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The extraordinary women of the Second World War

Posted on 27 Oct 2021

A historian turned sniper, a marker of unexploded bombs, and one of the world’s most powerful women. These personal stories from 'Total War' showcase the unimaginable bravery and everyday realities of five women during World War II.

1. Lyudmila Pavlichenko

When Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Lyudmila, a historian, abandoned her university career to join the army. Rejecting the chance to be a nurse, she became one of the Red Army’s first female snipers. By mid-1942, Lyudmila had been credited with killing 309 enemy soldiers.

After being wounded, Lyudmila was sent on a propaganda tour of the United States, Canada and Britain. In America she met President Roosevelt and even inspired a song, ‘Miss Pavlichenko’, by the folk singer Woody Guthrie. In Britain, Lyudmila’s achievements reinforced popular admiration for the fighting spirit of the Soviet people. She features on the cover of this Soviet book, produced for an English-language readership.

© Imperial War Museum

2. Lakshmi Sahgal

Lakshmi, an Indian Nationalist, was nursing prisoners of war in Singapore when she joined the Indian National Army (INA), the epaulettes of which are shown below. Lakshmi created a regiment of women called the Rani of Jhansi Regiment with the support of the Japanese Army. The female volunteers were trained in the same way as men, preparing to fight the British in Burma. However, before this could happen, the INA and Japanese troops were defeated. Lakshmi was arrested and imprisoned by the British.

© Imperial War Museum

3. Joan Mortimer

On 31 August 1940, the RAF airfield at Biggin Hill in Kent was heavily attacked. Joan (pictured left, below), a sergeant in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, was in the armoury when the air raid started. Although surrounded by high explosives, she stayed at her telephone switchboard to send vital messages to the defence posts around the airfield. Joan then picked up a bundle of red flags and hurried out to mark the unexploded bombs scattered around the airfield, continuing her work even when one went off close by.

Joan was awarded a Military Medal for her bravery. Also pictured below is her Defence Medal and War Medal.

© Imperial War Museum

4. Marian Mills

After joining the Auxiliary Territorial Service, Marian became a radar operator with an anti-aircraft unit stationed at Dartford in Kent. At night, when the ‘action stations’ alarm was sounded, Marian’s job was to dash to the power unit and turn it on with a heavy cranking handle. Once they had power, a radar transmitter and receiver searched for the target. As a woman, Marian was not allowed to shoot the anti-aircraft guns, despite being on the front line as shells and debris fell around her.

© Imperial War Museum

5. Soong Mei-ling

Soong Mei-ling was one of the world’s most powerful women. As the wife of China’s nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-shek, she travelled to the United States to win support for her husband and the plight of China. Having lived in America, she spoke excellent English. Soong became the first Chinese national and only the second woman to address both houses of the US Congress. She established schools for the orphans of Chinese soldiers and encouraged the formation of the Flying Tigers, a group of around a hundred American volunteer pilots who fought in China.

© Imperial War Museum

These stories are extracted from Total War: A People’s History of the Second World War. The companion to the much-anticipated new Second World War and Holocaust galleries at the Imperial War Museums, London, Total War is an innovative illustrated history of the Second World War, told with the help of personal stories from across the globe.

Total War

A People’s History of the Second World War Kate Clements, Paul Cornish, Vikki Hawkins, Margaret MacMillan Out of stock