Female pilots of the 46th Taman' Guards Bomber Regiment in a photograph taken in 1945. Left to right: Rufa Gasheva, Natal'ya Meklin, Marina Chechneva, Nadezhda Popova, Sima Amosova, Dina Nikulina, Yevdokiya Bershanskaya, Mariya Smirnova, Yevgeniya Zhigulenko.
After Germany invaded the Soviet Union, between 22 June 1941 and 8 May 1945 there were nearly one million women who served in the Soviet Armed Forces, many of whom were at the front, enduring the harshness of frontline combat and fighting alongside their male counterparts for the very existence of their homeland. Soviet women's combat aviation regiments began to be formed in October 1941, after the Soviet high command authorized Marina Raskova to organize a female special Aviation Group No. 122.
A few words would be in order here about Marina Raskova, a very interesting personality. Besides establishing close relationships with everyone who had the pleasure of knowing her, Raskova also cared deeply for the people under her command. She was a very cheerful woman with a wide range of interests, including classical music (she attended the Pushkin School of Music, specializing in piano playing), who became fluent in French and Italian and studied chemistry as well as military subjects.
At the age of 19 Marina Raskova was hired by the Zhukovsky Aviation Engineering Academy as a laboratory technician. In 1934 she passed the aviation navigator's examination and in 1935 obtained her pilot's license. On 24 October 1937 Raskova and Valentina Grizodubova, while flying a Yak-12, scored the female world record in a long distance non-stop flight of 1,445 km. In 1938 Raskova took part in three record flights: on 24 May and 2 July in an MP-1 flying boat, covering 1,749 km and 2,241 km respectively and on 24-25 September with V. Grizodubova and P. Osipenko in an ANT-37 covering 6,450 km or 5,908 km as the crow flies in a pioneer non-stop flight from Moscow to the Pacific. At the age of 26 she was awarded the Gold Star of Hero of the Soviet Union, along with Grizodubova and Osipenko, for their flight to the Far East.
The portrait photo of Marina Raskova.
After the German-Soviet war broke out on 22 June 1941, Raskova used her personal influence with Joseph Stalin, and her position on the People's Defense Committee, to secure permission to form all-female combat units. This request was at the behest of many Soviet young women and girls who wished to fight their homeland's enemy. In the Soviet Union there were already some pre-war female pilots that had been trained in aeroclubs by the Osoaviakhim (Society for Assistance to Defense, Aviation and the Chemical Industry). With the official approval of Stavka (Shtab Glavnogo Verkhovnogo Komandovaniya = Headquarters/Supreme High Command) and assistance from the Komsomol (Young Communist League) in selecting training candidates, Raskova began forming three all-female aviation regiments in October 1941.
After their acceptance into this new program, the future airwomen were moved to the small city of Engels on the Volga River north of Saratov. While at Engels, the women were to finish most intensive flying and navigation courses in six months, which normally took about 18 months!
Raskova had of course "kept an eye" on the entire training process, deciding on the final posting of each airwomen. With the official Stavka approval, Marina Raskova eventually formed three women's aviation regiments: the 586 IAP (Fighter Aviation Regiment), the 587 BAP (Bomber Aviation Regiment) and the 588 NBAP (Night Bomber Aviation Regiment). The first regiment was initially assigned to air defense duties in Saratov, while the other two were eventually sent to the front. These three aviation regiments were numbered in the "500" series, which meant that they were of special interest to the GKO (Gosudarstvennyy Komitet Oborony= State Committee for Defense).
When the women of these three female combat units were completing their training at Engels, the military situation at and around Stalingrad had become critical for the Soviets. Allegedly, the 1st Squadron was transferred from the 586 IAP for duty at Stalingrad due to shortages of male pilots. This is not necessarily true; there is another explanation for the transfer, i.e. that Tamara Kazarinova, the Fighter Regiment's Commander, wished to get rid of some of her subordinates, whom she considered troublemakers, by sending them to Stalingrad. Among those sent to Stalingrad were future aces Senior Sergeants Lidya Litvyak and Yekaterina (Katya) Budanova, with 12 and 11 kills (the second figure unconfirmed) respectively. Assigned to front-line fighter regiments, Litvyak and Budanova were initially underestimated as to their combat effectiveness and flying skills.
Eventually, Litvyak and Budanova were assigned to the elite 73 IAP, 6 GvIAD, 8 VA (73th Fighter Aviation Regiment, 6th Guards Fighter Aviation Division, 8th Air Army). Fighting as free hunters in search of targets of opportunity against the very best German fighter pilots, and overcoming their own male comrades' prejudices, Litvyak and Budanova were soon able to exceed the three confirmed aerial victories needed to become fighter aces.
