In which a young woman seeks her destiny in the war-torn skies over Soviet Russia.
Moscow, USSR, May, 1936.
“I want to soar high in the sky, and glide graceful as a hawk above the earth,” declared the fourteen year old girl, her green eyes flashing with excitement, “and that is why I have enrolled in the flying club! I will become one of Mother Russia’s greatest women aviators, following in the wake of my idol, Maria Roskova, intrepid heroine of the Soviet Union and close associate of Marshal Stalin!”
Her companion viewed her skeptically.
“Of course, Lydia Vladimirovna, we will soon be reading of your daring exploits in the Party newspaper!” she replied dryly.
“I have decided that it will be so,” continued Lydia with a determined thrust of her jaw, ignoring her friend’s sarcasm.
The two girls were sitting on the grass in a Moscow park on a sunny afternoon. They were both wearing the uniform of The Young Pioneers, white blouses with badges on the sleeves, red neckerchiefs and blue skirts.
Lydia Litvyak leaned over towards her friend with an earnest expression on her face.
“Listen, Irina,” she said, “we are in a different time from our parents. They grew up under the Tsar when there were few opportunities for young girls such as us. In that time we would have ended up married to a peasant or a shopkeeper, giving birth to endless children and enduring the drudgery of housework. I want more than that. I want excitement and adventure. I want to live a life of real purpose!”
“Quite a speech!” said her friend doubtfully. “I too have heard about this brave new world, but I don’t see it yet!”
“We have to build it for ourselves,” insisted Lydia. “We are both in the third stage of The Young Pioneers. We have attended all the meetings, trained The Young Octobrists, and remained faithful to the motto and rules of our group. In a few months we will be old enough to apply for membership in Komsomol, the youth branch of the Party. Then there will be many exciting opportunities for us. We can rise in the Party’s ranks, and achieve great things!”
“My parents don’t want me to join Komsomol,” said Irina glumly. “They are afraid that it will take me away from them and that I will get in trouble. They think that I will be disobedient and go with boys, and that then no man will want to marry me.”
“They are too old and traditional,” argued Lydia. “They don’t understand the new world that is coming.”
“You should have heard them when I tried to take down their icon corner and replace it with an atheist corner according to Marxist-Leninist teaching,” remarked Irina. “I thought my father would have a heart attack! And my mother looked at me with big sad eyes and shook her head as if I was crazy!”
“Since my father left, my mother has been too busy working at the store to worry about what I do,” said Lydia.
“Where is your father now?” asked Irina curiously.
A worried expression came over Lydia’s pretty face as she wrinkled her brow.
“We’re not sure!” she replied. “He has not been seen at his job at the People’s Commissiarat for Transportation for a long time. There are rumors that he has been denounced as an enemy of the people by Comissar Kaganovitch and arrested. Although they are no longer together, my mother fears for his safety. So many people have disappeared!”
Irina noticed that her friend’s hands were trembling.
“What about you, Lydia?” she asked. “How do you feel about it?”
A hard expression came into the other girl’s green eyes, and her lips set in a firm line.
“My father abandoned us,” she said sharply. “I cannot forgive him for that! If he has been condemned as an enemy of the state, I must reject him! You know that we must gain a favorable recognition from our Pioneer group in order to apply for Komsomol membership. I am afraid that my father’s disgrace might disqualify me from membership.”
“But he is your father,” protested Irina incredulously. “Don’t you care what happens to him?”
“My first duty is to the Motherland and the Party,” Lydia answered coldly.
Then her expression softened, and she was a young girl again.
“I do so much want to live a life of adventure and opportunity, Irina,” she murmured in a voice tinged with yearning, “and I will do whatever is necessary to realize my dream!”
Engels Military Pilots School, Saratov, USSR, December, 1941.
“The girl is menace, I tell you!” exclaimed an irate Nina Ivakina. “A swanky, flirtatious minx!”
“My, my, Nina,” was the amused response from the uniformed woman across the desk. “You must calm yourself or you will surely have a stroke!”
“She is rude, tardy and disobliging!” continued Nina, unaffected by her companion’s words. “She is headstrong and uncooperative, and in my opinion ideologically unsound!”
“And what has led you to these conclusions, comrade?” asked Airforce Major Marina Mikhaylovna Raskova mildly.
