Tanks in History: Women Tankers in the Red Army

March 8, 2021

It has been said that war is not a woman’s business. In the 20th century, this saying became irrelevant. Women in the military already were a common sight during the First World War, though they largely held roles that kept them away from the front lines, such as that of the nurse. Then, in the 1930s, women more often began to take up vocations that previously were not considered suitable for their gender. These jobs involved tank operation as well as tank production. And while in most countries only assistant occupations, which did not involve military operations, remained for women, the situation in the Soviet Union was completely different. Women tankers were rare, but they still went to war.

In the Soviet Union, the appearance of women tank drivers was not a harsh result of the conditions of the Great Patriotic War. These tankers, in fact, were present long before the war. Klim Voroshilov was one of the people responsible for the emergence of women in the tank forces. On May 13, 1932, the Military Academy of Mechanization and Motorization of the Red Army was created. Among those who went to work there was Voroshilov’s protégé, Anastasia Petrovna Poklonova. In 1933, Poklonova began work as a military representative at Plant No.37. Later, in 1937, she was sent to Plant No.185 in Leningrad, where, among other tasks, she participated in the tests of the TPP-2 “jumping tank.” She came to the plant at a difficult time: the tank industry was running feverish with distrust and the search for saboteurs was at its peak. Poklonova was among those affected; she was temporarily dismissed from the army, but in 1939 she was reinstated. In Leningrad, she met J.Ya. Kotin, whom she later married. Poklonova (Kotina) never got to the front lines but continued to work in the tank industry.

Anastasia Petrovna Poklonova, one of the first Soviet woman tankers

Lyudmila Ivanovna Kalinina had a similar fate. Like Poklonova, she graduated from the Military Academy of Mechanization and Motorization of the Red Army. However, she worked not as a military representative, but as a test engineer. In 1940, Kalinina took part in control tests of the T-40 amphibious reconnaissance tanks. During the Great Patriotic War, she commanded a repair and restoration regiment and achieved great success in this position.

Despite the emergence of the first women tankers, before the war they were rather the exception than the rule. They came to the Military Academy of Mechanization and Motorization of the Red Army under patronage, usually ending up at plants. They were not placed in the advanced units. The situation remained almost unchanged even by 1941.

Changes began to occur only in the second year of the war. One of the first who became a front-line woman tanker was Ekaterina Alekseevna Petlyuk. In early July 1942, she was enlisted as a mechanic-driver of a small T-60 tank, to which she later gave her own name “Malyutka” (“Baby”). As part of the 56th Tank Brigade, Petlyuk took an active part in the battle for Stalingrad. By the end of January 1943, the vehicles of the 56th Tank Brigade were added to another unit, the 90th Tank Brigade. Petlyuk was awarded the Order of the Red Star for the battles in Stalingrad. Later Petlyuk received another tank, the T-70. She continued to fight in it as part of the 91st Tank Brigade. She was wounded several times, though, and in the spring of 1944, she was sent to the Ulyanovsk Tank School. Her wounds prevented her from reaching the front lines of battle.

It should be mentioned that there was one more “Malyutka” tank. The funds for its construction were collected by the children of the Omsk region in 1943. Fundraising was initiated by Ada Zanegina. Often this tank is confused with Petlyuk’s “Baby,” but these are two different vehicles. Fundraising began in February 1943, six months after Ekaterina Alekseevna received her T-60 from Plant No.264.

Ekaterina Alekseevna Petlyuk and, most likely, the same T-60 with its own name “Malyutka”

Women tankers became more widespread in 1943. They often got much more solid combat vehicles – a T-34 instead of a “baby tank.” Among those who became a woman tanker was Sergeant Maria Vasilyevna Oktyabrskaya. She had wanted to go to the front lines for almost two years after her husband died in August 1941. For her, the path turned out to be extremely unusual. In early 1943, she contributed 50,000 rubles to the tank construction fund, sending a letter to Stalin. Such perseverance was rewarded. In May 1943, Oktyabrskaya was sent to the Omsk Tank School, where she was trained to drive the T-34. By that time, she was already in her 40s and suffering from tuberculosis of the cervical vertebra, but the desire to avenge her husband’s death gave her strength.

That’s how she became a mechanic-driver of the “Fighting Girlfriend” tank, which was built partly from her own savings. Sergeant of the guard Oktyabrskaya made it to the warfront in October 1943, where fought in the 26th Guards Tank Brigade. She distinguished herself in the battle for the first time at Novoye Selo on November 18, 1943. The crew of the “Fighting Girlfriend” destroyed an anti-tank gun and up to 30 German soldiers. During the battle, the tank was hit and Oktyabrskaya herself was wounded, but the crew did not leave the vehicle. Instead, they remained in place, fighting off the enemy for two days. She fought in the brigade until January 17, 1944. Shortly before that, information about the crew of the “Fighting Girlfriend” tank was published. Unfortunately, the tank was hit again, this time during the battle near the Krynki station of the Vitebsk region. The “Fighting Girlfriend” got to crush two anti-tank guns before that. During the evacuation of the tank, Oktyabrskaya was seriously wounded. In February 1944, she was awarded the Order of the Patriotic War of the 1st Class, but Maria Vasilyevna would never leave the hospital. She died on March 15, 1944, and posthumously received the title of Hero of the Soviet Union and as well as the Order of Lenin.

Maria Vasilievna Oktyabrskaya and her tank “Fighting Girlfriend”

The name “Fighting Girlfriend” became almost a household name for tanks. It was used by at least several T-34s, so that often another vehicle was mistaken for the Oktyabrskaya tank. Still, women tankers continued to be rather the exception to the rule. However, in 1944 they still appeared in active units of the army, and no longer only as drivers.

Evgenia Sergeevna Kostrikova pursued her cherished goal for a long time. From 1941 to 1943 she worked as a nurse, but then she was sent to the Kazan Tank School, from which she ultimately left as the commander of a T-34. She fought in the 5th Guards Mechanized Corps and reached Prague in her tank.

Lieutenant Nina Ilyinichna Bondar became a T-34 commander even earlier. Her tanking career began in 1942. She continued until the end of the war as part of the 237th Tank Brigade. She was wounded four times, mentioned in military documents on many occasions, and decorated with orders.

To date, more than a dozen women tankers are known to have been involved in the hostilities. And even more women worked on the home front.

The Boyko spouses, the crew of the only heavy tank commanded by a woman tanker

Finally, it is worth mentioning Alexandra Leontievna Boyko. She was not just a tank commander, She was not just a tank commander, but the only woman in history to command a heavy tank. . Moreover, the crew of her “Kolyma” tank was a family one. In January 1943, the Boykos from Magadan contributed 50,000 rubles for the construction of a tank, with a request that they be appointed the crew of this vehicle. They were sent to the Chelyabinsk Tank School, where they trained for several roles, including that of heavy tank crew. For a long time, Alexandra and Ivan Boyko were unable to get to the front lines. They managed to achieve their goal only in May 1944. By that time, the Chelyabinsk Kirov Factory was producing new combat vehicles: IS-2 heavy tanks. They were enlisted as a tank crew in the 48th Guards Heavy Tank Regiment. Alexandra became the commander of the vehicle, and Ivan became the driver-mechanic, both of which were positions with the rank of officer. During the summer battles, the family crew of the “Kolyma” tank were responsible for destroying several enemy tanks, including one that was destroyed in battle on July 27, 1944. In this battle, the tank’s crew was wounded. The trip to the front was short. Nevertheless, it was effective.

Author and Source photos: Yuri Pasholok

Translated by Svetlana Ivanovskaya