Red Army Snipers, Eastern Front, WW2
Glorified and romanticized in film and print, World War 2 Soviet snipers – both men and women – gave the general perception of snipers as cold hearted assassins, natural born shooters and thanks to propaganda, larger than life heroes. In fact, they were humble and self-sacrificing former factory workers, school girls and clerks and came from every walk of life.
The sniper tradition goes far back in Russian military lore. The Russian patron sniper was a resident of Moscow named Adam. On 24 August 1382, Tartar Mongol forces surrounded the Kremlin walls but were careful to stay out of Russian arrow range (200 paces). A cloth-maker by the name of Adam, took his crossbow and climbed up a tower by the Frolovgate. Taking careful aim, he fired, and watched his bolt fatally penetrate the chain-mail armor of a Tartar commander—one of the sons of the Tartar Khan.The Tartar had stayed out of the 200-pace range, but the Russian heavy crossbow of that day could fire out to 650 paces (445 meters).
Long even before the outbreak of the World War 2, Red Army snipers were considered a part of military planning and tactics. During World War I, conscripted Siberian hunters—prized for their field craft, patience, and accuracy—were selected for sniper duty. In 1924, the Red Army founded a series of sniper schools across Russia to teach sport and combat shooting to civilians and military alike. Marksmanship and sharp shooting skills were emphasized in both the military and in official state run youth and recreation programs. The best shots were sent on to regional, district, and ultimately national schools, where the top graduates received “Sniper-Instructor” diplomas. The Red Army thus entered World War II with a number of quality snipers.
The Soviet experience from World War 1 highlighted the importance of incorporating sharpshooters or snipers into their battle plans. At the start of the war, there were two types of Russian snipers—snipers who were part of the Reserves of the Supreme High Command (RVGK) and snipers who were part of standard infantry units. The RVGK snipers were organized into separate brigades—such as the RVGK sniper brigade made up of women. Entire platoons, companies,and even battalions of RVGK snipers were assigned to fronts and armies to support critical sectors.
However, the shooting skills of the Finns during the Winter War drove home a bloody point that could not be ignored by the Soviet high command. Soviet field commanders feared the presence of Finn sharpshooters and snipers and recognized that these snipers were able to disrupt the communications and flow of battle and served to demoralize front line troops. It was the experience of these commanders that shaped sniper tactics in the Russian Army.
When the rifle M1891/30 Mosin-Nagant 7.62mm rifle was developed, it was also decided to develop a sniper variant. Up until that time the official tactics for small units largely ignored the importance of utilizing snipers equipped with special purpose rifles. By the time the Soviets were fully engaged with German forces, a rush program was initiated to get the M1891/30 Mosin-Nagant 7.62mm sniper variant fully into production. In 1942 production figures totaled in the 90,000 range.
As more of these rifles reached units, existing tactics were put into practice and refined. Under the Soviet system, Red Army snipers hunted in pairs with one spotting and one firing. Both team members were qualified snipers and changed roles after each kill. The sniper was to provide both scouting duties as well as point and indirect fire to disrupt enemy activities and communications. The observer assisted in spotting potential targets, provided security and recorded and confirmed kills. Each sniper carried a “kill book” where they recorded time, date, location and details of each kill or engagement. This book was also used to record detailed information on German troop concentrations and movements. The sniper was assigned at platoon level and reported directly to the platoon leader. Most sniper teams worked autonomously and ranged ahead of advancing formations or across an assigned frontal sector.
Sniper team members were armed with the Mosin-Nagant 1891/1930 sniper rifle that fires a 7.62 x 54 mm rimmed round. Although the rifle’s four-power scope mount also allowed the sniper to use the standard open sights for closer-in shots, both snipers also carried PPSH 7.62mm submachine guns as insurance. The spotter used his scoped rifle to back up the fire and to fire immediately at the target if the firer should miss.
The sniper was given very specific responsibilities whether fighting in the country or the city and although those responsibilities were specific, the level of independent action afforded the sniper was unprecedented in the Soviet Army. The sniper was a scout, blocking force, psychological operations unit, and deadly marksman all rolled into one. To earn the coveted sniper badge he or she had to demonstrate skill with the standard infantry rifle, small unit tactics, engaging both land and air targets, use of grenades and sapper explosives and leadership. The men and women of the sniper corps were held to to a higher standard than mainstream troops and were expected to serve as role models.
In order to bolster the morale of troops, Red Army propagandists and political officers began the “sniper movement.” Snipers were encouraged to participate in a macabre competition by killing more fascists than the snipers in neighboring divisions. Forty kills netted a “For Bravery” medal and the title “noble sniper.” Socialist competition thus extended to the battlefield where division commanders lavished scarce resources on their snipers in order to exceed quotas. The average soldiers were exhorted to follow the example of the snipers and to kill more fascists using fewer resources. The sniper movement peaked with the widely circulated tale of the duel to the death between Senior Sergeant Vassili Zaitsev and Major Koenig in the ruins of Stalingrad. Eventually, Zaitsev was credited with 149 kills. The highest scorer was named Zikan, who accounted for 224 kills while Sergeant Passar of the 21st Army had 103 kills and “Noble Sniper” and Political Commissar Ilin, 185 kills.
Among the female snipers, Lyudmila Mikhailivna Pavlichenko was considered the most successful woman sniper with her officially confirmed kills of a total of 309. In 1943, Pavlichenko was awarded the Gold Star Of The Hero Of The Soviet Union and promoted to the rank of Major.
Russia utilized women in warfare with almost the same manner as they did men, resulting in 2,000 female snipers in the Red Army. Sadly, out of the 2,000 female snipers used by the Red Army in WWII, only about 500 actually survived the war, the rest were killed during active duty in the fields of warfare.
The combined and confirmed kills from top Russian and Ukranian snipers, both men and women in WW2 amounted to a total of 14,568 recorded kills.