Pilots from the Russian 586th Women's Fighter Regiment.
In the months leading up to Operation Barbarossa (Hitler's code name for the attack on the Soviet Union) there had been over 500 violations of Soviet airspace by German photo reconnaissance aircraft. On the 21st June 1941 Hitler attacked - his plan to crush the Soviet Union in 10 weeks. Initially the attack exceeded the wildest dreams of the German generals. The fall of Smolensk to the Germans on July 16, 1941 placed Moscow in danger. Hitler then discontinued the drive to Moscow, ordering the Germans to stand in place - it seemed to postpone the final blow but consequently Moscow received a reprieve during those crucial weeks. When the belated and ill-timed German assault on Moscow (code - named Operation Typhoon) began at 05:30 hours on September 30, 1941 the Russian weather turned foul.
The rainy season (rasputitsa), made any activity difficult, with the roads turning muddy so only large vehicles could move and air operations from grass fields becoming nearly impossible.
For Operation Typhoon to achieve success, a quick victory over the Russians west of Moscow became urgent. The rasputitsa ended each fall with the arrival of winter frosts and this created a great challenge, especially trying to keep men and machines in fighting condition in the advancing cold. The winter turned out to be Russia's most trusted ally.
Despite its reduced numbers, the Soviet Air Force (VVS) played an active role in the period prior to the final German offensive. During Operation Typhoon the VVS, sensing that the final assault had commenced, then began to reassert itself, boldly attacking advancing German troops and armour by day and night.
Night bombing, mostly by PO-2 Biplanes in the tactical zones, became common place during Operation Typhoon. Bombing missions were sometimes carried out in extreme weather but ideal conditions were the long moonlit or starry nights.
The Polikarpov PO-2 was a 1927 design, powered by a single 115 hp engine giving a top speed of 81 mph and a range of 280 miles but it made a significant impact on the German troops by maintaining a sustained air presence over the battle zone, continuously harassing the Germans. The PO-2 was highly manoeuvrable and the slow speeds made night interception by the fast German fighters a difficult undertaking. The VVS pilots would often stop their engines and glide to the target, dropping their bombs by hand.
The night attackers, nicked named "sewing machines" or "duty sergeants" forced the enemy on all fronts to take precautions, lose sleep, and on occasion suffer the loss of a storage or fuel depot.
Soviet women pilots, the so-called "Night Witches", acquired considerable fame in this dangerous pursuit.
In October 1941 Soviet women pilots were organised into combat regiments by Marina Raskova, a famous Russian aviatrix. In 1938 she had received acclaim for flying an ANT-37 across the vast terrain of the Soviet Union (eleven time zones!) to achieve a women's record of 3,672 miles in 26 hours, 29 minutes. Raskova, who was later killed in action and buried in the Kremlin wall, called for volunteers for women's air regiments over the Moscow radio. The women were to be front line pilots, like men, and there were to be three air regiments, each with three squadrons, mechanics and armament fitters.
The training base was in a small town called Engels on the River Volga, North of Stalingrad. Here they were issued with men's uniforms - which were far too big - many stuffing their boots with newspaper and tying belts around their waists. With Maj Marina Raskova as Commander and Maj Yevdokia Bershanskaya as 2nd in command women went through an intense training schedule - 2 years work into 6 months. Marina Raskova and Yevdokia Bershanskaya had to assess the volunteers, and most wanted to fly fighters.
In all, VVS women pilots flew more than 24,000 sorties during the war - sixty eight receiving the Gold Star, Hero of the Soviet Union award.
The girls never wore parachutes and, after discussing it amongst themselves, had agreed if captured they may have to shoot themselves. This is exactly what Alina Smirnova did. When she crash landed she lost her sense of direction and when some people ran towards her, she thought they were Germans and shot herself.
586th Fighter Regiment
The women had trained in PO-2 aircraft and found the conversion to the powerful, single seater Yak-1 very difficult. The instructors could only drum into them the characteristics and limits of power and control before their first flight. The 586th Women's Fighter Regiment was first to go to the front. Commanded by Tamara Kazarinova, they flew the Yak-7B and Yak-1, totalling 4419 operational sorties, and credited with 38 victories.
