Monthly Archives: March 2014

Aviation Group 122: Gender Issues

This article was originally posted at Feminist Borg.  Read part 1 here and part 2 here.

A Soviet factory worker

A Soviet factory worker

Any Westerner studying Aviation Group 122 can’t help being struck by both the similarities and the differences between their experiences and the experiences of Western women in nontraditional fields. The USSR was established on a foundation of egalitarian Bolshevism, and while it had taken a sharp turn to the right under Stalin, it remained far more progressive on gender issues than the West in many ways, most notably in the presence of women in every sector of the workforce. Thus, while the resistance many of the women met in learning to fly may seem familiar, the reasons given by 46th Guards pilot Antonina Bondareva are not:

Father was dead against it, though. Until then all members of my family had been steelworkers, with several generations of blast-furnace workers. My father believed that a woman could be a steelworker but never a pilot (Pennington 9).

Anna Timofeeva, who flew in a male bomber regiment, had a similar experience:

The Il-2, of course, is not a “lady’s” aircraft. But after all, I’m no princess, but a metal worker who helped build the Moscow subway system (Pennington 128).

586th pilot Mariya Kuznetsova and mechanic Piotr Pshenichnikov in a press photo staged to emphasize the pilot's femininity

586th pilot Mariya Kuznetsova and mechanic Piotr Pshenichnikov in a press photo staged to emphasize the pilot’s femininity

The women faced a lot of belittling and skepticism, especially at the beginning. When the 46th Guards arrived at the front, their division commander asked the commander of their air army, “I’ve received 112 little princesses. Just what am I supposed to do with them (Pennington 77)?” Male fighter pilots often refused to let the female pilots fly with them as wingmen, ostensibly to protect them, but actually robbing the rookie pilots of the chance to fly alongside experienced veterans. And when Raskova brought in a male instructor to teach dive-bombing to the pilots of the 587th, he told her outright that it was ridiculous to think that women could learn dive-bombing. Once he had flown with them, he had to eat his words.

A 586th pilot in an oversized men's flight suit

A 586th pilot in an oversized men’s flight suit

However, in many ways, the women’s air regiments were notable for the lack of special treatment they received. Valentin Markov, who commanded the 125th Guards, notes that “My superiors made no distinction between male and female units, of which the girls were very proud (Cottam 22).” They served in the same divisions with male regiments (the 586th and 125th both eventually incorporated some men), flew the same types of missions, and were issued men’s uniforms, right down to the underwear. Although the selection process was stringent, they were never given a physical, not even the armorers, who were expected to wrangle 100-kilo bombs. Russians simply took the strength and hardiness of their women for granted. Meanwhile, across the pond, American WASPs were forbidden from flying while on their periods (an order that was, unsurprisingly, never followed, since their male superior officers didn’t want to ask).

Armorers of the 46th Guards

Armorers of the 46th Guards

The women of Aviation Group 122 were proud of their gender. 46th Guards chief of staff Irina Rakobolskaya says, “The first slogan of the regiment was: You are a woman, and you should be proud of that (Noggle 29).” Their all-female status was a particular point of pride for the 46th Guards, who were adamant about maintaining it. Historian Reina Pennington describes a visit from Rokossovskii, the commander of the front, and Vershinin, the commander of the air army:

Before the assembled regiment, Rokossovskii turned to Vershinin and said, “It’s probably hard for the girls to do everything themselves. Maybe we should send them ten or twenty men to help hang bombs and do other heavy work?” But the women protested loudly, “We don’t need any helpers, we’re managing just fine on our own (Pennington 74)!”

There is a curious tension between this pride (and the great lengths to which the airwomen went in order to serve) and the general agreement amongst them that it was unnatural for women to fight. 46th Guards navigator Alexandra Akimova expresses a typical opinion:

The very nature of a woman rejects the idea of fighting. A woman is born to give birth to children, to nurture…To be in the army in crucial periods is one thing, but to want to be in the military is not quite natural for a woman.

I think American women have the idea of romanticism connected with being in the military, and it leads them to want to be a part of it. That is probably because they have not fought a battle in their own country for a hundred years and don’t know the nature of war. If the women of the world united, war would never happen (Noggle 94)!

Nearly all of the other airwomen echo this sentiment. 586th formation commander Klavdiya Pankratova, however, disagrees:

I have a strong belief that it doesn’t matter whether it is a woman or a man at the controls; a woman can be a military pilot, she can fulfill combat missions if a misfortune like war falls upon the heads of the people of a country.

And then it came to who should retire. It was not the men, of course; I was made to retire, and I didn’t want to (Noggle 184).

