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Lydia Litvyak – First Female Fighter Ace

11 Sep 2019

Lydia Vladimirovna Litvyak, affectionately known as Lilya, was a fighter pilot in the Soviet Air Force during World War II.  Historians estimates 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 middle class Russian family. Her mother Anna Vasilievna Litvyak was a shop assistant, her father Vladimir Leontievich Litvyak worked at railway as a railwayman, train driver and clerk; during the Great Purge he was arrested as an "enemy of the people" and disappeared. Lydia became interested in aviation at an early ageand at fourteen she enrolled in a local flying club. She performed her first solo flight at only fifteen, and later graduated at 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 for 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 Defence Force, which was formed by Marina Raskova. She was trained on the Yakovlev Yak-1 aircraft and Litvyak flew her first combat flights in the summer of 1942 over Saratov.

On 10 September 1942  she moved along with Yekaterina Budanova, Mariya Kuznetsova and Raisa Beliaeva, 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 would achieve 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 Beliaeva. The Bf 109 was piloted by a decorated pilot from the 4th Air Fleet, the 11-victory ace  Staff Sergeant Erwin Maier of the 2nd Staffel of Jagdgeschwader 53.

Junkers Ju 88

 

Maier 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.

On 14 September Litvyak shot down another Bf 109. Her victim was probably Knight's Cross holder and 71-kill expert Lt. Hans Fuss, 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, which was reported  MIA with all crew members.

 Messerschmitt Bf 109

 

Litvyak, Beliaeva, 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.

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 commanded by Nikolai Baranov, of the 8th Air Army, so that they could still fly 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. He had claimed a total of 39 victories, when he flew into the ground in Pavlonka, and was killed in front of the entire regiment on 21 May, while training a new flyer. Litvyak was devastated by the crash and wrote a letter to her mother describing how she realised 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 her plan to her commander: 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, another Bf 109 kill followed two days later on 21 July 1943, possibly Bf 109G-6 of Iron Cross holder and 28-kill expert Lt. Hermann Schuster (KIA, near Pervomaysk, Luhansk area).

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 dived 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 expert Hans-Jörg Merkle, Knight's Cross holder and future 99-kill expert Lt Hans Schleef. 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.) This occurred before being rammed and killed by his own victim (Luftwaffe combat report of collision: 3 km east of Dmitrievka). While 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.

LaGG-3

In an attempt to prove that Litvyak had not been taken captive, Pasportnikova embarked on a 36-year search for the Yakovlev Yak-1 crash site assisted by the public and the media. For three years she was joined by relatives who together combed the most likely areas with a metal detector. In 1979, 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. Pasportnikova said that a special commission was formed to inspect the exhumed body and it concluded the remains were those of Litvyak. 

 

 

Litvyak was awarded the Order of the Red Banner, Order of the Red Star, and was twice honoured with the Order of the Patriotic War.

 

On 6 May 1990, USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev posthumously awarded her the title Hero of the Soviet Union. Her final rank was senior lieutenant, as 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 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, author of a recent book about 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, so Milanetti believes the pilot was Litvyak, probably captured by the enemy.

 

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 balloon 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 addition 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.

 

Litvyak displayed a rebellious and romantic character. Returning from a successful mission, she would "buzz" the aerodrome and then indulge in unauthorised aerobatics, knowing that it enraged her commander.

 

Despite the predominantly male environment in which she found herself, she never renounced her femininity, and would carry on dyeing 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 colours and stitching them together and would not hide her love of flowers, which she picked at every available occasion, favouring red roses. She would make bouquets and keep them in the cockpit, which were promptly discarded by the male pilots who shared her aircraft.

 

 

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