GERMAN TANKS ROLLED toward Stalingrad as if leading a holiday parade in Berlin. Luftwaffe planes had pounded Soviet defenses for weeks, scattering the enemy and clearing the way for the ground assault. Through binoculars, the Germans could see smoke rising from the burning city. Victory seemed almost in hand.
Suddenly, shells exploded all around. Soviet antiaircraft crews had cranked down the barrels of their 37mm guns and opened fire. Their aim was a bit wild, but the barrage brought the Germans up short. Halting their advance, the tankers organized a counterattack. Stukas joined in, swooping down on the three dozen batteries, which had no infantry support. The fighting raged for hours until one by one, the Russian guns fell silent. Only later did the Germans learn that the men who had stood against them that day in August 1942 were not men at all.
‘I fear there is a complex against women being connected with lethal work,’ Churchill wrote to his secretary
of war. ‘We must get
rid of this’
What Soviet writer Vasily Grossman described as “the first page of the Stalingrad defense” had been authored chiefly by teenage girls, volunteers of the 1077th Antiaircraft Regiment, a unit assembled from the city’s high schools. A bunch of women—kids, no less. Many had fought to the death, impressing the enemy. Said one Wehrmacht officer, “It is completely wrong to describe Russian women as ‘soldiers in skirts.’”
The girls of Stalingrad weren’t the only women to inspire shock and awe in World War II. Great Britain, the United States, and other combatants put hundreds of thousands of females in uniform; the Soviet Union alone recruited roughly a million, sending many into combat as tank commanders, snipers, and pilots. Desperation, not egalitarian ideals, drove these mobilizations; there simply weren’t enough men to fight in history’s largest conflagration.
Today, there’s a steady call in the United States and other liberal democracies to put women into combat. The chaos of modern war already throws female support troops into deadly shootouts with the enemy. Still, nations resist letting women fight alongside men. Judging by modern military history, however, they may ultimately have no choice.
NOT LONG AGO, military historian Martin van Creveld surveyed thousands of years of warfare and declared true women warriors “almost as rare as unicorns.” That’s an exaggeration, of course, but his point is well taken: The history of women in combat before the 20th century is a story of exceptions to the rule.
The most well known are queens and duchesses who led armies in the roughly 2,000 years from classical antiquity through the end of the Middle Ages, at the close of the 15th century. By and large, circumstances thrust these women into command. Often they were widows of kings or feudal lords and inherited their armies. Others were forced to mount a defense of land or castle while their husbands were abroad.
By the 17th and 18th centuries, nations and armies were moving toward their modern form. Laws of primogeniture had begun to guarantee that men alone would inherit land and armies. Royalty gave up campaigning and deputized trained officers to manage their armies. At the same time, military life grew increasingly regimented, with standard-issue uniforms and extensive physicals. As many as a thousand women dressed as men and fought in the American Civil War, but with the dawn of the new century, women were all but shut out of fighting. “War is men’s business,” Hector had said in Homer’s Iliad, and that was still the attitude of any Western country that considered itself civilized. It was almost inconceivable that women would abandon the kitchen and nursery for the battlefield.
THE TWO WORLD WARS of the next half century made such thinking a luxury no nation could afford. The conflicts raged over millions of square miles, across continents and oceans, and for the first time in the air. Each of the major powers built huge war machines that demanded ever more troops but also armies of planners, logisticians, transport specialists, and supply clerks. All together, roughly 150 million soldiers were mobilized.
In the face of critical shortages of men, military officials conceded that women had something to contribute. Between the start of World War I and the end of World War II, many of the combatants—including Germany, Britain, the United States, Australia, Finland, and Poland—created auxiliary branches of their armed forces in which women served as nurses, typists, cooks, and the like. When the wars stretched on and losses grew, their work brought them closer to the action.
Britain was the first of the Allies to put women into formal military service for anything other than duty as nurses. In 1915, as hopes for a quick conflict faded, women suffragists organized a march through London for the right to join the war effort. They carried placards that announced: the situation is serious. women must help to save it. The next year, within months of the devastating Battle of the Somme (British casualties: 400,000), the government began planning for three auxiliary corps—one each for the navy, air force, and army—of women to work as nurses, ambulance drivers, mechanics, cooks, clerks, and other positions in the rear. Recruitment propaganda promised that every woman who signed on would free one man for combat. By war’s end, some 100,000 women had joined.
During World War II, Britain leaned heavily on its women’s auxiliaries, which were championed by Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Early in his political career, before becoming home secretary in 1910, Churchill had fought against women’s voting rights, winning the enmity of suffragists (one who confronted him with a whip). But his views had evolved over the years. Now, with Britain’s survival at stake, he pushed for women to take on critical and dangerous roles. “I fear there is a complex against women being connected with lethal work,” he wrote his secretary of war privately in December 1941. “We must get rid of this.”
That same month, Britain began conscripting unmarried women between the ages of 20 and 30. Those called to duty could choose to work in civilian war industries or join one of the auxiliary corps. Auxiliary ranks eventually totaled 640,000—more than 10 percent of British armed forces. Serving in all theaters, these women manned jobs directly related to combat—as mechanics, radar and telegraph operators, torpedo handlers, intelligence officers, and more. A handful flew aircraft from factories to bases. Britain still couldn’t bring itself to insert women into combat. But it came close. General Sir Frederick Pile, who led the British antiaircraft command, persuaded Churchill that women could serve with men in AA crews. They would load the guns, fuse shells, track aircraft, and operate searchlights—virtually everything save pull the gun lanyard itself. That might damage the female psyche, the military feared.
More than 56,000 women were serving with Pile by late 1943—including Churchill’s daughter Mary, a 19-year-old debutante who jumped at the chance to be a “gunner girl.” When an AA crew recorded the first kill for a mixed-gender unit in April 1942, Pile observed of the women: “Beyond a little natural excitement and a tendency to chatter when there was a lull, they behaved like a veteran party.”
The United States watched the British deployment of women closely. The navy and Marines had introduced a few thousand women to their reserves during World War I—“We will have the best clerical assistance the country can provide,” declared navy secretary Josephus Daniels—and army general John “Black Jack” Pershing had posted more than 200 civilian women to France as telephone operators, the so-called Hello Girls. But even as the storm clouds of World War II gathered, public opposition torpedoed efforts to introduce women to any more danger. Opposing a bill to create a women’s auxiliary to the army, one congressman said: “Think of the humiliation. What has become of the manhood of America, that we have to call on our women to do what has ever been the duty of men? The thing is so revolting to me, to my sense of decency.” …