“I knew the only way to survive was to be ice inside, to feel absolutely nothing.”
– Pilot Klavdiya Pankratova of the 586th
(Quoted from “A Dance with Death,” by Anne Noggle)
An icy wind blasted the treeless waste of Engels airfield as the women of Aviation Group 122 assembled before their commanding officer for morning roll call. On that November day, a hint of the brutal cold that would smite two great armies in the winter of 1941-2 issued from the vast Russian steppe, 500 miles east of Moscow.
The celebrated aviatrix Marina Raskova faced several hundred new recruits, their proud tresses newly shorn, sporting their just-delivered winter uniforms. Designed for the average Russian soldier, the comically large clothing hung from the young women’s slight figures ridiculously. Here was the mighty Red Army: a formation of little girls playing dress-up in their father’s gear.
“Turn to the right!” Raskova barked. The assemblage complied, but one pair of boots disobeyed; the sheepish young woman had stepped right out of them. Raskova barely managed to stifle a smile, but concern quickly overtook her mirth. The ill-fitting uniforms, like these green recruits that stood shivering on the hardstand, needed a complete overhaul.
Raskova’s eye fell upon a diminutive blond. Her brown fur uniform collar had been replaced by stylish, white-ringleted fur – goatskin she’d plundered from the lining of her new winter boots.
“Litvyak, when did you do this?” demanded Raskova.
“Last night,” replied Lilya Vladimirovna Litvyak coyly. “Doesn’t it suit me?”
Raskova forced her face to remain stern as laughter rippled through the formation. She loved these innocent girls, so quick to burst into giggles or tears, forever gossiping, curling their hair, and picking flowers. But she had only six months to turn them into soldiers. If they had any shot at surviving the war, they’d have to learn to be as cold and hard as this windswept plain.
“You’ll have to spend another night without sleep, Litvyak,” answered Raskova quietly, “and sew that collar back on your uniform.”
The terrible lessons came quickly, even before the women’s first combat missions. In March 1942, four women died as they lost themselves on a snowy night, ran out of fuel, and crashed on a routine training flight.
In an interview with Anne Noggle in 1991, published in Noggle’s book, ”A Dance with Death: Soviet Airwomen in World War II,” one pilot recalls that awful night the women buried their first casualties. “We sobbed beside their coffins, and Raskova turned to us and said, ‘My darlings, my girls, squeeze your heart, stop crying, you shouldn’t be sobbing. In the future you will have to face so many of them that you will ruin yourselves completely.’”
War and Revolution
“For the last seventy years of this socialist existence we have been used to saying no words about anything at all.”
-Valentina Kovalyova-Sergeicheva, mechanic in the 586th
(Quoted from “A Dance with Death,” by Anne Noggle)
April 1942 saw the first of Raskova’s fledgling birds leave the nest. The 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment, three squadrons of hotshot aerobatics champions and veteran flight instructors, ferried their shiny new Yak-1s to the squalid, rat-infested Anisovka airbase near the Volga River. Unlike the dive bomber regiment, which was under the care of Raskova herself, all was not well in the chain of command at the 586th.
Raskova had agonized over who would command the fighter regiment, finally settling unhappily on Tamara Kazarinova, a cold, severe woman with important friends in the party apparat. As a springtime sun began to thaw the frosty Volga steppe, relations between Kazarinova and her squadron commanders froze into icy resentment. She had never flown the Yak-1 or any other fighter plane, according to Alexander Gridnev, who succeeded her as commander of the 586th. She was “completely ignorant regarding tactical flying,” he claimed, making it inevitable that she would clash with the more experienced pilots in her charge. In a move strikingly uncharacteristic of the era’s climate of fear and intrigue, a group of veteran pilots rebelled openly, demanding Kazarinova’s removal.
