Love, Sex and War
From Chapter 2: Cinderella Legions
Some British women were more alert than the politicians to the military threat of Hitler’s rise to power, and in 1934 the World War I female veterans in women’s branches of the British Legion began voluntarily organizing what they called the Voluntary Emergency Service. The War Office and Air Ministry provided encouragement and instructors for summer training camps. In the aftermath of the national emergency precipitated by the 1938 Czechoslovak crisis, when war clouds were gathering over the Continent, the Government formally recognized their potential contribution by establishing the female volunteers as the Auxiliary Territorial Service. In the spring of 1939, as the ATS began recruiting in earnest, the Admiralty revived the WRNS and the RAF formed its Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, so when Germany invaded Poland in September, twenty thousand trained and drilled female auxiliaries stood ready to play their part in ‘manning’ the nation’s sea, land, and air defence systems. (p. 39)
The contribution made by Britain’s uniformed women had become so vital to the national defence that in April 1941 the Government introduced parliamentary legislation to give female auxiliaries full military status as members of the armed forces of the Crown. A year later the problem of war manpower was to become so acute that Churchill’s War Cabinet decided to make Britain the first country ever to order a general female conscription, which gave women the choice of enlisting in auxiliary services or the Women’s Land Army, or accepting direction into Government-approved jobs. (p. 47)
The Soviet women’s contribution to their country’s all-out battle for survival was heavily embellished by Stalin’s propaganda machine, with the intention of both rallying the Russian people and persuading his British and American allies to open a second front in Europe. A celebrated girl-sniper, who had reportedly shot no fewer than 309 German soldiers while fighting with the Red Army on the Dnieper Front, was sent on a well-publicized tour of the United States.
Throughout the summer of 1943, American newspapers and magazines featured the heroic exploits of other Soviet military heroines, giving the impression that women and men were fighting alongside one another all along the eastern front. The reality was less spectacular, if no less heroic, for those individual women were not officially in front-line Red Army units but were guerillas operating behind the German lines. Nor, as the testimony of some of the veteran female pilots reveals, had the Soviet military come to terms with the female warriors in its midst.
‘We were to have equality in every possible sense, though in reality we had to struggle for that in some cases when we got to the front,’ recalled one of the woman pilots. None of them faced a greater initial resistance than a stunning blonde with grey eyes and wooing smile called Lily Litvak. The commanding officer of the unit to which she was initially posted near Stalingrad in August 1943 refused to let her fly with his men and ordered her to seek an immediate transfer. But Lieutenant Litvak used her considerable charm to plead for just one chance to prove her combat skill. The sceptical Red Air Force commander could not resist, and Lily was given a plane to show what she could do. After a dogfight in which she skilfully out-manoeuvred a German to share the ‘kill’ of a Messerschmitt 109, Lieutenant Litvak removed all doubts about a woman’s ability to fight in combat. She was welcomed to a permanent place in the squadron.
Her male comrades, however, were probably behind one practical joke which terrified Lily’s female wing-mate. While on patrol, ten thousand feet above the river Don, she discovered a mouse. ‘I know it sounds crazy – a fighter pilot frightened by a mouse but I’d always had this fear of mice,’ Olga Yemshokova recalled years later. ‘And particularly now it was sitting on my lap looking up at me, in that tiny cockpit.’ She admitted she ‘could feel her flesh creeping’ as she opened the cockpit and flung the little furry creature out into the slipstream.
During the next ten months, Lily Litvak led a charmed life as she out-flew and out-fought German pilots over the eastern front to become a Soviet fighter ‘ace’ as well as the focus of romantic rivalry between many of the men who flew with her. But Lily left no-one in any doubt that she had fallen in love with the handsome Lieutenant Alexi Salomaten, with whom she had flown ‘tail’ in her first combat mission. Such personal relationships were strictly discouraged in the mixed Red Air Force regiments. Women were deliberately quartered in a distant part of the airfield, even if this meant they had to live in converted cowsheds. But no regulations could prevent many of the female aircrew from forming emotional attachments with the men with whom they shared the dangers of battle.
‘Lily told me that it was agony up there sometimes when Alexi was being attacked. But of course it gave each of them an incentive to fight really well,’ remembered her mechanic, Ina Pasportnikova. ‘Far from their love for each other affecting their concentration, I think it helped. Lily had always shown the sort of aggression you need to be a good fighter pilot. But her love for Alexi was the thing that turned her into a killer.’
