Female faces of the air war.

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Female faces of the air war.

Berichtdoor Leopard » 24 jan 2009, 16:31

The phrase 'The face of war is not that of a woman' - turned into a proverb owing to the title of a book by Svetlana Aleksiyevich - heavily influences the image of a woman at war, familiar to everybody from footage of the Second World War: a delicate girl-medic hauling a casualty from the battlefield under incoming fire. Such footage was a telling image of a woman as a saviour of life - as opposed to a male warrior slaying the enemy. The participation of women in various auxiliary units of the Red Army is well known. Meanwhile, the Great Patriotic War provided enough examples of women fighting as part of purely 'male' branches - Armour, Field Artillery, Air Force. The aviation aspect of the subject boils down usually to mentioning female pilots of the 46th Gv.NBAP, who flew the famous Polikarpov Po-2 'kukuruznik' (corn-cropper) biplanes. However, it is not common knowledge that another two air regiments - a bomber one and a fighter one - were activated in parallel with the 46th Gv.NBAP. This article is dedicated to the female pilots of the 586th IAP.

The debate going on in Soviet society on the sexual and social position of women led to the fact that during the 1930's the flying of planes was all the rage with boys as well as the girls. Along with men, the Motherland was made famous by Marina Raskova, Valentina Grizodubova, and Polina Osipenko. They were the first women in the Soviet Union to be awarded the title of 'Hero of the Soviet Union' - the highest national award. Their footsteps were followed by many a girl, queuing up for membership in the clubs of the Osoaviakhim (Russian abbreviation of the then popular association of military-oriented clubs). Thus, a young female Muscovite, V.A. Petrachenkova, wrote in her application on 22 Dec. 1938:

'Owing to a tragic death of the best pilot of our socialist Motherland, Valery Chkalov, who gave his heart and his life to the cause of communism, I cannot remain indifferent to this tragedy... I want to join the ranks of Stalin's aviators and dedicate myself to our Soviet homeland and Communist Party. I request admission to the aviation club of the Stalin District of the city of Moscow.'

It is possible that a present-day reader would deem the above language to be too high-flown. However, at the time, young people truly believed in the bright vistas for their country and were proud of the nation's leaders. With aviation being en vogue, admittance to an aviation club was a great honour. A pre-war peculiarity was that the specialities of an aviator and a military pilot were seen as synonymous. Many women were mastering military skills in parallel with their basic flying training. Small wonder, when WWII broke out, that instructor Valeria Khomyakova (Moscow's Leningrad Aviation Club) submitted a request to a local drafting office: 'I do ask you to let me join the Red Army to be sent to the front...' This request was motivated not only by ideology. Many girls logged a rather impressive number of flying hours in light aircraft. Some of them, e.g. Yekaterina Budanova, worked as instructors responsible for training the flying personnel for the Red Army's Air Force. During the Soviet-Japanese hostilities at the Lake Hasan (Russian Far East), she would receive numerous letters of gratitude from her former trainees.

However, until the war, the female pilots' requests to join the active forces, similar to that of V.D. Khomyakova, were falling on the deaf ears of the Soviet commanders. The formidable Red Army was believed to be an invincible guardian of the Soviet borders, ready to thwart any aggressor. Alas, the war broke out following quite a different scenario, instead of the one seen by most of the Soviet population as most probable. The 'Lightning Strikes' of the aggressor won him Belorussia, the Baltic part of the Union and most of Ukraine, with the Nazis launching their offensive against Moscow as early as in mid-autumn.

It is symbolic that female pilots were recalled in a most dire moment for the country when the bulk of the Western Front troops got encircled in the vicinity of Vyazma, leaving the approach to Moscow virtually undefended. On 8 October 1941, the People's Defence Committee issued the order number 0099 'On Activation of Female Air Regiments for the Air Force of the Red Army'. By the order, 'to draw on female flying personnel', three air regiments, namely: 586th IAP, 587th BAP and 588th NBAP - were to be activated and manned by female personnel serving with the Air Force, civil aviation and Osoaviakhim army assistance society. The night and fighter air regiments were to be deployed to the town of Engels while the bomber air regiment was to be stationed at the Kamenka settlement.

The activation of female air regiments was initiated by Marina Mikhailovna Raskova - the embodiment of the pre-war success of our female pilots. She had many members of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party to pull strings for her and visited the Kremlin personally on many occasions. During the initial days of the Great Patriotic War, Major Raskova was flooded with letters from female pilots asking for a place in front-line units, since many of them failed to be assigned to combat units through the proper channels of command like local drafting offices.

Raskova devised a plan to introduce a proposal for employing female pilots and technicians in combat. Her initiative was approved by Stalin, which meant a lot then. No doubt, the decision on activating all-girl unit was, to a certain extent, a propaganda coup, since even the units manned with active duty personnel could not achieve air superiority during the initial phases of the war. However, there is also no doubt whatsoever that the obvious desire of the women to fight the aggressor proved to the Services that the war had become truly everybody' business.

Female air regiments were manned with volunteers on the recommendation of their respective Young Communist League organisations. In Moscow, several rooms were allocated for Raskova's staff in the Zhukovsky Aviation Engineering Academy located in Petrovsky Park. From dawn till dusk, female college students and workers would queue up for their turn. Most conspicuous among them were the female pilots in their blue uniform overcoats or leather jackets. They were enrolled first of all. Applicants were in abundance and 450 personnel were selected fast enough. Few of them were professionals, with most of those selected being glider enthusiasts.

The newly activated unit, whose rightful commander became M.M. Raskova, was designated in a rather peculiar manner as 'Unit 122'. All three air regiments were to be sorted out and their training started before 1December 1941. At first, it was planned that the personnel would receive their training at the Zhukovsky Academy premises. However, the state of siege declared by the authorities impacted on these plans. The girls had barely enough time to be kitted out, following which all three regiments set off on 16 October to the military training school at the town of Engels (Saratov Region).

Raskova was delaying the distribution of the girls among the three regiments awaiting the start of flying training. Moreover, all of her personnel demanded to be appointed pilots of combat aircraft, even though there was the need for navigators and gunners/radio operators. Even more dire need was in mechanics, technicians, weapons specialists, since the commander decided to fill all the slots in her regiments with females. Marina Raskova faced a tough job: most of the girls wanted to fly fighters. She decided, naturally, to select the best of them for the fighter regiment after the flying exam.

The initial phase proved to be rather difficult. Commanding a bunch of civilians with no idea of military discipline and no common cause so far to unite them was a tall order. Uniform-clad girls were restricted to barracks and were taking it harder than men normally do. To cap it all, the all-girl environment posed additional problems such as quarrels and rows. Major Raskova found a solution by cutting her command's spare time by making them cram the regulations vigorously.

