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Soviet 'Night Witches' Pilots

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'Night Witches' is the English translation of Nachthexen, a World War II German nickname (Russian Ночные ведьмы, Nochnye Vedmy) for the female military aviators of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, known later as the 46th 'Taman' Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, of the Soviet Air Forces. The regiment was formed by Colonel Marina Raskova and led by Major Yevdokia Bershanskaya.

Rufina Gasheva and Nataly Meklin

Soviet Air Force officers, Rufina Gasheva (848 night combat missions: IWM RUS5179) and Nataly Meklin (980 night combat missions) decorated as 'Heroes of the Soviet Union' for their service with the famed 'Night Witches' unit during World War II. They stand in front of their Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes. (Colourisation and research by Olga Shirnina from Russia)

The regiment flew harassment bombing and precision bombing missions against the German military from 1942 to the end of the war. At its largest size, it had 40 two-person crews. It flew over 23,000 sorties and is said to have dropped 3,000 tons of bombs. It was the most highly decorated female unit in the Soviet Air Force, each pilot having flown over 800 missions by the end of the war and twenty-three having been awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union title. Thirty of its members died in combat.

The regiment flew in wood and canvas Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes, a 1928 design intended for use as training aircraft and for crop-dusting, and to this day the most-produced biplane in all of aviation history. The planes could carry only six bombs at a time, so multiple missions per night were necessary. Although the aircraft were obsolete and slow, the pilots made daring use of their exceptional maneuverability; they had the advantage of having a maximum speed that was lower than the stall speed of both the Messerschmitt Bf 109 and the Focke-Wulf Fw 190, and as a result, the German pilots found them very difficult to shoot down. An attack technique of the night bombers was to idle the engine near the target and glide to the bomb release point, with only wind noise to reveal their location. German soldiers likened the sound to broomsticks and named the pilots 'Night Witches.' Due to the weight of the bombs and the low altitude of flight, the pilots carried no parachutes.

From June 1942, the 588th Night Bomber Regiment was within the 4th Air Army. In February 1943 the regiment was honored with a reorganization into the 46th Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment and in October 1943 it became the 46th 'Taman' Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment. 'Taman' referred to the unit's involvement in two celebrated Soviet victories on the Taman Peninsula during 1943. (Courtesy Wikipedia)

Night Witches pilots

The women of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, with their aircraft in the background
L-R : Rufa Gasheva, Natalya Mieklina, Marina Chechenieva, Nadiezhda Popova, Sima Amosova, Dina Nikulina, Yevdikya Bireshanska (Yevodokiya Bershanskaya), Maria Smirnova, Yevgenya Zhygulenko (Yevgeniya Zhigulenko)

The following is from an article in The Atlantic. It was the spring of 1943, at the height of World War II. Two pilots, members of the Soviet Air Force, were flying their planes -- Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes, built mainly of plywood and canvas -- over a Soviet railway junction. Their passage was on its way to being a routine patrol ... until the pilots found themselves confronted by a collection of German bombers. Forty-two of them.

The pilots did what anyone piloting a plane made of plywood would do when confronted with enemy craft and enemy fire: they ducked. They sent their planes into dives, returning fire directly into the center of the German formation. The tiny planes' flimsiness was in some ways an asset: their maximum speed was lower than the stall speed of the Nazi planes, meaning that the pilots could maneuver their craft with much more agility than their attackers. The outnumbered Soviets downed two Nazi planes before one of their own lost its wing to enemy fire. The pilot bailed out, landing, finally, in a field.

The people on the ground, who had witnessed the skirmish, rushed over to help the stranded pilot. They offered alcohol. But the offer was refused. As the pilot would later recall, 'Nobody could understand why the brave lad who had taken on a Nazi squadron wouldn't drink vodka'.

The brave lad had refused the vodka, it turned out, because the brave lad was not a lad at all. It was Tamara Pamyatnykh, one of the members of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment of the Soviet Air Forces. The 588th was the most highly decorated female unit in that force, flying 30,000 missions over the course of four years -- and dropping, in total, 23,000 tons of bombs on invading German armies. Its members, who ranged in age from 17 to 26, flew primarily at night, making do with planes that were -- per their plywood-and-canvas construction -- generally reserved for training and crop-dusting. They often operated in stealth mode, idling their engines as they neared their targets and then gliding their way to their bomb release points. As a result, their planes made little more than soft 'whooshing' noises as they flew by.

Major Evdokiia

(Right: Major Evdokiia 'Dina' Nikulina. Pilot, 588th/46th GvBAP, 760/774 sorties. courtesy Klimbim Art)

Those noises reminded the Germans, apparently, of the sound of a witch's broomstick. So the Nazis began calling the female fighter pilots Nachthexen: 'night witches.' They were loathed. And they were feared. Any German pilot who downed a 'witch' was automatically awarded an Iron Cross.

The Night Witches were largely unique among the female combatants -- and even the female flyers -- of World War II. Other countries, the U.S. among them, may have allowed women to fly as members of their early air forces; those women, however, served largely in support and transport roles. The Soviet Union was the first nation to allow women to fly combat missions -- to be able, essentially, to return fire when it was delivered. These ladies flew planes; they also dropped bombs.

In July 2013, one of the most famous of the Night Witches -- Nadezhda Popova, a commander of the squad who flew, in total, 852 of its missions -- passed away. She was 91. And the obituaries that resulted, celebrations of a life and a legacy largely unknown to many of us here in the U.S., serve as a reminder of the great things the female flyers accomplished. Things made even more remarkable considering the limited technology the woman had at their disposal. The Witches (they took the German epithet as a badge of honor) flew only in the dark. Because of the weight of the bombs they carried and the low altitudes at which they flew, they carried no parachutes. They had no radar to navigate their paths through the night skies -- only maps and compasses. If hit by tracer bullets, their craft would ignite like the paper planes they resembled. Which was not a small concern: 'Almost every time,' Popova once recalled, 'we had to sail through a wall of enemy fire.'

1943 Russian military photograph of Nadia Popova with her Po2 biplane (via the book Night Witches)

Ryabova Popova

(L-R) Katya Ryabova and Nadya Popova
In a single night they made 18 bombing sorties into enemy territory

Their missions were dangerous; they were also, as a secondary challenge, unpleasant. Each night, in general, 40 planes -- each crewed by two women, a pilot and a navigator -- would fly eight or more more missions. Popova herself once flew 18 in a single night. (The multiple nightly sorties were necessary because the modified crop-dusters were capable of carrying only two bombs at a time.) The women's uniforms were hand-me-downs from male pilots. And their planes had open cockpits, leaving the women's faces to freeze in the chilly night air. 'When the wind was strong it would toss the plane,' Popova noted. 'In winter, when you'd look out to see your target better, you got frostbite, our feet froze in our boots, but we carried on flying.'

Once, after a successful flight -- which is to say, a flight she survived -- Popova counted 42 bullet holes studding her little plane. There were also holes in her map. And in her helmet. 'Katya, my dear,' the pilot told her navigator, 'we will live long.'

One June 8, 1942, three planes took off on the first mission. The target: the headquarters of a German division. The raid was successful, but one aircraft was lost. The 588th fought non-stop for months, flying 15 to 18 missions a night. 'It was a miracle we didn't lose more aircraft', recalls Nadia Popova. 'Our planes were the slowest in the air force. They often came back riddled with bullets, but they kept flying.'

On August 2, 1942, her plane crashed in the Caucasus. She and her navigator were found alive a few days later. The winter of 1942 was brutal, with the temperature plummeting to -48C (-54F) during the battle of Stalingrad. Parts of the aircraft were so cold that they ripped the skin off of anyone who touched them. By January 1943, the women of the 588th were worn out. Sleepless nights, constant stress, the loss of friends and sexual harassment from male colleagues took their toll. Women in the 588th flew up to 500 night raids!

See Obituary on Nadia Popova here . The New York Times commissioned an animated short documentary on Nadia Popova. See it here .

Despite all this bravado, however, the female fighter pilots initially struggled to earn the respect of their brothers in arms. The Night Bomber Regiment was one of three female fighter pilot units created by Stalin at the urging of Marina Raskova -- an aviation celebrity who was, essentially, "the Soviet Amelia Earhart." Raskova trained her recruits as pilots and navigators, and also as members of maintenance and ground crews. She also prepared them for an environment that preferred to treat women as bombshells rather than bombers. One general, male, initially complained about being sent a 'a bunch of girlies' instead of soldiers. But the women and their flimsy little crop-dusters and their ill-fitting uniforms and their 23,000 tons of ammunition soon proved him wrong. And they did all that while decorating their planes with flowers and using their navigation pencils as lipcolor.

