Ignoring a nonaggression pact between Hitler and Stalin, Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, an invasion of the Soviet Union, on June 22, 1941. The Soviet Air Force was caught on the ground and nearly annihilated.
By November the German Army had fought its way to within 19 miles of Moscow. Leningrad was under siege. Three million Russians had been taken prisoner. A large part of the Red Army had been wiped out.
Immediately after the devastating attack began, the Soviet Union formed three regiments of female combatants at the behest of Marina Raskova, the Amelia Earhart of the Soviet Union. Raskova, already a heroine in aviation circles, had the ear of Soviet Premier Josef Stalin and convinced the wily dictator that women needed to be involved in the desperate fight.
It was a decision that many historians are convinced helped turn the tide of the war. By the close of World War II, nearly 1,000 Russian women had flown combat in every type of Soviet aircraft. Their participation has been called the best kept Russian secret of World War II. Even before the war, the Soviet government had encouraged women to participate in activities that earlier had only been the province of men. Women were to be the equal of their male counterparts in everything from being deck hands to flying airplanes.
One-Third of Soviet Pilots
As a result, women in the Soviet Union who wanted to learn to fly or work with airplanes were not discouraged or frozen out the way they were in America and to a lesser extent in Europe. The United States had its Jacqueline Cochran, its Nancy Harkness Love, its Amelia Earhart, and its Phoebe Omlie, but their fame was mainly relegated to “powderpuff derbies.” In the Soviet Union, it was not “healthy” to discriminate openly. Thus, by 1940, fully one-third of the trained pilots in the Soviet Union were women, and the Russian women pilots had set more flight records than the women of any other country.
One of the records was set on a nonstop flight from Moscow to the Manchurian border made in September 1938 by three women—Valentina Grizoduboya, Captain Polina Osipenko, and Lieutenant Marina Raskova—who were destined to take a leadership role in bringing women into aerial combat in the war against the Nazis. Raskova was the publicly acclaimed heroine among heroines because she selflessly parachuted from the plane during the last stages of the flight in a blinding snowstorm to lighten the plane’s load and assure a record-setting, nonstop distance. The aircraft subsequently crash-landed in a swamp near the border, and Raskova had to wander several days without food before she was able to rejoin her colleagues.
The three record-setting women were lionized throughout Russia, but Raskova’s fame far outlasted that of the other two. At the time of the flight, she was the navigator, but she went on to train and achieve excellent marks as a pilot. Her fame enabled her to grow close to Stalin, a position that could be tenuous at times, but one that augured well for the author of any project receiving his blessing.
Eleven months after the flight, in August 1939, an unthinkable diplomatic event occurred. Hitler and Stalin signed the non-aggression pact and became co-conspirators in the partition of Poland. Hitler subsequently stabbed Stalin in the back and launched the brutal, surprise attack on Russia in June 1941.
It was then that Martina Raskova joined the throng of would-be bureaucrats imploring the government to implement their plan to save the nation. With her connection to Stalin and the nation’s desperate need for military air personnel of all skills, it was a simple matter to get approval for women to join the Air Force and actively fight the German invaders. In fact, a few women pilots already were flying in the service, but they were highly dispersed and hardly visible to the general public. When Raskova called for volunteers to serve in all-women flying units in the summer of 1941, literally thousands responded. Distaff pilots, navigators, even mechanics rushed to lend their skills to help repel the invaders.
Training the “Summer Patriots”
By October, Raskova had personally interviewed them all and winnowed out the “Summer Patriots.” As the successful applicants were approved, they were billeted around Moscow. Finally, on October 15, the women of the 122nd Composite Air Group left for the training camp at Engles, a small town on the Volga River just a few hundred miles northeast of Stalingrad. There they received the same instruction and training given to all Soviet air units.
