Tamara Orlova was born in 1923 in Odessa. Her father Nahum Orlov was a hero of the civil war of 1918-1920 in Russia and a prominent Soviet military leader. In 1937, while serving as the head of the Political Administration of the Volga Military District, he was arrested by the Stalinist political police, the NKVD, and executed.
In June 1941, when Operation Barbarossa began, Tamara Orlova, her mother, and brother lived in Odessa. The family was evacuated to the Stalingrad Region, along the Volga River, where Tamara found work in the locomotive depot of the Sarepta railroad station. In April 1942, when the German army was engaged in its second offensive against Russia, she was drafted into the Red Army and, without any training, sent to serve on the Don River with the anti-aircraft forces, specifically the 9th Anti-Aircraft Corps, which was assigned to block the enemy's way to Stalingrad from the west. Tamara served as a member of a gun crew – her job was to pass 37-mm anti-aircraft shells to the gunner during battle; at this time she also learned to be a military telephone operator.
In August 1942, under pressure from German forces, Tamara's battalion was forced to retreat. During the retreat, like other female telephone operators, Tamara carried heavy burdens, including that of wounded Red Army soldiers, and transferred ammunition and the wounded across the Don River in rowboats — all under enemy fire. This was particularly hard for her since, despite having been born on the seashore, Tamara could neither swim nor row.
During the Stalingrad operation (for participation in which she received the medal For the Defense of Stalingrad), Tamara learned another specialty – that of scout, and, until the spring of 1944, she served with the reconnaissance of an anti-aircraft battalion. In the spring of 1944, while fighting in Ukraine, she was assigned to be in charge of an observation post. In this capacity she fought in Moldova, in Romania, and in Hungary, where she met Victory Day.