Of all the combatant nations, only the Soviet Union allowed women to serve in the front line. Philosophically women were equal under the Soviet system, but in practice it wasn’t so easy, with the military and individual men putting up resistance.
Marina Raskova, a pioneering Russian aviatrix, used her national fame and influence with Stalin to allow her to form three all-female air regiments. Applications by female volunteers flooded in and the women chosen undertook all aspects of regimental work, serving as pilots, navigators, gunners, mechanics, armament specialists and other ground crew, and they flew over 24,000 sorties.
The three regiments were the 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment, the 587th Bomber Aviation Regiment and the 588th Night Bomber Aviation Regiment or ‘Night Witches’ as the Germans famously called them. Due to their achievements in battle, the latter two regiments were honoured by being renamed Guards units. In addition to the three official regiments, individual Soviet women sometimes served alongside airmen in otherwise all-male squadrons. Some 3,000 women served in the air force, of over 800,000 women in the Soviet military generally. From these emerged the world's only female fighter aces, Lydia Litvyak and Katya Budanova.
Born in Moscow in 1921 Lydia (or Lilya) Litvyak began piloting light aircraft at the age of just 15. She secured her flight instructor license in the late 1930s, training 45 students by the time of the German invasion in June 1941.
Litvyak attempted to join an Air Force unit but was initially turned down because of her lack of experience. Ever resourceful she decided to forge her application papers, adding a further 100 hours of flight time. She was eventually assigned to the all-female 586th Fighter Regiment, where she was introduced to the Yak-1.
In September 1942 she was transferred to the unisex 437th Fighter Regiment at Stalingrad and it was here she had problems with her Commander, who was less than pleased at having female combat pilots. This would be a red flag to the rebellious and strong willed Litvyak and she would often indulge in unauthorised aerobatics and victory rolls over home base, much to the chagrin of her superiors. Nevertheless, circumstance meant her discipline problems were overlooked given the increasing intensity of this crucial battle, as anyone and anything which could fly was thrown into the cauldron.
Lydia would soon prove how capable she was. On her second sortie on 13th April she shot down a Ju88 and a Bf109, in the process becoming the first female pilot to shoot down an enemy aircraft. Her latter victim was 11 victory ace, Erwin Maier who, after capture, asked to meet the pilot who shot him down and was incredulous to be introduced to a female pilot.
Popular legend has it she was known as the ‘White Rose of Stalingrad’, however this was due to the mistaken belief that she had painted such a flower on her earlier Yak-1. This was reported by some sources to actually be a white Lily, stemming from how she was portrayed by Soviet Propaganda. However according to her mechanic no flower was painted on any Yak she flew, given all fighters were shared by several (often male) pilots.
By late 1942 she had been transferred to the 9th Guards Fighter Regiment and shortly thereafter to the 296th Fighter Regiment (later the 73rd Guards Fighter Regiment) as the previous unit re-equipped with P-39s and the female pilots were to continue flying Yaks.
On 23rd February 1943 she was awarded the Order of the Red Star and promoted to Junior Lieutenant. She was then selected to take part in ‘free hunts’, in which experienced pilots could engage on their own initiative. It was during this period she was wounded for the first time when, on 22nd March after claiming a Ju 88, Litvyak was attacked by Bf109s, shooting one down before she force-landed at her home base. She would make another force landing on 16th July and despite being wounded again refused to take any leave.
On her fourth sortie of 1st August 1943, which entailed escorting IL-2 Shturmoviks, Litvyak was in the process of attacking German bombers when she was bounced by two Bf109s which damaged her Yak and it was last seen streaming smoke and being followed by several other Messerschmitts. One of her comrades flew low to search for the crash site, having seen no parachute and no explosion, but found nothing. With Soviet authorities concerned with the possibility of her being captured (traitorous in Stalin’s eyes) Litvyak was not awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union. This was rectified on 6th May 1990 when President Gorbachev posthumously awarded her the title and rank of Senior Lieutenant.
Soviet sources credit her with 12 solo kills and four shared over 168 missions, just pipping fellow female ace Katya Budanova.
If you wish to see Lydia up close, visit the Admission page for prices for the WW2 Exhibition. If you wish to experience the exhilaration of flying in the Yak-3 WW2 fighter, click here.