Marina Roskova, frequently referred to as the Soviet Union’s Amelia Earhart, talked to Stalin about women being in the fight after the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. One third of all trained pilots in the Soviet Union in 1940 were women. Receiving the approval of Stalin, Roskova called for volunteers for all-woman flying units in the summer of 1941. She recruited 200 volunteers, ages 18 to 22, from flying clubs or the civil air fleet, and training began at Engles near Stalingrad on 15 October, 1941.
Eight already trained women pilots joined an all male fighter regiment in September 1941 and engaged in seeking and destroying enemy aircraft.
The 122nd Composite Air Division was composed of the 586th Fighter Air Regiment, the 587th Bomber Air Regiment, and the 588th Night Bomber Air Regiment (the famous Night Witches).
The 586th Fighter Air Regiment was the first to fight. These women flew Yak-1s, Yak-7Bs, Yak-9s, and Yak-3s and engaged in 125 separate air battles. In one instance two lone women attacked a bomber formation of 42 aircraft and destroyed four before their aircraft were too badly damaged to continue the fight. This regiment was credited with 38 kills, 17 of them scored by one of the squadron commanders, Olga Yamashchikova. Later she was the first woman to fly a jet aircraft as a test pilot.
The 587th Bomber Air Unit flew the Pe-2, nicknamed the Pawn. This aircraft was notoriously difficult to fly and the controls were so stiff that frequently the navigator, seated beside and behind the pilot, assisted in pulling back the stick on takeoff. By the fall of 1943 this regiment was designated a Guards unit becoming the 125th Guards Bomber Regiment.
The 588th Night Bomber Regiment flew the Po-2 wood and fabric biplane bomber on night harassment raids. This unit served in Ukraine, North Caucasus, the Taman Peninsula, Crimea, Stalingrad and Berlin. Even on the shortest nights, in mid-summer, they would fly three to four missions per night. Commanded by Yevdokia Bershanskaya, this unit completed 24,000 combat missions dropping 23,000 tons of bombs. Twenty-three women in this unit were awarded the coveted Hero of the Soviet Union medal. In 1943 this unit was also designated a Guards unit, becoming the 46th “Tamar” Guards Night Bomber Regiment.
More than 1,000 women flew combat in every type of Soviet aircraft. Many women flew with largely male units. Lilya Litvyak destroyed 12 German planes in one year. Lieutenant Ekaterina Budanova scored 11 victories. Valenina Grizodubova commanded a long-range night bomber squadron which included 300 male pilots and technicians.
By the end of World War II 18 per cent of personnel in the Soviet Air Force were women.
Sources: Red Air Force Heroines, George Tipton Wilson, World War II History Magazine, September 2007, Vol. 6 Number 5
Women Aloft, Valery Moolman, Time-Life Books, Alexandria, VA, 1981
Soviet Air Force at War, Russell Miller, Time-Life Books, Alexandria Virginia, 1983
The Soviet Air Force in World War II, Edited by Ray Wagner, Translated by Leland Fetzer, Doubleday, Garden City, NY 1973