Document created: 1 December 03
Air & Space Power Journal - Winter 2003

Wings, Women, and War: Soviet Airwomen in World War II Combat by Reina Pennington. University Press of Kansas (http://www.kansas press.ku.edu), 2501 West 15th Street, Lawrence, Kansas 66049-3905, 2002, 312 pages, $29.95.

In some of the many thousands of books—both popular and scholarly—that deal with the history of airpower in World War II, one occasionally encounters mention of Soviet women who served as combat aviators. Fleeting allusions to female fighter aces or the exploits of a night-bomber regiment known as the “Night Witches” occasionally crop up. Recent debates within the US military regarding the role of women in combat have rekindled memories of the US Army Air Forces’ use of female pilots during World War II and have brought belated recognition to the surviving veterans of the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron and the Women Airforce Service Pilots. Yet, no one had attempted a sustained, scholarly examination of the Soviets’ use of women pilots. When addressed at all, such employment was dismissed as a Stalinist propaganda device or a temporary measure to address a dire shortage of male pilots after the bloodletting of the summer of 1941. Reina Pennington has tackled this fascinating subject and produced an important book that succeeds on many levels.

She begins the story back in the 1930s, when a wildly air-minded Soviet Union excelled in such aviation feats as record-breaking long-distance flights. Just as Great Britain had Amy Johnson and the United States had Amelia Earhart, so did the USSR have the charismatic and outspoken Marina Raskova. Not only did Raskova lead the charge for the mobilization of women’s aviation units, but also her organizational and leadership abilities decisively shaped the initial efforts, often in opposition to mainstream Red Air Force thinking on the subject. Pennington traces the complex web of personalities, influence, popular sentiment, and utilitarianism that led to the creation of Aviation Group 122 shortly after the German invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. In the process, she dispenses with the simplistic idea that the women’s regiments were mere propaganda devices and demonstrates that, whatever challenges faced the Red Air Force in 1941, lack of male pilots was not one of them.

The core chapters of the book offer detailed examinations of the three combat regiments comprised primarily of female personnel—the 46th Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment (the famed Night Witches), the 125th Guards Bomber Aviation Regiment, and the 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment. Models of effective unit history, these chapters include pertinent details of the organization’s stand-up, combat activities, successes, and failures, along with particularly keen insights regarding leadership, morale, and the unique challenges faced by the women’s regiments. A chapter on the experience of women in primarily male air regiments offers trenchant observations about the challenges of developing and leading integrated units. This chapter also relates the story of Liliia Litviak, the most celebrated of all the Soviet women pilots. Litviak shot down at least 12 Luftwaffe aircraft and was severely wounded in action before she vanished on 1 August 1943 during her fourth combat mission of the day. One of her male colleagues declared that “as a person and as a pilot she was wonderful” (p. 141).

The book is solidly based upon Soviet-era primary sources, including the operational records and combat logs of the three air regiments under examination. The author also was able to interview a number of surviving veterans, including the former commander of the 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment. These candid and often poignant reminiscences add greatly to the effectiveness of the presentation. Although a few previously published English-language books on Soviet airwomen also relied on interviews, none attempted to integrate critical analysis, primary documentation, and oral testimony. Pennington’s work represents a significant advance beyond anything previously published on the subject in English.

In the author’s own words, this book lies “at the intersection of Russian history, military history and women’s history” (p. 214). In truth, this remarkable work transcends all three genres, having important things to say about Soviet society in the 1930s and 1940s and about the role of women in that society. It also greatly enhances our understanding of combat conditions and the general nature of aerial warfare on the Eastern Front—a topic still in need of much attention. Although it is not a work of advocacy that seeks to influence current and future policy, it is full of implications nonetheless. Nor is it primarily intended as a tribute to the courage and sacrifice of airwomen, although it fulfills this function admirably. It is hard not to feel respect for the pilots of the 46th in their obsolete Po-2 biplanes, averaging five to 10 hazardous combat sorties per night while facing official skepticism and neglect.

This book illuminates an almost completely misunderstood chapter in the history of World War II air operations. It underscores the fact that, Soviet propaganda aside, the Great Patriotic War against the Third Reich demanded tremendous sacrifices from every segment of Soviet society. Air Force leaders and students of history alike will find Wings, Women, and War valuable reading. Whatever one’s beliefs regarding the role of women in aerial combat, this book offers food for thought.

Dr. Richard R. Muller
Maxwell AFB, Alabama


Disclaimer

The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.


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