After an early morning briefing, Alexei and Lilya buckled on their sidearms, picked up maps and parachutes and walked to their planes. Alexei squeezed Lilya’s arm and winked at her. She climbed into her cockpit and Ina helped her to buckle on her parachute. “She was bursting with good humor and excitement,” Ina recalled later. “She was like a beautiful little animal, straining at the leash.” Alexei and Lilya then zoomed into the sky to patrol the western approaches to Stalingrad.
At 10,000 feet, they hid in clouds to hunt for their prey. Then Alexei radioed, “Follow me.” They dived into a formation of Heinkel 111 bombers and Alexei damaged the leading plane. Lilya pressed her gun button and swung away to avoid hitting the Heinkel’s tailplane, but had lost sight of Alexei. So she rolled back in the direction of the German formation, which was scattering, with the leader diving out of control.
Suddenly, Lilya heard Alexei’s voice crackle in her headphones: “Troika, Troika, behind you! Break right!” A Messerschmitt 109 was on her tail, lurching in her slipstream and firing. Lilya felt bullets hammering behind her cockpit, so she swung hard right, dived and rolled. The German followed, but the girl felt no more hits. Then the Me-109 erupted in a ball of orange flame; her wingman had finished him off. Only a minute had elapsed since their dive through the enemy formation. Now, the German planes had gone.
Plunging through broken clouds, the two free hunters spotted another prey, a Heinkel 111 straggler. Alexei dropped behind and ordered Lilya to attack. Easing her Yak up under the bomber’s tail and rocking in its slipstream, she loosed shells into its underbelly. Flames engulfed the German plane, and it dived into a field. It was almost like target practice and Lilya felt sickened. She and Alexei returned to base with victory rolls, and a grinning Colonel Baranov watched. Jumping down from his plane, Alexei put his arm around Lilya and declared, “This girl’s going to be an ace—I’ll bet you anything on that!”
The Tide Shifts and Lilya Becomes Famous
The days shortened and grew colder as the winter of 1942-43 arrived. By Christmas, Lilya had shot down six planes, three fighters and three transports, as the bitter Stalingrad campaign wore on. By now, the Soviet ground troops and airmen were struggling to prevent General Friedrich Paulus’s trapped German Sixth Army from being supplied by air. Alexei and Lilya flew together on days when the weather permitted and in the evenings they held hands and strolled around the airfield. Their love grew.
The Russian fliers gained superiority in the skies over embattled Stalingrad, and news of the Night Witches’ exploits spread. Lilya’s name appeared in several newspapers, but she was shy and shunned publicity. She refused to speak to a visiting correspondent and told him to interview her mechanic. Yet, there was a touch of flamboyance in her. She asked one of the airfield mechanics to paint a large white rose on each side of her Yak’s fuselage and a smaller row of roses along the nose to signify her aerial victories. So Lilya Litvak became known as the “White Rose of Stalingrad.” She was also now known to the Germans and on many occasions ground monitors heard enemy pilots warning each other: “Achtung, Litvak!”
The horror of the air war was rudely brought home to Lilya one day when Boris Gubanov was killed. During an encounter with a formation of Junkers bombers, his Yak was set afire. Gubanov’s radio transmitter was switched on as he tried to eject himself and Lilya and Alexei listened to his screams as he burned to death while ramming one of the enemy bombers. Lilya was shaken and felt guilty that she had not been kinder to him.
In the air and on the ground, the stubborn Soviet soldiers, airmen and civilians were gaining the upper hand in and around Stalingrad, now a wasteland of blackened rubble. Russian infantry, artillery, and armored units mauled the Sixth Army, which was running low on ammunition, rations and medical supplies. The Red Air Force was gaining strength as production plants turned out thousands of aircraft and hundreds of British and American fighters were ferried to Russia. By the middle of 1943, the Red Air Force would boast 8,300 frontline planes and half a million men and women.
