How Soviet women fought the Germans in fighter planes & bombers

Female pilots of the 46th Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment.

Female pilots of the 46th Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment.

Arkady Shaikhet/
It was a time when women piloted military planes in many countries. However, only in the USSR did they engage in fierce aerial battles with the enemy.

It’s estimated that over half a million Soviet women took part in World War II. Hundreds of them fought the enemy as pilots of fighter planes and bombers, as flight navigators, radio operators/air gunners and aircraft mechanics.

Female aviation regiments

As soon as the German army began its invasion of the USSR, a huge number of women volunteered to join the ranks of the Soviet Armed Forces to fight the enemy. At that time, however, they were only allowed to perform auxiliary and specialized duties.

Female pilots of the 46th Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment.

As the strategic situation at the front deteriorated, the attitude of the country’s leadership to the possibility of involving women in combat operations changed, too. On October 8, 1941, the People’s Commissariat (Ministry) for Defence issued an order establishing three female aviation regiments as part of the Red Army Air Force: the 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment, equipped with Yak-1 aircraft; the 587th Bomber Aviation Regiment, which used Su-2 bombers; and the 588th Night Light Bomber Regiment, which flew U-2 biplanes. 

It was Marina Raskova, a legendary female pilot and Hero of the Soviet Union, who came up with the idea of forming all-female aviation regiments. In 1938, she won acclaim for performing a unique 6,450-km non-stop flight from Moscow to the Far East, which took her more than 26 hours. Raskova personally selected the female candidates and took over the command of the 587th Regiment. 

Since in arduous wartime conditions, only three to six months were allocated for the training of female pilots. Young women, who had already worked in civil aviation or trained in aviation clubs, were selected. They were immediately sent to a military aviation school in the town of Engels on the Volga River (330 km from Stalingrad).

Female pilots of the 46th Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment.

“Our first flights, the strict routine, military discipline, regular training sessions and working in harsh winter conditions toughened us up and made us more resilient and stronger,” recalled aircraft armorer Darya Chalaya. “We effortlessly loaded and unloaded 40-kg training bombs on and off trucks and easily and rapidly loaded them onto the bomb racks of aircraft.” 

In night bombers

In May 1942, the women flyers of the 588th Regiment were the first to complete their training. Of the three regiments, this was the only one where women performed the full range of functions  - from mechanics and technicians to flight navigators and pilots.

The low-speed U-2 (Po-2) biplanes, the aviation regiment’s main workhorse, could fly at almost treetop level and take off from and land on even a small patch of ground. Because of their vulnerability, the U-2s were used for night bombing raids and were actively employed as liaison aircraft, as well as for delivering supplies to partisans and encircled army units.

Female pilot Natalya Meklin.

Turning off its engines before nose-diving onto its target, the U-2 would suddenly emerge from the darkness and hit an enemy military facility or a group of soldiers gathered round a campfire with pinpoint accuracy. The particular sound the aircraft made at that moment reminded the Germans of a sweeping broom. Hence the famous nickname - the ‘Night Witches’.

Under Yevdokiya Bershanskaya’s (Bocharova’s) continuous command, the 588th Regiment followed an arduous route from the Soviet south to Germany, taking part in the liberation of the North Caucasus, Crimea, Byelorussia and Poland. For the courage and heroism of its personnel, it was designated a “Guards” regiment and, in 1943, was reorganized into the 46th Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment.

Throughout the war years, 32 of its young women were killed in action, in air crashes and from illness. This was quite a low toll compared with other units.

In fighter aircraft

Hot on the heels of the ‘Night Witches’, the women flyers of the 586th Aviation Regiment became operational in June 1942. The military formation, which flew Yak-1 fighter planes, was redeployed from Engels to neighboring Saratov, where it stood guard of the city as part of its air defenses.

Female pilots of the 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment.

Since the main action was taking place to the south at Stalingrad, the women pilots had a relatively quiet time of it. Nevertheless, in the fall, the city came under regular bombing raids and there was plenty to keep the young women occupied. On September 24, the aviation regiment scored its first victory, when Lt. Valeria Khomyakova shot down a Junkers Ju 88 bomber.

Far from all the female flyers were willing to spend the entire war protecting areas at the rear, however. Many succeeded in obtaining transfers to male fighter aviation regiments on the front lines, where they ended up in the thick of the fighting.

Here, for instance, is a description of an air battle given by Klavdiya Blinova, who had been transferred to the 434th Fighter Aviation Regiment: “The bomber was darting from cloud to cloud and I went after it! I was gripped by the frantic pursuit, doing my best not to let it get away! Noticing that he had veered to starboard into a cloud, I turned my plane in such a way as to meet the Fascist below cloud level. A moment later, he emerged right in front of me. I fired a long burst almost point-blank. With a sharp nod of its nose, the Junkers went down. I was still after it…” 

Not all the women who found themselves in the middle of the fighting lived to see Victory Day. In the Summer of 1943, Lydia Litvyak, the ‘White Lily of Stalingrad’, who had become celebrated for her role in aerial battles for the famous city on the Volga River, was shot down over the Donbass. She had notched up four confirmed solo victories and three group victories. Her friends, Yekaterina Budanova and Antonina Lebedeva, were killed at roughly the same time.

In dive-bombers

The last of the three female air regiments - the 587th - became operational on December 25, 1942. It was almost immediately hit by tragedy: On January 4, 1943, Marina Raskova, the regimental commander, was killed in a flying accident. Command of the military formation passed to Lt. Colonel Valentin Markov.

Soviet Pe-2 bombers.

The plan was for the women to fight in the Su-2, but, in the end, it was replaced with the Pe-2. This dive-bomber was regarded as difficult to fly, but the female pilots coped splendidly.

Colonel Léon Cuffaut of the French Normandie-Niemen fighter regiment which fought with the Soviet air force recalled how, in Winter 1944, a Soviet Pe-2 was coming in to land at their airfield in a heavy snowstorm. “We, the French airmen, observed in delight as the daredevil landed his plane perfectly in such poor visibility and rushed over to the aircraft to get to know the pilot as soon as possible. And how astonished we were to discover that the plane was piloted by girls!”

The 587th Aviation Regiment took part in almost all the most important battles of the war: at Stalingrad, in the Caucasus and in the Kursk Salient. The female flyers provided support to Soviet troops in ‘Operation Bagration’, the large-scale offensive in Byelorussia in 1944, and flew combat missions over the Baltic Region and East Prussia. 

Maria Dolina from the 125th Guards Bomber Aviation Regiment.

In 1943, in recognition of its successes, the air regiment was redesignated the ‘125th Guards Bomber Aviation Regiment named after Marina Raskova’. Immediately after the end of the war, five of its female flyers were honored with the title of ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’.

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