In a 1993 interview with Reina Pennington, author of “Wings, Women, and War: Soviet Airwomen in World War II Combat,” Gridnev surmised that Kazarinova’s high-level connections and her prestigious Order of Lenin medal rendered her, regardless of performance, impossible to dislodge from her post. And as the incompetent commander’s darker instincts began to take over, she found ways to deal with her enemies.
In September 1942, Kazarinova transferred eight of her best veteran pilots to Stalingrad, into the hottest action at the front, purportedly to reinforce two men’s squadrons that had weathered heavy casualties. An odd move, breaking up one of the women’s regiments Raskova had worked so hard to create – but the move solved problems for Kazarinova by removing most of the troublemakers from her midst. By the summer of 1943 those who had spoken out against her command were dead, killed in action at the front. It was a housecleaning worthy of Stalin himself.
That autumn, the spiteful commander finally went too far. Valeria Khomiakova, a well-known aerobatic flyer, returned one night from a long journey to Moscow, where party elites had honored her for shooting down a Junkers-88 night bomber on her first combat patrol. Kazarinova immediately placed the exhausted pilot on alert status, ordering her the sleep for a few minutes in the dugout. According to Gridnev, Khomiakova “ran to the plane, jumped in, and took off” when the signal to fly came.
“But her vision wasn’t adapted to the darkness,” he told Pennington in 1993. “She took off blindly…could not hold the direction, and she crashed into an obstacle and died.” While the other pilots maintained a fearful silence, Khomiakova’s close friend Evgenia Prokhorova could not contain her rage. Although the others blamed the accident on their commander’s ineptitude, Prokhorova suspected darker motives. Khomiakova had effectively been purged, she felt – for both opposing, and perhaps even for outshining, her commanding officer. As far as Prokhorova was concerned (and Gridnev agreed), Kazarinova may as well have had Khomiakova shot.
Again, Prokhorova voiced her opposition to Kazarinova’s command – and this time, she was heard. Kazarinova quietly disappeared from the 586th soon after the incident, recalled to Moscow by her good friend General Osipenko.
There was no investigation. But General Osipenko would not forget Prokhorova’s indiscretion. The Party did not forget.
“Animals flee this hell; the hardest storms cannot bear it for long; only men endure.”
– an officer of the 24th Panzer Division
A lone parachutist emerged from a smoke-blackened sky over the blazing ruin of Stalingrad. Drifting towards the ravaged wasteland on the wrong side of the Volga River, he felt more irritated than injured. As his Messerschmidt 109 screamed to earth trailing flames, he floated over the besieged city and across enemy lines, contemplating the ridiculous thing that had just happened. He, the famous German ace of the elite Richthofen group, had been shot down. To make matters worse, he’d been downed by a single Yak-1 with a gaudy white rose painted on its side. It was impossible, absurd. He was unbeatable. He vowed to meet this superman, this pilot who had so easily defeated him.
When his Soviet captors smugly presented a beautiful young woman to the German fighter pilot, he fumed, demanding to see the pilot who’d one-upped him. But when the woman imperiously reviewed every detail of their dogfight, as the translator struggled to be heard over the guffawing Soviet officers, he knew it was indeed she whom he had battled. He was not amused.
Summer at Anisovka had made a fearsome fighter pilot of Lilya Litvyak, but she remained virtually untested until her transfer, with best friend Katya Budanova, to a male regiment at Stalingrad in September of 1942. Three days later, Litvyak made her first two kills. On September 13, she downed a Junkers bomber and one highly put-out German ace, becoming the first woman pilot in the world to shoot down an enemy aircraft. On the way back to the airfield that day, she performed her first victory roll, a series of low-altitude rolls over the airport that would become her trademark – just like the white lily (which Germans often mistook for a rose) she’d painted on her Yak-1. The lily. Her symbol. Her namesake.
