Mariya Vasilyevna Oktyabrskaya (Russian: Мария Васильевна Октябрьская; 16 August 1905 – 15 March 1944) was a Soviet tank driver during World War II. She was the first of the few female tank drivers to be awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union award; the Soviet Union's highest award for bravery during combat.
Mariya Vasilyevna Oktyabrskaya was born into a peasant family on the Crimean Peninsula. She was one of ten children. Before the Great Patriotic War (the Soviets name for the eastern front of Second World War) she worked in a cannery, and also as a telephone operator. In 1925, she married a Soviet army officer. While married to her husband, she began to acquire an interest in military matters. She became involved in the 'Military Wives Council' and was trained as a nurse in the army. She also learned how to use weapons and drive vehicles. She said: "Marry a serviceman, and you serve in the army: an officer's wife is not only a proud, but also responsible title."
The Great Patriotic War
When the eastern front of World War II opened (called the Great Patriotic War in the former Soviet Union), Mariya was evacuated to Tomsk in Siberia. While living in Tomsk, she learned that her husband was killed fighting the forces of Nazi Germany near Kiev in August 1941. The news took two years to reach her. The news angered her extremely, and she became determined to fight the Germans in vengeance for her husband's death. She sold all of her possessions to donate a tank for the Red Army. She asked that the tank be named "Fighting Girlfriend" ("Боевая подруга") and that she be allowed to drive it. The State Defense Committee agreed to this, realizing the publicity opportunities. The tank Mariya donated was a T-34 medium tank.
By this time Mariya was 38 years old. She took part in a five-month tank training program immediately after the donation. These five months training were unusual for tank crews at the time: usually tank crews were rushed straight to the front line with minimal training. After she completed her training, she was posted to the 26th Guards Tank Brigade in September 1943 as a driver and mechanic. She named her tank 'Fighting Girlfriend' and emblazoned these words on the turret of the T-34. Many of her fellow tankers saw her as a publicity stunt and a joke, but this attitude changed when Mariya began fighting in her first tank battles in Smolensk. Her first tank battle began on 21 October 1943.
Her first battle involved Mariya maneuvering tank in the bitter fighting; she and her fellow crew members destroying machine-gun nests and artillery guns. When her tank was hit by gunfire, Mariya, disregarding orders not to, would leap out of her tank and repair the tank, amidst heavy fire. During this action, she was promoted to the rank of Sergeant.
A month later, on 17–18 November, the Soviet forces captured the town of Novoye Selo in the region of Vitebsk during a night battle. During this attack, Mariya further improved her reputation as a skilled tank driver. On the 17th, Mariya began to assault the German positions near Noveoye Selo. However, a German artillery shell exploded into her tank's tracks, halting her advance. Mariya and a fellow crewman jumped out to repair the track, while their fellow crew members gave the covering fire from the tank's turret. After a while, they fixed the tank track, and her tank rejoined the main unit several days later.
Two months later, on 17 January 1944, Mariya fought in another night attack that was her last. The attack happened at the village of Shvedy near Vitebsk. During the battle, she drove T-34 about the German defenses, destroyed resistance in trenches and machine-gun nests. The tank crew also destroyed a German self-propelled gun. Their success didn't last long however, and tank was hit by a German anti-tank shell, again in the tracks and was immobilized. Mariya immediately got out of the tank and began to repair the track, amid fierce small arms and artillery fire. She managed to repair the track, but she was hit in the head by shell fragments and lost consciousness. After the battle Oktyabrskaya was transported to a Soviet military field hospital at Fastov, near Kiev, where she remained in a coma for two months, before finally dying on 15 March. The following August, Oktyabrskaya was posthumously awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union award in recognition of her bravery in the battles around Vitebsk.
Representations in media
US National Public Radio featured a cartoon of Mariya to headline a story about "rejected princesses" that Disney and other storytellers had hitherto ignored.