|By Olga Troshina
The defenders of the Motherland in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945 included women too. Women joined the army on a voluntary basis and became pilots, members of tank crews, snipers. One of the sniper companies was formed from women graduates of a sniper school near Moscow. The company was known as “the company of crack shooters”, and its members demonstrated feats of heroism fighting their way through to Berlin. From February till May 1945 the company was commanded by Guards Lieutenant Nina Lobkovskaya.
“I was born in Siberia. My mum was a teacher and my dad – a mining engineer,” Nina Lobkovskaya says about herself. “There were five children in my family, and I was the eldest. In the 1930s we had to move to Tajikistan in Central Asia, because my father was ill, and the doctors recommended a warmer climate. Tajikistan was then a Soviet republic. I finished secondary school there and left for the front from there too.”
Like many of her peers, Nina dreamed of university degree and was planning to go to technical college after school. The war changed everything...
“We were all outraged at the news of the war”, Nina Lobkovskaya recalls. “Young people were very patriotic and longed to defend their Motherland against the invaders, to drive the enemy out. We were bursting to go into action.”
Nina Lobkovskaya wrote in her memoirs: “At first we only learned of the war from radio and newspaper reports, and we thought that the enemy would be kicked out in less than a year. But the Nazis had advanced as far as Moscow outskirts before they were stopped. In the autumn of 1941 the our city began to receive the evacuated, and soon after echelons with the wounded started to arrive. One by one people left for the front, and they were often somebody I knew or my friends’ relations. My father left for the front in 1942. So our family was in it too.”
Shortly afterwards machine-gunner Alexei Lobkovsky died a hero’s death fighting for the city of Voronezh.
“Hatred for the enemy that was causing so much human suffering choked me,” Nina Lobkovskaya wrote in her book of recollections. “That hatred cemented my resolution to join the army. But it wasn’t that easy – women were not encouraged to fight.”
To be closer to the action, 17-year-old Nina enters a medical institute and tends to the wounded in a hospital. In October 1942 her long-cherished dream comes true. She is sent to study at the newly formed women’s sniper school in the village of Veshnyaki, near Moscow. 300 most physically fit girls had been selected for the course. Many of their beloved ones were fighting on the fronts or had been killed. And all of them, just like Nina, were longing to get to the frontlines to crush the enemy.
The winter of 1942 was exceptionally severe. Every day the studies lasted for 10 to 12 hours, in which Nina and her fellow students learned to crawl on their stomach, entrench themselves effectively and in no time and construct as effective a camouflage and shoot at moving targets. At last, nine months later, there came the field day.
“The day we had been dreaming so long of arrived at last,” Nina Lobkovskaya
wrote in her memoirs. “In the glittering sun that was reflected in windows,
with duffle bags, sniper rifles and rolled overcoats behind our shoulders,
we marched through the streets of Moscow to the Riga Railway Station, singing
“A Farewell to Our Beloved City”…
It was decided to create a sniper company from the group and dispatch its members to where they were most needed. At a special ceremony the girls were handed sniper record books, which registered each shot German soldier or officer, and wished every success in hitting the targets. That marked the beginning of the front biography of sniper Nina Lobkovskaya…
“When we arrived, we spent the days in constant observation of the enemy’s frontline,” Nina Lobkovskaya recalls. “When we came back for a night and went to bed, our memory held the picture of the terrain in every detail, with every leaf, every blade of grass standing out. And, as we arrived back to our observation positions the following day, we noticed the slightest of changes. This observation technique we had acquired at the sniper school proved very useful.”
Other skills mastered at the sniper school were very useful too, and, above all, the ability to hit the target. A sniper cannot make mistakes. And each girl in the sniper company was eager to open a combat score. Such a chance was fairly quick to come. The sniper company received the baptism of fire while covering an audacious raid of Soviet scouts into the enemy rear. In the first month after the arrival Nina Lobkovskaya shot six enemy soldiers and officers. A front newspaper wrote about her: “Nina Lobkovskaya has a sharp eye and steady hand. Her rifle never misses. Dozens of Nazis have been sent to kingdom come by the fearless lady sniper.”
By May 1945 the number of killed Nazis in Nina’s record book increased to 89. That was her personal score with the enemy, which inflicted so much suffering on her much beloved Motherland. One incident stays particularly bright in her memory:
“It happened in the Kalinin Region,” Nina Lobkovskaya recalls. “My partner and I were summoned to a place where our soldiers were shot daily. No one could tell where the shooting came from. So we started observation. We spent a whole week, examining the area in every detail. We would take up position before sunrise, so as not to be spotted by the enemy. And one day, quite unexpectedly, I looked into my sniper eyepiece and saw a German in a white shirt, a high-collar jacket draped over his shoulders and a peaked cap. I was shocked because he was so close! I sized up the distance and aimed. It was a hasty shot, so the bullet only smashed his cap badge. He understood that the shooting came from a sniper, shook his fist at me and disappeared behind his disguise. I remember him well enough: a young man, rather good-looking, I’d say. I couldn’t sleep that night, my mind was racing as I was trying to recall every detail, every trifle. From then on, a hunting game began, each stalking the other. I felt his presence, and he felt mine, I could tell that. The duel lasted for a week. One day I got careless and let him spot me. He fired right away. The bullet hit the metal setting of the back-sight, ricocheted into the helmet and singed my temple. As I saw blood, I thought of one thing only: to fire back. So I snatched my partner’s rifle and began to watch him from another angle. I knew he was bound to reveal himself somehow. And he did, for I soon saw the line of his helmet above the bushes. I took aim below that line and shot. No more shots were fired from the spot. As it became clear afterwards, it was not a sniper but an officer practicing his skills by shooting at our soldiers. I was satisfied, but I will remember his hand clenched into a fist shaking at me for the rest of my life.”
