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.