The White Rose of Stalingrad

Lydia Vladimirovna Litvyak (Лидия Владимировна Литвяк) 18 August 1921 – 1 August 1943. She was known to everyone as Lilya. ‘The White Rose of Stalingrad’ was a female pilot who terrorized the Nazis.

Litvyak was only 20 years old when Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. The young girl rushed to the recruiter and tried to join to be a fighter pilot. The recruiters sent her packing. In their minds, she was just a small, young girl.

In truth, she was flying solo at 15 and was an experienced pilot. A biographer estimated she trained more than 45 pilots on her own. She knew she could do this. So instead of giving up, she went to another recruiter and lied about her flying experience, by more than a hundred hours. That did the trick.

She flew a number of missions in an all-women fighter regiment, but was later transferred to a mixed gender regiment over Stalingrad.

The Wiki says she was the first female pilot to shoot down an enemy fighter in combat, and she was the 2nd woman pilot to achieve the title “Ace.”

Back to “We Are the Mighty.” On August 1st, 1943:

“The White Rose of Stalingrad” was last seen being chased by eight Nazi ME-109 fighters on an escort mission south of Moscow. Her body was lost until 1989 when historians discovered the unmarked grave of a female pilot in the Russian village of Dmytrivka.

The next year, Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev awarded Lydia Vladimirovna Litvyak the title “Hero of the Soviet Union,” the USSR’s highest military honor.

Badass of the Week’s story on Litvyak is fairly colorful, and worth a look as well.

For the next year, the White Rose of Stalingrad ignited enemy fuselages up and down the Eastern Front. She was transferred to a Guards Regiment, the elite of the Soviet military, and flew as a Junior Lieutenant and Flight Commander in the recently-established all-female 586th Fighter Air Regiment. She flew bomber escorts, attack missions, and was so ridiculously awesome that she was given a James Bond license to kill at will – she was assigned “Free Hunter” status, meaning that she was free to go balls-out into enemy airspace without orders to do so. Over that year she flew 66 combat missions, sometimes four or five a day, including one attack when she busted through a gauntlet of AA guns and fighters to shoot down an observation balloon that was fucking with the Red Army and helping Nazi artillery range their shells on Russian positions outside Stalingrad. So fuck those guys. She notched twelve solo kills – the most of any woman ever – and had four or five more assisted kills. Basically, she kicked some Fascist ass.

Lilya Litvak was one of only 2 female fight-pilot, aces in history. The other was her wingman Katya Budanova.

This video is 10 minutes, longer than I like for something like this, but interesting enough to be worth your time. It isn’t perfect, but there you go. YouTube will choke on the privacy settings in your browser; use the link when that happens. (You do have privacy cranked up to 11, don’t you?) And no, the video isn’t perfect, but then what it?

A NOTE: Several people have asked me, “Why all this Soviet history?” Well, I love WWII history, and I’ve studied a lot of the American and British involvement, but the Russian side of things I hadn’t studied until just recently. I also love stories about strong women, and given that the Russians were the only country who deployed women in combat in WWII, it seemed natural to look into it.

It is sad really that the some of the same people who will defend studying Lee’s Army of Virginia and what they managed to do during The Civil War will give you grief, if you apply the same standards elsewhere. The Soviet Union was a horrible country, but some of the things its citizens and soldiers did were amazing.

It is also nice to throw some sand on the people who say women have no place in combat, by pointing out the pilots and snipers who did amazing things. History can teach you a lot, if you bother to look.

The Largest Military Invasion in History

As I’ve mentioned, the Soviet side of World War Two has captured my attention recently. Why was it that when the rest of the world didn’t think women had a place in combat, the Soviet Union was fielding women snipers, and whole regiments of women bomber and fighter pilots?

The answer is Operation Barbarossa, the largest military invasion in history.

On June 22, 1941, more than 3 million German (and other) troops, spearheaded by panzer divisions and supported by the Luftwaffe, invaded the Soviet Union. Before grinding to a halt less than 100 kilometers from Moscow, Operation Barbarossa would inflict 4.9 million military casualties on the Red Army, and destroy 1000s of towns and villages. It would destroy tanks, and planes, and nearly destroy the Soviet Union.

