Voices from Russia

Monday, 7 April 2008

Hero of the Soviet Union Lilya Litvyak “The White Rose of Stalingrad”

Lieutenant Lilya Litvyak (1921-43), Hero of the Soviet Union, known to the Germans as the “White Rose of Stalingrad


On 10 September 1942, for the first time in military history, a group of women fighter pilots arrived at the Stalingrad front. As they learned of the sort of reinforcement they were going to get, the regiment’s pilots were annoyed. We’re on combat sorties here, we’re not a club, they stormed, so, why should they send us young ladies instead of real good pilots? The names of the newly arrived women pilots had been mentioned in newspapers even before the war, for they were widely known as crack aerobatic fliers and had taken part in air shows. They had been selected from a large group of volunteers and underwent combat training in the town of Engels on the Volga. They were given just a few months to complete the training. Lilia Litvyak was one of them.

Lilia knew they were forming a women’s fighter aviation regiment and she managed to get herself on the list by adding an extra 100 hours to her overall flying time. Lilia went on her first sorties in the summer of 1942, over Saratov, to defend the Volga region from fascist air raids. In the autumn, with one downed Junkers Ju-88 on her list of group victories, she got herself transferred to a group of women pilots fighting in the skies over Stalingrad. There, she scored new victories knocking down first a bomber and then a fighter, as she took the place of her friend who had run out of ammunition. Two victories in one battle! Far from every pilot could boast that. Lilia’s manner in the air became easily recognisable and she was nicknamed in honour of the celebrated Russian pilot Valery Chkalov. An air battle was waged at high speeds and the pilot had to spin round and round in all directions to be able to open fire or dodge fire in time. A battle left a pilot exhausted to the extent that when he landed, he stayed in the cabin for some time resting. That required considerable stamina, even from a man. Hence, it was amazing how Lilia managed to get the strength to make four or five sorties a day.


The White Rose of Stalingrad


One of her air battles was described in a newspaper. “Four of our fighters took off into the skies. The pilots were Baranov, Litvyak, Solomatin, and Kaminsky. Seventeen enemy planes came into view. In the very first attack, Salomatin and Kaminsky shoot down a Junkers. Baranov and Litvyak attacked a Focke-Wulf. Our pilots left the German bombers scattered across the sky”. Lilia Litvyak and Aleksei Solomatin stood by one another not only in this newspaper material. Together they flew into battle and one day, as they landed, Aleksei came up to her plane and said, “Lilya, you’re a wonder”. People smiled at them and felt happy for them. On the night of the same day, Lilia faced her enemy anew, but, this time on the ground. The pilot of the plane she had knocked down, a German colonel (who was also a baron), who had fought with the famed Richtofen squadron wanted to know who shot him down. An ace pilot, decorated with three Iron Crosses, he was astonished to learn that he had been brought down by a woman pilot and predicted a great future for her. Life proved him right.

Several months later, Lilia Litvyak became famous in the 8th Air Division, so, the command allowed her to go on “free hunting” raids. In one of the battles, her Yak was knocked out and Lilia had to make an emergency landing on enemy territory. She jumped out and took to her heels firing back at German soldiers rushing after her. The Germans were catching up with her rapidly and her gun had the last cartridge in it… The situation seemed hopeless. All of a sudden, a Soviet attack plane swept over their heads and came down on the enemy fiercely showering the Nazis with bullets and forcing them to the ground. Then, the plane glided down and came to a halt not far from where Lilia was. She saw the pilot waving at her frantically without leaving the cabin. So, she dashed to the plane, squeezed herself in and the plane taxied to take off. Soon, she was back with her regiment. Lilia once admitted to a girlfriend what she feared most was to go missing. That was the worst thing, she said. Her fears were far from groundless. Lilia’s father was arrested and executed as an “enemy of the people” in 1937 during the Stalin purges. So, she knew it only too well what would be in store for her if she went missing. Nothing or nobody would ever be able to rehabilitate her good name… that was exactly what she was destined to go through.

In early May 1943, Lilia ran into a log-hut where the pilots were resting to offer her congratulations to Aleksei. It had been announced over the radio that he was now a Hеrо of the Soviet Union. Several days after that, he was killed right before her very eyes. Lilia was desolate. Nobody saw her cry, but her face took on a stony expression. The regimental commander suggested that she go on holiday and visit her mother. Nevertheless, she stayed on. Her only request was to allow her to continue to fight. Her brother, Yuri, recalled that the loss of a person she loved killed her. “She wrote us every day”, Yuri said. “The news from her came in triangle letters {During the Second Great Patriotic War, soldiers were allowed to send letters post-free if they folded the sheet into a triangle without an envelope. This also allowed the officers to more easily censor the mail: editor}, and in her last one she wrote about a dream she had seen in which she was standing on the bank of a fast running river and Aleksei was calling her from the opposite side. ‘She’ll die’, Mum said”.

On 1 August 1943, Lieutenant Litvyak didn’t return from a combat assignment. According to the archives, Lilia Litvyak made 168 sorties and fought 89 air battles within 8 months. She shot down 11 planes on her own and 3 in a group. She was awarded with 4 orders. Boris Yeremen, her former commander, recalled, “She was an innate pilot, an exceptionally talented fighter, and as a person she was brave, resolute, resourceful, and cautious. She was able to see through air”. Right after her disappearance, a search was mounted for her, but, unfortunately, it produced no results. The search continued in post-war years too, and in 1979, a Soviet fighter that crashed in the summer of 1943 was discovered. It was established that the pilot had been wounded in the head and that it had been a woman. Further inquiries confirmed the identity of Lilia Litvyak. In July 1988, the name of Lilia Litvyak was added to the tombstone of a common grave where she was buried. Nearly half a century after she was killed, Lilia was honoured with the title of Hero of the Soviet Union posthumously.

9 October 2007

Lyubov Tsarevskaya

Voice of Russia World Service

This is Russia


Editor’s Note:

This is my tribute to all women who serve, did serve, and are training to serve in the forces. Not all the pages in military history were written by the fellows! Cheers to all of you. May God watch over you, and my thoughts and prayers go with you. ¡A su salud!


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