The Soviet Union was the only major combatant to employ women in front line combat positions in World War II. Perhaps the most famous example is Lt Litvyak.
After the jump, I’ll look at this famous pilot and the plane she was best known for.
Studying the Soviet history of World War II proves the lie of “The winners write the history”.* Most reliable history and documentation we have of the “Great Patriotic War” comes from German sources. Almost everything we have from the Soviet side is shameless propaganda heavy on human interest stories. The situation has improved some since the fall of the Soviet Union, at least many records and statistics are now available to historians. But the story of Lilia Litvyak is the sort of thing Soviet writers loved. They called her “The White Lily of Stalingrad”.
Lilia was a talented young pilot who pushed hard to be allowed to fly combat missions. She met some resistance because of her youth, but was eventually allowed to fly with an all woman group (586th Fighter Regiment). For reasons that aren’t clear (at least to me, I’ve seen different explanations) she transferred to a men’s unit (437th Fighter Regiment) along with three other woman and their ground crews (also women) in the summer of 1942. One explanation I saw that made sense was that these four women had all trained in the Yak-1, while the other women were flying the LaGG-3; so they transferred to a unit flying the type they were best suited for.
Whatever the reason, the result was fortuitous. Lilia became the first woman fighter pilot to score a kill in air to air combat (a Ju 88), the first woman to shoot down an enemy fighter (a Bf 109G) and the top scoring woman ace of all time with 12 individual + 4 “group” kills (Soviet term for what we would normally call a “shared” kill). Maybe. Different sources claim she had five, eight, eleven or twelve kills. Some sources claim another woman actually had more; although I believe since Soviet records were opened its generally accepted Lt. Litvyak had the most. But these are the hazards of Soviet “history”. Epic stories are told, truth is fuzzy.
What is known, is that on August 1, 1943 she flew her last mission. She bounced a German bomber formation, and was in turn jumped by their fighter escort. She was last seen being chased by eight Bf 109s. She was 21 years old, which was still young for a fighter pilot.
The model is an early Yak-1 from the Accurate Miniatures kit. The Yak-1 was a part of the generation of “new” aircraft the Soviets were introducing at the very start of World War II, and it is generally considered the best of that bunch. Overall it was about as good as a Bf 109F or Spitfire Mk V. Later derivatives of this design would still be among the Soviets’ best at the end of the war.
“Yellow 44” is the plane Lt. Litvyak flew in the first months of 1943. She had two confirmed kills (both Bf 109s) in this plane, before replacing it with a newer model Yak-1b.
* – The Peloponnesian War is the first war we have a contemporary history of. It comes entirely from Athenian Writers, even though Sparta won the war. So perhaps we can say “the winners write the history” is the oldest lie in military history!