Men were surprised and suspicious of the all-female aviation unit. What a blunder it's going to be, was everybody's initial opinion. Most graphically the common view was expressed by Lieutenant Myalo who, upon learning that the political officer of the new unit is female, asked, 'Wow! You even have political officers! Just like in a real unit?' Such an attitude was to stick to all-girl units for the rest of the war, with the girls having to fight both enemy Messerschmitts and the resentment of their male colleagues.

Upon arrival at the flight school, the selection for particular regiments began. On 9 December 1941, the fighter regiment was singled out of the 'Unit 122' and designated as the 586th IAP. It comprised the first 25 girls who had passed their Yakovlev Yak-1 materiel proficiency exam. Having quickly appointed experienced Ye. D. Bershanskaya the officer commanding of the 588th NBAP and leaving the 587th BAP under her command, Raskova hit snags with finding a worthy commander for the 586th IAP. At first, the acting OC was a prominent Osoaviakhim pilot (later the 2nd squadron leader) Yevgeniya Prokhorova who earned her fame before the war via her record-breaking flights. She and the Engels flight school instructor cadre took the brunt of conversion training of the female fighter air regiment.

Following the completion of the ground school, on 28 January 1942 the regiment began receiving its long-awaited Yak-1 fighters, with 24 aircraft having been fielded with two squadrons by 10 February. All the aircraft were winter-tailored featuring ski landing gear, heat-saving engine compartments and white distemper paintjobs.

In late January, flight training commenced, first on Yak-7 twinseat trainers and later on Yak-1 fighters. The training flights proved the girls to be good enough pilots as well as demonstrating their enormous desire to be as good as men as far as piloting was concerned. Lt.-Col. V.P. Petrovich, deputy OC for flight training, faced the hard job of personally examining most of the pilots.

Most outstanding were Raisa Belyaeva and Valeria Khomyakova. The latter was allowed to fly the Yak-1 after just 52 minutes logged during trial flights, while other - even more experienced pilots - had to fly with instructors for as long as a total of 2.5 hours to be cleared for solo flights in the Yak-1. Khomyakova earned excellent grades for piloting in one of the trial flights but in another she switched to empty fuel tanks owing to her inexperience, with the fighter having to be crash-landed on the ice-covered Volga river. Other girls had their hands full too.

At the same time, female mechanics were receiving their hands-on training at the flight-testing facility of plant number 292. It should be noted here that becoming a technician turned out to be not so simple a task, since many future mechanics heard the words 'crankshaft' or 'crank case' for the first time during the classes. In addition, a mechanic's job is hard enough for a man, let alone girls. In the line of duty they had to replace the engines and tails of their 3-tonne fighters as well as having to climb the stabiliser in the place of a load when test-starting the engines on the ground.

It is noteworthy that in early 1942 the winter in the Trans-Volga area was bitterly cold, with snowstorms raging on. The technicians had to see with their own eye what their military job was all about on the snowstorming night of 30 March when they were stood-to to save their aircraft that were in danger of being toppled by the stormy wind. The job was for several technicians to press the aircraft to the ground by lying on the fighters' wing panels and stabilisers and wait for the storm to subside. When the wind settled, the people looked like chunks of snow but the planes suffered virtually no damage. However, the brief respite was oven by the noon when the snowstorm resumed anew. The girls had to rush to their airfield again to keep on saving their planes until midnight when they - dog-tired and soaked to their skin - had a chance to have some rest.

February 23 was rich with events: the regiment flew its first tactical sortie to cover a bridge across the Volga while new reinforcements from the city of Saratov wore their pledge of allegiance, with some of the girls breaking into tears being overpowered by emotion. Having arrived on the same day from Moscow, Maj. Raskova brought the order on the military grades for its personnel. Finally, one more important event occurred: the 586th IAP was assigned its officer commanding, Tamara Kazarinova, sister of Militsa Kazarinova who from the very beginning had been Raskova's executive officer and the right-hand woman during the activation phase.

In March, the pilots carried on with their training while expecting to be sent to the front. Over two months passed but the regiment seemed to be forgotten. Finally, on 7 April 1942 an order arrived authorising the unit to be in Moscow in two day to take part in providing air defence coverage for the capital. The first spring of the war had already begun, snow was melting fast, which made it necessary for the Yak-1s to be refitted with wheels instead of ski landing gear at an regular airfield called Razboyshchina. The wheels, naturally, were in very short supply.

Changing the skis for wheels took the regiment a week. This was the reason for the regiment being returned back to Saratov. As a result, the 586th IAP failed to get to the front in the winter 1942. It looks like the command, which had learnt the lessons of the initial phase of the war, decided to spare the all-girl regiment by granting it a relatively quieter role as part of the air defences. Both flying and ground crews were far from happy: they were longing for seeing a real war but found themselves in the rear area again.

On 14 May 1942, the 586th IAP redeployed to the Anisovka airfield where it was reassigned to the 144th IAD (Air Defence) covering the railway installations in the vicinity of Saratov. Beside the 586th female IAP, the division comprised 963rd IAP. All that time, the 586th personnel carried on with their training, with the commanders placing the emphasis on high-altitude and night flying. Most often, the patrolling was carried out at 5,000-6,000 m. As is known, the Yak-1's cockpit was not pressurised, therefore, the girls had to have quite a stamina and be skilled in using their oxygen equipment.

The regiment had to improve their communications systems on its own. The fighters flown by the 586th were of the initial versions and were fitted with receivers only. In the air defence role such a deficiency was inadmissible, so in three months radio operator Klavdia Volkova and special equipment engineer Vera Shcherbakova outfitted all aircraft with transmitters. This really impressed a commission that arrived from Moscow in August.

Meanwhile, the front had been getting even closer to the Saratov region. Previously, only rare Nazi reconnaissance aircraft would appear, but the first enemy bombing raids proved the war was only stone's throw away. The first real alarm was sounded in the regiment on the night of 24/25 June when about a dozen He-111's dropped their ordnance in the vicinity of the airfield and on the nearby ball-bearing factory. The next night saw a new air raid of around 30 enemy bombers that reduced one of the factory's shops to rubble. The antiaircraft artillerymen claimed three enemy planes downed.

On 17 June, there was a grave incident in the regiment. When a pair of fighters were returning to base, Olga Studenitskaya's aircraft suddenly lost control and went into a steep dive. The pilot managed to bail out but the plane hit her right leg - breaking it in the process. On hitting the ground, the girl hurt her broken leg even more. She could not get up so the chute dragged her around for some time. The investigation revealed the fighter had lost control due to a cracked bolt that dropped out of its place due to vibration and damaged the control column. Later, despite her grave wound, Olga Studenitskya returned to flying but that time she was flying the U-2 (Po-2) biplane in the polar area.

