|Do women still believe that by burning their bra makes them equal with men? What rubbish. Why would women want to demean themselves? Take Lidiya Litviak, for instance……..|
I always thought that burning one’s bra came under the heading of ‘Puerile Pursuits’. And there is nothing uplifting in that. In fact all it signified to me was that women couldn’t cut it on their own and the best they could do was make pointless gestures. I suppose some women did actually burn their bras? What it was supposed to convey was that we, the downtrodden fifty percent, were going to throw off our shackles and spring forth as a new, unstoppable force. Which strikes me as rather funny. Didn’t Germaine Greer realise that we have always been an unstoppable force? Our secret has always been that we work undercover, in the seat of power. Men went out and swaggered, women stayed home and ran everything. Where would the Crusaders have been if their women hadn’t held the fort back home? One arena where it is generally acknowledge women do not aspire to greatness is on the field of battle. But even that is a generalisation that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. When women have taken up the sword they have usually distinguished themselves, either in staunch supporting roles or out where the bullets are flying. One such warrior was Lidiya Vladimirovna Litviak.
Russia was not the the best place to be born in 1921. The revolution was still fresh enough to be a hotbed of conflicting interests. Some of the older citizen still harboured a yen for the church and the paternalism of Tsardom. Although Lidiya’s family was working class, just the sort of folk the Russian Revolution of 1917 was supposed to champion, they were of the old school. Her father was a wheel-tapper on what was once the Trans Siberian Railway but was now called the People’s Soviet Railway and her mother a shop worker. Neither of them were particularly interested in politics. But that didn’t save them. Lidiya’s father was marked out as an Enemy of the People and shortly after, in 1937, executed. Her mother learned the lesson fast and encourage six year old Lidiya to join the Young Communists Party. She was bright, pert and intelligent and managed to outlive her history. She developed a passion for flying after being one of a school group sent to tour an aircraft factory. She was selected to take a flight in one of the newly manufactured planes and was completely sold on the idea of becoming a pilot. The local party chief realised that she was a source of great publicity. Her blonde hair, grey eyes and nubile body looked well in uniform and when she confessed a secret wish to become a pilot he had her sent for flight training at the Chkalov Aeroclub near Moscow. She was only 15 years old but soon became a star pupil and soloed after only 9 hours training.
The beginning of World War 2 inspired Lidiya to attempt to secure a place in one of the Fighter Squadrons. Her efforts met with a frosty reception. She was told that the Soviets didn’t need the help of the women folk on the front line and she should go home and bear children for the motherland. Suddenly the Nazi leaders unleashed Operation Barbarossa in a Blitzkrieg attack on Russia. As the toll of pilots killed in unequal battle rose, the Generals took another look at their untapped reservoir of women pilots. Maria Raskova, a vastly experienced pilot, with a colourful history was called in. She had become famous when she led a three woman team pioneering a route through Siberia. When their plane ran into difficulties in the mountains and everything that could be jettisoned had gone out the door, Raskova belted on a parachute and followed. The loss of her weight meant that the plane could clear the mountain tops and her companions were able to return home to tell the tale. Raskova was just the sort of heroine to lead a desperate gang of females ready and willing to show the men what a determined lady could do.
The Command Raskova was handed was meant to be a poisoned chalice. Aerial Judas Goats! Germans fighters could latch onto women pilots and give the male Soviet pilots a chance to get a shot at them while they were doing so. That wasn’t in the new leader’s syllabus. Raskova selected the very best pilots and got them combat ready and into the air. Lidiya Litviak was among the first to join the 586th I.A.P women’s regiment. She made her first kills the second time she took to the air in anger. First she took on one of the Messerschmitt Bf109 fighter planes which was escorting a Junkers Ju88 fighter/bomber. Lidiya ‘s tactics were straight forward. Having selected the 109 she flew straight towards it, waiting until the last moment to unleash a short but deadly burst of fire. The Messerschmitt veered away and plummeted towards the ground. Lidiya had no time to watch the spiralling plane. The Ju88 closed in rapidly. She held her nerve and the German pilot was the first to blink. As he turned away the Russian raked the side of his plane with a burst of machine gun fire and it exploded. As her reputation, and the reputations of the other women pilots, grew, they were taken more seriously. Lidiya was transferred to a female flight in an elite male squadron – 287th I.A.D. The posting didn’t last long. Lidiya was gaining a reputation as an Ace Pilot and it stuck in the craw of some of the less able men in the squadron. She was transferred to the 296th I.A.D squadron in January 1943. She was popular with the other female fliers and was generally known as Lilya – Lily. She had the totem of a lily painted on the engine cowling of her plane. It obviously wasn’t a good painting because it was universally mistaken for a rose and earned her the sobriquet of the ‘White Rose of Stalingrad.’ It was also about this time she met Alexei Salomatin.