A ceremony on the event of the 60th anniversary of Victory and of International Women’s Day, took place at an air force officers’ club in the village of Zarya near Moscow.

“The nine brave – that’s how our colleagues called us. And the Germany called us ‘Night Witches.’ We flew on night bombing missions in plywood slow-moving U-2 (Po2) airplanes,” said a participant of the festivities, retired Lieutenant Colonel Rufina Gasheva.

Sixty years ago, Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky awarded Hero of the Soviet Union stars to nine female flyers of the 46th Night Short-Range Bombing Regiment of the 4th Air Army, including to Lieutenant Gasheva. Among those awarded also was the commander of her crew, Nadezhda Popova. 'And the title was conferred posthumously to my former commander, Ol’ga Safinrova, by the same decree. On the night of 30 April – 1 May 1943, our U-2 was shot down after returning from a mission. We bailed out and managed to get back to our side one by one. As the infantrymen reported to me, 'Olga was blown up on a mine.' Lieutenant Colonel Gasheva recalls.

By March 1945, Rufina Gasheva had completed 823 night sorties, and 848 for the whole of the war.

(Source: Roy's Russian Aircraft Resource)

Marina Raskova (1912-1943)

Marina Raskova

'If anyone can be said to be the 'mother' of the Night Witches, it is Marina Raskova. Raskova was a Major in the Red Army, and a personal confidant of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Raskova also held the distinction of being the Soviet Amelia Earhart, with vast and prominent aviation experience. Raskova originally wanted to be an opera singer, but a sense of Soviet patriotism led her to become one of the most accomplished military instructors in the nation’s history.

Women across the Soviet Union had been contacting Raskova, itching for a way to get into the fight. It was personal for many of these women as most of them had lost sons, husbands, brothers, and boyfriends. They had seen their villages and towns sacked by the invading Nazi troops, and they were no longer content to serve only in support roles. This was the backdrop when Raskova personally approached Stalin about creating all-female units under her command.

Her timing was impeccable. The Soviet Union were in the midst of fighting back Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa, the massive land invasion of the Communist nation. Casualties were high and the Red Army was stretched to a breaking point. Moscow and Leningrad were threatened. Raskova used her connections in the Soviet bureaucracy to authorize the creation of all-female combat units that would help in the efforts against the Nazis. (Courtesy )

A famous Soviet navigator who set many records during the 1930s. She and two others were the first women to be awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union medal in 1938 when they completed a dangerous Moscow to Komsomolsk-on-Amur (in the Russian Far East) flight in the 2-engined plane 'Rodina', that broke the international women's distance record.

In 1938 Raskova and two other Soviet women had set a world record for a non-stop direct flight by women when they flew a Soviet-built, twin-engine aircraft named Rodina (homeland) 6,000 kilometers across the expanse of the Soviet Union from Moscow to Komsomolsk-on-Amur in the Far East.

With the aircraft icing up over the Siberian wilderness, the women tossed everything movable out of the aircraft to try and gain altitude. Finally, Raskova, who had been the navigator, decided she would have to go as well. She marked the aircraft's compass heading on a map and bailed out into the darkness.

The two remaining pilots eventually landed safely at their destination, and a hunter rescued Raskova. The three 'Winged Sisters' returned triumphantly to Moscow.

Her influence and the military need for more human resources made it possible for her to be able to persuade Stalin to allow her to organize three regiments of women flyers.

Already a folk heroine, and a Major in the Soviet Air Force by 1941, Raskova was the logical choice to recruit, interview, and oversee the training of the women aviators, which she did magnificently.

Being a Hero of the Soviet Union, she gave great inspiration to her trainees and passed her vast aviation experience to this new generation of Soviet female flyers.

Hero of the Soviet Union

Order of Lenin (x2), Order of Patriotic War, Order of Battle Merit

Rufina Gasheva (10/14/1921 - 01/05/2012)

Passed away on May 1 in Moscow, Russia, of natural causes at 90 years old, the Heroine of the Soviet Union, Major Rufina Sergeyevna Gasheva.

Born in the village of Verhnechusovskie in the province of Perm, Gasheva was the daughter of a teacher. In 1922 his family moved to the Gorky region, but the following year, with his father's death, she went with her mother to the Urals. In 1930 her mother took her to the capital, where she later joined the Federal University of Moscow, studying mechanics and mathematics. With the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Gasheva joined the Red Air Force in October 1941, and sent for night air navigation training in Engels. Completing the training in March 1942, she was sent to the front line.

Gasheva was assigned to the 46th Aviation Regiment Night Bomber Guard, a female unit known by the Germans as "The Night Witches". Flying slow biplanes Polikarpov Po-2, Gasheva quickly showed one noticed talent for night navigation, mounting a successful partnership with pilot Captain Olga Sanfirova. The missions were often bombing of German troop concentrations, then the aviators constantly entered the reach of enemy flak.

In May 1943, while flying a mission in the Kuban region of southern USSR, her aircraft received heavy anti-aircraft fire and fell to the ground. She recalled: 'At night, it is difficult to drive in the soil, but we were rescued ... by frogs! The land was flat and there was no place to hide. The Germans had seen our fall, and began to open fire on us. Where to hide? Suddenly we heard the spring frogs croak - there was a swamp there! Our salvation! We hid there for two days. Since then, this has been a comforting sound to me: the croak of frogs.'

During Operation Bagration she bombed concentrations of German troops in Pron, Dnieper, Mogilev, Minsk and Grodno, with great success. Having participated in the liberation of the North Caucasus, Kuban, Crimea, Belarus, Poland and the battles in Germany, she reached the mark of 823 combat missions in late 1944, inflicting great damage to the enemy in the field. Thus, on February 23, 1945 the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet granted Lieutenant Senior Rufina Gasheva the Golden Star Heroine of the Soviet Union.

After the war, Gasheva graduated from the Military Institute of Foreign Languages in 1952, becoming an English teacher at Armored Military Academy. She went to the reserve in 1956 in the rank of Major. After that, she also worked as editor in chief of the Defense Ministry of the Soviet Union publications, retiring permanently in 1972.

Hero of the Soviet Union

Natalya Fyodorovna Meklin 8 September 1922 – 5 June 2005

Natalya Fyodorovna Kravtsova née Meklin (Russian: Наталья Фёдоровна Меклин) was a flight commander in the 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment. She was awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union in February 1945 for completing 840 sorties, and gained significant publicity.

Meklin was born on 8 September 1922 to a working-class Russian family in Lubny, then part of the Ukrainian SSR. Her childhood and youth were spent in Smila, Kharkov, and Kiev. In 1940 she graduated from her tenth grade of schooling in Kiev. That year, she joined the glider school at the Kiev Young Pioneer Palace and later graduated from the Moscow Aviation Institute in 1941.

In October 1941, several months after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Meklin applied to join one of the three women's aviation regiments founded by Marina Raskova, and was accepted into training. In Spring 1942, having graduated from navigation training at Engels Military Aviation School, she was sent to the Eastern Front of World War II as the chief of communications of a squadron in the 588th Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, which was later honoured with the Guards designation and renamed the 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment in 1943. During the ceremony when the regiment received the Guards flag, Meklin was the standard-bearer, assisted by Glafira Kashirina and Yekaterina Titova. Initially she flew as a navigator for Mariya Smirnova and later Irina Sebrova, but she soon retrained to become a pilot and by 18 May 1943 she made her first sortie as a pilot, which was her 381st mission. By the end of the war, she held the position of flight commander.

During the war, she flew night bombing missions in a Polikarpov Po-2 over the battles for the Caucasus, Crimea, Kuban, Kerch, Poland, and Germany spanning the Southern, North Caucasian, 4th Ukrainian and 2nd Byelorussian Fronts.

By the end of the war she had flown an estimated 980 night missions and dropped an estimated 147 tons of bombs on enemy-controlled territory. While a lieutenant, she was awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union on 23 February 1945 for her first 840 missions by decree of the Supreme Soviet; the gold star medal was presented to her in Poland on 8 March 1945 by Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky .

Natalya completed two years at Moscow State University before re-enlisting in the military in 1947. From 1948 to 1957 she studied at the Military Institute of Foreign Languages and subsequently worked as a translator before retiring. She became a member of the Union of Soviet Writers in 1972. Shortly before her death, she co-authored a book with her colleague from the regiment Irina Rakobolskaya titled We Were Called Night Witches (называли ночными ведьмами) about the regiment's experiences during the war. On 5 June 2005, she died in Moscow and was buried in Troyekurovskoye Cemetery.

