Night Witches. Soviet Airwomen of the Great Patriotic War - Gian Piero Milanetti - ebook

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Original Title: Le Streghe della notte

Translation by Stephen Richards

Copyright © IBN Istituto Bibliografico Napoleone 2014

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Art Director: Giorgia Napoleone

Cover & Page design: Diego Pirro

Gian Piero Milanetti

Soviet Airwomen of the Great Patriotic War

A Pictorial History

Translation by Stephen Richards





Front Page


Author’s Biography


Before the War

122 Air Group

Night Witches

586 IAP

587 BAP/125 GvBAP

Lydia Vladimirovna Litvyak

Yekaterina Vasilyevna Budanova


Appendix I

Appendix II

To my father who pinned little wings on my shoulders


This book in English about the Soviet airwomen of the Great Patriotic War (1941-45) would not have been possible without the widespread interest and assistance of the following persons who, over the past years, gave their time and expertise, creating a final legacy to the women and men of the air: Galina Brok-Beltsova, veteran of the 125 GvBAP; Inna Kalaceva-Kalinosvskaya, veteran of the 586 IAP; Anatoly Plyac, historian and son of Hero of the Soviet Union Raisa Aronova; Valentin Rusakov, son of pilot Tamara Rusakova (missing in the North Sea after the war); Valentina Vashchenko, director of the Museum of the War and Glory in Krasnyi Luch, Ukraine; Alexandra Ivanovna, director of Lidya Litvyak Museum in Dmitryevka, Ukraine; Marina Tyumentseva, translator and precious assistant; Lyudmilla Datsyuk; Vladimir Pluteshko; Leonardo Paleari and Anna Sabatini.

Greatest thanks to Christer Bergström (who helped me to orientate through the complex Luftwaffe Planquadrat Koordinaten system) and to Thijs Hellings, famed aircraft archeologist, who provided me with rare photographs. The help of the Russian aviation association >Aviatrisa which supported me during my research, is also acknowledged.


A graduate in history and literature from University “La Sapienza” of Rome, Gian Piero Milanetti has taught creative writing, history, geography, and Italian in Rome public schools. He has won the coveted literary prize for “Penna Alata” (Winged Pen) and wrote the novel “Ménami, Mamma.” Milanetti is the author of the unique aviation history book “Le Streghe della Notte” (The Night Witches), about the female aviatrixes of the Soviet Union. This work inspired Voyager documentary “Le Streghe della Notte” which was broadcast by Italian Public Television Channel Rai 2. He has travelled extensively in Russia and Ukraine, visiting the battlefields and interviewing the surviving airwomen to get their stories. He has uncovered much new information and exploded myths surrounding the Soviet Union’s most famous female ace Lydia Litvyak. A tireless journalist for over two decades, this author has written hundreds of articles for Italian newspapers “Il Messaggero”, “Il Tempo”, “Il Gazzettino di Venezia” and “Il Giornale.”

Gian Piero Milanetti has done an excellent job researching and writing about a subject that is still little known to Western readers: the contributions of Soviet airwomen in World War II. Milanetti’s book is important to understanding the history of women in conflict. The story of these wartime pilots, the first women in the world to fly in combat, is inspiring. The reader will not soon forget the thrilling tale of these young warriors who fought valiantly for their country in the skies above Europe.

Amy Goodpaster Strebe

author of Flying for Her Country:

The American and Soviet Women Military Pilots of World War II

Gian Piero Milanetti is a rare forensic historian who has cut through long cherished myths and Soviet propaganda to bring out the truth. He lets the surviving participants tell their tales, recounting one of the most exciting chapters in combat aviation history. The author covers their personal battles from both sides to the point where he has even identified their opponents by name! His deep knowledge of the Soviet airwomen makes this book an absolute must!

Christer Bergström

author of “Black Cross Red Star Air War over the Eastern Front” series


“Soviet Airwomen of the Great Patriotic War” is the best book ever written on the story of the Soviet “Night Witches” and their daylight counterparts!

Unlike many historians who have never visited the battlefields nor interviewed the veterans involved, Gian Piero Milanetti has! He has travelled many times to Russia and Ukraine, met the surviving female combatants and their families, and has conducted researches for years. Gian has become the most eminent European researcher of the subject. And all on his modest teacher’s salary. That’s dedication!

Milanetti’s work pays magnificent tribute to the women combat aviators and groundcrew, who worked as a team to bomb the invading Germans in their rickety biplanes at night. Very little was known about them in the West. Women and teenagers can read, enjoy, and derive inspiration from Milanetti’s masterpiece. When it came to defending the Motherland, Soviet women were even tougher than men. I wish I could have written this book!