“As you know, a week ago, Litvyak sneaked out of the dormitory to go dancing after curfew with male soldiers of a neighboring garrison. When brought to task for this offence, she showed no signs of remorse, indeed she did not even seem conscious of being at fault! She has steadfastly refused to cut her hair short according to regulations, and when finally convinced to do so, in an act of defiance applied peroxide bleach. What is more, you must have seen how she has added a flamboyant fur collar to the regulation pilot’s uniform in complete defiance of the rules!”
Nina Ivakina paused her tirade to catch her breath.
Marina Raskova sat back in her chair, placing the tips of her fingers together.
“All you have said concerning Trainee Litvyak is duly noted,” she said slowly. “I understand your irritation. However, our country is in grave peril. The German invasion forces are sweeping towards Moscow. We urgently need skilled pilots to defend the Motherland against the Luftwaffe. I am convinced that Comrade Litvyak, in spite of all her less than admirable qualities, is going to be an outstanding fighter pilot. Yes, she is brash and sometimes reckless, but we need recruits with daring and initiative. As to ideology, I believe that despite her brashness she is deeply patriotic. She has all the qualities we urgently need in our female pilots.”
“But she lied on her application,” protested Ivakina. “She exaggerated her flying experience by one hundred hours! How can we trust her?”
“She lied because she was desperate to be accepted for pilot training,” replied Raskova. “She has graduated from the Kherson Flying School and she has served as an instructor at the Kalinin Airclub. She has soloed and taught other pilots to fly. Let me remind you that she has more experience as a pilot than I do. Are you going to question my ability to command this regiment?”
“Of course not, Comrade Major,” Ivakina assured her hurriedly.
“I believe I am something of a hero to her,” continued Raskova. “I understand that she has a photograph of me in her diary. When I spoke to her during her interview, she told me that she had read all about my historic flight to Komsomolsk with Comrades Esipenko and Grizodubova, and had admired my determination to survive when I was separated from the plane.”
“So this is a reason to ignore her transgressions,” declared Ivakina grumpily.
“I have told you that I believe she will be an outstanding pilot, and that is enough!” snapped Raskova. “Do I need to remind you that I have the ear of Marshal Stalin, and he approves of my plan to train women pilots and send them into combat against the invaders?”
Ivakina rose to her feet and saluted smartly.
“I accept your judgement implicitly, Comrade Major,” she said through gritted teeth.
“Dismissed!” ordered Raskova without raising her eyes.
As Ivakina exited, Raskova drew a file from a pile on her desk and opened it to photograph of a young women. She smiled to herself as she took in the cap set at a rakish angle on the blond curls, the pretty features formed into a defiant expression, and the fur collar of the flying suit.
So young yet already so self-assured, thought Raskova. Although the major saw no physical resemblance between herself and Lidya, she nevertheless felt a powerful identification with the young recruit’s ambition and determination to excel.
If young Litvyak proves to be successful in combat, she could be a powerful symbol to the women of the Motherland, an invaluable propaganda tool, thought Raskova.
“Don’t worry, little one. I will protect you,” she murmured to herself as she closed the file.
Near Stalingrad, USSR, September 13, 1942.
“Cigarette?” asked the Russian officer, holding out a pack towards the captive German pilot.
The pilot accepted with a curt nod, cupping his hands around the match flame offered by his captor.
“We know you are an experienced fighter pilot of the Third Reich,” continued the Russian. “Some of our pilots recognized your plane in combat. I believe that you downed three of our aircraft just four days ago. You are clearly a fine pilot.”
The German nodded again in polite acknowledgement of the compliment.
“Perhaps you would tell us your name,” suggested his interrogator.
The German paused for a moment, and then shrugged.
“What harm can it do?” he remarked. “I am Staff Sergeant Erwin Maier of the Luftwaffe.”
He puffed out his chest proudly, and sat up straight in his chair.
“I have eleven victories to my name, and I have received several decorations for my…achievements. I should very much like to meet the pilot who shot down my plane. He is clearly an aviator of great bravery and skill. I should like to shake his hand.”
The interrogator stared at his captive. His features betrayed no emotion save for a slight brief twitch of his lip. He snapped his fingers to the sentry standing impassively at the door.
“Find Litvyak!” he ordered.
There was a silence in the room for some moments before the sentry re-entered. Seconds later a slight figure in a flying suit stepped into the room. Maier stared for a moment, his jaw sagging, before he burst into guffaws of laughter.