While the Wiki and other sources are good for a quick overview (the link above is to Britannica), most of my knowledge comes from Operation Barbarossa: Hitler’s Invasion of Russia 1941. That link is to Amazon, but I got a copy of the book courtesy of my local public library. (As several people have noted, it is NOT the definitive account of that period of the war. It is too short. There is a 3-volume set that probably fills that bill, in the Osprey Campaign Series, but I haven’t gotten to it.) It is a bit dry, considering the nature of the material, but it does seem to be a good overview of the campaign. I’m sure there are more readable accounts of what went on, but that volume covers information from both sides of the conflict.

While I can’t go into details here it is a hell of a story. The treaties signed between Germany and the Soviet Union that the Nazis never intended to honor. The initial invasion that all but destroyed Soviet command and control. The ensuing insanity of the Russian generals, and the secret police, until reality intruded. The Soviet Union’s wholesale dismantling of industry in the west and moving it to the east, followed by “scorched earth” tactics denying everything to Germans – destroying their own railroads, power plants, etc. On the German side there were war crimes. The Germans were especially brutal to the civilians.

As summer turned to fall and winter, the Germans had problems with the Russian weather. First the fall rain turned the mud in Russia into a paste that could stop German panzers. From the Wiki

Additional snows fell which were followed by more rain, creating a glutinous mud that German tanks had difficulty traversing, whereas the Soviet T-34, with its wider tread, was better suited to negotiate.

That winter saw temperatures that were exceptionally cold, early in December. This was significant because of the destruction of Russian railroad engines. The Russians used a different gauge track, so Germany had to rebuild any railroad that they intended to use, and then when winter set it, the German engines could not maintain steam pressure in the cold. (That is COLD!)

Even so, the Germans managed to come within a very short distance of Moscow. Though I think they were stopped as much by logistics as by the Red Army.

On 2 December, part of the 258th Infantry Division advanced to within 24 km (15 mi) of Moscow. They were so close that German officers claimed they could see the spires of the Kremlin, but by then the first blizzards had begun.

The other problems from the cold were coming up. Lack of cold-weather uniforms were only the start. Germans were running short of everything, because the tanks – even with the problems they faced, kept outpacing their wheeled support vehicles.

Operation Barbarossa was the largest military operation in history — more men, tanks, guns and aircraft were committed than had ever been deployed before in a single offensive. The invasion opened up the Eastern Front (World War II), the largest theater of war during that conflict, and it witnessed clashes of unprecedented violence and destruction for four years that resulted in the deaths of 26 million Soviet people and about 8.6 million being Red army deaths. More people died fighting on the Eastern Front than in all other fighting across the globe during World War II. Damage to both the economy and landscape was enormous for the Soviet Union as approximately 1,710 towns and 70,000 villages were razed. [Reference]

There isn’t room in a post like this for everything, and the War Crimes of the Einsatzgruppen (“Deployment groups” of the Schutzstaffel – SS – were paramilitary death squads) could fill a book, let alone a post. One of the more interesting (and disturbing) events surround the Jewish Ghetto in Vilna, and the Fareynikte Partizaner Organizatsye (United Partisan Organization) and Abba Kovner. Before there was a Marvel Cinematic Universe, and even before there was Mr. Steed and Ema Peel, there was Nakam, “The Avengers.” Though that would come after the war. Fareynikte Partizaner Organizatsye was the resistance in the Vilna Ghetto. Even in the face of eyewitness testimony, a large number of Jews in Vilna didn’t want to believe that the SS was committing mass-murder. Kovner understood, and the FPO took to the woods to fight the war alongside other Soviet Partisans. There are books written about Vilna, the uprising, Kovner and The Avengers.

The same people who will talk about recognizing the valor of soldiers commanded by Robert E. Lee during the Civil War, have given me grief over recognizing the accomplishments of the Red Army during The Great Patriotic War. (That’s what the Russians still call World War Two.) The Confederate States of America was not the greatest government ever, but Lee, and his troops, fought with valor, and honor, and what they did was even recognized by the Union veterans before the Turn of the Century. The Soviet Union was an awful government, but the Red Army did some amazing things in defending Russia from the Nazis, even – and especially – if you consider the insanity of the officer corps, Stalin and his government, let alone the Secret Police. And they managed to do some things right, like move their industry when it became clear they couldn’t protect it. That kept that industrial base out of German hands – it was one of the reasons Hitler wanted to invade – and it meant that they could continue to prosecute the war for the next 3 years. And the Soviet Union’s ability to call up reserves, in the face of what can only be described as devastating losses, impressed me.