The view that women don’t belong in combat except in times of great need was apparently shared by the command of the Soviet air force: All three women’s regiments were disbanded at the end of the war and nearly all the women had to stop flying. Yet few of them express Pankratova’s frustration. Most of them were simply so grateful for the war to be over that they were glad to leave their military careers behind them and return to civilian life. 46th Guards flight commander Nina Raspopova says that during the war, “I dreamed of a small village house, a piece of rye bread, and a glass of clear river water. And never again a war (Noggle 26)!”

On an individual level, the airwomen ran the full spectrum of gender expression. On one end of the spectrum, some of them, especially those who had flown previously in male regiments or flight clubs, adopted traditionally masculine attitudes as a way of legitimizing themselves as aviators. One such example is 46th Guards pilot Tatiana Makarova. Fellow pilot Natalya Melkin describes a teenaged Makarova this way:

Each morning, when everyone was still asleep, the thin girl in blue overalls rushed along her quiet street to the first streetcar…Always a little ashamed of looking too feminine and not at all like a pilot, Tanya, to make up for it, strove to put on a reckless and merry air, and purposely spoke in a somewhat rude tone, but she never succeeded in fooling anyone (Cottam 159-160).

125th Guards squadron commander Nadezhda Fedutenko presents a traditionally masculine appearance...

125th Guards squadron commander Nadezhda Fedutenko presents a traditionally masculine appearance…

The Kazarinova sisters, one of whom commanded the 586th and the other of whom was the chief of staff at the 125th Guards, had been some of the first female officers in the Soviet air force, and presented themselves in a very masculine manner. Yekaterina Migunova, the 125th’s deputy chief of staff, says that her superior “protested against her own femininity: she wore leather pants, cut her pretty curly hair very short, and chain-smoked cigarettes (Rennington 36).”

On the other hand, most of the women were unashamedly feminine in their gender presentation, none more so than Lydia Litvyak. According to a male pilot who flew with them, while Litvyak’s wingman and close friend, Katya Budanova, “hardly stood out from the fellows,” Litvyak was “a model of femininity and charm (Pennington 134).” Her mechanic, Inna Pasportnikova, recounts:

Lilya bleached her hair white, and she would send me to the hospital to get hydrogen peroxide liquid to do it. She took pieces of parachute, sewed them together, painted it different colors, and wrapped it around her neck.

Lilya was very fond of flowers, and whenever she saw them she picked them. She would arrive at the airfield early in the morning in the summer, pick a bucket of flowers, and spread them on the wings of her plane (Noggle 196).

Rakobolskaya makes it clear that becoming soldiers did not mean that the airwomen had to become masculine:

...While 46th Guards pilot Nadezhda Popova presents herself in a more feminine way

…While 46th Guards pilot Nadezhda Popova portrays herself in a more feminine way

Of course, we were not transformed overnight into a kind of pseudo-male soldiers. Girls stayed girls; they embroidered forget-me-nots on footcloths, flew kittens in their aircraft, danced on the airfield in non-operational weather and, at times, cried at the slightest provocation. However, most important, every day they fought better and better (Cottam 117).

46th Guards squadron commander Mariya Smirnova thinks that the war actually enhanced the women’s feminine side:

There is an opinion about women in combat that a woman stops being a woman after bombing, destroying, and killing; that she becomes crude and tough. This is not true; we all remained kind, compassionate, and loving. We became even more womanly, more caring of our children, our parents, and the land that has nourished us (Noggle 37).

The individual stories of the women of Aviation Group 122 demonstrate the complete disconnect between gendered behaviors and combat performance. Litvyak and Budanova were complete opposites, but they both became aces. The women of all three regiments fought bravely, received many decorations, and earned the respect of all the men who had initially doubted them.

And, as far as I know, nobody ever got sand in her vagina.



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Look Who Just Arrived!

The gray one is a girl and the other two are boys.  Gray is the bold one, black is the shy one, tabby is the naughty one, and they need names!IMG_8384IMG_8386



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Aviation Group 122: The Stories

This article was originally posted at Feminist Borg.  Read part 1 here and part 3 here.

I shall now launch into a detailed analysis into the historical and socio-cultural context within which Aviation Group 122 existed and how those factors shaped Soviet gender roles, as interpreted through a lens of contemporary feminism.

Just kidding. I’m actually going to tell you a bunch of stories about badass women in warplanes. I’ll focus on stories that you don’t hear very often, but I’d be negligent if I didn’t open with the dogfight of Lydia Litvyak and Erwin Maier.

