Russian Women Pilots





Russian Women Pilots

by Phyllis-Anne Duncan

I remember clearly the "Space Race" of the late 1950's and all through the 1960's. Spawned of the Cold War between the planet's two superpowers of that era, the Space Race meant being the first--first in space, first in orbit, first to the moon. Soviet test pilot Yuri Gagarin was first in manned orbital flight (taking both the first in space and in orbit simultaneously) in 1961. Soviet Aleksei Leonov was the first human being to walk in space in 1965. In 1963 Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman in space, followed 20 years later by American Sally Ride.

There is one more first the Soviets "won." In spite of the rich history of American women in military aviation personified by the Women's Air Service Pilots (WASP's)) in World War II, the U.S. Armed Forces didn't begin training women for air combat service until 1993. Yet, in 1942 the Soviet Union formed three regiments of women combat pilots who flew night combat missions and were so successful and deadly the Germans feared them, calling them Nachthexen--night witches. The WASP's, unable to convince the military bureaucracy that they were willing and capable of air combat, had to be content to watch their daughters and granddaughters effect the change in U.S. policy 50 years after their service; it was a matter of equality and opportunity. The Soviets used pilots of both genders in World War II out of dire necessity. (The Germans used women test pilots--namely Melitta Schiller and Hanna Reitsch--but they retained civilian status and flew aircraft from the factories to the front; they did not fly in actual combat.)




A bit of a history lesson here--Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed a mutual non-aggression pact in 1939. Consequently, the Soviets conspicuously stayed out of the invasion of Poland in 1939, receiving a chunk of Polish territory as a reward. For two years the Soviets put such stock in that treaty that in 1941 their border armaments ignored more than 500 overflights of German photo reconnaissance aircraft.

Then, at 3:15 a.m. on June 22, 1941--a date that lives in infamy for the Russian people--the German blitzkrieg came to Mother Russia in the form of Operation Barbarossa.

The Soviets were caught completely off-guard. Airports with runways long enough to serve their new fighter and bomber aircraft were still under construction on the western and southern borders where the German invasion struck. Fighter aircraft were limited in number along the border and were uncamouflaged and vulnerable. The pilots who managed to get into the air usually had 15 or fewer hours of experience, some as few as four hours of training. German pilots were as well-trained and fierce as their groundling counterparts. The Soviet Air Force, such as it was and with its rigid, inflexible tactics, was cut to ribbons.

Much like the aftermath of Pearl Harbor six months later, tens of thousands of Soviet youth, fired with patriotism and anger at the invaders, went to recruiting offices to join the Soviet Armed Forces and refurbish the Soviet Air Force. The youth who eagerly volunteered to fight for their country were men and women, most in their teens and many of them holders of newly minted pilot certificates. In the 1920's and 1930's the Soviet Union had a series of paramilitary flying clubs called Osoaviakhim. Any Soviet boy or girl could join and learn to parachute or fly first gliders then powered aircraft for free. Some of the 17-year old girls who showed up at the recruiting offices had much more flying experience than their sorely lacking comrades at the front who had just been bested by the Luftwaffe.

Bruce Myles, in his book, Night Witches, says, "Harassed officials rejected the young women without exception. The response to one young woman, who was later to become a Hero of the Soviet Union, was fairly typical: 'Things may be bad but we're not so desperate that we're going to put little girls like you up in the skies. Go home and help your mother.'"

Fortunately, Soviet girls--like American girls--didn't take too kindly to such advice. They waited, and, as the full brunt of the initial invasion and its cost in human resources were realized, they didn't have to wait long. The official position changed, and the young girls were asked to come help Mother Russia.

The Soviets planned three women air regiments, each with three squadrons of 10 aircraft. The mechanics, armament fitters, and other personnel would also be women. Each regiment would then have approximately 400 women. Thousands of applications were received and narrowed down to 2,000 to be interviewed.