Note: By way of comparison, the D-Day invasion consisted of “nearly 175,000” men.

The Night Witches – The WWII, All-female Bomber Regiment

More WWII History? Sure. Night Witches: The Female Fighter Pilots of World War II. The Germans came to call them Nachthexen – Night Witches. Why? Keep reading.

Officially, they were the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, though that designation changed over time as they accumulated honors. It was the only regiment that remained all female during the war. (Or at anytime since.) Pilots, navigators, mechanics, the CO… They were ALL women.

The Atlantic calls them fighter pilots, but it is hard to characterize the planes they flew as “fighter planes” by WWII standards. They flew wood and canvas biplanes originally designed for training, and then pressed into service for crop dusting. Low and slow doesn’t begin to cover it. The image at the right is of a Polikarpov Po-2, the plane used by the regiment. (Click to enlarge.)

Its members, who ranged in age from 17 to 26, flew primarily at night, making do with planes that were—per their plywood-and-canvas construction—generally reserved for training and crop-dusting. They often operated in stealth mode, idling their engines as they neared their targets and then gliding their way to their bomb release points. As a result, their planes made little more than soft “whooshing” noises as they flew by.

Those noises reminded the Germans, apparently, of the sound of a witch’s broomstick. So the Nazis began calling the female fighter pilots Nachthexen: “night witches.” They were loathed. And they were feared. Any German pilot who downed a “witch” was automatically awarded an Iron Cross.

The old biplanes had a maximum speed that was slower than the stall speed of most of the German planes of the day. This made them fairly difficult to shoot down in a dog fight. Difficult, but not impossible.

And tracer fire was especially a problem. Wood and painted canvas don’t react well to incendiary fire. They were flying very slow by the standards of the day, and even if their planes didn’t make a lot of noise, the Germans did learn to identify the noise they did make.

As you can imagine, they didn’t get a lot of respect at the beginning of their service. Aside from the substandard planes, they had hand-me-down uniforms, and senior officers who were upset at being sent a bunch of “girlies.” That changed as they proved that women really can fly planes. They were one of the first aviation regiments to be elevated to “guard status.”

They dropped 3,000 tons of bombs on the Germans over the course of the war. They also dropped food and ammunition to Soviet troops.

While I was trying to find a decent video on this subject, I ran across this one from NBC. They managed to get part of an interview with one of the last survivors of the regiment, from the Russian Archives. (I can’t embed it here, so just a link.) It isn’t as entertaining as the one below, but it is good, and it isn’t an hour long. (It’s a bit over 5 minutes.) And it is in English.

This video from “We are the Mighty” is pretty good – it has a lot of info – even if it is a bit over the top. (They get points for a Monty Python reference.)

There is an all-female Black Sabbath tribute band named Nightwitches, (I can’t recommend them) and there is also a Sabaton song (Heavy Metal) that is a tribute to the Soviet regiment. I also can’t recommend it. YMMV

If you have the stamina for English subtitles on a Russian film, there is a 2008 film by Gunilla Bresky (available on YouTube in several parts) that includes quite few interviews with the Natten Haxor (Night Witches in Russian) who were still alive at the time. As well as letters they sent, and film from the time. While it won’t give Ken Burns a run for his money, it isn’t bad, even if it is in fairly low resolution. There is supposed to be a feature film from the 1980s, but I haven’t had time to look that up just yet. There is also a Russian series The Night Swallows, but with the English subtitles, and the soap-opera nature of the show, I haven’t been able to watch much of it.

Roza Georgiyevna Shanina (Ро́за Гео́ргиевна Ша́нина) – WWII Sniper

I sort of started this last year (well, really at the end of 2017) with the bio of Lyudmila Pavlichenko, the deadliest woman sniper in history. But she wasn’t the only woman sniper that the Soviets recruited during WWII.

