Friday, May 29, 2015

Il-2 combat operations during 1943-1944

In the summer of 1944 the Soviet Command decided to use clustered projectiles against the enemy armoured vehicles, and the PTAB 2.5-1.5 'cumulative' aircraft bomb, developed under the leadership of I Larionov, was put into production. The small calibre bombs were loaded directly into the bomb bay and were dropped on the enemy vehicles from altitudes up to 328ft (100m). As each Il-2 could carry up to 192 bombs, a 'fire carpet' 229ft (70m) long and 49ft (15m) wide covered the enemy tanks, giving a high probability of destruction. This was important because the low accuracy of the Il-2's bomb sight was one of its shortcomings.

Pilots of the 291 st ShAP were the first to use the PTAB 2.5-1.5 bombs. In one operation on 5th June 1943 six attack aircraft led by Lieutenant Colonel AVitrook destroyed 15 enemy tanks in one attack, and during five days of the enemy advance the 291 st Division pilots destroyed and damaged 422 enemy tanks.

In the Battle for Kursk General V Ryazanov became a master in the use of attack aircraft en masse, developing and improving the tactics of the Il-2 operation in co-ordination with infantry, artillery and armoured troops. Ryazanov was later twice made a Hero of the Soviet Union, and the 1st Attack Aircraft Corps under his command became the first to be awarded a Guard title.

However, the successes of attack aircraft combat operations were accomplished with great losses. The Luftwaffe Command claimed that the Russians lost 6,900 Il-2s in 1943 and 7,300 in the following year. Although these figures exaggerated the losses by a factor of 2 to 2.2, they were substantial nonetheless. In 1943 one loss corresponded to 26 Il-2 sorties, and to even fewer in certain operations. Approximately half of those lost were shot down by enemy fighters, the other half falling to anti-aircraft fire of ground-based guns. Assessing the main reasons for such great losses, the Air Force Commander, A Novikov, considered that poor training of the crews and units was not to blame, but attributed them to flawed tactical procedures in attack aircraft operation. On almost all fronts the pilots adopted a peculiar scheme of approaching the target at 3,300 to 4,900ft (1,000 to 1,500m) altitude without considering its nature, then gliding down and recovering after the attack with a turn, to port. The enemy therefore knew the .attackers' manoeuvres beforehand, and prepared all of his anti-aircraft defences, taking full advantage of relief features, forest, bushes etc, before their appearance over the battlefield.

The German Bf 109 and Focke-Wulf Fw 190 attacked successfully when the Il-2 gunners were inattentive and the formations were broken up. A damaged and lagging Il-2 often became the victim of fighters. However, attack aircraft pilots could sometimes use skilful defensive tactics, and gunners mastered aggressive fire techniques.

The Il-2's survivability was appraised in the 1st ShAP, and Ilyushin's predictions were confirmed. As a rule the lower armour was not pierced, being hit by low calibre projectiles, and the cockpit also turned out to be effectively armoured. One pilot managed to land his Il-2 with only half of the elevator and rudder and with the port tailplane damaged as a result of anti-aircraft fire, and another landed without any covering on the wing centre section and with no flaps. The rear fuselage, outer wing panels and oil radiators suffered most from anti-aircraft fire. Sometimes the rear fuselage was insufficiently strong, and aircraft with metal outer wing panels appeared to have better chances of survival.

Much attention was paid to eliminating these shortcomings. When deliveries of metal to the aircraft factories became regular, they began to build the aircraft with all-metal wings and to reinforce their rear fuselages with additional lengths of angle extrusions. These features were incorporated in Il-2s manufactured in the second half of 1944.

The results were positive. An analysis of attack aircraft operation in the 3rd Air Army showed that irretrievable losses totalled 2.8 % of the number of sorties, and damage was sustained on half of the sorties. The ease with which the Il-2 could be mastered by pilots and technicians promoted its widespread use on all fronts. Pilot A Yefimov, twice Hero of the Soviet Union, remembered: 'It was one of the most easily-mastered aircraft. There were no difficult instrument operations to distract the pilot from aiming at the target. The aircraft forgave the pilot even for flagrant errors. I do not know of a single case when an aircraft went out of control or entered a spin because of a pilot's mistakes'.

