We’re gonna talk about tanks this week. I don’t know about you, but for whatever reason, I had the weird thought the other day about how despite having an interest in military history of many stripes for much of my life, I realized I really know next to nothing about tanks at all. A Wikipedia rabbit hole of related articles eventually led me to this week’s historical badass – one of the fiercest, bravest and craziest tank drivers to ever live.
Born: August 16th, 1905, Crimea, Russian Empire
Died: March 15th, 1944, Fastov, USSR
Occupation: Canner, phone operator, nurse, tank driver
Our story begins in the dying days of the former Russian Empire. Mariya Oktyabrskaya was one of ten children born into a poor peasant family living in the Crimea, then under Russian control, and worked on the family farm as a child. Later, after the Russian Revolution once she was a young woman, she held a number of other jobs, including working in a cannery and as a phone operator. In 1925, she married a Soviet Army Officer, and became very active in her support for the Communist Party, including serving on the Military Wives’ Council, where she trained as a nurse and also learned how to drive vehicles and use weapons.
When World War II broke out and the Nazis starting advancing towards the Eastern Front in 1941, Mariya was one of the many thousands of people who were evacuated away to central Siberia, ending up in Tomsk. Her husband, however, was required to stay behind, and was killed in the battle of Kiev in August 1941. Almost two years passed before Mariya heard the news of his death; when she finally did, she was seething with rage, furious at the invading Germans.
Never one to sit idly by, Mariya chose to take action – she ended up selling literally all of her worldly possessions in order to purchase a T-34 tank for the purpose of donating it to the Red Army. She wrote a letter to Stalin with the following instructions:
“My husband was killed in action defending the motherland. I want revenge on the fascist dogs for his death and for the death of Soviet people tortured by the fascist barbarians. For this purpose I’ve deposited all my personal savings – 50,000 rubles – to the National Bank in order to build a tank. I kindly ask to name the tank ‘Fighting Girlfriend’ and to send me to the front line as a driver of said tank.”
Surprisingly enough, Stalin was actually cool with this, and the Red Army decided to seize the moment as a propaganda opportunity for patriotism. Oktyabrskaya underwent five months of tank driver training – which was actually much longer and more thorough than the vast majority of soldiers assigned to tank battalions – and she and Fighting Girlfriend joined the 26th Guards Tank Brigade in September 1943.
Initially, the other tank drivers were skeptical of her abilities, mostly dismissing her and her crew as a publicity stunt, but their opinion of Mariya began to change once they got involved in battles. On October 21st, 1943, the 26th Guards engaged in battle with Nazi forces outside of Smolensk, pushing the Germans back as they worked to liberate western Russia and the Ukraine. Mariya, at the helm of Fighting Girlfriend, was the first to penetrate the German line of defense, driving head-on at the strongest point of the line. She and her crew single-handedly took out a number of German machine gun nests and anti-tank guns, as well as thirty front-line soldiers. Later, when the tank’s treads were hit by anti-tank artillery fire, Mariya, disregarding her orders, jumped out in the middle of a fierce firefight to fix her tank, with her crew providing covering fire for her while she worked. Despite this absolute insane behavior, she was indeed successful in fixing up Fighting Girlfriend, and was promoted to Sergeant for her bravery in this battle.
On November 17th-18th, 1943, after a night-time raid in Vitebsk by the Nazis, Oktyabrskaya’s tank was again hit by heavy artillery fire. Once again, she leapt out, in the middle of heavy fire, to repair Fighting Girlfriend, with crewmates providing enough covering fire to keep her safe during her repair work. After warding off German forces for two days as a single tank, they rejoined the main unit, and helped the Red Army re-capture the town of Novoye Selo.
Through all of this, Mariya never lost sight of why it was that she was so fierce in her fighting. In a letter to her sister, she wrote, “I’ve had my baptism by fire. I beat the bastards. Sometimes I’m so angry I can’t even breathe.”
Mariya fought her last battle on January 17th, 1944, as Soviet forces worked to recapture the village of Shvedy in the Vitebsk region, in what is now Belarus. As Fighting Girlfriend once again rolled through the front lines, taking out German trenches and artillery defenses, she was hit and immobilized once again by anti-tank shells. Oktyabrskaya once again leapt from the cockpit out into the firefight, determined once again to repair her beloved tank; unfortunately, a shell exploded right nearby, hitting her with shrapnel in the head and sending her into a coma. She passed away two months later on March 15th, 1944, at a military hospital near Kiev, and was posthumously awarded the Hero Of The Soviet Union, the highest military award available to those who served in the Red Army. Mariya Oktyabrskaya became the first female tank driver to ever earn this award, and one of just 96 women total who belong to this extremely prestigious honor.
It takes real guts to drive a tank through the heat of battle – and even more to leave its safety to fix things to keep on fighting. Pretty amazing what the power of love can do for somebody in their darkest times, huh?