When Alexei was finally pulled from the wreckage, he was virtually unmarked, but his body had been compressed into a fraction of its normal size. Anguished, Lilya buried her face in Ina’s breast before kneeling beside her lover’s body and lightly kissing his cold forehead. Then she wept.
Lilya grieved for months. She did not talk much about Alexei, but she carried a snapshot of him everywhere. The tragedy imparted to her a renewed dedication and her mechanic observed that she “had become almost obsessive in her hatred.” Lilya’s 10th aerial victory was over a Luftwaffe ace. She dueled with him like a madwoman for 15 minutes before sending his Messerschmitt down in flames.
The aggressive spirit and skill of the free hunters, both male and female, was now legendary in the skies over the Eastern Front. Near Orel in 1943, Major D.B. Meyer of the Luftwaffe reported that his unit was battling “brave daredevils, well trained and excellent fliers, with a sure flair for German weaknesses.” although Russian aerial superiority had increased, the free hunters still found themselves outnumbered as they waded into the enemy formations. Lilya was shot down twice in three weeks and then was forced to make an emergency landing. The next day, the Rose of Stalingrad was aloft again, in a replacement fighter.
During a dogfight her Yak was set afire. Lilya swung the plane upside down and threw herself from the cockpit at a low altitude. Her parachute opened just in time, but she was badly shaken. Continuous combat and the deaths of many friends were taking a toll on her. She was just as determined, but she was not the same lighthearted girl who had left Moscow.
She wrote to her mother, “Battle life has swallowed me completely. I can’t seem to think of anything but the fighting … I love my country and you, my dearest mother, more than anything. I’m burning to chase the Germans from our country so that we can live a happy, normal life together again.” She had to dictate her letter because her right hand had been injured by a bullet.
Lilya was comforted by her friend and fellow free hunter, Katya Budanova, a boyish looking young woman who had nine German planes to her credit. Katya loved to sing and was singing on the morning of July 18, 1943, when she took off on her last sortie. After a tangle with several Focke-Wulf 190s she was forced to make an emergency landing. Her plane blew up, and when villagers pulled her from the wreckage, Katya was dead.
Lilya was again devastated. She had lost Alexei, Boris Gubanov, Colonel Baranov and now Katya. She felt almost alone now, but she steeled herself and carried on. The war raged on and there were still plenty of Germans to be hunted down.
The White Rose Disappears
Around sunrise on Sunday, August 1, 1943, Lilya strolled across the airfield near the town of Krasny Luch in the Donets Basin. She paused to pick a posy of wild flowers and chatted with Ina, her faithful mechanic, who had readied Lilya’s Yak for the first sortie of the day. Lilya hoisted herself into the cockpit and pinned the flowers beside the instrument panel. She felt better than she had for some time. She waved goodbye to Ina, gunned her engine and took off.
Ten miles from the front line, Lilya and five fellow free hunters spotted their quarry, a large formation of Junkers 88 bombers escorted by Me-109s. The Russians approached the enemy, but Lilya did not see the German fighters, two of which pounced on her. She turned to confront them and she and the Germans disappeared into a cloud. Then, Ivan Borisenko, Lilya’s wingman, was horrified to see smoke trailing from the Yak bearing the white rose. He reported later that eight Me-109s had borne in on Lilya. The odds were too much even for her.
The White Rose disappeared over enemy territory. No one saw her crash, but there was no doubt that she was dead. Ina said, “When we realized Lily wasn’t coming back, men in the regiment broke down and cried. They never found her aircraft or her body, so there was no funeral.” Borisenko said, “Everyone without exception loved her. As a pilot and as a person, she was beautiful.”
Lilya, who was listed as “missing without a trace,” had been recommended for the Hero of the Soviet Union medal, but regulations decreed that it could not be awarded to anyone who had disappeared in combat. Eventually, in 1979 the body of a woman pilot buried in the village of Dmitrievka was discovered and it was determined to be that of Lilya. Her records were amended to “killed in action” and Soviet Chairman Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Hero of the Soviet Union citation in May 1990. It was presented to Lilya’s brother, Yuri.
The first woman in history to shoot down an enemy aircraft, Lilya Litvak completed 268 sorties and was the top scoring female fighter pilot. Her 12 aerial victories, plus three shared kills, were notched in less than a year of combat flying. A memorial, topped by a heroic bust, was erected to her in Krasny Luch.
Michael D. Hull is a frequent contributor to WWII History and a contributor to the World War II Desk Reference with the Eisenhower Center for American Studies. He resides in Enfield, Connecticut.