Henry Sakaida

Los Angeles, California

December 17, 2012

We, the Soviet airwomen, veterans of the Great Patriotic War, sincerely and from the depths of our hearts, express our gratitude to the titanic and hard-working efforts of the author Gian Piero Milanetti. He has now written and published a book in English about the heroic Soviet airwomen who fought air battles in the threatening skies of that long ago war. It was the most bloody and destructive period of the century. We hope that this book will remind Western readers of the sacrifice of the hundreds of thousands of Soviet women who voluntarily abandoned their homes and families, embraced arms, or climbed into their war planes. Our Motherland was endangered and many of us stood up to defend her even at the cost of our lives.

This book is a gift of immense value to us, aviatrixes, veterans of the Great Patriotic War.

Galina Brok-Beltsova

Before the War

Sophiya Vladimirovna Osipova (left), future mechanic of aircraft in the 586 IAP (female fighter regiment), with two colleagues in Factory 22’s Aeroclub, 1935.

Soviet Voroshilov sharpshooters. After the Bolshevik Revolution and the subsequent Russian Civil War, women were allowed to serve in the military. In 1917, Mariya Bonchareva, a peasant woman who had received permission by the tsar to enlist in the Imperial Infantry, formed a “Women’s Battalion of Death” (300 female soldiers) that went into battle. They successfully attacked the Revolution’s enemy troops before being pushed back with heavy losses. Actually, according to Marxist political doctrine, women and men were considered equal in rights and duties. According to the “Universal Military Service Laws of 1925 and 1939,” only men were subject to regular conscription. Women were formally allowed to enroll as volunteers, andnotonlyasnursesordoctors. Still,manywomen were discouraged from serving in the military. In the picture, extreme left, Olga Kulikova, future political commissar of the female fighter regiment, 1927.

Soviet pilots (left to right) Georgy Baydukov, Valery Chkalov, and Alexander Belyakov. They flew a record flight (9,734 km/6.044 miles), lasting 56 hours, from Russia through the North Pole to Udd Island (renamed Chkalov Island by Stalin in commemoration of the record breaking event) near the Isle of Sakhalin. In the 1930s, the Soviet leaders placed an increasing importance on the development of aviation. Air transport was regarded as essential in such a big country, with few railways and badly maintained roads. Moreover, setting new world aviation records had an immense propaganda value for the Communist regime. The flights of the record-breaking pilots were meant as the proof that the Soviet Union had the technology and the human resources to win the industrial and economic competition with the major Western nations. So the Soviet aviators rose to the highest status of heroes, along with deceased political leaders, Polar explorers, and record-breaking workers like miner Alexey Grigoryevich Stakhanov.

Stalin congratulates Valery Pavlovich Chkalov (Валерий Павлович Чкалов), the Soviet Union’s most famous pilot, after one of his record flights. Chkalov (born on 2 February 1904) was a Russian test pilot. He was the first person to fly from Moscow to the United States via a polar route. Afterwards he wrote in an article that Stalin was “our father.” Stalin was reportedly very interested in aviation. He involved himself by listening carefully to aviators’ proposals and to aviation planners, tracing the flight routes, suggesting who would fly, and giving the final permission. The hero-pilot, according to historians, was the representation of Stalin’s conception of the Man in the New Communist Society, “a master of nature” and an eternally youthful... individual hero”. Chkalov, declared Hero of the Soviet Union, died on 15 December 1938, while testing a fighter prototype without the approval of the aircraft designer, the famous Nikolai Nikolaevich Polikarpov.

The Tupolev TB-3 (Тяжёлый Бомбардировщик, Tyazholy Bombardirovschik, Heavy Bomber). It was a heavy bomber aircraft which was deployed by the Soviet Air Force in the 1930s and during the Great Patriotic War. It was the world’s first cantilever wing four-engine heavy bomber. Specially modified aircraft were used to transport personnel and equipment of the Soviet Artic expeditions right to the North Pole, in some cases landing on drifting ice fields. Some of the most skilled Soviet pilots (Mikhail Vodopyanov, Vasily Molokov, Anatoliy Alekseev, Ilya Mazuruk, and Mikhail Babushkin, among the others) participated in these historical flights. The TB-3 was used as a record-breaking aircraft. Despite obsolescence and being officially withdrawn from service in 1939, the TB-3 was used in combat in the early stages of the Great Patriotic War, suffering appalling losses at the hands of the Luftwaffe fighter aces. Subsequently the aircraft was relegated to night bombing operations and to paratrooper droppings.