Though these idiosyncrasies of Litvyak’s didn’t exactly conform to wartime military discipline, the commander of Litvyak’s new regiment managed to overlook them. Perhaps it was Litvyak’s delicate beauty and sure charm that caused Colonel Baranov to bend rules for her, or her phenomenal skills as a combat pilot. Most surprising of all, he ignored the blossoming not-quite-appropriate relationship between his best friend and crack pilot, Captain Alexei Solomatin, and the young Litvyak, who became Solomatin’s wingman.
The 73rd Guards Fighter Regiment had assembled an elite new breed of Soviet fighter pilot, who began to unpleasantly surprise the Luftwaffe during the winter of 1942. Accustomed to the ineffective Red Air Force defensive tactics they’d met during their year-long domination of Soviet skies, German pilots viewed with unease the aggressive attacks of these “free hunters” at Stalingrad. The Soviets weren’t running any more. They were chasing.
Below, in that raging cauldron of a city, two armies struggled to annihilate each other by the million, with all the lunatic desperation of Stalin and Hitler themselves. The miserable soldiers didn’t have much of a choice. “Panicmakers and cowards will be liquidated on the spot. Not one step backward!” suggested Stalin to his terrified Red Army. Meanwhile, Hitler frothed, “We are not budging from the Volga!” when Paulus’ doomed Sixth Army begged for permission to retreat.
Hitler’s solution to the nearly encircled Sixth Army’s impending destruction was to airlift it all the fuel, food, and ammunition it needed to hold out – a suggestion that made Luftwaffe commander Wolfram von Richthofen weak in the knees. “In the filthy weather we have here, there’s not a hope of supplying an army of 250,000 from the air,” the general pointed out uselessly to his chief of staff. “It’s stark raving madness!” The doomed Sixth Army snacked on horses and snow as they waited for supplies that never came. Piles of corpses grew amid the snowdrifts.
It was that monumental engagement that made Lilya Litvyak a legend. Had the vengeful Kazarinova never transferred her to the furious fighting at the front, Litvyak might have passed a relatively uneventful war with the 586th, much further from the heat of battle. Instead, she fought, like her comrades in the ruined city below, like a lunatic with nothing to lose. Of those few pilots who survived the first, mad weeks of their rookiedom, many became aces. As did Litvyak.
The tiny twenty-one year-old had something to prove. Her father, a railroad employee, had been purged in the massive wave of repression that swept the USSR in the late thirties. That he had done nothing wrong hardly mattered – echoing millions of other stories of meaningless exile and execution. Still, his heartbroken daughter made it her personal mission to clear his name. If she could prove her loyalty beyond any doubt – perhaps by becoming a war hero – Litvyak could cast away the evil cloud of persecution and shame that had descended on her family.
Driven by this motive, Litvyak feared only one thing, and it wasn’t death. She spoke often to her friend and mechanic, Inna Pasportnikova, of her worry that she might be shot down behind enemy lines and identified as “missing without a trace,” a label tantamount to traitor, deserter. Such a judgment would rob her, she knew, of any chance of redeeming her family name.
Despite her daring, Litvyak’s luck held through the winter. She racked up the kills flying as wingman to Alexei Solomatin. If they were lovers, they concealed it carefully, giving no hint of a closer affection than intimate friendship – talking far into the night, planning flights, taking long walks together. She seemed to hold true to a promise made at the beginning of the Great Patriotic War – no romantic attachments until the war was over. Until the Germans were defeated, her first allegiance was to “Troika,” her nickname for the Yak fighter she’d flown in so many battles, named for the “3” painted beside the lily on the plane’s fuselage. But Litvyak’s fortunes began to turn late that spring, as the winter snows gave way to a morass of thick mud.
In March, a shrapnel wound sent her to a Moscow hospital. A few days after she returned, Colonel Baranov died while attempting to bail out of his burning aircraft. Then, in late May, Solomatin’s airplane crashed and exploded during a low-altitude training flight near the field – as she watched.
