Teenage girls who hammered Hitler

More Amazing Women

The teenage girls who hammered Hitler

from Stalingrad on the Volga to Berlin

By Carl Dow
Editor and Publisher
True North Perspective

When Titans Clashed, cover.

While Hollywood Actor John Wayne* cowardly and successfully dodged the draft when the United States entered World War II more than one million Soviet women, most of them teenagers, rose up from the factories, farms, and schools to take on the invading Germans in direct combat in the air and on the ground.

On June 22, 1941, it was a confident Hitler who hurled his armed forces of 3,750,000 men against the Soviet Union. Why should he not have been confident? He had easily flattened Poland and then conquered France while kicking the British out of Europe in action time-spans that could be counted in weeks. His military machine was at peak strength. All that stood between him and the breadbasket of the Ukraine and the oil fields of central Asia were a mélange of subhuman Slavs. According to two American retired colonels, David M. Glantz, who saw action in Vietnam, and Lt. Colonel Jonathon M. House, whose active duty included command positions in Korea, and who both taught university level military history, the war Hitler started on his Eastern Front saw a staggering 40 million military casualties. It cost the Red Army 10 million to stop Hitler, another 10 million to throw the Nazi war machine back, and a final nine million to take Berlin.

Kazimiera Jean Cottam, a retired member of Ottawa Independent Writers, has written a series of books that reveal the human face of the young Soviet women who volunteered by the tens of thousands for frontline action against the Nazi invaders. Prompted by love of country that transcended the politics of Stalinism many of them made the ultimate sacrifice in direct combat with the Germans on the ground and in the air.

Ms. Cottam is an expert military translator, a University of Toronto PhD graduate in history, and a former Research Associate of the Summer Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her interest in the subject began while she was working in Ottawa for what was then Canada’s Department of External Affairs. Articles would cross her desk about heroism of Soviet women during World War II. The Soviet Union was the only country that allowed frontline action for women.

When it came to their demand for active duty the women would not take no for an answer.

One teenager who had won her wings at a civilian flying club wanted to enlist as a fighter pilot as soon as the war started. She was told to go back to her mother. Here is how she describes that adventure.

“The first seven (primary) years of my schooling sped by. I moved to Moscow, to attend a factory training school. When I learned that a flying club was accepting trainees, I enrolled there. I became extremely busy, attending the factory training school, taking evening courses, and training at the flying club. I slept only 3-4 hours a day. I did my homework in the streetcar on my way to the airfield and back. …

“I loved to fly and flew a lot. At first I flew as a volunteer instructor, and later on I became a professional flying instructor . . .

“Then the war broke out suddenly. Three of my brothers were fighting, so I decided I also belonged at the front. I went to a military recruitment centre and wrote letters to government officials. I managed to get into the People’s Commissariat (Department) of Defence. Serious looking men passed me in the corridor, and I was afraid to approach them. Finally, I picked an elderly man with graying hair (I couldn’t yet  tell the ranks) and spoke to him. He patted me on the head and said: “Go home, or else your mother will worry about you.”

But Yekaterina Fedovta didn’t go home. She learned that three women’s air regiments were being organized. She joined and eventually became a highly decorated Flight Commander.

“I remember how General Vorozheykin, our air army’s chief political officer, paid us a visit (at our air base) in the Kuban’ area. He stopped beside my aircraft, and sternly reprimanded (base commander) Markov: “Why aren’t the pilots in the cockpits by now?” We were already sitting there, only we were so small one could not see us from the ground. I had to unfasten my parachute, stand up and report that my aircrew were combat-ready . . .

“Sometimes we behaved like little girls at the airfield — after all, the majority of us were only 18-19 years old. We joked, laughed, and sang. But we stopped as soon as we started up the engines (of their fighter bomber). Gunner Toshka Khokhlova would cease joking and navigator Klara Dubkova, her singing. After we had taken off, one heard only the latter’s precisely-worded reports. For instance: enemy to starboard, port; explosion below, above; their fire has shifted to starboard.” And Khokhlova, repelling enemy attacks, would rush from side to side with her portable machine gun or set it up in the astrohatch. Again I would hear Klara’s calm voice: “Commander, complete your turn to port. Toshka — you fire; I can’t he is in my dead zone . . .

“And the battle would get fiercer and fiercer. The attacks would follow in quick succession. The red and green ribbon of tracer bullets would stretch toward us uninterruptedly, while the explosions of large-calibre anti-aircraft artillery shells were like white and black “caps.” Eventually, we would be running short of ammunition, but the battle would not be over. Then an enemy aircraft shot down by one of us would fall to the ground ablaze. However, the enemy would attack again. This time it was a frontal attack. Every aircrew would open fire — a veritable hail of fire — and enemy pilots would lose their nerve. They moved away, climbing. We flew back home and soon reached home territory . . .

“My girlfriends not only witnessed but themselves experienced the horrors of war. Many of them were wounded, and many were shot down. Each operational flight became a heroic feat on the part of radio operator/air-gunners, navigator/bombers, and pilots. But when they were subsequently asked to describe their combat sortie, they would modestly reply, ‘It was routine.’”

A Ukrainian Jewish girl was too short to become a pilot (like many of the volunteers) because she couldn’t reach the pedals. So she became a navigator-bomber and dropped bombs all the way to Berlin. A 16-year-girl fighting behind the German lines in Belarus captured a German officer. Taken in custody by the local partisans he broke down and cried with shame when the partisans asked the girl to take off her cap to show her long braids. 

