Flying was all the rage among Soviet youth in the few years preceding the Great Patriotic War. "Komsomol, to the skies!" the slogans called. Among the many young men and women who answered the call was a citizen of the city of Biysk named Nina Ilyinichna Bondar. In the late 1930s, while still in school, she joined and aero club and learned to fly the light U-2 biplane.
A month after the start of the Great Patriotic War, Nina came to the Biysk military commissariat and volunteered to join the Red Army. It was hard to refuse an officer's daughter, and one who could fly a plane at that. The young woman was directed to the Moscow Anti-Air Defense, where her familiar U-2 became a weapon of war. However, history clipped her wings.
From Pilot to Tanker
Nina came under fire during a reconnaissance flight and was heavily wounded in both legs. The doctor's verdict was clear: unsuitable for flight. She was offered several other positions in the army, as a medic or MP, for example, but none of those options suited her. Nina decided to fight for her right to be at the front lines, which is what many did in those days who were not sent to the front for one reason or another but considered it cowardly to sit still behind someone's back.
There is a theory that her request was granted because she appeared to be a man: her letter was signed "Private N.I. Bondar". Nevertheless, the was sent to the Saratov Armour Academy. Upon completion, Bondar became the commander of a T-34 tank in the 237th Tank Brigade. Years later, she recalled that she loved to personally drive the tank, a rare trait among tank commanders.
Bondar's brigade fought near Oboyan at the Battle of Kursk in 1943. Here, on the south flank, the battles were particularly fierce, and the Soviets hung on by a thread, as the main German offensives were towards Prokhorovka and Oboyan. Nina was among the Soviet tankers who stood against Panthers and Tigers. Later, in the offensive phase of the battle, the 31st Tank Corps that contained Bondar's brigade began an offensive on Kharkov. The Corps deflected a powerful German counterattack from Akhtyrka to Bogodukhov.
In September of 1943, the brigade was moved to reserves for replenishing. Nina Bondar and her unit had to prepare for liberation of the Ukraine.
Ukraine to Prague
The Red Army undertook a whole series of offensives in right-shore Ukraine. The first operation for Bondar was the Korsun-Shevchenkovsky Offensive, directed to destroy a German group that threatened the flank and rear of the 1st Ukrainian Front. Many years later, reminiscing about these battles, Bondar said laconically "it was difficult". Here, Soviet soldiers fought SS division Wiking, panzergrenadiers from the Walloon Legion, and experienced German army units. The operation resulted in the Korsun Pocket, nicknamed "little Stalingrad" by the Germans. For six days they tried to break through from the inside and outside, but fruitlessly.
Nina Ilyinichna Bondar earned her first award during the Carpathia-Uzhgorod offensive. It was already fall of 1944. Battles were fought over the Dukla pass. Four T-34s, among which was Nina's, burst into the pass and engaged in battle. With fire from their cannons and machineguns, the tanks dispersed German infantry, preventing them from taking up defenses in five settlements. Nina Bondar was wounded in the arm, but did not leave the battlefield. In addition, when the company commander was killed, she replaced him for four hours of fierce battle. Her tank destroyed four German guns, three MG nests, and up to 80 soldiers and officers. For courage and skilled action, Lieutenant Nina Bondar was rewarded with the Order of the Patriotic War 1st Class. After the war, a book was written about her in Slovakia, and a monument was erected at Dukla pass: a T-34 bearing her tactical number.
Interestingly enough, NIna Ilyinichna treats her score with scepticism. In one interview, she said: "The history of the brigade says: in battle for Vinnitsa, Bondar's crew knocked out one PzIII tank, one six-barrelled mortar, killed 50 fascists. That last one is odd, who counted them? Destroyed a gun, I can see that, but the people? We killed them and moved on. Even before, I did not like these numbers. I don't know how many tanks my crew knocked out, not even approximately. It happened that I'd return to base, they would tell me "Nina, you blew up a tank!" I don't know when, I shot a lot, Sometimes they don't blow up right away, maybe a little bit later."
During her service in the tank forces, Nina was wounded four times. Twice her tank brewed up. She recalled that experienced tankers could leave their vehicles quickly in that event, but after one such case she wore her helmet nonstop for a whole year: her hair burned off.
The war ended while Nina Bondar was in Prague. Her brigade was sent there after the Berlin Offensive Operation. In June of 1945, she participated in the victory parade on Red Square. A year later, she demobilized and returned to her birthplace. Many years later, having gone through the toughest battles, she said this of war: "Do I regret fighting where it was most difficult? No. I will repeat: we knew what we were dying for."
Original article available here.