Summer in Russia is short. A time when the Germans were keen to take on the Russians and destroy their air cover. Where the fighting was thickest, there you could find the massively successful women’s squadrons. The Nazis soon knew that it was fatal to take on the Yak with the white ’Rose’. In March Lidiya was on her second sortie of the day when she latched onto a Ju88. As she manoeuvred for position she was spotted by one of the German aces. He was too late to save the Junkers but manage to get a shot at the Russian Yak. Although wounded in the leg and bleeding profusely, The White Rose blanked out the pain and, diving low, eluded her attacker. Pulling back on the stick she found herself below another Ju88. She fought back the fog that was threatening to suck her into unconsciousness and emptied her guns into the bomber’s underbelly. She had the satisfaction of seeing it roll over and head earthward trailing a plume of smoke. She pulled herself together and headed for home. She just made it. She barely had time to switch off the engine before the fog of oblivion claimed her. She spent six weeks in hospital. When she was offered convalescent leave she spurned the suggestion and headed back to her squadron. In honour of the squadron’s exploits in battle it had been renamed the 73 Guards I.A.P.
Lidiya Litviak, The White Rose of Stalingrad, had now become a shining legend. She was eulogised in the press and held up as a inspirational example of Russian womanhood by traditionalists who only a few months before had advised her to go home and have babies. In July she was in a dogfight with two 109s when a bullet sliced through her aileron and she was force to crash land. Although shot at and pursued by the enemy she managed to walk back to base and use her seniority and reputation to commandeer another Yak. All was not well with Alexei. He was too forthright with his comments about the high command. He was also Latvian. As the Soviet war machine began to get the better of the Germans in the savage Russian winter, the secret police began to close in. They didn’t want Lidiya’s reputation sullied by an unsuitable liaison. Lidiya tried to reassure Alexei. Out on another mission Lidiya was again jumped by a squad of Germans and once again shot down. One of her squadron had seen her crash land and rescued her. Back at base Alexei had been warned that he could expect to be arrested before the end of the week.
The matter was resolved on the next mission they flew together. At 6,000 feet they levelled out. The enemy was sighted and the command to attack given. As she dived onto the incoming aircraft she saw Alexie take on a couple of 109’s. Before she could go to his aid a stream of tracers made her aware that she had drawn the attention of another 109. She managed to down the attacker and looked around for Alexie. She saw him take a hit. She started to follow as he headed towards the fields below. The smoke that was gouting from his engine turned black and then became a fireball. Shocked and distressed Lidiya returned to base. Although in the air she still fought with the tenacity which was her trademark, on the ground she seemed to have lost all sense of purpose. Her mechanic , Inna Pasportnikova, reported that in the cockpit of her plane she made a little altar with Alexei’s picture surrounded by the wild flowers she loved.
On August 1st 1943, Lidiya was ordered to protect a squadron of Shturmoviks returning from a bombing raid. Lying in wait for her was a special unit of Me109’s. Morale among the German pilots had become so low that orders had been given to get the White Rose of Stalingrad at any cost. As she dived in among the bombers 8 Messerschmitts latched onto her. Although her plane was raked with bullets she kept her nerve and managed to shoot down two of the attackers. Her position was desperate. Suddenly Lidiya seemed to lose interest in the fight. Pursued by the remaining 109’s she climbed into the clouds. It was the last time she was seen. The loss of their most famous pilot was a blow for the Soviet publicity machine and a frantic search was made to try and find her and add more glory to her legend. It was not to be. Lidiya Litviak was gone and almost forgotten. Except by her erstwhile mechanic Inna Pasportnikova. After the war she established a mission to find the last resting place of her comrade. Exhaustively investigating masses of crash sites Inna finally found what she was looking for on a farm in Dmitrievka in 1979. Lidiya had been buried in the traditional way, in a shallow grave under the wing of her aircraft. The discovery of Lidiya’s remains was greeted with enthusiasm by Chairman Mikhail Gorbachev. It was a time when Russia needed the return of legendary heroes – and Lidiya Litviak fitted the bill. Her 12 confirmed kills and 3 more shared, made her the top woman ace. She was invested in Russia’s top honour, Hero of the Soviet Union. Without a sniff of a burning bra.
Motoring and Leisure – 11/4/2005