While American women were restricted to administrative flying missions during wartime, more than a thousand Russian women flew combat missions. Valentina Grizodubova was one of them.
Women had served in combat positions in the Soviet Union as early as World War I. Together, Russia and the surrounding countries were one country, known as the Soviet Union, from 1919 to 1991. Except for Turkey, which had one female military pilot in Sabiha Gokcen, the Soviet Union was the only country with women who flew in combat.
Valentina made more than 200 military flights during World War II, including bombing missions against Germany. She was promoted to colonel and served as commander of a longrange bomber squadron of 300 men. “In my experience, girls make just as good pilots as men,” she said in 1942. “You cannot judge by appearance. I know girls so quiet and apparently timid that they blush when spoken to, yet they pilot bombers over Germany without qualm. No country at war today can afford to ignore the tremendous reservoir of woman power.”
Sometimes referred to as the Soviet Union’s Amelia Earhart, Valentina Grizodubova was born January 18, 1910 (though her birth date is sometimes listed as January 31 because her country changed to a different type of calendar after her birth). By the time Valentina reached adulthood, the Soviet Union had embraced aviation. Most women received flight training through the Society for Cooperation in defence and Aviation-Chemical Development (OSOAVIAKhIM). By 1941, between one-fourth and one-third of all Soviet pilots were female.
Before the war, Valentina taught flying. She also tested how far she could push the altitude, speed, and distance of an aeroplane. Records weren't being set only in the United States. Valentina set six world records, including a women’s long-distance nonstop flight record, which she later broke. On October 28, 1937, Valentina, together with Marina Raskova, flew an AIR-12 and established a new long-distance nonstop flight record for women.
Less than a year later, the two women, along with Paulina Ossipenko as copilot, set a women’s distance record when they flew from Moscow to Vladivostok in the Far East — a distance of 4000 miles (6450km). They covered it in 26 hours and 29 minutes. The trio flew an ANT-37, which was a converted long-range DB-2 bomber. Valentina named the plane Rodina, which means “motherland.” During the flight, the group relied primarily on radio signals to navigate, as the overcast skies made physical landmarks almost impossible to find. As they flew farther from civilisation, they stopped receiving radio signals. They flew until they ran out of fuel and had to make a forced landing in a swamp.
For three days, no one knew what had happened to the women. Stuck in the wilderness in the rain, they chased off wild animals, including bears and even a lynx that decided to explore their cockpit. Valentina, Marina, and Paulina were finally located in marshy land near the Siberian-Manchoukuo border. They were returned to Moscow and celebrated as heroes and respected aviators; they were even awarded the Order of Lenin, one of their country’s highest honours.
World War II was already a major conflict in Europe before the United States joined. In the Great Patriotic War (what Russians called World War II), the Soviet Union suffered such a large number of casualties in 1941 that the government ordered all women without children to join in battling Nazi Germany.
Marina Raskova, who flew with Valentina on the historic flight of 1938, asked Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to form female military-pilot squadrons. She had been teaching military navigation to Soviet men for a few years and then received her pilot’s licence in 1935. In October 1941, the all-female 122nd Composite Air Group was formed to train pilots and navigators for new regiments. Marina chose women with a minimum of 500 flying hours to serve as fighter or bomber pilots. She oversaw all the training, which was intensive, with 10 courses and two hours of drills daily. Most, like Raisa Surnachevskaya, were young, in their late teens or early 20s. Raisa was 21 and four months pregnant when she shot down two German planes.
Lilya Litvyak, also 21, was another Soviet pilot. Although she was so small that the pedals of her plane had to be adjusted so she could reach them, Lilya (or Lily) became a senior lieutenant and served in three fighter regiments. She painted a white lily on her aeroplane that some enemy pilots mistook for a rose. Lilya became known as the White Rose of Stalingrad; she also became the first woman in the world to shoot down an enemy aircraft on September 13, 1942, when she shot down two German fighters over Stalingrad. In all, she shot down 12 German planes. However Lilya was shot down less than a year later; she was one of nine Soviet aircraft facing off against 40 enemy planes.
Many Russian women flew with male regiments, but three of the regiments from the 122nd started out as all female — the 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment, the 588th Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, and the 587th Day Bomber Aviation Regiment commanded by Major Marina Raskova. The 588th Regiment, later renamed the 46th, flew 24,000 combat missions. They were so successful in their nighttime bombing missions that the Germans began calling them “the Night Witches.” The Russian female pilots found it amusing when they surprised German pilots, who weren’t expecting to hear female voices in the skies.
When World War II ended, 23 women received Hero of the Soviet Union medals, but Marina wasn't there to receive hers. The plane she was flying had been caught in a heavy snowstorm on January 4, 1943, while transferring her regiment to the front. The plane crashed, killing all on board, including Marina. Her funeral was the war’s first state funeral. Her ashes were entombed in the Kremlin Wall as a sign of respect.
Valentina became the most decorated woman of the Soviet Union, receiving the Hero of the Soviet Union medal in addition to the Order of the Red Star, the Order of the Red Banner, and the medal of a member of the Supreme Soviet.
After retiring from the military in 1946, Valentina worked in civil aviation, one of only a few women who were able to continue in aviation. Even with everything the many Soviet pilots had accomplished, as soon as the war was over, they were strongly encouraged to return home and serve as wives and mothers. Valentina spent the remainder of her life living quietly with her family, including her husband, an army pilot captain, and her son. She died in 1993 at the age of 83.
Bridge of Wings
Many years later, a group of women thought it was time to re-create the flight that made Valentina Grizodubova, Marina Raskova, and Paulina Ossipenko famous. American pilots Nikki Mitchell and Rhonda Miles, both from Nashville, flew around the world in 49 days in 1998. When they landed in Moscow, they joined two Russian female pilots, Khalide Makagonova and Natalia Vinokourova, to re-create the 1938 trip across Russia to the southeastern tip of Siberia. They called their commemorative flight the Bridge of Wings tour.
The American women landed in Moscow on July 23, 1998. The next day, they met with approximately 50 survivors of the Soviet Night Witches and other groups of World War II women pilots. Four days later, the four women began their journey. 60 years had passed since the original flight, so the women had modern tools to make the flight to the town of Osipenko a little safer. Still, the flight involved passing over glaciers and large, isolated areas of swamp. Russia is the largest country in the world, but much of it is uninhabitable. Yet at every stop, the pilots were greeted with enthusiasm. In Kazan, Russia, their first stop after Moscow, a brass band waited. As the women deplaned, they were serenaded with 1940s American big band music, including “Chattanooga Choo Choo.” In even the smallest villages, Russians turned out to greet them. In Olyokminsk, the mayor and groups of dancers were waiting.
When they reached their destination of Osipenko, the women of the Bridge of Wings tour dropped flowers where the Rodina had been forced to land. The townspeople took the women from their hotel to a monument of Russia’s most famous women pilots. Everywhere they looked, they saw tributes to the pilots of the Rodina.
Women Aviators: 26 Stories of Pioneer Flights, Daring Missions, and Record-Setting Journeys by Karen Bush Gibson is available at Amazon.
Top picture: Historic Wings