Whilst doing some preliminary research for my impending PhD, I came across a remarkable young woman. My research will focus on the women of the U.S. Air Force who were posted to Great Britain during the Second World War and the Cold War. These ladies were mostly nurses and clerical support workers in WWII, or served in some sort of support capacity. I was surprised to find that the first woman to become an active fighter pilot for the USAF did so in 1993, and that the British government announced that women would be allowed to pilot fast jet aircraft in 1992. Whilst I was not surprised at all to find that women were not allowed to serve as fighter pilots during the Second World War, I was taken aback that this altered so recently. One nation did allow women to fly fighter missions during WWII – the Soviet Union. Though women had initially been barred from combat, the Soviet Premier, Josef Stalin, issued an order in October 1941 (a few months after Germany had attacked the Soviet Union) to deploy three women’s air force units. One of these was the 586th Fighter Regiment of the Air Defence Force, consisting entirely of women volunteers, all in their late teens or early twenties. One of them was Lydia Litvyak, a Jewish fighter pilot. As soon as she was able to sign up, Lydia did so, uninhibited by the fact that she had not logged enough practice hours. One of only two women in history to earn the title of ‘flying ace’, she was the first woman to shoot down an enemy plane and remains the holder of the record for the highest number of kills by a female fighter pilot.
Lydia was a child when she first became interested in aviation. Born in Moscow, she joined a flying club at the age of fourteen, and flew solo for the first time at the age of fifteen. This woman’s courage is unfathomable to me – I frequently try not to hyperventilate during light turbulence on commercial flights. Lydia graduated military flying school, and by the time war broke out between Germany and the Soviet Union, Lydia had trained forty-five pilots. As soon as Stalin announced that women would be able to fly as fighter pilots, Lydia was there to sign up. She exaggerated her pre-war flight time by about 100 hours (the minimum requirement was 1000 hours) and was given combat training, taking to the skies in a combat capacity for the first time in the summer of 1942. Initially she flew in a men’s regiment. Boris Eremin, her regimental commander, described her as ‘a born fighter pilot’ (he also said that she was ‘a very aggressive person’, which has been said of me – I think we probably both took it as a compliment…). On September 13th 1942 Lydia shot down two German planes. The pilot of one of them parachuted to the ground, and was captured by Soviet troops. When he asked to see the Russian pilot who had shot down his aircraft, the troops obliged. Staff Sergeant Erwin Maier was not expecting to be confronted by a woman, and thought it was a joke. When he realised that it wasn’t, and that Lydia totally defied every Nazi ideal regarding women, his pride was severely bruised.
In February 1943, Lydia was promoted to the rank of junior lieutenant and selected to participate in an air initiative called ‘free hunter’. This involved flying in pairs, identifying targets and acting to eliminate them. On 22nd March she and some of her fellow Soviet pilots attacked a dozen German planes, and Lydia was wounded in the process. In severe pain and losing blood, she managed to shoot down a Messerschmitt and land her plane safely. This in itself is admirable – I’m pretty sure I couldn’t land a plane (assuming I knew how) if I had pins and needles, let alone a life-threatening injury.
One of her most astounding feats occurred on May 31st 1943. The Luftwaffe (German Air Force) used artillery observation balloons. These were manned air balloons which located and reported targets for German planes to attack. They were heavily defended by anti-aircraft fire, which made eliminating them almost impossible for the Soviet Air Force. Several Soviet pilots had attempted to destroy one balloon in particular, to no avail. Lydia approached her commander with a plan she had concocted to take out the balloon. At first she was denied the opportunity to try, but her persistence earned her the chance to put her tactics into action. Her plan worked, and the balloon was destroyed. Two weeks later she was appointed flight commander of the 3rd Aviation Squadron in the Soviet Air Force.
As with several of the World War II heroines I have studied, Lydia’s story is not without romance. It is also not without sadness. Lydia often flew as the wingman of Soviet flying ace, Alexei Frolovich Solomatin, and over the course of her short career she fell in love with him. Understandably, it devastated Lydia when, in May 1943, she watched as Solomatin flew into the ground and was killed. Emotionally, she never really recovered. Her mechanic, Inna Pasportnikova, reported that after Solomatin’s death Lydia asked for more and more combat missions, fighting desperately every day against the enemy she blamed for her lover’s death. On August 1st 1943, Lydia set out on her fourth mission of the day. She was ambushed by a Messerschmitt, which she had not seen because it had been flying behind a group of German bomber planes. It dived on her plane, which was badly damaged. Soviet pilot, Ivan Borisenko, watched as Lydia and her plane hurtled towards the ground. He saw no parachute, and the plane did not explode, but Lydia was never seen again. She was twenty-one years old.
There is some controversy over Lydia’s death. Some have claimed that after making a belly landing (hence the lack of explosion) she was taken as a German prisoner of war, and did not die when her plane was shot down. Researchers discovered in 1979 that in the village of Dmitrievka, an unidentified woman pilot had been buried during the Second World War. It was concluded after exhumation and an investigation that this was Lydia, though some still dispute it. For her uncommon and remarkable bravery and skill, Lydia was awarded the Order of the Red Banner, the Order of the Red Star, and the Order of the Patriotic War. In 1990, Mikhail Gorbachev awarded Lydia (posthumously) Hero of the Soviet Union. She died a senior lieutenant, and one of the greatest pilots of the Second World War.
One thing I love about Lydia is her character. During World War II, the military was very much a male dominated world. Lydia wasn’t bothered a bit by this. She proved that she could fly just as well as any man could, she fought for her country and she accomplished astonishing victories against an enemy that totally underestimated what women were capable of. She did all of this whilst retaining her femininity and her character. She made it acceptable to be a fighter pilot and a woman. A soldier and herself. After missions she would return to the aerodrome, let them know she’d been successful, and then engage in unauthorized acrobatics, knowing full well that it irritated her commander. She dyed her hair blonde all through the War (sending a friend to obtain peroxide from the hospital), made scarves from old parachutes and decorated her cockpit with flowers. She is also known today as ‘the White Lily’, because of her love of flowers and making bouquets.
It’s a lovely image. A young, Jewish girl with bleach-blonde hair, pretty silk scarves and white lilies in her cockpit, shooting some of the greatest evil that the world has ever seen out of the sky.
 The term ‘flying ace’ is used to refer to a military pilot who is credited with shooting down a certain number of enemy aircraft during aerial combat. The number of victories required to qualify has varied, but it is usually considered to be at least five.