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During the Second World War, nearly a million women fought alongside their male counterparts and in October 1941, women’s aviation regiments began to be formed. Marina Raskova, already an ace pilot and member of the ‘People’s Defence Committee’, was allowed to organised three female aviation groups authorised by the Soviet high command. They were the 586 IAP (Fighter Aviation Regiment), the 587 BAP (Bomber Aviation Regiment) and the 588 NBAP (Night Bomber Aviation Regiment).

After being accepted to the training program, the young women underwent a rigorous six month flying and navigation course, fitting in to that time an amount of training that would normally take around a year and a half. In September 1942, Valerya Khomyakova of the 586 IAP’s or ‘Fighter Aviation Regiment’ became the first female Soviet pilot to shoot down an enemy aircraft at night when she downed a Ju 99.

A month later, the 586 IAP assisted in Operation Saturn and Uranus, which was successful in eliminating the German 6th Army at Stalingrad, after which, they were given the task of defending some important military logistical facilities and strategic locations. In 1944, the unit took part in the Soviet offensive in Hungry fighting with Yak-9 fighters and they finished the war on one of the captured airfields in Austria.

The 588 NBAP unit or ‘Night Bomber Aviation Regiment’ arrived combat ready in the Ukraine on the 23rd May 1942. They quickly earned the respect and fear of their enemies being given the nick name ‘night witches’. The decorated German Commander of II. /JG 52, Hauptmann Johannes Steinhoff, wrote of the 588 NBAP’s;

"We simply couldn't grasp that the Soviet airmen that caused us the greatest trouble were in fact WOMEN. These women feared nothing. They came night after night in their very slow biplanes, and for some periods they wouldn't give us any sleep at all."

On 25th October 1942, a bomb strike by the 588 NBAP set alight a fuel depot at Armavir airfield. The fire spread and destroyed all but one of the planes on the airfield, leading to the quick withdrawal of the German fighters situated there. In January the following year, the regiments achievements were acknowledged and it was given the new title of 46th Taman' Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment.

It was the most highly decorated regiment in the whole Soviet Air Force, with twenty-three of its pilots being awarded with the Gold Star of Hero of the Soviet Union, with a former navigator of the regiment becoming the twenty-forth to receive the award in 1995.

Marina Raskova took command of the third regiment herself, the 587th BAP or (Bomber Aviation Regiment). The regiment finished its training on 22nd November 1942 and was moved to the Stalingrad front line. After helping to liberate the town of Borisov, the unit became known as the 125th "M. M. Raskova" Borisov Guards Dive Bomber Aviation Regiment.

In one celebrated incident involving a pilot from the unit, Mariya Dolina flying a Pe-2 bomber, managed to shoot down two enemy plains at the same time. The regiment finished war operations in May 1943 after flying a total of 1134 combat missions dropping 980 tons of bombs in the process. A tribute made to the women of the unit by the Free-French pilots of the "Normandie-Niemen" Fighter Regiment who often fought along side them stated;

"Even if it were possible to gather and place at your feet all the flowers on earth, this would not constitute sufficient tribute to your valour."

The 587 BAP and the 588 NBAP were involved in the fighting in the Kuban area of Southern Russia where they came up against some of the best fighter pilots the German air force had to offer including Erich Harmann of the famous JG 54 fighter group, who was the highest ranked fighter ace in the world with 352 confirmed combat kills.

Throughout the war, the Soviet female fighter pilots were involved in some of the heaviest aerial combat operations in history. They earned the fear and respect of enemy combatants and were often highly decorated for their efforts by their country.

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Women's History Magazine

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