“I do not entirely understand your Russian sense of humor, Herr Major,” he declared with a grin, “but I have to admit it is truly outrageous! You expect me to believe that this little scrap of a women came out of her boudoir and shot down my plane! As the Englanders say, ‘Pull my other leg. It has bells!’”
Lydia Litvyak controlled herself with difficulty, and smiled a thin smile.
“I will prove it to you, Herr Meier,” she said. “Listen and I will tell you how it happened. I was flying my YAK-1 in a squadron commanded by my colleague, Raisa Beliaeva. We observed your formation of Junkers and Messchersmitts, and attacked from above. You were flying in the middle layer of fighters, and I chose you as my target, firing several rounds of 2mm cannon into your plane. You attempted evasive action by pulling your stick to the side and breaking off. I was hard on your tail, and you could not break free. Our YAKS are built largely of wood which makes them fast and easy to maneuver, but there is always the dread of structural failure when we push them to the limits. So my heart was in my mouth as we sped through the sky. I fired again, and saw clouds of smoke coming from your engine, so I knew your plane was on fire. At last I watched you parachute from your falling plane, and I rejoiced in my victory. You Germans are snakes, and I intend to drive you from our country!”
Her account ended in a note of exultation. Meier gazed at her, a petite, delicate-looking young woman with bright blonde hair and sparkling green eyes, and a puzzled expression appeared on his face.
“Your account of the fight is clear and accurate in every detail, Madam, and your voice sounds sincere and truthful” he said at last, “I must therefore reluctantly accept that you were indeed the pilot who downed my plane, but you will pardon me if I decline to salute you. What kind of a country is it that sends out its women into danger to fight? You should be at home, caring for your children and building a home.”
Lilya glanced at him contemptuously.
“Women and men stand together as equals in the new Communist society. We share the triumphs and dangers of protecting the Motherland. I accept this task proudly and willingly.”
Maier returned her scornful look.
“We must agree to differ on that account, Fraulein,” he snapped. “But you Russians are ‘untermenschen’, and must be conquered by the armies of the Third Reich. As our Chancellor Adolf Hitler has declared many times, the Aryan peoples of Germany must subdue and rule the lesser peoples. Enjoy your little victory of today. Tomorrow our armies will crush you.”
“Not as long as I draw breath!” declared Lidya heatedly.
Then without a backward glance she turned and stamped out of the room.
Meier watched her leave, a sardonic smile on his face.
Headquarters of the 9th Guards, Stalingrad, USSR, October-November, 1942.
“These women cannot be permitted to fly in combat,” declared one of the officers gathered around the table. “It is acceptable for them to fly as ferry pilots but to send them up against the men of the Luftwaffe is unthinkable.”
“I agree with Comrade Vasilevsky,” said another. “Women are the weaker sex, and not capable of fighting like men. Besides are they even competent as pilots?”
“I think not,” sneered another. “It would be bad for morale. We would be forced to constantly save them from danger. What is more, I will never fly an aircraft that has been serviced by a female mechanic. Their judgement is not to be trusted!”
There were rumblings of assent around the table as the group of hardened and experienced pilots voiced their misgivings about the four new female pilots assigned to their regiment.
“I must disagree,” said a quiet voice from the back of the room.
The officers looked around at the newcomer. Some of them recognized the handsome features of Alexei Salomaten, another recent arrival, who had already established a reputation for daring and skill in the air.
“I happen to know,” continued Salomaten in a level tone, “that all four aviators have already distinguished themselves in combat. Comrade Liyvyak already has several kills to her name, including the plane of a Luftwaffe air ace. Personally I would be honored to have any of these brave young comrades at my side in battle. Indeed I plan to request Litvyak as my wingman on my next mission.”
“You are, of course, welcome to your opinion, Salomaten,” replied one of the officers awkwardly, “but I still would not trust a woman in combat.”
“Do you not think these women have the right to defend their country,” exclaimed Salomaten. “We are in a new time. We are desperate for skilled pilots. Marshal Stalin has personally authorized the service of female pilots in combat. It seems to me that they have already proved their courage and skill, but if you are not convinced, at least give them the opportunity to prove it to you.”
Alexei Salomaten was standing on the edge of the airfield, consulting with his mechanic about a problem he had been having with the controls of his plane, when he noticed out of the corner of his eye two figures approaching from the women’s barracks. As they drew nearer, he was able to observe that one was tall, lean and plain-faced but with an alert expression on her face. Short curly hair protruded from beneath her cap. Alongside her was a short, slight woman with well-formed features, green eyes and a firm jut to her shapely chin. He turned to meet them.
