Aleksandra Samusenko, the first female tank commander during World War II

War has always been, fundamentally, a man’s job; at least with regard to fighting on the front, where women only used to be as various auxiliaries (bartenders, health workers…), taking up arms only in extreme cases. However, in the 20th century, female participation experienced a notable effervescence and the first big step in this direction, with the permission of the militia women of the Spanish Civil War, was taken by the Red Army during World War II.

In that contest, a few shone with their own names and probably many others made similar merits but, for various reasons, they fell into oblivion or did not obtain as much popularity as the others. Thus, one can cite the four hundred female aviators who made up the 588th Night Bombardment Regiment, better known as the night witches (also like the Stalin’s hawks), and in which Anna Timofyeyevna Yegorova, Nadezhda Vasílievna Popova or Yevgeniya Rudneva stood out.

There were also famous snipers such as Tatiana Nikolaevna Baramzina, Aliya Moldagulova, Lyudmila Pavlichenko (Ukrainian), Marie Ljalková and Nina Alexeyevna Lobkovskaya, or guerrillas such as Elena Fedorovna Kolesova, Valeriya Osipovna and Tania Chernova. But in this article we are going to focus on the figure of Aleksandra Grigoryevna Samusenko, who excelled in a less common specialty: that of a tanker. She was not the only one, as they say, and others like Mariya Oktiábrskaya or Irina Levchenko should also be remembered, but it does seem that she achieved more fame.

A T-34 on display at the Russian museum in Kubinka/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

In Aleksandra’s portrait, how could it be otherwise, reality and fiction, history and legend, certainty and confusion are sometimes mixed. That is why an intervention in Spain during the Civil War is attributed to her, where, according to biographers such as Yuri Zukhov, the soldier Balandin told her that he had witnessed a conversation between her and a fellow machine gunner named Kalka, who claimed to remember her at the front of Huesca and even greeted her through the classic “Not pass!”, to which Aleksandra replied that she did not remember him. However, another author such as Fabian Garin believes that it is an apocryphal anecdote and cites that Mindlin, the tanker’s own boyfriend, denied that she had set foot on Spanish soil; in fact, he would have been fourteen by then and that seems highly unlikely.

Whether true or not, it enriches the issue from a romantic point of view and will delight the creators. Historians, on the other hand, will have to stick to certain and proven facts for sure. For this, it is necessary to go back to Chita, a Russian city in the eastern part of Siberia and the birthplace, paradoxically, of Lev Okhotin, one of the leaders of the PFR (Russian Fascist Party) founded by Konstantin Rodzayevski in the 1930s. In that city, in 1922, Aleksandra was born, although her entry into History with a capital letter did not take place until a couple of decades later, when the wehrmacht carried out Operation Barbarossa and invaded the USSR.

If we listen to another rumor, Aleksandra would have started her military activity a little earlier, in the Winter War (the one that the Soviets carried out against Finland from November 1939 to March 1940), although again there are those who question it. So it is the German invasion when everything begins in the strict sense. Like other young women, Aleksandra was not satisfied with watching the fighting from home or collaborating in the rear, so what in the Soviet Union is known as the Great Patriotic War led her to join the ranks of an infantry regiment. .

Order of the Great Patriotic War and Order of the Red Star, the highest decorations obtained by Aleksandra/Photos: public domain on Wikimedia Commons 1 and 2

There he sent a letter to the Supreme Soviet requesting admission to the Tank Academy arguing his experience in mechanics. She was a pioneer in that because she preempted Mariya Oktyabrskaya, who was the first female tank driver in mid-1943, entering the fray in October as a sergeant in a tank christened with the pretty name mate in arms (in whose construction he collaborated financially). But she Aleksandra followed her footsteps just like she would do a score of other women; some died in action and others rose through the ranks to become officers: Ludmila Ivanovna Kalínina, for example, reached the rank of colonel and others such as Yevgeniya Sergeyevna Kóstrikova or Irina Nikolayevna Lévchenko received command of separate groups of tanks (the second a company whole).

The fact is that Aleksandra was assigned to the 1st Guards Tank Army, reorganized in January 1943 by Mikhail Katukov with the remains of the previous one, which had been destroyed by the Germans in Stalingrad. In it, Aleksandra took part in Operation Uranus, the pincer with which the Red Army wrapped Marshal von Paulus in Stalingrad until his surrender at the end of 1942. Later, in the summer of 1943, he participated in the Battle of Kursk, the largest of tanks of the war -and of History-, with more than four thousand units on the German side and five thousand on the Soviet side. Aleksandra’s T-34, who was a liaison officer, was attached to a corps made up of between five and eight hundred tanks, and was responsible for quite a feat: shooting down three Tiger I, thus collaborating not only in the victory but also in the collective decoration awarded after the conflict, the Order of the Red Star.

Shortly after, in another action, Aleksandra was covered in glory when she replaced the battalion commander, who had fallen, managing to lead her people out of an ambush. Not surprisingly, that same year she in turn received promotion to major—she became the USSR’s first tank commander—and the Order of the Patriotic War First Class. Her resume also includes the Léopolis-Sandomierz Offensive (Ukraine, July 1944) and the capture of Berlin in April 1945, as part of the occupation troops in Germany based in the city of Dresden.

Two episodes give a human patina to this almost exclusively warlike life. The first occurred when she met the aforementioned Mindlin, her boyfriend, who convinced her to give up smoking and drinking; hobbies, apparently, linked to her hard work. The second occurred in January 1945 when he ran into an American sergeant of the 101st Airborne Division named Joseph Beyrle in Poland, who had escaped from Stalag III-C, a prison camp for Allied soldiers located near present-day Drewice (about eighty kilometers from Berlin).

Beyrle was quite a character who would deserve his own article; Suffice it to say here that he asked Aleksandra to join his ranks on the way to the German capital and obtained authorization, thus becoming the only American soldier who fought in the Red Army during World War II (one month) and was able to wear medals of both countries. Beyrle’s interest is double because he provided some information about the little-known life of his new officer, such as that he had lost his entire family in the conflict.

She herself met the end of her life in a tragic way, before she could see the final victory in the war. Tragic and quite absurd, as often happens, since her death was caused by an accident when she was crushed under the tracks of a tank in the context of the offensive in Pomerania. Not because of an enemy car but her own: the driver didn’t see her because she was at night. It was on March 3, 1945 in the German town of Zülzefitz (present-day Suliszewice, Poland), about seventy kilometers from Berlin. Her mortal remains rest in the Polish city of Lobez, near the monument erected in memory of Kaiser Wilhelm I.


Women and War. A historical encyclopedia from Antiquity to the present (Bernard A. Cook, ed.)/Guts & Glory. World War II (Ben Thompson)/Armor and blood. The Battle of Kursk (Dennis E. Showalter)/Wikipedia