In a letter to her mother, quoted in Pennington’s book, Litvyak mourns the loss of a man she hadn’t realized she loved: “Fate has snatched away my best friend Lyosha Solomatin…I confide, mamochka, that I valued his friendship only in the moment of his death…You see, he was a fellow not to my taste, but his persistence and love for me compelled me to love him, and now…it seems to me that I will never again meet such a person.”
The final straw, her friend Ekaterina Budanova’s death in a fierce dogfight in July, left Litvyak virtually alone – and a more desperate warrior than ever. Litvyak became, it seemed, daring to the point of recklessness. She thought about nothing but fighting, she told her mother in a letter that summer. Despite the mad risks she took, engaging in battles in which she was far outnumbered, she kept winning. By now her signature white lily had grown famous throughout the front. Russian troops admired her and read about her in the newspapers, while German pilots searched tirelessly for her Yak-1 in the clouds and took aim.
While Litvyak, the now very much grown woman, fought mightily that late summer of 1943, the giddy young girl in a jaunty sheepskin collar slowly perished on the wasted Volga steppe. Through all the death and pain and exhaustion, Litvyak grimly soldiered on, making four of her twelve kills that July – but at such a price. So little of the girl remained in the twenty-one year-old woman – only her sassy blond curls and an odd habit of placing fresh flowers in the Yak-1 cockpit. There was no more furtive gossip, no more tears for fallen comrades. Just work. Experience had given her that necessary hardness that Raskova had hoped for in her girls at that first tearful funeral at Engels. But Raskova must have wanted such a thing with a heavy heart.
It wasn’t enough. After being wounded and shot down several times that summer, Litvyak’s greatest fear came to pass on August 1, 1943. During a massive air battle in which she and five other Yak-1s took on twelve Me-109s and thirty Ju-88 bombers, two fighters attacked her damaged aircraft as she flew into a cloud bank. Litvyak vanished over enemy territory, “missing without a trace.”
Until 1979, when an obsessive hunt by Pasportnikova turned up an unidentified woman pilot’s grave and the remains of “Troika” in a small village, the USSR continued to deny her the Hero of the Soviet Union award she so deserved. In 1990, Mikhail Gorbachev awarded the metal to Litvyak’s brother Yuri.
“Any adult inhabitant of this country, from a collective farmer up to a member of the Politburo, always knew that it would take only one careless word or gesture and he would fly off irrevocably into the abyss.”
– Alexander Solzhenitsyn, “The Gulag Archipelago”
On a beautiful autumn night in November 1942, Evgenia Prokhorova’s voice screamed unintelligibly through the radio as she returned to base at Anisokva. As emergency vehicles raced to the runway, the airplane jerked and twisted wildly toward the field. After a smooth landing, Prokhorova shut down the engine and ran from the airplane. The 586th pilots and crew braced for an explosion.
There wasn’t one. Instead, Alexander Gridnev recalls in an interview with Pennington, Prokhorova ran toward him, screaming, “They’re in the plane!”
“What’s in the plane?” he asked, bewildered.
Mice. Running across her face in the cockpit. Several of the millions of rodents which swarmed the base at Anisovka had stowed away in the Yak-1 and scrambled into action during the training flight, reducing the battle-hardened pilot to panic. Occasionally, wartime served up a moment of comic relief.
Unfortunately, the 586th saw more than its share of humor of the blacker variety. Theirs was a story of courage and sacrifice gone to waste, thrown away by incompetent commanders ruled by jealousy and a ruthless instinct for self-preservation. Such people thrived in the atmosphere of paranoia and political intrigue engendered by the purges and show trials of the 1930s. In an act of unfathomable self-sabotage, Stalin’s NKVD imprisoned and executed more than 35,000 Soviet military officers in the years before the war. Survival depended on luck, connections, and cunning.
Still, with the quiet removal of Tamara Kazarinova to Moscow, pilot Prokhorova must have felt relief. With the hated commander gone, Prokhorova could focus on what she did so brilliantly: flying and fighting. Speaking to Pennington, Gridnev remembered Prokhorova as an “incredibly talented pilot.” The former aerobatics champion was, he noted, “a perfect shot” and “the idol of all the women pilots, the technicians, in fact, the entire personnel of the regiment.” But in his opinion, she had made enemies among the powerful, and their memories were long and bitter.