The Il-2 was widely used by the Soviet Navy's air arm. An effective method of attack against shipping was to approach at a height of 100ft (30m) at about 250mph (400km/h) and drop the bombs so that they ricocheted off the water and destroyed the target vessel.

Naval People's Commissar N Kuznetsov considered this method, named top-machtovoe bombometanie, or mast-top bombing, to be approximately five times more effective than horizontal bombing. Lieutenant Colonel N Stepanyan was among the best attack aircraft pilots. On 14th December 1944 Stepanyan led 42 Il-2s of the 47th ShAP in an attack on Libava naval base. Together with Pe-2 bombers, the attack aircraft sank seven freighters and damaged six more. Thirteen Il2s were shot down, including the one flown by Stepanyan, who was posthumously proclaimed a Hero of the Soviet Union, his second such award.

During the Second World War, 26 attack aircraft pilots flying Ilyushins were twice awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union.

In conclusion, it is worth quoting the assessment of the Il-2 by the German infantry commander General von Sauken, Commander of the East Prussia Group in the final stages of the war. He wrote: 'The effectiveness of Russian aviation activity in the Danzig region was enormous, and petrified the troops. Neither our air force nor our powerful artillery could oppose this air power'.
Summer 1943. The German army prepares to launch its new offensive for the same ground where it had only months ago suffered its worst defeat of the war to date: The Southern Front. In the coming days, 6000 tanks, 4000 planes and two million soldiers would collide in what would become one of the most spectacular and brutal battles in all of World War II - The Battle of Kursk.

The victories achieved by the Soviet Armed Forces during the Battle for the Volga and the later counteroffensive during the winter of 1942 had a considerable impact on the situation in the Soviet-German Front. The German High Command hoped for a decisive victory which would both soften the political consequences of the defeats suffered during the previous year, as well as wiping out a large number of Soviet units, weakening the entire Russian front. Betting heavily on German technological superiority to improve their odds of a victory, the Germans rushed large numbers of the new heavy Tiger and Panther tanks, and self-propelled Ferdinand vehicles into the theater. In addition to huge numbers of armored vehicles, the Germans looked to the use of combined air and ground power as a force multiplier. From all over Fortress Europa, the Germans drew the best squadrons available and poured them into the airfields of Oriol, Belgorod and Jarkov. In all, 17 squadrons, comprised of more than 1800 planes, were assembled. An additional 200 bombers were stationed in the rear guard airfields. The total commitment of the Luftwaffe numbered some 2000 aircraft - about 70 % of its total strength.

The Soviets, aware of the German plans, sought to protect their ground troops with air cover assembled from units from other fronts, even from the reserves of the Supreme High Command General Headquarters. The Soviet Army gathered 3000 aircraft, roughly doubling the enemy in fighter planes. As the battle raged, wave after wave of Stukas attacked the Soviet armored vehicles, while the Russian planes did the same to the German Panzers. The Luftwaffe attacked industrial sites and communication centers, while the Soviet attacks focused on airfields and ammunition deposits. In a radius of 20 to 60 Kilometers, some 2000 planes engaged in aerial combat involving from 100 to 150 machines at a given time. On July 20th 1943, facing the possibility of Wehrmacht units being cutoff or trapped, and fearing a repeat of the scenario that took place at Stalingrad, Hitler called off "Unternehmen Zitadelle" (Operation Citadel) and the German divisions retreated to a safer position, but not before German forces had suffered huge losses of irreplaceable crews and equipment.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015


Lilya Litvyak flew her Yak-1 into hell over the Volga on September 10, 1942. She and eight others were transferred from the PVO to the 437th Fighter Regiment out of Verkhnaia Akhtuba, south of the city. The reception from their male counterparts wasn’t the best, as the battle hadn’t become desperate—yet. Mechanics didn’t want to service planes flown by women, and one male pilot even refused to fly a Yak that had been preflighted by “one of those girls.” The regiment commander, Maj. M. S. Khostnikov, supposedly shook his head and said, “We’re waiting for real pilots and they sent us a bunch of girls.”