“Comrades Litvyak and Budanova, I presume,” he said with a smile.
“We want to thank you, comrade for your support,” said the short woman politely. “We appreciate your faith in us, and we promise that we will not let you down. We will fight like tigers alongside you in the battle against the foreign invaders.”
Not only is she beautiful, thought Salomaten admiringly, she also has great dignity and she speaks well. I would trust her with my life.
“I have heard of your exploits, Comrade Litvyak. I enjoyed the story of your encounter with Sergeant Meier,” he said, smiling again. “I know you also to be a brave and accomplished pilot, Comrade Budanova. It will be a privilege to serve alongside you both.”
“My squadron leader informed me of your request to have me as your wingman, Comrade Salomaten,” said Lydia. “I am grateful for the opportunity. It is difficult for us female pilots to win the respect of our male comrades. Your gesture is a sign that you trust me as your closest support pilot regardless of my gender.”
“We are in the struggle together, Comrade,” replied Salomaten.
“Not all of the other pilots would agree with you, I think,” said Katya Budanova, speaking for the first time in a dry tone. “Some of them would rather have us at home in the kitchen!”
“They are relics, dinosaurs,” declared Salomaten, chuckling to himself. “A soon to be extinct species. It’s a new era of equality between the sexes. Women can be expected to do everything a man does. Even Marshal Stalin says so.”
Although the words were addressed to Budanova, Salomaten’s eyes were on her pretty companion, and he was gratified to see a gleam of pleasure in her soft green eyes.
Three weeks later Lydia Litvyak and Aleksei Salomaten were walking together in the forest close to the airfield. They had become close companions, drawn together in the heat of combat, protecting each other as they essayed numerous missions, sometimes three in a single day. This was not the first time they had taken this walk together during a lull in the action.
Aleksei glanced at his companion. He had grown to cherish her energy and fire, her zeal and her tigerish aggression up in the clouds as they took on the German Messerschmitts. He shared her daring nature, which bordered on the reckless, her deep desire for adventure, and her insistence on living her life to the full. To his amusement he had discovered that, like him, she too had occasioned the wrath of her superior officers with her performance of risky and elaborate stunts over the airfield before returning to base. In particular they both loved to swoop low and ‘buzz’ the base to the intense irritation of the squadron commanders.
He knew she was a kindred spirit, that she was motivated by the same dreams and aspirations as he. He knew also that he was deeply attracted to this dynamic young woman walking beside him.
They paused for a moment in a clearing. They were standing close together, and Alexei on an impulse put his arm around her waist. He felt her stiffen, and she turned her head to look up into his eyes. He decided to seize the moment.
“Lydia Vladimirovna, you must agree that we two have become close comrades. In times of excitement and danger things happen quickly. For me you have become more than just a comrade-in-arms. I have developed deep feelings of affection for you. Indeed I believe that I am in love with you. Time is short. Who knows how long either of us will survive in this desperate struggle? I need to know if you share my feelings. Tell me, please.”
There was a troubled expression on his companion’s face. She made no attempt to remove his hand from her waist, but neither did she draw closer.
“It is all so sudden. I cannot…” she paused as if unsure how to continue.
After a moment she said in an unsteady voice:
“You say that these things happen fast in times of crisis. It is true. Our close contact in combat and in daily service has drawn us together. I will not deny my own affectionate feelings for you, but…”
She paused again as if tongue-tied. He waited half-patiently, half-fearfully.
“I cannot give myself to a man in a situation such as this,” she declared finally, “however much I care for him, as I surely do for you. I must save all my passion, all my energy for the struggle to defend the Motherland. That is my priority at this moment. I do not believe we can be effective colleagues in combat if we are constantly thinking of each other in some romantic way. Our effectiveness as pilots would suffer. It cannot be. Besides, I believe we are fundamentally different. I am all passion and fire, you are balanced and calm. We are like oil and water. You are not my type.”
Alexei felt a profound sadness clutch at his heart. He could not believe that she was rejecting his love, but he was sensible enough to realize that Lydia was not one to yield easily. He must withdraw, and try again with a more cautious approach.
“I understand, Lydia,” he said, carefully withdrawing his arm from around her waist, “but I hope we can still be close comrades.”
“Of course!” she reassured him, placing her hand affectionately on his. “I do not mean to hurt you. I value your friendship above all others.”
“I am thankful for that,” said Alexei graciously.
