War's Unwomanly Face: Russian Women in WW2" was the title of the evening's main lecture, given by Museum curator Dimitri Friend. Women played an important role in WW2, either replacing men in the factories, or serving in the medical services and other auxiliary units, or, in the case of the Soviet Union, fighting in battle alongside the men.
The enormous losses of men suffered by the Soviet forces in the first months following the German invasion of June 1941 brought women into the war in large numbers. By the end of 1941 women made up more than 40 per cent of the Soviet labour force. By 1943 around 11 million women were serving the Soviet war effort, often under military discipline. Many of them combined back-breaking work in fields, factories, or on construction sites, with looking after their families.
All this effort was maintained on extremely meagre rations, which sometimes did not materialise at all. The example that Soviet women set in terms of service and stoicism in the face of unimaginable hardship was widely used for propaganda purposes by the western allies. But much of this hard-earned admiration was lost after the war as western governments sought to demonise the Soviet Union in their efforts to curb the spread of communism.
Some 800 000 Soviet women served on the various battle fronts as nurses, doctors, aircrew, snipers, gunners, paratroopers, tank crews, infantry soldiers and front-line laundresses. By 1944, women made up 41 per cent of the doctors serving at the front, and 43 per cent of all front-line medical personnel. They also operated with partisan bands behind enemy lines, where their exploits as snipers become legendary. One female training instructor alone claimed 122 kills.
Some 25 000 women served in the Red Navy in various capacities, notably as crew members and commanders of river patrol boats and convoy escorts in the Baltic and Black Seas. In the Red Air Force, Soviet women attained international recognition. They served in the air and on the ground, flying both fighters and bombers. Many air force units were staffed entirely by females.
All this was achieved with the minimum loss of femininity. Women combatants were readily accepted in the Soviet armed forces, and to the maximum extent possible their privacy was respected. Altogether 88 female combatants were awarded the coveted Hero of the Soviet Union decoration, and all earned the gratitude of their countrymen. But that did not ensure them an easy transition to civilian life, where their wartime exploits often counted for little against the premature ageing that so often resulted from their combat experiences.
On 9th November, The Friends of the Museum are holding a Remembrance Day service, open to all who are interested. It will be at the Rand Regiments' Memorial adjacent to the Museum. During the service, those who wish to do so will be given the opportunity to lay wreaths and floral tributes. Medals and decorations may be worn or honoured. The service starts at 10h00 sharp and should be over by 11h15. The Friends' convenor for this event is Archdeacon Russell Campbell.
Later the same day the Friends will hold a special double-header covering the Museum's ME262 and the Crossley armoured reconnaissance car. This will start at 11h30 and end at approximately 17h00. It will consist of videos, lectures and demonstrations. All are welcome to attend.
George Barrell (Chairman/Scribe) (011) 791-2581