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Winged Death: Lilya Litvak and the Night Witches

Updated on March 31, 2014

Lilya Litvak

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Defenders of Mother Russia

Hitler was relentless. In a few years the savage dictator of Germany had attacked and conquered much of Western Europe, draining countries of their wealth and supplies and rounding up all those he considered undesirable and subhuman—Jews, blacks, the handicapped, the mentally ill, Gypsies, homosexuals, and many more—and placing them in death camps, where they would suffer unspeakably before finally being killed and cremated.

Hitler had always plotted invading Russia. In his despicably twisted mind, he believed that it was the responsibility of Germany as a whole to expand eastward and turn the Russian people into slaves in order to build new German settlements. He also felt that it was the responsibility of the Germans to overthrow the Russians’ cruel dictator (ironic when you think about it) and put an end to Communist rule. And he was determined to see it happen.

Operation Barbarossa was launched against Russia in the summer of 1941, and thousands of technologically and militarily advanced Nazi troops rapidly swarmed into the country. Russia really didn’t stand a chance; its own army was in shambles and they were desperately lacking in weaponry. The weapons shortage was so bad that in Stalingrad every two soldiers were paired together, with one receiving a gun, the other receiving only a clip of ammunition and instructions to take the gun after the first soldier was killed.

On the first day of the invasion, the German Luftwaffe (air force) attacked the Red Army’s air fleet, destroying 528 planes on the ground and shooting down another 210 in combat. By that October, the Russians had lost 5,316 planes and numerous airfields and hangars. While the crews largely managed to survive, the fighter pilots, operating in planes that were out of date and derelict, were dying in droves. Soon there was a massive lack in available pilots.

Realizing how dire their situation was, famed female pilot Marina Raskova approached the Russian dictator Josef Stalin with a suggestion: why not recruit women to fight in the air? They already had female snipers and soldiers on the ground, and there were women currently ferrying planes and supplies (like the American W.A.S.Ps currently doing), so why not train women to serve as fighter pilots too? Desperate, Stalin agreed, permitting women to serve in the 586th Fighter, 587th Bomber and 588th Night Bomber divisions, and placed Marina in charge of recruitment and training.

If the male pilots had any doubts about the abilities of female pilots in combat, they were soon put to rest; all of the women were expert fliers and fearless in battle, taking on missions and targets that had made the men hesitate and flying in planes that were considered deathtraps anyway.

The women of the Night Bombers flew in recommissioned biplanes at night, conducting raids on the Nazi camps below without any lights to guide them. The women would fly in low, cut the engines so the Nazis wouldn’t be alerted to their approach, then glide overhead and drop or throw bombs on the enemy. The only hint of their presence was the horrific banshee-like whistling screech of the biplane’s support wires cutting through the air, causing the unraveled Nazis to dub the women Nachthexen, or “Night Witches.” One woman named Ira Kasherina was working as the navigator in one of the biplanes when her pilot was shot and killed, slumping over the controls and threatening to put the plane out of control. Acting fast, Ira lunged out of her seat, jerked her friend’s body out of the way and grabbed the controls, piloting the dying plane back to the hangar even as bullets screamed past her. When asked why she didn’t just dump her friend’s body out and fly the plane properly, a shocked Ira responded that to do that was unthinkable.

The Night Witches became the most decorated female regiment, earning twenty-three of the thirty Hero of the Soviet Union medals. One recipient, Marina Smirnova, made 3,260 flights and dropped 220 pounds of bombs on the Nazis, and the Night Witches made a total of 24,000 missions and suffered the loss of sixteen women.

In one famous daytime fight, two female fighter pilots named Tamara Pamyatnikh and Raya Surnachevskaya were on routine maneuvers when they broke the cloud cover and were shocked to see forty-two Nazi fighter planes in formation below them. Tamara and Raya immediately dove on the fleet, their sudden attack causing the Nazis to momentarily panic. Without the use of radios to communicate to each other, Tamara and Raya worked in tandem to shoot down three fighters and force the Nazis to retreat. Their planes heavily damaged in the fight, Tamara was forced to bail out and parachute to the ground, and Raya crash-landed her plane in a field but survived.

Of all the female fighter pilots who participated in the war, there was one that stood out the most: Lilya Litvak, “the White Rose of Stalingrad.” A pilot since her early teens, Lilya originally joined the war effort to instruct male pilots how to fly, but as soon as Stalin opened recruitment for female fighter pilots, Lilya signed up and was assigned to the 586th Fighter regiment. Hitler launched his second offensive shortly afterwards, but Lilya was frustrated when her commanding officer—perhaps the same one she had actually beaten in combat training—

balked at letting her fight, not totally convinced of her abilities. Her friend and fellow fighter pilot Aleksei Salomaten angrily argued for Lilya to be allowed to fly, and their commander said that if Lilya could follow all of Aleksei’s maneuvers, then he might allow her to fly.