The regiment of women fighter pilots excelled against the enemy. A huge Nazi air fleet had been sent against Stalingrad. Lengthy air battles were fought above the city.

One day, Nazi planes attacked the 64th Army positions at Stalingrad. Its commander, General M.S. Shumilov, saw the battle of Red air force fighters against a numerically superior enemy force. The general reported, “Our pilots displayed unparalleled valour.” But few knew that in this battle it was one Lily Lttvyak, a small blue-eyed 20-year-old from Moscow, who shot down two of the enemy planes.

The Richthofen and Udet squadrons incessantly roared in the sky ablaze over the Volga. And Lily, together with her comrades, kept boldly engaging these Nazi aces. One of them, decorated with three iron crosses, bailed out in time from his blazing fighter. During the subsequent interrogation, he was shocked to learn that he had been shot down by such a young and frail-looking girl.  It was only after Lily described the battle in detail that he could no longer deny it.

With experience the pilots soon outmatched the Germans in courage and skill. In one battle the women attacked an armada of bombers with fighter escorts. Outnumbered they broke up the Nazi formation as they shot down 17 enemy aircraft while losing none of their own. 

The campaign of the women’s 586th Fighter Regiment began on the banks of the Volga River and ended in Vienna. On board their Yak-9 fighters, the regiment’s women pilots protected major industrial centres and rail junctions, such as Saratov, Voronezh, Kastornaya, Kursk, Kiev, Zhitomir, Kotovsk, and Beltsy, as well as bridges across the Volga, Don, Voronezh, Dnieper, and Dniester rivers.

The pilots of the regiment covered the regrouping of forces of the Steppe and the Second Ukrainian Fronts; strafed enemy troops in the area of Korsun’-Shevchenkovskly; and defended installations at Budapest as well as the bridges on the Danube. They flew 4,419 combat missions, took part in 125 dogfights and shot down 38 enemy aircraft. The entire personnel were decorated.

At some point I have to bring this story of incredible courage to an end so I’ll copy verbatim from a brief chapter called Girlfriends.

“Our women pilots laughed merrily when they recalled how the face of the captured Nazi pilot fell when the person ‘responsible’ for his defeat was ‘introduced’ to him. Tiny, blonde, blue-eyed Zoya Pozhidayeva looked like an adolescent boy, and not the least like the fierce fighter pilot she truly was. It was about her that Rita Kokina, the regimental poet, wrote (much is lost in translation but the power of the words hold):

 

“A very slim girl in a white cap-comforter

In her eyes — a May day’s blue reflection

On the girl’s chest, a military decoration —

A modest reward for glorious victories.

 

“She is called, solemnly, ‘an eagle’

Simply and with affection, ‘a pilot’

The country entrusted its well-being to her,

She is armed. Her weapon — a mighty aircraft.

“From the very beginning of their regiment’s existence, Zoya Pozhidayeva, Anya Demchenko, and Masha Kuznetsova have been close friends. Lieutenant Demchenko and Junior Lieutenant Pozhidayeva, flew together in a two-plane element. Together they waited in their cockpits on scramble alerts, and together they scrambled to meet the enemy. Each of them had about 200 operational sorties to her credit.

“They parted for a short period when Demchenko and Kuznetsova fought on the Volga. There the situation was terrible: hundreds of enemy bombers advanced toward Stalingrad, in order to drop many tonnes of bombs on its defenders. Demchenko and Kuznetsova kept scrambling together with their comrades, boldly cutting groups of Nazi bombers, breaking up their formations, and forcing them to turn back. Having had barely the time to repel one attack, the fighters rejoined battle again and again, to chase away one bomber column after another. These were constant star raids, and it was not an easy time for the girls. Soon after the roar of the enemy bombers had died down, the girls were airborne again, attacking tank columns and concentrations of enemy men and equipment.

“The girls returned to their home unit as mature, hardened fighters. And when their regiment was assigned the mission to support ground troops in the Korsun’-Shevchenkovsky operation, Anya Demchenko resolutely led her fighter group in a ground attack on an airfield on which Nazi bombers stood ready for take-off.

“Then Masha Kuznetsova flew as the wingman of squadron commander Raya Belsayeva, one of the best pilots of the regiment. Not a single bomb fell on the installations protected by women fighter pilots Anya Demchenko, Masha Kuznetsova, Zoya Pozhidayeva, and their comrades.

“The trio celebrated V-Day in Budapest. Happy and proud, after exchanging hugs, the girls loudly sang our regimental victory song:

 

“Let’s raise a glass. Drink to victory, Comrades!

To the Homeland, happiness and friends!

To those who fought bravely and fell,

As the enemies’ batteries thundered.

 

“We held an unwavering belief in victory

Fiery words impelled us in our advance!

We fought, inspired by our forefathers’ deeds

We fought inspired by our people.”

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For more (including book titles and where to buy them) please click on the following:

http://webhome.idirect.com/~kjcottam/welcome.htm

  • John Wayne was the only cowardly Hollywood actor of note. James (Jimmy) Stewart enlisted in the U.S. Air Force as a private and rose to the rank of Brigadier General. His service included flying bomber raids over Germany for two years. Others were:Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.(USN, Silver Star), Henry Fonda (USN, Bronze Star), and Clark Gable (USAAC) as well as emerging actors such as Eddie Albert (USN, Bronze Star) and Tyrone Power (USMC). All rushed to sign up for military service.          

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