The two comrades turned and walked back to the airfield, their arms linked affectionately.
The skies above Stalingrad, USSR, March 22, 1943.
I am in trouble, serious trouble, thought Lydia Litvyak.
She could feel the dampness of blood inside the left leg of her flying suit. She bit her lip against the pain.
I am hit. My plane is hit. The pain is not so bad yet. I must stay conscious. I cannot pass out. That would be the end. Focus, Lydia, focus.
It seemed as if her thoughts came in short staccato bursts between spasms of pain.
It had all started so promisingly, a routine mission like so many others. Then she had spotted a dozen Junkers bombers with their Messerschmitt escort. Along with the pilots in her five accompanying planes she had swooped into attack, opening fire on one of the bombers and sending it flaming towards the earth. Almost immediately she felt her own aircraft shudder with the impact of cannon rounds, moments later feeling the pain in her leg that signaled that she had been wounded.
Instinctively she pulled her YAK into a steep climb to avoid her attacker. As soon as she was sure he was off her tail, she halted her ascent, knowing that the Yak was vulnerable to pressure damage at high altitude. Gritting her teeth, she took a quick glance below her at the dogfight in progress between her own comrades in their YAK-1s and the Germans in their Messerschmitts.
Common sense urged her to turn and head for home. Wounded in a damaged plane, it only made sense to retreat, but Lidya spotted a Messchersmitt on the tail of her good friend Katya. Without further thought she steered her plane into a dive, guns blazing and fired a volley towards the Messerchmitt’s engine. She was gratified to see a burst of smoke shoot from the plane, followed by flames as her enemy went into a spin, falling away across the sky.
Now for home, she thought. All of a sudden she felt dizzy, and a wave of nausea swept over her. She shook her head to clear it, desperately fighting off the urge to give in to her weakness.
Minutes later she glimpsed the airfield ahead. I must stay awake, she thought, although I know I am losing blood. Instinctively, almost blindly, she steered her craft down toward her destination, controlling the speed and the dip of the wings. Below she could see vehicles speeding out toward the landing strip.
The pain in her leg was now intense, almost unbearable, but she forced herself to remain calm. All at once there was a tremendous impact as the YAK hit the ground. She was jerked forward in her seat as the plane swerved and skidded across the runway. She felt herself uttering a silent prayer as the plane skidded to a halt. Old habits die hard, she thought, as she lost consciousness.
Moscow, USSR, a week later.
“It is such a blessing to have you home, my child,” said Anna Vasilievna Litvyak as she coaxed her daughter to take another spoonful of soup.
“I’m not a baby, Mamochka,” replied Lidya in a mixture of affection and exasperation as she swallowed the soup. It tasted good, she had to admit.
“They are making you out to be a hero,” continued her mother. “Look at this!”
She opened the newspaper on Lidya’s lap. Her daughter who was lying on a bed, her leg raised and swathed in bandages, nodded wearily.
“I know, Mamochka,” she said softly. “I have seen it.”
“Well, are you not proud?” asked her mother. “I am so proud to have a daughter who is a hero. All the country will be reading about you.”
“But it is mostly lies, Mother,” complained Lidya bitterly.
“It says you have shot down more than six enemy aircraft,” exclaimed her mother. “Is that not true?”
“Oh yes, that is true,” agreed her daughter. “It’s all the other stuff! Calling me ‘The Lily of Stalingrad’ and saying I have a Lily painted on my plane. It’s nonsense! All that’s painted on my plane is a camouflage pattern. And the stories of how I pick flowers and put them all over the planes on the airfield. Why, if I did such a thing, the male pilots would never let me hear the end of it! They say I made scarves out of scraps of the parachutes of my victims! And all that crap about how beautiful I am! They make me sound like a ‘vamp’ from one of those decadent western Hollywood movies!”
“But you are beautiful, Lidya,” Anna protested.
“Oh yes, Mamochka,” said her daughter impatiently. “Of course, you think so! You are my mother!”
“I don’t care what you say,” declared Anna stubbornly, brushing back her greying hair. “You are a hero in my eyes, and I am proud of you!”
“Thank you,” said Lidya, leaning forward to kiss her mother on the forehead. Then she winced with pain, and sank back against the pillows.
“Are you all right, dear?” asked her mother anxiously.
