Lilya was born in Moscow in August 18, 1921. Lilya was her nickname, as her actual name was Lidiya. She was regarded by all as a "strikingly beautiful woman", which helped earn her public appreciation and, added to her success as a fighter pilot, served the propaganda ministry well.
She began her service in the all-woman 586th IAP, where she flew mostly defense missions from January to August 1942. In August she was posted to "male" squadrons because of her merits. The first was the 286th Fighter Division (IAD), then to the 437 IAP, which had recently been equipped with the new Lavochkin La-5. With this unit she got her first 2 air victories in September 13, 1943. She was sent as an attachment to the female flight of the 287 IAD, and served briefly in the 9th Guards IAP.
In the end of January, 1943, she was transferred to the 296th along with 2 other skilled women fighter pilots. On February 17, 1943, she was awarded the Order of the Red Banner. Two days later she was promoted to Junior Lieutenant and soon after to Senior Lieutenant.
On each side of her YaK-1's cockpit she painted a white lily, often confused for a rose—hence the nickname. She was so fond of flowers, that she often picked wildflowers and carried them aloft on her missions. According to her mechanic, Inna Pasportnikova, she had a postcard with yellow roses in her instrument panel. The white rose on the fuselage became famous among the Germans, who knew better than to try to dogfight the familiar YaK-1, and usually tried to make good their escape before Litvyak got too close.
Litvyak was injured 3 times during her combat tour. All three injuries occured during the Spring and Summer of 1943, a period of intense combat activity. The first time was on March 15, the same day that she shot down a Junkers Ju-88 bomber, but got hit by their escorting Me-109s (she continued to fly and bagged another Ju-88!). She managed to land at her base, and passed out and she remained in a hospital until May.
When she came back, the 296th IAP had been renamed the 73 Guards IAP for their exploits in battle. She was wounded again in combat in July 16 and 18 (the death-date of her comrade Katya Budanova). Both times she landed in German-ocuppied territory, but got back to base on foot the first time, and was rescued by another fighter pilot who landed after her the second.
She was repeatedly successful in flying missions, although was finally killed in action over Orel, while escorting a unit of Shturmoviks returning from an attack in August 1, 1943. Because of her notoriety amongst the Germans, eight Messerschmitt Me-109's concentrated solely on Lilya's YaK-1, and it took all eight of them to finally shoot down the "White Rose of Stalingrad". Her body and aircraft were not found during the war, but a marble monument, with 12 gold stars—one for each enemy plane that she had shot down—was erected in her memory in Krasy Luch, in the Donetsk region. Litvyak had completed 168 missions, and had 3 shared victories in addition to her personal twelve. She was 22 years old when she died.
Note: Some sources claim that she died in September the 1st, and not August. As with most details from the Great Patriotic War, 46 years of censorship has made it hard to be sure about anything.
Her remains were found at last in 1979, buried under her fallen YaK-1's wing, near the village of Dmitriyevka. Ten years later her body was recovered for an official burial; and in May 5, 1990 she was posthumously conferred the title of Hero of the Soviet Union by then Premier Mikhail Gorbachov.
Captain Katya Budanova flew with Lilya Litvyak in the 296 IAP, later renamed 73 Gv. IAP (Guards IAP). In the skies over Stalingrad, she once fought with a wingman against 12 enemy aircraft, ALONE against 13, and once with 3 other fighters against 19!
She was killed in combat in July 18, 1943, when 2 Messerschmitt Me-109s attacked her. Budanova dispensed with one, but the second managed to shoot her down and escape the battle with a damaged plane. She had a final score of 11 confirmed kills. The archivist of 586 IAP, Yekaterina Polunina, accounts that "she downed over 20 aircraft".
Leutenant Natalya Myeklin was a pilot for the Night Witches. She joined the Night Witches in 1942 when she was 19 years old, and flew 840 missions in three years.
She survived the war a very condecorated veteran, with medals including the Order of Lenin and the Soviet highest honor, the Hero of the Soviet Union gold star.
On June 22, 1941, Hitler's Wehrmacht invaded the Soviet Union, and Operation Barbarossa was under way.
By November, the German army was just 19 miles from Moscow. Leningrad was under siege, three million Russians had been taken prisoner, a large part of the Red Army was wiped out and the air force was grounded. The situation looked hopeless.
In the summer of 1941, Marina Raskova, a record-breaking aviatrix, organized the 588th night bomber squadron - composed entirely of women, from the mechanics to the navigators, pilot and officers.
Most of them were around 20 years old. The 588th began training in Engels, a small town north of Stalingrad. In a few months, the women were taught what it takes most people four years to learn.
One June 8, 1942, three planes took off on the first mission. The target: the headquarters of a German division. The raid was successful, but one aircraft was lost. The 588th fought non-stop for months, flying 15 to 18 missions a night.
"It was a miracle we didn't lose more aircraft", recalls Nadia Popova. "Our planes were the slowest in the air force. They often came back riddled with bullets, but they kept flying."
On August 2, 1942, her plane crashed in the Caucasus. She and her navigator were found alive a few days later. The winter of 1942 was brutal, with the temperature plummeting to -54o F during the battle of Stalingrad. Parts of the aircraft were so cold that they ripped the skin off of anyone who touched them. By January 1943, the women of the 588th were worn out. Sleepless nights, constant stress, the loss of friends and sexual harassment from male colleagues took their toll. Women in the 588th flew up to 500 night raids!
From the battle of Stalingrad to the fall of Berlin, the regiment made 24,000 combat flights and dropped 23,000 tons of bombs. It was awarded the Soviet Union's highest collective military honor. Years after the war, Nadia Popova said, "At night sometimes, I look up into the dark sky, close my eyes and picture myself as a girl at the controls of my bomber and I think, 'Nadia, how on earth did you do it?"
Raskova a famous Soviet navigator who set many records during the 1930s. She and two others were the first women to be awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union medal in 1938 when they completed a dangerous Moscow to Komsomolsk-on-Amur (in the Russian Far East) flight in the 2-engined plane "Rodina", that broke the international women's distance record.
Her influence and the military need for more human resources made it possible for her to be able to persuade Stalin to allow her to organize three regiments of women flyers.
Already a folk heroine, and a Major in the Soviet Air Force by 1941, Raskova was the logical choice to recruit, interview, and oversee the training of the women aviators, which she did magnificently. Being a Hero of the Soviet Union, she gave great inspiration to her trainees and passed her vast aviation experience to this new generation of Soviet female flyers.