Lily Litvak survived a burst of German cannon fire in which she sustained serious leg wounds. The encounter left her with a limp and sharpened her killer instinct, which hardened into a driving obsession after Alexi Salomaten died in a crash. Shortly afterwards she claimed her tenth victim, a famous German ‘ace.’ He had the misfortune to survive to be confronted with the pilot who had ended his career. The Luftwaffe hero refused to believe he had been out-fought by a woman until Lily icily explained the manoeuvres in the action that had brought him down. ‘The German’s whole attitude, even his physical appearance, changed,’ reported an eyewitness to the confrontation. ‘He was forced to concede in the end that no-one except the pilot who had beaten him could possibly have known, move by move, exactly how the fight had gone. There was no question of saluting the victor. He could not meet her eye. To have been shot down by a woman was more than he could bear.’ (pp. 50-52)
Some women engaged in combat in the Soviet armoured regiments, which had suffered very high casualties during the German assault. Female truck and tractor drivers were redrafted from the collective farms for duty behind the front test-driving and delivering tanks. It was therefore a short step to the 1943 decision to alleviate the acute shortage of trained male tank drivers by calling on these experienced women to volunteer for front-line duty. In the final year of the war some of them were being promoted to commanders.
The most celebrated of these female ‘tankers’ was Sergeant Maria Oktyabr’skaya, a resilient Ukranian who was thirty-nine years old when her husband was killed in 1941. She volunteered as a driver behind the battlefront and saw her first combat in October 1943 as the driver of a T-34 tank on the Vitebsk sector of the front, when she knocked out a German anti-tank gun by crushing it under her machine’s tracks. A year of almost continuous combat was ended when she was blown up while navigating her tank through a minefield. Oktyabr’skaya was hauled out of the burning tank but later died. She was elevated into a national hero after being posthumously awarded the Order of Lenin.
The Germans made propaganda out of the photographs of the dead bodies of these doughty female fighters, slanted to portray the Soviets as so desperate that they had to force women into the front line – yet another example of the shockingly barbaric face of the inhuman Bolshevist regime. This mirrored Hitler’s oft-repeated injunction, ‘no woman to bear arms,’ which right up until the final year of the war denied German women any direct military role, except as civilian administrative ‘helpers,’ the Helferinnen.
The Fuehrer’s determination to keep women out of an effective service role was a paradox in such a highly militarized state as Nazi Germany. Nevertheless, even before war broke out the Helferinnen had become an indispensable component of the growing administrative arm of the Wehrmacht. They were, however, denied military status and rank despite wearing uniforms patterned on the style and colour of the armed force to which they were attached. They came under military orders but were designated officially as ‘noncombatants’ under the Hague Convention. A directive of July 1942 defined the role of the Helferinnen organizations as little more than to provide uniformed female clerical assistants and switchboard operators, limited to the support roles that British women had carried out in World War I:
In numbers women who are trained for office work, telephonists, etc. are needed especially in the areas outside the Reich to replace soldiers who are urgently required for active service at the fronts. It is the will of the Fuehrer that all German women who will be far from their homeland, helping the German armed forces, will be given every care and protection to make their tasks easier to accomplish... On no account will they be involved in any type of military operation. A woman soldier does not belong to our National-Socialistic ideal of womanhood. (pp. 54-55)
The Luftwaffenhelferinnen (Women’s Air Force Auxiliary) was expanded to reach a peak strength of a hundred and thirty thousand. As the air assault on the Reich built up, an increasing proportion of the female population were recruited into the RAD (Reicharbeidodienst – Reichs Labour Service) and the Luftwaffenensatz for duty in the radar stations, fighter control network, and anti-aircraft batteries. By the end of 1944, the raids became so severe that Hitler was persuaded to authorize a limited conscription of German women to take over entire responsibility for manning the searchlight defence system. (p. 55)
The Nazi policy towards the role of women in total war had taken a dramatic shift. Six months earlier the Fuehrer, severely shaken by the success of the Allied invasion and by the bomb explosion that nearly cost him his life, authorized Dr Goebbels to announce the formation of a Wermachtshilferinnenkorps (Women’s Military Corps). This umbrella organization was intended to amalgamate the quasi-civilian Helferinnen attached to the separate Wehrmacht branches into a unified female auxiliary service along the lines that the British had employed since the beginning of the war.
The attempt to mobilize German women into uniform came too late. Not until March 1945, when the final Götterdämmerung threatened the ‘Thousand Year Reich,’ did Hitler rescind his decree banning women from carrying arms, allowing the formation of an all-female army battalion which was to serve as a propaganda inspiration and rally Germans for a last stand against the invaders. Yet so repugnant was the idea that the Fuehrer had second thoughts, and a week later a directive from Wehrmacht Headquarters cancelled the general order. Only those women at flak batteries and guarding vital communications installations would be permitted to carry guns. Not all German women obeyed. Some took up rifles and machine guns to fire on Allied troops during the final weeks of resistance, but their lack of practice made them ineffective snipers. (p. 56)
Even in the Soviet Union, where sexual inequality was supposedly swept away with the class system in the Revolution, veteran female warriors were left with doubts. ‘Sometimes, on a dark night, the wind tugging at my hair,’ reflected Nadia Popova, one of the decorated Soviet wartime pilots, ‘I stare into the blackness and I close my eyes and I imagine myself once more a young girl, up there in my little bomber. And I ask myself, Nadia – how did you do it?’ (p. 58)
John Costello, Love Sex and War: Changing Values, 1939-45. William Collins, London, 1985.