The attitude is understandable. Stalingrad was slowly being encircled on the west side of the river, no real help was in sight, and the odds were terrible. Since the German Sixth Army had arrived on August 23, more than two hundred VVS aircraft had been lost. Among other foes, the VVS was also facing the renowned Ace of Spades pilots (Pik As) from JG 53. The wing was part of the big assault, and Erwin Meier was flying with 2 Staffel when he met Lilya Litvyak over Stalingrad on September 13.

Veterans from Spain, the Battle for France, and the Battle of Britain, the Pik As were hardened fighter pilots. During the Battle of Britain Goering discovered that the wife of the Geschwaderkommodore, Major Hans-Jürgen von Cramon-Taubadel, had distant Jewish ancestry. Goering made the entire wing remove their Ace of Spades emblem and replace it with a red band around the nose of each aircraft. After their commander was removed, the pilots retaliated by immediately painting over the swastikas on the tails. They were typically hard-fighting, irreverent, and unafraid of the Nazi hierarchy, or anything else, for that matter. One month into Barbarossa, the wing had shot down its one thousandth enemy aircraft.

But the Russians were fighting back—hard. As the German 16th Panzers crunched over the rubble on the outskirts of the city, they ran into the 1077th Anti-Aircraft Regiment. Though effective against aircraft, the 37 mm guns had a tough time with the extra armor plates carried on most Panzer IIIIV tanks. After knocking out all the guns, the Germans were shocked to find they’d been fighting teenage girls. The twin thrusts were largely successful, and by mid-November Paulus had advanced to the Volga shore and controlled nine-tenths of Stalingrad.

It was over a year now since Barbarossa had ground to a halt, and once again winter threatened the Germans. Low clouds, fog, and killing temperatures made most flying difficult if not impossible. Luftflotte IV managed about 1,500 daily sorties but had lost at least 40 percent of its operational aircraft, and the strength of the Sixth Army had fallen by half. The VVS decided to form the 9th Guards Fighter Regiment, an elite unit composed solely of veterans and aces. Commanded by Lev Shestakov, the leading Soviet ace from Spain, the 9th was supposed to do battle with famous German units such as JG 52 and JG 53.

Apparently Shestakov wanted Lilya Litvyak and Katya Budanova in his regiment, given their blossoming reputations. “Watch out for the girls,” he told his male pilots. “And don’t offend them. They fly excellently and they have already killed some Fritzes.” By this time prewar prejudices had disappeared and all that mattered was a pilot’s ability to kill the enemy and not his (or her) comrades. This attitude was shared by most Russians, and in an eerie parallel to Hitler’s Nazi ranting, the Russians were told, “If you have not killed at least one German a day you have wasted that day. If you leave a German alive, the German will hang a Russian and rape a Russian woman. Kill the German.”

By mid-November the snow was falling. The Volga had frozen, making transport of men and ammunition somewhat easier, and the Soviets did the unexpected—they counterattacked with Operation Uranus at 7:20 a.m. on November 19, 1942. Spearheaded by the 1st Guards Tank Army, the Soviet Southwest Front slammed into the Romanian forces on the German left following an eighty-minute artillery barrage.

As their northern flank collapsed, the German 48th Panzer Corps tried to stem the Russian armored assault, but with less than a hundred tanks, it just wasn’t possible. The Stalingrad Front launched its southern attack at 8:00 a.m. the next morning. The Romanian 6th Cavalry Corps crumbled, and the 29th Panzer Grenadiers counterattacked. But with “allies” being routed on all sides, the Germans had to fall back to escape annihilation.

