Lidya Litvyak was the world’s first female pilot to shoot down an enemy aircraft and the world’s first female fighter ace. Her impressive score of confirmed kills—12 solo victories and four shared kills during 66 combat missions—is yet to be exceeded by another woman.
Does a woman have what it takes to be a good combat pilot? The question would have seemed strange to Lidya Litvyak. During World War II, this young woman with a passion for flowers, shot down over a dozen of Germany’s best fighter pilots to become the greatest female ace ever. In her own country, the Soviet Union, the only nation to regularly field women in combat during the War, she was known as the “White Lily of Stalingrad”.
The Western press covered her aerial exploits in glowing terms calling her the “White Rose of Stalingrad”. A regimental commander in the division she was assigned to described her as “a very aggressive person” and “a born fighter pilot”. She died before her 22nd birthday and is rightly remembered as one of the Soviet Union’s greatest military aviators, man or woman. So who was the real Lidya?
Lidya Vladimirovna Litvyak, affectionately known as Lilya, was born in Moscow on August 18, 1921. By mere coincidence the date was later chosen as Soviet Aviation Day. She grew up as an ordinary girl who yearned to fly. Her first solo was at the age of 15 and she graduated from the Kherson Flight School on the River Dnieper, now part of Ukraine. Within three years she became a flight instructor at the Kalinin Airclub and had trained 45 pilots by the time the German attack on the Soviet Union commenced on June 22, 1941.
Lidya immediately volunteered to join a women’s aviation regiment that was being formed by Marina Raskova, the famous Soviet woman pilot, as part of frantic efforts to try and halt the relentless German advance. Lidya was initially rejected as being inexperienced but eventually joined the all-female 586th Fighter Regiment of the Air Defence Force. There, from January 1942 onwards, she learned to fly and fight on the Yakovlev Yak-1, thought to be one of the best Soviet fighter aircraft of the time. In September 1942, Lidya Litvyak and a small group of women pilots who had a special reputation for skill and daring, finally achieved their dream of being part of an elite men’s unit, the 437th Fighter Regiment. The crucial Battle of Stalingrad had begun a few weeks earlier. Within days Lidya achieved her first couple of kills, thus becoming the first female fighter pilot to shoot down an enemy aircraft. It took her less than a month to account for five aircraft and gain the coveted title of fighter ace. An interesting story is told about the time when she shot down a Luftwaffe Bf 109 G-2 Gustav. The aircraft was piloted by Staff Sergeant Erwin Maier, an 11-victory ace. After Maier bailed out from his stricken plane and was captured, he asked to meet the Russian pilot who had shot him down. When he was taken to Lidya, he thought they were trying to make fun of him. Then she described each aerial manoeuvre in detail, exactly as it had just happened and the proud three-time recipient of Germany’s Iron Cross had to grudgingly accept that he had been conquered in combat by a mere woman.
As Lidya Litvyak continued to take on in aerial combat some of Germany’s best fighter pilots, she was wounded on more than one occasion and even suffered life-threatening injuries, but did not flinch. Her prowess as a pilot was rewarded when on June 13, 1943, she was given command of a fighter squadron. Shortly thereafter, she lost her close friend fellow woman ace Katya Budanova and Alieksiey Solomatin whom she was in love with. Although she was exhausted both physically and mentally, combat flying now became a ruthless obsession. But her days were numbered. On August 1, 1943, while she was escorting a unit of Ilyushin IL-2 Shturmovik strike aircraft returning from an attack during the Battle of Kursk, they were pounced upon by the Luftwaffe. Because of Litvyak’s notoriety, the Germans singled out her Yak-1 with the number 23 painted on board. Eight Bf 109 fighters concentrated solely on attacking her. She was last spotted through a gap in the clouds, her aircraft pouring smoke and with the Germans in hot pursuit. No parachute was seen and no explosion was heard, yet neither was her downed aircraft nor her body found during the War. It was not until 1979 that her remains were discovered. In 1986 her name was finally transferred from the “missing” list to the list of those “killed in action”. And formal recognition as a Hero of the Soviet Union, the country’s highest military award for bravery, came only in May 1990, almost half a century after her death.
Lidya Litvyak was the world’s first female pilot to shoot down an enemy aircraft and the world’s first female fighter ace. Her impressive score of confirmed kills—12 solo victories and four shared kills during 66 combat missions—is yet to be exceeded by another woman. She represented a generation of women, barely out of their teens, who took on the Germans with exceptional courage and proficiency. They showed that capability, not gender, is the ultimate measure of a combat pilot.