Raisa Aronova, future “Night Witch” and Hero of the Soviet Union, with her mother. Aronova decided to become a pilot under the influence of two books: Memoirs of a Pilot by G.F. Baydukov (Chkalov’s co-pilot during the record flight 8,504 km/5.280 miles from Moscow to the USA on 18-20 June 1937) and Memoirs of a Navigator by Marina Raskova, navigator during the flight of the Rodina (see pictures of Raskova). Aronova was born on 10 February 1920, in the city of Saratov, on the Volga River near Engels. Abandoned in 1936 by her father, a railroad worker, Aronova was raised by her mother, an illiterate woman, who worked as a washerwoman and subsequently as a painter in a railway car repair establishment. Aronova, while still in high school, attended a Voroshilov sharpshooter course and after enrolling at the Saratov Institute of Agricultural Mechanization, joined the local flying club of the paramilitary association Osoaviakhym (the Society for Cooperation in Defense and Aviation-Chemical Development), founded in 1927.

Marina Raskova, regarded as the Soviet “Amelia Earhart.” Undoubtedly the most famous female aviator of 1930s in the Soviet Union, she had no early interest in aviation. Born in Moscow on 28 March 1912, she was the daughter of a teacher, Anna Spirodovna. Her father (later killed after being hit by a motorbike) taught her singing. Financial hardships and illness forced her to stop studying music and study chemistry (in School Nr. 32). She graduated in 1929 and became a laboratory technician in a dye factory. There she met Sergey Raskov, an engineer, and married him (she divorced in 1935). She was offered a job as a draftswoman in the N. Ye. Zhukovskiy Air Force Engineering Academy. So she became interested in aviation. She started to study engineering, physics, mathematics, radio theory, and navigation. In 1934, she became the first Soviet woman certified as an aircraft navigator and started to participate in air races.

Valentina Grizobudova. Born in Kharkov (today Kharkiv, Ukraine) on 31 January 1910, she was the daughter of a pioneer aircraft designer. At the age of 19, she graduated from the Penza Flying Club of Osoavyakhim. In 1934 (and up to 1938) she joined a “Propaganda” air team and on 9 March 1936, she met Marina Raskova for the first time. In the fall of 1937, Grizodubova proposed to Raskova an attempt to establish a female long distance flight record. On 24 October 1937, Grizodubova and Raskova flew for 1,443 kilometers (896 miles) non-stop, beating the former record of American Ellen MacLosky of about 800 kilometers (497miles). The following year (having more than 5,000 flying hours) she was selected to be the pilot for a non-stop flight from Moscow to the Soviet Far East. With support from Stalin himself, she was assigned an Antonov ANT-37 that Grizodubova nicknamed Rodina (Motherland).

Polina Osipenko (co-pilot), Valentina Grizodubova (pilot), and Marina Raskova (navigator) in front of the Rodina. The ANT-37 was a converted long-range DB-2 bomber. It had been developed by P. Sukhoy in 1934 on the basis of the ANT-35, the aircraft on which Chkalov and M. Gromos flew to North America via the North Pole. The Rodina took off on 24 September at 08.16 for Komsomolsk. Weather deteriorated quickly and the land remained invisible almost until the landing. Temperature dropped to – 36° C inside and – 37° C outside. The new experimental radios stopped working after 12 hours. On 25 September at 10.00 (Moscow Time) the Rodina had just enough fuel for a further half an hour, reportedly because the mechanics had forgotten to refill the tanks after the long engine testing. Raskova, in the forward cabin, bailed out at an altitude of 2,300 meters. She forgot the emergency kit and landed in the taiga with no water and only two chocolate bars and some mint candies. Raskova expected that the Rodina would land nearby, but the aircraft kept flying for another 15 minutes, force-landing in mire in the middle of a swamp.

The Rodina in the swamp after the force-landing. Valentina Grizodubova is crawling on the wing (the photo was taken from a rescue plane on 4 October 1938). She and Osipenko tried to signal their position with pistols and the emergency radio. A massive research started with many aircraft and hundreds of rescuers. Two search planes collided, killing 16 people. The Rodina was at last located eight days after its landing and Raskova finally found the aircraft the next day. The three women were greeted as national heroes. Tens of thousands of people greeted them at the stations during the travel back to Moscow. FAI confirmed the new record: the Rodina had covered 5,908 kilometers (3,668 miles) in a straight line and 6,450 (4,005 miles) actual distance in 26 hours and 29 minutes, beating the previous record of Elizabeth Lyon, who had flown for 4,063 kilometers (2,523 miles).