Gridnev himself had experienced firsthand the whims of NKVD justice. In 1937, the secret police arrested him for the egregious offense of displaying a poster of Field Marshall Tukhachevsky, a hero of the civil war who had since been purged. In 1942, Gridnev was imprisoned and forcefully interrogated after receiving an impossible order from General Osipenko to head an escort mission during a dust storm. Faced with a choice between leading his pilots into certain death or being disciplined for refusing an order, he opted to escort the VIP transport alone.
Osipenko accused him of plotting to shoot down the transport in order to murder the VIP aboard: Lavrenty Beria, the NKVD chief. Though the police released Gridnev, Osipenko punished him by assigning him to the 586th, a forgotten regiment in a backwater nowhere near the front.
But Osipenko wasn’t finished. He constantly reminded Gridnev that Beria had never “had his say” about the alleged plot against him, a cruel taunt and implicit threat. Then, in December 1942, Gridnev received an enigmatic order, one that must have seemed to him hauntingly familiar. He must send six pilots to escort a transport from the base at Kuibyshev. Strange. So far from the front, and in such vile weather, the risk of German attack seemed nil. But the fighters were ordered on anyway. In nearly whiteout conditions, all made forced landings on the open plain. The next day, a team sent to rescue Prokhorova found her trapped in her overturned Yak-1, frozen to death.
Alone among his compatriots, Gridnev maintained staunchly that Osipenko deliberately sought to throw Prokhorova and other dissenters into pointlessly dangerous situations to virtually assure their deaths. “I understood then, and so I understand now, that Kazarinova and Osipenko had a plan to destroy them,” Gridnev told Pennington a decade ago, speaking freely for the first time about the fates of Prokhorova, Khomiakova, and others. As Pennington points out in her book, all of the pilots who had opposed her when she was commander were dead by the middle of 1943.
Gridnev suggested that Kazarinova’s wrath may have extended also to him and even to the entire regiment. He believed she may have used her influence to prevent the 586th from receiving the honor of the Guards designation. It was a done deal, he told Pennington. The 586th even received their Guards uniforms, and a film and photography crew came and went, documenting the award. But after Kazarinova came to pick up the documentation to deliver to Moscow, the matter disappeared into a bureaucratic abyss. Official notification of Guards status never arrived. “She always tried to harm the regiment,” he explained. “She didn’t want it to be better than when she was commander.”
“Not one woman pilot was awarded Hero of the Soviet Union in our regiment,” he added. “On account of the prejudice and foolishness of the commander of Fighter Aviation, General Osipenko. He hated the women’s 586th regiment and its commander.”
Whether the 586th and its pilots fell victim to a vengeful plot from mid-level apparatchiks or merely to leadership incompetence, it’s difficult to argue that Kazarinova and Osipenko displayed a wanton disregard for the regiment’s interests, at the very least. The virulent duo may not have sent their enemies to Siberia or stood them up against a wall; but they just as surely finished their opponents by dispatching them, pointlessly, into a lethal fog, an impossible mission, or a baptism by fire for which they were quite unprepared. And as for the regiment: their punishment would be relative obscurity, recognition denied.
Ironically, the interviews Anne Noggle recorded nearly fifty years later with the surviving members of the regiment revealed not bitterness, but gratitude. The women appreciated the opportunity to play a role in the war; but they seemed even more thankful to have survived it, returned home to normal lives, and raised families. Each year the women get together to reminisce. “I have more than one hundred sisters,” declared former mechanic Zoya Malkova. “Outsiders…can’t understand old ladies that sing and make noise. Of course, this war was a just war, and that is why we are proud of our participation.”
This article originally appeared in Woman Pilot magazine.