Women served on both sides of World War II, in official military roles more akin to combat than ever. The Soviet Union, in particular, mobilized its women: more than 800,000 of them would enlist in the Red Army during the war, more than half of whom would serve in front-line units. British forces included many women alongside men in vital anti-aircraft units. And Nazi Germany followed suit later in the conflict, when its dwindling fortunes demanded the nation’s full mobilization.
Of the four great powers involved in the conflict, only the United States has resisted sending women into combat. Yet thousands of American women joined the military in various capacities during World War II, upsetting generations of traditional gender roles and long-held assumptions about women’s abilities and courage.
Soviet Union: bombers and snipers
WATCH: The witches of the night
Soviet women served as girl scouts, anti-aircraft gunners, tank drivers, and partisan fighters, but the two most dangerous – and famous – roles they played were pilots and snipers.
In the fall of 1941, as invading German forces threatened Moscow, Marina Raskova (known as “Russian Amelia Earhart”) convinced Joseph Stalin to authorize three regiments of female pilots. The most famous was the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, whose pilots hit so many of their targets that the Germans began to call them the Nachthexen, or “witches of the night.” Using rickety plywood planes, the women of the 588th flew over 30,000 missions and dropped over 23,000 tonnes of bombs on the Nazis; 30 of them were killed and 24 were awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union Medal, the highest national honor for their bravery.
Although nearly 2,500 Soviet women were trained as snipers, many more took on the role without formal training. Assigned to infantry battalions, the female snipers were tasked with targeting German frontline officers and eliminating them as they advanced. A sniper, Lyudmila Pavlichenko (aka “Lady Death”), killed 309 confirmed Germans, including 36 enemy snipers, in less than a year of service in the 25th Red Army Rifle Division. Wounded four times, she was withdrawn from combat at the end of 1942; the Soviet government sent her to the United States, where she toured the country with Eleanor Roosevelt. She was 25 years old.
READ MORE: Meet the witches of the night, the daring pilots who bombed the Nazis at night
Great Britain: the ‘Ack Ack Girls’
In mid-1941, when the British Army began using women from the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) in anti-aircraft units, it made it clear that the goal was to free more men to fight; women still did not have the right to assume combat roles. The Blitz had just ended, but the German Luftwaffe continued to bombard London and across Britain throughout the conflict. The ATS women (popularly known as the Ack Ack Girls) served in mixed batteries of the Royal Artillery with men. Although they had become adept at spotting or locating enemy planes, defining range and carrying on anti-aircraft guns, and handling ammunition, women were not allowed to pull the trigger. As one artillery assistant put it: “We did the same tasks as the men. When they were on guard all night, they had their guns, when we were on guard, we had a broomstick.
Many ATS members were assigned to searchlight units, positioned around each gun complex to spotlight incoming German bombers for gunners to aim. Searchlights also lit the skies for returning British bombing crews and scanned the seas to approach German ships, among other vital tasks. Formed in October 1942 on the orders of Major-General Sir Frederick Pile, the 93rd Searchlight Regiment was Britain’s first all-female military regiment. He operated some 72 searchlights outside London, each consisting of a dozen women (plus a man to turn on the generator and fire a machine gun, if necessary).
By the end of the war, over 74,000 British women were serving in anti-aircraft units. A total of 389 ATS women were killed and injured during the conflict. As Pile later wrote, “The girls lived like men, fought their enlightenment like men and, alas, some of them died like men.
READ MORE: World War II’s most dangerous allied spy was a woman with a wooden leg
Germany: Anti-aircraft units
While Adolf Hitler initially insisted that women stay at home during the war and focus on their roles as wives and mothers, Germany’s increasingly desperate need for resources would drive over 450,000 women to join the auxiliary military forces.
In July 1943, German Minister of War Production Albert Speer convinced Hitler to allow women to serve in searchlight and anti-aircraft units with the Luftwaffe, and up to 100,000 German women would serve in that capacity by end of the war. As with the ATS, they were fully trained in the use of anti-aircraft guns, but they were not allowed to fire them. According to an order issued by Hitler at the end of 1944, no German woman was to be trained in the use of weapons. Nazi propaganda warned women in auxiliary forces not to become flintenweiber, or “armed women,” a derisory term for Soviet combatants. In the desperate final months of the conflict, Hitler relented and created an experimental female infantry battalion, but the war ended before it could be raised.
A total of 39 women would be awarded the German Iron Cross to work near the front lines, but almost all were nurses. Among those who were not were Hitler’s test pilots Hanna Reitsch and Melitta Schiller-Stauffenberg, two of some 60 female pilots used to carry Nazi flights to free male pilots for active duty.
United States: WAC and WASP
Much has been said about how American women served on the home front, fueling the factories that made the United States “the arsenal of democracy.” As in past conflicts, tens of thousands of American women have also courageously served as nurses, with more than 1,600 members of the US Army Nurse Corps alone winning medals, citations and accolades. But many other women served the American war effort in an active – and often dangerous, capacity. Although the United States did not send any women into combat during World War II, the conflict saw the nation take steps to integrate women into the military in a new way.
After a heated debate in Congress over the reversal of traditional gender roles involved in the enlistment of women in the armed forces, the military became the first to enlist women, creating the Auxiliary Women’s Army Corps ( WAAC) in May 1942. In July 1943, through the efforts of Director Oveta Culp Hobby, the WAAC was converted to regular army status as the Women’s Army Corps (WAC).
READ MORE: How women made their way into the US military
Influenced by the performance of female soldiers in Europe, Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall authorized some WAAC members to train on antiaircraft batteries and searchlight units, like their British counterparts and Germans. But in mid-1943 he canceled the experiment, fearing public outcry and congressional opposition to the idea of women in combat roles. More than 150,000 women served in the WAC during the war, and thousands were sent to European and Pacific theaters. None saw the fight, but their courageous service would lead to greater acceptance of the idea of women in the military.
American women also took off during World War II, as the US Army Air Force (predecessor to the Air Force) began training women to fly military planes in order to free male pilots for combat duty. Under the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program, women flew B-26 and B-29 bombers and other heavy planes between factories and military bases across the country; tested new and repaired aircraft; and towed targets for gunners in the air and on the ground for shooting practice, using live ammunition.
In December 1944, when Congress ordered the closure of the elite program (more than 25,000 women applied during the war, but only 1,100 would end up serving), 38 WASP pilots had lost their lives due to plane crashes. or other accidents in the line of duty. Program records were classified and all official traces of the program disappeared until the late 1970s, when President Jimmy Carter finally granted pioneer aviators veteran status in the United States Army.