Like the U.S. women who ventured to Sweetwater, TX to become WASP's, young Soviet women came from all over the vast country to Moscow. Many of them, en route by train, saw the war first hand before they ever began their pilot training--the Luftwaffe strafed the trains and the young women shared their seats with fully armed soldiers headed for the front.

The WASPs had key figures in their organization and implementation--Jacqueline Cochran and Nancy Love. For the Soviet women pilots, it was Marina Raskova. In 1938 Raskova and two other Soviet women had set a world record for a non-stop direct flight by women when they flew a Soviet-built, twin-engine aircraft named Rodina (homeland) 6,000 kilometers across the expanse of the Soviet Union from Moscow to Komsomolsk-on-Amur in the Far East. With the aircraft icing up over the Siberian wilderness, the women tossed everything movable out of the aircraft to try and gain altitude. Finally, Raskova, who had been the navigator, decided she would have to go as well. She marked the aircraft's compass heading on a map and bailed out into the darkness. The two remaining pilots eventually landed safely at their destination, and a hunter rescued Raskova. The three "Winged Sisters" returned triumphantly to Moscow. Already a folk heroine, Raskova was the logical choice to recruit, interview, and oversee the training of the women aviators.

Myles reports that Raskova, in 1941 a Major in the Soviet Air Force, herself was as nervous about recruiting these young girls as they were about meeting a famous Hero of the Soviet Union. Raskova knew she could be sending them to die--a conundrum faced by any military commander. She asked the young recruits, "Aren't you frightened to go to the front? Don't you know that these bad men on the other side will be shooting at you?"

One inspired young woman replied, "Not if I shoot them first, Major Raskova."

In October of 1941, the young women reported to the town of Engels on the River Volga north of Stalingrad. Their first order of business was to break out needle and thread to alter the uniforms provided them, hand-me-downs from their male compatriots--oversized tunics and vests, baggy pants, and huge greatcoats whose belts wrapped twice or more around their frames and boots whose toes had to be stuffed with newspaper in order to fit their small feet. In spite of the ill-fitting uniforms, the uncertainty of their success, and the prospect that those who did succeed could die in combat, the women were reportedly relaxed upon their arrival. On the trip south from Moscow, says Myles, "They laughed and joked and speculated on what the boys would be like tomorrow in Engels."

Training in Engels was intense. Twelve to 14-hour days of flying and ground school were necessary to cram what should have been two years' worth of training in peace time into a war time necessity of six months. The Soviet Air Force needed to get pilots into the air because, in the interim, the Germans had free run of Soviet skies, striking far into the heart of the country and regularly bombing Moscow in spite of massive attempts to camouflage the capital.

Initial training was in Polikarpov PO-2 wood and fabric biplanes. The women practiced bombing from different altitudes as well as night flying, dual then solo, "learning to navigate with only the most rudimentary of instruments and without any radio communication with the ground," says Myles. Navigation was accomplished with stopwatches, flight computers, and regular maps--not aeronautical charts. There was a pilot and navigator in each aircraft after the instructors moved out, and the pilots and navigators rotated flying with each other so that Raskova could evaluate which teams flew best together.

Although the PO-2's had no guns, instructors attempted to teach dogfighting through simulation--on the ground and in the air--of cannon fire in air-to-air combat. (One can almost imagine them making machine guns sounds over the radios.) The women took turns in the air being Soviets and Germans, dogfighting with each other and their instructors. The women took delight in making up combat aerobatics on the spot and also took great pride in "killing" their instructors and some of the highly experienced male pilots--including some who had had combat experience against the Luftwaffe--brought in to be worthy adversaries.

After six months of training at Engels, Major Raskova posted the regimental assignments. All the women had, of course, wanted to be fighter pilots, but they all knew that only a few would make it to fighters. The fact that their homeland was now entrusting them with its defense and salvation only slightly eased the deep disappointment for many who would be flying the less "glamorous" aircraft--like their well-travelled trainers, the PO-2's, which had been refitted as bombers for the 588th Night Bomber Regiment. Because they were now soldiers, the disappointments were quickly put aside, and the women were ready for the front.