In the autumn of 1943 the 3rd crack army was engaged in heavy offensive battles in the western direction. The kilometers long marches across marshy terrain were particularly exhausting. “The marching boots and rolling wheels had turned the mud road into a spongy bog under incessant rains,” Nina Lobkovskaya wrote in her memoirs. “Wet all through and knee-deep in dirt, we held one another under the arms not to fall asleep, and, if someone dozed off or fell down, the comrades walking next to him helped him up.”
As a result of the offensive, Soviet troops liberated the city of Nevel not far from the eastern border of Belorussia in October 1943. Nevel was important strategically, and the capture of it created favorable conditions for Soviet advance in Belorussia and the Baltic Region. Despite the fierce counter-attacks from the enemy the Soviet troops held out. And the women snipers fought alongside with men. In one day of the offensive they destroyed scores of Nazis. And in the intervals between battles the girls dressed wounds and carried the wounded to shelter.
For excellence in battle the women sniper company was awarded the title of Guards Company. Many of the company’s fighters were awarded with orders and medals and five – Nina Lobkovskaya among them – received the Order of Red Banner.
After fierce offensives came a lull, and units of the 3rd crack army went into defense. All the girl snipers received a month’s holiday, except Nina Lobkovskaya, who was appointed commander of a platoon formed from reinforcements.
“I was so annoyed and hurt because I couldn’t go to see my family, I even cried a bit,” Nina Lobkovskaya wrote in her memoirs. “But there was nothing to be done about it, so I pulled my “sniper”-self together and went to the division with the reinforcement.”
All the newly arrived girls were volunteers and they came from different corners of the country. They belonged to different ethnic groups, but ethnic identity counted little, for they were actually one family, sharing the joys and the sorrows.
“After we came back from the frontline, we got together in the
dug-out and sang songs,” Nina Lobkovskaya recalls. “The girls were such
good singers and they sang war songs mostly, sometimes romances. They sang
humorous folk verse too and composed it themselves on the topic of the
day. So they sang about their rifles, which they guarded as the apple of
the eye and carried anywhere with them and even slept with them.”
Nina Lobkovskaya recalls with particular warmth the fatherly attitude to them, 18-year-olds, on the part of men fighters from army leaders to privates. The soldiers readily agreed to help locate an enemy sniper or gunner and covered with gunfire when the girl snipers sat in ambush on no man’s territory.
“The soldiers were unbelievably good to us,” Nina Lobkovskaya says, “particularly scouts, young guys our age. The girls fell in love with scouts or artillerymen and many got married afterwards. I’ve preserved the warmest memories of the soldiers.”
Some, however, were openly skeptical. Once an army captain suggested that Nina demonstrate her shooting skills. The suggested challenge was to hit a small circle of paper the size of a wristwatch shooting with a handgun from a fairly large distance. “You hit it, and you get my watch,” the captain promised. At first Nina was taken aback, for she had had no chance until then to shoot from a handgun. But she couldn’t turn down the suggestion, so she stared at the handgun for some time, carefully took aim and fired. She hit the circle, though not in the middle. The captain started to dispute her victory, for he was reluctant to part with the watch. But the officers standing by demanded him give the watch and the captain had to give in.
In the course of heavy battles in the Baltic region in 1944 Nina Lobkovskaya was seriously wounded in the leg and was taken to hospital, from where she just ran away back to her army unit to be able to fight on – first on the territory of Poland, and then in Germany. She wrote in her book of recollections: “Troops of the 1st Belorussian front crossed the German border on January 29, 1945. Next to a sign indicating the direction of Berlin was a huge poster with the following text scribbled on it with someone’s big and callous hand: “There it is, the damned Nazi den!”… All of us were happy to have survived to that day, when we were fighting the enemy on its territory.”
In March 1945 the sniper company was ordered to provide the defense of a highway section between two villages to stop a big Nazi unit that had broken the siege from crossing it. After several attempts at breakthrough the enemy was defeated. It never occurred to the Nazis that the highway was defended by girl snipers. And the girls, along with stopping the enemy, captured 27 German soldiers and officers. That was only one of the assignments, and they coped with it perfectly well.
As they fought the enemy, the girls were dreaming of victory, which, they hoped, would come soon enough and they would come back home and change from army uniform into light summer dresses. And they fought hard for this dream to come true.
Their dreams were coming true fairly soon… The defeat of Nazi Germany was announced on May 8th 1945.
“Victory Day, so longed for in all those years of suffering, came at last…” Nina Lobkovskaya wrote in her memoirs. People were crying with joy and kissed and hugged one another for the feeling of happiness that flooded them. And whoever was the first to report the good news was picked up and rocked by dozens of hands to the gleeful cries: “Hurrah! Hurrah! Victory!”
Nina Lobkovskaya’s wartime awards include the Medals “For the Liberation of Warsaw”, “For the Capture of Berlin”, “For Victory over Germany” and “For Courage”. The awards speak of her personal contribution to the common victory.
She never regretted her decision to go and fight the enemy at the frontlines,
believing that defending one’s Motherland is the greatest happiness on
Guards Lieutenant Nina Lobkovskaya was just twenty in the victorious year of 1945. A wartime poet described her as “just a girl, nose turned-up and mouth tender like a kid’s.” And that was her – a charming girl with a teasing smile who looks at you from an old photograph. Together with her sisters-in-arms she took on her fragile shoulders an unbearable burden and carried it to the end. And Victory was her reward.