Roza ShaninaRoza Shanina joined the Soviet Army in 1943, after her brother was killed by the invading German army in 1941. (Part of that time was that the Soviets were not accepting women into the military at the start of the war, and then she had to convince the local military commissariat.)

The image is of Sniper Roza Shanina, holding a 1891/30 Mosin–Nagant with the 3.5x PU scope. 1944. As always, click the image for a larger view.

In 1944 a Canadian paper described Shanina as “the unseen terror of East Prussia.”

The History Collection describes her career as follows.

She got her wish and joined the 184th Rifle Division on April 2, 1944 and got her first kill three days later. By May 1944, she had 17 confirmed kills.

She died in 1945 at the age of 20, having been disemboweled by an artillery shell. Her confirmed kills stands at 59.

On a related subject see the photo of the Belorussian Front Sniper squad, as provided by Rejected Princesses. (Well behaved women rarely make history.)

775 confirmed kills represented in this one picture. Female snipers of the 3rd Shock Army, 1st Belorussian Front, WW2. Not pictured: Lyudmila Pavlichenko, who would have boosted the count to 1083 just by standing there.

Rejected Princesses doesn’t have the listing of people in that photo, but the names are known. You can find the info at Rare Historical Photos.

The snipers in the picture:
First row – Guard Staff Sergeant, VN Stepanova: 20 kills, Guard Sgt JP Belousova: 80 kills, Guard Sgt AE Vinogradova: 83 kills.
Second row – Guard Lieutenant EK Zhibovskaya: 24 kills, Guard Sgt KF Marinkin: 79 kills, Guard Sgt OS Marenkina: 70 kills.
Third row – Guard Lieutenant NP Belobrova: 70 kills, Lieutenant N. Lobkovsky: 89 kills, Guard Lieutenant VI Artamonova: 89 kills, Guard Staff Sergeant MG Zubchenko: 83 kills.
Forth row – Guard Sergeant, NP Obukhova: 64 kills, Guard Sergeant, AR Belyakova 24 kills.

So why Roza Shanina and not these others? Because she kept a diary during the war, and an edited version of that diary was published in the magazine Yunost in 1965. Largely as a result of that she was awarded the Order of Glory 1st Class by the Supreme Soviet in 1985.

Rejected Princesses also has a list of notable women in combat dating to the 16th Century BCE.

UPDATE: A short (6 minutes) video on Roza Shanina, with a few more details about her career.

Ку́зькина ма́ть (Kuzka’s Mother) – Known in the West as Tsar Bomba

The largest explosion ever created by mankind was unleashed by the Soviet Union on October 30, 1961. Or should I say Союз Советских Социалистических Республик – CCCP? (Seems like a lot of these tests fall near Halloween.) Tsar Bomba – The king of bombs. (Video is below the fold.)

It was originally designed to have a yield of 100 megatons, but that would have made even testing it, a suicide mission. In the end it had a 50 megaton yield, which gave the crew of the Tu-95 bomber a 50 percent chance of survival.

The specs are horrific. Total destruction in a 15 mile radius around ground zero. 3rd degree burns over a 64 mile radius. (That’s almost a 13,000 square mile area.) Buildings and people would basically be set on fire over much of that area. Then there would be fallout.

The name Kuzka’s Mother (Kuzma’s Mother in some places) comes from a Russian threat, that Nikita Khrushchev was fond of.

The phrase “I’ll show you Kuzka’s Mother!” (or in Russian “Ya Pokazhy tebye Kuzkinu mat!”) is a Russian idiom that is generally understood as a threat.

It fits in the whole mode of Khrushchev’s shoe-pounding episode.

As I’ve said before, we are forgetting about the Cold War, about the kinds of threats we faced. I think this is why no one takes the new threats seriously. They haven’t considered even the old threats. Interviews around the movie 33 Minutes, and the reaction to the false-alarm attack warning that Hawaii recently experienced, and the reaction to the new Russian ICBM tell me (and others) that people have forgotten everything about the Cold War. History. Ignorance. Rinse. Repeat.

As mentioned, there is video below the fold.

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