An absurd tragedy happened on 20 July. When escorting an Li-2 transport, the pair of fighters flown by Budanova and Smirnova ran out of gas and had to make an emergency landing in a field in the vicinity of Serdobsk. Budanova landed safely but Smirnova's plane landed on the ploughed field and nosed over. Having travelled several metres wheels-up and banging onto the ground with its tail and wing, the fighter reassumed its normal position, with the pilot suffering no damage whatsoever. However, that seemingly well-ended sortie suddenly turned tragic. Seeing the fighter ruined, Lina Smirnova failed to control herself and committed suicide. The whole regiment was shocked.

The last casualty suffered during this relatively calm summer of 1942 was Olga Golysheva who died on 16 August in a mock combat when she failed to recover from a steep dive.

Meantime, the grave situation at the front resulting from the penetration of the Nazi troops at the Stalingrad approach led to the declaration of martial law in the Saratov Region on 9 September. On the next day, the whole 1st squadron led by Raisa Belyayeva redeployed to the outskirts of Stalingrad with a new - all-male - squadron having been activated as part of the regiment. The squadron was inexperienced and it took the regiment a lot of effort to make it combat-ready. The girls had to both pull their combat duty and share their not-so-enormous experience with even more greenhorn lads. Soon after the arrival of the all-male squadron, the first victory of both the 586th IAP and whole 144th IAD was won. It is very telling that its was won by a woman.

Actually, the success was preceded by not-so-pleasant events. In the night of 23 September, when repulsing an enemy air raid on Saratov, the AAA slugged so hard (though not too accurately) that friendly fighters could not approach the installations being covered. Such a lack of coordination resulted in the Nazis wiping out an oil tanker and returning to base scot-free. The city's defenders were left with the oil spill burning on the Volga as an awesome reminder of what the war was about.

The raid prompted an immediate reaction of the national leadership. On the very same day, the Western Front's Military Council member N.A. Bulganin visited Saratov. He demanded that basic co-operation among air defence units be established immediately. In particular, a decision was taken for the AAA to suspend firing on the target as soon as it is caught by searchlight - allowing the fighters to have their go at the enemy.

On 24 September, right after receiving a report on the enemy bombers approaching the city, the 586th scrambled a pair of Yak-1s flown by squadron leader Yevgeniya Prokhorova and her wingman Valeriya Khomyakova. Having spotted a Junkers Ju-88 caught by the searchlights, Khomyakova let off a burst on its cockpit. Blinded by searchlights, the enemy gunner opened up in return but to no avail. The bomber's pilot must have been killed at once, since the Ju-88 banked heavily on the right and went into a nearly vertical dive. Going after the enemy, Khomyakova fired another burst but then had to recover her plane to avoid running into the ground.

According to Valeriya Khomyakova, afterwards, she was chasing another two bombers but was foiled by the searchlight operators who would switch off their lights too soon. Following a 45-minute aerial encounter, she returned to the airfield where she learnt of the bomber she had downed. The first to tell her about it was her technician Yakaterina Polunina who gave her a kiss crying, 'Hey, you've just killed a Heinkel!' Prokhorova's sortie was not so successful. Six times she attack a pair of Heinkels nearly running them into the ground finally, but at the critical time her guns failed. Yevgenuya took this very emotionally: barely holding her tears, the squadron leader said that but for the weapons, 'another two scumbags would have remained on the ground for ever'.

According to German records, on 20 September 1942, at Tatsinskaya airfield, Oberst E. Borman, Squadron Commander of KG76 was ordered to re-deploy. The first group was to go to the northern part of Russia to fight in the area between lakes Ladoga and Ilmen while the remaining two groups were to raid military installations in Saratov. The German command believed the raids on Saratov to be a success but on the morning on 25 September one bomber (Ju.88A-4 number 144010) failed to return to base. The crew of four, led by the 4th group OC, Oberleutnant G. Maak, was believed to be missing in action (MIA). This was despite the fact that the engagement happened at night, the German pilots saw the attacks of Soviet fighters and the downing of Borman's plane and even made a report on the tactics used by Soviet fighters.

Khomyakova's victory in the night combat somewhat cooled the heads of Luftwaffe pilots, with raids on Saratov stopping. As to the victoress, accompanied by the 144th air division commander, Col. M.N. Noga, she drove to the place where the downed bomber crashed. What they found at the scene made a depressing impression on the pilot: 'All four of the Heinkel crew were dead, lying around in different position, with their parachutes having been deployed but, obviously, they lacked the time to fill with the air.'

Nonetheless, she was pragmatic enough to take the enemy parachutes and use the silk for sewing some underthings later. In the regiment, the first victory was celebrated with some vodka and a watermelon.

Three reporters really got to her by taking her photograph non-stop, with some of the pictures being taken of her in civilian clothes, which was quite unusual for wartime. However, taking her picture in civvies was allowed only to foreign reporters, which, in itself, was rather funny.

For the combat, V. Khomyakova was promoted to senior lieutenant, issued a 2,000-rouble bonus and appointed squadron leader. On 29 September, she was allowed to go to Moscow to pick up her Order of the Red Banner. Those days were the happiest in her short life, even though she failed to pick up her award since she was in too much hurry to get back to her regiment.

Alas, the life of Valeriya Khomyakova was cut short just a fortnight later. On 5 October 1942, at night, she died in the line of duty. Upon her return from Moscow, she was immediately put on duty instead of one of her colleagues, who was ill - even though she was tired herself. While taking off for a night scramble, she started climbing and with no visible reference points in sight, she banked heavily to the right and crashed. The investigation into the incident conducted by the 144th fighter air division OC, the political officer and chief of staff, concluded that the crash was due to the girl's lack of experience in night operations and inadequate guidance on the part of the regimental command. The commission's report stated that Khomyakova had flown only a single night training sortie in the UT-2 trainer even though the norm was seven.

However, Khomyakova's technician Ye. Polunina had to conduct a 50-hour maintenance in early October 1942, which testifies to the number of flying hours that Valeriya had under her belt, including night flights. Besides, the following situation proved that the lack of experience was not the only point. On that tragic night, the fighters were scrambled to test their combat readiness, with the neighbouring - 963rd IAP - performing poorly. Thus, the take-off of duty fighters from the Rtishchevo airfield took a long time, while the duty fighter from the Razboyshchina took off in 20 minutes. Only a pair of the 586th IAP's fighters scrambled in 2 min. However, maybe this was the reason for the crash.

