Wings, Women, and War: Soviet Airwomen in World War II Combat

Article excerpt

Wings, Women, and War: Soviet Airwomen in World War II Combat by Reina Pennington. University Press of Kansas (http://www.kansaspress.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. …