Germans died by the thousands in the bitter winter and the Russians checked efforts to relieve Paulus’s desperate army. In January 1943, he and more than 94,000 of his men surrendered. An estimated 147,000 Germans had been killed in Stalingrad and a further 100,000 around the city. It was a great turning point and the Germans were now forced to retreat.
Lilya’s Luck Runs Out
That March, the 73rd Fighter Regiment was shifted to an airfield at Rostov in the Don Basin, where the German forces had been regrouping after their retreat from the North Caucasus. Lilya had now been flying in combat for 10 months. She was a fine pilot and an aggressive warrior and had been very fortunate. However, her luck was about to run out.
One day, with Alexei as her wingman, she closed in to attack a Heinkel 111 bomber. She damaged the enemy plane, but a sustained burst from its gunner smashed her Yak’s engine cowling. The engine died and Lilya frantically pulled away as the German crew bailed out of the crippled bomber. She had downed her ninth enemy plane, but she was in trouble.
As Alexei guided the girl to a long pasture for a forced landing, Lilya felt terrible pain in her left leg. The bullets that had knocked out her engine had also hit her leg, but she did not tell Alexei because she did not want to worry him. Struggling to stay conscious, Lilya slammed into the pasture with her undercarriage still folded up. The Yak hit a rut, spun around and jerked to a halt. With blood flowing from her leg, Lilya staggered to a nearby roadside as her lover circled the pasture and radioed the base for help.
Lilya used her scarf to tie a tourniquet around her thigh. She waved to Alexei, who was running low on fuel and had to make for base. When Colonel Baranov drove along a few minutes later to pick her up, Lilya passed out. In a field hospital, a surgeon removed the bullet from Lilya’s leg and gave it to her as a souvenir. Alexei gave her two gifts, a dagger with a wooden handle that he had carved himself and a volume of poems in which he had written: “To my love, Lily.”
Recuperation, then a Return to Action
When she had recovered, Lilya was sent on convalescent leave to Moscow. She hated to leave Alexei and the fighter regiment, but she was overjoyed at being reunited with her mother and 14-year-old brother, Yuri. Her father was away driving a train near one of the war fronts. Despite a severe food shortage in Moscow, Lilya’s mother cooked some of her favorite meals. The girl’s leg mended slowly and she was able to walk short distances without a cane. She found it hard to relax however, and after being home less than two weeks she decided to return to Rostov.
On her last night in Moscow, Lilya donned a pretty blue and white dress and went with her mother and Yuri to the Bolshoi Theater, where Ulanova was playing Odette in Tchaikovsky’s ballet, Swan Lake. As a wounded veteran, Lilya had been able to secure tickets. After a tearful farewell early the next morning, the brave little flier limped off to hitch a plane ride back to Rostov. She would not see her family again.
Arriving back at the Rostov airfield, Lilya was shocked to learn that Colonel Baranov had been killed. Anxious to fly again, she volunteered for a hazardous mission against a well defended German observation balloon that had been calling down accurate artillery fire on Russian troops in the sector. One Soviet plane had already been downed while attempting to destroy the balloon.
Lilya studied her maps, limped out to her Yak-9 and took off. Flying at 200 feet across the enemy lines she ignored ground fire and hits on her fuselage before dropping to 100 feet. With the late afternoon sun behind her, she approached the balloon, which was being winched down for the night. At a range of 500 yards, she sent a stream of cannon and machine-gun fire into the belly of the balloon and watched it disintegrate in a brilliant orange flash. Exultantly, she zoomed home and flew inverted victory rolls across the field at a height of 50 feet. She had not lost her touch.
One afternoon during a lull in the fighting, Lilya, Katya and some other pilots lounged on the grass and watched Alexei teach dogfighting tactics to a squadron newcomer. As the two Yak fighters twisted and chased each other at dangerously low levels, Alexei turned steeply which caused him to lose height. His wing dropped and the plane hit the ground with a loud crash. Everyone ran frantically across the field. The impact of the crash had shoved the front end of Alexei’s plane into its fuselage, crushing the cockpit.