“Just a little pain in my leg,” answered Lidya carefully. “You know, Mother,” she continued, “since the death of my hero, the famous aviatrix Marina Raskova, in a plane crash two months ago, the leaders of our country have been looking for a new heroine to boost the morale and patriotic fervor of the Russian people. I fear that I have been chosen. They will write these exaggerated stories about me. They will create a myth around my name. They will present me with a decoration, and make me attend ceremonies and public events to boost the war effort. But I just want to get well as quickly as I can and return to my comrades and to the struggle!”
“There, there, Lydia,” said Anna, gently patting her arm. “You must rest. No-one will disturb you. I will see to that!”
Stalingrad, USSR, some weeks later.
“How was Moscow, comrade?” asked Katya Budanova, a wry smile on her face. “We heard you were hailed as quite a hero.”
Lydia Liyvyak grimaced.
“Let us just say I am relieved to be back where I belong,” she said.
“They tell me you declined the chance for extended leave, remarked Katya.
“It was a circus!” exclaimed Lydia with a shrug. “All those crazy stories. Even the American magazines picked them up. ‘The beautiful Rose of Stalingrad taking on six Luftwaffe beasts at a time, and sending them packing’. It was becoming nauseating!”
“Well, my friend,” said Katya, “I’m afraid you are now a symbol to the women of Russia. Even the men admire the glamorous Lidya Litvyak. You wanted to be a great pilot. Well, now you are one!”
“This was not the way it was meant to be, Katya,” answered Lidya disconsolately. “Yes, I wanted action and adventure, something ‘wonderful and magnificent, a wild but interesting life’ as I wrote in a letter to my mother, but not this!”
“Come, Lidochka,” said Katya affectionately. “I have a bottle of vodka in my quarters. We will share a glass to celebrate your return. I for one am glad to see you.”
“Thank you, my friend,” said Lydia, “and I will share with you some fresh baked rogaliki that my mother made for me before I left. I don’t know where she got the flour for them, but she is a truly resourceful woman!”
“How wonderful to see you, Lydia!” exclaimed Alexei. “I have sorely missed those flashing green eyes of yours. How is your leg? Are you recovering?”
“It is mending,” replied Lydia with a wan smile. “But I cannot wait to get back into the air.”
“Don’t be in too much of a hurry,” cautioned Alexei. “You need to be fully recovered. I cannot have a crippled wingman!”
There was a playful grin on his handsome face.
“I am so tired of lying on my back, so tired of being earthbound,” protested Lydia.
All of a sudden Alexei threw his arms around her slight frame, and drew her towards him.
“Lydia Vladimirovna, I have missed you so much!” he exclaimed. “Your beauty, your courage, your reckless bravado! You are the only woman for me! I wish you could see this! I want you for my own!”
Lydia gazed up into his face, glimpsing the passion and desire that was clearly there. She felt a surge of responsive affection sweep through her, and she was filled with a yearning to feel his lips on hers. The urge was powerful, her resistance was wavering, but with an effort she tore her glance from his.
“I have told you, Alexei, that there is no-one for whom I have a deeper affection than you, but I believe that I must hold myself free and apart so that I can fight for the Motherland,” she said. “Perhaps years from now, when the invader has been driven from our land, our love might flourish, but for now I cannot give myself to you. Please let me go!”
For a moment it seemed that Alexei would draw her even tighter into his embrace, but at last he released her from his arms. She stepped away from him. There was an expression of deep pain on his face.
“I am afraid that I will lose you, Lydia,” he said, “afraid that one sunny morning we will fly out on a mission together, and that one of us will not return. You know how high the casualty rate amongst pilots is!”
She stepped back towards him, and raised her hand to his face. Tenderly she brushed his cheek with her fingers.
“Forgive me, Alex,” she said. “Forgive me for hurting you, but I cannot allow myself to be distracted from my purpose. Let us speak of this no more.”
Vicinity of Stalingrad, USSR, May 21, 1943.
Lydia and Katya were lying in the grass at the edge of the airfield, enjoying the warm May sunshine. An unexpected lull in hostilities had afforded them this brief opportunity to rest and relax. Katya was chewing on a blade of grass whilst Lydia idly plucked at the early daisies flowering around her. She began to pinch the stalks between her fingers to weave them together in a chain.
“Used to do this when I was a kid,” she explained with a sheepish smile.
“The Lily of Stalingrad making a daisy chain,” chuckled Katya. “How appropriate! But who is that cowboy performing acrobatics up there in the sky?”
Lydia glanced skywards, and her face creased into a frown of concern.