Marina Raskova honored in Moscow for her record. She, Osipenko and Grizodubova were met at Belorussia Station by future president of the Soviet Union, Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev (then secretary of the Central Committee of the Ukraine). A parade accompanied them to the Kremlin where Stalin welcomed and invited them to dinner. Raskova sat next to Stalin for several hours. Subsequently, Raskova and her family were awarded their first two-room flat. On 2 November 1938 the three Heroines of the Rodina became the first women to be awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union and the only women to be decorated with such honorary title before the war. All of them received thousands of letters from girls asking for advices and help on how to become aviators. Both Raskova and Osipenko wrote articles encouraging girls to enter flying schools. As Osipenko died in a flying accident in 1939 and Grizodubova did not want to work with women, Raskova became the idol of many young women who enrolled in air clubs before the war.

Raisa Aronova, before joining Raskova’s training air group. “Indeed it was precisely (Raskova – Edit.), with her vivid biography who kindled in me the love of aviation,” Aronova recalled. “I admired her record-breaking flights, and after reading her ‘Notes of a Navigator’ (Zapiski Shturmana – Edit.), firmly decided to connect my own life with aviation”1. On October 1941, Aronova volunteered for Raskova’s 122 Air Group and was assigned to the navigators. After six months of training, Aronova was posted to the 588 NBAP, shortly to be named “Night Witches” by the Luftwaffe aces.

Natalya Meklin, future “Night Witch” and Hero of the Soviet Union, as a teenager. She was born in Lubny, in Ukraine, on 8 September 1922. Her father, a Russian soldier, moved first to Kharkov and then later to Kiev. There, she graduated from high school and from a flying club. At 16, she was greatly impressed by the feats of the Rodina and recalled how in 1938 she kept pictures of Raskova cut from newspapers and magazines.

Marina Pavlovna Chechneva. Born in the village of Protasovo, near Orel, on 15 August 1922. When she was 12, her father moved near Moscow’s Central Airport, to work in a factory. Chechneva was so impressed by the aircraft flying over her house that three years later, she tried to join a flying club of the paramilitary Osoavyakhim. She had her father’s approval but had to wait until she was 16 to enroll. She learned to fly after school, in the evenings. She graduated from high school and as a pilot almost at the same time. She was determined to become a fighter pilot but air force schools rejected her, so she wrote to Raskova. The heroine of the Rodina advised Chechneva to become a flying instructor and perfecting her skills while training candidates for air force schools. Chechneva took the advice and was hired by the Central Flying Club in Moscow until she was transferred to Stalingrad after the German invasion. At last, in December 1941, she was posted to Raskova’s 122 Air Group.

Extreme right, Yevgheniya Filipovna Prokhorova, flight instructor, in front of a glider at her aeroclub in 1938. Of average height with an athletic build, Prokhorova was a very talented pilot. She held two world records in gliders and had been the leader of the Pyaterka. They performed in many air shows and parades2. Many Soviet airwomen who saw combat in the Great Patriotic War, started to fly on gliders. One of them was “Night Witch” Zoya Parfenova-Akimova, future Hero of the Soviet Union. Impressed by the exploits of Raskova, Grizodubova, and Osipenko, while employed as a nurse, she trained to fly first on gliders. She graduated to the Polikarpov U-2, the aircraft that would equip the 588th Night Bombers Regiment. Nina Raspopova, another “Night Witch” and future Hero of the Soviet Union, was a glider instructor attheOmskFlyingClubbeforeenrollinginRaskova’sAirGroup; shebecameoneofthemostfamous“Night Witches,” amassing more than 800 combat missions and being awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union.

A female trainee in front of her male instructor. Most airwomen trained in the Osoavyakhim (Society of Friends of Defense and Aviation-Chemical Construction), a paramilitary organization. The Osoavyakhim trained young people not only in flying gliders and powered aircraft, but even in sharpshooting and parachuting, without sex distinction. However, many airwomen reported how they met considerable opposition in paramilitary aeroclubs. Female trainees recounted many times how their male instructors were “less than enthusiastic” about their participation. Some of the girls gave up but many kept on flying, undaunted, getting at last the respect and admiration of their male instructors. “The commander of the school (of civil aviation, in Khabarovsk – Edit.) said he wouldn’t admit us because we were girls,” recalled Nina Raspopova, Hero of the Soviet Union, “but the government said they must admit us, so I was enrolled”3.

Right to left: pilot Olga Yakovleva and her technician M. Timofeev, in front a Yakovlev UT-1 trainer. The UT-1 was a very small and simple aircraft for advanced training. Empty weight was only 429 kg. Between 1937 and 1940, 1,241 UT-1s were built. Yakovleva used it to train her students who reportedly always passed exams with high or very high marks. Yakovleva was enrolled by Raskova in her air group and assigned to the 586th Fighter Regiment. She was wounded in one arm in 1943 and, after a lengthy rehabilitation, was only permitted to fly the Polikarpov U-2 in a communications squadron attached to the Kiev Military District, until the end of the war. Subsequently she would be forced to stop flying.

