Mariya Oktyabrskaya & T-34/76
Born into a peasant family in the Crimea, Mariya was one of ten children. In 1925 she married a young army officer and in tribute to the October Revolution she and her soldier husband changed their surname to Oktyabrskaya. Her husband was killed in the fighting around Kiev in August 1941 but the news took a year to reach her. Her desire for revenge led to her selling all of her possessions to raise funds to purchase a tank for the Red Army.
Mariya placed one condition on this donation: she must be allowed to drive it! Realising the publicity opportunities, High Command approved her request and, at the age of thirty-eight, she commenced training. In September 1943, she was assigned to 26ya Gvardeyskiy Tankovaya Brigada (26th Guards Tank Brigade) as a mechanic/driver. When Mariya arrived at her unit in a T-34 tank emblazoned with the turret slogan ‘Boyevaya Podrooga’ or ‘Fighting Girlfriend’, the tankists viewed her with scepticism and considered the assignment a publicity stunt. This attitude changed to one of respect following Mariya’s participation in battle. In combat during October and November 1943, Mariya distinguished herself as a skilled and fearless driver, manoeuvring her tank like a veteran and accounting for many enemy troops and guns in close assaults during her rampage of revenge. In several engagements enemy shells damaging the tracks halted her T-34. Mariya, often disregarding orders not to, would jump out of the tank while under fire, effect repairs to get back into action as fast as possible.In January 1944 she was hit in the head by shrapnel while repairing a broken track and killed. In August she was posthumously decorated becoming the first female tankist to be awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union—the Red Army’s highest award for military valour.