Well, almost. The male commandant of the training base decided the women did not look soldierly enough and ordered them to cut their hair. They could cut it themselves or a military barber would do it for them; either way, their long tresses had to go; hair could be no longer than two inches all over their heads. Depending on where she was from, the Soviet woman's pride was her long hair, usually never cut in her lifetime, bound up in braids or allowed to swing freely below her waist. This order was a severe blow to the women who had wanted to be pilots but who had wanted also to retain their femininity. Faced with the order, the women opted to cut each others' hair, rather than subject it to the zeal of a military barber. There were many tears and much sadness, but they all reported the next day, cropped and coifed, ready to fight. (Ironically, a high-ranking general came to inspect the new pilots and was dismayed at the short haircuts of the other women, lamenting they all "looked like boys.")

The women began advanced training in the aircraft they would fly in combat. The 587th Women's Day Bomber Regiment would fly the Petylakov PE-2, which carried a three-woman crew--a pilot, navigator, and radio operator/gunner. Two fixed guns fired forward, and a swiveling machine gun in an acrylic bubble was positioned behind the navigator. Two more guns operated by the radio operator were in the middle of the fuselage. One fired from the floor out the underside of the aircraft, and the other fired through a hatch above the radio operator's head. The radio operator was surrounded by her radio equipment and boxes of spare ammunition belts for her guns.

There was one piece of non-standard equipment almost every woman had to use--cushions for the seats. Most of the women were small, several inches shorter than male pilots, and cushions were needed to boost them up so they could see over the instrument panel and reach the rudder pedals.

To teach the idiosyncrasies of the PE-2's takeoff, the instructors employed an unusual training configuration. The women pilots stood in the cockpits beside the instructor (there were no jump seats) watching how he operated the aircraft and listening to a continuous lecture on the performance of the aircraft. After several takeoffs this way, the instructor would stabilize the aircraft at altitude, then slide out of the seat, allowing the women to assume the pilot's seat and take control--an extreme act of faith for a pilot's first landing in an unfamiliar aircraft. The women later complained in their reminiscences that the controls of the PE-2 were so stiff that the trainees had to stand by the pilot on takeoff to help haul the stick back.

The fledgling fighter pilots were experiencing their own learning curve in the YAK-l's. Compared to the PO-2 training aircraft, the YAK-1 was quick and powerful, unforgiving of mistakes and adventurousness. But the woman built confidence in the aircraft as their experience grew. They learned formation flying standard for the Soviet Air Force fighter units. Once again, they practiced dogfighting with each other and with their instructors. Target drogues were hauled out, and they practiced gunnery skills.

Their advanced training complete, they prepared for their transition to combat with a final party and dance at Engels. The male pilots at Engels were invited, and they were entranced by the women. One of the male pilots was overheard begging one of the women pilots not to write anyone except him when she left Engels. Her response, "Let's get the fighting over first, darling, then maybe we can talk about love."

The next morning, the women were issued their sidearms, and the YAK-l's were rolled out for the fighter pilots. As Myles puts it, amid wild cheering, the women pulled their leather flying helmets on, walked to their aircraft, "strapped themselves in, pulled the canopies shut, and took off....The last formation waggled its wings in salute....They were ordered to test their guns en route, and the short bursts smashed through the new fabric pasted over the gun ports. The women had gone to war."

The 586th Women's Fighter Regiment was stationed at Saratov, on the Volga River north of Stalingrad, to protect railways and munitions factories. Their second night there, they got their first call to combat. More than 20 German bombers were on their way to Saratov, and the women donned their parachutes and ran out to their planes. Each one of them was nervous; whether the Luftwaffe was or not is not known. Indeed, it is not certain that the German pilots knew at that time they would be facing women in fighter aircraft as they approached Saratov that night.

