Although the Second World War started in 1939, war between Germany and the Soviet Union only broke out in 1941. Western mentality dictated that actual combat had to be reserved for men. Even in Germany, women occasionally served as test pilots, but never served in an actual combat situation. However, in the Soviet Union, the principle was simple. War was to be waged with every asset, including every person at its disposal, regardless of gender. Nearly one million women fought in the frontlines whilst serving with the Soviet Armed Forces. It did not take long for Marina Raskova (the Soviet equivalent of Amelia Earhart) to convince Joseph Stalin to incorporate female aviators into the Red Air Force. The Soviets established three air combat regiments, consisting entirely of female pilots and female ground crews. These aviators initially flew obsolete Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes, mainly dropping bombs on Axis targets by night. However, soon these air regiments became a thorn in the side of the Germans, who referred to the women pilots as ‘Nachthexen’, meaning ‘Night Witches.’ Pilots who showed above average skill and ability were transferred to serve with male squadrons.
Life before World War II
With that in mind, let us go back in time to the early 1920s. Lidya Vladimirovna Litvyak, better known as Lilya, was born on 18 August 1921. Her mother worked in a shop, whilst her father, a railway worker, was declared an ‘Enemy of the Soviet Union’ and was executed in 1937. Lilya fell in love with aviation at an early age and subsequently joined an aero club at the age of fourteen. She completed her first solo flight the following year and earned her instructor’s rating at the age of nineteen. By the time Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Lilya had completed well over a hundred hours of solo flying.
Lilya was not just a pretty face
Lilya Litvyak started her air force career in the all-women 586 IAP (Fighter Aviation Regiment). She was transferred a number of times to various squadrons, before settling down in 437 IAP, which was a male squadron. This is where she scored her first two kills, shooting down a Junkers Ju-88 and a Me-109, during a single sortie, whilst flying a Lavochkin La-5. After shooting down her fifth victim, Lilya was promoted to Senior Lieutenant and was awarded the ‘Order of the Red Banner.’ She has often been described as a ‘strikingly beautiful woman’ who was noticeably concerned about her appearance, especially when compared with the average Soviet pilot. Lilya’s good looks no doubt made matters easier for Soviet propaganda specialists, who helped her to gain admiration from the general public. After shooting down enemy aircraft, Lilya would perform aerobatic manoeuvres over her home airfield, adding to her reputation of being flamboyant. White roses, painted on both sides of her Yakovlev Yak-1, contributed to Lilya’s nickname: ‘The White Rose of Stalingrad.’ Some argue that the roses were actually lilies, but there is no photographic evidence to support those claims.
On 22 March 1943, Lilya shot down a Me-109, shortly before being attacked by several other German fighters. Bullets rained onto Lilya’s Yak, so she fled back to her base and managed to force land the damaged aircraft, in spite of being wounded during the sortie. After recovering in hospital, the ‘White Rose’ returned to her squadron and received a new Yak-1B, known as ‘White 23’. Lilya continued to fly many more successful missions and became very popular amongst her fellow pilots and the public. She had to force land in enemy territory on two occasions, yet she managed to escape enemy forces and reached her home base, in spite of being wounded.
Lilya’s aircraft, which was always marked with a white rose, became infamous amongst German pilots. On 1 August 1943, the ‘White Rose of Stalingrad’ was assigned to help escort several IL-2 Shturmovik attack aircraft. It was her third mission of the day and she had already shot down two Me-109s earlier that morning. During this particular mission, however, eight Me-109s focused exclusively on shooting down Lilya Litvyak. The enemy fighters succeeded. The Yak crashed near a village called Dmitriyevka, where local residents buried her body under the wing of her aircraft.
Honour – at last
Lilya’s body was never found during the war and she was therefore declared ‘Missing in Action’ (MIA). Her regiment recommended that the award, ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’, should be posthumously awarded to Lilya. This request was denied as it was against Stalin’s policy, which dictated that any soldier falling into enemy hands, would be considered a traitor. Finally, in 1979, her body was discovered and later, in 1986, the Ministry of Defence confirmed that the body was indeed that of Lilya Litvyak. Two years later, official records were altered to indicate that Lilya was Killed in Action (KIA), rather than MIA. It was only in 1990 when she was posthumously awarded the ‘Gold Star of the Hero of the Soviet Union’ by President Mikhail Gorbachev. The ‘White Rose’ flew 168 combat missions, during which she shot down twelve enemy aircraft and was credited with three shared kills. She was the top scoring female ace of World War II. Lilya died 17 days before her twenty-second birthday.