This Ukrainian Orphan Girl Became a World War II Hero

Amongst all feminine World Struggle II fighters to obtain the title of Hero of the Soviet Union, Nina Andreyevna Onilova was one of the vital exceptional, rising from obscure origins to develop into a lethal machine gunner.

Born on April 10, 1921, to a Ukrainian peasant household within the village of Novo-nikolayevka on the Crimean Peninsula, Nina misplaced each mother and father at age 11 and grew up in an orphanage.

“I’ve no household of my very own, and due to this fact all of the persons are my household,” she later wrote.

A Life-Altering Film

The younger woman’s life modified perpetually when she noticed the movie “Chapaev,” launched throughout the USSR in 1934. The moody Soviet propaganda movie centered on the exploits of Crimson Military commander Vasily Chapaev, a Communist hero of the Russian Civil Struggle. With heavy emphasis on peasants warring towards the elites, the movie introduced Soviet beliefs to the display on a grand scale. Political messaging apart, the movie had loads of motion and drama to entertain its audiences.

The film was groundbreaking in its lead feminine character Anka, a machine gunner. In keeping with Communist propaganda, it was solely pure for the movie to depict a Soviet girl partaking in egalitarian political wrestle. However as an alternative of creating Anka right into a nurse or relegating her to a supportive noncombat position, the filmmakers portrayed Anka as a hands-on fighter.

This made the film uncommon — and fairly totally different from what was being seen in Western nations. Whereas American audiences in 1934 watched Claudette Colbert’s ditzy heiress capering alongside Clark Gable in “It Occurred One Evening,” Soviet audiences that very same 12 months witnessed Anka, performed by actress Varvara Myasnikova, romancing a soldier whereas wielding a firearm in guerilla warfare. Throughout that point interval, it was extraordinary anyplace on the planet for a girl to be proven collaborating in fight — rather more so behind a machine gun.

In accord with Socialist Realism type, Soviet filmmakers made Anka’s character seem down-to-earth. Neither superhuman nor glamorous, she is proven as an odd woman devoted to the rugged way of life of a soldier. Though underestimated, she proves her skills and finally earns the respect of her male comrades.

The movie had a profound impact on younger Nina, who was about 13 years outdated when it premiered. Her love of the epic army film was greater than only a passing fancy. Chapaev turned her hero, and Anka turned her position mannequin. She wished to comply with in Anka’s footsteps — actually.  

Like different younger Soviet ladies, Nina spent her days working in a manufacturing unit. Nevertheless, when she was not working, she was learning machine weapons. She joined a paramilitary membership connected to her manufacturing unit and obtained right into a machine gun coaching course, which she handed with a score of “wonderful.”


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Soviet ‘Glass Ceilings’

Becoming a member of the Crimson Military in 1941, Nina utilized to develop into a subject medic within the 54th Rifle Division, also called the Chapaev Division, within the Impartial Coastal Military. The division had inherited a proud historical past, having truly been commanded by Communist hero Chapaev, the protagonist of Nina’s favourite movie, in the course of the Russian Civil Struggle.

“What a pleasure it was for me!” she later wrote of her acceptance into the division. She had fulfilled a dream.

Why did she be a part of as a subject medic? It was the one approach for Nina to go to battle. Regardless of the egalitarian beliefs of Soviet society, some males remained profoundly against permitting ladies into positions of authority or roles perceived as historically male. In a society the place women and men had been proclaimed by the state to be equals, intrepid women like Nina had been in actuality struggling towards glass ceilings. Regardless of her hopes, Nina realized via expertise that actual life was not similar to the idealized socialist films – and that many Soviet army males had attitudes that had been actually not utopian.

After reaching the entrance strains as a medic, Nina tried to affix a machine gun crew. Regardless of all her coaching, she was not allowed to wield a machine gun or tackle a fight position. She was pressured to stay a nurse.

Baptism of Fireplace

Nina proved herself in battle towards the Germans in the course of the Siege of Odessa in 1941. She was treating the wounded when a machine gun close by jammed. The enemy hemmed in nearer because the crew fumbled to get the gun again into working order.

Nina ran to the rescue. She already had mechanical expertise by working towards relentlessly in her free time again on the manufacturing unit in dealing with machine gun elements. She rapidly cleared the jam and took over firing the gun, slicing down advancing German infantry in a hail of bullets.

German troopers armed with an MG-34 machine gun patrol the realm round Odessa in 1941. Nina wielded a machine gun in battle for the primary time towards enemy troops in Odessa. (Polish State Archive)

The crew had been amazed by Nina’s capacity and requested her to affix them. No person questioned her worth as a fighter anymore.

Nevertheless she practically misplaced her likelihood to battle once more after being severely wounded by a mortar blast close to Odessa in September 1941. She was stored in a hospital for nearly two months and authorities did all the pieces they may to make her keep there. Nevertheless Nina obtained launch after fiercely arguing with the medical board.