With no moon to define a horizon the women concentrated flying on instruments and leveled out a 1,000 feet above the enemy's expected position. The flight leader began S-turns looking for the enemy's aircraft. Ground controllers updated the women on the enemy's position, but the aircraft's radios were receive only; the women had to trust what information they were given since they couldn't call back with questions or requests.

The squadron leader, Galia Boordina, believed her calculations and the radio reports meant that German bombers were two minutes from Saratov, and she also believed that she had to be on top of the bombers. She dived into the night, her guns firing, and charged through the middle of the bombers' formation. She pulled up then dived for them again. The German bombers apparently thought this onslaught came from more than one fighter. They jettisoned their bombs short of the target and broke up, heading away from Saratov.

The Women's Fighter Regiment had been through its baptism of fire and had come out the other side.

The 588th Women's Bomber Regiment didn't fare quite so dramatically. On their first sortie, their base commander decided to test their mettle. He instructed the YAK fighters sent to escort them to "attack" them. Nervous and anxious about their first mission, the women mistook their own aircraft for Messerschmidts and panicked, breaking formation and scattering. This is what every fighter pilot hopes for--single targets away from the pack and easy pickings. Many of the women immediately headed back to base, some soon realizing from radio chatter what had happened. Others demonstrated some serious nap of the earth flying, scudding low enough to be hidden behind hedgerows! When they all returned to base they were embarrassed and humiliated at their behavior. Despite the praise for their flying skills, they were determined to do better the next time. The very next night they scored big hits on the German positions they were sent to bomb, flying through flak and trusting their fighter escorts to dispense with the Messerschmidts.

The women of the 588th also came up with a unique strategy to deal with the German "flak circuses." In an area they controlled or were protecting, the Germans would assemble as many as two dozen 37mm antiaircraft guns in concentric circles around a target. The gunners would be supported by a searchlight platoon. Many Soviet bomber pilots, true to their unyielding strategy, flew straight in, alit by searchlights and pounded by ring after ring of antiaircraft fire; they seldom made it to the target. After several casualties among the women bomber pilots, the survivors decided to break out of the Soviet strategy mold. The women decided to fly in groups of three instead of two; two would fly headlong toward the target while one held back. When the front two were first hit by the searchlights, they would go into wild evasive action, and the searchlight operators would try to follow them. The third plane would slip in under their cover and deliver her load. The women would later describe the tension of waiting for the searchlight to hit them, how they ignored the sound of flak tearing through the wings and fuselage, and their worry about their friends who had been sent in to draw the Germans' fire. But, in the end, they seemed to shrug the tactic off in a pragmatic military manner. "It worked," they said.

As the bomber regiments delivered their ordinance, the women fighter pilots began to rack up their kills along with their male counterparts. In September of 1942, the Junkers Ju-88 became the first German bomber to be shot down by a woman pilot. The most skillful women fighter pilots were eventually integrated into male units and became wingmen for each other. The sexism was still rampant, however. Some male pilots refused to fly in aircraft the women mechanics maintained. One base commander refused to allow any women fighter pilots in his group until one male pilot, enamored of one of the women, convinced him.

The object of the male pilot's affections, Lily Litvak, became legendary as the "White Rose of Stalingrad." Said to be strikingly beautiful, Lily was impatient with anyone who couldn't see beyond her physical endowments but proved herself over and over again in the air as a flight leader and wingman for the besotted pilot, with whom she eventually fell in love. On each side of her cockpit she painted a white rose--hence the nickname--and so fond was she of flowers, she often picked wildflowers and carried them aloft on her missions. The Germans quickly learned who she was as well, and when her familiar YAK with the white rose incongruously emblazoned on its sides came into view, they alerted each other and stayed out of her way. (One captured German pilot refused to believe he'd been shot down by a woman until Lily gave him a blow by blow account of their dogfight.) She shunned publicity and put off a Soviet propagandist who came to her base to do a film on her; she simply wanted to fight Germans and free her country.

