Although women’s participation in World War II was more active than it may seem at first glance, their role was primarily in the rearguard, working in the war industry or in auxiliary positions in logistics, for example. Of course, there was no shortage of cases of female partisans and guerrillas, but the almost absolute protagonism was played by the Soviets, who were in the front line and have left many names for posterity as snipers or pilots, for example. The case of Mariya Oktyabrskaya is a bit special because she not only drove a tank but also paid for its manufacture with her own money. And all to avenge her husband’s death.
Her name was Mariya Vasilyevna Garagulia and she was born in Kiyat, a village in the Taurid governorate of Crimea, where she was born in 1905. Ukrainian, therefore. As one of more than ten children, her family could not live in abundance but neither in poverty, since they were kulaks (the highest stratum of the peasantry). This did not free them from being suspected of being resistant to the revolution and they had to submit to the collectivization law that Stalin enacted in January 1930 to redistribute their lands and surplus production.
There were some kulaks executed and others reinserted in work camps; Mariya’s family was given the intermediate destination, which was deportation. They escaped from the dreaded Siberia but ended up beyond the Urals, in a village in the Sverdlovsk Oblast called Bayanovka. However, she did not have to make that long journey because by then, since 1925, she was already married to Ilya Phaedotovich Riyadnenko, a cavalry officer, and they agreed together to adopt the name Oktyabrskaya (October, an allusion to the Oktyabrskaya Revolyutsiya or October Revolution).
Since she was young she had left the farm, living first in Sevastopol and then in Dhzankoy, to work in a cannery or as a telephone operator without ever losing her characteristic elegance. Her husband’s profession forced her to leave the stable working world to follow him in the various assignments around Crimea. In contact with that barracks world, Mariya learned to drive, to practice first aid and even to use various weapons, while at the same time integrating herself into the corresponding military wives’ council that formed each unit: “Marry a military man and you will serve in the army; being an officer’s wife is not only a proud woman, but also a responsible one,” she once said.
In the summer of 1940, Ilya was appointed commissar of the 134th Howitzer Regiment, stationed in Chisinau (the capital of Moldova), because at that time the Soviet Union took Bessarabia (a region that encompassed Moldova and part of the Ukraine) from Romania, as well as northern Bukovina (the northeastern part of the Carpathians), taking advantage of the fact that the world’s attention was focused on the fall of France. About a year later, World War II took a turn with Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the USSR by the Germans, initiating what the Soviets called the Great Patriotic War.
Mariya was evacuated to Tomsk (Siberia) together with her sister, other relatives and the wives of the officers. There she resumed her activity as a telephone operator until in 1943, after almost two years without news of her husband, she received a terrible explanation: Ilya, who had been transferred to the 206th Rifle Division, had been shot down by a machine-gun blast while leading a charge near Kiev, in August 1941. Suddenly, life was changing radically for this woman, and she was to be in charge of intensifying this transformation.
The first thing she tried was to volunteer to go to the front, but she was rejected for two strong reasons: on the one hand, she was already thirty-eight years old; on the other, she was suffering from tuberculosis. She did not resign herself and had an idea as unheard of as it was daring. In a personal interpretation of the government’s fund-raising campaign, Mariya and her sister sold all their possessions and worked for several months as embroiderers to raise fifty thousand rubles to pay for a tank; a remarkable figure considering that the average salary was two hundred rubles.
Today it sounds a little strange but at that time it was not uncommon in many countries for individuals to pay for weapons to be donated to the military, especially in time of war. In this case it was as uncommon as a T-34, the mid-size tank that since 1940 was replacing the T-26 light trucks (whose performance in the Spanish Civil War and the Winter War against Finland had been highly questioned). Engineer Mikhail Koshkin equipped it with higher armor and a 76 mm gun (later increased to 85).