Valentina Lisitsina, climbing on the cockpit of her UT-1 training aircraft. Just like Yakovleva, Lisitsina, after training in Raskova’s air group, was posted to the 586 IAP. She would earn media coverage for an air combat along with her commander Aleksandr Gridnev during which they claimed two German aircraft while two more Luftwaffe fighters collided during the dogfight.

Female pilots participating in an air parade on Tushino Airport, Moscow. Among them Katya Budanova (future fighter ace, second from the right), Olga Golisheva, Mariya Kuznetsova, Olga Shakova, and Raya Belyayeva. They would be posted to the 586 IAP. Notwithstanding the opposition of air clubs’ male directors and instructors (and often by their parents), many girls had persevered and learned to fly. By the start of the war, 100-150 clubs had been established and one out of every three or four pilots was female. Russian women already made up 45 per cent of the Soviet working force (in the USA, percentage was of 27.6). However men who had received flight training were recorded in the military reserve forces, while girls were not.

Galina Brok-Beltsova (far left), with some friends. “Galya” was one of the youngest female aviators of the Raskova regiments, as she was born in Moscow in 1925. “I was very sport-minded,” she recalled later. “When the war broke out, the government sent out an appeal to the strong, mighty people to join aviation. We were then trained to be gunners or navigators. Without any boasting I can say that we were all mighty, healthy, robust, and patriotic young people”4.


1 R. Pennington, Wings, Women, & War, p. 19 ↩

2 R. Pennington, p. 33 ↩

3 A. Noggle, A Dance with Death, pp. 21-22 ↩

4 A. Noggle, p. 132 ↩

122 Air Group

Wehrmacht soldiers invading Soviet Union during the first days of Operation Barbarossa. At dawn of 22 June 1941, four millions Germans attacked their Communist enemies on a long (2,900 km/1,800 miles) front spanning from the Baltic Sea to the Carpathian Mountains. Operation Barbarossa was the largest invasion in the history of warfare. It involved not only Germans, but also troops fromotherAxispowers(Romanians, Hungarian, Finnish, and even Slovaks). During Operation Barbarossa the biggest number of motor vehicles in history (about 600,000) were used, along with 750,000 horses.

German soldiers crossing a river during Operation Barbarossa. The German attack came at the worst possible time for the Soviet armed forces. The Soviets did not have the time to complete deployment of the Red Army and of their air force along the new western border. Actually, in 1939-40, after signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (also known as the “Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Soviet Union”), the Russians took possession of a huge part of Central-Eastern Europe: half of Poland, Southern Finland, and – in June 1940 – all of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Moreover, their aviation units had only just started to re-equip with modern fighters and bombers.

A Polikarpov I-153 fighter shot down during Operation Barbarossa. When the war started, this antiquated and under-armed biplane represented the bulk of the Soviet Air Force: 1,513 out of 4,730 fighters were I-153. German Messerschmitts easily had the upper hand against it. At the crack of dawn of 22 June 1941, the Luftwaffe made a surprise attack on 66 Soviet airfields close to the border. The Soviet Air Force lost 1,200 aircraft in less than two hours: 800 on the ground and 400 in air battles. The Luftwaffe Jagdgeschwader (fighter wing) soon proved lethal. JG 53 claimed 74 victories in the air and 28 on the ground; JG 51 was credited with 69 and 129 respectively, while JG 54 shot down 45 Russian aircraft in the air and 35 on the ground. Luftwaffe losses were much lower. By the end of 22 June, the Germans had lost 61 aircraft while 11 were lost by Romanians units.

A shot down LaGG-3. There were only two of these modern but troublesome aircraft deployed on the Western Front when the war broke out. Others were hastily sent to the frontline air regiments a few days after the invasion. But the Soviet pilots found the LaGG-3 very tricky to fly; no other Soviet combat aircraft had problems as serious. Maneuverability was poor and more important, it had the sudden unexpected tendency to stall. Moreover the pilots could not convert to this type and they were soon swept from the sky by the experienced Luftwaffe aces flying the much more effective Messerschmitt Bf 109s. Soviet losses mounted as Operation Barbarossa continued. On 23 June the Luftwaffe destroyed 755 aircraft, on 24 June, 557; on 25 June, 251. By the 1st of July, the Luftwaffe had already destroyed 4,725 Soviet aircraft. The Red Army also suffered terrible losses: by 30 September, Soviets lost 20,500 tanks and 101,000 cannons and mortars.

