Home History This Ukrainian Orphan Girl Became a World War II Hero

This Ukrainian Orphan Girl Became a World War II Hero

by Enochadmin

Amongst all feminine World Struggle II fighters to obtain the title of Hero of the Soviet Union, Nina Andreyevna Onilova was one of the exceptional, rising from obscure origins to change 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 dad and mom 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 lady’s life modified ceaselessly when she noticed the movie “Chapaev,” launched throughout the USSR in 1934. The moody Soviet propaganda movie centered on the exploits of Purple 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 step with Communist propaganda, it was solely pure for the movie to depict a Soviet girl partaking in egalitarian political battle. However as a substitute of constructing Anka right into a nurse or relegating her to a supportive noncombat function, the filmmakers portrayed Anka as a hands-on fighter.

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

In accord with Socialist Realism model, Soviet filmmakers made Anka’s character seem down-to-earth. Neither superhuman nor glamorous, she is proven as an atypical lady devoted to the rugged life-style 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 function mannequin. She needed to comply with in Anka’s footsteps — actually.  

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


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Soviet ‘Glass Ceilings’

Becoming a member of the Purple Military in 1941, Nina utilized to change into a area 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 really been commanded by Communist hero Chapaev, the protagonist of Nina’s favourite movie, throughout 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 area medic? It was the one manner 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 have been proclaimed by the state to be equals, intrepid women like Nina have been in actuality struggling towards glass ceilings. Regardless of her hopes, Nina realized by way of expertise that actual life was not identical to the idealized socialist motion pictures – and that many Soviet army males had attitudes that have been definitely not utopian.

After reaching the entrance traces 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 function. She was compelled to stay a nurse.

Baptism of Hearth

Nina proved herself in battle towards the Germans throughout 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 abilities by practising relentlessly in her free time again on the manufacturing facility in dealing with machine gun components. She rapidly cleared the jam and took over firing the gun, chopping 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 have been amazed by Nina’s means and requested her to affix them. No person questioned her worth as a fighter anymore.

Nonetheless 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 every thing they might to make her keep there. Nonetheless Nina obtained launch after fiercely arguing with the medical board.

Defending Sevastopol

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

“At first look, Sevastopol seemed abandoned and lifeless. This was how the town appeared to the Nazi observers and pilots. However it rose to the event throughout moments of hazard, exerting large efforts and mustering huge energy,” wrote Zoya Medvedeva, a fellow Purple 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 exhibits the situations wherein the town’s defenders, together with Nina, fought. (Polish State Archive)

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

Nina turned keen on a battle track 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 Purple 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 facility staff skilled to make pots and pans to craft spare components for her machine gun in case of emergencies. She taught others find out how to 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 Hearth-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 instructed us how she chosen reference factors for aimed fireplace each by day and evening.”

German troopers in an armored car survey harm at Sevastopol in 1942. Nina acquired the Order of the Purple 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 fireplace to the tank with two Molotov cocktails.

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

Inspiring Girls

Nina inspired her greatest good friend, Zoya, to pursue changing 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 lady, but a daring and courageous soldier,” Zoya stated years later. “I dreamed of transferring to Onilova’s unit and changing 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 Girls’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, reasonably than an aluminum mug.”

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

Ultimate Battle

On Feb. 28, 1942, Nina and her crew have been overwhelmed by enemy forces throughout an evening battle close to Mekenziya. Destroying two enemy machine gun nests, Nina stored combating after the remainder of her crew was killed. Staying behind to supply overlaying fireplace 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 fireplace, 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 throughout the siege, Nina didn’t die immediately. Purple Military troopers managed to rescue her. She was transported to an underground hospital inside 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 light out and in of consciousness and sometimes tried to talk. A medical official named Varshavskiy who spoke with Khamadan stated: “We’re doing every thing fashionable drugs is able to, however she has been wounded too many occasions and has misplaced an excessive amount of blood.”

Final Letter

Shortly earlier than her loss of life, 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 thus far.

“I’m unfamiliar to you, comrade, and you’ll excuse me for this letter. However from the very starting of the battle, I needed to write 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 changing into a machine gunner and combating bravely as nicely.”

Though her relentless pursuit of soldiering had introduced Nina to her eventual loss of life, she expressed no regrets. “Once you defend your pricey, fatherland and your loved ones … then you definately change 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.

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

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


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

As an alternative, 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 an entire shock. The soldier who answered the telephone reacted with disbelief. “Nina! We predict her. We’ve ready presents 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. However 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 a substitute visited her good friend’s gravesite at Sevastopol’s Communards cemetery, the place she swore to avenge her loss of life.

Zoya went on to command a number of machine gun platoons in battle. She was badly wounded a number of occasions and partially misplaced her eyesight because of 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 folks close to me whom I revered and beloved 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 beloved, to us they appear eternally alive.”

Others who performed a task in Nina’s life story met with tragic fates. Zakharov, who had organized the get together 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 throughout the Siege of Leningrad. Petrov, current at Nina’s loss of life, misplaced his battle for Sevastopol and tried to shoot himself whereas being compelled to evacuate, though he finally survived the battle.

Nina and Zoya made historical past. In accordance with Marshal of the Soviet Union Nikolai Ivanovich Krylov, chief of employees of the Impartial Coastal Military throughout the battle, the 2 have been the one feminine commanders of machine gun crews to defend Sevastopol or Odessa. Nina was acknowledged as a Hero of the Soviet Union on Could 14, 1965.

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