The death of Valeriya Khomyakova prompted a radical change of command in the 586th IAP and a royal raspberry for the 144th IAD. Lt.-Gen. M.S. Gromadin ordered the 586th OC, T.A. Kazarinova, relieved of her duties due to a lack of aptitude. This was blamed both for the death of two pilots and five crashes, on the one hand, and, on the other, for creating a bad climate in the regiment and harassing the personnel, which resulted in the suicide of L.I. Smirnova. It should be noted that Tamara Kazarinova was not liked by her subordinates and blamed for many troubles dogging the outfit. Thus, the redeployment of the 1st squadron to Stalingrad was attributed to Kazarinova's desire to get rid of certain pilots she disliked. As a result, the top brass decided that a heavy male hand was required to square the regiment away. On 22 October 1942, Maj. A.V. Gridnev assumed command of the regiment. He remained the regimental OC until the end of the war. In addition, the regimental political officer, navigator and senior engineer were replaced too.

However, no commander could ever save the girls from the dangers inherent to their job. On 3 December 1942, another tragedy took the life of 2nd Sqn Ldr Ye. Prokhorova who was the 586th IAP acting OC when the regiment had been activated. Yevgeniya Prokhorova, a flight club instructor, had been involved in flight training only since 1936, taking part in the annual air parades. In 1940, she made two national records in range and altitude while flying the Rot Front glider.

'She flew beautiful aerobatics that could not be rivalled even by men', said Prokhorova's friend V.M. Lisitsina, 'She had her own style and flew the advanced Yak-1 in a truly masterly fashion.'

While escorting a VIP Li-2 plane carrying Lavrenty Beria, member of the High Command, to Orenburg, the six Yak-1 escorts found themselves in dense fog. An attempt to get out of it by dropping low nearly killed escort leader Vitaly Belyakov who decided to lead the package to Orenburg. Suddenly, Prokhorova tried to check how low the cloud were without paying any attention to the orders of her leader (her radio must have been out of operation). Her fighter entered the fog and disappeared forever. Later, it was discovered that the fighter had hit a ridge when diving. The remaining five escorts barely escaped tragedy since Orenburg was covered by fog. Thanks to an opening in the fog that they found by chance, the escorts managed to crash-land 40-60 km short of the city. In the similar situation on 4 January 1943, a Petlyakov Pe-2 crashed with Major M.M. Raskova onboard.

While the bulk of the 586th IAP defended Saratov, its 1st squadron, which had been re-deployed to Stalingrad, got into the inferno itself. It was re-deployed there on 10 September, on one of the most critical days of the siege. The eight pilots flew in their fighters with the ground crews being delivered in the bomb bays of SB bombers. By that time, the Nazi troops had penetrated the city, breaking up the Soviet defences in the process. In some spots, they reached the Volga. In the skies over Stalingrad, there were bitter air battles raging daily, with the Luftwaffe enjoying air superiority.

The pilots of other regiments must have been somewhat shocked when an all-girl squadron arrived - flying fighters, to boot. However, the girls had no chance to fight as a single squadron. Being apprehensive of quickly losing them, the command attached both flights of the 1st squadron to then most experienced fighter regiments in the area of operations. The flight led by Raisa Belyayeva was attached to the 437th IAP while that of Claudia Nechayeva found itself in the Stalingradsky collective farm where the famous 434th IAP was garrisoned. There, the attitude towards the girls was both condescending and scornful, too.

'You'll be wasted, you greenhorns,' the men would grumble gloomily.

Even more outspoken was the 434th IAP Regt OC Maj. I.I. Kleshchov: 'It hurts me to see women at war - hurts and makes me feel ashamed as if us men can get you rid of all that unwomanly business.'

One can understand the regimental commander full well. He saw with his own eyes what the Luftwaffe pilots were capable of. Hence, he harboured no illusions. The girls were treated as any other reinforcements - being gradually given the chance to adapt. The first to fly combat missions (naturally, as wingmen) were the two Claudias - Nechayeva and Blinova. This happened after the mock combat between Kleshchov and Nechayeva during which she went into a spin. Nonetheless, she managed to show to her OC the best of her flying skills. The gallant pilot was not destined to fight long: on 17 September 1942, Claudia Nechayeva was killed in action covering her leader Capt. I. Izbinsky from Messerschmitts.

At the time, the flight led by R. Belyayeva was ordered to re-deploy to the Verkhnyaya Akhtuba airfield. The fighters landed on a deserted field with no-one and no planes in sight. The reason became obvious very soon indeed when enemy artillery began pounding the airfield. Under the incoming fire the female flight had to takeoff fast and return to their airfield in Anisovka where they were ordered to the Srednyaya Akhtuba airfield. The reaction of the male outfit stationed their - 437th IAP matched that of their 434th comrades: 'We shall see if you can fly at all!' Such an attitude offended Belyayeva who really flew into rage.

As a result, two fighters crossed their swords in a mock combat - the Yak-1 piloted by Belyayeva and the Lavochkin La-5 of the pilots whose name, alas, remained unknown. Raisa Belyayeva managed to get right behind the La-5 in the end. At that moment, a pair of Messerschmitts showed up - being ignored by the duellists who got quite engrossed in their scores-settling. Only a warning radioed by the ground control made them disengage and turn to meet the incoming enemy. The latter preferred not to press their luck and retreated, with the La-5 pilot having to land his aircraft on its belly. Belyayeva was recognised as the winner.

The regiment was suffering heavy losses, especially on the part of aircraft. Thus, there were not enough planes for all pilots to fly. The Stalingrad battle was very bitter. The enemy made no allowance to the girls for their gender. Once, squadron leader R. Belyayeva and her wingman M. Kuznetsova ran into a dozen Messerschmitts. For 20 minutes, they had to fight tooth and nail until reinforcements arrived.

The 1st squadron comprised two pilots whose names later became very well-known - Yekaterina Budanova and Liliya Litvyak. According to archives, they downed five Nazi planes in the Stalingrad area of operations (AO), with a total of 12 being shot down by them by August 1942. Sergeant Litvyak called Lilya [a dimunitive from Liliya] scored her first kill in only her second combat sortie on 27 September. While providing Stalingrad with air defence coverage, the package led by divisional commander Col. S.P. Danilov faced two Junkers Ju.88's over the tractor factory. Litvyak was covering 437th IAP OC Maj. M.S. Khvostikov but when her leader missed his target she attacked herself setting a Ju.88 ablaze from a range of just 30 m.

That Junkers proved to be the only victory the girls scored in the skies of Stalingrad. She flew about 70 missions, of which 55 were combat air patrols in the vicinity of the Zhitkur area, and was recognised as an experience fighter pilot. It seemed that she was a member of Moscow aviation club just very short time ago. In the autumn 1941 she was admitted to Raskova's group and made her first solo flight on 13 January in the Yak-1. Having learnt to fly at high altitude, she learnt to deal with spin and other aerobatics. In her letters to her family she wrote: 'Everone of us is so sure of her strength and energy that we deem our present on the frontline as vital... Everyone is eager to fight, me most of all. I am not going to chicken out. I will do my utmost to the common good.' She was always as good as her word.

