As the US Army opens a range of new positions to women this month, we’ll no doubt see a resurgence of the perennial argument about women’s fitness for combat. The tired arguments that always get trotted out for why women shouldn’t serve in combat — physical fitness, unit cohesion, sand in their vaginas — are dubious in any case, but to anyone who has studied WWII Soviet history, they’re just plain hilarious. It turns out that there’s no question as to whether women can serve in combat. They already have. And they didn’t just serve: They kicked ass.
Unlike the other Allied nations, where women were restricted to non-combat positions like nurses, the Soviet Union recruited thousands of women to serve in all kinds of positions both in and out of combat, from partisans to tank commanders. Women were especially prized as snipers, since they were believed to be more focused and patient than men; one racked up over 300 kills. By the end of the war, women were estimated to make up about 10% of the Soviet military. Trot out that statistic next time someone complains that a war movie or game is unrealistic for including women.
But I’m going to talk about some of the most fascinating women of World War II: The members of the all-female Aviation Group 122. Russian women had long been involved in aviation, beginning with World War I recon pilot and fabulous hat-wearer Princess Eugenie Shakhovskaya. Flying clubs were popular among Soviet youth of both genders. When Germany invaded, there were many women with pilot’s licenses eager to get into combat. And by eager, I mean very eager, as pilot Yevgeniya Zhigulenko recounts:
There were several girls who had asked to go to the front, and they were turned down. So they stole a fighter plane and flew off to the front. They just couldn’t wait[1. Amy Goodpaster Streebe, Flying For Her Country 15].
Celebrated navigator Marina Raskova, famed for the record-setting long-distance flight that ended with her surviving alone for ten days in the Siberian taiga, approached Stalin with an idea: An aviation group composed entirely of women, from the pilots to the navigators to the command staff. The result was Aviation Group 122, which eventually became three regiments: The 586th Fighter Regiment, flying Yakovlev Yak-1s, the 125th Guards Dive Bomber Regiment, which flew the technically advanced Petlyakov Pe-2, and most famous of all, the 46th Guards Night Bomber Regiment, flying the Polikarpov Po-2 biplane.
So how did they do? Did they prove as capable as the male regiments? As if you need to ask.
The fighter regiment produced both of the world’s only female fighter aces: 11-kill Yekaterina Budanova and Lydia Litvyak, the famed “White Rose of Stalingrad[2. This nickname is based on a mistranslation. As per her nickname, Lilya, it should actually be the "White Lily of Stalingrad."],” credited with 12 solo and four joint kills. Budanova and Litvyak operated as free hunters, pairs of elite pilots who prowled for enemy planes like total bosses. According to legend, Litvyak painted white flowers on her plane’s fuselage and German fighter pilots would flee when they saw them.
The dive bomber regiment, initially commanded by Raskova herself, faced a lot of skepticism about its airwomen’s ability to handle the Pe-2, a twin-tailed bomber feared by rookie pilots and beloved by talented ones. Flying the Pe-2 was demanding both mentally and physically. The pilot often had to brace against the navigator’s back in order to pull back the control stick with enough force to get the plane off the ground. Tail gunner Antonina Dubkova reports, “The real effort was to recharge the machine gun, to pull the lever when it took sixty kilograms, and I had to do it with my left arm[3. Anne Noggle, A Dance with Death 144].” But the 122nd performed well and five of its airwomen were decorated as Heroes of the Soviet Union, the USSR’s highest honor.
And then there were the night bombers. Flying small, antiquated wood-and-canvas biplanes that were designed to be trainers and equipped with no parachutes, no radios, and only the most rudimentary instruments, they didn’t exactly have success dropped in their laps. And yet they became one of the most decorated Soviet air regiments, flying some 24,000 combat sorties and producing 24 Heroes of the Soviet Union. The Germans were terrified of them. According to one POW, “When the women started bombing our trenches…the radio stations on this line warned all the troops, ‘Attention, attention, the ladies are in the air, stay at your shelter [4. Noggle 46].’” It was the Germans who gave them the name by which they were best known. Mechanic Nina Yegorova says:
The Germans called the crews night witches. They liked to sleep at night, and our aircraft made the Germans’ life not so easy; they disturbed their sleep. Sometimes, when our planes were throttled back gliding in over the target, the Germans would cry out, “Night witches!”, and our crews could hear them[5. Noggle 64].
If you’d like to learn more about the women of Aviation Group 122, two fascinating books on the topic are Wings, Women and War: Soviet Airwomen in World War II Combat by Reina Pennington and A Dance With Death: Soviet Airwomen in World War II by Anne Noggle.