The Eastern Front of World War II,1dubbed by Russians as the “Great Patriotic War,” was history’s largest military encounter. The war (22 June 1941 – 9 May 1945) led to roughly 30 million deaths of combatants and civilians. Here we look at the life of a brave woman, Mariya Oktyabrskaya, widow of a Red Army officer. Notably, she once stated (in Russian): “Marry a serviceman, and you serve in the army: an officer’s wife is not only a proud woman, but also responsible title.”
Mariya was born in 1905 to a poor Ukrainian family in Crimea, Soviet Union. Upon her marriage to a Soviet army officer, she, being a loyal Communist, showed interest in military affairs. Also, she took training as a nurse in the army.
On 16 August 1905, Mariya was born (birth name Mariya Garagulya) in the peninsula of Crimea in the Soviet Union. The girl belonged to a large and poor Ukranian family that bore ten children. Having spent her childhood and teenage years in Sevastopol, she later shifted to Djankoi and then to Simferopol. Before her marriage, she took jobs in a cannery2and later as a telephone operator.
In 1925, Mariya married Ilya Ryadnenko, who was on training to become a Red Army officer. The couple ardently supported the 1917 October Revolution3that saw the overthrow of Tsarist rule by what later became the Communist Party. In fact, the couple changed their surname to “October” (Oktyabrskaya) in honor of the revolution.
Post marriage, Mariya showed zeal in matters that were regarded as highly unusual among woman at the time, particularly in the military. Moreover, she learned to operate a machine-gun and drive cars, and also took training as a medic in the army.
When the news of her husband’s death while fighting the Nazi German forces reached Mariya Oktyabrskaya, she determined to take revenge. She sold all her possessions to donate a tank for war, which she titled “Fighting Girlfriend” (“Боевая подруга”).
The Eastern Front of World War II commenced in June 1941. As per instructions, military family members including Mariya Oktyabrskaya were relocated to Tomsk in Siberia. Reportedly, on 9 August 1941, her husband Ilya succumbed to a machine gun burst while commanding his men during a battle near Kiev.
Due to conflicting reports, it is difficult to ascertain whether Mariya received the news immediately or two years later. However, the news enraged Mariya greatly, and she resolved to enter the war scene herself. Donating a tank to war was a costly undertaking. Not only did Mariya sell her possessions but she also engaged in handicrafts to gather the required sum of 50,000 rubles. Furthermore, she penned a letter to General Secretary Joseph Stalin for his approval to donate and operate her olive green T-34 medium tank “Fighting Girlfriend.”
After completing her tank training, she took part in battles in Smolensk and Vitebsk in 1943 and displayed her bravery and skill in tank driving. Reportedly, when her tank took damage, she would disregard orders and come out amidst heavy gunfire to repair it.
In 1943, Mariya took a tank training that ran for five months, an unusually long period. Generally, tanks entered the battlefield almost immediately. Regardless, she was posted as a driver and mechanic in September to the 26th Guards Tank Brigade.
The first tank battle she took part in began on 21 October 1943. During the intense fight, Mariya unveiled excellent maneuvering skills and played her role in the destruction of enemy’s artillery guns and machine gun nests.4In a risky move, she would boldly come out of the tank amidst heavy gunfire when her tank needed repairing, despite orders to stay in the tank. Her heroics earned her a raise to the rank of Sergeant.
In another battle that took place during the night of 17-18 November in Vitebsk, Mariya further exhibited her driving skills. Again, she repeated her tactic of repairing her tank with aid from a crewman when the tank tracks took a significant blow to a German artillery shell explosion that halted her advance.
However, the battle on 17 January 1944 was Mariya’s last participation in the war. After losing consciousness when shell fragments hit her head, she fell into a coma and died two months later. Posthumously, Mariya Oktyabrskaya received the highest Soviet Union honor for her feat – Hero of the Soviet Union.
The final battle Mariya took part in was a night battle on 17 January 1944 at Shvedy (village near Vitebsk). The attack started well for Mariya as she drove her tank through the Nazi German defenses. She further destroyed machine-gun nests and numerous entrenched positions.5
In the middle of the battle, her T-34 took a blow in the tracks by an anti-tank shell that rendered it immobile. On this occasion, she came out and repaired the tank, but shell fragments knocked her head. Subsequently, she lost consciousness and was admitted after the battle to a military field hospital6near the city of Kiev. For two months, Mariya remained in a coma and passed away on 15 March 1944.
In August (post death), the Soviet Union’s highest distinction for bravery “Hero of the Soviet Union” was conferred on Mariya Oktyabrskaya. She was the first of a handful of female tank drivers to receive the honor.
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