subjected to artillery and machine gun fire.
She was also referred to as the Unseen Terror of East Prussia by a Canadian newspaper and also soviet newspaper featured her in their stories. On 27th January 1945 during the East Prussian Offensive her platoon was under constant German fire. She was severely wounded when shielding an artillery commander, shrapnel hit her chest.
Sadly Roza Shanina was dead therefore was killed in action. She was honored by streets being named after her and a museum in her village (Yedma) dedicated to her. She was one of the famous World War 2 women in Europe.