Lily was well on her way to becoming an ace. After a year of air combat and surviving at least three shoot-downs herself, she had scored 12 kills. But her notoriety was to be her downfall. On one mission in July 1943 eight Messerschmidts concentrated solely on Lily, and it took all eight of them to bring down the "White Rose of Stalingrad." Her body and aircraft were never found, but a marble monument, with 12 gold stars--one for each enemy plane she shot down--was erected in her memory. She was a 22-year-old combat-hardened veteran when she died.

The examples of bravery and determination given here are but a few of the many stories and adventures experienced by the Nachthexen. Valerie Moolman, author of Women Aloft, says, "Examples of extreme courage were almost the rule." The Soviet women bomber pilots earned 23 Hero of the Soviet Union medals and dozens of Orders of the Red Banner. Two women bomber pilots--Katya Ryabova (who flew 890 sorties) and Nadya Popova--in one night raided the Germans 18 times. The bomber pilots flew more than 24,000 sorties and delivered 23,000 tons of bombs--pretty remarkable considering the poor old PO-2 could only carry two bombs totaling less than a ton per sortie. The fighter pilots of the 586th participated in more than 125 separate air battles. Most of the women bomber pilots who survived until the end of the war in 1945 had nearly 1,000 missions each. They had served so exemplary throughout the war that they participated in the final onslauqht on Berlin--in fact. weren't going to be kept away.

They had helped to achieve their beloved country's pobyeda--victory. And when the war ended, like veterans all over the world, they "returned to their factories and farms," says Moolman. They married the soldiers and pilots they had told to wait until after the war to think about love. In spite of the danger and their heavy losses, most of the women later described their combat as the most exciting times of their lives. These women left hearth and home to fight for their country as men have done for millennia. They endured loss of family and homes in their absence, met and lost lovers and husbands, and were wounded and killed in action. Their path to glory and martyrdom was not easy (it never is). Soviet military officials then, as U.S. military officials now, questioned whether it was strategically or morally appropriate to send women into combat. But the Night Witches proved to themselves and a skeptical country that their gender made no difference in the defense of one's home.

Their names came to be spoken with awe in their homeland as we speak of similarly of Yeager and Mitchell. Over the years we would see them and not quite understand who they were--aged, uniformed veterans, their chests heavy with metals, marching in May Day parades through the streets of Moscow. Like the WASP's in America, it was nearly 30 years after their exploits before we here in the U.S. learned of their sacrifice and heroism.

Time has taken its inevitable toll on the Nachthexen, though several still live today on their meager pensions. Like the WASP's they can be and are an inspiration to the young women, who could be their granddaughters, who are now learning to fly the world's most sophisticated combat aircraft.

Their grateful nation said to the Night Witches, "Even if we were to place at your feet all the flowers of the earth, they would not be a big enough tribute to your valor."

Flowers for the valor of the Night Witches. Flowers for the White Rose of Stalingrad, who fought for her country until her last breath and died inhaling the scent of wildflowers carried aloft.


For more detailed information on the Night Witches, see Bruce Myles' book of the same name, published in 1990 by Academy Chicago Publishers, 213 West Institute Place, Chicago, IL 60610. Two volumes of the Time-Life series, "The Epic of Flight" (Women Aloft and The Soviet Air Force in War) are also excellent resources. In addition to these books I researched several other works by Americans and Germans on the Soviet Air Force during World War II and used my conversations with 99's and WASP's who visited Russia a few years ago and met several of the aging women combat pilots. Sadly, the most interesting of the possible memoirs does not exist. Unlike Jackie Cochran and Nancy Love, Marina Raskova could not write about her experiences recruiting and training the world's first women combat pilots. Restless in the classroom, she had asked for and received an assignment to the front. In 1943, the "Winged Sister" was shot down and killed. She received the first Soviet state funeral in wartime, and her ashes are buried in the Kremlin Wall.

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