Who was the White Rose of Stalingrad?

Lilya Litvyak, Katya Budanova and Mariya Kuznetsova on the tail of a Yak-1 Lilya Litvyak, left, was one of the first female pilots of the Eastern Front

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Lidiya Vladimirovna Litvyak was the young fighter pilot with the bouquet of wildflowers in her cockpit who shot down a dozen of the Luftwaffe's best pilots to become the highest scoring woman air ace of all time, writes author Bill Yenne.

She was a study in contrasts, a shy girl who matured into a young woman who dared to aspire to be a warrior, in part to defend the reputation of her family name, dishonoured by the lies which had shamed her father (who was swept up in Stalin's purges of 1937), and in part to save her beloved Motherland from Hitler's invading Wehrmacht.

She is seen as representing many, and symbolic of much.

Lidiya - known as Lilya - helped symbolise a generation of young women, barely old enough not to be called schoolgirls, who answered the call in 1941 to fight the Germans, and who became heroines in the armed forces of the Soviet Union, the only nation to regularly use women in combat roles in World War II.

Battle of Stalingrad

  • In the spring of 1942, Hitler launched what he believed would be his final offensive in the East
  • More than 1,000 tons of bombs were dropped on Stalingrad
  • The average life expectancy of a Soviet private during the battle was 24 hours
  • Of all the major air forces that were engaged in WWII, only the Red Air Force had all-women units

Though she would never have imagined it, she can also be seen to symbolise the spirit of the 21st Century military women who heroically fight and die on the world's battlefronts.

The fact that popular culture has portrayed her as the White Rose of Stalingrad, when it was actually a white lily which she painted on the side of her Yak-1 fighter aircraft is illustrative of how, in death, the story of her short life has become as much myth as legend.

Yet, in the making of history, the myths, in the literary sense, are the elements of the story which elevate certain events and certain people to prominence above others.

In the beginning, Lilya was merely an unpretentious girl who wanted to fly planes. She was born in Moscow in 1921, on August 18, the day which, on her 12th birthday, became Soviet Aviation Day. She later joked with her friends that they picked that date because it was her birthday.

A poster telling the viewer to join the Society for Assistance to the Aviation and Chemical Industry The Society for Assistance to the Aviation and Chemical Industry sponsored flying clubs for young Soviet people

While still in her teens, she learned at a flying club and became an exceptional pilot. When the war began, Lilya volunteered for one of the three all-woman aviation regiments that were being organised by the celebrated, record-setting Soviet woman pilot Marina Raskova.

In September 1942, as the lines were being drawn for the crucial Battle of Stalingrad, Lilya and a small cadre of other women were transferred to an elite fighter regiment. Having established their reputations for skill and daring, they were being thrown into the great cauldron that was to be the turning point of the war.

Doing battle with some of the Luftwaffe's best fighter pilots, Lilya shot one down, and then another. By the end of her first month in combat, she had downed five, to become history's first woman ace.

Through the coming months, Lilya entered combat dozens of times. She experienced having her plywood fighter plane being hammered by explosive shells the size of a young woman's forearm.

Soviet paranoia

She suffered life-threatening injuries, but she persevered. She entered one-on-one combat with Germany's knights of the air and emerged victorious about a dozen times. Record keeping in the Soviet Union was not the best in those days, but her total score of aerial victories may well have been more than a dozen.

On the first day of August in 1943, as the white cumulus of the afternoon billowed against a deep blue sky over the slightly rolling hills of Ukraine, Lilya Litvyak fought her last battle and disappeared without a trace. She was less than three weeks short of her 22nd birthday.

By this time, she had graced magazine covers and had received numerous decorations for bravery. She had accomplished the requisite number of aerial victories to be awarded the highest decoration for valour, the red star of the Hero of the Soviet Union.

Lidiya Vladimirovna Litvyak Lilya would make scarves from parachute material and keep bouquets of flowers in her cockpit

However, in the world of Stalin's institutional paranoia, those who were missing in action could not receive this award posthumously. Stalin feared that those who were missing might turn up as defectors.

And so it was that the celebrated heroine slipped into obscurity. It was not until 1979 that remains identified as Lilya's were recovered, and not until 1986, that the slow-moving Soviet bureaucracy officially removed her from the "missing" list, declaring her to have been "killed in action."

On May 5 1990, four long years after the bureaucracy had spoken, Lilya's name was spoken in the Kremlin. It had been 47 years since she had limped the streets of Moscow on a leg injured in combat.

The Soviet Union itself was in its final days, but celebrating its finest moment.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last of Stalin's successors, was in the midst of a round of commemorations of the 45th anniversary of the Soviet Union's victory in the war, and amid the medal ceremonies, Lilya Litvyak was finally awarded her decades overdue Hero of the Soviet Union.

Bill Yenne is the author of several military biographies, including The White Rose of Stalingrad.

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