At the end of four days the northern pincer rolled through 90 miles to enter Kalach, due west of the city and behind the German lines. The southern arm of the trap closed nearby at Sovetskiy. It was November 23, and 300,000 Germans from the Sixth Army and 4th Panzers were cut off inside Stalingrad.

Hitler utterly refused to permit the Sixth Army to break out to the west. Stalingrad, though an important strategic objective, was a vital psychological one as well. Not only did it bear his archrival’s name, but it had also been the launching point of Stalin’s career. No, the Sixth Army would hold until a relief force could break the cordon around Stalingrad. Until von Manstein’s Army Group Don arrived, they would be supplied by the Luftwaffe—after all, Goering promised it could be done. However, this was the same man who had sworn to conquer the RAF and stated in 1939 that “no enemy bomber can reach the Ruhr. If one reaches the Ruhr, my name is not Goering. You may call me Meyer.”

Goering was in Bavaria on November 22 and, after assuring Hitler that the airlift could be done, left to visit Parisian art galleries. Von Richthofen was astounded. He had less than fifty Ju 52’s on hand—not even a tenth of those required. An airlift would need to provide a bare minimum of 350 tons of supplies per day for the beleaguered Sixth Army to hold. A single Ju 52 transport was supposed to hold 2 tons of freight, but even that wasn’t quite correct.

This was based on the “1,000 kg” labels fixed to standard Luftwaffe containers, which turned out to indicate only the bomb rack used to hold them. The actual load was about two-thirds of that, or 660 kilograms. So each Junker could manage about 2,600 pounds instead of the 2 tons used for planning. This meant that 270 flights delivering 350 tons would have to land each day to keep the army alive. Also, not every day was a flying day, due to the horrible winter weather. Generaloberst Kurt Zeitzler, the army chief of staff and an Eastern Front veteran himself, was aware of this and the flaws in Goering’s math. A daily delivery of some 500 tons would be needed to take up the slack.

Under forward-area combat conditions, operational readiness for transports was 30 to 40 percent at best. Several hundred Ju 52’s would be required to meet the need, but there were just forty-seven on hand. This was during a time when the German air force was heavily committed in North Africa and the yearly Ju 52 production was about five hundred aircraft. Even with available He 111’s and Ju 88’s, it wasn’t enough, and every Luftwaffe officer from von Richthofen down knew the airlift was hopeless. Even when aircraft managed to land, sometimes it didn’t help. One day 20 tons of vodka and bales of summer uniforms were delivered. Another aircraft arrived loaded with pepper and other spices.

On November 27 an angry Zeitzler had the courage to call Goering a liar to his face, and in front of Hitler. Yet despite the odds, they tried and managed about 80 tons per day even with a resurgent VVS prowling the skies. And the VVS was expanding and strengthening. More than 35,000 sorties would be flown during the battle for Stalingrad and, according to Soviet sources, 1,100 German aircraft would be shot down.

The Red Air Force had successfully adapted to the situations they faced, taking from the Luftwaffe some tactics while inventing others themselves. Three-ship groupings were generally a thing of the past; like the British before them, the VVS now flew a four-ship zveno flight, which could be divided into the two-ship para if needed. They also utilized the okhotniki, or “free hunt,” copied from the German jagd frei, or “roving fighters.”

Others were uniquely Russian. The taran, or “ramming attack,” was performed by VVS pilots on many occasions. The first recorded use was by a Russian named Nesterov in 1914 over the Ukraine—he didn’t survive, and neither did his target.

There were different ways to do it. Ideally, you’d get close enough behind the other fighter to chew up its horizontal tail or rudder with your prop. If you were lucky, your plane was still flyable and you might make it back. Clipping the wing with your own was also possible. Some I-16’s were modified with a beefed-up wing structure to make this more possible. Or, as a final option, you could simply dive straight into the other plane. The likelihood of living through that was next to nothing. It’s estimated that more than five hundred taran attacks were made by the VVS during World War II.

