In 1939, the Soviet Union signed a Non-agression Pact with Nazi Germany. The Soviet's stayed out of Germany's successful invasion of Poland and, as a result, were given a piece of the prize land. In fact, the Soviets upheld their pact with Germany for two years. On June 22, 1941, despite warnings from his top military advisors and some 500 violations of Soviet airspace by Nazi reconnaissance aircraft, Stalin and the Soviet people were taken completely by surprise. Nazi Germany attacked Russia from the west and south where Soviet airfields were not able to handle the larger, modern fighter aircraft and planes were exposed and vulnerable. The German attack and attempt to conquer Russia was/is known as Operation Barbarossa and was supposed to last only 10 weeks.
The reaction in the Soviet Union to this treaty breaking attack by Germany was much the same as in the U.S. after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor later that same year. Everyone was angered by this attack on their Rodina (Motherland). The Soviet Air Force had to be rebuilt and there was no shortage of volunteers; men and women alike. During the first two decades of the Soviet era, there were a number of military flying clubs known as Osoaviakhim. Girls were welcome to join these clubs along with boys. They learned at a young age how to parachute and fly gliders. As a result, the typical 17 year old flying club student had more flying experience than the Soviet Air Force pilots at the front.
Despite their experience and enthusiasm, when these young women presented themselves at the recruiting offices, they were turned away. They were told that the Rodina was not in so bad a shape that she needed girls to protect her. These future heroes were sent home to their mothers. The Nazi invasion was so swift and intense that it did not take long for Soviet officials to reverse their position and these young women were asked to serve. Their training took place in Moscow at about the same time young American women were training in Sweetwater, Texas. One important difference existed: the Soviet women, like their American counterparts, came from all over their country. However, in route to their training by train, Soviet women saw first-hand the enemy's destruction of their homeland. In fact, the Luftwaffe routinely attacked these trains which also carried soldiers headed for the front.
Three all volunteer female air force regiments were formed in 1942. Each regiment had three squadrons of 10 planes each and included some 400 women. Not only were the pilots women, so were the mechanics and other ground support personnel. The three regiments were the:
Thousands of other women served alongside male counterparts in various units of the Soviet Air Force. In 1944, roughly 3,000 women were a part of the Far East 10th Air Army, another ca. 440 were serving with the 4th Air Army of the 2nd Belorussian and the 46th Guards Women Air Regiment with its 237 female officers, over 850 sergeants and some 1,100 enlisted women.
These women were fighter and bomber pilots, gunners, mechanics and armament fitters. They logged some impressive statistics. For example, the women of the 586th recorded a total of 4,419 sorties per pilot and took part in over 120 air battles. Understandably, the male aviation members initially resented their new female counterparts. It was considered bad luck to fly with a female wingman or in a plane that had been maintained by a female mechanic. However, the women proved their ability and courage and were seen as valuable, if not essential, element of the Soviet Air Force. The women were not ignored by their government, either. Countless were given orders and medals, 29 received the title of Hero of the Soviet Union and 23 became a part of the Night Witches.
Soviet women pilots had already set records. In 1938, Marina Raskova and two other women flew non-stop from Moscow to Komsomolsk-on-Amur, some 63,672 miles in 26 hours, 29 minutes. Raskova, the navigator, bailed out over Siberia in order to lighten the twin-engine craft's load which had been increased by icing. The plane, named Rodina, and other two women made it safely to their destination. Raskova was rescue by a local hunter and all three women returned to a heroes' welcome in Moscow. They became known as the Winged Sisters. Raskova received the title Hero of the Soviet Union and went on to become a Major and the commander of training for women aviators. She was killed in action and is buried in the Kremlin Wall.
Training of the new female aviation recruits began in October, 1941. They gathered at Engels north of Stalingrad where their first order of business was to alter men's uniforms to fit their size and shape. These women, many of them not more than girls, trained 14 hours a day for six months in Polikarpov PO-2 wood and cloth biplanes. This was roughly equal to two years of peace time flight school. Major Yevdokia Bershanskaya was the second in command at Engels. While they were training, the Nazis penetrated deeper into Soviet territory, routinely bombing Moscow.
Possibly one of the most distressing requirements of military life for the women aviators had to do with hair. In many of the cultures that made up the Soviet Union, long, beautiful hair was a thing of great pride. Many of the women had never had their hair cut and their braids reached to below their waists. To make them look more like warriors and, possible for practical safety reasons, the women were ordered to cut their hair to a length of no more than two inches. As the women cut each others' long locks, it was both a time of considerable sadness and a sacrifice made willingly for their Rodina.
The women pilots soon proved their superior skills in combat. The first German bomber to be shot down by a woman pilot was the Junkers Ju-88 in September, 1942. The best women pilots began serving alongside their male counterparts.
One such female pilot was Lily Litvak, aka "White Rose of Stalingrad." Lily, like her name, was a beauty and adored flowers. She painted a white rose on each side of her cockpit and often carried flowers on board during her missions. Lily was so good at what she did that Nazi pilots would, reportedly, stay clear of her sights when they saw the YAK with the white roses coming their way. In her first year of combat service, Lily was shot down three times and made 12 kills. At age 22 and in July 1943, Lily was engaged by eight Nazi fighters. They managed to shoot her down and kill her. Lily and her plane have not been found.
In all, Soviet women pilots completed over 24,000 sorties and 68 of their number received the Gold Star, Hero of the Soviet Union award. They never carried parachutes and agreed that, if captured, they would shoot themselves.
Soviet women aviators played a crucial role in the defense of their homeland and the victory over Nazi Germany. After the Patriotic War, these heroes returned to their country's farms and factories. Many married fellow pilots or soldiers. Like the men, they returned to heavy losses of family, friends and homes. At the beginning of the Patriotic War, Soviet officials questioned the wisdom of sending women into combat situations. These women proved that they were more than up to the task at hand.
Today, you can see these women, easily in their 70's and beyond, wearing their uniforms and numerous medals in the annual May Day parade in Moscow. Most live on a humble pension but this does not lessen their pride, the significance of their service or the gratitude of their homeland.
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