When German panzer and infantry columns rumbled across the frontier into Russia on June 22, 1941, the Soviet Air Force was woefully unready for war.
Marshal Josef Stalin had decided to revamp military aviation. Like the Red Army, whose officer corps he had brutally purged in the 1930s, Soviet air power was undergoing a transition and was in a sorry state. During the first disastrous week of Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invaders destroyed more than 4,000 out of 7,700 Russian airplanes.
The Russians flew aging bombers on suicidal raids against the Wehrmacht. Of the 800 in service, only 266 were still flying by December 1941. Faster and more maneuverable Messerschmitts shot down Soviet fighters almost at will and inexperienced Russian pilots resorted to such desperate tactics as trying to ram the German planes.
Stalin Calls on Marina Raskova to Recruit Female Pilots
After suffering catastrophic losses in men and planes during the German push into the Ukraine that summer, the Soviet high command was forced to call on one of the country’s most experienced women fliers, Marina Raskova, the “Russian Amelia Earhart,” to organize three regiments of female pilots. From the civil air fleet and flying clubs that had been formed across Russia in the 1930s, the beautiful, soft-spoken Major Raskova selected 200 recruits aged between 18 and 22.
In October 1941, she began to form the 586th Fighter Regiment, the 587th Bomber Regiment and the 588th Night Bomber Regiment. The latter would later earn the coveted designation of 46th Guards Night Bomber Regiment. As well as fighting in all-female units, other female pilots also flew with male squadrons. Women’s air regiments served in the Ukraine, the northern Caucasus, the Taman Peninsula, the Crimea, at Stalingrad and even over Berlin, bombing German supply trains, railroad junctions and ammunition dumps along the way. The 586th Fighter Regiment fought in 125 aerial battles in two and a half years.
These female pilots displayed incredible courage and stamina that rapidly won the admiration of their skeptical male superiors. For their aggressive spirit under adverse conditions and often against superior odds on the Eastern Front, the Germans dubbed them “Night Witches.” They were the only women to fly in combat in World War II.
The 254 young women of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment were chosen to make nightly attacks on the well-defended German line north of the Crimea. Flying through the bitter Russian winter in the open cockpits of slow, aging, wood-and-canvas Polikarpov PO-2 biplanes that could carry only four bombs, the women averaged 15 to 18 round trips a night through intense enemy antiaircraft fire. Backed by skilled mechanics and bomb loaders, most of whom were also women, the crews of the 588th completed 24,000 sorties during the war and dropped 23,000 tons of bombs.
It was a brutal air war. One night, the Germans shot down four PO-2s, killing eight women in 15 minutes. On another night, two women fliers were downed behind enemy lines. They managed, over the course of three days to walk back to their unit, dodging German patrols along the way.
The Night Witches, who bore lyrical names like Tamara, Katya, Polina, Valentina, Shenya, Nina, Alexandra, Galina and Katerina, carried wild flowers in their cockpits as a statement of their femininity amidst all the death and suffering. They never hesitated to plunge into German formations, no matter what the odds. On one occasion, two Yak fighters of the 586th Regiment intercepted 42 enemy bombers on their way to hit a rail junction. The two women attacked immediately, shooting down four bombers before their own planes were crippled.
The German air crews were incredulous when they discovered that many of the Soviet pilots attacking them were women. In June 1943, a group of Messerschmitts was flying cover over German artillery positions in the Caucasian foothills. Suddenly, the Luftwaffe fliers saw nine Soviet dive bombers approaching, flanked by a fighter wing. As the Germans peeled off to attack, they were amazed to hear female voices calling to one another on their radios. The hapless Germans were drawn into a crossfire and in seconds four Messerschmitts went down.
Marina Raskova was killed in action in 1943. In the first state funeral conducted in Russia since the beginning of the war, her ashes were placed in the Kremlin wall with full honors.
The Most Famous Night Witch
Most famous of the Night Witches was Lilya Litvak, a shapely, five-foot-tall blonde with gray eyes and a sunny personality. She flew with both the 586th Fighter Regiment and the mostly male 73rd Fighter Regiment, becoming the leading woman ace by destroying 12 German planes. Her prowess in the cockpits of Yak-1 and Yak-9 fighters earned her the nicknames of the “Free Hunter” and the “Rose of Stalingrad.”
Lilya (variously Liliia and Lydia) was one of hundreds of young women from flying clubs who answered their country’s desperate call in the autumn of 1941. Leningrad was surrounded, the German armies were approaching Moscow and more than three million Russians had been taken prisoner. There was no time to be lost.
Lilya grew up in a modest but happy home near the subway station at Nova Slobodskaya Street in Moscow. Her father was a railroad worker and her mother worked in a store. Becoming fascinated with aviation while a teenager, Lilya read every book she could get her hands on about aircraft design, navigation, aerobatics, and meteorology. At the age of 16, she persuaded the chief instructor at a Moscow flying club to start training her. She quickly proved that she had natural talent and was a fast learner.
Lilya soloed in a PO-2 biplane after only four hours’ instruction and soon became a flying tutor. She knew that her parents would be horrified if they knew she was going up in airplanes, so she smuggled her instruction books into her home and told her mother and father that she was attending a school dramatic society in the early evenings. By the time her secret was discovered she was an able pilot.
The girl was both capable and popular. Larissa Rasanova, a fellow instructor, said, “Lily was one of these people who was good at everything she tried. And she was so popular with the boys. I think every man at the flying club was in love with her.”
The Engels Training Base for Female Fliers
In October 1941, Lilya was one of a thousand young women, most of them hardly out of their teens, riding eastward on trains toward a training base at Engels, a small Volga River town a few hundred miles north of Stalingrad. At the former peacetime airfield that was being rapidly transformed into a well defended air base, Lilya and her comrades would become pilots, navigators, gunners, radio operators and ground crew members. The seven months’ training was scheduled to commence on October 15.
The recruits were housed in an old school building on the airfield perimeter. They pinned snapshots of their boyfriends and families on the bare walls behind their hard wooden bunks and, with scissors, needles and thread, worked to make their bulky, woolen vests, tunics, and baggy trousers into more attractive uniforms. Lilya drew a belt tightly around her tiny waist that emphasized her hourglass figure and added a flower to her cap. The women, many of whom would serve together for four years, were helpful to each other and there was a minimum of jealousy.
Because the Soviet Union desperately needed frontline fliers, the training schedule at Engels was hard and intense. On some days, the girls spent as many as 14 hours in the classroom and in the air. Courses that would have lasted for up to two years in peacetime were compressed into six months. The women practiced bombing from varying altitudes on ranges near the airfield and learned the theory of dogfighting. They used the PO-2 biplane, an outdated 1927 design which was both small and slow. Its five-cylinder engine was capable of only 60 miles an hour. It was such a primitive plane that when bombing, the pilot would tug on a wire in the cockpit to release the little bombs carried in racks beneath the wings.
The PO-2 was a workhorse. Besides serving as a primary trainer and night bomber, it was used as a scout plane, an aerial ambulance and a small transport for carrying couriers and important prisoners. Because of its wood and canvas construction the PO-2, which resembled the Fairey Swordfish torpedo bomber of British Fleet Air Arm fame, was able to escape detection by German radar. PO-2 raids inflicted more psychological than physical damage on the enemy, who nicknamed it the “Duty Sergeant” because of the many sleepless nights it caused.
Lilya Litvak and her comrades practiced night flying with instructors and then on their own. They learned to navigate with stopwatches and crude, manual computers strapped to their knees and without benefit of radio communication. Their return to the airfield after training flights was often more a matter of luck than judgment, but there were no fatalities.