Defending Sevastopol

Nina went again into motion in the course of the Siege of Sevastopol. The Nazis punished the town with a marketing campaign of unbridled violence to power a give up. But the embers of defiance burned fiercely from underground tunnels and beneath the ruins of crumbled buildings.

“At first look, Sevastopol appeared abandoned and lifeless. This was how the town appeared to the Nazi observers and pilots. Nevertheless it rose to the event throughout moments of hazard, exerting large efforts and mustering monumental power,” wrote Zoya Medvedeva, a fellow Crimson Military feminine soldier who turned buddies with Nina there.

Like Sevastopol, Odessa (proven above) was pummeled by German forces throughout a bitter siege. This 1941 aerial photograph from a German plane reveals the circumstances through which the town’s defenders, together with Nina, fought. (Polish State Archive)

“Fireplace issued from every rock … Skinny smoke issued cautiously from below the ruins, from dugouts and lined trenches … The town was alive; it struggled and had no intention to give up.”

The bloodied but unbowed metropolis of Sevastopol turned a particular place for Nina. She carried copies of Leo Tolstoy’s “Sevastopol Sketches.” The famed Russian creator, who fought at Sevastopol in the course of the Crimean Struggle, examined the character of sacrifices in battle and contemplated the which means of heroism. Nina scribbled appreciative remarks into the margins, corresponding to “How true!” or “I felt the identical approach!”

Nina turned keen on a battle music rallying braveness for her native Crimea, entitled “The Sea Spreads Large Close to the Native Crimean Shores.” The rollicking, emotional tune was a favourite of the Chapaev Division and was normally sung by native males of the Crimson Military. She wrote down the lyrics and stored them along with her.

Distinguished Service

As Nina made buddies across the metropolis, she taught others to be resourceful. She requested native manufacturing unit staff skilled to make pots and pans to craft spare elements for her machine gun in case of emergencies. She taught others rapidly strip down and reassemble their weapons.

A colonel as soon as challenged Nina to take aside and reassemble her machine gun whereas blindfolded in below a minute. “Onilova’s efficiency was good,” Zoya wrote in a postwar memoir entitled “My Fireplace-Scorched Youth.”

“Onilova was so fast in stripping and assembling the breech-block [of her machine gun] that it took our breath away,” Zoya remembered. “Then she informed us how she chosen reference factors for aimed hearth each by day and night time.”

German troopers in an armored automobile survey injury at Sevastopol in 1942. Nina acquired the Order of the Crimson Banner for destroying an enemy tank with two Molotov cocktails. (Polish State Archive)

On Nov. 21, 1941, Nina was close to the village of Mekenziya close to Sevastopol when she had a one-on-one duel with a German tank. Nina crawled alone throughout a 65-foot expanse and set hearth to the tank with two Molotov cocktails.

For her brave motion, Basic Ivan Yefimovich Petrov adorned her with the Order of the Crimson Banner, and he or she was promoted to the rank of sergeant.

Inspiring Ladies

Nina inspired her finest buddy, Zoya, to pursue turning into a machine gunner too regardless of the chafing of troopers round them.

“Like all defenders of Sevastopol, I used to be very keen on Nina, a easy and merry younger woman, but a daring and courageous soldier,” Zoya stated years later. “I dreamed of transferring to Onilova’s unit and turning into No. 2 of her machine gun crew.”

Nina was so persistent in lobbying for a fellow girl to take up the machine gun that finally the Chapaev Division’s commander, Colonel Nikolai Zakharov, agreed. He determined to make a festive event of it regardless of the bitter hardships of battle. He stated he would promote Zoya and throw a celebration for each women on the identical day.

“This can be my present … on the event of Worldwide Ladies’s Day, March 8, which is quickly approaching,” Zakharov stated. “So that you, Nina, should be a part of us with out fail in celebrating the vacation. We’ll deal with you to cherry jam and tea, served in a real cup and saucer, slightly than an aluminum mug.”

“All proper, Comrade Colonel!” replied Nina with an enthusiastic smile, in accordance with Zoya. It was the final time they noticed Nina alive.

Closing Battle

On Feb. 28, 1942, Nina and her crew had been overwhelmed by enemy forces throughout an evening battle close to Mekenziya. Destroying two enemy machine gun nests, Nina stored preventing after the remainder of her crew was killed. Staying behind to supply protecting hearth for retreating Soviet forces, Nina was fairly actually the final soldier left defending the realm when an enemy mortar blast struck. She acquired deadly accidents to the chest.