Her friend Yekaterina Budanova chalked up two Ju.88 on 2 and 6 October 1942. She was rightfully considered to be the most experienced frontline female pilot. An irresistable drive had led 17-year-old Katya to a parachute club before the war. In 1934, she got her pilot qualification to become an instructor two years later. Not many male fighter pilots could boast more flying hours logged. She not only flew successfully but fought too. On 10 December, Senior Lieutenant Yekaterina Budanova went for a free hunt and succeeded in setting on fire two Bf.110's at once. By mid-January 1943, both pilots had been transferred to the 296th IAP where they got their first combat awards - Orders of the Red Banner. They never returned to the 586th.

The future of the 2nd flight of the 1st squadron. When the 434th IAP was re-deployed to the rear area for reorganisation, Air Force inspector Col. V.I. Stalin [he must be Uncle Joe's son Vassily] suggested that the remaining three girls undergo a special training - a hundred aerial combat sorties. This was expected to give them knowledge of the relevant tactics and enable them to fight the Nazi aces on an equal footing. However, the plan did not come to fruition since Col.-Gen. A.A. Novikov, who soon arrived at the airfield, ordered the female pilots back to 586th IAP. Only Olga Shakova followed the Air Force's Commander-in-Chief order. Lebedeva and Blinova remained at the front by taking the opportunity of transferring to the 653rd IAP where a couple of pilot slots were vacant.

After the enemy was defeated in Stalingrad, only Budanova, Litvyak, Lebedeva and Blinova remained in frontline units. In 1943, Shakhova, Belyayeva, Kuznetsova and Demchenko were supposed to return to the 586th IAP but they decided to stay at the front too. It was only an order for all four of them to go to Moscow and a severe reprimand by Gen. A.S. Osipenko, Air Defence Aviation CINC, that reminded the girls that orders must be obeyed. Suddenly, the girls were backed by Air Defence Force CINC Gen. M.S. Gromadin who demanded that the girls be awarded for the role they played in the bloody Stalingrad battle. The girls were given brand-new Yak fighters with the logo 'From Mongolian women for the frontline troops' stencilled on their sides, which the pilots flew to their original unit.

A curious event occurred after the siege of Stalingrad was over. The documentaries featuring the operations of the Soviet female pilots were being watched by their British colleagues. Soon, one of the British officers sent a letter writing the following address on the envelope: 'USSR, Russian girl, fighting pilot Maria Kuznetsova'. It took the letter a long time to find the addressee but finally it was delivered to the 586th IAP. However, there were two girls named Maria Kuznetsova in the regiment! Only after the letter was translated into Russian and read by the whole gang, did it became clear that it was Maria Mikhailovna Kuznetsova (who had distinguished herself during the battle of Stalingrad) to whom her British ally had proposed in the letter. However, Maria was too afraid to even touch the letter out of fear of being accused of 'maintaining relations with foreigners'.

In February 1943, the regiment was assigned to the 101st IAD (Air Defence) and re-deployed to the Pridacha airfield in the vicinity of the newly-liberated city of Voronezh. The ruined city made a dark impression, especially for the girls who saw the horrors of war for the first time. Amidst the Voronezh ruins there were the charred skeletons of buildings. The nearby fields and the river Voronezh were covered with thousands upon thousands of dead bodies of both Russian and German soldiers frozen into snow and ice.

The small Pridacha airfield was situated in the vicinity of the Voronezh aircraft factory. In addition, before retreating, the Soviet troops mined it with special wooden land mines that the mine detectors were unable to spot. One of the mines was triggered by a regimental petrol tanker, resulting in Junior Sergeant Akimova being wounded. The combat engineers and their dogs who were called to the scene had to search and destroy the mines until the end of March

The regiment's primary task was providing combat air patrols for the bridges across the Voronezh and Don. The time the regiment spent in the area was both the most difficult and the most effective for the girls. The strain was great both on the pilots and technicians, as well as engine and weaponry specialists, among whom Ye.D. Boryak, V.V. Kislitsa, M.M. Muzhikova, Ye.K. Polunina, N.N. Shebalina, A.A. Eskina and others were distinguished for their professionalism.

In April, the regiment was reinforced with nine replacements who had just graduated from the Penza pilot school and, at first, felt somewhat ill-at-ease in the cockpits of their fighters. It was especially hairy when the 'greenhorns' used to commence their range practice at the range near the airfield: it looked like the ground crews would not be spared the youngsters zeal. However, no 'blue-on-blue' ever happened. Flight Leader Junior Lieutenant V.M. Lisitsina was the one who broke in the reinforcements by flying with them in the Yak-7B twin seater first and then in the Yak-1 fighter. Also, a few sorties with new pilots were flown by Sr.Lt. O.N. Yamshchikova. Thanks to the seasoned pilots, the replacements received a very thorough training and by July were allowed to fly combat missions on their own. Naturally, they would fly as part of a package led by a senior - both in terms of rank and age.

Once, an incident occurred in the regiment. The after-action review revealed that some girls - just like lads - were partial to a bit of tomfoolery. Thus, when on a training mission, Jr.Lt. A.I. Yakovleva flying a U-2 trainer biplane tried to fly below the high-voltage electric power lines. She failed - the plane's upper wing tore the line, the landing gear hit the ground and the plane - after making a somersault - fell onto the rail way below the lines. Valentina Volkova who was in the rear seat was thrown out of the aircraft and survived the crash with only a few bruises. The culprit, Antonina Yakovleva, was lucky enough to get off lightly, with her injuries being insignificant. Nonetheless, Maj. Gridnev punished the air hooligan alright: Yakovleva was busted all the way down to private and for a month had to pull the duty of engine specialist.

The command tasked the female regiment with day and night interception of enemy bomber who would raid the railway centres such as Otrozhki, Liski and Kastornoye. To hamper the enemy, the fighter pilots had to establish smooth co-ordination with other air defence outfits. Therefore, only old hands, such as Tamara Pamyatnykh, Galina Burdina, Valentina Lisitsina and Claudia Pankratova, were assigned to fly night missions. Still, the intercept tactics more resembled scaring the enemy bombers off than actual combat. Being controlled by ground controllers, the girls would open up on the Junkers bombers making them scatter - but hitting them was rather rare.

Nonetheless, since getting stuck on only one enemy downed in September 1941 (Khomyakova victory), the regiment began chalking up new victories. As early as 19 March 1943, a pair of fighters flown by Pamyatnykh and Surnachevskaya engaged two packages of German Ju.88's and Do.215's trying to bomb the railway station of Kastornaya from 15,000 ft. The ground warning posts counted a total of 42 bombers (even though in a tactical situation they might have exaggerated it somewhat). The Soviet fighters made a few successful attacks resulting in four downed enemies in accordance with the Soviet data. According to those participating in the engagement, two bombers exploded in the mid-air with their wreckage never being found. Another two ran into the ground in fireballs. The raid was disrupted. However, the Germans admitted only a single aircraft lost on that day in the area - a Messerschmitt Bf.110. It is quite possible that our pilots mistook that twin-finned aircraft for a Dornier Do.215.

