After being shunned by the pilots in the 9th Guards, an elite unit, Lily requested a transfer in early 1943. She was welcomed, not by any old unit, but the fighter regiment famous for winning the first Soviet victory in air combat. This was the 296th fighter air regiment, and the photos in the newspaper clipping are of the pilots who fought in the air battle, referred to afterwards as the “7 against 25.”
At the beginning of the war, the Luftwaffe was invincible. The Soviets were easy targets until an air battle in March of 1942 when a handful of Soviet pilots defeated a much larger force of German aircraft. It was a huge boost to morale. While completing their training in the women’s air regiment, Lily and her friends read all about it in the newspapers. To fly with this famous squadron must have been not only exciting, but the acknowledgement Lily so needed. Of the men pictured here, Alexei Solomatin and Sasha Martynov became particular friends. There were rumours about Lily and Alexei…but that deserves its own post.
Vasily Grossman, a beloved journalist known for staying with soldiers in dangerous and bleak conditions, wrote a profile of these pilots from his personal experience with them a month prior:
“They are all different people. Squadron commander Captain Eremin, with gray-green eyes, speaks little and softly. Short, broad-faced, stocky, with a shaggy fair head, Salomatin is cheerful, boisterous, and talkative. Martynov is a tall, hawk-nosed Leningrader, with bulging blue eyes, a sharp-eyed bird. It was he who first noticed the enemy flying over a dark winter forest and waggled his wings to indicate, see the enemy…Captain Zapryagaev, who’s had thousands of flights over 9 years, is the regiment’s navigator and has trained many dozens of pilots…Yes, they are all different …But all of them are bonded in a great community, a true brotherhood.” (Source: The memoirs of Ortenberg)
Later, in his epic novel about the war, Life and Fate, Grossman included a chapter about fighter pilots, which features Solomatin and his comrades, though the portrait isn’t complimentary, highlighting the antisemitism that started resurfacing during the war.
In A Writer At War (edited and translated by Antony Beevor), Grossman’s notes on these pilots are revealing:
Salomatin: “Ramming — that’s Russian character. It’s the Soviet Upbringing…Baranov burst into tears when we were being awarded decorations [after the death of a pilot].” (p 80-82)
Eremin: “I took off with Salomatin when the alarm sounded, and shot down [a plane]. A very nice feeling.” (p 83)
Martynov: “I must protect my comrade, rather than shoot down that bloody Fritz…I was on fire in the air, having been hit by anti-aircraft artillery…Yet I felt no fear when I was burning. There was no time for fear.” (p 81)
Zapryagev: “The main thing is that we believe. We haven’t any doubts and we will help those in trouble.” (p 82)
From left to right: Squadron Commander, Boris Eremin (he signed the certificate that recommended Lily for the Hero of the Soviet Union award in 1990); Ivan Zapryagev (he sent in the first certificate after she disappeared in 1943; sadly he committed suicide right after the war); M. Sedov (died before Lily transferred to this regiment); Alexei Solomatin (one of Lily’s best friends); W. Scotney (died); Alexander (nickname Sasha) Martynov; and D. Korol (died).