Female fighter ace Lydia Litvyak. / HistoryNet photo illustration.
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Soviet Air Forces Sr. Lt. Lydia Vladimirovna Litvyak, known as the “White Lily of Stalingrad” for her air support during that battle, was history’s first female fighter ace. (The only other female ace is her countrywoman, Capt. Yekaterina Budanova.) Litvyak was shot down and killed on her 66th combat mission on Aug. 1, 1943. Records differ wildly, but she had scored perhaps as many as 18 solo and shared air-to-air kills. By the time of her death she’d received the Order of Lenin and the Order of the Red Banner, her nation’s second- and third-highest decorations.

Litvyak was born in Moscow on Aug. 18, 1921, to a Jewish family. Passionately interested in flying, she soloed at age 15 and became a flight instructor in 1937. That same year communist officials “disappeared” her father during Joseph Stalin’s Great Purge, yet she remained patriotic. When Germany invaded in June 1941, she volunteered for the air forces but was rejected for lack of experience. After padding her prewar flight record, she was accepted and joined the all-female 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment. Having qualified on the Yakovlev Yak-1 fighter, she was assigned in late summer 1942 to the 437th Fighter Aviation Regiment, then supporting Red Army ground troops in besieged Stalingrad.

Flying her third combat mission on September 13, Litvyak scored two aerial victories, becoming the first female pilot to shoot down an enemy aircraft. Her first kill was a Ju 88A bomber, her second a Me 109G fighter. The next day Litvyak shared a kill on another 109. The downed pilot was likely Leutnant Hans Fuss, a 71-kill ace and holder of the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross.

The following month Litvyak and three other female pilots transferred to the 9th Guards Fighter Aviation Regiment. When the 9th was re-equipped with U.S.-built P-39 Airacobras in January 1943, Litvyak and Budanova transferred to 73rd Guards Fighter Aviation Regiment to continue flying the Yak-1. With five kills to her credit, Litvyak was selected to train as an okhotnik, or “free hunter,” one of a pair of pilots operating independently. She was forced down twice by enemy fire, and on March 23 she was wounded.

On June 13 Litvyak, with 12 victories, was promoted to squadron leader. She made her 13th and 14th kills on July 16. While making a solo kill against a Ju 88 and a shared kill against a 109, she was again wounded and forced to crash land. Soon back in the air, she shot down a 109 on July 19. Two days later she recorded her 16th kill, another 109, possibly flown by 32-kill ace Leutnant Hermann Schuster.

Litvyak’s last two victories came on August 1, during the Battle of Kursk, with a solo kill against one 109 and a shared kill against another. Later, on her fourth mission that day, Litvyak was escorting a flight of Ilyushin Il-2 ground-attack aircraft when attacked by a pair of 109s. With the Messerschmitts on her tail, she flew her Yak-1 into a cloud. Her fellow pilots neither saw a parachute nor witnessed her crash. She was 17 days short of her 22nd birthday.

For years suspicion lingered the young ace had somehow managed to bail out, was captured and died in German captivity. After the war Sr. Sgt. Inna Pasportnikova, Litvyak’s mechanic in the 437th, searched for the crash site. In 1979, having pinpointed more than 90 other crash sites and recovered the remains of many pilots, Pasportnikova and fellow searchers located the buried remains of an unidentified female pilot in Ukraine, southwest of Kursk. Subsequent examination confirmed the remains as those of Litvyak, who had died from a head wound.

On May 5, 1990, Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev posthumously awarded Litvyak the Gold Star of the Hero of the Soviet Union, her nation’s highest decoration. MH

This article appeared in the July 2020 issue of Military History magazine. Subscribe here and visit us on Facebook: