Perhaps the most famous woman ace in the Soviet Air Force, Lilya Litvyak, began her career in fighters with the 586 Fighter Air Regiment defending Saratov during the battle of Stalingrad. The commander of the regiment, Tamara Kazarinova, reputed to be a martinet, was relieved of her command and replaced by a man, but not before one of the squadrons was broken up and the eight best pilots were sent to several all male units. On 10 September, 1942, Lilya and her friend, Katya Bodanova, were transferred to the 437 Fighter Air Regiment, flying La-5s. Shortly afterward, they were sent to the 9 Guards Fighter Air Regiment flying Yak-1s, but the commander, Lev Shestakov, refused to accept them and forwarded them on to 296 Fighter Air Regiment.
Colonel Nikolai Baranov, commander of 296 Fighter Air Regiment, had already decided to foist the women off on another unit. Lilya, with the help of Captain Alexei Salomaten, convinced Colonel Baranov to allow the women to fly on Salomaten’s wing. Lilya had already proven her proficiency in aerial gunnery in training and she and Katya regularly flew wing for Colonel Baranov and Captain Salomaten. Although it was strongly forbidden, Lilya enjoyed beating up the airfield after scoring each victory.
The 296 Fighter Air Regiment’s duty was ‘free hunt’ in the area of Stalingrad. By Christmas 1942 Lilya had achieved six aerial victories. Although Lilya refused an interview with a Soviet war correspondent, he interviewed a number of her friends and published a feature article in his newspaper, making her famous.
On 15 March, 1943, Lilya was wounded in the leg during an attack on German bombers. Ignoring her wound, she downed two bombers before belly landing her machine. Upon returning to base, she passed out from loss of blood. While recovering from her wound her unit was transferred to Rostov on Don.
After a period off duty for healing, she returned to the 296 Fighter Air Regiment, which now had become 73 Guards Fighter Air Regiment. Upon the death of her squadron leader, Lilya was promoted to flight leader. She was wounded again on 16 July, 1943. One week later she was forced to parachute from her aircraft, again wounded. The pilot of her tenth victory, a German ace, parachuted to safety and was captured. He refused to believe Lilya had shot him down until she described the dogfight to him, maneuver by maneuver.
Lilya’s record shows 168 combat sorties flown with 11 victories, and one balloon. On 1 August, 1943, she shot down a Bf 109 fighter. Between clouds, squadron mates sighted her aircraft, closely pursued by several German machines. She did not return from that mission. Her body was recovered in 1989. Michail Gorbachov awarded her the Hero of the Soviet Union decoration posthumously.
Sources: The Soviet Air Force in World War II, Edited by Ray Wagner, Translated by Leland Fetzer, Doubleday and Company, Inc., Garden City, NY, 1973
Night Witches: The Amazing Story of Russia’s Women Pilots in World War II, Bruce Myles, Presidio Press, 1981. Second Printing, Academy Chicago Publishers, Chicago, IL, 1997
Yakovlev Aces of World War 2, George Mellinger, Osprey Aircraft of the Aces #64, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, UK, 2005