Guest blog by DL Jung
During World War II, a combination of communist ideals of equality and sheer desperation drove the Soviet Union to recruit women in large numbers to the military. Some eight hundred thousand served, many in dangerous combat roles, such as medics, snipers, fighter pilots, and tank crew. Like many people, I was amazed on first hearing these facts.
World War II continues to inspire a vast array of fiction. With an increasing availability of archives and translated materials, more writers are telling the stories of Soviet women in combat. The all-female bomber regiment the “Night Witches” and the world’s first female fighter ace Lidiya Litvyak have been popular subjects for historical fiction. I was inspired myself to write a fictional account of the women’s fighter regiment. However, in the course of my research, I discovered the heroics of other women pilots whose stories are often overlooked.
The following are short profiles of some of them:
Valentina Grizodubova was a long range bomber commander, legendary even before the war. In 1938, she attempted to fly from Moscow to the Pacific with two other women, setting a distance record in the process. These “Three Winged Sisters” became the USSR’s answer to Amelia Earhart. Their exploits inspired a generation of young women to take up flying.
For young Soviets, aviation was symbolic of the future. Pilots were heroic embodiments of communist ideals and Grizodubova was a role model. She was an Air Force officer when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, and many women aviators wrote to her in hopes of joining the fighting. Her fellow Winged Sister, Marina Raskova, went on to found three women’s aviation regiments, from which the Night Witches and Litvyak would emerge.
But Grizodubova continued to fly in a male-dominated setting. She was given command of a long-range bomber unit, gaining distinction as a woman commander over an entire regiment of mostly men (there would likely have been women among the ground crew). She led over 200 sorties, ranging from bombing enemy targets to landing partisans behind enemy lines. She ended the war with the rank of Colonel and was decorated with the highest honors. She continued her distinguished career as a test pilot.
Anna Timofeyeva-Yegorova was a ground attack pilot whose interest in flying also pre-dated the war. In her youth she was an active member of her local flying club. Like most pilots, she was a firm believer in communism, proudly performing hazardous construction work on the Moscow underground. Her dedication was tested when authorities sent her brother to the Gulag and derailed her dreams of a flying career. Yet when the war started, she immediately volunteered to fight.
After being turned down numerous times, she found a place with a liaison unit. She flew an antiquated biplane, often behind enemy lines to communicate with partisans. Sick of being shot at and not being able to defend herself, she switched to the Il-2 Sturmovik aircraft. aka “the flying tank.” To the Germans who felt the wrath of its impressive array of machine guns, cannons, rockets and bombs, it was known as the “black death.” It was a deadly machine for its crew as well. Flying low to the ground, it was vulnerable to both anti-aircraft fire from below and fighter planes from above.
After dozens of harrowing missions, she was shot down and captured, suffering severe burns. She spent the remainder of the war in a concentration camp. When liberation came, Stalin ordered that all prisoners of war be treated as traitors. She was imprisoned and interrogated, and even after release she was harassed and discriminated against. Decades later, with the Soviet Union under a new regime, she finally received her due and was awarded her nation’s highest honor.
Olga Lisikova was a medivac/supply pilot. Before the war, she was a civilian pilot for Aeroflot. Civilian air travel in the USSR was in its infancy and she took on many jobs, whether transporting passengers, ferrying planes from the factory, or carrying newspaper molds to print the day’s news in multiple cities.
During the Russian-Finnish War of 1939-40, she was drafted into medical evacuation duty. The harsh winter was one of the coldest on record. The Red Army suffered enormous casualties from both the enemy and the weather. Lisikova flew her missions in an open cockpit, all the while without telling her commander that she was pregnant!
When the war with Germany began, the civilian air service was put to military use. Lisikova was ordered to leave her child and join the front. She flew a medivac biplane into combat situations where the Red Cross was no deterrent to enemy gunfire. In one incident, she was evacuating two wounded soldiers when an enemy fighter tried to shoot her down. In response, she flew so low she managed not only to avoid getting shot down but caused the fighter to crash.
She later switched to flying transport planes. Her cargo included anything from industrial materials to smuggled partisans to supplies for the besieged city of Leningrad. Her runs through the gauntlet of German air defenses around Leningrad were hair-raising. Soviet propagandists recognized her courage by producing posters with her image during this time. She survived the war and retired from flying shortly afterward.
I discovered the story of these and many other women combat pilots while writing Sparrow Squadron, which is a fictionalized account of a squadron of Soviet women fighter pilots during WWII. The book is available in e-book and paperback from Amazon.com.
DL Jung lives with his family in Toronto, Canada. He has been an enthusiastic student of history since grade school, when he spent lazy afternoons flipping through an old Encyclopedia Britannica set. He enjoys blogging about history and writing historical fiction. He also writes fantasy and horror fiction as Darius Jung. Sparrow Squadron is his debut novel.
Interesting post here. I think we sometimes forget how progressive the communists were in terms of providing women with leadership opportunities relative to western governments during this time. I was surprised to discover Stalin was not so kind to Russian service members who were taken prisoner. In the west, we tended to heap praise on ours who survived such ordeals.
That is an insightful comment, Allan. The Soviet Union was a great paradox indeed – championing women’s rights, while trampling human rights in general.