Meklin in her PO-2

Order of the Red Banner, Order of Lenin, Order of the Red Star. Order of the Patriotic War

Evdokia Pasko

Klimbim writes:

Evdokia Pasko - a legendary woman-aviator from the 46th Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment ('Night Witches').
She went to the war from the 3rd year study at Moscow State University, Mechanic-Mathematic faculty. During the war years she made 800 sorties!

After the war she graduated Moscow University, became PhD in mathematics and taught for over forty years in the famous Bauman University.

The Hero of the Soviet Union Evdokia Pasko passed away on 27.01.2017.

Герой Советского Союза, штурман эскадрильи 46 гв.НЛБАП гв. старший лейтенант Евдокия Борисовна Пасько (30.12.1919 - 27.01.2017).

Colourization by Klimbim: reproduced with permission

Hero of the Soviet Union

Polina Gelman 1919-2005

Polina Gelman was born in Berdychiv, Ukraine, a Soviet Air Force officer and a navigator in the all-female Night Bomber Regiment called 'Night Witches'. She was one of two Jewish women decorated as a Hero of the Soviet Union for their service in WW II.

Born to a working-class Jewish family from the Ukrainian city of Berdychiv in 1919, Gelman joined the Soviet military in October 1941 after repeated disqualifications of her attempt to volunteer as a result of her short stature. Following a course of training in aviation, she became a navigator in 1942 with the all-female 588th "Night Witches" Night Bomber Regiment, later known as the 46th Taman Division. Gelman had completed 860 missions by the time of Nazi Germany's capitulation to the Allies and was awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union in 1946. Continuing her career as a professional military officer, she was sent for instruction as a military translator, graduating from the Military Institute of Foreign Languages in 1951.

When war broke out in 1941, she was in her 3rd year in the Faculty of History at Moscow State University.

At first, she signed up for a nursing course, gave blood and dug anti-tank ditches, but when the Komsomol Central Committee called for volunteers in the women's aviation regiment, she applied and was accepted. She was assigned to pack parachutes while her friends studied to be navigators. She persisted, however, and when the Medical Commission declared her fit for the navigation group, an intensive three-year program was squeezed into three months by fourteen-hour days of both practical and theoretical study.

One night in August 1942, the regiment received orders to bomb Pokrovskoy in the Kuban, the base for a large German contingent. On the flight back, Polina bombed three German fuel tanks near the railway station, thus destroying thousands of tons of enemy fuel an act that was not part of her mission. It was necessary to destroy the German searchlights which sighted Soviet planes for the anti-aircraft gunners at night. Polina successfully knocked out their lights. As a result of her bombs, enemy bridges flew in the air, anti-aircraft guns were silenced, searchlights were extinguished and German vehicles on their way to the front burned. Navigator with the 46th Guards Night Bombing Aviation Regiment, with her flight log recording 869 combat flights, 1300 hours in the air, 113 tons of bombs released and 142 conflagrations caused.

Gelman settled in Moscow following her retirement from active service as a major in 1957. She worked at the Institute of Social Sciences and taught political economy as a college instructor until retiring in 1990. Gelman attained the rank of lieutenant colonel in the reserves. A member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union since 1942, she was also sent as an advisor and translator to Cuba.

Gelman's memoirs of her years as a pilot were published in Moscow in 1982. In 1948 a book written in Yiddish by Rachel Kovnator, Polina Gelman, a Hero of the Soviet Union, was published in Moscow by Der Emes Publishing House.

She died on 25 November 2005 in Moscow, where she was buried near her mother's grave at Novodevichy Cemetery.

A site (in Russian) honouring Polina Gelman is here.

Hero of the Soviet Union

Maria Dolina (18 December 1922 – 3 March 2010)

Mariya Ivanovna Dolina (Ukrainian: Марія Іванівна Доліна, Russian: Мария Ивановна Долина) was a Pe-2 pilot and deputy squadron commander in the women's 125th 'Marina M. Raskova' Borisov Guards Bomber Regiment. She was active primarily on the 1st Baltic Front during World War II. On 18 August 1945 she was awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union.

Russian pilot and acting squadron commander of the 125th Marina M. Raskova Borisov Guards dive bomber regiment, seen here in front of a Petlyakov Pе-2 light bomber (1944, colorized by Klimbim).

Born in the village of Sharovka, (present-day Poltavsky District, Omsk Oblast in Siberia,Dolina was the eldest daughter of Ukrainian peasants. She had nine siblings.

In 1934, after Mariya's father lost his leg in the Russian Civil War, the family moved back to Ukraine again. Because of her father's condition, Dolina had to provide for the whole family, consequently she left school and went to work in a factory. Despite her mother's opposition, Mariya trained at a flying club of the paramilitary Osoaviakhim and, in 1940, graduated from the Kherson Flying School, after which she entered the Engels Military Flying School. Before the German invasion of 22 June 1941, she worked as an instructor in flying clubs in Dnipropetrovsk and Mykolaiv.

In July 1941, she started her military service. She initially flew the Polikarpov Po-2, liaising with infantry units. Later she became a crew member of a Petlyakov Pe-2 twin-engine, medium-range bomber, in the 587th Dive Bomber Regiment.

Dolina, who admitted to being restless, nevertheless became a deputy squadron commander in her unit, which was later re-designated as the 125th 'M.M. Raskova' Borisov Guards Dive Bomber Regiment.

On 2 June 1943, Dolina's aircraft was hit by enemy anti-aircraft artillery over Kuban prior to reaching her target, disabling an engine and causing a fire. Dolina's fighter escort had disappeared while pursuing enemy fighters, yet she continued flying and made the scheduled bomb-drop. On the way back, with no fighter escort, her flight was attacked by six German fighters (two Fw 190s and four Bf 109s). Dolina's tail gunner shot down one Fw 190 and one Bf 109. Altogether, Mariya flew seventy-two missions bombing enemy ammunition depots, strongholds, tanks, artillery batteries, rail and water transports, and supporting Soviet ground troops.

After the war, Dolina continued to serve in the Soviet Air Force as deputy squadron commander of a bomber aviation regiment. She lived in the city of Šiauliai (now Lithuania) and then in Riga (now Latvia) where she worked in the Latvian Communist Party Central Committee until 1975. She was married twice, both times to former Soviet Air Forces mechanics. After her first husband died in 1972, she married another from her former regiment. On the 50th Anniversary of the end of World War II, Dolina was promoted to the rank of major by Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. Many other secondary schools and pioneer detachments were named after her.

Dolina lived in Kiev from 1983 until her death on 3 March 2010 at the age of 87.

Hero of the Soviet Union

Captain Maria Smirnova 31 March 1920 – 10 July 2002

Mariya Vasilyevna Smirnova (Russian: Мария Васильевна Смирнова) was a squadron commander in the 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment - Night Witches. For her actions during the war, she was made a Hero of the Soviet Union on 26 October 1944.

Smirnova was born on 31 March 1920 to a Karelian peasant family in Vorobyovo village. After attending a school in her village until the age of thirteen she moved to the city of Kalinin (Tver), where she studied at the Likhoslavl Pedagogical School for three years, graduating in 1936 before she briefly worked as a schoolteacher in Playuzhye. She then moved to Kalinin, where she trained at the local aeroclub in addition to teaching kindergarten. Soon after graduating from flight training in 1939 as the only female cadet in her class, she stopped working as a schoolteacher in March 1940 to become a full-time flight instructor at the aeroclub.

Several months after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Smirnova volunteered to join the women's aviation group founded by Marina Raskova. After completing initial training at Engels Military Aviation School in February 1942 she was assigned to the 588th Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, with which she was deployed to the war front in May 1942 as a deputy squadron commander; the unit was renamed in February 1943 as the 46th Guards Night Bomber Regiment. Later she was promoted to the position of squadron commander in August 1943, a position she took very seriously. There, she quickly developed a reputation for maintaining strict discipline among her subordinates. On 22 September 1943 she became the first member of the regiment to total 500 sorties; earlier that month she was nominated for the title Hero of the Soviet Union for having completed 441 sorties, but the nomination was rejected and she was eventually awarded the Order of Alexander Nevsky instead, making her and her comrade Yevdokiya Nikulina (a fellow squadron commander who also received the award on the same date) the first women awarded it. Less than a year later in August 1944, she was nominated for the title again for totalling 805 sorties, resulting in the awarding of the title on 26 October 1944. By the end of the war, she totalled 935 sorties on the Po-2, dropping 118 tons of bombs on enemy targets.

