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.
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.”
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:
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:
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:
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.