By Tim Koster
Traditional gender roles held a significant foundational role in America in the 1940s. Even when the United States entered World War II, the vast majority of military personnel shipped to Europe were men. Although some 350,000 women enlisted to serve their country, they were only allowed to fill non-combat roles.
Perhaps it was because the fighting was happening in their backyard or maybe it had something to do with the style in which the Soviet Union fought against the Nazi regime, but the war’s Eastern front was much quicker to allowing women into combat and some of them were absolute badasses.
Mariya Oktyabrskaya is a fantastic example. She was born in 1905 to a poor Ukrainian family on the Crimean Peninsula. As one of ten children, her trajectory out of poverty wasn’t promising, but she did what she needed to in order to survive. Prior to the start of the war, she worked in both a cannery and as a telephone operator. In 1925, she married Ilya Oktyabrsky, a Soviet army officer who introduced her to military affairs, in which she quickly gained an interest.
She firmly believed that when a woman married a military man, she too served along side him. To prove her point, she became an active member in the Military Wives Council, became trained as an army nurse, learned to fire weapons, and to drive an assortment of military vehicles.
When the Second World War broke out on its Eastern front, Mariya was evacuated with other civilians to Tomsk, Syberia while her husband and the other men were sent to fight back the encroaching Nazi military. Ilya would be killed while fighting German forces near Kiev in 1941.
For whatever reason, the news of her husband’s death took nearly two years to reach Mariya who, understandably became very angry. But her fury wasn’t directed at her country for failing to deliver such a life-changing event in a timely manner, it was directed right at the men who were responsible for taking the love of her life away from her: the Nazis.
Instead of becoming sullen with grief, she decided to what any reasonable widow would do: she sold all her earthly belongings in order to buy a tank and get revenge.
In a letter to Stalin, she wrote: “My husband was killed in action defending the motherland. I want revenge on the fascist dogs for his death and for the death of Soviet people tortured by the fascist barbarians. For this purpose, I’ve deposited all my personal savings – 50,000 rubles – to the National Bank in order to build a tank.”
She would go on to ask that the tank be named ‘Fighting Girlfriend’ and that she be sent to the frontline of the war as its driver.
The State Defense Committee agreed and, at 38 years old, Mariya began a full five-month tank training program. This, in itself, was an unusual undertaking as most Soviet tank drivers were given minimal training and sent to the front line as quickly as possible. But because of the situation in which she entered the war, there was a good chance she would become a high-profile combatant, so the government most likely pulled all the stops to make sure she was as valuable an asset (publicly as well as on the battlefield) as possible.
In September 1943, upon completion of her training, she was assigned to the 26th Guards Tank Brigade, 2nd Guards Tank Corps as a driver and mechanic. Waiting for her was a brand new T-34 medium tank with the words Fighting Girlfriend emblazoned on its side.
Many of her colleagues saw her as a publicity stunt and a joke. Like every other woman in history who broke the barrier into a male-dominated career, she had a steep hill to climb, but she quickly quieted her doubters when she entered combat in Smolensk, southwest of Moscow.
On Oct. 21, 1943, Mariya drove her tank through an intense onslaught of enemy fire, allowing her team to destroy several machine gun nests and artillery cannons. During the battle, Fighting Girlfriend was struck by enemy fire and immobilized. Disregarding orders, she left the safety of the armored vehicle and administered repairs before getting back in and reengaging the enemy.
When the battle was over and word spread among her peers that Mariya had not only disobeyed orders but put herself in danger to fix her tank and was responsible for the deaths of many enemy soldiers, she finally garnered the respect of those who doubted her presence. She was awarded the rank of sergeant and the nickname Mother.
After getting her hands dirty you might think her hatred may have waned, but it didn’t. Following her first taste of combat, she wrote a letter to her sister saying: “I’ve had my baptism by fire. I beat the bastards. Sometimes I’m so angry I can’t even breathe.”
A month later, on November 17, Fighting Girlfriend was once again immobilized – this time by German artillery – during an offensive to retake the village of Novaje Sialo. Under the cover fire of her comrades in the turret, she did what Mother was known for: she disembarked the tank and repaired it, despite the heavy barrage of enemy fire. Mariya and Fighting Girlfriend were back in the fight two days later.
On Jan. 17, 1944, Mariya would take Fighting Girlfriend into battle one last time. During the battle of Šviedy, a night attack which was part of the Leningrad-Novgorod offensive, a familiar series of events unfolded. While navigating her T-34 through enemy trenches and defenses, the tank was struck in its tracks by an anti-tank shell. Mariya managed to repair the tank but was struck in the head by shrapnel and knocked unconscious before she could get back inside.
She survived the initial injury and was transported to the Soviet field hospital at Fastiv, near Kiev, but never regained consciousness. She died March 15, 1944 and was buried with military honors at the Heroes Remembrance Gardens in Smolensk.
In August 1944, the Soviet Union posthumously awarded Mariya the Hero of the Soviet Union, the country’s highest medal for heroism. As for Fighting Girlfriend, she would get a new driver and survive the remainder of the war, making her way all the way to Berlin in 1945.