Here is small episode from the combat efforts of Lilya Litvyak. On 22 March 1943, Litvyak was attacked by four Messerschmitt Bf 109s over Khar'kov area. Litvyak managed to shoot down two of the German fighters, while driving off the rest. This aerial engagement coincided exactly with the only two German Bf 109s lost in the same area on this date. The two German fighter pilots shot down were Leutnant Franz Müller (Bf 109G-4, coded "BH + XB") and Unteroffizier Karl-Otto Harloff (Bf 109G-2, coded "yellow 2") of the 9th squadron, fighter wing 3 (9./JG 3). German records have each of these men, who both survived, being reported shot down by Russian fighters. Lilya Litvyak was killed on 1 August 1943.
Katya Budanova was killed earlier, on 18 July 1943. According to her mechanic, while escorting a group of Soviet dive bombers Budanova was attacked by three enemy fighters and managed to shoot down one of them. Villagers who witnessed this engagement from the ground reported seeing Budanova's aircraft make a very controlled landing, even though it had obviously been damaged in flight. When the villagers reached the aircraft they discovered that she was already dead.
The remainder of the 586 IAP, commanded by Major Tamara Kazarinova, assisted in the Soviet Operation Saturn and Uranus (the elimination of the German 6th Army at Stalingrad) during November 1942, at which time they flew Yak-1 fighters. After the successful destruction of German forces in the Stalingrad area, the 586 IAP was tasked with defending some important military logistical facilities and strategic locations.
Earlier, towards the end of September 1942, the 586 IAP's Valerya Khomyakova downed a Ju 99, becoming the first Soviet woman fighter pilot to shoot down a Soviet aircraft by night. In 1944 the unit was rearmed with Yak-9 fighters and took part in the Soviet offensive in Hungary. The 586 IAP finished the war on one of the captured airfields in Austria. During the war, the female fighter pilots of the 586 IAP flew 4419 sorties, and scored 38 victories. Losses have not been totalled.
Some of the most successful pilots of the 46th Guards Taman' Night Bomber Regiment, all Heroes of the Soviet Union; from left, number of sorties: Lt Irina Sebrova (1008), Capt Natal'ya Meklin (980), Capt Yevgeniya Zhigulenko (968) and Capt Mariya Smirnova (950).
This unit was officially declared combat ready in May 1942, and on 23 May 1942, led by Marina Raskova, reached Ukraine. Because of their performance these women soon won the respect of their adversaries, when the Germans started calling their female opponents of this regiment "Night Witches."
Hauptmann Johannes Steinhoff, the commander of II./JG 52 who was awarded the Oak Leaves to the Knight's Cross for 101 victories on 2 September 1942, wrote: "We simply couldn't grasp that the Soviet airmen that caused us the greatest trouble were in fact WOMEN. These women feared nothing. They came night after night in their very slow biplanes, and for some periods they wouldn't give us any sleep at all."
On most occasions, the poor bombing and navigational devices of the "Night Witches" prevented them from dealing any heavy material damage to the enemy. But on the night of 25 October 1942, a lucky bomb strike set a fuel depot at the airfield of Armavir ablaze. The fire spread, and six Ju 88s and He 111s of Stab and II./KG 51 were destroyed. Only one aircraft escaped damage. This led to the quick withdrawal of II./KG 51 to the Kerch Peninsula.
As a counter-measure, Fliegerkorps IV organized an improvised night-fighter unit of 10./ZG 1. Operating with the support of searchlights, the Bf 110s of this unit took a heavy toll of the slow and brittle Po-2 biplanes once they encountered them in the air. The Po-2 aircraft was easily set on fire by either the antiaircraft or machine-gun tracers, and the plane was almost always doomed. The crew could not escape, because parachutes were not provided until the summer of 1944.
The most successful night-fighter pilot of 10.(NJ)/ZG 1 during this period was Oberfeldwebel Josef Kociok, who was credited with 21 night kills. During a single night he destroyed four Po-2s in a row. Serafima Amosova witnessed this event: "One night, as our aircraft passed over the target, the searchlights came on, the antiaircraft guns were firing, and then a green rocket was fired from the ground. The antiaircraft guns stopped, and a German fighter plane came and shot down four of our aircraft as each one came over the target. Our planes were burning like candles. We all witnessed this scene. When we landed and reported that we were being attacked by German fighters, they would not let us fly again that night. We lived in a school building with folding wooden beds. You can imagine our feelings when we returned to our quarters and saw eight beds folded, and we knew they were the beds of our friends who perished a few hours ago."
Oberfeldwebel Josef Kociok was awarded the Knight's Cross. Later he was killed in action near Kerch when he collided with a crashing Russian aircraft and his parachute failed to open.
On 6 January 1943 the regiment received the coveted acknowledgment of its members'meritorious service and was awarded the new title of 46th Taman' Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment. Soviet statistics show this unit to have flown about 23,672 sorties and the unit was credited with dropping 3,000 tons of bombs. (Please note that the maximum bomb load of a Po-2 plane was only 300 kg!) Twenty-three airwomen of this regiment were awarded the Gold Star of Hero of the Soviet Union, and it was the most highly decorated regiment in the entire Soviet Air Force. (The 24th Hero of the Soviet Union was awarded to a former navigator in 1995.)
