Female Combat Pilots of WWII

Female Combat Pilots of WWII
Female Combat Pilots of WWII

Much of the following is a compilation of the history of some amazing women from WWII.   My immediate supervisor, Cheryl, who often fills numerous rolls, within the Walker Bunch, such as “Mom,” “Wife,” “Grammie,” etc., researched much of what you will read herein.  She wrote a paper for English 101 dated March, 29, 1989 “Women Pilots in World War II.”

Cheryl and my sister, Martha Jo are the editors for my “literary efforts.”  I hope you enjoy this along with the other aviation stories guaranteed to thwart insomnia.

In 1941, Soviet women pilots were organized into air combat units by Marina Raskova, a famous aviatrix.  Leading a 3-woman team pioneering an air transport route through Siberia, Marina’s fame erupted when she became an early aviation heroine of Russian folklore. 

You can’t exactly qualify what ‘role’ women played. Was it decisive? Not when it came to the air war. The majority of women pilots, navigators, armorers, mechanics, etc., can be found on the Eastern Front. Three women’s air regiments were set up by the Soviet high command, which included fighters, night bombers (nicknamed by the Germans Night Witches), and dive bombers. There were also individual women pilots/navigators spread throughout men’s regiments. They earned some of the highest awards and suffered losses on a regular basis against those fighting the Red Army. Their contribution mattered, as did the entirety of the 800,000 women that joined the Soviet war effort, but it was not decisive.

Many US women pilots along with their British counterparts wanted to fly in combat.  However, they were relegated to Air Transport Command roles ferrying aircraft, pulling targets and instructing basic flying.

Cheryl and I knew a number of WASP pilots.  There were several we had the good fortune of becoming good friends with.  Betty Blake, Geri Nyman and Byrd Granger come to mind.  But it was Betty Jo Reed who we were closest to.

Beech AT-10

Betty Joe died June 22, 2013 in Denver, just two days after her 90th birthday.   She was 6 years old when she first rode in an airplane, igniting a passion that made her a Women’s Airforce Service Pilot during World War II, and later a test pilot and corporate pilot.  Her twilight years were spent with Airbase Arizona.

British lady pilots were set up similar to the WASPS.  More discouraged than encouraged, they did what they could.  Yet it, as with the WASPs, was not on par with the Russian gals.  Not even close.

Back to the story about the lady combat pilots…  

Jacqueline Cochran and Nancy Love were the founders of the WASPS. For the Soviet women pilots, it was Marina Raskova.

In 1938 Raskova and two other Soviet women had set a world record for a non-stop direct flight by women when they flew a Soviet-built, twin-engine aircraft named Rodina (homeland) 6,000 kilometers across the expanse of the Soviet Union from Moscow to Komsomolsk-on-Amur in the Far East.

At the age of 19, Marina Raskova joined the Zhukovski’s Aviation Academy. In 1934 Raskova graduated as the first woman in the USSR to officially pass the aviation navigator exam, and during the next year she received her pilot’s license. On 28 October 1937 Raskova and Valentina Grizodubova, while flying an AIR-12, (I have NO idea what aircraft this is.  I’m unable to locate a photo or even a reference beyond what’s here) took the female world record in a long distance non-stop flight of 1,445 km.

In 1938 she took part in two record flights: on 2 July with Polina Osipienko and W. Lomako, in a MP-1 flying boat, over a distance of 2,241 km, and on 24-25 September with V. Grizodubova and P. Osipienko, in an ANT-37, for a non-stop flight over a distance of 5,908 km. After a string of these record ‘missions’, Capt. Marina Raskova, at this time a 25 year old woman, was awarded the Gold Star of a Soviet Hero.

The three flew on into the Siberian night. Raskova discussed their compass heading with her two team members.  She figured their crudely estimated current location on the map.  Then to further reduce the plane’s iced-over weight,        HOWEVER  NOT ENOUGH!    So the ice-burdened airplane continued . . eroding the numbers on its crude altimeter on that tar pitch black night . . over unpeopled Siberia.

Marina said :“Best wishes, ladies!” She shouldered open her cockpit door against icy slipstream slipstream . . then elbowing and kicking her way out  . . the movie star beautiful Marina . . forced her parachuted body into . . a Siberian black void.

 B-A-I-L-E-D    O – U – T  !

Absent . . Marina’s body weight . . the remaining two Russian women pilots were then able to stop losing altitude . .  struggled  forward  with its heavy ice load . . then several hours later made a sad but safe landing. 