When pursuing the retreating enemy bombers, the fighter flown by Tamara Pamyatnykh suffered heavy damage due to the accurate fire of the enemy gunners. She had to bail out. Her wingman, Raisa Surnachevskaya, did not abandon her leader and landed nearby. Still re-living the engagement and wiping blood from her cheek, Pamyatnykh met her friend with the tirade: 'Still, we have downed four of the fascists and saved the station to boot!' at that very moment, the regiment believed the girls had been killed in action. Afterwards, T.U. Pamyatnykh and R.N. Surnachevskaya were decorated with the Orders of the Red Banner.

29 April became a very lucky day for the regiment. Having demonstrated superior flying and marksmanship skills, regimental OC Maj. A.V. Gridnev was witnessed by his subordinates shooting down another Ju.88 between the city of Voronezh and town of Gremyachye. Another Ju.88 was shot out of the sky by the pair of I.I. Olkova and O.A. Yakovleva. On 14 May, Tamara Pamyatnykh and Olga Yakovlava shot down another Junkers. In the course of this action, Yakovleva had her elbow heavily wounded but managed to land her aircraft.

On the last day of spring, the command of the Voronezh-Borisoglebsk Air Defence Division District recommended that the 101st IAD (OC - Col. A.T. Kostenko), including the organic 487th, 586th, 826th, 894th, 907th IAP's as well as the 910th (special purpose) air regiment be awarded the Guards banner and status. However, the recommendation was left unanswered.

On 8 June 1943, officer commanding of the 9th "Voronezh" IAP Gen. S.G. Korol ordered Maj. A.V. Gridnev to begin providing air defence coverage to the Steppe Front troops that were covertly deploying east of the Kursk area that was to become famous in a month. The 586th IAP's OC was tasked with denying enemy recce planes access to the troops of the Steppe Front while preventing Luftwaffe bombers from dropping their ordnance on the lines of communication. Tasked like that, one squadron was always kept ready to scramble in case of enemy bomber raids, with another two pairs of fighters always patrolling at high and medium altitudes in search of enemy reconnaissance aircraft. The strain on the personnel increased sharply.

For their intercept missions to be successful, the girls would often scramble from ambush airfields. Many reinforcements from the Penza flying school learnt to take off fast and keep their bearings in the sky but nearly all of them complained of the Yak-1's insufficient fire power that would time and again let German planes escape scot-free. Operations in the vicinity of the front-line enhanced the danger of running into the German fighter escorts while attacking the Nazi bombers. This had to be kept in mind every time the pilots were scrambled. Nonetheless, on the 14 June 1943, a surprise encounter of a pair of the 586th IAP fighters with a group of enemy aircraft resulted, obviously, in the most successful air combat since the regiment had been activated.

In the morning, the ground observer posts and the RUS-2 radar spotted a hostile aircraft approaching the area from the south. At 0959, a pair of 586th IAP fighters took off from the Voronezh airfield to intercept it. The lead aircraft was flown by regimental commander Maj. Gridnev, accompanied by a Yak-7b piloted by V.M. Lisitsina - who was often his wingman. Despite the heavy overcast, the ground-controlled fighters overtook the Ju.88 in the vicinity of Terbuna. The Junkers was travelling above the clouds at about 6,800m while the fighters found themselves 800m higher.

The first attack was made from two approaches: the leader attacked from above on the left side while the wingman from the opposite direction. The attack must have resulted in killing the enemy gunner since the Ju.88 did not open fire, but started vigorous manoeuvring to shake the fighters off and go into the clouds. A second, more successful attack followed, setting the right engine of the bomber on fire. The Junkers managed to dive into the clouds but to no avail. Having gone below the overcast, Lisitsina spotted it nearby and let off a third burst. At the moment, Gridnev saw a stream of bullets rushing above his cockpit and a Focke-Wulfe turning for another attack. The German fighter happened to be very close, a mere 50m. Giving it a couple of bursts, the major saw it streaming clouds of smoke and falling to the ground in the company of the Ju.88 finished off by Lisitsina.

However, the encounter was not over yet. Another pair of FW.190's emerged from the clouds to attack Gridnev. The combat turned into a dogfight. Trying to hit the enemy while making a turn, the major ran out of ammunition. With a FW.190 breathing down his neck, he dived into the clouds but on leaving them he was attacked by the other one. The regimental commander found himself between the two enemy fighters, with one pursuing him and the other attacking him head on. He pulled up the control column as hard as he could and went into a vertical climb. Turning round, he saw down below a bright explosion and decided that the two attacking Focke-Wulfes had collided.

In the meantime, the 586th IAP was notified of their OC having been killed in action against four German fighters. Luckily, the news proved to be untrue and on the same night Gridnev flew his Yak back to the base. In turn, Gridnev believed Lisitsina had been shot down, too. Only after landing and seeing her alive and kicking, did the OC let himself relax. Four enemy aircraft were shot down owing to both accurate fire and immense luck. This unusual combat was reported by the Pravda daily on 27 June 1943.

According to the German data, on 14 June 1943, the Ju.88D-1 ?430608 organic to the 2(F)/22 detachment and piloted by Lieutenant G. Weiss disappeared in the vicinity of Voronezh. Obviously it was that aircraft that was downed by Gridnev and Lisitsina. The Luftwaffe JG51 squadron's command suffered casualties too whilst free hunting in the area. Gridnev, the 586th OC, set ablaze the FW.190A-5 ?151215 flown by Lt. A. Marold. The German fighter turned to the west, dived into the clouds and suddenly exploded. It was that explosion that Gridnev mistook for the collision of the two FW.190s that attacked him.

With the Battle of Kursk launched, the regiment continued to provide cover for the trains in the area of the Steppe Front. On the morning of 11 July 1943, a pair of fighter flown by R.V. Belyayeva and M.M. Kuznetsova inflicted serious damage on a Ju.88 reconnaissance aircraft in the vicinity of Gremyachye. With its engine ablaze, the recce aircraft entered the clouds at an altitude of 800 m. It is a safe bet to say that the girls downed one of the two recce birds the 2(F)/22 detachment lost on that day in the area. That successful combat of Larissa Belyayeva proved to be the last one: eight days later, squadron leader Belyayeva died in a crash at the Pridacha when returning to base from a mission.

The regiment had been deployed in the vicinity of Voronezh until September 1943, with its elements or as a whole occupying airfields Pridacha, Kastornaya, Solntsevo, Shchigry and Kursk-Vostochny. That was the most successful time for the unit. There, the girls of the 586th IAP flew 934 sorties and shot down, in accordance with our data, 10 enemy aircraft: three FW.190s and seven Ju.88s. Over the summer, the unit lost two pilots dead - one died in a crash, the other was gravely wounded.