“It’s Alexei,” she said. “I recognize his plane. I remember now. He was assigned to train a new pilot who came in yesterday. That’s the other plane up there.”
“It doesn’t look like he’s training him so much as showing off,” commented Katya critically.
“You know Alexei,” answered Lydia wryly. “He loves to showboat!”
“I think I know another pilot who’s been known to engage in such theatrics,” teased Katya.
“You’re right,” conceded Lydia. “I know I’ve annoyed my commanders with those kind of stunts.”
She paused to glance up again.
“That last dive was much too risky,” she said in sudden alarm. He’s risking a stall!”
Aleksei’s plane was flying at low airspeed, performing tighter and tighter turns. The two women watched with growing concern.
“Don’t, Alexei, don’t,” Lydia cried out fearfully. “Please stop!”
She was wringing her hands with anxiety, willing him to cease his aerial acrobatics. Katya sat next to her, her face a somber mask.
All of a sudden that which the two women had dreaded occurred. Alexei attempted to execute a steep turn, and one of his wings dropped and struck the ground. All at once there was a grinding crash and the plane plunged into the earth with a tremendous impact.
The two women sat frozen with horror for a moment, and then leaping to their feet, sprinted towards the fallen plane. The distance to the plane was at least two hundred yards, but it seemed to Lydia that they covered the ground in no time, their legs pumping, their breath coming in hoarse gasps. Even so there was already a cluster of people gathered around the wreckage as they approached.
Lydia felt her headlong progress halted by a pair of strong arms. She recognized Alexei’s friend, Boris, as the source of intervention.
“I don’t think you should see this, Lydia,” he said.
“I have seen death before, Boris,” protested Lydia, struggling in his grip. “He is my friend.”
“That is why you shouldn’t see him,” insisted Boris, grasping her arms more firmly. “The impact of the crash has pushed the front of the plane back into the fuselage. He was crushed. He is dead.”
Lydia’s hands went up to her face. She ceased to struggle, and her shoulders shook with deep sobs of grief. As Boris released her, she turned to Katya, and moaned in anguish:
“Why did he do it? Fare has snatched away my best friend!”
Then she fell into the arms of her comrade.
Some days later she tried to explain her feelings in a letter to her mother:
“You see, he was not my type, but his insistence and his love for me convinced me to love him too late. Now it seems I will never meet someone like him again.”
From that moment on it seemed a new urgency and desperation had come into her life. She wanted only to fly and fight the enemy until the last German had been driven from the land.
Vicinity of Stalingrad, May 31, 1943.
“But I know I can do it!” insisted Lieutenant Lydia Litvyak in a tone of calm assuredness.
“Nonsense!” responded her squadron commander. “It would be suicide to attempt such a thing!”
“All conventional attacks on the Artillery Observation Balloon have been unsuccessful,” persisted Lydia. “The heavy anti-aircraft cover has thwarted all our efforts, and the spotters in the balloon continue to relay devastating information to the enemy’s artillery causing severe casualties to our troops. It is our duty to destroy this balloon!”
“All that you say is correct,” agreed the commander, “but your plan to attack by surprise is fraught with danger. You will have to fly a wide circle of considerable distance over enemy territory to arrive in position to attack the balloon from the rear. It is too risky. I cannot allow you to do it.”
“But, Comrade Commander, if I am spotted, it is but one pilot lost,” said Lydia. “and if I am successful…”
“I am concerned about you, Lieutenant,” interrupted the Commander. “You have lately demonstrated scant concern for your personal safety. It is as if you want to be shot down!”
“Of course not, comrade,” replied Lydia briskly, “but I believe that I can accomplish this mission if only you will give me the chance.”
At last against his better judgement the Commander approved the daring plan of Lieutenant Lydia Litvyak. Several hours later he received word that the enemy Observation Balloon, which had for weeks defied the assaults of his planes, had plunged to earth, catching fire from a stream of tracer bullets, delivered from behind, and was destroyed. The pilot of the plane that had accomplished this daring mission had returned unharmed to base.
Two weeks later Lieutenant Lydia Litvak was promoted to Flight Commander of the 3rd Aviation Squadron.
Less than a month later, on July 11, her good friend and comrade Katya Budanova was killed when her plane was shot down near Stalingrad. Lydia’s sense of loneliness and desolation deepened, and she wondered if her luck too was soon to run out.
Women’s Airforce barracks, July 31, 1943.