Shortly after the women arrived, they were reformed into three regiments, the 586th, the 587th, and the 588th Air Regiments. Nothing in the Russian records indicates these units were treated differently in any way, and the Soviet Army Air Force History of World War II accords them the same treatment as any Soviet Air Regiment. Training days were long and intense, lasting 14 to 16 hours. Much of the time was spent flying—on-the-job training for pilots and navigators. Ground mechanics worked equally hard to keep the training planes flying. Instant recognition of all types of German planes was a primary classroom subject. But the body of knowledge that was so important to each recruit was so huge and the time to master it so short that the women were constantly pressed. Yet they persevered.
The 856th Fighter Regiment was the first to end training and move into combat. Its commander was Major Tamara Kazarinova. Unfortunately, her health failed soon after the regiment moved into its operational headquarters at Saratove. She was replaced by a man, Lt. Col. A.V. Gridnev, who commanded the regiment until the end of the war. The regiment flew the Yak-l, a Soviet fighter designed by the Yakovlev Bureau and comparable the German Messerschmitt and British Spitfire. The unit was used primarily to guard specific targets, fending off German bombing and strafing sorties. Since its mission was defense, it did not rack up huge numbers of kills, but was equal to every assigned task.
Two Women Fighter Aces: Lilya Litvyak and Katya Budanova
Eight of the regiment’s exceptionally skilled pilots transferred to a previously all-male regiment in September 1941. Instead of defense, this regiment was employed in seeking and destroying German planes anywhere in its operational area. As a result, two of the women, Lilya Litvyak and Katya Budanova, earned the right to the coveted title of “ace” while flying as “Lone Wolf” fighters. Litvyak had 12 kills and three partials, while Budanova was reputed to have more, although no reliable record seems to exist.
Litvyak’s life as a Soviet pilot was the stuff of which movies are made. Apparently, she possessed the necessary physical and mental skills a successful pilot has always required, whether in the early days of aviation or in today’s supersonic jets—exceptional hand-eye coordination, marvelously quick reflexes, keen intellect, lightning-fast decision-making capacity, and indomitable courage. She was a shy, retiring, curvaceous blonde beauty out of the cockpit; in it she was a roaring exhibitionist.
Lilya’s daredevil moves were the envy of every pilot with whom she came into contact. If the pilot was a man, he promptly fell in love with her. As word of her feats spread through the Red Air Force, her ability to execute others more numerous and daring seemed to grow also. She survived two serious wounds in combat and each time returned to her relentless pursuit of the German invaders much too soon for her own good health. But Lilya was eternally sanguine about her capacity as a fighter pilot. Many of her peers had already included her in the international ranks of legendary pilots.
The mechanic who serviced Lilya’s aircraft, Sergeant Inna Pasportnikova, decribed Lilya’s insouciant ways to Anne Noggle, whose book A Dance with Death is the definitive work on women’s contribution to the Soviet Air Force in World War II. “When Lilya approached the airdrome after a victory, it was impossible to watch her; she would fly at a very low altitude and start doing acrobatics over the field. Her regimental commander would say, ‘I will destroy her for what she is doing. I will teach her a lesson!’ After she landed and taxied over to our position, she would ask me, ‘Did our father shout at me?’ And he had shouted at her, and then he admired what she had done.
“She flew so low over the field covers of the aircraft would flap and fly around, she created such a wind! When she was shot down the first time, she received a new Yak-1. Men tried to stop her from flying because they wanted to save her, but it was impossible.”
Finding Lilya Litvak
Lilya’s vibrant personality went well with her blonde hair and fair features. The whole package was a young man’s dream, and plenty of Soviet airmen of that day dreamed of wooing and winning her. However, she fell for only one. He was Alexei Salamon, her squadron commander. Their romance lit up the sky almost as brightly as their aerobatics between September 1942 and May 1943. Then, on a beautiful, late spring day, Alexei was in the sky flying a routine training session, showing a recruit how to perform aerobatics. His plane malfunctioned, and he was killed in the ensuing crash.