Two German troopers goal at Soviet troops from a place hid below a rocky peak of a Crimean mountain vary close to Sevastopol in 1941. Soviet troops additionally made use of the panorama. After Nina was fatally injured by enemy mortar hearth, she was taken to an underground hospital hidden within the Inkerman caves, the place Soviet officers had arrange bases of operations. (Polish State Archive)

In accordance with testimony by Soviet reporter Aleksandr Khamadan, current at Sevastopol in the course of the siege, Nina didn’t die immediately. Crimson Military troopers managed to rescue her. She was transported to an underground hospital throughout the Inkerman caves close to Sevastopol.

Khamadan visited Nina at a makeshift hospital room in a cave hollowed from rock and lit by an electrical bulb. Nina pale out and in of consciousness and infrequently tried to talk. A medical official named Varshavskiy who spoke with Khamadan stated: “We’re doing all the pieces fashionable medication is able to, however she has been wounded too many instances and has misplaced an excessive amount of blood.”

Final Letter

Shortly earlier than her dying, Nina’s ideas had returned to the start of her journey. Among the many final issues she did was write to Varvara Myasnikova, the actress who had performed her heroine, Anka. Nina tried to elucidate that Myasnikova’s efficiency had sparked the fierce dedication that had introduced her up to now.

“I’m unfamiliar to you, comrade, and you’ll excuse me for this letter. However from the very starting of the battle, I wished to jot down to you and get to know you,” she wrote. “I do know that you’re not that Anka, not an actual Chapaev machine-gunner. However you performed like an actual one, and I at all times envied you. I dreamed of turning into a machine gunner and preventing bravely as nicely.”

Though her relentless pursuit of soldiering had introduced Nina to her eventual dying, she expressed no regrets. “While you defend your pricey, homeland and your loved ones … you then develop into very courageous and don’t perceive what cowardice is,” Nina went on in her letter. She tried to go on to explain her fights. “I need to let you know intimately about my life,” she wrote. However her letter was left unfinished.

Crimson Military commander Ivan Yefimovich Petrov, the identical common who had adorned Nina with the Order of the Crimson Banner months earlier and who was main the protection of embattled Sevastopol, came over her and tried to consolation her in her final moments.

“Properly, little daughter, you fought gloriously,” Petrov informed her, stroking her head as she died. “Thanks on behalf of our whole military and our whole nation …. Everybody in Sevastopol is aware of about you. Your complete nation will find out about you, too. Thanks, little daughter.”


Nina died on March 8 — which, in an odd stroke of destiny, was additionally noticed by the USSR as Worldwide Ladies’s Day. She was supposed to satisfy her finest buddy Zoya, her commanding officer Zakharov, and different soldier buddies that day for a small gathering. That they had ready cherry jam and tea.

As a substitute, the group acquired a phone name that day informing them that Nina had died. Since no person had notified them that Nina had been wounded days earlier, the information got here as a whole shock. The soldier who answered the telephone reacted with disbelief. “Nina! We predict her. We’ve ready items for her,” he stated.

“I used to be there within the dugout. I heard what was being stated about Nina and I didn’t consider it,” Zoya wrote. “I cried and I didn’t consider it. Nevertheless it was true.”

That very same day Zoya took up Nina’s proverbial sword as second-in-command of a machine gun crew. However this wasn’t sufficient for Zoya — unable to go to Nina within the hospital, she as an alternative visited her buddy’s gravesite at Sevastopol’s Communards cemetery, the place she swore to avenge her dying.

Zoya went on to command a number of machine gun platoons in battle. She was badly wounded a number of instances and partially misplaced her eyesight resulting from her accidents. She escaped the autumn of Sevastopol and remained on lively service till the autumn of 1944, attaining the rank of senior lieutenant. She survived the battle.

“There have been individuals close to me whom I revered and cherished with all my coronary heart, and whom I’ll always remember,” Zoya wrote within the conclusion of her postwar memoir as she mirrored on Sevastopol and buddies who misplaced their lives. “And after we recall these whom we cherished, to us they appear eternally alive.”

Others who performed a job in Nina’s life story met with tragic fates. Zakharov, who had organized the celebration for Nina, was killed in June 1942. Khamadan, the reporter who visited Nina within the hospital, was later taken prisoner by the Germans after the siege and killed in captivity. The actress Myasnikova who portrayed Anka the machine gunner misplaced her mom and brother in the course of the Siege of Leningrad. Petrov, current at Nina’s dying, misplaced his battle for Sevastopol and tried to shoot himself whereas being pressured to evacuate, though he finally survived the battle.

Nina and her finest buddy Zoya made historical past. In accordance with Marshal of the Soviet Union Nikolai Ivanovich Krylov, chief of employees of the Impartial Coastal Military in the course of the battle, the 2 had been the one feminine commanders of machine gun crews who defended Sevastopol and Odessa. Nina was acknowledged as a Hero of the Soviet Union on Might 14, 1965.

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