Hero of the Soviet Union

Order of Lenin, Order of the Red Banner (x3), Order of Alexander Nevsky, Order of the Patriotic War, Order of the Red Star

Nina Ulyanenko

Commander of the 46th Guards Night Bomber Regiment of the 325th Night Bomber Division of the 4th Air Army of the 2nd Belorussian Front, Guard lieutenant. Hero of the Soviet Union. In the frontline of WW2 since May 1942. Crew navigator, unit navigator, later - a pilot, commander of 46 Taman Guards Night Bomber Regimen

During WW2 she made 915 sorties to bomb manpower and equipment of the enemy.

Nina Ulyanenko 120 tons of bombs on the enemy, caused 135 fires, destroyed four planes.

Glafira 'Irina' Kashirina 1920 – 1 August 1943

Glafira Alekseevna Kashirina (Russian: Глафира Алексеевна Каширина) was a mechanic and later navigator in the 588th Night Bomber Regiment of the Soviet Airforce during World War II, commonly referred to as the Great Patriotic War in the former Soviet Union. After she was shot down on 1 August 1943 she was posthumously awarded the Order of the Patriotic War 2nd class.

Born in the village of Sergievka before moving to the village of Semenetskoe where she lived until she moved with her mother to Perovo on the outskirts of Moscow. Having dreamed of becoming a pilot from a young age she joined the Moscow Aeroclub where she graduated flight courses before the German invasion of the Soviet Union.

After Germany invaded the Soviet Union Kashirina voluntarily joined the Soviet Air Force to serve in a women's aviation regiment founded by Marina Raskova. After graduating from Engels Military Aviation School she was deployed to the Southern Front in late May 1942 in the 588th Night Bomber Regiment as an aircraft mechanic, but she was eventually assigned to fly in squadron number one under the command of Serafima Amosova after passing navigation courses.

In August 1942 the regiment received orders to immediately relocate to a new airfield due to a German approach. A plane that she and a senior mechanic Sofiya Ozerkova were repairing was not airworthy due to serious issues with the engine, leaving them no choice but to burn the grounded airplane, forcing the both of them to walk on foot for three weeks until they arrived at a Soviet stronghold in Mozdok. During the three-week hike Kashirina had contracted typhus and was taken to a field hospital by Ozerkova after they arrived.

After recovering from typhus she completed her navigator's training to begin flying combat sorties. Yevdokiya Nosal offered to fly with her as pilot on her first night of bombing missions because as a more experienced pilot she would often fly with new crew members on their first night of bombing sorties. After several successful sorties that night the Po-2 piloted by Nosal was chased by a German fighter over Novorossiysk and attacked; a piece of shrapnel from a shell hit Nosal in the forehead, killing her instantly and causing her to slump over the controls when the plane went into a sharp dive. With partial loss of control due to damage inflicted on the plane by the attack, Kashirina managed to take control of the plane and land it by herself at the airfield where Nosal was immediately pronounced dead. For landing the plane with her pilot dead and damage to the controls Kashirina was awarded the Order of the Red Banner and Nosal was posthumously awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union, becoming the first member of the regiment awarded the title and the first woman pilot awarded the title during the war.

When the 588th Night Bomber Regiment was awarded the Guards designation in 1943, Kashirina was one of the three service members to carry the Guards flag at the ceremony; Natalya Meklin was designated as the primary flag bearer with Yekaterina Titova and Kashirina as assistants.

Before her death she participated in bombing missions as navigator over Mius, Seversky Donets, and Don rivers and on the outskirts of Stavropol. On the night between 31 July and 1 August 1943, Kashirina's plane piloted by Valentina Polunina was one of the four Po-2s of the regiment shot down by Luftwaffe pilot Josef Kociok over the Kuban Bridgehead on the Taman Peninsula. All eight members of the regiment that were killed that night were buried in the mass grave of Russkoe village and posthumously awarded the Order of the Patriotic War 2nd Class.

Order of Red Banner, Order of Patriotic War

Soviet Fighter pilot Lt. Antonina Lebedeva (1916-1943)

Before the war, she studied at the Moscow State University and had been an instructor of one of the capital’s flying clubs. Her military career began in the women’s 586th Fighter Regiment, protecting the sky of Saratov. Later she was transfered to the 65th Guards Fighter Regiment.

On January 10, 1943 in an air battle, Lebedev was alone against two enemy fighters. She bravely went into battle with them and destroyed one Bf-109. Her aircraft suffered serious damage but she was able to make a safe, forced landing. During the Orel-Kursk operation, on July 17, 1943 in an unequal battle of four Yak-9 against numerous enemy aircraft, she was shot down and her fate remained unknown.

In 1982 near the village of Betovo, Oryol Region, a plane was excavated, that had crashed in the summer of 1943. The remains of the pilot, a parachute, a pistol, a knife and documents were found. Among the documents were the flight and medical books, where clearly was written the name of the holder: Antonina Lebedeva. In the remains were also found a headset with fragments of a skull and two girlish pigtails.

Medal for Courage

Tanya Makarova

Pilot Tanya Makarova and Navigator Vera Belik

Tanya Makarova in cockpit

Tanya Makarova at Voronezh Front, 1943
Umbrella providing shade whilst awaiting her flight.

Marina Chechneva 15 August 1922 – 12 January 1984

Marina Chechneva Night Witches

Marina Pavlovna Chechneva (Russian: Марина Павловна Чечнева) was a Soviet Polikarpov Po-2 pilot and squadron commander in the 46th Guards Night Bomber Regiment - Night Witches - in World War II. She received the title of the Hero of the Soviet Union on 15 August 1946, after having completed 810 sorties during the war. She is the author of five books about her experiences during the war.

Chechneva was born to a working family on 15 August 1922 in the village of Protasovo in the Maloarkhangelsk District of the Orel Region and spent her first five years in that area of northern Russia. In 1934 her family moved to Moscow. At the age of sixteen, Chechneva enrolled in an Osoaviakhim flying club, where she learned sport flying. She aspired to become a professional pilot, which was encouraged by her father, forbidden by her mother, and supported by Valeria Khomyakova, one of the club's flight instructor pilots who later became a famous fighter pilot. She became an instructor pilot at the Central Flying Club in Moscow between 1939 and 1941. She joined the Communist Party in 1942.

When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the club evacuated to Stalingrad. In October 1941 Chechneva was permitted to join the new women's aviation group formed by Marina Raskova. After undergoing further training at Engels military aviation school she was delegated to the 588th Night Bomber Regiment as a Po-2 pilot. The unit later received the Guards designation and was renamed the 46th Guards Night Bomber Regiment. In 1942 Chechneva was promoted to flight commander and fought hard in the battle for the Caucusus, for which she was awarded an Order of the Red Banner on 27 September 1942. In late summer 1943, she was promoted to squadron commander and continued carrying out bombing missions as well as training other soldiers. After participating in campaigns for the Crimean peninsula, Belarus, and East Prussia, she was awarded a second Order of the Red Banner. Towards the end of the war, she fought over Poland and was in the city of Świnoujście when victory over the Axis was announced; Chechneva briefly remained in Poland after the regiment was disbanded. During the war. she made 810 bombing sorties over a span of more than 1000 flight hours, dropped 150 tons of materials, destroyed six warehouses, five river crossings, four anti-aircraft artillery batteries, four searchlights and a train, and trained 40 navigators and pilots for the war.

She died in Moscow on 21 January 1984 and was buried in the Kuntsevo Cemetery. Her obituary was published in the Soviet military newspaper Red Star. There are streets bearing her name in Orel and Kacha.

Hero of the Soviet Union

Tamara Ustinovna Pamyatnykh 30 December 1919 – 26 July 2012

Tamara Pamyatnkh Night Witches

Tamara Ustinovna Pamyatnykh (Russian: Тамара Устиновна Памятных) was a fighter pilot for the Soviet Air Forces during the Second World War. Following an action while on patrol on 19 March 1943, she was awarded the Order of the Red Banner. Pamyatnykh began flying gliders at 16, and soon qualified for a private pilot's license and instructor's certificate at the flight school in Ulyanovsk. When the Second World War began, she signed up for the Soviet forces. When Marina Raskova was asked to recruit female pilots in 1941, Pamyatnykh was sufficiently well known as a pilot that she was specifically approached.

She underwent further flight training in Engels, Saratov Oblast in October 1941, and was subsequently assigned to the 586th Fighter Squadron alongside other female aces such as Lydia Litvyak, and worked as a duo with Galina Burdina. As a junior lieutenant, Pamyatnykh was on patrol with Raisa Surnachevskaya over a railway junction on 19 March 1943. Faced with an attack by 42 Junkers bombers, the two pilots attacked with the sun behind them. Each shot down two bombers, with Pamyatnykh continuing to fight until she ran out of ammunition. She decided to take out a third bomber by ramming it, but as she got close, one of her wings was shot off and she spun out of control. She bailed out and parachuted to the ground. The nearby locals were shocked when they rushed to help and discovered that she was a woman. She was taken back to base, where Pamyatnykh learnt that the German attack had been prevented as the rest of the force had turned back. For her heroism, Pamyatnykh was awarded the Order of the Red Banner and given a gold watch by King George VI of the United Kingdom.