Soon after the summer hostilities, the command of the 9th fighter air corps - on order of Air Defence Force CINC Col.-Gen. Gromadin - recommended the 586th IAP for the Guards title. The recommendation stressed that the female regiment was leading within the corps as far as many parameters were concerned. At the time, a documentary was shot about the all-girl unit, with the personnel being issued new uniforms. However, the regiment again failed to become Guards unit at that time. According to one of the versions, the regiment and its commander were strongly disliked by Gen. A.S. Osipenko and Maj. Kazarinova, who had been relieved of the regimental OC position, but was still on staff at the ADF HQ. However, it is most probable that Stalin could not forgive the ADF for all the damage inflicted by the Germans on the military installations located in the Trans-Volga cities, including Saratov and Gorky.

Having re-deployed to the Kursk aviation centre, the regiment continued covering the rear area installations. Then the girls learnt of the fate of the four of their comrades who remained at the front after the Battle of Stalingrad. They became members of the 65th and 73rd Gv.IAP's but the summer of 1943 proved tragic for them: all four of them were downed in air combat - with three of them being killed in action. On 17 July in the vicinity of Znamenskoye-Gnezdilovo Junior Lieutenant Antonina Lebedeva was killed by Focke-Wulfes. Two days later, Sr.Lt. Yekaterina Budanova died in an engagement in the vicinity of Novokrasnovka (Luganskaya Region).

The regiment got to like the daring girl who was the first to be allowed to fly free hunting missions. 'Death of Gds. Sr.Lt. Yekaterina Budanova left no-one indifferent', stated the Stalinsky Voin (Stalin's Warrior) newspaper of 23 July. 'With her death in action, the unit suffered a great loss for the fighter aviation. Those who knew her shall never forget her. She was a good comrade, an excellent fighter and was true to her Motherland which she defended with the last drop of her blood.'

Yekaterina Budanova personally shot down six enemy aircraft and four more as part of a team. On 1 October 1993, she was posthumously awarded the title of Hero of the Russian Federation.

The last loss of the hard summer of 1943 was Guards Lieutenant Liliya Litvyak. On 1 August, following two consecutive attacks of a four-aircraft Messerschmitt team, her plane was downed behind the enemy lines 2km north east of the village of Marinovka. It was witnessed by her wingman A. Yevdokimov but afterwards her death was still shrouded in guesses and fantasies. Thus, a pilot with a telling last name of Balamut (that could be loosely translated as 'troublemaker') who returned to the regiment after a forced landing in the occupied territory reported that '... two or three days later the locals told me that a Soviet fighter landed in the vicinity of the village of Chistyakovo. It was piloted by a slender straight-nosed blonde. As soon as she landed, she was captured by the Germans and driven away in a car.'

The report was mentioned in the political report of the 6th Gv.iad dated 29 August 1943. Divisional political officer Lt.-Col. Doronenkov concluded that it was Liliya Litvyak from the 73rd Gv.IAP who had been captured - since it was she who did not return to base then. However, other evidence, such as the report of Litvyak's wingman Yevdokimov, runs counter to that version. No German documents confirming or disproving the capture of the Soviet girl flyer have ever been found.

A detailed study, by former technician Ye.K. Polunina, of the documents of the Central Archive of the Russian Defence Ministry obtained proof of the five enemy aircraft downed by Gds. Lt. L.V. Litvyak. On 5 May 1990, the brave pilot was posthumously awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union.

Claudia Blinova survived but had a very dramatic fate. When escorting a six-plane group of Il-2 attack aircraft in the vicinity of Oryol, the four Yak fighters of the 65th IAP were attacked by 14 FW.190s. During the ensuing combat, escort leader Sr.Lt. Kuznetsov was killed. A burst from a FW.190 made Blinova's fighter begin to disintegrate right in mid-air.

'For some time, I was falling down together with the cockpit wreckage still squeezing tight the useless control column. I was not afraid. There was just one thought then: survive, survive!' said Blinova later.

She managed to bailout from the burning wreckage of the plane, however, she landed in the occupied territory and was captured by the Nazis. During the interrogation, to conceal her name, she assumed the name of A. Lebedeva who had died recently. Soon, the captured pilots were loaded into a train and sent westwards. However, en route, Claudia and seven other personnel managed to escape. Only 20 days after the fateful engagement, she made a strenuous hike across the Wehrmacht-held terrain and crossed the frontline to get to the friendly forces. Having been debriefed, Lt. Claudia Blinova continued to fly combat missions as part of the 65th Gv.IAP until November 1945.

In late September 1943, the advancing Red Army troops captured the documents of the G2 section of Wehrmacht's 18th Motorised Antiaircraft Artillery Division that two months earlier had been deployed in the vicinity of the city of Oryol. The records contained information on the successful encounter with Soviet Yak fighters by pilots of the Luftwaffe's 'Molders' squadron that was seen by German AA personnel. Also, among the documents there were the records of the interrogation of 'a downed Russian female pilot who flew a Yak-1 fighter.' According to a POW, the Germans learnt that she was the only female pilot at the central section of the front and had made 15 sorties until she was shot down. It looks like the Nazis obtained no other intelligence from 'Lebedeva'.

However, let us get back to the 586th IAP. In the summer 1943, the regiment was reinforced both in terms of quality and quantity. It was equipped with new Yak-7b and Yak-9D fighters. The unit activated a third squadron manned by male pilots and headed by Captain A.F. Kokovikhin. Right after the liberation of Kiev in November, the unit was re-deployed to the Zhulyany airfield. There, the regiment's primary mission was to provide air defence coverage to the capital of Ukraine and bridging areas across the Dnieper.

In January 1944, a major battle commenced in the vicinity of Korsun-Shevchenkovsky where a large German force was encircled. In early February, the 586th IAP joined the hostilities, hitting the enemy's ground troops and airfields that housed the Ju.52 transports airlifting supplies to the encircled force.

On 4 February, regimental OC Gridnev, his assistant Durakov and pilots Pamyatnykh, Akimova, Burdina, Batrakova and Demchenko flew a successful raid on the airfield. The package approached the airfield when several Ju.52's were preparing for take off to airlift German personnel out of the encircled pocket of resistance. A Junkers gunner opened up with his machinegun. However, Demchenko did not turn away and let off an accurate burst that set the enemy plane on fire. Not long before that mission, the regimental commander recommended A.N. Demchenko to be decorated with the Order of the Red Banner. The recommendation stated that 'while providing air defence coverage to ground installation, she never waited for enemy aircraft to come and would repeatedly seek them out.' By 12 January 1944, the girl had flown 191 sorties and fought eight air combats denying the enemy the access to the installations and troops covered.