Maj Marina Raskova herself took command of the 587th Dive Bomber Aviation regiment. Her chief of staff was Capt Militsa Kazarinova, the sister of the infamous Tamara Kazarinova, first commander of the 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment. The 587th began training on Su-2 bombers, which became obsolete, so it soon was re-equipped with twin-engined Pe-2 dive bombers. On 22 November 1942 the regiment finished its training and was ordered to move to the Stalingrad Front. The points of battle "tour" of this unit were: Orel, Kursk, Smolensk, Vitebsk, Borisov, Mazurian Lakes. In May 1943, near Elblag, Poland, the dive bomber regiment finished its war operations, now designated as the 125th "M. M. Raskova" Borisov Guards Dive Bomber Aviation Regiment (after helping in the liberation of the town of Borisov). The unit's flag was decorated with the Orders of Suvorov and Kutuzov III Class. This Regiment's crews flew a total of 1134 combat missions, dropping 980 tons of bombs. The most unusual success of this unit was scored by Mariya Dolina. In her Pe-2 bomber she downed two enemy planes, a Bf 109 and Fw 190, at the same time.
A fitting tribute was made to the dedication of this unit's airwomen by the male Free-French pilots of the "Normandie-Niemen" Fighter Regiment who often fought next to these women: "Even if it were possible to gather and place at your feet all the flowers on earth, this would not constitute sufficient tribute to your valor."
Marina Raskova did not survive the war, having died in a plane crash. According to Capt Valentina Savitskaya-Kravchenko, the unit's chief navigator, in December 1942 there was an urgent need to transfer as many Pe-2s to the Stalingrad front as soon as possible. While leading a formation of three aircraft to the front on 4 January 1943 in a blinding snowstorm, Raskova crashed her aircraft into the high west bank wall of the Volga River north of Stalingrad. The entire crew were killed. Since this was a military mission, involving supply of the front with aircraft and their crews, Raskova was considered as being Killed in Action (KIA).
The 587 BAP and the 588 NBAP were employed in the intense fighting in the Kuban area of southern Russia. They flew their missions resisting the finest Jagd Gruppen (fighter group) of the German Luftwaffe, JG 54. This German fighter group included some of the world's highest ranking fighter aces in history, including Erich Harmann with 352 confirmed air combat kills.
At times suffering heavy losses, the women in the night bomber regiment received many decorations and flew as many as fifteen missions per night. Some of those who have never read these women's memoirs believe that the story of the female ground crews has never been adequately covered in print. True, these women had to drag 60 kg (124 pound) compressed air cylinders to the aircraft to be recharged, hauled ammunition cans, removed weapons, performed maintenance tasks, loaded bombs and carried out repairs, which was all done in the open in all kinds of weather. The female ground support personnel suffered from frost bite, sunburn, stress, anxiety, hunger and fatigue.
During the Battle of Kursk in the summer of 1943, which resulted in the collapse of any hope of German victory in the East, prior to the Soviet assault against Berlin in May 1945, the Soviet female combat units were engaged in some of the heaviest aerial combat operations in history. Among the airwomen who didn't serve in the women's regiments was Senior Lieutenant Anna Timofeyeva-Yegorova, Hero of the Soviet Union, who flew the IL-2 "flying tank," in Kuban and Crimea. Timofeyeva, regimental deputy commander and chief navigator of the 805 ShAP (Ground Attack Aviation Regiment), was the only female in her unit. This woman faced some of the fiercest aerial combat in recorded history against the Luftwaffe's J-54.
Some of the women of these female units that won distinction and held command posts were as follows:
Commanders - 586 IAP (Fighter Aviation Regiment): Lidya (Lilya) Litvyak, Hero of the Soviet Union (HSU) - Flight Commander; Raisa Belyayeva - Squadron Commander; Tamara Pamyatnykh - Squadron Commander.
Commanders - 587 BAP (Bomber Aviation Regiment): Klavdiya Fomicheva, HSU - Squadron Commander; Marina Raskova, HSU - Regimental Commander; Nadezhda Fedutenko, HSU- Squadron Commander.
Commanders - 588 NBAP (Night Bomber Aviation Regiment): Yevdokiya Bershanskaya - Regimental Commander; Yevgeniya Zhigulenko, HSU- Flight Commander; Tat'yana Makarova, HSU- Flight Commander; Nina Ul'yanenko, HSU, Flight Navigator.
The core of this text is from the site
devoted to the VVS (Air Force) in World War Two, by Harold E.
Stockton Jr., who owns Snow Leopard Productions.
This version was edited and corrected by Kazimiera J. Cottam, PhD.
Soviet female fighter pilots, before take-off. In the background is an early Yak-1 version, with black/dark green camouflage.
1998.12.09, © WW II Ace Stories.