6 Incredibly Brave Women Who Took Down Nazis During World War II

Seriously, I got chills reading their stories.

1. Marion Pritchard (1920-2016)

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Marion Pritchard

Pritchard, a social worker, helped save and shelter Jewish people in Amsterdam during the war — about 150 of them, in her estimation. In 1944, three Nazis and a Dutch collaborator came to a home in the Netherlands where she was helping a Jewish family avoid arrest. The family was safely in their hiding spot and weren’t discovered, but the Dutch collaborator returned a half-hour later with the hopes of catching them out of hiding. It worked — his time, the three children (including baby Erica, who she is holding in the photo above) weren’t concealed. So…Pritchard grabbed a revolver and shot him. “I couldn’t think of anything else to do but kill him,” she later said. The local undertaker took care of the body (burying it in the same casket as someone else who had recently died) and Pritchard stayed with the Polak family for the rest of the war.

2. Nancy Wake (1912-2011)

Keystone / Getty Images

Nancy Wake loved a good drink and French men — and did not like killing people. Except for, well…Nazis . One of her numerous accomplishments during World War II? Killing a German sentry with her bare hands. Wake’s ability to evade capture earned her the nickname “the white mouse” from the German military. In a 2001 interview, she said, “I was not a very nice person, and it didn’t put me off my breakfast.”

3. Nadezhda Popova (1921-2013)

Tass / Getty Images

Popova (above, left) was just 19 years old when she became a pilot; she was motivated by revenge after her brother was killed by Nazis in 1941. She flew 852 missions (!!!) as one of the Soviet Union’s “Night Witches” (the name the Germans gave to the female pilots who dropped bombs from plywood and canvas planes that made a whooshing sound as they flew through the night). According to the New York Times, the Night Witches flew only in the dark and “had no parachutes, guns, radios or radar, only maps and compasses. If hit by tracer bullets, their planes would burn like sheets of paper.” The women would sometimes fly as many as 18 missions in a single night, and Popova said they flew through enemy fire almost every time. (One time, she said, she counted 42 bullet holes in her plane. FORTY. TWO.)

The Night Witches were so deadly — dropping 23,000 tons of bombs (from PLYWOOD PLANES!!!!) on Nazis over the course four years — that any German who took down one of their planes was awarded an Iron Cross. But their missions were dangerous and difficult. “When the wind was strong it would toss the plane. In winter when you’d look out to see your target better, you got frostbite, our feet froze in our boots, but we carried on flying,” Popova said. “If you give up, nothing is done and you are not a hero. Those who gave in were gunned down and they were burned alive in their craft as they had no parachutes.”

Popova’s planes were actually shot down multiple times, but she always survived, and she later became deputy commander of 588th Night Bomber Regiment. Seriously, her entire obituary is worth a read; it gave me chills.

4. Gertrude Boyarski (1922-2012)

Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation

Boyarski was a Jewish teenager when Nazis invaded her Polish town and she witnessed the murder of her parents, brother, and sister. After escaping, she attempted to join a Soviet partisan unit, telling the commander, “I want to fight and take revenge for my whole family.” He said she could join…if she could stand guard, alone, a mile from the encampment, for two full weeks. So she did. She went on to fight as a partisan for three years. On International Women’s Day one year, she and a friend decided to destroy a wooden bridge that Germans used in honor of the holiday. (“You have to give a present to the government,” she later said. “What kind of present could you give? To kill a few Germans or to tear up a bridge, or to sabotage [something].”)

To make their “gift” happen, the girls went to a local village and demanded kerosene and straw; initially the villagers said they didn’t have any, but Boyarski and her friend pointed their guns at them and told them they had five minutes to find some. The villagers found some. The two teens set the bridge on fire; though the Nazis started shooting at them once they realized what was happening, Boyarski and her friend stuck around to see that the bridge was fully destroyed. “We didn’t chicken out,” she said. “We burned that bridge.”

5. Virginia Hall (1906-1982)

Painting of Virginia Hall by Jeff Bass

Hall, an American spy, was a member of Britain’s Special Operations Executive and was their first female operative to be sent to France. She was once described by the Gestapo as “the most dangerous of all Allied spies. We must find and destroy her.” In 1944, she joined the United States Office of Strategic Services and asked to be assigned to France. Everyone, including the Germans, expected Allied forces to land soon, but they didn’t know where or when it would happen. So Hall got to work training French resistance fighters in guerrilla warfare so they could sabotage the Nazis as soon as they began to retreat. How’d that work out? Well, Hall’s team is credited with killing 150 Nazis and capturing 500 more. Hall also reported that they “destroyed four bridges, derailed freight trains, severed a key rail line in multiple places, and downed telephone lines.”

DERAILED FREIGHT TRAINS. DESTROYED BRIDGES. GUERRILLA WARFARE. CAN YOU EVEN IMAGINE??????

6. Lyudmila Pavlichenko (1916-1974)

Afp / AFP / Getty Images

By the age of 25, the Ukranian-born Pavlichenko was an accomplished and terrifying sniper with 309 confirmed kills to her name. THREE HUNDRED AND NINE KILLS. (Also, the majority of them were German soldiers! ONE HUNDRED OF THEM WERE OFFICERS!) Some of her missions lasted for days, and she was wounded four times in battle.

Pavlichenko actually wasn’t allowed to join the army at first, but after she’d been rejected, a Red Army unit that was defending a hill handed her a gun and let her “audition,” pointing her toward two Romanian Nazi collaborators. She shot both of them dead, and was then allowed to join the army. (She said she didn’t count the Romanians in her kill count, though, “because they were test shots.”) She later became a lieutenant, and she had no qualms about killing Nazis because “every German who remains alive will kill women, children and old folks. Dead Germans are harmless. Therefore, if I kill a German, I am saving lives.”

Associated Press

In 1942, Pavlichenko came to the United States on an invitation from first lady Eleanor Roosevelt; reporters asked her important questions, like whether female Soviet soldiers were allowed to wear makeup. (Her response: “There is no rule against it, but who has time to think of her shiny nose when a battle is going on?”) Newspaper articles complained about her lack of makeup and noted that “there isn’t much style to her olive-green uniform.” She finally responded to the commentary, telling Time, “I wear my uniform with honor. It has the Order of Lenin on it. It has been covered with blood in battle. It is plain to see that with American women what is important is whether they wear silk underwear under their uniforms. What the uniform stands for, they have yet to learn.”

(You’d think that would have shut the press up, but instead a Washington Post columnist whined, “Isn’t it a part of military philosophy that an efficient warrior takes pride in his appearance? Isn’t Joan of Arc always pictured in beautiful and shining armor?” Yep — they wanted to know why this badass woman couldn’t be more like noted babe Joan of Arc, who apparently wasn’t afraid of a little lipstick and rouge!!!! Also…they killed Joan of Arc. They very much killed Joan of Arc.)

Honestly, you should just read Pavlichenko’s entire story because she was a truly incredible woman, and there are far too many remarkable anecdotes for me to include here.

The views or opinions expressed in this article and the context in which the images of Marion Pritchard are used, do not necessarily reflect the views or policy of, nor imply approval or endorsement by, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

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