Around the time of the 55th anniversary of VE-Day, Russian television featured a broadcast from Switzerland, during which a correspondent introduced a former Soviet woman WWII pilot, a mother of three children who was twice wounded during the war and resided abroad since the war. Though the maiden name of the woman was not given, Nina Raspopova, a veteran of the 46th Taman' Guards Night Bomber Regiment, assumed that this must be Lidya Litvyak who supposedly perished on August 1, 1943.

This incident was reported in a recent book by Yekaterina Polunina, former senior mechanic and currently historian and archivist of the 586th Fighter Regiment in which Litvyak initially served (Polunina, Yekaterina. Devchonki, podruzhki, letchitsy. Moscow, 2004, p. 146).

In the United States poorly informed male authors wrote sensational articles about Litvyak attributing to her a nonsensical nickname "White Rose of Stalingrad," when in fact her nickname was "Lily." As well, there is no proof that she was in love with Capt Aleksey Solomatin, her squadron commander in the 73rd Guards Stalingrad-Vienna Fighter Regiment, her last air wing.

Born on August 18, 1921, Litvyak completed her flying training in Moscow, graduated from high school with honors in 1938 and subsequently trained intensively at the Kherson Flying School. An instructor when the war broke out, by then she had already trained forty-five pilots. Litvyak was an attractive, tiny and rather shy blonde, with a charming smile and an unforgettable, ringing laughter.

Her 586th Fighter (Air Defense) Regiment became operational in April 1942, defending the rear military and civilian installations of Saratov, which was an important rail and industrial center north of Stalingrad. However, she was keen to act in a more active capacity, in a tactical fighter unit at the front. Her wish came true when she was transferred to the all-male 437th Fighter Regiment covering close approaches to Stalingrad, along with Raisa Belyayeva, Yekaterina Budanova and Mariya Kuznetsova.

The transfer appears to have been the result of friction between members of No. 1 Squadron and the controversial commanding officer of the 586th Fighter Regiment, Tamara Kazarinova. She considered them troublemakers and wished to be rid of them! The situation was not as simplistic as some westerners interested in the subject are prone to assuming. Kazarinova arranged to split the squadron between the 437th and 434th Fighter Regiments operating near Stalingrad. In the former Litvyak scored her very first two kills on September 13, 1942, the first woman to shoot down an enemy aircraft. Along with her three female comrades-in-arms, she stayed in the former unit for a short time only, mainly because it was equipped with "Laggs" rather than "Yaks" which the women flew, and was lacking the facilities to service the latter.

From October 1942 until January 1943, Litvyak and Budanova served, still in Stalingrad area, with the famous 9th Guards Fighter Regiment commanded by Lev Shestakov, Hero of the Soviet Union, whereas Belyayeva and Kuznetsova returned to the women's 586th Fighter Regiment. Litvyak's and Budanova's reluctance to follow Belyayeva and Kuznetsova was likely due to their dislike of the commanding officer Kazarinova, who was eventually transferred to Moscow due to ill health and incompetence.

In January 1943 Litvyak and Budanova transferred to the above mentioned 73rd Stalingrad-Vienna Guards Fighter Regiment, commanded by Major Nikolay Baranov.  In Baranov's regiment they both found their true niches and were commissioned on February 23, 1943. Due  to their superior fighting skills both became "free hunters" searching for targets of opportunity. In May both Solomatin and Baranov were killed. On July 19, Litvyak also lost her female comrade and friend Budanova who was shot down in a duel with three Messerschmitts. The final ranks of both Litvyak and Budanova were Senior Lieutenants.

There is evidence to suggest that Litvyak crash landed behind enemy lines on August 1, 1943. Until recently a belief persisted that she died following this crash landing. She was credited with twelve autonomous victories, including one observation balloon, and three aircraft shot down jointly with her comrades. However, Polunina maintains that Litvyak had only five independent kills, and shot down an enemy observation balloon as well as an Me-109 in group combat, whereas Budanova shot down six enemy aircraft independently and four in group combat. Thus Budanova should be considered the top WWII woman ace.

For many years a rumor persisted that Litvyak had run off with several German officers. In 1937 her father had fallen victim of Stalin's terror. Officially, she was "missing" and suspected of going over to the enemy.  Her only brother felt compelled to change his name, because of the stigma attached to it, as this writer was told by WASP Capt (Ret.) Anne Noggle, who met Litvyak's brother in Moscow in 1990. (Anne Noggle, a professional photographer and author of a book about Soviet airwomen as well as their devoted friend, died on August 16, 2005. See her A Dance with Death: Soviet Airwomen in World War II. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1994).

So the Air Force Command announced that Litvyak's body must be found before she may be posthumously awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union, the highest Soviet decoration requested by the newspaper Komsomol'skaya Pravda. In the summer of 1979 high school students from Krasnyy Luch' in the Ukraine, while searching for Litvyak's remains, learned that she has been allegedly buried in a common grave near their home town, so Polunina arranged to have Litvyak's name marked on this  grave. There is no evidence, however, that the alleged Litvyak's body was ever exhumed. On March 31, 1986 the Ministry of Defense acknowledged that the remains were Litvyak's and on May 5, 1990 she was awarded the Hero by Gorbachev posthumously.

However, there is new evidence to suggest that Litvyak was taken prisoner and a fighter pilot named Vladimir Lavrinenkov saw her in a PoW camp. A hand-written note by Aleksandr Gridnev, second commanding officer of the 586th Fighter Regiment, deposited in the Monino Air Force Archives, notes that Litvyak was heard speaking on a German radio following her crash landing and disappearance. Yet it is still unclear whether the woman appearing on Swiss television was in fact Lidya Litvyak.
by Kazimiera J. (Jean) Cottam Article and Photograph Copyright Dr Kazimiera J. Cottam, 2006

Dr Cottam was born in Poland in 1930, and spent six years in involuntary exile in the Soviet Union (1940-1946). She immigrated to Canada and attended Montreal High School and Sir George Williams University. She received her PhD in Russian and East European history from the University of Toronto in 1971. While working at the National Defense Headquarters in Ottawa, which subscribed to a number of Soviet periodicals, she learned about Soviet women's impressive contribution to the WWII effort at the front. After extensive research at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana and Moscow, Dr. Cottam went on to contribute eight books, four of which have now been largely superseded by the latest series of four, as well as about fifty biographical entries published mainly in American military encyclopedias and Amazon to Fighter Pilots: A Biographical Dictionary of Military Women. Ed. Reina Pennington. 2 vols. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003. Visit her website for more information.