Night-Witches, Snipers and Laundresses

In its desperate battle to fight off the advancing Germans, the Soviet Union called on its women to play as active and probably more wide-ranging a role as its men. John Erickson records the military and civilian efforts during the Great Patriotic War.

As the Soviet regimental commander approached, the young girl sentry in oversize boots and overlong men's trousers guarding parked aircraft cried out in a mixture of panic and confusion: 'Would you please stop! Who goes there? I really must ask you to excuse me, I am going to shoot.' Years after that wartime incident, senior pilot Guards Lieutenant Antonina Bondareva recalled in mock despair the hapless naivetee of the sentry. Yet in its own way it illustrates the enormous burden placed on all Soviet women, young and old alike, during the war years, a saga which has yet to be told in all its astonishing variety and harrowing individual detail. Tragedy abounds. I certainly recall hearing German veterans of the Eastern Front, tough and battle-tested, describe their numbed shock at coming upon dead Soviet women soldiers on the battlefield.

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