In June 1941, only a few Soviet airwomen served in the air forces. But there were several hundred trained women pilots graduated from the Osoavyakhim air clubs. In the days immediately following the German invasion, many of these young aviatrixes went to the recruitment centers. They asked to be sent to the front, but they were rejected. “When the war started”, recalled Yevgeniya Zhigulenko, Hero of the Soviet Union, “many of my female peers started writing letters to the government. We demanded to be taken into the army. Of course they didn’t take us”1. So, female flying instructors or simple air club trainees started to write letters to the heroine of the Rodina – that they fondly called the “Grandmother of Soviet Aviation,” even if she was only 23 or 24 years old – asking her how they could put their skill to the service of the fatherland, or how they could be enrolled to the air force and go to the front.

Marina Raskova. She was a member of the Supreme Soviet and held an air force commission. She knew the chain of military command, and with a suitcase full of letters from young women flyers, she went to the Defense Ministry. “Marina Raskova,” recalled Nadya Popova, one of the ‘Night Witches’ Hero of the Soviet Union, “proposed the formation of a separate women’s air regiment, tapping the unconsidered resource of thousands of women who had learned to fly in the sports schools before the war.” The Defense Ministry agreed but the idea had to be approved by Stalin himself. Western pre-war gossip suggested that there was a kind of romantic connection between the Soviet dictator and Marina Raskova. What is certain is that they knew each other personally. After the Defense Ministry consented to her proposal, Raskova reportedly met Stalin and proposed the formation of the women’s unit.

Stalin in a propaganda picture. Yevgeniya Zhigulenko was told by Marina what happened when she met the Soviet dictator. “You understand, future generation will not forgive us for sacrificing young girls,” Stalin considered. Raskova answered: “You know, they are running away to the front all the same... and it will be worse, you understand, if they steal airplanes to go.” And – Zhigulenko recalled – there was just such an incident. “There were several girls who had asked to go to the front” and they were rejected. “So they stole a fighter plane and flew off to fight. They just couldn’t wait...”2.

Stalin accepted Raskova’s suggestion. Order N° 0099 of the People’s Commissariat of Defense of the Soviet Union, of 8 October 1941, directed that, starting by 1 December 1941, three female regiments would be formed. The units should be named 586 IAP (Istrebitelnyi Aviatsionnyi Polk, Fighter Aviation Regiment), 587 BAP (Bombardirovochnyi Aviatsionnyi Polk, Bomber Aviation Regiment) and 588 NBAP (Nochnoi Bombaridirovochnyi Aviatsionnyi Polk, Night Bomber Aviation Regiment). The commanders of air forces and of the Red Army were ordered to equip the three regiments and organize the training of the flying crew and of technical personnel and staff.

The Yakovlev Yak-1, the fighter chosen for the 586th , was of mixed construction, fabric and plywood covered. It was simple to build and service, and easy to fly. It earned its designer, Aleksandr Yakovlev, the gift of a Zis car and a prize of 100,000 rubles. It was praised even by Luftwaffe Experts: “The Yak-1 fighter is presumably the best Soviet fighter. It had a better speed and rate of climb compared to the MIG-3 and comes close to the performance of the Bf 109F... It was appreciably more difficult to hit the Yak-1 from behind than the MIG-3”3. Even the best German ace respected it. “The Yak was also a fighter that you could not underestimate,” recalled Walter Krupinski, an ace with 197 victories. “It had great speed, could outdive us, outclimb us, and was just as good, if not better, in a turning fight”4.

Sukhoi SU-2. This single-engine short-range Soviet scout and light bomber, with a crew of two – assigned to the 587 BAP was of mixed construction (wood and metal) also. The first version was armed with two pairs of ShKAS machineguns in the outer wings. A movable machinegun was mounted in a ball-turret in the back of the cockpit, for rear protection. Its main advantage was its robustness. This rugged aircraft could absorb heavy battle damage (for instance, half of the rudder and tail-plane lacking) and still fly. Its survivability was the highest among Soviet bombers, even higher than that of the celebrated Shturmovik, the “flying tank”. Shown in the picture is a prototype of the SU-2, with lowered flaps and the two blades propeller of a diameter of 2.8 meters (9 feet and 2 inches).

Polikarpov U-2, the aircraft that would equip the night bomber regiment, was the most antiquated aircraft used in combat during the Great Patriotic War. It was “a tiny aircraft made of plywood and percale,” recalled the future Chief of Staff, Irina Rakobolskaya, a “biplane trainer with its two tiny cockpits and a low-powered engine that got up a maximum speed of only 100-120 km/h. There was no radio, no... navigation equipment for blind flying, and no armored backrest to protect the pilot against enemy bullets”5. To compensate for all those shortcomings, the Polikarpov was easy to control, stable and light, did not require prepared airfields, and could land anywhere, even on a village street.

