Women war heroes prove that bravery and endurance are not reserved for male military personnel. Many women have served on the front lines, in the resistance, behind the wheel of convoys, in the cockpits of outdated planes, and in hospitals patching up the injured with little more than a standard first aid kit. Women and the war effort have always - and will always - go hand-in-hand.
The Night Witches of the Soviet Union took old clunker crop dusters and confounded the German air force. Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester found herself in the middle of an orchestrated attack in Iraq and turned the firepower back on the insurgents. The White Rose of Stalingrad took down numerous enemy aircraft and flew into legendary status.
Female war heroes also include the Dahomey Amazons, wives of the king who shocked their enemies with fierceness and audacity. Or the Vietnamese warriors of legend like the Trung Sisters.
The role of women in wars hasn’t always been clear or easy. Cathay Williams changed her appearance and fought in the Union Army as a man until her gender was discovered. But for a while, she fought in the Civil War along with other formerly enslaved people. Then there's the Polish spy who may have inspired two of Ian Fleming's Bond girls.
As we look at women in military history, there are myriad ways they serve. Women at home were working in factories making products for the war effort, but there were brave women who saw war up close. Some were able to share their experiences and become historians, teachers, instructors, colonels, and generals. Others faced poverty and lack of recognition for their war efforts.
There are millions who have served. This list of women war heroes sheds a little light on a few.
War roles: General in the French Foreign Legionnaire
Medals and commendations: Légion d'honneur, Croix de Guerre, Médaille Militaire
English socialite Susan Travers was in France when World War II started. Initially, she trained as a nurse for the French Red Cross and later became an ambulance driver. Travers escaped to London when France fell to the Nazis. There, she joined the Free French Forces. She was sent to Syria and later North Africa to serve with the French Foreign legion as a driver assigned to Colonel Marie-Pierre Koenig. Travers soon fell in love with him. Her dedication to the married Koenig was fierce.
Even as Rommel’s Afrika Corps attacked Libya, Travers wouldn’t evacuate with female personnel. She and members of Koenig’s unit hid from the invaders for 15 days in sand pits. She drove Koenig through enemy lines under heavy fire, heading up 2,500 troops. They made it safely to the allied camp. After this act of bravery, Travers was promoted to general. She served in Italy, Germany, and France for the rest of the war, sustaining injuries when she drove over a land mine.After the war, Travers joined the French Foreign Legion. Her request was approved by a fellow officer who knew her reputation and disregarded her gender. She was the only woman to ever serve officially with the French Foreign Legion. She went on to serve in Vietnam. She waited until her husband and Colonel Koenig to pass before publishing her memoir, Tomorrow to Be Brave: A Memoir of the Only Woman Ever to Serve in the French Foreign Legion, in 2000 at the age of 91.
War role: Guerrilla fighter, spy
Medals and commendations: George Medal, Medal of Freedom from the U.S., Médaille de la Résistance, Croix de Guerre (three times)
Nancy Wake was a world traveler before the Second World War began. She was born in New Zealand, raised in Australia, and then lived in New York and London working as a journalist. She was living in Marseille with her French husband when Germany invaded the country. Wake didn’t hesitate to work for the French resistance. She hid and smuggled men out of France, transported supplies, and falsified documents.
The Germans captured Wake and interrogated her for days, but she gave up nothing. After her release, she escaped to Britain and joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE). With the SOE, Wake received weapons and paratrooper training. She dropped back into France as a spy. She blew up buildings, engaged in combat with the enemy, and killed an SS sentry with her bare hands.The Gestapo tortured Wake’s husband when he refused to give up any information about his wife. He died as a result of the torture. Wake would discover this after the war. She ran for office in Australia and published her biography, The White Mouse (the Germans’ nickname for her), in 1988. She died in 2011 at the age of 98.
War role: Guerilla fighter
Medals and commendations: Hero of the Soviet Union (posthumously)
At just 18, Kosmodemyanskaya was the first woman to be named Hero of the Soviet Union during World War II. She volunteered for the Red Army Western Front as a saboteur and part of the reconnaissance group. The unit went behind enemy lines near Moscow to set land mines and to cut off German supply lines.
Under orders, Kosmodemyanskaya set fire to a stable and a few public buildings in the town of Petrischevo. She was captured by locals, possibly ratted out by one of her fellow resistance fighters. She was tortured by the Germans, forced to strip in the cold and march in the snow, and then beaten and whipped. She did not give up any information and was hanged the next day in the town center. A sign reading “arsonist” hung around her neck. Her body was left hanging for a month with visiting soldiers desecrating her body.
War role: Flight instructor, Senior Lieutenant, fighter pilot
Medals and commendations: Order of the Red Banner, Order of the Red Star, Order of the Patriotic War (twice)
Besides The Night Witches, the Soviet Air Force had other female units. Chief among them were the female-led bomber, ground-attack, and fighter squadrons. Litvyak was already a seasoned flyer, having been a member of flying clubs since 14. She joined the 586th Fighter Regiment and was an intense and effective instructor. She and a few other pilots were transferred to the all-male 437th Fighter Regiment. On her third combat mission, and after just three days with the squadron, Litvyak shot down Messerschmitt Me-109G and a Junkers Ju-88 bomber that were pursuing her commander. She was the first woman in military history to ever score a solo aerial victory in combat.The pilot of the 109 survived the dogfight and couldn’t believe he was shot down by a woman. Litvyak, known as the White Rose of Stalingrad, went on to shoot down many more enemy aircraft until she disappeared over the Donbass. The last time she was seen, she was being pursued by around eight 109s. Her body has never been recovered.