Irked, Aleksei agreed, and told Lilya to accompany him as his wingman, to copy everything that he did. Getting into their planes, they left the airfield and Aleksei began to put Lilya through the paces … until he spotted one of his pilot friends engaged in a fight with a Nazi fighter plane. Aleksei attacked and chased the Nazi plane, with Lilya clinging right behind him, matching him maneuver for maneuver. After landing safely at the airfield, Aleksei turned around, saw Lilya and nearly jumped out of his skin—he had forgotten that Lilya had been following him! Lilya was equally shocked—she had been flying so closely behind Aleksei, she had no idea that they had just been in a fight! From then on, Lilya and Aleksei almost always flew their missions together.

The commander was suitably impressed and Lilya and the other female pilots were allowed to fight over Stalingrad in September 1942. On September 13, piloting a shabby Lavochkin La-5 fighter, Lilya engaged a Nazi flying a more sophisticated Junkers Ju88 fighter-bomber … and shot him out of the sky. In the following weeks Lilya made two more kills and was upgraded to a Yakohev Yak-1, which was a little safer and faster than her previous plane. She painted a large white rose on her plane’s tail, and every time she made a confirmed kill she painted a smaller white rose on the plane’s nose. She became so feared that soon the Nazi pilots’ would shriek, “Achtung! Litvak!” into their radios when she was seen approaching.

As with many other pilots and soldiers like famed sniper Vasiliv Zaytsev, Lilya became a national hero for her efforts, and the Communist government worked hard promoting her victories to give the beleaguered Russian people hope. Stalin awarded her the Order of the Red Star, Order of the Red Banner and Order of the Patriotic War, helping Lilya to achieve a celebrity status that she despised, and she became skilled at evading nagging reporters.

In 1943, realizing that they were more than just comrades in war, Lilya and Aleksei became engaged. They loved each other dearly, and Aleksei always flew with Lilya’s photo tucked amongst his cockpit controls … but tragically, their happiness was obliterated in a shower of gunfire. In May 1943, Aleksei was shot down by a German fighter and killed. Lilya’s grief had to have been extreme, but she continued to pull herself back into the cockpit and hunt down German planes. Several weeks after Aleksei and Lilya’s friend Katya Budanova were killed, Lilya was brought face to face with one of Germany’s top fighting aces, a fighter pilot with twenty kills marked on his fuselage. Lilya attacked, pursuing the Nazi pilot with a determination that fringed on insanity high over war-mutilated Russia, finally shooting him down in a hail of bullets. He was her tenth kill.

The death of the Nazi fighter pilot finally proved to be the final straw for the invading forces, and the Nazis began to exclusively target Lilya whenever they found her. On July 30, 1943, Lilya was surrounded by five Messerschmidts and attacked, her plane crash landing. The next day, Lilya was in the air again with a new plane, but the Messerschmidts returned and attacked. Lilya was shot out of the sky again, but survived. But her luck didn’t last much longer; on her third sortie of the day on August 1, while Lilya was leading a squadron to intercept German bombers, eight Messerschmidts camouflaged in the clouds ambushed her. Horrified onlookers below watched as the eight Nazis shot Lilya out of the sky.

Her plane spewing smoke and flame, Lilya plummeted to the ground. The authorities determined that her plane had crashed behind enemy lines and, rather than mounting a rescue for their hero, they just assumed that if she survived the crash, then she was likely captured by the Nazis. With that in mind, the Russian government refused to award the medal Hero of the Soviet Union to Lilya, much to the helpless rage of her family and friends. A memorial was erected to her in the town of Krasny Luch near where she vanished. She was 21 years old.

In 1979, a search was made to find Lilya Litvak’s plane. Of the 30 crashes uncovered, one site near the village Dmitrievka contained the remains of a female pilot that had died in the wreck and had been buried by the villagers in a graveyard. The remains were identified as Lilya Litvak and she was given official burial. In 1990, President Mikhail Gorbachev posthumously awarded her the Hero of the Soviet Union medal, but there was a loud outcry from Lilya’s friends, chief amongst them her own chief mechanic Ekaterina Polurina and Kazimiera Janina, an author. Both claimed that the body in the grave was not that of Lilya Litvak, that the U.S.S.R had buried an unidentified female pilot instead and had done so only to win the public’s approval.

Whatever happened to her, Lilya Litvak was still the greatest female fighter pilot that Russia ever created, flying a total of 168 missions with twelve confirmed kills and four shared victories, terrifying the Nazis and giving hope to the Russian people. In the end, I hope that she is now at peace and with Aleksei.

Lilya Litvak and the Night Witches works referenced:

Women Warriors, David E Jones 2000

Cool Women, Dawn Chipman et al 1998

Warrior Women, Robin Cross & Rosalind Miles 2011

Lilya Litvak

Yakovlev Aces of World War 2,George Mellinger

Operation Barbarossa


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