Lydia Litvyak

Lydia Litvyak

It was only Litvyak’s second combat mission and she had just scored her first kill, a Junkers 88 bomber, when she noticed a fighter on the tail of another female fighter pilot. This wasn’t just any fighter: It was Luftwaffe ace Erwin Maier. Maier had 11 kills and an iron cross and considered himself invincible. Litvyak in her Yak-1 succeeded in outmaneuvering and shooting down the faster, more agile Messerschmitt Bf 109G and Maier was forced to bail out over Stalingrad. Captured by the Russians, Maier asked to meet the pilot who had bested him. When they brought out a five-foot-tall, 21-year-old blond girl, Maier thought he was being punked. Only after Litvyak described their dogfight blow for blow did Maier accept the truth. Allegedly, he offered her his gold watch as a token of her victory. Litvyak’s response? “I do not accept gifts from my enemies.”


Raisa Surnachevskaya

Another time two 586th pilots, Raisa Surnachevskaya and Tamara Pamyatnykh, were scrambled to intercept two enemy aircraft when it turned out there had been a miscommunication and there were actually forty-two enemy aircraft. Surnachevskaya recounts:

At first we thought they must be birds, there were so many of them. Then we realized they were German dive bombers, they were approaching the railroad station, and the station was full of trains (Noggle 187).

When they radioed their commander for instructions, they received the response, “Attack!” They dove through the formation twice, each shooting down a bomber on each pass, scattered the formation, and forced the bombers to drop their bombs in the fields and return without reaching their target. During the fight, Surnachevskaya saw Pamyatnykh hit:

My plane was not damaged by their gunfire but Tamara’s plane was, and I was filled with despair when I saw her plane dropping away, spinning and on fire (Noggle 187).

From Pamyatnykh’s perspective, it was more dramatic:

586th pilots Tamara Pamyatnykh and Klavdiya Pankratova

586th pilots Tamara Pamyatnykh and Klavdiya Pankratova

I was being thrown about with so much force that my arms were flailing about, and I couldn’t even get hold of the seat belt. I had already opened the canopy. My life flew in front of my eyes. I wanted to jump, but I couldn’t open the belt. I didn’t feel fear, but I thought I was going to die. At last I got the belt open and I didn’t even jump—I was thrown out of the cockpit! I pulled the ring of my parachute, and it opened. When I landed, I started touching myself to see if I had injuries because I thought I had been severely wounded. I had blood on my face, and I felt very ill. My face was hurt, and the blood was running down. When my parachute opened, I was only 150 meters from the ground.

I looked up to the sky and saw that Raisa had circled around and was making another attack on the bombers. I thought, If she makes that attack she will never survive. I went to the telegraph station to report to my regiment that my aircraft was down and destroyed. Then I saw Raisa walking across a field, and it was wintertime, and there was snow, and we were in our fur boots. We came together and embraced each other and had the feeling that we had both been given birth again (Noggle 160-161).

Surnachevskaya would later fly in combat while four months pregnant.

My favorite story from the 125th Guards was the time when formation commander Yekaterina Musatova’s landing gear jammed with one wheel retracted:

Petlyakov Pe-2s, the aircraft flown by the 125th Guards

Petlyakov Pe-2s, the aircraft flown by the 125th Guards

We circled the field, and then we were given the order to parachute out of the plane. I didn’t understand why we were to do that, and I decided to land the aircraft on the one gear. I managed to land on the left gear, and then, very slowly, I moved off the runway to clear it out for other aircraft. At this time there were cameramen at our field shooting a film about our female regiment, which was to be called The Wings of the Motherland. When we landed safely, a lot of people rushed toward the plane, and among them were those cameramen. When I got out of the cockpit, a cameraman came up to me and asked why I spoiled such a good shot, because our plane didn’t turn over or crash. He expected us to turn over and to show in the film how we crashed, and now we emerged safely from the cockpit (Noggle 149)!

Anna Popova wasn’t an Aviation Group 122 alumna—she was the radio operator on a male-crewed transport aircraft—but her story about being shot down is too good to leave out:

A Lisunov Li-2, the type of plane crewed by Anna Popova

A Lisunov Li-2, the type of plane crewed by Anna Popova

The pilot, our commander, called to me to help him hold the aircraft, and I saw that he was wounded in his chest and right arm. Our copilot became so frightened that he left the cabin and cowered near the back of the plane. I couldn’t help hold the control stick—it was beyond my physical capacity—so I dashed to the flight engineer for help, but he was on the floor, bleeding from six bullet wounds. Our commander was barely conscious but still managed to control the aircraft as we belly-landed… We touched the ground—we were safe! When we belly-landed I opened the hatch and pulled the flight engineer out of the cabin. The navigator and tail gunner had already jumped out and helped me lower the engineer to the ground. Now I can hardly give an account of how I energized myself to drag our commander through the hatch, but I did. I was the last to quit the plane…Our commander wanted us to leave him because he was so badly wounded, and he had his pistol ready to shoot himself if the fascists came. I didn’t obey him and stayed with the wounded…

