Lidya Vladimirvna Litvyak was the Ace of Aces among the Soviet Union's female fighter pilots of the Great Patriotic War. Not quite 22 years old when she disappeared in combat, Lilya (Lily, as she was universally known) plunged overnight from fame into obscurity because she unlucky enough not to die in front of witnesses. “Missing in Action” was interpreted as “deserted in action” in Stalin's Russia, and the Missing were erased from Soviet history. It wasn't until 48 years later that Lilya was finally given the official recognition she deserved from the Government she served and died for.
291 pages, hardcover. I must admit that the size of this book was surprising. I was expecting it to be something on the order of Osprey's usual profile books. This is quite different. It is also mainly text, with only 12 pages of black and white photographs and 4 maps inserted into the centre of the binding.
The first half of the book sets the stage for Lilya's combat career. The Bolshevik revolution is briefly described, and her parents introduced. Since little is definitively known of Lilya's life, the author turns to other sources to paint a picture of a typical “Child of the Revolution” as people born during the tumultuous events of the formation of the Soviet Union were known. Much attention is paid to the diary of a young woman named Nina Kosterina who was Lilya's contemporary and lived through the very same events. Events from Nina's life are used to illustrate the kinds of things Lilya probably did and experienced.
A large part of this section deals with Joseph Stalin and his manipulation of the Soviet propaganda machine to set himself up as a semi-deity to the Soviet people. The effects of this on the psyches of the children of the revolution are illustrated by reference to Nina's diary entries, as are the effects of Stalin's purges. Both Nina and Lilya lost their fathers to Stalin's madness. Thus is described the life of a young woman in the land were some were more equal than others.
The second half of the book deals with the events following Operation Barbarosa and the catastrophic collapse of the Red Army in the Summer and Autumn of 1941. Lilya had learned to fly at the age of15 as part of a semi-official military reserve training program, and by 1941 was an experienced flight instructor. She had expected to be able to join the Air Force immediately after the Germans invaded. Instead, all of the women who volunteered to serve were met with excuses and stonewalling for several months. Equality of the sexes in the Soviet Union was not so entrenched as Soviet propaganda claimed it was.
By October, with the Germans 25 Kilometres from Moscow, Stalin finally decided that the country needed to “get useful work” out of its women, and allowed them to join the Air Force. Lilya was one of those accepted for the first all-female air combat division.
The Division trained at Engles, on the Volga River Southeast of Moscow. They flew all winter long in their little Polikarpov biplanes, suffering from cold, deprivation, and at first, from the ridiculous situation of wearing men's uniforms which were far too large. Lilya first flew a Yak-1 fighter in late January of 1942. After a period of adjustment, she excelled in flying the fast and nimble aircraft. Her regiment was declared Operational on April 16th, 1942 and immediately assigned to air defence in Aniskova, just a few Kilometres from Engles and more than 200 Kilometres away from the fighting in Stalingrad. It was not until September that Lilya was able to get into combat at the front.
Once in Combat she quickly distinguished herself, and was assigned to an elite Guards fighter regiment. She remained in the thick of the fighting until being severely wounded in the left leg in March of 1943. She spent March and April in Moscow recovering from surgery for her injury. She returned to combat by May, which was much too early; her leg injury never completely healed, and she remained in pain yet she wouldn't hear of being sent away to recuperate.
The next months were particularly difficult for her. She lost many close friends to accidents and the enemy, and she became an automaton, living only for the chance to fly against the Germans. By the end of July she was visibly tiring and suffering from extraordinary stress caused by the tempo of the great air battles over Kursk. On August first she flew four sorties before Noon, and it was on her fourth that she disappeared in the midst of combat while hopelessly outnumbered. She was not quite 22 years of age, and had spent barely 10 months on active service. She is officially credited with 12 aircraft destroyed and numerous probable and shared victories. She remains the highest-scoring female fighter pilot in history.
Stalin's paranoia had led to a ruthless order: Any soldier who surrendered was considered to have deserted in combat and was to be shot on sight. Those Missing in Action were likewise under suspicion, and so instead of being mourned, the heroine of the skies above Stalingrad vanished into that peculiar Soviet concept of The Unperson. For the next 36 years, it was as if she had never existed.
In 1979 a woman's skeleton was discovered near the area she had disappeared, declared to be hers, and Lilya once more officially existed. In 1986 she was listed as killed in action and in 1990 was finally awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union decoration she had earned 48 years before.
The photos accompanying this review show a selection of the book's photos featuring Lilya, her decorations, a map of the general area she served in, and as a bonus, my copy of the Accurate Miniatures Yak 1 marked as Lilya's Yellow 44 (but without her signature lily, as no photographs survive to tell us what it may have looked like).
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Highs: The story of the first women to fly air combat gets the exposure it deserves.Lows: For a book about one person it spends an awful lot of space talking about anything but that personVerdict: Little is known about Litvyak's life and this book doesn't shed an awful lot of fresh light on the subject, but the story it tells is compelling nonetheless.
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