Sokoliny udar, the “falcon blow,” looked similar from the victim’s point of view, but it wasn’t a ram. It was a full-throttle, stick-in-the-lap move into the vertical. This very suddenly traded airspeed for altitude, and if the threat was close or didn’t have the airspeed to follow, the idea was to roll back down and end up behind him as he flashed past.

So at this time, in late 1942 and early 1943, the ground situation gave the VVS enough of a breather to begin reconstitution. Though they’d suffered horrible losses, the Red air force didn’t suffer from manpower potential nor from a crucial shortage of equipment. Logistics was easier in many respects given the local nature of the defense. Also, the factories that had moved to the Urals were beginning to produce again, and Lend-Lease deliveries, which would eventually total some 15,000 aircraft, were arriving in Russia.

So while Goering gathered art on the Seine, the last Axis soldiers limped over the Don River bridges into Stalingrad and blew up the bridges behind them. All through December men fought and died. And they starved. First they ate their transport horses. Then birds, dogs, and rats. Lastly they ate each other. Soviet units recaptured all the airfields by the third week in January and the airlift, such as it was, ended.

On February 1, following 199 days of fighting and 2 million casualties on both sides, Paulus surrendered what remained of the Sixth Army. Just over 91,000 men and 22 generals were marched off to oblivion; fewer than 6,000 would return home ten years later. Hitler had promoted Paulus to Generalfeldmarschall on January 30 assuming that he would fight to the death or commit suicide, as no German officer of that rank had ever capitulated. Paulus chose life and said, “I have no intention of shooting myself for that Bavarian corporal.”

Ten days after the Sixth Army surrendered, Lilya was back in action over the frozen earth west of Stalingrad. As Marshal Zhukov tried to push the Germans west, Stukas and fighter bombers continuously attacked his tanks. She shot down a Stuka on February 11, then, later that same day, ran into the newly fielded Focke-Wulf 190 fighter. February also brought Lilya an officer’s commission, to mladshii leitenant (junior lieutenant), and a promotion to flight lead. So Litvyak now had a wingman of her own. With her recognition and acceptance from the male fighter pilots came a very distinctive self-confidence. She painted a white flower on the side of her Yak and through it became known as the “White Rose of Stalingrad.”* By the end of March she’d added a bomber, another Fw 190, and an Me 109G to her tally. In one nasty fight on March 22, she was shot up by two Me 109G-6’s from JG 3. These had 1,400-horsepower DB 605 engines, with even-numbered variants (such as the G-6) unpressurized and upgraded with a new 30 mm cannon. She shot one of them down and was saved by her wingmen from the other. Badly wounded, Lilya barely landed but had to be pulled from the cockpit.

Sent to Moscow to recover, she remained there until May. Promoted now to senior lieutenant, she returned to the 73rd Guards Fighter Aviation Regiment in early May. During an escort mission on May 5 she hammered a Messerschmitt to pieces, and a second one two days later. The time off had not dulled her reflexes or her marksmanship. Nor had it diminished another issue she had to deal with. Fighter pilots falling in love with each other had never been a problem, for obvious reasons, but when one of them happens to be a beautiful young girl, with long blond hair and gray eyes . . .

So it was for Alexei Solomatin. He’d flown with Lilya, and they’d become close, with a bond only combat can give. But he’d also fallen in love with her, and in all likelihood she felt the same. Yet with so much to overcome and so much to prove, she never openly allowed her feelings to show. Perhaps she gave in to the adoring young fighter pilot; perhaps not. She never revealed it, and Solomatin was killed three weeks after her return. She was never really the same again.

Her white-hot rage coincided perfectly with the beginning of the last great German offensive in Russia—Operation Citadel. Designed to eliminate the Kursk salient, straighten the German line, and improve the Wehrmacht’s defensive positions, Citadel had been planned back in April 1943.