Order of the Red Star

Order of the Red Star

While awaiting the rescue aircraft, the navigator and I returned to our burned aircraft to search for the Order of the Red Star, the award our pilot commander had been wearing when we were forced to land. He valued it highly and mourned its loss. It was nowhere to be found at the aircraft site, but we did find, to our horror, that we were in the middle of a mine field! Later, when in a Moscow military hospital, surgery was performed on our commander, and when they entered the wound, they extracted the medal from his chest! It had deflected the bullet from his heart and saved his life (Noggle 233-234).

And you thought that sentimental objects only stopped bullets in movies.

A Po-2 reading "To avenge our comrades, Tanya Makarova and Vera Belik!"

A Po-2 reading “To avenge our comrades, Tanya Makarova and Vera Belik!”

Of course it wasn’t all miraculous survivals and victories against the odds. The Eastern Front was the most dangerous place to be during World War II and the airwomen of Aviation Group 122 were in the thick of it. They suffered heavy casualties, especially the 46th Guards in their fragile, flammable biplanes, and had all kinds of harrowing experiences. While American pilots decorated their aircraft with cartoons and pin-ups, the planes of the 46th Guards bore vows of vengeance.

Yevdokiya Nosal

Yevdokiya Nosal

At the beginning of the war, pilot Yevdokiya Nosal had just delivered a baby when her maternity hospital was bombed. She was rescued unharmed from the rubble. Her baby was not. She joined the 46th Guards with a score to settle. Her navigator recalls, “My pilot strove to fly as many operational sorties as possible every night. She certainly had a good reason to want to square her account with the Nazis (Cottam 134).” Nosal, one of the 46th Guards’ best pilots, was later shot in the head while on a sortie. Her navigator was forced to fly the plane back on her own (the Po-2 had dual controls because it was a trainer), holding Nosal’s body up by the collar to keep it from slumping forward onto the control stick. Nosal posthumously became the regiment’s first Hero of the Soviet Union.

Because they flew small utility aircraft, the 46th Guards were sometimes dispatched on noncombat missions, dropping supplies or airlifting out the wounded. It’s one of those stories, related by pilot Nadezhda Popova, that I’d like to end with.

A part of our navy troops occupied a small territory of the city [of Novorossijsk] on the seacoast, and they had sent a radio message that they had no water, ammunition, medical supplies, or food and asked for urgent assistance. Our aircraft were supplied with containers filled with supplies to drop to our troops. We took off, and my heart was pounding because this was an unusual mission—not to destroy but to save our sailors. I was fond of seamen; I liked the uniforms and thought they looked like knights. The army and air force changed their uniforms with time but not the navy. So I went on this mission like a child with an open heart…

I cried to Katya that we would drop the supplies together because if we missed, the cargo could drop into German positions. So then we dropped the cargo. I increased my speed and glided to the edge of the Black Sea.

Nadezhda Popova with her plane

Nadezhda Popova with her plane

About that time the antiaircraft guns started, and all the guns were firing. I felt a shell explode near my aircraft; it hit the wing and made a large hole. My controls were sticking, and I was afraid to be shot down over the German positions, so I started maneuvering at an altitude of about one hundred meters over the sea. I managed to fly back to my airdrome and land. Then the colonel who gave us the order to drop supplies climbed up on the wing and thanked us. The sailors had sent a radio message that they got everything. There were bullet holes in the wings, map holder, and even my helmet. But we were not hit. I said, “Thanks to God, everything is all right.” When the war was over…I was asked to tell an episode from the war, and I told that particular story. Then a man came up and embraced me and said that now he knew who had saved them, and he thanked me. He was one of the sailors in that unit on the Black Sea that our regiment had saved. He told me that all the sailors had then prayed to God for our lives, to save us from the enemy’s wild bullets (Noggle 84).

For even more stories from Aviation Group 122, keep an eye out for my upcoming novel, Among the Red Stars.


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Aviation Group 122, Or Why the Women in Combat Debate Was Settled 70 Years Ago

This article was originally posted at Feminist Borg.  Read part 2 here and part 3 here.

