Book Review: “Defending the Motherland,” by Lyuba Vinogradova

Published by MacLehose Press, 349 pp. $19.95

Review by 12570 Mike Kennedy

12570 Mike Kennedy

Only about a month ago, RMC celebrated an important milestone in its evolution with the appointment of 18078 Brigadier General Lise Bourgon as the first female Commandant in the College’s history. A 1992 graduate of CMR, BGen Bourgon rose through the ranks of the RCAF as a helicopter pilot. Her appointment comes exactly 40 years after the time that RMC’s inaugural group of female recruits were completing their first year, and Bourgon launched her own career in pilot trade barely a dozen years after the RCAF qualified its first group of female aviators.

They may not have realized it when they began their flying careers in the early 1980’s, but those intrepid Canadian airwomen were worthy successors to a similarly courageous group of Soviet women who did battle with the Luftwaffe 40 years before their time. In Defending the Motherland, author Lyuba Vinogradova chronicles the story of these dashing female flyers, and shows how their efforts made an important contribution to helping save their homeland from the ravages of the Nazi hordes.

Eighty years ago this summer, the tide of the Second World War would irrevocably change when  Hitler ordered the launch of Operation Barbarossa. On Sunday, June 22, 1941, nearly four million German soldiers, supported by over 3,000 tanks and nearly 5,000 aircraft, stormed across the frontier in a massive invasion of the USSR.  Joseph Stalin, the General Secretary of the Communist Party, had disregarded repeated warnings of the impending attack, with the result that the Soviets were caught largely unprepared. In the wake of the devastating German onslaught, their defences rapidly collapsed.

The opening months of the conflict were a disaster for the Soviet Union, as the Germans rapidly raced across western Russia and by early December had reached the outskirts of Moscow. The costs to the USSR were enormous: over 20,000 tanks destroyed, 21,000 aircraft lost, and most serious of all, nearly five million men killed, wounded, missing, or taken prisoner. The Germans were stopped only by the arrival of “General Winter” and the accompanying difficulties they encountered in keeping their supply lines operating. For the Soviets, meanwhile, the debacle of the last months of 1941 had quickly deteriorated into a desperate struggle for national survival.

It was against this backdrop that in October 1941 Stalin authorized the creation of the 122nd Aviation Corps. During the 1930s, the Soviets had invested heavily in promoting aviation, this was seen as an opportunity to showcase their advances in technology to the rest of the world, and also legitimize their concept of the socialist state. Flying clubs were established in many areas of the country, and citizens of all background flocked eagerly to them in order to acquire basic piloting skills at the controls of the Polikarpov Po – 2 biplane, a trainer aircraft that first flew in 1927 and which would later become ubiquitous during the war years.

The 122nd Aviation Corps differed from all other formations in one key respect: the three regiments that comprised it were staffed entirely by women. The unit was the brainchild of Marina Raskova, a pioneering aviatrix who in 1933, at the age of 21, had qualified as the first female navigator in the Soviet Air Force. As the situation in late 1941 grew increasingly perilous, Raskova used her own personal connections to persuade Stalin to approve the creation of the new unit. It consisted of three regiments, each with their own specific mission: the 586th Fighter Regiment, the 587th Heavy Bomber Regiment, and the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, who would later be remembered by those who knew them as the “Night Witches”.

Of the three regiments, the 588th would eventually become the best known, and the most highly decorated. Their primary mission was to conduct clandestine night bombing raids on German positions, and to accomplish their task, they relied in the main on the Po – 2 biplane. A humble contraption built mostly of plywood and fabric, the Po – 2 was unimpressive in appearance, but even so, the aircraft’s virtues were many. It was easy to fly, simple to maintain, and its short takeoff and landing capabilities allowed it to be operated from just about anywhere in the vast Russian steppe. Perhaps most importantly, because the Po – 2’s cruising speed was just below the stall speed of Messerschmitt 109 fighter, it proved to be exceedingly difficult to shoot down, particularly when it was flown at treetop level as was a common practice.

The pilots of the 588th regiment perfected some ingenious tactics that never failed to torment their German adversaries. A favorite trick was to cut the aircraft’s engine back to idle when starting a bombing run, something that allowed the pilots to make an almost silent approach to their targets. The material damage caused by the bombs they dropped was rarely significant, but the impact on the enemy’s morale was nonetheless considerable. The German soldiers were already drained by the unremitting cold, hunger, and fatigue that they lived with, and the constant fear of sudden and unexpected visits by the “Duty Sergeant”, as they referred to the Po – 2, served only to add to the already enormous stress they suffered as a byproduct of frontline combat.

While the Po – 2 certainly made a respectable name for itself as a reliable and effective workhorse, the female aviators also managed to get their hands on some of the other much more modern and deadly aircraft in the Soviet arsenal. The pilots of the 586th Fighter Regiment flew the Yakolev Yak 1, a monoplane fighter that had been introduced in 1940, and that soon proved itself to be a capable opponent for the Messerschmitt 109. The top-scoring ace of the regiment was Lydia Litvyak, a Moscow native who had soloed at age 15, and who flew her first combat mission in the summer of 1942. The “White Rose of Stalingrad” as Livyak became known, was eventually credited with as many as 16 kills before she disappeared and was presumed dead in August 1943, two weeks before her 22nd birthday. In recognition of her wartime exploits, in 1990 Litvyak was posthumously awarded the title “Hero of the Soviet Union”.