During another mission she was downed by friendly fire. In 1944, she married Nikolai Chasnyk, a Hero of the Soviet Union and deputy squadron commander in the 148th Guards Fighter Aviation Regiment. They both survived the war, although he spent some time in a Nazi concentration camp. Following the end of the war, they had three children. Pamyatnykh later went on to become the chairman of the women's war veterans' commission.

Order of Red Banner, Order of Patriotic War

Galina Burdina 24 March 1919 - 25 November 2006

Galina Burdina

Galina Burdina grew up in a large family; her father had died during the Russian Civil War. She began working as a labourer at the age of 14 while continuing her education at night. When she was 17, she started to learn how to fly gliders and went on to study at the civil aviation pilot school in Ulyanovsk. She then began to work as a pilot instructor in Sverdlovsk. In September 1941, her school was converted to a military pilots school and Burdina continued to train the military pilots.

Along with the other two female instructors from the school, she volunteered for the military. With 24 hours' notice, she was ordered to Moscow. Burdina was posted to a base in Engels, Saratov Oblast. Upon arrival, she was informed by Marina Raskova that she was to train to become a fighter pilot. When Burdina was posted to the front following training, it was alongside Tamara Pamyatnykh as night fighters in the 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment in support of bombers and acting as scouts. Burdina also flew bombing and strafing missions, including against Romanian targets. Because of her curly blonde hair, she was later recognized by a Romanian pilot after the Soviet occupation of Romania, as Burdina had flown so close to the ground that her features were remembered. By April 1944 she accumulated 152 combat sorties, and by the end of the conflict her tally stood at two solo and one shared shootdowns, consisting of the shared kill of a Ju 52 plus her solo victories of a Bf 109 and a Ju 88.

Following the war she flew for Aeroflot for 15 years before becoming an air traffic controller. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, she lived in Riga, Latvia as a stateless person until her death in 2006 aged 87.

Order of Red Banner, Order of Red Star

Serafima Tarasovna Amosova 20 August 1914 – 17 December 1992

Serafima Tarasovna Amosova (Russian: Серафима Тарасовна Амосова) was the deputy commander of flight operations in the 46th Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment.

Born in central Siberia on 20 August 1914 to a working-class family; her father worked at the local Chernorechenskaya railway depot. With dreams of becoming a pilot, she entered the OSOAVIAHIM but crashed her glider on the day she was due to graduate flight training. After recovering from her injuries she attended the Tambov Aviation School. In 1936 she graduated with honors and received her pilot's license, after she worked for Aeroflot as a pilot a Moscow - Irkutsk route, delivering mail in a Petlyakov Pe-5. After escalation of the Second World War across Europe, in January 1941 she was appointed squadron commander to train military-aged men at Yanaul Airport, Bashkortostan.

Just a few days after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 Amosova and several other female instructors sent a letter requesting to be sent to the warfront. While male students were deployed to the warfront the female flight instructors were told to remain in Bashkortostan to train new cadets. After further persistence they were referred to Marina Raskova, the founder of three women's aviation regiments. After receiving that letter she immediately flew to Moscow to meet with Raskova, who accepted her into the regiment. After graduating from Engels Military Aviation School in May 1942 with the rank of lieutenant she was deployed to the Southern Front as a squadron commander in the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, later renamed as the 46th Guards Night Bomber Regiment in 1943. Due to being one of the most experienced pilots of the regiment she was soon promoted to deputy commander of flight operations. During the regiment's first sortie she flew as pilot with navigator Larisa Litvinova who later became a Hero of the Soviet Union, carefully following the plane of regimental commander Yevdokiya Bershanskaya and navigator Sofiya Burzaeva.

On one mission when Amosova was flying as pilot to bomb an Axis headquarters, she delayed dropping her bombs because of the lack of anti-aircraft fire when she flew over the target, having expected anti-aircraft fire from such an important target. Suspecting they were over the wrong location she flew back to an aerial checkpoint and made another approach but was again met by a lack of anti-aircraft fire. Shocked that such an important target for bombing would not be protected by antiaircraft artillery, she returned to the checkpoint again and made a third approach, after which they released the bombs and waiting to see if there would be any counterattacks. Only after dropping the bombs did the Axis launch anti-aircraft fire, likely because they did not want to indicate the position of the target.

She made a total of 555 sorties in the war, having participated in night bombing campaigns in the North Caucasus, Stavropol, Kuban, Novorossiysk, Crimea, Kuban, Kerch, Belarus and Poland as well as airdropping supplies for amphibious landings and conducting daylight flights in search of areas to use as airfields.

Not long after the end of the war, she married fellow airforce pilot Ivan Taranenko and took his surname. For a while they lived in Ashkabad, which was devastated by an earthquake in 1948 and resulted in the death of their daughter. Together the couple raised three sons, and all of them grew up to work in aviation or serve in the military. She worked as a magazine editor and spoke to youth about patriotism. She died in Moscow on 17 December 1992.

Order of the Red Banner (x2), Order of Alexander Nevsky, Order of the Patriotic War (x2), Order of the Red Star

Larisa Nikolayevna Rozanova 6 December 1918 – 5 October 1997

Larisa Nikolayevna Rozanova (Russian: Лариса Николаевна Розанова; Litvinova after marriage) was a pilot and later the senior navigator of the 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, the 'Night Witches' during World War II. For successfully completing 793 sorties she was declared a Hero of the Soviet Union on 23 February 1948.

Rozanova was born on 6 December 1918 in the city of Kiev, Ukrainian People's Republic to a Ukrainian family. Her father was employed at an aircraft plant; she would often visit the facility and observe the aircraft. After graduating from high school, she worked at a shoe factory before entering flight school at the Kiev aeroclub. She went on to graduate from the Kherson Aviation School to become a flight instructor; she went on to teach cadets in Feodosia and the Kirov flight club in Moscow.

Not long after the start of World War II, Rozanova attempted to enlist in the military, but her request was denied. On 1 August 1941, the aviation school in Moscow where she worked was evacuated and relocated to Ryazan Oblast. Again she requested to join the military and fight on the front lines, which was again denied. In October, she and several friends who had also tried to enlist were summoned to the Osoaviahim council in Moscow, where they were informed of an all-female aviation regiment founded by Marina Raskova. The women who were admitted to the three regiments were trained at Engels.

Upon arriving at Engels, she was assigned into the navigators group; she repeatedly appealed to be a pilot, not a navigator, but as her aviation background included some navigation training and given the lack of certified female navigators, Raskova wanted her to serve as a navigator. After having a conversation with Raskova, Rozanova eventually changed her mind and withdrew her appeals. Before the war, navigation training took over a year but due to the state of the war at the time, it only lasted six months. She graduated from Engels in 1942 and was appointed a squadron navigator in the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, which was renamed in October 1943 to the 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment.

On 27 May 1942, she was deployed to the Eastern front. During the regiment's first sortie she navigated for Serafima Amosova, following the plane with Yevdokia Bershanskaya and Sofya Burzayeva. In December she was allowed to become a pilot and promoted to the rank of flight commander; in April 1943 she was assigned to ferry aircraft from the frontline to repair stations in Armavir, where she met her future husband Ilya Litvinov.

Throughout March to September 1943, she participated in the operation to breach the Kuban bridgehead in the Taman Peninsula. In November 1943, after success in the Taman offensive, the regiment moved to the Kerch Peninsula and she participated in the Crimean and Sevastopol offensives. On 24 December 1943, a shell fragment hit the plane Rozanova was in, piloted by Maria Olkhovskaya. Despite losing altitude quickly, they managed to land safely. After the death of Senior Lieutenant Yevgeniya Rudneva in the battle of Crimea in April 1944, Rozanova became the senior navigator of the regiment. She made a total of 793 sorties, having participated in bombing campaigns in the North Caucasus, Stavropol, Kuban, Novorossiysk, Crimea, Kuban, Kerch, Belorussia, Poland, and Germany.

Rozanova was nominated for the title of Hero of the Soviet Union in 1945, but was initially awarded Order of Lenin instead in 1946. The nomination was reevaluated in 1948, and on 23 February 1948 she was officially declared a Hero of the Soviet Union. After the war she and her husband Ilya Litvinov lived in Moscow and had a son named Sergey. She worked as a senior engineer at the All-Russian Institute of Power Sources until she retired in 1979. On 5 October 1997 she passed away at the age of 79 and was buried in the Nikolo-Arkhangelsk cemetery.