With absolutely incredible good luck, Marina Raskova . . was rescued by hunters the next day. 

Sometime afterward, Marina received just acclaim after flying across vast Russia . . setting the women’s long-distance flying record  .  . a handful of ‘ klicks ‘ fewer than . . 4,000 kilometers.

Later killed in combat action, the gorgeous and charismatic Marina is also remembered for her radio talks on Radio Moscow. . as she appealed to Russian women . . those who loved ‘ mother ‘ Russia . . to volunteer to fly as pilots air combat against the Nazis.

Marina Raskova ( 1912-1943 )

From outside Stalingrad, hundreds of Russian girls descended on the pilot training site and stoically accepted their issued uniforms.                                                                             

To ‘ down-size ‘ the military clothing, each woman stuffed her newly-issued men’s boots with news paper,  fastened makeshift belts around their smaller waists . . to hold up their men’s pants. 

Then sadly allowed their womanly pride of waist-long hair to be hacked off.  Swept their precious hair a way with the floor dirt.                                                                                 

Six months later, the fledging women pilots who’d made it through, were organized into air combat units with Marina as their Commander.

After six months of intensive training, the women were rushed through equivalent of 2 years of fighter aircraft or light bomber flight school.       

Most of girls wanted to be fighter pilots. But many of those actually became infamous ‘ Night Witches ‘ . . as they flew 335 mph Petlyakov twin-engined light bombers dropping bombs, in the ‘ wee hours ‘. .  keeping the exhausted German front line troops from vital sleep.    

After receiving air combat training, some of the girls were formed into women only squadrons of attack pilots. And they were always located close to combat’s front lines. [ Ed. This was also effectively used by the enemy during the Korean war.]                                                                                     

These women pilots were typically also served by women aircraft mechanics and women armament fitters.


 US built Ryan PT-22

The aircraft most produced during WWII was the Russian Li-2 “Sturmovik” of which 36,183 were built.  Only two flyable examples remain and one of those crashed recently.

Roosevelt’s “Lend-Lease” program made it possible for the Soviets to acquire thousands of American built aircraft.  Yet, their own production lines were impressive.

After discussing it amongst themselves, the girls decided they would . . NOT  . . wear parachutes to save their lives .               

And after a forced landing, instead of accepting capture and rape by enemy troops, they all  agreed it would be O.K. to just fatally shoot themselves with their service pistols.

The women had been trained in a much lighter aircraft and most of them found upgrading the powerful single- seat YAK-1 fighter . . to be difficult. 

Yak-3 (Yak-1 advancement)

Their instructors just had time to ‘ drum into them ‘the maximum control they could exert over the YAK-1’s engine’s extra horsepower. And teach them their personal limits of manual control over its high performance, before allowing them to fly it themselves.  

With a 1,200 h.p. YAK-1 would move along at 335 mph . . but still not quite equal to the German Luftwaffe’s best fighter aircraft On the other hand, it was a huge improvement over the Russia’s older Polikarpov bi-planes ‘ held over ‘ from the ‘1930’s that the German Messerschmitts had quickly eliminated.

Now, the very best Russian fighter pilots . . several of them women often made effective use of the Russian YAK-1 fighter to shoot down . . numerous . . less astute German fighter pilots.

One skilled YAK-1 pilot was a teenage girl named ‘Lilya’ Lilya Litvak flew with brilliance.  And with her incredibly raw courage.  Lilya became a Double Ace.

Then she became Flight Commander of an otherwise one hundred percent fighter pilot regiment . . of tough and rough Russian jocks.

Described as strikingly beautiful, Lilya had ‘ no time for anyone who ‘ thought she was being just a ‘ cute ‘ girl . . and that was pretty much . . the limit of her usefulness.

On the other hand, as a typical girl, Lilya was fond of wild- flowers.  And she often carried them with her during combat missions. Her YAK’s cockpit sported a white rose painted on each side. And she became well-known to the appreciative Russian people as : ” Stalingrad’s . . WHITE ROSE.”

With the Soviet Air Force in a desperate combat mode, her flamboyancy was not always easy to maintain  Often, she flew sorties all day long.  And over the months, the pace began to grind her down. But, Lilya did score twelve [ 12 ] verified shoot downs . . before she herself was shot down. 

No parachute on . .

She was killed in the wreck.  Perhaps killed by someone who had a better and faster fighter aircraft. Lilya was just 21.

Decades later, her uncovered remains were found beneath the crushed wing of her YAK-1 ‘ White Rose ‘ as her final marker.  A principal role of the women fighter pilots, was to fend off the German bomber formations before the bombers reached their Russian targets.

