Lydia Litvyak’s story is worthy of a Hollywood movie, yet her name is not well known to the general public. She was both a deadly fighter ace and an almost novelesque romantic character of the Soviet Air Defense Force during the Second World War. Her many records include the first female pilot to shoot down an enemy plane, first female pilot to earn the title of fighter ace and to this day she also holds the record for the greatest number of kills by a female fighter pilot (though disputed in favor of Katya Budanova).
Interested in aviation from an early age, she flew from the age of 14, and she was a seasoned flight instructor by the time she enlisted with the Soviet military aviation, vastly exaggerating her flight time to get accepted. Here she trained on the famous Yak-1 fighter plane, awaiting her first combat mission. Her time came in 1942, when she was assigned to a men’s regiment fighting over Stalingrad. It was here that she scored her first kills while protecting the city from German bombing raids. After just three days of arriving at her new post, she shot down a German Junkers JU 88 bomber and then shortly after one of the escorting fighter planes, a Messerschmidt Bf 109. The latter was piloted by the decorated German fighter ace Erwin Maier, who fell into Soviet capture after successfully parachuting from his aircraft. While in capture, he asked to meet the Soviet pilot who shot him down, but had thought it to be a Soviet joke when he found himself standing in front of Litvyak. It wasn’t until she described every move of the air battle that he realized that he was out-flown by a female pilot – something unheard of until then.
During the coming months she continued to prey upon the attacking JU 88-s and their Bf 109 fighter escorts, scoring multiple kills in her Yak-1. After receiving several awards and promotions, she was selected to be part of a so called „free hunter” group. These were pairs of experienced fighter pilots, looking for targets on their own. She often flew as the wing-man of fighter ace captain Solomatin. Their success in the sky and romance on the grounds was just as if it was written in a romantic novel – though this was the unlikely reality in the middle of the raging Second World War. Her story was further colored by the fact that she was quite the rebel, dying her hair blonde, keeping bouquets in her cockpit and flying unauthorized aerobatics after successful missions, just to upset her commander.
Unfortunately her luck was about to run out. Captain Solomatin crashed to the ground in front of the entire regiment while training a new pilot, leaving Litvyak devastated. As per reports, after this tragic incident she requested to fly nothing but combat missions, hunting for enemy kills more desperately than ever. Together with several more fighter and bomber kills she famously also took out an artillery observation balloon, flying over enemy territory and evading heavy anti-aircraft fire. She fought fiercely, but was also wounded twice and she also had to land several times due to her damaged aircraft.
After much success, she suddenly disappeared 1943, after not returning from escorting a squad of Shturmoviks over Ukraine. Other Soviet pilots did report that she was dived on by several German fighters, after she attacked a group of bombers. They lost eyesight of her in the clouds, though no parachute and no explosion was seen. She was age 21. Her fate is surrounded by a bit of a controversy. The official version is that she died from her wounds upon crashing, and it is believed that a woman pilot buried in Dmitrievka is her. In 1990, Mikhail Gorbachev awarded her posthumously the Hero of the Soviet Union award. At the same time others believe that she was pulled from her plane and captured by German troops, some going as far as to claiming that she eventually got married and lived in Switzerland.
Be as it may, she definitely left her mark on military history, and her records still stand today. In total (although as usual the exact numbers are disputed) she scored 11-12 individual- and 3 team kills, earning the respect of her comrades and superiors alike. Her story inspired several (fictional) novels, including „The White Rose” and „Sapphire Skies”.
Lydia Litvyak, we salute you.