Engineer 3rd Class Olga Kulikova. Soon after authorization by Stalin to form an all female aviation group (later to be called 122 Air Group), Marina Raskova started to gather her staff. For this purpose, she contacted some of the most eminent female aviators, soldiers, political officers, and engineers. Kulikova was one of them.

Another of Raskova’s 122 Air Group staff, pilot Kapitan Fedorovna Vera Lomako, commander of eskadrilya. Lomako was a well known military pilot. Together with Raskova, she had taken part in several long-distance flights. “I still see her stocky and tall figure,” recalled 586 IAP’s pilot, Olga Yakovleva, “wearing a leather coat, boots, and a cap with ear flaps and a grey karakul (lamb’s fur). The most striking was her face, a stern face of a veteran. Her brown eyes were sparkling with enthusiasm. Overall, she gave off an aura of daring. She was a genuine fighter pilot and a veteran air force commander”6. In autumn 1941 she worked with Battalion Commissar Yevdokiya Rachkevich in some spare rooms at the special services school of VVS in Petrovsky Park.

Captain Yevdokiya Rachkevich, a career officer from a peasant family. She was a graduate of the V.I. Lenin Military Political Academy. She was recruited by Raskova. When the volunteers selected by Komsomol, civil aviation, and military, were sent to an assembly point in Moscow (to be interviewed by Raskova), Rachkevich and Captain Lomako saw that they were fed and assigned rooms. Subsequently Raskova assigned her to the 588 NBAP, the future “Night Witches” Regiment, as political commissar.

Photo group of the young volunteers in Engels (Tatyana Sumarokhova, first from left, and Yevgeniya Rudneva, third from left, in third row). Their recruitment was handed primarily through Komsomol channels and by word-of-mouth. Most of them were from Moscow or were studying or working in the city. Pilots were recruited from the military and civil air fleets and from Osoavyakhim airclubs, while navigators were recruited from among students at universities and technical schools. Mechanics “were from a very common strata of society: from factories, from working families,” recalled 46 GvNBAP engineer of the regiment, Klavdiya Ilyushina7.

“At the time the country had a lot of female pilots, recalled “Night Witch” Irina Rakobolskaya, “but unfortunately there were very few women navigators, gunners or mechanics. Those of us who were to train in these fields were taken from civilian colleges”8. Rakobolskaya when the war broke out was a third-year student of Moscow University Physics Department and was soon assigned to the navigators group.

Galya Dokhutovich, one of the first to apply to the Central Commettee of the Komsomol, requesting assignment to Raskova’s Air Group, recalled in her journal about the other volunteers: “They came from all over the capital – from colleges, from offices, from factories. They were of all kinds, lighthearted, noisy, calm, reserved, some with close cropped hair, some with long pigtails; mechanics, parachutists, pilots, and ordinary members of the Komsomol who knew nothing about flying.” Dokhutovich, who was trained in the navigator group, was subsequently appointed aide-de-camp of squadron in the 588 NBAP.

Another member of Raskova’s staff, was Militsa Kazarinova, the sister of Tamara, first commander of 586 IAP, the fighter regiment. Graduated from the Air Force Academy, she spent ten years in the military serving as an attack pilot and studying air tactics. She even took part in air shows over Moscow. When the trainees arrived in Engels, Militsa and Raskova (and Yekaterina Migunova, Raskova’s old friend from the Zhukovskiy Academy and future deputy chief of staff in the 587th) shared a room in the former barbershop, small, cold and drafty. Militsa was named as Raskova’s chief of staff, first in the 122 Air Group and subsequently in the 587 BAP. She was held in awe by the volunteers as she was a military officer and because of her strict character, for her determination and hardness.

The author besides the monument to Marina Raskova, in front of the Red Army House in Engels which had been turned into a dormitory for the 122 Air Group. On 17 October 1941, when the Wehrmacht was almost on the outskirts of Moscow, all the volunteers boarded several freight cars on a train bound for Engels, a city on the Volga River, 500 miles southeast of Moscow. The estimated number of the recruits is uncertain. It ranged from 200 to 1,000, according to various authors. The most likely figure is about 300-400. The travel lasted eight days. The trains had no toilets and the girls were given just some bread and herring. “At one station,” recalled Kracvchenko, “we saw a lot of fresh cabbage. We jumped off and took it to the train and ate it fresh, just like rabbits. Then Kazarinova (Militsa, an officer of the staff – Edit.) discovered us and made us take it all back”9. The group arrived on 25 October in the evening, in the rain and fog; nobody was waiting for them.

