Traditionally, only men were soldiers. It was considered a ‘masculine’ job that was unfit for women. However, during WW1, the ‘1st Russian Women's Battalion of Death’ was introduced. This was the first time women legally fought in war, in the modern era.

The Soviet Union or USSR was the only country that allowed women to fight on the front line during WW2. Despite this, the Soviet army was still made up of about 97% men. However, the Red (Soviet) Army was very large. It consisted of nearly 35 million people. This means that about 1 million women fought for the USSR, on the front lines.

Sometimes, they would be posted in regular battalions, alongside the men, and other times they may be put into special battalions, that consisted of only women. The first female fighter ace was the Russian Lydia Litvyak. She was known as the 'White Lily of Stalingrad’. She shot down over a dozen German aircraft before she herself was killed in action in 1943.

Many Russian women were deployed as snipers. Female USSR snipers ended up getting over 11 000 confirmed kills, despite there only being nearly 2 500 snipers. Lyudmila Pavlichenko and Roza Shanina were both Red Army snipers that are quite well known and were very good at their job.

A postage stamp dedicated to Lyudmila Pavlichenko, a Soviet war hero.

Lyudmila was the best female sniper of all time, and one of the top ones overall, even with men included. She was credited with a whopping 309 confirmed kills. She received the Hero of the Soviet Union award. Roza was also an incredibly good sniper. She got 59 confirmed kills.

Two Red Army snipers.

Nearly 200 000 women who fought for the USSR were decorated, and 89 of them eventually received the Soviet Union's highest award, the Hero of the Soviet Union. Women from all different sorts of roles received this award, such as pilots, snipers, machine gunners, tank crew members and partisans, as well as in auxiliary roles.

In other countries, women were allowed to serve in the military, as things other than nurses, however, they were all non-combatant roles. The US created the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), which attracted about 150 000 women. It allowed women to help the war effort, but without being a nurse. The Brits had a similar division to this; it’s what the Americans modelled theirs off.

Poster encouraging women to join the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC).

Racial segregation still existed in the WAC. Some billets accepted any race, while others turned away African Americans. The goal of the US Army was to make the WAC have at least 10% black women, however, the WAC ended up consisting of only 5.1% black women.

The American Air Force (AAF) was very anxious to get WAC members. 40% of all WAC members ended up at the AAF. They were assigned roles such as weather observers and forecasters, cryptographers, radio operators and repairmen, sheet metal workers, parachute riggers, link trainer instructors, bombsight maintenance specialists, aerial photograph analysts, and control tower operators.

One thing that women in the WAC would do a lot is operate searchlights. A searchlight projects a very large, powerful beam of light in a particular direction. They were mostly used alongside radar to defend against air raids. They would indicate a target for anti-aircraft gunners.

Two women operating a searchlight

General Douglas MacArthur called the WACs ‘my best soldiers’, adding that they worked harder, complained less, and were better disciplined than men. Many generals wanted more of them and proposed to draft women, but the War Department decided it would ‘provoke considerable public outcry and Congressional opposition’.

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