Some of their YAK-1’s were fitted with 82mm rockets. Although inaccurate . . a direct hit on a German bomber . . would literally blow the bomber to bits. Delayed fuzing allowed the 82mm’s to burst inside . . blasting out in a shrapnel cloud. 

The first of the women’s fighter pilot regiments to go into battle was led by Tamara Kazarinova. By the end of WW II, her lady fighter pilots’ had flown 4,419 combat sorties in their YAK-1’s  . . and were credited with thirty-eight [ 38 ] aerial victories against the German bombers and fighters. 

Squadron Commander Olga Yamshchikova flew 93 combat sorties and scored three air victories.  And she earned her leadership role as a Fighter Squadron Commander. [ Ed. As a  test pilot, after the war, she became the first Russian woman to fly a jet aircraft.]

Two other women fighter pilots had a natural flair for winning individual ‘ dog fights.’ Both girls were transferred . . to join the Russian men fighter pilots engaged in the acid-etched ‘ . . . to the death ‘ . . dog fights ‘ over Stalingrad. 

By this time, Stalingrad had been bombed continuously by the Germans. 

The resulting fires burned out many square kilometers and dense smoke hung over the smashed metropolis city. 

Over a million civilians and soldiers, on both sides, were killed before the battle was over.  For Germany, Stalingrad became . . the Nazi’s first great disaster.

The two women fighter pilots then joined the Free Hunters, a unit specifically missioned to seek out and shoot down the German fighter aircraft protecting bomber streams headed to lay waste to Stalingrad.

When the women arrived at the ‘ Free Hunters,’ the male fighter pilots found it difficult to accept the women as ‘ dog fight’ pilots.

Many flight leaders didn’t want a woman flying on their wing protecting them . . during aerial combat. .  they protested : NO  wing women   

However, when both women courageously demonstrated they were not only trustworthy, but natural dog fighters ‘ [ often with superior eyesight.]  Several fighter leaders relented. When they were offered the opportunity to lead = BOTH women quickly became fighter pilot Aces.

German airmen were always surprised to encounter women Russian fighter pilots in active air combat roles against them.  One German pilot, Major D. Meyer, remembered his Messerschmitt being attacked by an aggressive small covey of Russian YAKs.

During the ensuing air duel, Meyer’s fighter was hit hard by YAK gunfire from behind.

He jettisoned his canopy. And as his canopy flipped off in the slipstream . . it struck the propeller of a closely pursuing Russian YAK  . . causing its fighter pilot to crash.

After bellying in his own crippled fighter, Meyer walked over to the wrecked YAK  near-by . . to find the crushed body of a young . . . Russian girl with No squadron insignia or rank.   She had no parachute.

Russia’s ‘Night Witches’ . . were among the elite of the fighting units. All during the war, this 100 women  regiment fought from deep inside Russia.  All the way to  Berlin.

They flew a total of 24,000 combat missions – primarily at night – often in foul weather and poor visibility.  During those nights, they dropped tons of their little bombs one exhausted German front line soldiers .

Twenty three women pilots and navigators of the ‘ Night Witches’ became Heroes of the Soviet Union for their dangerous work. Throughout the war, the squadron remained entirely female.

The women’s PE-2 light bomber had a crew of three : pilot, navigator and rear gunner radio operator. The Russian aircraft had two machine guns firing forward. A long with a ‘ womanized’ machine gun . . set up in the light bomber’s swiveling plastic bubble.

When the PE-2 was fully loaded for take-off with fuel and bombs, the girl navigator often had to reach over  . . and assist the girl pilot by ‘ muscling ‘ around . . her control yoke . .  then yank up the gear lever . . allowing the bomber’s  wheels to retract. 

Russian women pilots went on to fly more than twenty-four thousand combat sorties.

For their valor, no less than sixty-eight of these outstanding Russian women pilots received ‘ Hero Of The Soviet Union ‘ medals.   

Sources :  Paper by Cheryl Walker, ASU 1995. ’ Night Witches ‘ by Bruce Myles and  Time/Life magazine : ” Russia Women Aloft ” and  the ‘ White Rose of Stalingrad ‘


  1. writing this again because the comments capitalize every word preceded by a space when writing a comment but it posts it correctly. This is a fascinating research on the female Russian pilots. We were led to search verify that the TV story was true and seek more information on the all woman Flying Unit. It was available on TUBI november 7. We watched two episodes of from this 2013 TV show. It is a Russian production and titled: Night Swallows.

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