Hero of the Soviet Union

Order of Lenin (x2), Order of the Red Banner (x2), Order of Patriotic War (x2), Order of Red Star

Yevdokiya Davidovna Bershanskaya 6 February 1913 - 16 September 1982

Yevdokiya Davidovna Bershanskaya (Russian: Евдокия Давыдовна Бершанская) was the regimental commander of the 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment during World War II and became the only woman ever awarded the Order of Suvorov. Under her command twenty-three aviators in the regiment became Heroes of the Soviet Union for their successful bombing missions against the Axis.

Bershanskaya was born on 6 February 1913 in Dobrovolnoye, in what was then the Russian Empire. After both of her parents died in the Russian Civil War she was raised by her uncle. After graduating from secondary school in Blagodarny she enrolled in the Bataysk School of Pilots in 1931, where after graduating she trained other pilots from 1932 to 1939, before she was appointed as commander of the 218th Special Operations Aviation Squadron and became a deputy of the Krasnodar City Council. Before the German invasion of the Soviet Union she married Petr Bershansky with whom she had a son, but their marriage quickly fell apart. She continued using the surname Bershanskaya until she married her second husband, Konstantin Bocharov, after the end of the war.

In 1941, Marina Raskova gained Stalin's approval to form three women's aviation regiments: the 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment, the 587th Bomber Aviation Regiment and the 588th Night Bomber Regiment. As a pilot with ten years of experience, Bershanskaya was chosen to lead the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, which flew Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes. In 1943, the regiment received the Guards designations and was reorganized as the 46th Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment. Later she was awarded the Order of the Red Banner. The women pilots were so fierce and accurate that the German soldiers began calling them Night Witches.They were called this because often during missions they would bring the engines of their planes down to idle speed and glide over their targets before dropping their bombs and bringing the engine back to full power. From its formation until its disbandment in October 1945, the regiment remained totally female. Collectively, they flew over 23,000 sorties, and dropped over 3,000 tons of bombs on enemy forces.

In addition to twenty-three members of the regiment receiving the title Hero of the Soviet Union, two were eventually declared Heroes of Russia, and one was awarded the title Hero of Kazakhstan.

After the war, Yevdokia married Konstantin Bocharov, the commander of the 889th Light Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, which had worked closely with the 46th Guards Night Bomber Regiment during the war where they had met. The wedding was attended by many members of their regiments. Together they had three daughters. In 1975, she was awarded the title of Honorary Citizen of Krasnodar. She lived in Moscow where she died of a heart attack in 1982 and was buried at Novodevichy Cemetery.

Order of Suvarov

Order of the Red Banner, Order of Alexander Nevsky, Order of Patriotic War, Order of Badge of Honour

Lilya Litvyak 18 August 1921 – 1 August 1943

Lydia Vladimirovna Litvyak (Russian: Лидия Владимировна Литвяк), also known as Lilya, was a fighter pilot in the Soviet Air Force during World War II. Historians estimate for her total victories range from five to twelve solo victories and two to four shared kills in her 66 combat sorties. In about two years of operations, she was the first female fighter pilot to shoot down an enemy aircraft, the first of two female fighter pilots who have earned the title of fighter ace and the holder of the record for the greatest number of kills by a female fighter pilot. She was shot down near Orel during the Battle of Kursk as she attacked a formation of German aircraft.

Lydia Litvyak was born in Moscow into a Russian family. Her mother Anna Vasilievna Litvyak was a shop assistant; her father Vladimir Leontievich Litvyak (1892–1937) worked as a railwayman, train driver and clerk. During the Great Purge, Vladimir Litvyak was arrested as an 'enemy of the people' and disappeared. Lydia became interested in aviation at an early age. At 14, she enrolled in a flying club. She performed her first solo flight at 15, and later graduated from the Kherson military flying school. She became a flight instructor at Kalinin Airclub, and by the time the German–Soviet war broke out, had already trained 45 pilots.

After the German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, Litvyak tried to join a military aviation unit, but was turned down because of lack of experience. After deliberately exaggerating her pre-war flight time by 100 hours, she joined the all-female 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment of the Air Defense Force, which was formed by Marina Raskova. She trained there on the Yakovlev Yak-1 aircraft.

Litvyak flew her first combat flights in the summer of 1942 over Saratov. In September, she was assigned to the 437 Fighter Regiment, a men's regiment fighting over Stalingrad. On 10 September she moved along with Yekaterina Budanova, Mariya Kuznetsova and Raisa Belyaeva, the commander of the group, and accompanying female ground crew, to the regiment airfield, at Verkhnaia Akhtuba, on the east bank of the Volga river. But when they arrived the base was empty and under attack, so they soon moved to Srednaia Akhtuba. Here, flying a Yak-1 carrying the number 32 on the fuselage, she achieved considerable success. Boris Yeremin (later lieutenant general of aviation), a regimental commander in the division to which she and Budanova were assigned, saw her as 'a very aggressive person' and 'a born fighter pilot'.

In the 437th Fighter Regiment, Litvyak scored her first two kills on 13 September, three days after her arrival and on her third mission to cover Stalingrad, becoming the first woman fighter pilot to shoot down an enemy aircraft. That day, four Yak-1s with Major S. Danilov in the lead attacked a formation of Junkers Ju 88s escorted by Messerschmitt Bf 109s. Her first kill was a Ju 88 which fell in flames from the sky after several bursts. Then she shot down a Bf 109 G-2 Gustav on the tail of her squadron commander, Raisa Belyaeva. The Bf 109 was piloted by a decorated pilot from the 4th Air Fleet, the 11-victory ace Staff Sergeant Erwin Meier of the 2nd Staffel of Jagdgeschwader 53. Meier parachuted from his aircraft, was captured by Soviet troops, and asked to see the Russian ace who had shot him down. When he was taken to Litvyak, he thought he was being made the butt of a Soviet joke. It was not until Litvyak described each move of the fight to him in perfect detail that he knew he had been shot down by a woman pilot. But according to other authors, the first air victory by a female pilot was achieved by Lieutenant Valeriya Khomyakova of the 586th Regiment when she shot down the Ju 88 flown by Oblt. Gerhard Maak of 7./KG76 on the night of 24 September 1942.

On 14 September, according to some authors, Litvyak shot down another Bf 109. Her victim was probably Knight's Cross holder and 71-kill experte Lt. Hans Fuss (Adj.II./JG-3), injured in aerial combat with a Yak-1 on 14 September 1942 in Stalingrad area, when his G-2 fuel tank was hit, his plane somersaulted during the landing when he ran out of fuel flying back to base. He was critically injured, lost one leg and died of his wounds 10 November 1942. On 27 September, Litvyak scored an air victory against a Ju 88, the gunner having shot up the regiment commander, Major M.S. Khovostnikov. Possibly Ju 88A-4 '5K + LH' of Iron Cross holder Oblt. Johann Wiesniewski, 2./KG 3, MIA with all crew members. Some historians credit it as her first kill.

Litvyak, Belyaeva, Budanova and Kuznetsova stayed in the 437th Regiment for a short time only, mainly because it was equipped with LaGG 3s rather than Yak-1s, that the women flew, and was lacking the facilities to service the latter. So the four women were moved to the 9th Guards Fighter Regiment. From October 1942 till January 1943, Litvyak and Budanova served, still in the Stalingrad area, with this famous unit, commanded by Lev Shestakov, Hero of Soviet Union.

In January 1943, the 9th was re-equipped with the Bell P-39 Airacobras and Litvyak and Budanova were moved to the 296th Fighter Regiment (later redesignated as the 73rd Guards Fighter Aviation Regiment) of Nikolai Baranov, of the 8th Air Army, so that they could still fly the Yaks. On February 23, she was awarded the Order of the Red Star, made a junior lieutenant and selected to take part in the elite air tactic called okhotniki, or 'free hunter', where pairs of experienced pilots searched for targets on their own initiative. Twice, she was forced to land due to battle damage. On 22 March she was wounded for the first time. That day she was flying as part of a group of six Yak fighters when they attacked a dozen Ju 88s. Litvyak shot down one of the bombers but was in turn attacked and wounded by the escorting Bf 109s. She managed to shoot down a Messerschmitt and to return to her airfield and land her plane, but was in severe pain and losing blood. While in 73rd Regiment, she often flew as wingman of Captain Aleksey Solomatin, a flying ace with a claimed total of 39 victories (22 shared). On May 21, while training a new flyer, Solomatin was killed in front of the entire regiment in Pavlonka when he flew into the ground. Litvyak was devastated by the crash and wrote a letter to her mother describing how she realized only after Solomatin's death that she had loved him.

