A Soviet fighter pilot in WW2, the Great Patriotic War, as the Russians call it, Lily Litvyak was a bundle of contradictions. Small, feminine, fierce, she loved poetry, flowers, and shooting down the enemy. As an air force pilot, she served her country with all her being, and yet her father was an “enemy of the people.”
The historical record is also contradictory. Was she Russian? Was she Jewish? Both? Why isn’t that bomber she took down in Dec/42 listed anywhere? Did she survive the war? The answers are missing or don’t match up. The one thing that is certain is that Lily was a brave pilot. She was an ace by any standards and the top female ace of WW2. Flying in the most intense air battles, she shot down a dozen to fifteen enemy aircraft and turned back many others.
While working on a novel about Lily’s life, I ended up with a thick digital binder of research–the history behind the fictionalized story–and it’s this historical research that I offer here in this blog. (For more about me and my books, click here!)
Before the war, the Soviet Union encouraged young people, including women, to become pilots because flight was seen as the way of the future. There were flying clubs everywhere, and even public parks had equipment to simulate flight.
When the war started, men were drafted and nearly a million women volunteered to join the army. Among them were a number of pilots, and three women’s air regiments were formed by Marina Raskova, a famous pilot and navigator who was close to Stalin. (For those who didn’t grow up with the cold war: Stalin was the tyrannical leader of the Soviet Union, which was a federation of Communist republics in Eastern Europe, including Russia and Ukraine. The Soviet Union existed from 1917 to 1991.)
One of the women’s regiments flew fighter planes, and Lily, still a teenager, was selected for it. When the battle of Stalingrad began, she and her best friend, Katie Budanova, were transferred to a regular male fighter unit, and they served with men for the duration.
Katie Budanova was Lily’s opposite–tall, cheerful, boisterous and masculine. Yet they served together throughout their time in the air force.
In her army records Lily’s date of birth is listed as August 21, 1921 (Coincidentally, or not, it was Air Aviation Day.) But according to people who knew her, she flew her first solo at age 14 or 15. Since the minimum legal age was 16, she would have had to obtain and present identification papers that made her older than she was, meaning that her actual birth date was likely sometime in 1922 or 1923.
Her parents’ and brother’s names are known but nothing about her extended family. She had something to hide.
There were several purges in the Soviet Union during which people in leadership positions who weren’t considered loyal enough to Stalin were removed from their position and sent to prison or shot. But the great purge of 1937 was broader and deeper. It changed Lily’s life.
Over a million people were arrested and sent to slave labour camps or executed, supposedly because of treason, but actually on the slimmest of pretexts. They were referred to as “enemies of the people.”
Lily’s father was one of them. Whatever she told people about herself would have been with the knowledge that she had to keep that a secret. Anyone with close relatives who were arrested as “enemies of the people” would never be allowed into aviation. In fact, Lily would have been in danger of being arrested herself just because her father was. His fate is uncertain, too. He was sentenced to ten years in a forced labour camp, but there is also evidence that he was executed. Yet despite this secret, or maybe to compensate for it, Lily served her country in the deadliest combat.
No one knows what happened to Lily after August 1, 1943. On that date her aircraft sustained damage and was last seen spewing thick smoke as it dove into the clouds. She never returned to base. Her fellow pilots searched but couldn’t find her aircraft or a body. There were rumours that she was captured, and that was a blot on her record. According to Stalin and the law of the time, prisoners of war were traitors deserving execution.
Decades after the war, a body was said to be hers so that her record could be absolved of suspicion and a posthumous award given in her name. However, someone who knew her from the women’s regiment claims to have seen her giving an interview on a Swiss TV show about the war around the year 2000. The interviewee said she’d been a Soviet fighter pilot. She was married, had three children, and lived in Switzerland. Even as an elderly woman, Lily would have been easily recognizable because of her small stature.
My interest in Lily goes back fifteen years, but I had other books to write before I was ready to take on the mystery of her life. The research was daunting–in English, Russian and German–and the task of imagining Lily’s journey after she was shot down was all encompassing. I asked myself, How could she have ended up in Switzerland? What made a decorated hero leave her country and family behind? There’s no record at all. I could only imagine it.
The eastern front in WW2 was a devastating, bleak time. In a single day, it wasn’t unusual to have 10,000 casualties. But there is also a bright thread in Lily’s experience as a pilot. There was genuine friendship, closeness, and a kind of freedom between Lily and her friends that they’d never known before. It is this thread of light, as well as Lily’s bravery, that makes her life memorable.
My novel about her, Girl at the Edge of Sky (Random House Canada, available Aug 27/19) is the fictional story that brings her to life. Here in this blog, drawing from my research, I share the historical facts behind it.
For my website and more about Girl at the Edge of Sky, click here!