The Second World War tore apart countless relationships and destroyed families. Some people who lost loved ones acted quickly to exact revenge. One such person was Mariya Oktyabrskaya. She made the decision to sell everything she owned and invest in the creation of a T-34 tank as soon as she learned that her husband had passed away on the Eastern Front. She then took it a step further and submitted an application for tank driving school. The next phase was unmatched vengeance.
Ten children were raised by Mariya Oktyabrskaya’s impoverished Ukrainian family when she was born on the Crimean Peninsula. She had previously worked as a telephone operator and in a cannery before the war.
In 1925, she met her future husband, an officer in the Red Army. In the same year, the two got married. Mariya joined the Military Wives Council and received training to become an army nurse since she grew highly interested in her husband’s area of work. She quickly acquired the skills necessary to wield weapons and drive, which was highly unusual for women at the period.
Her service in the army
“Marry a serviceman, and you serve in the army: An officer’s wife is not just a proud woman, but also a responsible title,” she reportedly said when questioned about her strange interest.
She was evacuated to Siberia in 1941 as the war drew closer to the Soviet Union, where she spent the following two years. It took a while for her to learn of her husband’s passing, but as soon as she received the letter, she knew what she needed to do. Oktaybrskaya was so furious at the passing of her adored husband that she wrote Stalin a letter:
“My spouse was killed while serving his country. Because of his passing and the deaths of Soviet citizens who were tormented by fascist barbarians, I wish to exact revenge on the dogs of fascism. I’ve given the National Bank 50,000 rubles of my personal resources towards the construction of a tank. I respectfully request that you rename the tank “Fighting Girlfriend” and deploy me as its driver.
Stalin believed he was forced to agree. The State Defense Committee informed him that the action might be a morale-booster for both the army and the desperate civilians. In the Soviet Union, residents frequently sent money to support the military, although men tended to be the ones who did it.
Nevertheless, in a time of need, all assistance is appreciated, thus Mariya underwent a five-month training program to become an expert T-34 pilot.
This was also unusual; tank personnel during the Great Patriotic War, as WWII was known in the U.S.S.R., received less training because they were required at the front practically immediately. Tanks would engage in combat in Stalingrad unpainted.
The Soviet leadership wanted to send Oktyabrskaya to fight, but also included the five-month training as part of their propaganda campaign. They wanted to be certain she would be successful.
She was ready to fight
In September 1943, after completing her training, Oktobrskaya, then 38, was sent to the 26th Guards Tank Brigade and shortly took part in the Second Battle of Smolensk. She had the opportunity to disprove the notion that she was some sort of publicity gimmick held up by the other tank crews.
Oktobskaya demonstrated outstanding mobility abilities during her first fight, helping to neutralize machine gun nests and artillery positions while coming under severe fire. Although severely damaged, her tank, “The Fighting Girlfriend,” managed to get through the enemy lines.
She hurried out of the turret while being heavily fired upon to fix her tank. She fixed the tank and dove back in while her fellow crew members fired cover fire. She was elevated to the rank of Sargent as a result of the unit’s collective amazement.
A month later, while “The Fighting Girlfriend” was pelting Novoye Selo, in the Vitebsk region, with fire, a similar incident occurred. Her track was damaged, immobilizing the tank. Sargent Oktobrskaya hurried outside and, with the assistance of another crew member, was able to restart the T-34.
However, her bold move would turn out to be the last two months later. Oktobrskaya attempted to pull the trick again as the tank sustained damage after demolishing entrenched positions and an opposing self-propelled gun. She was able to repair the broken track, but on the way back, she was struck in the head by shell fragments and went into unconsciousness.
After being moved to a military field hospital outside of Kiev, Mariya Oktobrskaya spent two months there in a coma before passing death on March 15, 1944.
Her efforts were not in vain or unappreciated. Her bravery motivated hundreds of women to join the war and contribute, and she was honored as a Soviet Union Hero posthumously.
- Pennington, Reina; Higham, Robin (2003). Amazons to fighter pilots : a biographical dictionary of military women / Vol. 1, A-Q. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. p. 319. OCLC 773504359.
- Sakaida, Henry (20 April 2012). Heroines of the Soviet Union 1941–45. Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN 9781780966922.
- Forczyk, Robert (23 October 2007). Panther vs T-34: Ukraine 1943. Bloomsbury USA. ISBN 9781846031496.