Senior Sergeant Inna Pasportnikova, Litvyak's mechanic during the time she flew with the men's regiment, reported in 1990 that after Solomatin's death, Litvyak wanted nothing but to fly combat missions, and she fought desperately.

Litvyak scored against a difficult target on 31 May 1943: an artillery observation balloon manned by a German officer. German artillery was aided in targeting by reports from the observation post on the balloon. The elimination of the balloon had been attempted by other Soviet airmen but all had been driven away by a dense protective belt of anti-aircraft fire defending the balloon. Litvyak volunteered to take out the balloon but was turned down. She insisted and described for her commander her plan: she would attack it from the rear after flying in a wide circle around the perimeter of the battleground and over German-held territory. The tactic worked—the hydrogen-filled balloon caught fire under her stream of tracer bullets and was destroyed.

On 13 June 1943, Litvyak was appointed flight commander of the 3rd Aviation Squadron within 73rd Guards Fighter Aviation Regiment.

Litvyak made an additional kill on 16 July 1943. That day, six Yaks encountered 30 German Ju 88 bombers with six escorts. The female ace downed a bomber and shared a victory with a comrade, but her fighter was hit and she had to make a belly landing. She was wounded again but refused to take medical leave. She shot down one Bf 109 on 19 July 1943, probably 6-kill ace Uffz. Helmuth Schirra, 4./JG-3 (MIA, Luhansk area). Another Bf 109 kill followed two days later on 21 July 1943, possibly Bf 109G-6 of Iron Cross holder and 28-kill experte Lt. Hermann Schuster 4./JG-3(KIA, near Pervomaysk, Luhansk area).

Litvyak took off for her last mission from an airfield close to Krasnyy Luch, where a museum dedicated to her is located. On August 1, 1943, Litvyak did not come back to her base at Krasnyy Luch. It was her fourth sortie of the day, escorting a flight of Ilyushin Il-2 ground-attack aircraft. As the Soviets were returning to base near Orel, a pair of Bf 109 fighters dove on Litvyak while she was attacking a large group of German bombers. Soviet pilot Ivan Borisenko recalled: 'Lily just didn’t see the Messerschmitt 109s flying cover for the German bombers. A pair of them dove on her and when she did see them she turned to meet them. Then they all disappeared behind a cloud.' Borisenko, involved in the dogfight, saw her the last time, through a gap in the clouds, her Yak-1 pouring smoke and pursued by as many as eight Bf 109s.

Borisenko descended to see if he could find her. No parachute was seen, and no explosion, yet she never returned from the mission. Litvyak was 21 years old. Soviet authorities suspected that she might have been captured, a possibility that prevented them from awarding her the title of Hero of the Soviet Union.

Two German pilots are believed to have shot down Litvyak: Iron Cross holder and 30-kill experte Fw. Hans-Jörg Merkle of 1./JG.52, or Knight's Cross holder and future 99-kill experte Lt Hans Schleef of 7./JG 3. Merkle is the only pilot that claimed a Yak-1 near Dmitryevka on 1 August 1943, his 30th victory. (Dmitrijewka is where she was last seen and was – reportedly – buried.) This occurred before being rammed and killed by his own victim (Luftwaffe combat report of collision: 3 km east of Dmitrievka). Schleef claimed a LaGG-3 (often confused in combat with Yak-1s by German pilots) kill on the same day, in the South-Ukraine area where Litvyak's aircraft was at last found.

In an attempt to prove that Litvyak had not been taken captive, a 36-year search was made for the Yakovlev Yak-1 crash site assisted by the public and the media. After uncovering more than 90 other crash sites, 30 aircraft and many lost pilots killed in action, the searchers discovered that an unidentified woman pilot had been buried in the village of Dmitrievka... in Shakhterski district. It was then assumed that it was Litvyak and that she had been killed in action after sustaining a mortal head wound.

On 6 May 1990, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev posthumously awarded her the title Hero of the Soviet Union.[39] Her final rank was senior lieutenant, as was documented in all Moscow newspapers of that date.

Arguments have been published that dispute the official version of Litvyak's death. Although Yekaterina Valentina Vaschenko, the curator of the Litvyak museum in Krasnyi Luch has stated that the body was disinterred and examined by forensic specialists, who determined that it was indeed Litvyak, Kazimiera Janina Cottam claims, on the basis of evidence provided by Yekaterina Polunina, chief mechanic and archivist of the 586th Fighter Regiment in which Litvyak initially served, that the body was never exhumed and that verification was limited to comparison of a number of reports.

Cottam, an author and researcher focusing on Soviet women in the military, concludes that Litvyak made a belly-landing in her stricken aircraft, was captured and was taken to a prisoner of war camp. In her book published in 2004, Polunina lists evidence that led her to conclude that Litvyak was pulled from the downed aircraft by German troops and held prisoner for some time.

Gian Piero Milanetti, the author of a recent book on Soviet aviatrixes, wrote that an airwoman parachuted in the approximate location of the alleged crash landing of Litvyak's aircraft. No other Soviet airwomen operated in that area and so Milanetti believes the pilot was Litvyak, probably captured by the enemy. The Russian aviation historian Anatoly Plyac, a former KGB major, told Milanetti that Litvyak survived and was taken prisoner.

A television broadcast from Switzerland was seen in 2000 by Raspopova, a veteran of the women's night bomber regiment. It featured a former Soviet woman fighter pilot who Raspopova thought may have been Litvyak. This veteran was wounded twice. Married outside of the Soviet Union, she had three children. Raspopova promptly told Polunina what she inferred from the Swiss broadcast.

There is no consensus among historians about the number of aerial victories scored by Litvyak. Russian historians Andrey Simonov and Svetlana Chudinova were able to confirm five solo and three team shootdowns of enemy aircraft plus the destruction of the air ballon with archival documents. Various other tallies are attributed to her, including eleven solo and three shared plus the balloon, as well as eight individual and four team. Anne Noggle credits her with twelve individual and two team shootdowns. Pasportnikova stated in 1990 that the tally was eleven solo kills plus the balloon, and an additional three shared. Polunina has written that the kills of famous Soviet pilots, including those of Litvyak and Budanova, were often inflated; and that Litvyak should be credited with five solo aircraft kills and two group kills, including the observation balloon.

She never believed that she was invincible. She believed that some pilots had luck on their side and others didn't. She firmly believed that, if you survived the first missions, the more you flew and the more experience you got your chances of making it would increase. But you had to have luck on your side.

Despite the predominantly male environment in which she found herself, she never renounced her femininity, and she carried on bleaching her hair blonde, sending her friend Inna Pasportnikova to the hospital to fetch hydrogen peroxide for her. She would fashion scarves from parachute material, dyeing the small pieces in different colors and stitching them together and would not hide her love of flowers, which she picked at every available occasion, favoring red roses. She would make bouquets and keep them in the cockpit, which were promptly discarded by the male pilots who shared her aircraft.

Litvyak was called the 'White Lily of Stalingrad' in Soviet press releases; the white lily flower may be translated from Russian as Madonna lily. She has also been called the 'White Rose of Stalingrad' in Europe and North America since reports of her exploits were first published in English.

Lidya Litvyak standing on wing

Lidia Litvyak - The White Lily of Stalingrad (photo thanks to Mario Visintini). Colorization courtesy Klimbim Art

L-R : Lilya Litvyak, 12 kills (KIA), Katya Budanova, 11 kills (KIA) and Mariya Kuznetsova

Hero of the Soviet Union

Order of Lenin, Order of the Red Banner, Order of the Red Star, Order of the Patriotic War

Ekatarina Budova

Ekatarina Budova

Ekatarina Budova

Sofiya Ozervoka 3 November 1912 – late 20th century

Sofiya Ivanovna Ozerkova (Russian: Софья Ивановна Озеркова) was the senior regiment engineer and head of maintenance in the women's 46th Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, dubbed the 'Night Witches'.

Ozerkova was born to a Russian family on 3 November 1912 in Shuya. Having joined the military in 1932, she graduated from 4th Irkutsk Military Aviation School of Aircraft Mechanics in 1933 with training as a mechanic, and subsequently worked at the school in the profession of a teacher until being sent to Saratov in late 1941 to join the women's aviation group founded by Marina Raskova.

Upon her arrival at Engels Military Aviation School where members of the 588th Night Bomber Aviation Regiment (and other women's aviation regiments) trained at before being deployed to the front, Ozerkova began instructing her group of women mechanics, technical personnel, armorers, and other ground crew. Initially she was disliked by many of the mechanics and technicians for coming off as strict and hardened, having been a career officer and always gone by standard formalities to instill discipline in crews. But over time, the ground crews warmed up to her, growing to appreciate the necessity of the intense training she put them through.