Other aircraft that became well known to the women pilots included the Petlyakov Pe 2, a twin-engine dive bomber that was the mainstay of the 587th Heavy Bomber Regiment. Perhaps the most deadly aircraft that these gallant lasses took into the sky was the Ilushin Il -2 Sturmovik, a ground attack aircraft known to the Soviets as the “Hunchback” and the “Flying Infantryman”. The heavily armoured Il 2 packed a formidable array of machine guns, cannons, and rockets, and was capable of handily taking out Tiger and Panther tanks. It was widely feared by the Germans, who dubbed it the “meatgrinder”, and who particularly dreaded watching a flight if Il 2’s move into their “Circle of Death” pattern, from which they would invariably visit mayhem and terror on their enemies below.

The women who volunteered for the three regiments came from many different backgrounds; their ranks included university students, factory workers, and peasants straight off the collective farms. Some qualified as pilots and navigators; others served as mechanics, armourers, and in various support trades. They lived in primitive accommodations and subsisted on meager rations; basic necessities like underwear often had to be hand sewn from silk that had been salvaged from captured German parachutes. Adding to privations they endured on the ground and the dangers they faced in the air was the ever-present threat posed by agents of the NKVD, whose mission was to keep close watch over the airwomen, and swiftly arrest and punish anyone whose political loyalties were deemed to be suspect.

Even so, the women of the 122nd Aviation Corps served willingly and cheerfully, proud of the contributions they were making to the war effort. Like young people of any era, they partied with their male colleagues at dances that were periodically organized, where, perhaps not surprisingly, romances blossomed, and relationships developed. They also found other creative ways to escape from the drudgery of war. In one memorable incident in 1942, a group of friends decided to bake a cake to celebrate the November 9 anniversary of the founding of the Soviet state. With food being in short supply, the enterprising ladies managed to secure the necessary ingredients by bartering their vodka rations for flour, eggs, and butter. Reportedly, the product that resulted was delicious, worthy of Marie Antoinette herself, and it would be the only time during the entire war that any of them would taste cake.

If it was during the Battle of Britain that the pilots of the Royal Air Forces would know “their finest hour”, then it was in the skies over the “Infernal Cauldron” of Stalingrad that their counterparts in the Soviet Air Force would find their moment to shine. Stalingrad itself was of questionable strategic value, but its symbolic importance was immense: Hitler was determined to seize the city that bore the name of his principal nemesis, and the Soviets were equally avowed that Stalingrad must never fall into German hands. Both sides, it seemed, were willing to pay almost any price to achieve their ends. By the time the outcome was finally decided in early 1943, the two warring nations had lost a combined total of over two million killed, wounded, or missing.

Throughout the battle, the female aviators were front and center, with top guns like Lidia Litvyak leading the way. For the Germans, the beginning of the end came in late November 1942 when the Soviets launched Operation Uranus, the intent of which was to encircle and destroy the German 6th Army. Cut off from reinforcements, the Germans soon found themselves trapped in a position where they could be resupplied only by air. Amid unrelenting pressure from the Soviet flyers, this quickly proved to be an impossible task. Confronted by the prospect of inevitable death from starvation and exposure, on February 2, 1943, the German commander, Friedrich Paulus, defied the Fuhrer’s orders and capitulated to the Soviets.

After news of the German defeat was announced, women of the three aviation regiments were driven to the front in trucks, where they had the satisfaction of watching many thousands of once-proud Nazis surrender in abject humiliation. Of the more than 90,000 Germans who were taken into captivity at Stalingrad, only about 5,000 would ever live to see their homeland again.

Sadly, as the war ground on, many of the female aviators would also be destined to perish, thus depriving them of the opportunity to witness the glorious victory that they and so many of their comrades had fought so hard to achieve. One of the ill-fated heroines would be none other than Marina Raskova, the visionary pioneer who had been the driving force behind the creation of the all-female regiments. On January 4, 1943, less than a month before the German surrender at Stalingrad, Raskova died at the controls of a Pe – 2 bomber while attempting to make a forced landing on the banks of the Volga River. Raskova, who had been one of first women ever to be named a Hero of the Soviet Union, was honoured with the first state funeral of the war. Her untimely death dealt a heavy emotional blow to the unit that she had founded, and led with great pride.

It is estimated that some 3,000 women served in the 122nd Aviation Corps, and when the war finally ended in 1945, they could look back on an impressive record of accomplishment. Collectively, the three regiments that composed the unit had flown over 25,000 sorties, taken part in 125 air battles, dropped over 4,000 tons of bombs on the enemy, and destroyed numerous German aircraft either in the air or on the ground. Thirty-one of their members had been named “Heros of the Soviet Union” and two regiments – the 587th and the 588th – had been selected to receive the prestigious and much sought-after “Guards” designation. The remains of their founder and leader, Marina Rascova, were buried in the Kremlin Wall, and today a street in Moscow bears her name.

After the war, the women who had served retreated mainly to lives of quiet obscurity. Some no doubt lived to see the Soviet regime they had fought to defend collapse under its own weight almost exactly 50 years after the German invasion. But even though their unit would be largely forgotten by history, there is no denying that the women of the 122nd Aviation Corps made an important contribution to the defence of the Soviet Motherland in its darkest hour, and left behind them a powerful legacy that provides a compelling testimonial to what women are capable of accomplishing in war when they are given the chance.

In Western societies, the presence of women in the military, and especially in roles that might take them into direct combat with a hostile enemy, has long been a controversial and contentious issue. Over the past 50 years, many outspoken critics have advanced arguments of various kinds to suggest that women are incapable of being effective combat leaders, and do not belong in the armed forces. In more recent years, much progress has been made in terms of successfully integrating women into operating roles, and the achievements of officers such as 21554 Eleanor Taylor have largely disproven the arguments made by opponents of gender integration.

Still, recent events in the Canadian Forces clearly suggest that much work remains to be done. Keeping this in mind, it’s worth remembering that stories like those recounted in Defending the Motherland may provide some valuable lessons as to how military forces in any nation can achieve greater success on the battlefield by empowering capable and highly motivated women to contribute to the full extent of their potential.

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