Lidya lay on her bunk staring sleepless into the darkness. After three or four missions on each of the last three days she should have been exhausted, but instead she was wide awake, her restless thoughts sweeping tumultuously across her brain. She had found it so difficult to sleep since the death of her two friends. She was constantly thinking of them, recalling the times they had shared together, the good times which would never return.
She tried to shift her thoughts to recall scenes from her childhood before this terrible conflict had engulfed her country, but found that she could not, her mind constantly returning to that traumatic afternoon when Alexei’s plane had plunged to earth or to that moment when one of her co-pilots had broken the news of Katya’s tragic death.
When will it be my turn, she thought gloomily?
When will my luck finally run out? And even if I survive all this death and destruction, what kind of life will there be for me in peacetime? Will they greet us as heroes with gratitude or will they want to forget us along with the war? And what of the future for women? Will our progress to equality and a life of meaningful engagement continue or will the leaders banish us back to domesticity and deadening routine?
With these thoughts racing through her head Lidya slipped into an uneasy, dream-haunted sleep a few hours before dawn.
Airforce Headquarters, near Stalingrad, evening of August 1, 1943.
“She should not have gone out on that last mission,” said the pilot. “She had already been out three times today. But she insisted. Nobody could stop her. Her mechanic said that she wouldn’t rest. She only wanted to fly and fight.”
“I understand that you were escorting a flight of Ilyushin II-2 ground attack aircraft when the fighting broke out,” said the commander.
“Yes, sir,” replied the pilot, Ivan Borisenko. “It was near Orel. Litvyak spotted some German bombers, and went on the attack. She just didn’t see the Messerschmitt 109’s that were accompanying the bombers. There was a lot of cloud cover. A pair of them fired on her. When she did see them she turned away from her target to face them. Then they all disappeared behind a cloud, and at that moment I found myself involved in a dogfight.”
“And did you see her plane again?” asked the commander.
“I saw her for the last time through a gap in the clouds,” answered Borisenko. “Smoke was pouring from her YAK-1, and she was being pursued by as many as eight Bf-102’s. There was a lull in the action around me, and I descended to see if I could find her, but there was no parachute in sight, no explosion, and no wreckage anywhere. I don’t know what happened to her!”
“It is most unfortunate,” said the commander with regret. “With no confirmation of her death we must report her as missing. The leadership will assume that this means she was captured, and you know Marshal Stalin’s attitude to prisoners. He regards them as traitors. She cannot receive the award of ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’ which she richly deserves. I knew of no more gallant fighter. It is a double tragedy.”
“Perhaps we will find the remains later,” suggested Borisenko. “The area where she went down is currently in enemy hands, but our army is advancing rapidly, and we may soon be able to mount a more thorough search for Comrade Litvyak.”
“I hope so,” said the commander with a sigh. “For the sake of her family and her reputation I hope so!”
The romantic myth woven around the figure of Lidya Litvyak and her exploits has perhaps concealed the true significance of her life. Soviet propaganda and Western magazine articles turned her into the exotic, vampish ‘Lily of Stalingrad’. It is difficult to separate the truth from the myth especially after so many years, but there is no doubt that she was a daring skillful pioneering female pilot who blazed a trail for other Russian women to follow. Her counterparts, female aviators in Britain and the United States, were not permitted to engage in combat during the Second World War, but Soviet Russia engaged in a desperate struggle against the Nazi invaders could have no scruples about allowing their women to be pilots, snipers, soldiers and partizans. Many of them sacrificed their lives to save their country. Lydia Litvyak is one of the best-known of these patriots. Mystery surrounded the fate of this daring female pilot for almost forty years after her disappearance. Finally some bones and aircraft debris were discovered in a location close to where she was last sighted. Although no DNA tests were ever carried out, Russian investigators concluded that they were most probably the remains of Lydia Litvyak. Some disputed the decision, claiming that an old woman had reported seeing a female pilot being led away from a crashed plane on the day of Lydia’s disappearance. This contributed to the belief that she had indeed been taken prisoner by the Germans. Some even claim that she survived the war, and decided not to return to Russia for fear of Stalinist repercussions over her capture. As a returning prisoner of war she would have been regarded by the Soviet authorities as a traitor, and most probably sent to the gulag. Some historians say that she went to Switzerland, married and raised a family! Nevertheless, in spite of continued speculation, Premier Gorbachev finally decided to make Lydia Litvyak a ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’ in 1990. This seemed only fair in light of her gallant and selfless service.