Mariya wrote a telegram to Stalin expressing her desire to avenge her husband by killing “fascist dogs”, explaining how she had already deposited the money and requesting to drive the tank herself, as she knew how to drive and shoot; She even, she added, had obtained the distinction of Voroshilov’s Shooter (referring to the OSOAVIAJIM, Union of Assistance Societies for Defense and Aviation-Chemical Construction of the USSR, a society founded by Marshal Kliment Voroshilov to train civilians and to constitute with them a kind of civilian reserve force that came to have forty-one battalions).
Stalin responded laconically but affectionately by giving his approval, and so in the spring of 1943 Mariya began a five-month training as a tanker at the Academy in Omsk. It was a novelty in every sense because until then the urgency of the situation forced the crews of the tanks to learn as they went along, at the front, after basic training; so Mariya was a pioneer in that and in being the first woman in the country to graduate, just ahead of the famous Aleksandra Samusenko. By October she was already on the front lines of what was known as the Western Front, which for the rest of the warring parties was the Eastern Front.
In the tank, which had been named the Fighting Girlfriend, Mariya, as well as a driver and mechanic, shared a cabin with Commander Piotr Chebotko, gunner Guennádiy Yaskó and radio operator Mikhail Galkin. They were attached to the 2nd Battalion of the 26th Brigade of the 2nd Tank Corps of the Soviet Guard, popularly known as Tatsinsky (for having liberated the Cossack people of the same name) and whose most famous intervention would be in the Battle of Kursk. There is no record of the tank participation in the battle, but there are records of other battles that took place that autumn, to the astonishment of all those who believed that Mariya’s presence was merely propagandistic.
The first was on October 21, with the tank maneuvering to destroy several machine gun nests and enemy artillery positions. In the midst of a curtain of fire, Mariya went outside to make some repairs and although it was foolhardy – in fact she did so by disobeying orders – and the tank was hit several more times, she earned herself a promotion to sergeant. A month later they were fighting in Nóvoye Seló, (in the Vitebsk Oblast, Belarus) when, during a night battle, the Fighting Girlfriend broke through the German lines.
During the action, the tank was hit by an artillery shell that wounded Mariya. Under the circumstances, she had to remain in the turret waiting for evacuation for no less than two days. The battalion’s officers made an example of her and her legend began to take shape, which grew in January 1944 when she returned to the front and broke through the German defences in the context of the Leningrad-Novgorod Offensive, which aimed to break the siege of the city.
It was operating in the village of Shved, near Vitbesk, where it destroyed a self-propelled shell, when in the midst of the pandemonium the Fighting Girlfriend was again hit in a transmission wheel by a Shell anti-tank. With her classic recklessness, Mariya went back down to fix it, being injured in the head – with special affectation in one eye – by several splinters from an explosion and being left unconscious. She would no longer wake up.
This time she was quickly taken to Field Hospital No. 478 and from there airlifted to Fastiv Hospital near Kiev, where they discovered that the fragment had penetrated through the eye to the brain and the wound was very serious. In fact, she went into a coma and remained there for two months while she was visited by her colleagues and commanders, some of whom took it upon themselves to award her the decoration she had earned: the Order of the Great Patriotic War of the First Degree; then she would be given two more, that of Heroine of the Soviet Union and the Order of Lenin, but already posthumously because she died in Smolensko on March 15, 1944, while being transferred to Moscow. There she lies in a place called, quite properly, Memory of Heroes.
What happened to the Fighting Girlfriend, meanwhile? Well, its name was already frequent in Soviet tanks, but since then it has been passing, as a legacy, from one tank to another as they were destroyed; it is known that the fourth one reached the Prussian city of Könisberg, today’s Russian Kaliningrad. Moreover, at the end of the war the Guard Tank Regiment adopted the tradition of always calling some of its units by that name. A nice tribute.
Sources: Heroines of the Soviet Union 1941–45 (Henry Sakaida-Christa Hook) / Amazons to Fighter Pilots (Reina Pennington y Robin D. S. Higham) / 100 Stories. The Lesser Known History of Humanity (John Hinson) / Bygone Badass Broads. 52 Forgotten Women Who Changed the World (MacKenzi Lee) / Guts & Glory. World War II (Ben Thompson) /Wikipedia