As the US Army opens a range of new positions to women this month, we’ll no doubt see a resurgence of the perennial argument about women’s fitness for combat. The tired arguments that always get trotted out for why women shouldn’t serve in combat — physical fitness, unit cohesion, sand in their vaginas — are dubious in any case, but to anyone who has studied WWII Soviet history, they’re just plain hilarious. It turns out that there’s no question as to whether women can serve in combat. They already have. And they didn’t just serve: They kicked ass.


Sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko

Unlike the other Allied nations, where women were restricted to non-combat positions like nurses, the Soviet Union recruited thousands of women to serve in all kinds of positions both in and out of combat, from partisans to tank commanders. Women were especially prized as snipers, since they were believed to be more focused and patient than men; one racked up over 300 kills. By the end of the war, women were estimated to make up about 10% of the Soviet military. Trot out that statistic next time someone complains that a war movie or game is unrealistic for including women.

Eugenie Shakhovskaya

Eugenie Shakhovskaya

But I’m going to talk about some of the most fascinating women of World War II: The members of the all-female Aviation Group 122. Russian women had long been involved in aviation, beginning with World War I recon pilot and fabulous hat-wearer Princess Eugenie Shakhovskaya. Flying clubs were popular among Soviet youth of both genders. When Germany invaded, there were many women with pilot’s licenses eager to get into combat. And by eager, I mean very eager, as pilot Yevgeniya Zhigulenko recounts:

There were several girls who had asked to go to the front, and they were turned down. So they stole a fighter plane and flew off to the front. They just couldn’t wait (Amy Goodpaster Streebe, Flying For Her Country 15).

Marina Raskova

Marina Raskova

Celebrated navigator Marina Raskova, famed for the record-setting long-distance flight that ended with her surviving alone for ten days in the Siberian taiga, approached Stalin with an idea: An aviation group composed entirely of women, from the pilots to the navigators to the command staff. The result was Aviation Group 122, which eventually became three regiments: The 586th Fighter Regiment, flying Yakovlev Yak-1s, the 125th Guards Dive Bomber Regiment, which flew the technically advanced Petlyakov Pe-2, and most famous of all, the 46th Guards Night Bomber Regiment, flying the Polikarpov Po-2 biplane.

So how did they do? Did they prove as capable as the male regiments? As if you need to ask.

Lilya Litvyak

Lydia Litvyak

The fighter regiment produced both of the world’s only female fighter aces: 11-kill Yekaterina Budanova and Lydia Litvyak, the famed “White Rose of Stalingrad,” credited with 12 solo and four joint kills. Budanova and Litvyak operated as free hunters, pairs of elite pilots who prowled for enemy planes like total bosses. According to legend, Litvyak painted white flowers on her plane’s fuselage and German fighter pilots would flee when they saw them.

Pilot Elena Kulkova and navigator with a Pe-2

Pilot Elena Kulkova and navigator with a Pe-2

The dive bomber regiment, initially commanded by Raskova herself, faced a lot of skepticism about its airwomen’s ability to handle the Pe-2, a twin-tailed bomber feared by rookie pilots and beloved by talented ones. Flying the Pe-2 was demanding both mentally and physically. The pilot often had to brace against the navigator’s back in order to pull back the control stick with enough force to get the plane off the ground. Tail gunner Antonina Dubkova reports, “The real effort was to recharge the machine gun, to pull the lever when it took sixty kilograms, and I had to do it with my left arm (Anne Noggle, A Dance with Death 144).” But the 122nd performed well and five of its airwomen were decorated as Heroes of the Soviet Union, the USSR’s highest honor.

Women of the 46th Guards

Women of the 46th Guards. A Po-2 is visible in the background.

And then there were the night bombers. Flying small, antiquated wood-and-canvas biplanes that were designed to be trainers and equipped with no parachutes, no radios, and only the most rudimentary instruments, they didn’t exactly have success dropped in their laps. And yet they became one of the most decorated Soviet air regiments, flying some 24,000 combat sorties and producing 24 Heroes of the Soviet Union. The Germans were terrified of them. According to one POW, “When the women started bombing our trenches…the radio stations on this line warned all the troops, ‘Attention, attention, the ladies are in the air, stay at your shelter (Noggle 46).'” It was the Germans who gave them the name by which they were best known. Mechanic Nina Yegorova says:

The Germans called the crews night witches. They liked to sleep at night, and our aircraft made the Germans’ life not so easy; they disturbed their sleep. Sometimes, when our planes were throttled back gliding in over the target, the Germans would cry out, “Night witches!”, and our crews could hear them (Noggle 64).

If you’d like to learn more about the women of Aviation Group 122, two fascinating books on the topic are Wings, Women and War: Soviet Airwomen in World War II Combat by Reina Pennington and A Dance With Death: Soviet Airwomen in World War II by Anne Noggle.


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