Klavdiya Terekhova (married Kasatkina) parachuting. She would be appointed secretary of the party organization of 586 IAP, with the rank of senior lieutenant. Born in Moscow from a peasant family, Terekhova graduated from a technical school and subsequently entered the Moscow Textile College. “I was a very brave girl,” she recalled, “I jumped with a parachute, rode horses, drove a car, I could do everything!”10. When the war broke out, she joined the Komsomol staff and later volunteered for Raskova’s Air Group. “When the girls came to join the army they all looked like girls,” she recalled, “with long curly hair and high heels. The first thing to do was make them look all alike, like soldiers, with hair cut short, military boots, and pants. It was really very difficult to make the girls part with their hair and feminine things and put them into men’s military clothing”11.

Olga Yakovleva, future pilot of the 586 IAP. Before the war she was a flying instructor at the Chelyabinsk Flying Club. When the war started, she wanted to go to the front but instead her superiors tasked her to train a group of girls as replacements for flying instructors sent to the front. But eventually she managed to be assigned to Raskova’s Air Group. “And so we arrived in Engels early in the morning. After detraining, we immediately went to the mess. During our trip we were issued dry rations exclusively, so hot food tasted very good to us. Then we formed up and set off for the hairdressing establishment. Here many of us had to part with their braids. We came out with identical ‘tomboy’ hairdos”12.

Olga Studentskaya, future pilot of 586 IAP. After fulfilling the order to report to the garrison barbershop she got a “boy-style” haircut too. “One of our fighter pilot trainees, Olga Studentskaya, had a low voice and a boyish figure,” recalled 586 IAP pilot Olga Yakovleva, “so now she simply passed for a real lad. All kinds of funny things happened to her when she was alone among male pilots. She would be telling us about it and we would giggle until our stomachs hurt”13. Studentskaya, when she was serving in the fighter regiment, once took off to practice aerobatics. The elevator control rod became disconnected and so she took the Yak back, handling the throttle. She flew until the fuel ran out, then parachuted. She hit her leg on her aircraft, suffering serious injury. She was hospitalized but when she recovered, the doctors did not allow her to fly a fighter; she was transferred to a communication squadron.

122 Air Group’s school in Engels. Nowadays, the building is abandoned, but in the fall 1941, it was active day and night. The girls underwent an extremely condensed, intensive training that sometimes lasted fourteen hours a day. Here the girls attended ten courses a day and navigators studied for an additional hour and woke up earlier than other students. In this building pilots also took classrooms before or after drills. The flight training – that normally took three years – was condensed in less than six months. Training for female fighter and dive bomber pilots required a minimum of 500 flying hours, while male pilots were hastily sent to the front with only 65 flight hours.

Marina Raskova supervised all training during the day and even at night as there was a night bomber regiment. “Raskova was the organizer for combat training,” recalled Hero of the Soviet Union, Marina Chechneva. “She devoted a great deal of time to checking that we were at our studies, she took exams and tests in many disciplines, not only teaching, but also constantly studying herself”14. She rested so little that sometimes she fell asleep on the top of the bed. Still, on occasion, she would take a break from her work, late at night, to play piano, with her dear friend Migunova (they performed Brahms and Schubert). Still at night, as the training proceeded, she discussed with her staff how the personnel should be distributed and who should command the fighter and night bomber regiment. Actually, Raskova kept for herself the command of the 587th Dive Bomber Regiment.

Yevdokiya Davidovna Bershanskaya. Raskova chose her to command the night bombers, but Bershanskaya at first refused. She was an experienced civil pilot, having flown in Aeroflot for ten years, and wanted to become a fighter pilot. She tried to protest on the grounds that she had no command experience. There were several days of discussions during which Bershanskaya stubbornly refused. She was at last persuaded to accept the position of commander of the 588th. Hero of the Soviet Union, Nataliya Meklin, recalled the day that Raskova introduced her to them: “Appearing severe, and with a sharp look in her greenish eyes, she was not yet close to, or understood by us. We all tried to pretend that she reminded us of Raskova, but they did not resemble each other externally”15.

Tamara Kazarinova, older sister of Militsa, first commander of the Fighter Regiment. The selection of a commander for the future 586 IAP was the most difficult for Raskova. She “could not even identify a single person to whom she could entrust the fighter regiment,” recalled Galina Dzhunkovskaya-Markova. At last, Kazarinova arrived in Engels. Some historians suggest that Kazarinova, a pilot who had been awarded the Order of Lenin in 1937, was imposed to Raskova. However, on 9 December 1941, the 586 IAP