Wars usually inspire stories of brave men in trenches and cunning spies behind enemy lines, but this list serves as a reminder of the extraordinary achievements of the women who fought in WWII side by side with men.
1. Aleda Lutz
Lt. Aleda Lutz was a flight nurse who logged more hours than any other. In 196 missions she evacuated more than 3,500 soldiers. By 1944, she spent 814 hours nursing the wounded in the air, but in December her plane crashed. Posthumously she became the first woman to be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, in addition to four Air Medals, the Purple Heart, the Oak Leaf Cluster, and the Red Cross Medal.
2. Krystyna Skarbek
When WWII broke out, Skarbek was in Ethiopia. The British intelligence helped this ‘flaming Polish patriot’ carry out her plan to return to Poland. From 1939, she helped organize Polish resistance movement and smuggle pilots out of the occupied zone. When the Gestapo captured her in 1941, she bit her tongue so hard that it bled, managing to convince them that she had tuberculosis – they promptly let her go.
After acquiring a new identity, she ran away from Poland with her husband. The British met her again in Turkey, and she continued her work in the East. Operation Overlord cleared the way for her to return to Poland and she was parachuted into France, accidentally landing in the middle of the German troops. Luckily she managed to escape and walked 70 miles to safety, and after that remained in the Alps where she convinced a number Axis fighters, including conscripted Polish soldiers, to desert. Her talents as a spy were proven on countless occasions, and she became a living legend – inspiring the characters of at least two of Ian Fleming’s Bond girls. She was sadly killed in 1952 by an obsessed stalker.
3. Nancy Wake
Born in New Zealand, this journalist was living in Marseille when the Battle of France kicked off. She joined the French resistance movement as an intelligence officer but was captured by Germans. In 1943, she made a successful escape to Britain, where her spy credentials landed her a position at the Special Operations Executive, an intelligence agency. Soon, she was sent back to France, where she was tasked with killing and sabotaging the Nazi forces. On one occasion, she even killed a guard with her bare hands. Gestapo nicknamed her White Mouse, for her ability to escape from every trap they laid. After the war, she was awarded the George Medal, Médaille de la Résistance and three Croix de Guerre medals.
4. Lyudmila Pavlichenko
Pavlichenko was among 2,000 trained Soviet female snipers during the war. She was older and more experienced than most, and scored war record among her counterparts: 273 confirmed kills and 36 enemy snipers by 1942. After being wounded by a mortar she was pulled from the front, but continued to serve as a trainer and a diplomatic figure. Soviet Army awarded her the title Hero of the Soviet Union. After the war, she became a historian.
5. Eileen Nearne
Twenty-three-year-old Eileen was one of three siblings who worked for the British intelligence during the war. She was stationed in occupied France in order to arrange weapons drops and communicate with the French resistance. She was eventually caught and tortured by the Nazis, and then transferred to a concentration camp. She managed to escape and spend the rest of the war hiding in a church. During all those years, she successfully talked herself out of trouble with Gestapo more than once. After the war, King George VI made her a Member of the Order of the British Empire and the French awarded her the Croix de Guerre. Her achievements were uncovered only after her death in 2010 when the police found her medals.
6. Ruby Bradley
Bradley was serving as an experienced hospital administrator in the Philippines when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and occupied her island. She worked as a POW nurse until the war ended, carrying surgeries, delivering babies, and smuggling scarce supplies to aid her patients. She remained with the army after the war and in 1950 was sent to Korea, where she once again proved to be a true hero.. While evacuating the wounded soldiers was often the last one to jump aboard the plane, and once her ambulance was set ablaze due to enemy shelling. She received 34 medals and citations for her service and was awarded the Florence Nightingale Medal, the highest-ranking honor of the International Red Cross.
7. Susan Travers
Susan Travers was an English socialite who found herself in France at the beginning of the war. A trained Red Cross nurse and ambulance driver, she escaped to the UK and joined the Free French Forces. In 1941, she was sent to Syria and North Africa as a French Legion driver. The German Afrika Corps blocked them in Libya, but after more than two weeks of hiding, she managed to lead 2,500 troops to safety, driving through the enemy lines in a rain of bullets. After the war, she became the first woman ever to be officially admitted to the French Foreign Legion.
8. Reba Whittle
Serving as a flight nurse, Whittle logged more than 500 hours of airtime. In September 1944, her plane was shot down in Germany. She was among the survivors who were taken prisoner by Germans, becoming the only female American POW on European soil. The US never registered her status, but a Swiss delegation that negotiated POW transfers found out about her and managed to set her free in January 1945. Even though she received the Air Medal and a Purple Heart, it was only after her death that the US Army officially conferred her POW status.
9. Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan
Born in Russia, Khan was of Indian-American descent and a great-great-granddaughter of the king of Mysore. She was a Sufi Muslim pacifist who stood against the British rule in India. At the breakout of the war she was living in France. After escaping to the UK, she joined the Woman’s Auxiliary Air Force. In 1943, the intelligence service sent her to back France as a wireless operator. In October, her group of Morse code operators was arrested by the Nazis, but after a month of interrogation, she remained silent about her work. While in custody, she even managed to send a coded message, but the British intelligence ignored it. After a short escape, she was caught and eventually sent to the infamous Dachau camp, where she was executed right away. The British posthumously awarded Khan the George Cross and made her a Member of the Order of British Empire, a title she would probably have resented.
10. Natalia Peshkova
Peshkova was among many high school graduates who were recruited by the Soviet Army and sent to the front, where her job was to make sure that injured troops got to the hospitals. She was wounded three times but kept on fighting. Once, she ended up behind enemy lines and found a way to return to her unit without leaving her weapon behind – knowing that she would be executed if she did. A courageous fighter, she was promoted to Sergeant Major and after the war was awarded the Order of the Red Star.