The VVS knew the attack would come on July 5, but not the precise time or location. So they boldly decided to attack preemptively and throw the Wehrmacht timeline into confusion. More than three hundred aircraft took part in the raid, but they were detected 80 miles out by German radar. Messerschmitts from JG 52 and JG 3 lifted off and hit the Soviets just as they were making their initial attacks, and more than a hundred VVS aircraft went down.

The Ninth Army began its pincer from Orel, north of the salient, as the 4th Panzer Army stabbed upward from the Kharkov area. More than 3,000 German tanks, including the new Panthers and Tigers, sliced into the Russian positions. Hitler had purposely delayed the offensive until his new tanks were ready, thinking they would be decisive. Unfortunately, the delay also gave the Soviets time to prepare 3,000 miles of trenches and lay nearly a half million mines. There were also over a million Russian troops with 3,600 tanks to oppose the Germans. The VVS could muster about 2,500 combat aircraft, of which half were fighters.

For a week both sides slugged it out. The Soviets, and in particular the VVS, took frightful losses. One estimate puts fighter losses at over 50 percent and ground attack aircraft down by a third. This again revealed Russian weaknesses in aircraft and especially in pilots. Numerically the VVS exceeded the Luftwaffe, by five to one in some cases, but pilot experience levels were vastly different, and it showed. JG 52 passed the 6,000-kill mark when Operation Citadel began. Bubi Hartmann, Gerd Barkhorn, and Günther Rall, the top three aces of all time, were part of this extraordinary fighter wing. Six of the fifteen top Luftwaffe aces flew with JG 52 and between them accounted for 1,580 aircraft.

The Red Air Force had its ringers as well. Ivan Kozhedub ended the war as the top Allied ace, with sixty-four confirmed kills. Sasha Pokryshkin, a Siberian peasant who emerged as the top tactician of the VVS, was right behind him. Pokryshkin pioneered a layered defense based on aircraft type. This type of “fighter stack” had been used by the Germans on the Western Front during the Great War and was adapted by both Mölders and Galland during the Battle of Britain. Pokryshkin’s talent, other than killing, was defying conventional VVS and Russian dogma by thinking for himself. Just as the RAF’s Hugh Dowding could see the value of radar, early warning, and radio-controlled intercepts, so too could Pokryshkin.

Three times a Hero of the Soviet Union, an honor he shared with Ivan Kozhedub, Sasha almost certainly had a higher number of actual kills than Kozhedub. At least a dozen of his earliest weren’t credited to him, and he often gave his victories away to pilots who had been killed. This passed on the government-supplied bonus to the dead pilots’ families and gave them some measure of support. Phenomenal aviator that he was, Sasha Pokryshkin was forbidden to fly after the summer of 1944 for fear that his death would devastate Soviet morale. Both Russian aces, like Hartmann, Barkhorn, and Rall, would survive the war.

On July 12 Operation Citadel came to a head in an immense tank battle outside Prokhorovka, about 40 miles southeast of Kursk. The II SS Panzer Corps had been advancing north from the Belgorad area when several Soviet armies were thrown against them. More than a thousand tanks engaged, and at the end of the long, bloody day the German thrust had been halted. To be stopped in this, their last great offensive, meant time was running out for the Wehrmacht.

It was also running out for Lilya Litvyak. On July 16 she ran up against a fifty-three-victory ace named Hans Grünberg. Pouncing on a formation of thirty Ju-88s near Luhansk, she’d shot one down when Grunberg jumped her. He’d already accounted for two Yaks that day and knew exactly who was flying this particular Russian fighter with the white flower painted on the side. Big 30 mm shells had ripped into her plane, but Lilya managed to slip and slide away from a lethal hit. Sometime during the joust the German overshot and Lilya repositioned, rolling around behind the Messerschmitt. Hosing off bursts from her own 20 mm cannon, she was able to watch him ditch the fighter.

