Stalingrad: This is how a young girl brought down 17 Nazi planes from the sky

Lydia Litvyak was not as trained or as skilled as the German pilots. But she was bold and won 17 aerial victories. She lost her young life over the Kursk Salient. Their remains were only found in 1979.

In the period between the great wars, aviation electrified the world. People were amazed at the daring pilots and the ever-new records. Nothing embodied the dawn of a new era after the collapse of the old order more than flying. The enthusiasm also spread to women. The best known in the West are Amelia Earhart, who disappeared without a trace while attempting to circumnavigate the globe, and the German Hanna Reitsch, who landed on the “Unter den Linden” street in Berlin in a suicidal mission in 1945 and wanted to fly Hitler out of the burning city.

Lydia Litvyak was also one of these pioneers. She made her first solo flight at the age of 15 and became a flight instructor in 1940. She was supported even though her father was executed in the Stalinist purges. With the start of World War II, these female pilots wanted to serve their countries. The Western Allies used some women, but they were only allowed to ferry machines. Combat missions were taboo. The Soviet aviation pioneer Marina Raskowa was not satisfied with that. She set several long-distance world records in the 1930s. The well-known woman managed to gain supporters from Stalin. Allegedly because of their connections to the NKVD. As early as October 8, 1941, Stalin ordered the formation of three women’s units.

Attracted attention with extravagances

Litvyak immediately volunteered. But she was an extravagant young woman and that pissed off the military. She secretly sneaked out of the dormitory to go dancing with male soldiers. She resisted the drill and wanted to keep her long hair. When the curls had to fall, she bleached her hairstyle. She didn’t walk, she walked – the men turned to look at her. She embellished the uniform with a fur collar. Made from the rabbit fur of her boots. This wasn’t an isolated case. The Stalin era promoted emancipation in a certain way. That’s why girls were courted to join the flying clubs. In addition, morals relaxed. The military didn’t like this. The most famous sniper of the war, Lyudmila Pavlichenko, also became offensive because of her affairs and model airs.

In the end, everything was forgiven for Litvyak, even the fact that she had exaggerated a lot in her application papers, because she was the best pilot in her group. She flew her first missions on the steppe front in an all-female unit. Then the three best women were transferred to men’s regiments at the front. Now Litvyak was supposed to defend Stalingrad.

Airplane for dogfighting

Lydia Litvyak became famous with the Yakovlev Yak-1. The Yak-1 is considered one of the best Soviet fighters of the first years of the war. The machine was well armed and very maneuverable. From the start it was built with a 20 millimeter caliber machine gun. In dogfight – cornering – she was able to compete with the German Messerschmitt 109. However, it quickly caught fire under fire.

Two kills over Stalingrad

The 20-year-old’s first appearance was a bang. Her squadron encountered three German Ju-88 bombers and Messerschmitts from Jagdgeschwader 53. Litvyak stood out for her boldness; she pounced on the bombers, who haphazardly dropped their bombs in an attempt to escape. She shot down a bomber, then hung behind an Me-109. She brought German flying ace Erwin Maier out of the sky. He survived and was captured. Maier got a shock when he met his opponent. He couldn’t believe he was shot down by a girl. Only when Litvyak described the details of the dogfight did he become convinced.

Despite further successes, she did not fare well as a woman in the regiment. The presence of women was unusual. Men refused to fly a plane serviced by a woman and grumbled when a female pilot was assigned to their group. Things only improved when another pilot, Katya Budanova, joined the association. A stormy romance began between Litvyak and her squadron leader, Alexey Salomatin.

Worldwide fame

Her greatest battle catapulted the young pilot into the Olympus of Stalinist propaganda. All alone, she faced off against six Messerschmitts and shot down two of them. She curved and fought with the German machines for 15 minutes until she was able to break away. Litvyak suffered serious injuries in this dogfight. Nevertheless, her machine brought her downstairs. A girl who sewed clothes from the parachutes of the downed pilots attacked six German planes! Even the “New York Times” reported on this.

Death of the beloved

Why Lydia Litvyak was called the “White Lily of Stalingrad” is unclear. Probably because of her beauty and bleached hair. In any case, their Yak did not have an emblem, as was common with German pilots. Like the black tulip from Erich Hartmann’s machine. Now she was also respected and promoted at the front. But then her lover fell and died. She vowed revenge at the grave, recalled her mechanic Inna Pasportnikova. “Lydia didn’t want to stay on the ground. She just wanted to fly and fight, and she flew desperately into battle.” Not atypical for the time. Tank driver Mariya Oktyabrskaya went to the front because the Germans killed her husband. She wrote to her sister that she was often so filled with anger that she could hardly breathe.

Litvyak’s already bold style became more and more aggressive. She was repeatedly wounded and once had to get out of the burning plane. She probably had no choice. In 1943 the Luftwaffe had not yet been defeated. Not in the West and certainly not in the East. The Soviet pilots fought with the courage of desperation; heavy losses were the order of the day. They couldn’t let themselves be deterred by the overwhelming number of their opponents.

Lifelong search

On August 1, Litvyak pounced on a group of German bombers and was surprised by Messerschmitts. Then Lydia Litvyak disappeared from heaven and from the world. Her comrades could not find the crashed machine, so Litvyak was considered missing. Inna Pasportnikova never forgot her. She knew that malicious rumors that her friend had deserted could not be true. Such doubts prevented Litvyak from receiving the Soviet Union’s highest title. This injustice did not leave Pasportnikova in peace; she searched for her commander all her life. She followed every lead and discovered 90 unknown crash sites, unearthing countless pilots in the process. Only there was no trace of Lydia. In 1979, Pasportnikova exhumed a dead body – finally a female pilot, 34 years after the crash she had found her friend. But the Red Army was still in no hurry. It was not until 1988 that Litvyak was reclassified from “missing” to “killed in action.” A year later she received the title of “Heroine of the Soviet Union.” Pasportnikova had achieved her goal.

How should Litvyak’s victories be assessed?

No woman has achieved so many aerial victories and probably no woman will ever do so again. Compared to the numbers of the German aces, their 12 or, according to other sources, 13 individual kills plus 4 group kills seem manageable. Erich Hartmann recorded 352. The famous Allied pilot Chuck Yeager had 13. But Litvyak had to compete under completely different conditions. Yeager flew a North American P-51 Mustang – one of the best, if not the best, fighter aircraft of the war. The German pilots were more experienced, in this phase of the war they were always in the majority and their machines – the Me Bf 109 G and especially the Focke Wulff 190 – were actually superior to the Jak-1. Litvyak was not a cold tactician; she made up for these disadvantages with her courage and anger.

She was a born fighter; the sentence of the German fighter pilot general Adolf Galland applied to her: “Only the aggressive spirit supported by a fighting heart will bring the hunting weapon to success.” It is often said that female heroines have been forgotten. By people who don’t care about the war. There are films and books about Lydia Litvyak’s exploits – also in English translation. Her missions are recreated in simulators, and enthusiasts can even purchase her and her Yak-1 as tokens.

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