Female Fighter Pilots of WWII
© Nicole Paschal, All Rights Reserved
Although it’s a little known fact, Russia was the first country to fully engage female pilots in combat. As Germany attacked Soviet territory in 1941, the country was unprepared for battle against a nation with unrelenting manpower and superior technology. Due to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and a misguided belief in Russian-German solidarity, Russia had to literally build weapons of war while fighting a war. Millions of military and civilian lives were lost, limiting the numbers of male soldiers available for air combat. However, there was an alternative─women! After women were recruited for air combat, they flew over 30,000 missions along the eastern front during the war. Although women of other countries were trained to fly and were perhaps shot down, only in Russia could a woman shoot back, drop bombs, or engage in aerial dogfights. Read below for more on the amazing feats and groundbreaking actions of WWII’s only female fighter pilots.
The Birth of Stalin’s Falcons
The birth of the female pilots the Germans would eventually name “Nacht Hexen” (Night Witches) began with a woman known as Marina Raskova. Catapulted to celebrity status after flying from Moscow to the Far East, she set a World Record in 1938. While making the journey, Raskova’s plane became stranded in Siberia. Although sources differ on whether she ran out of fuel or ice weighed upon her wings in the middle of s snowstorm, she and two other women were lost in Siberia for 10 days. Upon her return, she was catapulted to instant stardom. Seen as Russia’s Amelia Earhart, Raskova was given the Hero of the Soviet Union Medal. She became an associate of Joseph Stalin and possessed some influence in his decision making in 1941 after WWII reached Russia. Eventually Raskova convinced Stalin to assemble three female units consisting of night bombers, dive bombers, and fighter pilots. These units would become the Soviet Union’s 586th Women’s Fighter Regiment, 587th Women’s Bomber Regiment, and the 588th Women’s night Bomber Regiment. Although Stalin was known to be uncompromising and ruthless, he possessed little gender bias when it came to using all human resources in combat. In addition to the combat specialist, other women were trained as crew members and ground personnel.
A call went out across Soviet radio for all young female volunteers interested in becoming pilots to contact Raskova. It is said that she received sacks upon sacks of letters by applicants. Until that point, women had gone to recruitment offices to join air regiments, but were sent home. Needing 3 regiments of 400 apiece, Raskova called for her applicants to come to Moscow to be interviewed. Arriving from all over the Soviet Union, even as far as Central Asia, young women sought the opportunity to engage in battle in the skies. A number of the applicants, like future flying ace Lydia Litvak, had flight experience as early as 14 years old. Many of the girls just in their late teens had earned flying experience when the Soviet Union encouraged the joining of flight clubs before the war. Raskova was overtly sincere as she told her two first recruits what to expect.
“The girls I choose must understand beyond any doubt whatsoever that they will be fighting against men, and they must themselves fight like men. If you’re chosen, you may not be killed. You may be burned so your own mother may not recognize you. You may be blinded. You may lose a hand, leg. You will lose your friends. You may be captured by the Germans. Do you really want to go through this?” (Myles)
Naturally the young women responded yes and thus began the birth of WWII’s only female fighter pilots.
The recruits trained at a military base in a town called Engels, just north of Stalingrad. Although they weren’t far from action, the airfield itself was out of range of German bombers. Major Raskova was hard edged, firm, and a stickler for the rules when it came to her girls of the 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment. However, all the women initially struggled for respect from male comrades. Given men’s clothing, their boots were often too large. Also, they’d have to mend their own uniforms, with coats and scarves nearly touching the ground for the smaller women. Receiving second hand planes without radios or parachutes was also common. However, the greatest fear of the pilots was to be captured alive by the Germans. They carried an extra bullet for such circumstances that would allow them to end their own life if needed. Although they were limited in resources, many of the women possessed courage and skill that went unrivaled. They would show the naysayers just what they were capable of as the war progressed.
With two years of courses pushed into 6 months during the midst of the German invasion, many young women engaged in flying and coursework up to 14 hours a day. Although a number of the girls did have flight experience before arriving due to the Russian flight clubs, none came prepared for combat against the feared and technologically superior German Luftwaffe. Although most scholars agree that many were not sufficiently trained, there was no other option for a war already at Russia’s front door. Instead, a recruit’s life depended on how fast she learned and natural talent. At the end of the six months, Major Raskova and the second in command, Yevdokia Bershanskaya decided who was assigned to the bombing regiments while the best of them all would be chosen for fighter squadrons.
The Night Bombers
Although renamed the 46th Taman Guards in 1943, the women of the 588th Regiment were referred to Night Witches by the Germans. As they neared the target, the bombers often flew low and idled the planes engines, producing a sound some said resembled a sweeping broom. Others say the name came about due to the German troop’s inability to sleep at night because of the continuous bombings by the female pilots. According to the Russian researcher Alexander Abramov, some of the Night Witches feats included bombings of 86 artillery warehouses, 46 ammunitions warehouses, 85 artillery warehouses, railroad stations, ferries, cargo ships and more. German lore even circulated that said the women received some sort of experimental injections to possess such pristine sight at night. Still, the women of the 588th were not unscathed. Abramov estimates that 32 Night bombers were lost in over 23,000 missions during the course of the war.
After, flying over 9,000 missions, notes Abramov, slightly less than half of the 586th’s missions were in combat. Other missions included patrolling, escorting, protection of military installations and ground troops. It’s also estimated that 38 German planes were shot down with 42 more damaged in flight. On the ground, trucks, cargo, troops, and tanks were destroyed as well. Between 1942 and the end of WWII, the women of the 586th Combat Regiment not only surpassed male expectations, but produced the world’s first two female flying aces, Yekaterina Budanova and Lydia Litvak. Budanova and Litvak were not the only firsts, for it was Valeria Khonyakova that was the first woman to shoot down a bomber in all of air combat. To make her feat more amazing, she did it in darkness. Pushing politics and nationality aside, Russia’s female combat pilots made strides for all women in gender equality. Proving that women were equally if not more capable of defending their country than their male counterparts, the women of the 586th, 587th, and 588th Regiments should be an inspiration.
1. Bruce Myles, "Nightwitches: The Amazing Story of Russia's Women Pilots in WWII," Academy Chicago Publishers, 1981.