Three days later she wasn’t so lucky. Her wingman went down when they were attacked by at least eight 109s. Crashing, gear up, into a farmer’s field behind enemy lines, Lilya thought her war was over. If she surrendered, she knew, she could never go home again due to Stalin’s Order 270, and her family would also be thrown into prison. If she fought back against the approaching German infantry she would certainly die. But just then a dirty green Shturmovik dropped out of the sky and bounced in for a landing, and the pilot threw open the cockpit. Hobbling across the field, clutching her leg, Lilya made it to the plane. The pilot hauled her inside, goosed the power, and slammed the canopy shut as they staggered back into the air.

So many close calls normally means your bag of luck is empty. If possible, pilots go on leave or stay on the ground until the ominous signs pass. This couldn’t be done when every experienced pilot was needed to fight the still very formidable Luftwaffe—not that Lilya would’ve done it anyway.

On August 1, 1943, Lilya Litvyak took off from her airfield near Krasny Luch in southeastern Ukraine. Her first two sorties involved escorting Shturmoviks to attack German positions to the west. The third time up, in late morning, she shot down a 109G and shared a second kill on another. Around noon, she took off on her fourth mission of the day, to intercept a large formation of Ju 88s crossing the lines heading east.

Weather had been building from the noonday heat; like a field of mushrooms, the big, puffy clouds reflected sunlight bounced from the edges. Yellow beams slanted into countless shifting canyons, as the dark green Russian fighter sliced down to line up on the bombers. The tired, wounded pilot never saw two of the escorting Messerschmitts roll inverted and dive at her.

Orange tracers arced across the sky as nearly fifty aircraft swirled, twisted, and killed each other. Lilya’s wingman, Ivan Borisenko, was fighting for his own life, but he caught a glimpse of her turning back toward the Germans. As the three fighters clawed at each other they fell into the clouds and disappeared. As fast as it had begun it was over, and the survivors limped home, Borisenko among them.

But not Lilya.

Hours went by and the ground crews waited. Waited until night fell and the stars came out. Waited for word from somewhere that she’d bailed out or landed. But there was nothing. It was her 168th combat mission, and she never came back.

Thirty-six years later, in 1979, villagers near the town of Dmytrivka discovered the skeleton of a small woman. From the gold fillings in the teeth, the Soviet government identified the remains as those of Lidiya Vladirmirovna Litvyak. Eleven years later, during a celebration of the forty-fifth anniversary of World War II, the last premier of Stalin’s Communist Russia awarded Lilya a medal—she was at last a Hero of the Soviet Union.

Many people, experts and friends alike, don’t believe that she died that afternoon over the Ukraine. One very plausible theory is that she collided with, or rammed, one of the attacking Messerschmitts. Luftwaffe records confirm that Hans-Jorg Merkle, a twenty-nine-victory ace from JG 52, was credited with a kill against a Yak-1b on August 1, 1943, in the same area in which Lilya vanished. One of the surviving Germans also stated that Merkle had been rammed. In any event, he didn’t survive. Whether she rammed the Messerschmitt or her plane was too badly damaged to make it back, Lilya very well could’ve survived only to find herself behind the German lines again, and this time she was captured. Dr. Kazimiera Cottam, an expert on Soviet female combat veterans, is certain Lilya survived. If she’d been captured, then knowing what awaited her in Russia after the war may have convinced her that there was no going back. She would’ve faced a filtration camp, or worse, as would her family. Maybe, she thought, it was better to have them think she was dead, her reputation untarnished and her family safe.

Cottam also wrote that “Russian television featured a broadcast from Switzerland during which a correspondent introduced a former Soviet woman World War II pilot, a mother of three children who was twice wounded during the war and resided abroad since the war.” On a practical note, the village of Dmytrivka, where her remains were “discovered,” is more than 50 miles northwest of where Lilya’s final dogfight occurred. This was the wrong direction for a pilot trying to land a damaged plane, and she would have known that.

Lilya Litvyak may or may not have died that day in August 1943. Regardless of her end, in the end the White Rose of Stalingrad, and her legacy as an extraordinary fighter pilot, live on forever.