Women served in nearly all of the combat squadrons in the Soviet Air Force during the Second World War in all capacities including maintenance of the aircraft, loading bombs on the aircraft, refueling, and rearming. They also served as pilots, bombardiers, navigators, and gunners. They flew in combat, not only in all women units, but also alongside their male counterparts. They suffered all of the shortages of food, equipment, shelter, clothing, and comforts as the men. Additionally, they suffered the indignities of male chauvinism and misogyny.
Upon joining the Soviet Air Force women received the same haircuts as the men. In at least one instance they were sent into a warehouse to find their own uniforms. They received the same uniforms as the men, which generally were too large and not tailored for women. They received men’s underwear, and foot cloths. They took some care in tailoring their own uniforms on their own time, of which they had little. Even with the belt cinched tight, the uniforms looked boxy. They stuffed crumpled newspaper in the toes of their boots to make the boots fit.
Makeup was prohibited on duty, not that there was much to be had. One woman used her red navigation pencil to enhance her lips.
Many male senior officers opposed the use of women in combat squadrons and some were notorious for pawning the women off on other units. Some men objected to women maintaining their aircraft. They objected to leading women in combat or flying on the wing of a woman in a flight pair. Interestingly enough, when the Soviet fighter corps abandoned the zveno, or three aircraft formation, and adopted the para, two aircraft formation, the leader was called the master and the wingman was called the slave.
With the exception of Lilyia Litvyak, women received little press coverage.
Like the men, women wrote and read letters, played chess, and musical instruments, during their off hours. They also did needle point, including decorating their uniforms, and the white, silk liner they wore under their helmet. Some leaders required visible decoration to be removed. Others allowed it.
By 1942 and 1943 treatment of women began to change. They were allowed to grow out their hair, and, in the summer of 1943 uniform skirts were issued, which one woman commented made getting into the cockpit somewhat difficult.
I found the exploits of these combat pioneers most fascinating, and I am currently working on a novel based on the experiences of women in combat.
Sources: The Soviet Air Force in World War II, Edited by Ray Wagner, Translated by Leland Fetzer, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, NY, 1973
Night Witches: The Amazing Story of Russia’s Women Pilots in World War II, Bruce Myles, Second Printing, Academy Chicago Publishers, Chicago, IL, 1997
The Soviet Night Witches: Brave Women Bomber pilots of World War II, Pamela Dell, Capstone Press, North Mankato, MN, 2018