In August 1942 the regiment was forced to hastily retreat from its airfield due to German tanks advancing. When the remainder of the regiment took off, Ozerkova, Kashirina, and two pilots stayed behind until the last minute, waiting for repairs to be finished on one of the two remaining planes. Unable to complete the repairs due to a lack of spare parts, Ozerkova made the decision to destroy the Po-2 rather than let it fall into enemy hands, and set the grounded biplane on fire. Meanwhile, because the four of them could not fit into the one plane left, and because time was running out, she told the remaining pilots to depart in the other plane, leaving her and Kashirina behind to retreat on foot. At nightfall the two slept underneath haystacks in a field, where they were awoken by a sympathetic woman who gave them civilian clothes. They proceeded to walk for weeks to reach their regiment, at one point encountering German soldiers on motorcycles, one of whom attempted to search Kashirina's food pail, which had a pistol wrapped in a scarf at the bottom; however, Ozerkova's quick reflexes saved them, having immediately grabbed her pistol and shot the two German soldiers at close range before running into the bushes for concealment.

During the ordeal, which lasted around three weeks, Kashirina became very weak from typhus. Eventually they reached a point where there were a lot of other Red Army soldiers gathered in the area; having found the commandant, she reported on her situation and took Kashirina to the hospital before hitching a ride to her regiment in a car. Upon her return to the regiment she was warmly greeted by her comrades, especially the technicians she had previously trained. But the joy was short-lived; the military police suddenly forbid her from returning to her duties, and insisted on summoning her for questioning, demanding to know how she got out of the encirclement and where her Communist Party membership card was; Ozerkova had been a member of the party since 1941, but for obvious reasons did not want to be identified as a party member if she was searched or captured by the Germans, so she destroyed the card.

For answering truthfully about why she no longer had her card, she was subject to a military tribunal, which sentenced her to death. Subsequently imprisoned, her shoulder straps indicating her officer rank were taken and her head was shaved. Despite suggestions that she write a request for a pardon she refused, but she was saved by clemency from the higher command which reviewed her case and had the charges dropped. She was then returned to her position as senior engineer and reinstated as a member of the party, and she went on to be awarded several high awards for her work during the war. In 1943 she received her first order, an Order of the Patriotic War, and that year the regiment received the Guards designation and was renamed as the 46th Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment. However, she remained forever emotionally scarred by the experience, fearing repressions later in life.

Demobilized from the military in 1947, she got married, settled on the outskirts of Odessa, and had three children.

Order of the Red Banner, Order of the Patriotic War (x2), Order of the Red Star (x2)

Yevgeniya Maksimovna Rudneva 24 May 1921 – 9 April 1944

Yevgeniya Maksimovna Rudneva (Russian: Евгения Максимовна Руднева) was the head navigator of the 46th Guards Night Bomber Regiment posthumously awarded Hero of the Soviet Union. Prior to World War II she was an astronomer, the head of the Solar Department of the Moscow branch of the Astronomical-Geodesical Society of the USSR.

Rudneva was born in Berdyansk to the family of a Ukrainian telegrapher; she was an only child. After finishing her seventh year of secondary school in Moscow, where she spent most of her childhood, she went on to study three years as a student in the faculty of mechanics and mathematics of Moscow State University prior to October 1941, when she volunteered for military service.

After joining the Red Army in 1941 Rudneva graduated from navigators courses at the Engels Military Aviation School, where she made her first flight on 5 January 1942. In May that year she and all of the other members of what was then the 588th Night Bomber Regiment were deployed to the Southern Front in May 1942. During her career she flew with many pilots, including future Heroes of the Soviet Union Yevdokiya Nikulina and Irina Sebrova.

She flew 645 night combat missions on the old and slow Polikarpov Po-2 biplane, destroying river crossings, troop trains, troops and military equipment of the enemy. During the war she flew on bombing missions on the Transcaucasian, North Caucasian, and 4th Ukrainian fronts as well as in battles for the Taman and Kerch peninsulas. On the night of 9 April 1944 she was shot down while navigating for Praskovya 'Panna' Prokofyeva, one of the new pilots in the regiment.

In her letter to professor Sergey Blazhko, head of the Astrometry Department of Moscow State University, dated 19 October 1942, she wrote that her first bomb she promised the Nazis would be in revenge for the bombing of the Faculty of mechanics and mathematics in the winter. She wrote that she was defending the honour of the university.

Hero of the Soviet Union

Order of Lenin, Order of the Red Banner, Order of the Patriotic War, Order of the Red Star

Yevdokiya Andreyevna Nikulina 8 November [26 October ?] 1917 – 23 March 1993

Yevdokiya Andreyevna Nikulina (Russian: Евдокия Андреевна Никулина) was a squadron commander in the 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment who was awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union on 26 October 1944.

Nikulina was born in the village of Parfyonovo to a large Russian peasant family; she had seven siblings. After completing her seventh grade of education in a rural school she moved to the city of Podolsk with her brother Fyodor, where she worked at a cement factory after graduating from trade school in 1933. Upon unsuccessfully attempting to enrol in the Podolsk aeroclub in 1934, she applied to the Balashov School of Pilots and Aircraft Technicians of the Civil Air Fleet, where she trained to become a mechanic for two years before transferring to the Bataysk School of the Civil Air Fleet in early 1936. After graduating from flight school in 1938 she worked as a pilot for the 205th Special Operations Squadron of the Moscow branch of the Civil Air Fleet, where she was tasked with crop dusting, delivering mail, and flying air ambulances, accumulating over 500 flight hours before the start of the war.

After joining the Red Army in 1941 and completing her training, she was deployed to the Eastern front as a squadron commander. In her duties, she defended the Southern, Transcaucasus, North Caucasus, and the 2nd Belarusian fronts.

Upon the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Nikulina was deployed to the front as a pilot in the Special Belarussian Aviation Group of the Civil Air Fleet, where she remained until in December 1941 she entered the women's aviation group founded by Marina Raskova. During those early months of the war, she flew a variety of missions on the Polikarpov R-5 and Polikarpov Po-2, transporting wounded soldiers, conducting reconnaissance, and delivering information. Upon departing the Civil Air Fleet she began training at Engels Military Aviation School; initially, she was assigned to the 587th Dive Bomber Aviation Regiment in February 1942, which used the Po-2, but in May she was reassigned to the 588th Night Bomber Aviation Regiment as a deputy squadron commander due to her previous experience flying the Po-2 (used by the night bomber regiment) in combat. The regiment, which participated in bombing campaigns on the Southern, Transcaucasus, North Caucasus, 4th Ukrainian, and 2nd Belarusian fronts, was honoured with the Guards designation in 1943 and renamed as the 46th Guards Night Bomber Regiment.

Soon after deploying to the Southern Front she was promoted to squadron commander to replace Lyubov Okhlovskaya, who was killed in action died on 18 June 1942 during the regiment's first night of combat. Nikulina herself was wounded during a sortie over the Caucasus after her aircraft was hit with shrapnel from an anti-aircraft shell; despite shrapnel puncturing the fuel tank and her navigator losing consciousness, she managed to safely make an emergency landing in Soviet-controlled territory. After being treated for her injuries she returned to combat, and for totaling 345 sorties by September 1943 she was nominated for the title Hero of the Soviet Union, but was awarded the Order of Alexander Nevsky instead, making her one of only nine women to have received it. She was re-nominated for the title in September 1944, by then having totaled 600 sorties, and was awarded the title on 26 October that year. By the end of the war her total had reached 740 sorties, dropping 105 tons of bombs, destroying two anti-aircraft artillery points, two searchlights, three crossings, one railway section, and causing 177 major explosions.

After the war she left active duty, joining the reserve before retiring. In 1948 she graduated the Rostov-on-Don Communist Party School and graduated from the Rostov-on-Don Pedagogical Institute in 1954. She worked in the local party committee until she retired and lived the remainder of her life in Rostov-on-Don. Nikulina and her four-year-old granddaughter were attacked by robbers in her home on 2 July 1992. She recovered from the attack but died soon after on 23 March 1993. In 2015 she was honored with a star on the 'Alley Of Heroes' in Rostov-On-Don.

Hero of the Soviet Union

Order of Lenin, Order of the Red Banner (x3), Order of Alexander Nevsky, Order of the Red Star

Women in Soviet Aviation

Reference Books

For material on Night Witches and other women flyers:

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RS - 21.09.2018 - Update to correct Hero of the Soviet Union reference. SY 2021-08-03 Added Video

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