Lily Litvak: The White Rose of Stalingrad

A Soviet air ace during World War II, Lily Litvak is likely to have shot down more planes than any other female fighter pilot, and she became by far the best known of the thousand women who received fighter training during the war. The story of Litvak's short but glorious career entered into the legend of the Great Patriotic War.

Litvak was born Lidiya Vladimirovna Litvak in Moscow in 1921, as the Russian Civil War was drawing to a close. She had developed an interest in aviation as a teenager, and at the age of 14 joined the local Aeroklub, making her first solo flight at 15 and joining the state paramilitary flying force, the Osoaviakim. Before the outbreak of war, she worked as a flight instructor at the flight school where she had received her own training.

Litvak responded enthusiastically to the female aviation groups being established under the initiative of Marina Raskova, the Soviets' answer to Amelia Earhart who had already achieved national fame in 1937 with a world record non-stop flight to Asia. Previously, women who attempted to volunteer as pilots had been turned down, but Raskova organised three all-female units whom she trained at the Engels air base near Stalingrad.

All three detachments, including the 586th Women's Fighter Regiment to which Litvak belonged, were originally intended for support duties and as a reserve, but the deaths of many male combat pilots during the Battle of Stalingrad found the Red Army anxious for whatever replacements it could find, and the 586th first saw action in the spring of 1942.

Litvak's aerobatic skills were quickly noted, as were those of her comrade in the regiment, the equally illustrious Katya Budanova, and both women were transferred into a regular male unit, the 296th Fighter Division - to the chagrin of a number of the men, whose Imperial Russian counterparts had been no less charitable towards female soldiers during the First World War.

Litvak shot down her first two German planes on her second combat sortie in September 1942, and during her air force service recorded a total of 12 confirmed kills, although the number may have been as high as 20: German pilots are supposed to have shouted 'Achtung, Litvak' as her plane came into view. One German ace, with nearly two dozen kills to his credit, baled out of his aircraft, was captured by Soviet soldiers on the ground and refused to believe he had been downed by a woman until the pair were introduced.

Her YaK-1 aircraft, slower but more manoeuvrable than the German Messerschmitts and Junkers, became, according to tradition, instantly recognisable thanks to the white rose she painted on its side. In fact, the flower may well have been a white lily, referring to her nickname, and no photographs exist of the emblem in any case.

Many accounts testify to Litvak's striking beauty, although some might say she rather resembled tennis player Jana Novotna, which especially gladdened the Soviet propaganda ministry. She herself, on the other hand, was supposedly rather less than co-operative to an official film-maker who came to visit her base.

Litvak was wounded in action three times during the intense fighting of spring and summer 1943, and received the Order of the Red Banner for her exploits: by July she was flying as the wingman of the unit commander Ivan Golishev. During the spring, she became engaged to another member of the 296th, Alexei Salomaten.

Salomaten had taken Litvak, quite literally, under his wing on her arrival in the regiment, when its colonel Nikolai Baranov had declared himself implacably opposed to sending women on combat missions in case concern for their welfare distracted the male pilots. His death in a dogfight in May, closely followed by Budanova's, only made Litvak more determined, and quite probably somewhat reckless, in the air.

On August 1, 1943, Litvak's fourth mission of the day - the 168th she had flown - was to escort a unit of Shturmoviks over Orel, during which she became separated from her flight. Eight German Messerschmitt BF 109s, as legend has it, caught sight of the white rose on her fuselage: her body was impossible to find.

A marble monument to Litvak, who had died at the age of 22, was erected in Krasy Luch, in the Donetsk region, bearing twelve gold stars commemorating the aircraft she had shot down. Her remains were finally discovered in 1979 near the village of Dmitriyevka, under the broken-off wing of her plane: she received an official funeral in 1989, and a year later was awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union.

From time to time, history is a screenwriter.

Read more:
Kate Muir, Arms and the Woman
Shelley Saywell, Women in War: From World War II to El Salvador

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