All of the women chosen for pilot training wanted to fly fighters and none were more determined than Lilya, who had grown disenchanted with the decrepit PO-2. She spotted a squadron of trim, long-nosed Yak-1 single-seat fighters parked at the Engels air base and determined that one of them would be hers. She wanted to tangle with the Luftwaffe.
The time came for the women to graduate from the PO-2 and start training in the planes they would fly into combat. Fliers assigned to the bomber regiments now learned to fly either converted PO-2s or twin-engine Petylakov PE-2 light bombers. Lilya and the others chosen to fly fighters finally got their Yak-1s. They eagerly practiced taxiing, circuits, mock dogfights, and flying in pairs, which was a standard maneuver in Red Air Force fighter groups.
Rugged, easy to fly and mounting wing machine guns and a cannon in the propeller shaft, the Yak was based on the British Supermarine Spitfire and the Messerschmitt 109. Designer Aleksandr Yakovlev tirelessly improved on the basic Yak-1. The Yak-3 could outfly the best enemy fighters and German pilots were instructed to avoid it. The Soviet Union eventually built more than 30,000 Yaks some 58 percent of its wartime fighters.
Lilya and the other women mastered the Yak-1 and itched to get into action. Their training finally ended and a big party in the Engels schoolhouse on May 17, 1942, marked their graduation. Accordions and banjos played, vodka flowed freely, candles flickered on tables and window ledges and the happy young women danced with their instructors.
The 586th Fighter Regiment Gets Sent to the Front
At inspection the next morning, Major Raskova announced that the 586th Fighter Regiment was going to the front. The girls cheered wildly and hugged each other. Their Yaks were ferried in that day. Chattering excitedly, Lilya and her comrades drew automatic pistols from the armory, donned leather flying helmets and walked to the line of waiting fighters. In formations of four, they took off and swept westward across the wide Volga to their assigned base at Saratov, testing their guns on the way.
The women’s regiment was assigned to defend Saratov, the site of munitions plants and railroads. After touching down, the fliers unpacked their belongings in the barracks, sipped tea and wrote letters home. They were now on the front line and some members of the regiment received their baptism of fire on their second night at Saratov. A squadron took off to intercept German bombers and one of the Russian girls, Galia Boordina, boldly dived into the enemy formation and forced it to turn away.
Day after day, the women of the 586th Regiment flew sorties and became combat veterans. It was a hard life and the strain began to show on the girls. Their hair was now tousled and their eyes red-rimmed and they flopped exhaustedly on their bunks after missions. They downed German planes and harassed the bomber formations, yet they were still a questionable factor in the minds of many senior Red Air Force officers. They still had to prove themselves.
By the autumn of 1942, the regiment had been transferred to an airfield near Voronezh, a major road and rail junction that controlled crossings to the River Don. The town was a key point in the German summer offensive in the south. Growing to hate their foes for the suffering and devastation they had wrought on their country, Lilya and her comrades drove off numerous bomber formations around Voronezh and skirmished with the escorting Me-109s. The regiment did not down any German fighters, but it also lost no pilots. The value of the women fliers was beginning to be noticed by the Soviet high command.
On to Stalingrad
That September, Lilya and her best friend, Katya Budanova, were informed that they were being transferred to the all-male 73rd Fighter Regiment at Stalingrad, where one of the most desperate and decisive battles of World War II was being waged. The sprawling city on the Volga was a burning, smoking, rubble strewn hellhole, hammered day and night by German bombers, dive bombers and fighters. The enemy had aerial superiority, yet the invaders had bitten off more than they could chew and the tide of war was turning slowly in the Russians’ favor.
Lilya was thrilled at the new assignment and yearned for the chance of single combat with the hated Huns. She packed her few belongings, socks, gloves, a woolen helmet, a tin mug, a silk handkerchief and her diary, into a rucksack and sat down to write a letter to her mother. “Dearest Memenka,” she wrote, “I am writing this sitting in the cockpit on readiness. I’m thinking of sitting with you in our dear home. I’m eating my favorite fritters in my dreams … .” Lilya asked her mother to send some warm gloves and socks, toothpaste and a photograph of her father.
