After writing recently about Simo Häyhä, the most successful sniper of all times, it’s time we visited another sniper legend and the most successful female sniper with 309 confirmed kills – Lyudmila Pavlichenko. While both of them fought for their country, defending against a foreign invasion, in a weird twist of fate the Finnish Hayha fought against the invading Red Army on the western front, while Pavlichenko defended the Soviet Union a year later on the eastern front against the invading German Army. Their stories are remarkably similar – both of them were accomplished marksmen and sharpshooters before the war, both of them used variants of the Mosin Nagant bolt-action rifle (though Hayha preferred iron sights and Pavlichenko used a 4x scope) and both of them earned their kills during only about a year of intense fighting, before receiving a serious wound to their face.
The 24 year old Pavlichenko was a university student studying history when the German invasion (Operation Barbarossa) begun in June 1941. She was among the first wave of volunteers, rushing to protect her country, though she had to fight for her chance. The recruiters urged her to become a nurse which she refused, and upon presenting her marksman certificate finally they held an impromptu “audition” by walking her to a nearby hill they were defending, handing her a rifle and pointing her towards two targets. She quickly eliminated both, earning her place there and then in the 25th Rifle Division. Famously she never included these kills in her kill-count, as they were “test-shots” only…
She saw action right away during the Siege of Odessa (an important port on the Black See, where she also enlisted), one of the first and most intense engagements on the eastern front. Right on her first day a fellow soldier died right next to her, which only strengthened her determination. She scored her first kills already later that day, picking off German scouts in the area. She fought in Odessa for the whole two and a half months of the siege scoring 187 confirmed kills, but eventually the Axis forces did break through and the city was lost.
Her unit was re-deployed in Sevastopol, the last point of defense at the Black Sea on the Crimean Peninsula. Moving from one besieged city to the next, Sevastopol turned out to be even more grim and bloody, with both sides suffering heavy losses during the over eight month long siege. She continued her work with deadly accuracy, making her name on both sides of the front. It is said that the Germans went as far as to address her directly over loud speakers, offering her an officer’s rank and chocolate if she would defect and join them. She kept on going however, quickly raising her kill count, notoriously also taking out 36 enemy snipers in sniper duels. She never lost a single engagement, often having to lay still for 15-20 hours, waiting for the other side to make a false move. In total she scored 309 kills, being wounded several times herself, before finally her position received a mortar shell and she got seriously wounded on her face by shrapnel.
As she was by then a celebrated hero, the propaganda office of the Soviet Union had different plans for her and she was pulled from the front. Sevastopol also fell not long afterwards. After her recovery she was sent to the United States on a publicity visit (now as a lieutenant), where she became the first Soviet citizen to be received by a US President, as she met President Roosevelt in the White House. After this she went on to hold speeches in several cities including Washington, New York and Chicago, also gathering support for the second front. While in Chicago, she famously said the following before a large crowd: “Gentlemen! I am 25 years old and I have killed 309 fascist occupants by now. Don’t you think, that you have been hiding behind my back for too long?”
After returning home, she continued to serve by training snipers, and then acted as a research assistant of the Chief HQ of the Soviet Navy. She retired as Major in 1953, going back to university to finish her studies and then went on to start a career as a historian. She died in 1974 at the age of 58. Her story was immortalized on screen recently in the film “Battle for Sevastopol”, which debuted in 2015 on the Beijing International Film Festival.