The principal role of this regiment was to drive off enemy bomber formations before they reached their targets. Encounters with Messerschmitt 109s escorting the bombers were common.
Squadron Commander Olga Yamshchikova flew 93 sorties, scored three confirmed victories, and after the war became the first Soviet woman to fly jet aircraft when she became a test pilot.
Lilya Litvyak and Ekaterina Budanova both flew with the 586th. Maj Tamara Kazarinova noted they had a flair for individual combat so they were both transferred to join the men of the 73rd Fighter Regiment who were involved with some furious battles over Stalingrad. The City of Stalingrad had been continuously bombed by enemy aircraft, the city burning for many kilometres, and smoke hung over the city like a blanket. Over a million people died in the Stalingrad battle, for Germany it was the first great disaster of the war. This was a different kind of combat for the girls, joining the Free Hunters and seeking out fighters.
When the women arrived, male pilots found it difficult to accept them. Many refused to have them fly as their wingman, some later relenting after the women proved they were more than capable. Many commanders wanted to protect them even though they continuously proved their abilities. The women flew their missions together.
Both Lilya Litvyak and Ekaterina Budanova became fighter aces. Ekaterina Budanova was credited with eleven victories, and Lilya Litvyak scored twelve official victories and three shared in her year with the 73rd Fighter Air Regiment before her Yak was lost on August 1, 1943.
The women's 586th Fighter Regiment was heavily drawn into the most crucial battle of the war, to be fought at Kursk.
It was 2.20 am on Monday, July 5, 1943 when the Germans commenced an attack that was to develop into the greatest tank battle of the war. Fortunately "Lucy" - a complex spy ring, had forewarned the Russians of the battle plans. Together the two fronts had more than 1.3 million men, 20,000 field guns and 3500 tanks; 4000 aircraft of both sides were operating over an area only 12 miles by 30 miles. It was not unusual for 300 fighters to be involved in combat.
German airmen were always surprised to encounter VVS women pilots in active combat roles. One Luftwaffe pilot, Maj. D B Meyer, remembered being attacked near Orel by a group of Yak fighters. During the ensuing air duel the jettisoned canopy of Meyer's fighter struck the propeller of one of the pursuing Yaks, forcing it to crash. Upon landing Meyer found his dead adversary to be a woman - without rank insignia or parachute.
588th Night Bomber Regiment
The 588th Night Bomber Regiment (Night Witches) later received the honour of the 46th Guards Bomber Aviation Regiment - the first women's regiment to receive this honour, placing them among the elite of the fighting units. The 46th Guards Bomber Aviation Regiment first arrived over the Southern Front in May 1942, commanded by Yevdokia Bershanskaya. Fighting from the Kuban to Berlin, this all women's regiment flew 24,000 combat missions and dropped 23,000 tons of bombs from the then battle weary PO-2 biplanes.
Twenty three of its fliers and navigators became heroes of the Soviet Union for their dangerous work, including flights on the night of July 31st 1943, when four of their two seaters were shot down over the Blue Line (the secured German Sector of the Kuban bridgehead) by a German Junkers Ju 88 bomber.
This regiment remained entirely female throughout the war.
587th Dive Bomber Regiment
The 587th Dive Bomber Regiment later received the honour of the 125th Guards Bomber Aviation Regiment. The regiment did not go into battle until January 1943, delayed because of an abrupt change of aircraft. The crews had trained on the two-seater SU-2 but at the last minute were allocated the three seater PE-2 dive bomber instead, the regiment consequently having to wait for additional training and personnel.
The PE-2 had a crew of three - pilot, navigator, and a radio operator/gunner. The aircraft had two fixed machine guns firing forward and a swivelling machine gun in an acrylic bubble behind the navigator. The pilot had an armoured seat in the cockpit with the navigator behind, also in an armoured seat. The radio operator sat at the rear in the fuselage. When the aircraft was fully loaded with fuel and bombs the navigator used to help pull back on the stick to get the nose off the ground.
Later during the war the regiment began to receive male replacements. There were not enough women trained to fill the positions.