Then, late on a September afternoon in 1942, she clambered into her Yak and flew southeastward to Stalingrad. After an hour’s flight, she touched down at one of the new airfields the city’s defenders had hurriedly constructed on the far side of the Volga. Stepping down from her plane, Lilya listened to the rumble and clatter of artillery and small arms across the river. There was smoke in the air.
In the briefing room of the underground operations center, Lilya warmed herself in front of an old potbellied stove while pilots of the 73rd Fighter Regiment were being debriefed after a sortie. Eventually, the men realized that there was an attractive young woman in their midst. “Hello, I’m Lieutenant Lily Litvak,” she said gaily, standing up and straightening her tunic. “I’m your new pilot.”
Lilya’s New Enemy: Male Chauvinism
Lilya and her friend, Katya Budanova, who flew in the following morning, soon found out that they had another foe to contend with besides the Germans: male chauvinism. Their new comrades and their officers did not relish the idea of having women fly with them. The regimental commander, Colonel Nikolai Baranov, had lost many friends and good pilots and told Lilya and Katya that he was not prepared to risk the lives of his “free hunters”—pairs of fighter pilots—by sending up girls. Baranov, a distinguished combat veteran, admitted that the Night Witches had acquitted themselves bravely in defending Saratov, but feared that Lilya and Katya would not be equal to the merciless air war raging over Stalingrad.
Lilya was dejected, but she did not give up. She would prove to Baranov that she and Katya were ready and she planned to work feminine wiles on him if it became necessary. The two fliers and Ina Pasportnikova, Lily’s mechanic, were quartered in a house on the airfield perimeter, well away from the men’s huts. A sentry was posted to “protect the girls from the Germans.” As they strolled across the field to their quarters, the women passed the fighters. Lilya’s Yak was parked next to Katya’s plane and they were being refueled and their guns loaded. Lilya’s aircraft bore a distinctive “No. 3” painted on the fuselage. She called it her “Troika” (three). She longed to climb in and take off.
Troika was flown into combat anyway and all Lilya could do was wait and watch with relief when it returned safely. One young male pilot refused to fly it because a female mechanic, Ina, had worked on it. The irrepressible Lilya refused to let the men’s attitudes and the inaction upset her and she made friends with some of the pilots. Soon, her admirers included Captain Alexei Salomaten, a close friend of Colonel Baranov, and Boris Gubanov, a tall Georgian who loved her from afar.
Lilya decided to confront Baranov, who had insisted, “I will not have girls flying with me.” She walked to the command bunker and begged him to let her and Katya join his free hunters. When Baranov threatened to transfer Lilya and Katya back to the 586th Women’s Fighter Regiment, the Moscow girl, who felt she had nothing to lose, responded, “We want to fly with you, and I’m sitting here until you tell me we can.” Salomaten, who had entered the bunker, intervened. Winking at Lilya, he told Baranov, “But surely, Kolya, you understand. She’s a pilot. She must be given the chance to fly with us.”
He clapped his friend on the shoulder and Baranov was beaten. “Okay, Alexei,” the colonel said, “tomorrow morning, Lieutenant Litvak flies as your wingman. But, by God, she’d better be good!” Baranov also agreed to Lilya’s appeal on behalf of Katya. He grinned and said that she could be his wingman the next day. Baranov was not yet convinced, but Lilya had won a round. She sighed with relief and tingled with expectation.
Finally, A Chance to Fight
On a fine September day, Alexei put Lilya through her paces in the air, after which the girl confided to Ina that she and Alexei had fallen in love. On the next day, he told Lilya, she would get a chance to shoot down Germans flying one of the new Yak-9 fighters. With a top speed of 370 miles an hour, a fast climbing capability and mounting a 37mm cannon and a pair of 12.7mm machine guns, the Yak-9 was almost the equal of the German Focke-Wulf 190.