During the Great Patriotic War (World War II) many women in the Soviet Union flew fighter aircraft in combat. These women were generally underappreciated by their peers (the men they flew with), and the Soviet public. Only a few names are known in the West. The 586th Women’s Fighter Regiment, along with the 587th Women’s Bomber Regiment, and the 588th Women’s Night Bomber Regimen, was formed by Marina Raskova by order of Josef Stalin in late 1941. These units consisted of all women, including the mechanics. The 586th Regiment assigned to Saratov in the summer of 1942.
The 586th Fighter Air Regiment contained other women pilots of note. Valentina Petrochenkova and a woman comrade chased a reconnaissance bomber quite beyond their area of operation until they ran out of ammunition. Valeria Khomyakova shot down a night bombing Ju-88 and inspected the wreckage on the banks of the Volga. Galia Boordina infiltrated a Ju-88 bomber formation at night and shot down one of the aircraft.
The most famous woman fighter pilot Lilya Litvak began her career in the 586th Fighter Air Regiment. Please refer to my previous blog, ‘Lilya Litvak.’ Katya Budenova gained nine victories and was a consummate fighter pilot. She kept her hair short and was always singing. She became Lilya’s wing mate in the 586th Fighter Air Regiment and followed her to the 73d Fighter Air Regiment, an all male unit. Eventually Lilya convinced the Regimental Commander Colonel Nikolai Baranov to let them fly, initially as wing mates on the colonel’s and Captain Alexei Salomaten’s wings.
Lilya, as the highest scoring woman ace in the Soviet Air Force, achieved a victory tally of 12 aerial kills plus three shared victories in 268 sorties over a period of less than a year of combat. She owes much of her fame to her mechanic, Ina Pasportnikova, who gave an interview to a Soviet newspaper reporter, and also to Bruce Myles, author of Night Witches, The Amazing Story of Russia’s Women Pilots in World War II.
Bruce Myles’ accounts add a personal touch to the harrowing life of a fighter pilot living in primitive conditions under severe mental and physical stress. The Ukraine, Russia’s bread basket, captured by the Germans in 1941, reduced Soviet food supplies. The rations consisted of one meal per day of bread with watery soup. Shower trains arrived at airfields at rare and irregular intervals. These allowed all personnel to get a hot shower. Women first.
In intervals between the arrivals of the shower trains, Lilya used slivers of soap and hot water drained from the radiator of her Yak fighter, mixed with cold water, to wash her hair. Colonel Nikolai Baranov turned a blind eye to that disobedience stating the Soviet Air Force could afford the loss of a bit of hot water. Lilya typically brought flowers into her cockpit before going flying and frequently wore a flower in her hat.
Colonel Baranov also allowed her to paint a white rose on both sides of her aircraft, number three, which she called “Troika.” Each aerial victory was celebrated by adding another white rose as a victory marking. She became known as the ‘White Rose of Stalingrad,’ and achieved notoriety among German airmen.
Lilya was shot down twice in three weeks, once making an emergency landing, another time bailing out of her flaming machine, she emerged from that period emotionally shaken. Her boyfriend, Captain Alexei Salomaten, was shot down and killed, and Lilya carried a photograph of them sitting together on the wing of her aircraft. After his death her friends became worried about her. She withdrew into herself and threw herself into her combat flying. Only her friend, Katya Budenova, was able to comfort her. When Katya was shot down and killed, Lilya was devastated.
Surprised as she attacked a formation of Ju-88s bombers, Lilya was killed in single combat with eight Bf-109s.
Sources: “Red Air Force Female Fighter Pilot Lilya Litvak Became an Ace and Hero of the Soviet Union Fighting the Germans” Michael D. Hull, WW II History Magazine, January 2005, Sovereign Media, Herndon, VA
Night Witches: The Amazing Story of Russia’s Women Pilots in World War II, Bruce Myles, Academy Chicago Publishers, Chicago, IL, Second Printing 1990