By late March, the unit flew 279 sorties and shot down six enemy warplanes. The most successful air combat was fought by A.V. Gridnev and G.P. Burdina who each downed one Bf.109 and, together, a Ju.52.

By the spring of 1944, the frontline had moved farther to the west making the regiment re-deploy to the Zhitomir-Skomorokhi airfield and assume the task of covering the trains rolling via the city of Zhitomir. During April, the 586th IAP destroyed two hostile aircraft in combat. Once again, Jr.Lt. Burdina distinguished herself by downing a Ju.88 in the night of 10 April 1944 in the vicinity of the railway station of Korosten. The other enemy plane, also a Junkers, was shot down on 21 April by Capt. N.K. Durakov.

It is noteworthy that twin-engined Ju-88's made up the bulk of the aircraft downed by the Soviet Air Defence Force pilots since those aircraft were the most numerous type of bombers and long-range recce aircraft in the Luftwaffe inventory on the Soviet-German front for the duration of the whole war. However, there were some exceptions. Thus, on 11 May 1944, Regt. OC Gridnev and his wingman Surnachevskaya were scrambled to intercept an unidentified aircraft. They caught up with the enemy at about 9,000m over the city of Berdichev. The 586th pilots had never had to fight that high. However, they took the right decision to attack the enemy from the side that the sun was on. Nonetheless, downing the large twin-engine aircraft at the first go did not happen. It took them seven attacks to have the German to go down. The enemy aircraft, later identified as a Heinkel He.177 Griffen hit the ground 8 km south-east of the town of Lutsk. No doubt, downing such an exotic aircraft at the Eastern Front was a big deal for the regiment.

In principle, German archives confirm the loss of a He.177A-3. Those powerful, fast and well-armed aircraft began to be fielded with the KG1 Gindenburg squadron in the late winter-early spring 1944. In May that year, the Heinkels began flying deep recce missions over the Russian Federation and Ukraine. Before the month ended, three Heinkels had failed to return to base, with another four aircraft having been written off due to their technical condition.

Despite the presence of the male-pilot squadron in the 586th IAP, its combat tally was not as impressive as that of the all-girls squadrons. Nonetheless, the men did their best not to lag behind. On 11 July they fought a bitter encounter when N. Korolyov and G. Tsokayev destroyed a Ju.88 in the sky over Zhitomir. The combat was the last one for Lt. Nikolai Korolyov, while the downed Junkers turned out to be the last victory of the 586th IAP pilots, even though the regiment flew numerous missions afterwards. Prior to the autumn 1944, a total of 611 sorties were flown from the Skomorokhi airfield.

The frontline was moving fast westwards across Moldavia and Romania. From September 1944 to February 1945, the 586th IAP covered the cities and railway centres Obkhodnoye, Slobodka, Gura-Kamenka and Rybnitsa in the liberated territories, as well as main supply routes of the 2nd Ukrainian Front. The autumn 1944 saw bitter fighting starting in Hungary. Hungary became the last station for the regiment during the war. Prior to re-deploying to the city of Debrecen, an advance party was sent there. In the very beginning of 1945, a lone aircraft landed at the still empty airfield: a Hungarian pilot came to surrender and was obviously surprised to find a bunch of uniform-clad girls there.

In February 1945, the regiment was flying AD coverage missions in support of the Hungarian railway infrastructure and Danube crossing sites. However, there were no combat encounters due to a sharp decline in Luftwaffe activity. The 586th IAP suffered its last casualty after the war on 12 July, Jr.Lt. Maria Batrakova died after being struck by lightning. All in all, the pilots of the 586th IAP flew 4419 sorties and fought 125 combats chalking up 38 victories.

On 20 July 1945, demobilisation of the regiment's other ranks was ordered. In November, female commissioned officers stationed in the Romanian city of Yassy demobilised too. The regimental officer commanding Col. A.V. Gridnev as well as a large number of male pilots were reassigned in November 1945 to the Kiev-based 39th Gv.IAP where he carried on with his service. This was the end of the worlds only female fighter regiment.

However, not all of the girls quit flying after the war had ended. Lieutenant A.A. Polyantseva joined the regiment in July 1943 from the ?486 plant where she worked as a test pilot. In February 1946, she resumed her test pilot work but this time at the ?464 plant where she tested the aircraft built by A.S. Yakovlev. Z.F. Solomatina was awarded the title of the Hero of the Socialist Labour (the civilian equivalent of the Hero of the Soviet Union.) for her work as an airline pilot. An even more impressive record was achieved after the war by Capt. O.N. Yamshchikova who flew a jet aircraft on 7 June 1947. She became a military test pilot, a rightful member of the College of the Air Force Research Institute and a colonel (eng.). Olga Yamshchikova's impressive flying skills and composure earned her plenty of praise. She saw a lot in her flying career - jammed elevators, landing gear unwilling to extend, hydromixture flooding the cockpit and blinding her for some time... Obviously, the combat experience (she flew 15 combat sorties) came in handy helping her to survive most dangerous situations and save the prototype aircraft she flew.

While taking stock of the combat operations of the 586th IAP, one should not apply the same yardstick to them as was applied to a male. The girls did not down that many enemy aircraft - due to the fact that during the whole war the regiment was part of the ADF aviation fleet where the combat intensity was much lower than the workload experienced by frontline pilots. However, it should be understood what those 30-something enemy planes meant to the women flying fighter aircraft in combat - which was a heroic deed in itself. They did their utmost and more, often flying in adverse weather and at high altitude. The girls would attack well-defended targets and often incur grave wounds. There were the times when they had to attack four or five times in a single sortie in the face of heavy flak of the opposing enemy. They proved to be worth their salt by finding and killing the enemy aircraft at night.

At the same time, expecting something more of female pilots proved to be a tragic mistake. Claudia Nechayeva, Yakaterina Budanova, Antonina Lebedeva and Liliya Litvyak killed in action were a very graphic example. Flying a fighter in a dogfight required an outstanding stamina and strength and, truth be told, proved to be business the women were not supposed to do. Therefore, the only all-female fighter regiment shall remain as both an obscure aviation history paradox and a symbol of the heroic and tragic epoch of the 1930-1940s - the time of bright vistas and severe testing.

List of the female pilots who logged 100 or more sorties:

Lt. M.M. Kuznetsova:204

Sr.Lt. A.N. Demchenko:203

Sr.Lt. T.U. Pamyatnykh:191

Sr.Lt. V.M. Lisitsina:160

Sr.Lt. M.S. Kuznetsova:157

Lt. G.P. Burdina:152

Lt. I.I. Olkova:150

Lt. O.I. Shakhova:144

Gds.Lt. L.V. Litvyak:138

Lt. V.I. Gvozdikova:128

Lt. R.N. Surnachevskaya:104
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